Of Music and Mayhem: How Dante and Black Sabbath Birthed a Musical Genre

26 April 2019


Dante Alighieri’s epic The Inferno reaches back to pagan traditions to people a Hell with fully realized characters of myth giving The Inferno a vital literary texture that would not otherwise exist within the sparsely worded lines of the text. The familiar mythic characters are then recontextualized within a Christian framework. The preexisting characters and their stories help Dante to create a new Hell that feels just as ancient and alien as any older conception of the afterlife. The use of myth also allows Dante to recontextualize the mythic past as a living mythology of the Christian Hell. Black Sabbath’s creation of the Heavy Metal genre mirrors Dante’s process. Black Sabbath and the Heavy Metal bands they give rise to dip into their past through the Gothic literary tradition and recontextualize tradition to suit their needs.

Bryan Bardine’s article, “Elements of the Gothic in Heavy Metal: a Match Made in Hell,” explores the connection between Gothic Literature and Heavy Metal music. Originally, Gothic Literature only referred to literature written between the 1760s and 1820s, but later the definition was expanded to include literature from other time periods that shared elements typical to the genre (Bardine 126.) According Bardine “Typically, Gothic stories from the period took place in medieval settings, which were often archaic, like castles, abbeys, convents, or just dark cave-like structures. Also, the literature contained supernatural elements, the occult, suspense, violence, vice, religion—in particular the demonization of the Catholic Church […]” (Bardine 126.) While The Inferno may or may not be an easy sell as the first text of Gothic literature as it is written hundreds of years before the genre came into wide spread popularity, Dante’s epic poem follows many of the gothic themes. The Inferno contains the cave-like structure, the occult, representations of vice and violence, and the demonization of the Catholic Church that is characteristic of the Gothic mode. Anita O’Connell backs up The Inferno as a Gothic work. In her article, “Dante’s Linguistic Detail in Shelly’s Triumph of life,” O’Connell says, “The Inferno was [Dante’s] most popular work […] and his reputation in the general public often stemmed from its Gothicism. […] It had entered the public consciousness as one of the ultimate expressions of the grotesque” (O’Connell 2.) Dante’s Gothicism as well as his flair for the grotesque are the themes that connect Heavy Metal music and The Inferno.

Dante and Black Sabbath both use distorted references to the Catholic Church as one way that they demonstrate both the Gothic and the grotesque. Plutus says, “Papa Satan, Papa Satan, aleppy” (Alighieri 7.1.) According to John Ciardi, “The word ‘papa’ as used here probably means ‘Pope’ rather than ‘father’” (Alighieri and Ciardi 65.) Dante’s depiction of Plutus as a supernatural monster of Hell is an example of both the Gothic and the grotesque, but Plutus’ dialogue is what really sets this scene apart as grotesque. The Pope is Gods representative on Earth, and, to have the Pope as Satan one and the same creates a horrifying caricature. Black Sabbath creates a similarly grotesque image of modern Christianity with the inverted cross on the inside cover of their first album. Bardine cites Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal and says, “The interior of the album’s gatefold sleeve contained few details beyond a grim gothic poem inscribed in a giant inverted crucifix” (cited in Bardine 134.) Inverting the crucifix creates a caricature of the symbol of Jesus’ crucifixion symbolizing a world where God sacrificed himself in vain as his redemption of the human race could not hold.

While a strait reading of the poem from the cover of Black Sabbath’s initial album shares little more than gothic themes with The Inferno, the presence of the poem on the inside cover of the first Heavy Metal album inscribed inside of an inverted crucifix stands like the inscription on the gates of Dante’s Hell. Being that Black Sabbath’s first album is considered to be the first example of the Heavy Metal genre (Bardine 125), the poem on the inside cover shepherds listeners  into an uncharted, Gothic, and grotesque musical space. Yet on its own, the actual poetry of Black Sabath’s “Still Falls the Rain” lacks the foreboding power of Dante’s inscription on the gates of Hell: “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE” (Alighieri 3.9)

While Black Sabbath’s “Still Falls the Rain” (1970) shows Gothic themes and some grotesque imagery, the poem only obtains its eerie and ominous warning once read against Dame Edith Sitwell’s poem, “Still Falls the Rain” (1941.) Edith Sitwell’s poem is a mature juxtaposition of the horrors of World War II and Christ’s crucifixion. While Sitwell’s poem is decidedly dark, it contains a feeling of hope and mercy that is decidedly absent in Black Sabbath’s poem of the same name. Black Sabbath’s “Still Falls the Rain” is a much more juvenile poem. It contains images of death and darkness but more for shock value than as societal commentary. But a shared title and disturbing imagery is not all these poems have more in common.

