I've been writing this month about the underworld. Here's something I'm curious about: when Dante and Virgil are going through hell, Dante asks his guide whether anyone from limbo ever visits the lower circles. Here's Virgil's response in Singleton's translation:

"It seldom happens that any of us makes the journey on which I go. It is true that once before I was down here, conjured by that cruel Erichtho who was wont to call back shades into their bodies. My flesh had been but short while divested of me, when she made me enter within that wall to draw forth a spirit from the circle of Judas. That is the lowest place, and the darkest, and farthest from heaven that encircles all. Well do I know the way..." (Inf. 9.19-30)

And here is Singleton's commentary:

"Erichtho [was] a Thessalian sorceress, who, according to Lucan (Phars. VI, 507-830), was employed by Pompey's son Sextus to conjure up the spirit of one of his dead soldiers on the eve of the battle of Pharsalia, so that he could learn what was to be the outcome of the campaign. The story Dante tells about Erichtho's sending Virgil into the nethermost Hell is of unknown authority. It probably was suggested to Dante by one of the numerous legends associated with Virgil in the Middle Ages, when the Roman poet was universally regarded as a magician. Boccaccio, for instance, in his comment on Inf. I, 71, calls Virgil 'solennissimo astrolago' ('a very great astrologer) and gives a list of his wonderful performance. (On this aspect of Virgil's reputation in the Middle Ages, see D. Comparetti, 1955, pp. 266-67; also see E. Moore, 1896, pp. 234-37.) Referring specifically to Dante's story about Erichtho and Virgil, Boccaccio admits in his Comento that he cannot 'recall ever having read or heard just what this story was.' Benvenuto was of the opinion that Dante invented the tale: 'Ista est simpliciter fictio nova.' (This is simply a new fiction.') But the 'fiction' is, in a sense, not so new: the Sibyl who guided Aeneas through the nether regions declared that she had beenthere once before and had seen all (Aen. VI, 562-65)."

That was 35 years ago. To my knowledge, no one has discovered a source for the episode, and I think B. d. I. was probably right: this was Dante's invention. But why does he drag Erichtho into it? The connection between Aen. 6 and Phars. 6 is obvious, interesting, and one that commentators in the Middle Ages had a lot to say about. But whom did Virgil "draw forth" from the circle of Judas, and did Erichtho animate Virgil's corpse to do it?

Dr. David Wilson-Okamura    http://virgil.org          david@virgil.org
English Department          Virgil reception, discussion, documents, &c
East Carolina University    Sparsa et neglecta coegi. -- Claude Fauchet
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