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The Metaphysics of Dogs From Tobit, to Dominic, to Dante, Part II by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Essay

The Metaphysics of Dogs
From Tobit, to Dominic, to Dante, Part II

Photo: Di Bonaiuto, Santa Maria Novella lower detail

In Part I we explored the spiritual symbolism of dogs in the Book of Tobit and the history of the Dominican order. Now, we turn to Dante’s Divine Comedy and other works, where the dog appears as a righteous figure, drawing not only on Biblical and Dominican symbols but on the Roman past, which the poet integrates and transforms. 

Dante and the Dominicans

Born a few decades after St. Dominic, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) would invoke the image of the dog as Domini cane, being aware, as we will see, of this animal’s symbolic meaning to that saint’s order. 

He refers to St. Dominic in the Paradiso’s 12th Canto through words spoken by the spirit of the Franciscan, St. Bonaventura:

The love that makes me fair 

Draws me to speak about the other leader,

By whom so well is spoken here of mine.

The “other leader” is St. Dominic, whose followers have “spoken here of mine,” that is, have praised St. Francis, founder of Bonaventura’s order:

Tis right, where one is, to bring in the other.

Indeed, the idea that Dominic and Francis are twin flanks in the work of the Church is a recurring one (these two orders are particularly connected to the Rosary devotion, in which context the sixteenth-century apparition at Las Lajas is significant).

Dante continues:

When the Emperor who reigneth evermore [Christ] …

… he to his Bride [the Church] brought succour

When the Emperor who reigneth evermore [Christ] …

… he to his Bride [the Church brought succour

Within that region where the sweet west wind

Rises to open the new leaves [Spain], wherewith

Europe is seen to clothe herself afresh, …

Therein was born the amorous paramour

Of Christian Faith, the athlete consecrate [St. Dominic],

That in his mother [Blessed Joan of Aza] her it made prophetic.

The woman, who for him had given assent,

Saw in a dream the admirable fruit

That issue would from him and from his heirs;

Dominic was he called; and him I speak of.

It seems, then, that Dante knew of the spiritual symbolism of the dog, by way of the Dominicans, being aware of the prophetic dream given to Joan of Aza concerning the birth of her sainted son, in which the latter appeared as a holy dog. 

The Hound against the Whore

At the beginning of the Inferno, we read of a hound who will defeat a she-wolf that seems to resemble the prostitute Dante depicts as falling to a messianic figure at the end of the Purgatorio

Says Dante to his guide, Virgil, in the first Canto of the Inferno (trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow):

And a she-wolf, that with all hungerings [avarice]

Seemed to be laden in her meagerness, 

And many folk has caused to live forlorn!

Behold the beast, for which I have turned back;

Do thou protect me from her, famous Sage,

For she doth make my veins and pulses tremble.

Whereupon the Roman poet answers,

Thee it behoves to take another road …

If from this savage place thou wouldst escape;

Because this beast, at which thou criest out,

Suffers not any one to pass her way,

But so doth harass him, that she destroys him;

And has a nature so malign and ruthless,

That never doth she glut her greedy will,

And after food is hungrier than before.

The beast in question is a she-wolf, a reference to Rome by way of that female wolf, Rumina, said to have suckled Romulus and Remus. 

Photo: Mosaic depicting the She-wolf with Romulus and Remus, from Aldborough, about 300-400 AD, Leeds City Museum

Dante’s Virgil describes her in language consistent with the Biblical image of the Whore of Babylon: 

Many the animals with whom she weds, 

And more they shall be still.

Indeed, the Italian for ‘she-wolf,’ lupa, is also slang for prostitute, as it was in Roman times (see Livy, Plutarch, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, among others). Just as the Whore in John’s Apocalypse is a symbol of unfaithful Jerusalem, and perverted religion in general, Dante’s she-wolf presents us with an image of a corrupted Roman church. 