Black Sabbath’s “Still Falls the Rain” is almost certainly written as a response to Sitwell’s poem as it shares and recontextualizes themes and images from Sitwell’s work. Both poems cover darkness and blackness within their first two lines. Sitwell writes, “Dark as the world of man, black as our loss” (Sitwell 2.) Sitwell writes of darkness as a metaphor for the emotional content of a world at war. However, Black Sabbath misses the point as they write of darkness as little more than a device to elicit a Gothic feel to the poem. Black Sabbath writes, “[V]eils of darkness shroud/the blackened trees” (Black Sabbath 1-2.) Later in the poem, Sitwell writes of a Bear being beaten by its keepers and the tears of a hunted hare (Sitwell 23-24.) Black Sabbath counters this with images of mutilated birds and dead rabbits strewn about the ground (Black Sabbath 6, 7, 9-10.) Sitwell’s poem uses the images of violence against animals as another metaphor both for man’s cruelty toward animals and toward his fellow man through the atrocities of war. Black Sabbath is just using dead and mutilated animals as Gothic scenery of the grotesque. At this point Black Sabbath’s contribution to this literary conversation is to do little more than remove the metaphorical meaning frim Sitwell’s words.

However, Black Sabbath turns up the volume on their critique with their version of Sitwell’s imagery of Christ’s crucifixion. Sitwell says, “At the feet of the Starved Man hung upon the Cross./Christ that each day, each night, nails there […]” (Sitwell 13-14.) Sitwell mentions Christ and the cross and the nails that affixed him there. Yet, Black Sabbath writes, “[T]o caress the feet of the/headless martyr’s statue whose only achievement was to die” (Black Sabbath 19-20.) Black Sabbath follows Sitwell’s religious imagery starting at the feet then moving to the figure of the statue that they simply call “the martyr.” Black Sabbath’s imagery of a statue of an unnamed and headless martyr read against Sitwell’s imagery of the actual Christ crucified on the cross situates the Black Sabbath poem in a Post-Christian world, a world with no hope and no meaning. At this point, the simple Gothic and grotesque imagery of the previous examples stand out as definitive examples of a world where life has little meaning and chaos and death exist with no cause. Even the shabbiness of the writing of Black Sabbath’s poem is a statement that beauty has no place in the Post-Christianity of the Heavy Metal Genre. But most of the Heavy Metal bands that follow in the genre created by Black Sabbath do not go quite as far as the Post-Christian dystopia as described in “Still Falls the Rain” (Black Sabbath 1970.)

In fact, the video for “Bleed” by Meshuggah (Nuclear Blast USA 2008) maintains meaning and beauty—at least a Gothic and grotesque sort of beauty— as well as looking back to tradition as an important aspects of their Heavy Metal style. The visual style and storytelling of Meshuggah’s video calls on the imagery of The Inferno to create a vital and evocative feel. In the video for “Bleed,” Meshuggah shows the image of the cockroach struggling on its back kicking its legs to no avail as a symbol of the torture of Hell and the futility of escape (Nuclear Blast USA 2008.) The cockroach mirrors both the scene in The Inferno where the lost souls are chased by wasps and forced to run for all of eternity (Alighieri 3.49-63), and the scene where the Simoniacs are buried upside down in the stone floor with only their feet above the ground (Alighieri 19.13-24.) Furthering the comparison between the roach and the Simoniacs, Dante says, “The soles were all ablaze/and the joints of the legs quivered and writhed about” (Alighieri 19.23-24.) But unlike the sinners in The Inferno, the cockroach foreshadows a danger to the main character of the video.

