DANTE’S PILLS: 1. The Powerful Sorceress Erichtho

As we all know, the Divine Comedy is a massive (14,233 verses) medieval (14th Century) Italian poem, written by Dante Alighieri (Florence 1265 – Ravenna 1321). In its three books the poet talks about his fantastic journey through the three correspondent Reigns of the Dead: Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise. In the first two, he is guided by the Latin Poet Virgil, in the last one, by the Angelical Lady Beatrice.

“Dante’s Pills” is a series, a compilation of moments, figures, personages and stories extracted from Dante’s Divine Comedy. It has been conceived like an easy and brief way to make people who do not remember (or do not know at all) this book, more familiar with its (often less famous) content. It is such a pity we often forget much of our vast cultural and historical inheritance.

“Eriton cruda” which means literally “the raw” (Inf. IX-23) as to say “the fierce”, “the wild”, is the sorceress Erichtho of Lucan’s Pharsalia: a Thessalian magician who lived in a cemetery, and who predicted to Sextus Pompeius the outcome of the battle of Pharsalus (between his father Gnaeus, against Caesar, 48 BC). As everybody knows Caesar won, and from him started the Roman Empire, his successor was, in fact, Augustus the first Emperor.

The witch is able to realize her macabre purpose using a magic potion; with that she obtains to force the soul of an unwilling dead soldier to come back, horrified himself, into his worn-out and unburied, chill, tattered body.

In Dante’s Inferno, Virgil, after being rejected by the mean demons on the mighty walls of the City of Dis (the entrance to low Inferno), quotes her, explaining to Dante –who, in that moment, was slightly doubtful about his actual driving skills, through hell- that he had already gone once to the bottom of the “sad bowl” (Hell), when he was summoned from her, with the purpose to bring out from it the soul of a traitor: “a spirit from the Circle of Judas”.

This passage of the Commedia has a great power and beauty, but it also opens an impressive series of exegetical questions, and they have given rise to implications of extraordinary interest and charm.

All this story is purely a brilliant invention of Dante, as we have to consider that, for example, there is no mention anywhere else in literature of the task for the souls of the Limbo to be “Escorts” (as Virgil affirms he is) of other damned souls, nor there is any evidence on the fact that, in hers spectral necromantic practices, the powerful pagan witch was using intermediaries.

Lucan, in the sixth book of his Pharsalia, dedicates wide-ranging to her figure and tells how her, the sorceress, dared even to insult the Furies themselves, which were delaying the realization of her horrific business. First she calls them “bitches of the Styx”, and then she even threatens them to summon to her aid a mysterious and enigmatic God, inhabitant of a “free zone” of the Tartarus (the pagan hell), which shakes the earth in his path, and is immune to the monsters of hell, including the youngest of the Gorgons –the famous Medusa- that only he may look directly in her face without turning into stone.

Here is the beautiful passage of the poem in Latin:

… Paretis, an ille

conpellandus erit, quo nunquam land uocato

not concussa tremit here Gorgona cernit apertam

uerberibusque suis trepidam castigat Erinyn,

indespecta tenet uobis here tartar, deceased

uos estis exceed Stygias here perierat undas?

And in English: Obey. Or have I to call the one who always called shakes the earth and free can see the Gorgon and punishes the terrified Furies with the whip and lives in regions of Tartarus invisible to you, of which you are the Gods and perjures on the waves of the Styx?

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