Thus, in the Inferno, Rome’s demonic image presents as a mixture the Biblical Whore and the Beast, two separate figures. To this we should add the general meaning of ‘wolf’ in the Gospel as forces seeking to devour the faithful. This plain meaning is used in Canto 25 and 27 of the Paradiso (“From the fair sheepfold, where a lamb I slumbered, / An enemy to the wolves that war upon it,” and “in garb of shepherds the rapacious wolves / Are seen from here above o’er all the pastures! / O wrath of God, why dost thou slumber still?”).

Indeed, when we come to the circle of Hell reserved for the avaricious (recalling that the sin of the she-wolf was described as avarice), Virgil describes the jailer of that realm as an “accursed wolf.” The latter then calls out “Pape Satan, Pape Satan,” apparently to warn the devil of the presence of righteous souls. 

The “accursed wolf” is thus a loyal dog to the devil, and his bark a parody of the bark with which the righteous are to warn each other.

The Righteous Woman: Rome, Rumina, and Rahab

But if, for Dante, the Church is true and yet has been tainted by heterodox practices, the symbol of the she-wolf likewise need not be wholly negative. It is rather the case that one of its meanings (that of prostitute) happened to be on display in the great Florentine’s era. But Dante did not reject Romanitas, quite the contrary—in fact, it is Virgil himself, patron-poet of Rome, who is leading him. Indeed, the she-wolf that mothered Romulus and Remus and led to the founding of Rome was precisely not avaricious (the sin attributed to the she-wolf representing the corrupt church): she did not consume the infants, but was well disposed towards humanity, much like a dog.

Interestingly, the fact that the title given to the city’s mother (she who suckled Rome’s founder) carried the negative connotation of prostitute provides a parallel to the two sets of images associated with—or rather, the two mutually-excluding destinies open to—Israel (and specifically Jerusalem) in the Bible: those of Bride and Whore.

Importantly: taking up the Roman founding myth through its parallels with Biblical symbolism serves to integrate and transform it, just as the dog, as domestic wolf, is an integration and transformation of wild nature into the human sphere. 

We may further connect the figure of the she-wolf to Rome by noting Dante’s reference to a lion and leopard, the other wild animals blocking his way at the beginning of the Inferno. Writes the prophet Jeremiah (5:6-8): 

Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the evenings shall spoil them, a leopard shall watch over their cities: every one that goeth out thence shall be torn in pieces: because their transgressions are many.

We find precisely the same animals in this Biblical passage as in the Inferno (lion, leopard, and wolf), as well as the idea of promiscuity in religion: 

When I had fed them to the full, they then committed adultery, and assembled themselves by troops in the harlots’ houses. They were as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after his neighbour’s wife.

These images also partly appear in Daniel 7:4-6. The prophet Daniel saw several beasts representing successive empires. In themselves these are not negative, for they can serve to guard Israel, having an angelic archetype (Ezekiel 1) and, even when turning against Israel, serve as the Lord’s corrective action (Hosea 13). The fourth beast Daniel sees, which John picks up in the Apocalypse, is most obviously a symbol of the Roman Empire as persecutor. It recapitulates the preceding beasts and completes the series, which is compatible with that interpretation of Dante’s lion and leopard as being the political allies of a corrupt papacy (specifically the French king at the time).

The double meaning of she-wolf as devouring whore or righteous mother, the two fates of Israel as idolator or bride, are bridged by the promise of redemption; the possibility of relinquishing sin. In the Paradiso, Dante makes this point by invoking the figure of Rahab, usually regarded as having been a prostitute who finds redemption, a gentile who is instrumental in Israel’s claim to the promised land. As such, Rahab is the opposite of the Church that prostitutes itself:

Rahab …

First of Christ’s triumph was she taken up.

Even as a palm of the high victory

Which he acquired with one palm and the other [the crucifixion],

Because she favoured the first glorious deed

Of Joshua upon the Holy Land.

Dante’s reference to Rahab constitutes an accusation and call to repentance to the Roman Church: he writes that the above “little stirs the memory of the Pope.” 

The poet now provides a specific description of how the Church refuses to be like Rahab, passing from holiness to sin rather than the opposite, and thereby corrupting the faithful (we might say devouring rather than suckling the children). Though his subject is perennial, it requires that he dwell on the era’s political and economic dynamics: corruption has resulted from avarice, for it is a wealthy city, Florence, that “brings forth and scatters the accursed flower” (a reference to the Lily on this city’s currency, the golden florin, but perhaps also the flower of virginity). And by the scattering of that flower, of money and the love of money, “both the sheep and lambs hath [been] led astray / Since it has turned the shepherd to a wolf.” (The image of the shepherd, i.e. the Pope, becoming a wolf, connects Rome to the she-wolf once more, and only a few verses later, we will again find this image connected to adultery.)

But what, specifically, connects the pursuit of wealth to theological pollution? What Dante is condemning is the abandonment of the study of religion proper, in favour of Ecclesial Law, owing to the lucrative careers available to those accredited in the latter (which can be read as a criticism of those who assembled the Decretals, Popes Gregory IX and Boniface VII):

For this the Evangel and the mighty Doctors 

Are derelict, and only the Decretals

So studied that it shows upon their margins.

On this are Pope and Cardinals intent.

Popes and cardinals prefer that the Decretals be studied, rather than the Evangel (Gospel). And of these ecclesial authorities, 

Their meditations reach not Nazareth, 

There where his pinions Gabriel unfolded

But Vatican and the other parts elect

Of Rome, which have a cemetery been

Unto the soldiery that followed Peter

Shall soon be free from this adultery.

Here the conduct of the Church is described as adultery.

The Dog as Dux

Speaking of righteous dogs, and returning to Canto 1, Virgil prophesied that the she-wolf will fall to a certain dog-saviour:

… until the Greyhound 

Comes, who shall make her perish in her pain.

He shall not feed on either earth or pelf,

But upon wisdom, and on love and virtue.

Just as we noted in Part I through Blessed Alan’s vision, the safeguard against the wolf is the hound. It is a domestic, loyal, version of the wolf that will defeat her. We have here a fellow canine, like a son of the she-wolf, the latter being an image of the false mother (the mother church grown sinful, wild like a wolf). 

Correspondingly, corruption is represented by Dante through the image of dogs becoming wolves (Canto 14 of Purgatorio). 

The dog breed translated as Greyhound is veltro in Italian (plural veltri). When Dante refers to veltri, it is usually in terms of their speed (Inferno XIII, 125; and Il Convivio I, xii, 8; Rime LXI, 3; Rime CIV, 102). In the Inferno, two suicides are pursued by dogs like veltri, and in Il Convivio, we read that virtues proper to a thing are estimable in it, like speed in a veltro. The figure who will defeat the she-wolf, then, will do it swiftly, decisively. 

By defeating the she-wolf, this Greyhound will succeed in lifting up Italy,

‘Twixt Feltro and Feltro shall his nation be; 

Of that low Italy shall he be the saviour,

On whose account the maid Camilla died,

Euryalus, Turnus, Nisus, of their wounds;

Through every city shall he hunt her down,

Until he shall have driven her back to Hell,

There from whence envy first did let her loose.

The figure of the Greyhound has been connected to specific historical personages (prominently the “Can Grande della Scala, Lord of Verona, Imperial Vicar, Ghibelline, and friend of Dante,” as well as to Emperor Henry VII of Luxembourg). Indeed, “Can Grande,” whose name means large dog, would have been born between Feltre and Montefeltro (“’Twixt Feltro and Feltro”). 

Another school of interpretation points to feltro as a modest cloth, cheaper than wool or silk, indicating a monk or person of humble birth, although others have argued the opposite, given that felt could be used to cover expensive carpets and the like. The fact that felt might connect poor garments to expensive ones serves precisely to emphasise the royal, ennobling character of humility. At that time, felt consisted of cheap animal fur, which links it to the lowly, yet exalted, dog (and in general to the theme of spiritual royalty resulting from slaying and integrating, wearing, the animal self.)

(Still, others have used the assonance of cane with ‘Khan’ to argue that this prophecy refers to a righteous, eastern monarch, which interpretation Boccaccio, for his part, reports and rejects).

Theology professor Ernest L. Fortin has suggested that what is between “feltro and feltro” is Dante’s book itself, or at least a book:

Fortin’s suggestion is eminently plausible when one considers the place of felt in the process of making books in the Middle Ages … For several centuries, beginning in the late thirteenth and into the early nineteenth, felt was employed in the manufacture of paper throughout Europe. 

The book is made of felt because the material is cheap, but the words written on it elevate it, even as holy scripture can be written on humble paper: again, this relates to the ambiguity of felt as a poor man’s garment that is also used to cover precious materials. 

In Canto 33 of the Purgatorio, we encounter the Whore and the Beast and are told that

Within which a Five-hundred, Ten, and Five, 

One sent from God, shall slay the thievish woman

And that same giant who is sinning with her.

Commentators will often remark that the number 515 is rendered in Roman numerals as DXV. Taking the X to represent the cross, this mysterious word can be understood as the joining of God and man, with the ‘D’ standing for Dio and the ‘V’ for Uomo, ‘X’ being the mediator. DVX is also nearly ‘Dux,’ meaning leader. In addition, if the letter order is reversed, DXV can also indicate a prayer, with V and D standing for Vere and Dignum, the words that preface the (traditional Latin) Mass.

The she-wolf of the Inferno is, in the Purgatorio, differentiated into a Whore and Giant (apostate Church and apostate Holy Roman Empire or kingdoms). Since giants in the Bible are born from illegitimate consorting of human women with fallen angels, we might identify the Giant as a product of the Whore: the church serving to legitimise corrupt secular authority. Dante has transitioned from the symbolism of Jeremiah to that of John’s Apocalypse.

The Greyhound, likewise, appears here as a messianic figure, a manifestation in the history of the Christological proceeding. He is the true faith, God (D) united to Man (V) through the Cross (X). Here, too, Dante is using techniques consistent with the Apocalypse, so rich in numerical symbolism, which suggests he is making a point concerning the patterns we read of in that final book of the Bible. 

Crucially, the fact that the Greyhound of the Inferno is now connected to the DVX figure of Purgatorio relates to St. Dominic, whose preaching was against dualism (those who would deny the harmony of D and V through X, and ascribe a cause to creation other than God). The Greyhound, then, would be religious truth. This brings us back to Dante’s praising of the Dominicans (and Franciscans), known for attacking false doctrine. (I don’t mean that this constituted a defence of explicit catholic dogma in toto, which Dante contradicts on several points—the Greyhound and DXV are rather a bulwark for that fundamental insight of spiritual mediation and the need for mankind, V, to pass through the cross, X, when approaching God, D ). 

The function of the cross as a mediator in the DXV formula is one of transfiguration, altering the lower in terms of the higher. This principle manifests at different levels, each relating to Dante’s project: 

1) in philosophy, the Dominican denial of dualism and causes other than God, so that material creation is ‘justified;’

2) in psychology, the ‘taking up’ of nature by the human sphere, turning wild wolves into domestic dogs (using our instincts for good); and

3) in culture, the ‘baptising’ of Roman pagan symbolism. 

This takes us full circle, back to the Book of Tobit discussed in Part I, where a loyal dog accompanies Tobias in his journey, whereupon the son gains medicine to cure his father’s blindness. The spiritual blindness that denies the relationship between transcendence and imminence, or God and man, is what is being healed in Dante’s prophecy. The fact that it is proclaimed by Virgil, the Roman pagan, means that the pagan sphere has been redeemed, and the assailing fish from chaotic waters—which Tobias must contend with—has been defeated, yielding up a cure for blindness. For Dante, the gentile Italian, his father, the pagan past (represented by Virgil), has been healed; his spiritual blindness has ended. 

The past is retroactively converted. Tobias and his angelic dog have restored Tobit; Christ has redeemed Adam.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.

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