The image of the cockroach is juxtaposed with flashes of a living human male (Nuclear Blast USA 2008) hinting that the man is going to suffer the same inescapable fate. The image of the cockroach is also juxtaposed with the image of an exposed clock mechanism ticking away the time (Nuclear Blast USA 2008) much like Virgil who keeps track of time for Dante by tracking the movement of the stars in the sky. But unlike Virgil and Dante, the main character of the video is not likely to make it back out of Hell, as the juxtaposition of the cockroach and the ticking clock mechanism imbues the symbolism of the clock with other darker connotations. The futility and decay symbolized by the struggling insect highlights the exposed nature of the clock mechanism, and the camera focalizes the circular ticking gear spinning slowly. This imagery creates the idea that time does not work the same as it does in the living world. Time grinds by painfully slow spinning in an inescapable loop. This loop also mirrors the plot where the main character of the video eventually becomes the beast that menaces him from the beginning of the video. Presumably, the main character has been in Hell and will continue to be in Hell reliving this fall from grace over and over for as long as the clock mechanisms of Hell continue to tick.

Like the image of Satan frozen in place at the end of The Inferno, The Satan in Meshuggah’s “Bleed” video is mostly frozen in place, but this Satan is frozen in yogic meditation (Nuclear Blast USA 2008). The Satan at the end of the video differs in some ways from the image of Satan in canto 34 of The Inferno. Dante describes Satan as if he were an engine of war to be built and placed by an attacking army rather than a being capable of independent—although subtle—action. He says, “Like a whirling windmill seen afar at twilight,/or when a mist has risen from the ground—/just such an engine rose upon my sight” (Alighieri 34.4-6.) Satan, in Dante’s depiction, is incapable of moving on his own and seems not to even take notice of Virgil and Dante as they approach or even when they grab onto his fur and climb down his legs. Yet, Meshugga’s Satan is the size of a man and sitting on a raised pedestal. While this Satan moves very little, the raised pedestal implies that this Satan has power and agency unlike Dante’s Satan. In fact, the flashes of this Satan’s face throughout the Meshuggah video are symbols of him drawing the main character of the video to his doom whereas Dante’s Satan is little more than a tool that Dante and Virgil use to secure their escape from Hell (Alighieri 34.70-93.)While Dante finds a Hell with a possibility of both hope and escape, Black Sabbath and Meshuggah take Dante’s inscription on the gates of Hell much more literally as they create a hellish landscape with no hope and no escape.

Connected through the Gothic literary mode, The Inferno, Black Sabbath, Meshuggah, and more create a multimedia literary lineage of intertextual conversation and recontextualization that can even branch out to works outside the Gothic mode such as Dane Edith Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain.” Even Heavy Metal bands with little more than the intention to shock and disturb through images of death and blasphemy can have a positive and transforming effect on tradition regardless of whether or not they get any academic recognition. Popular music as a medium remains a fertile ground to till for literary connections to The Inferno and other classic and as the music medium continues to expand bands that look to tradition for inspiration and there will be more ways to explore the multimedia literary lineage.







Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante, and John Ciardi. The Inferno. New American Library, 2003.

Bardine, Bryan. “Elements of the Gothic in Heavy Metal: A Match Made in Hell” (2009). English Faculty Publications. 68. https://ecommons.udayton.edu/eng_fac_pub/68

Black Sabbath. “Still Falls the Rain.” Black Sabbath. Vertigo Records. 1970.

Meshuggah. “Bleed.” obZen. Nuclear Blast USA. 2008. https://youtu.be/qc98u-eGzlc

O’CONNELL, Anita. “‘Dante’s Linguistic Detail in Shelley’s Triumph of Life.’” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature & Culture: A WWWeb Journal, vol. 13, no. 4, Dec. 2011, pp. 1–9. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=74158744&login.asp?custid=magn1307&site=lrc-live&scope=site.

Sitwell, Edith. “Still Falls The Rain.” 1941. PoemHunter.com, 1 Jan. 2004, http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/still-falls-the-rain/.

The Giant Frozen Satan

17 April 2019


While Dante’s encounter with Satan was very important for the salvation of his soul and is anticipated through the entirety of The Inferno, the actual encounter is somewhat anticlimactic. Satan is a disfigured giant that is frightening to look upon but of little actual danger to worthy souls. In canto 34, Dante describes Satan as if he were an engine of war to be built and placed by an attacking army rather than a being capable of independent action. He says, “Like a whirling windmill seen afar at twilight,/or when a mist has risen from the ground—/just such an engine rose upon my sight” (Alighieri 34.4-6.) Satan, in Dante’s depiction, is incapable on moving on his own and seems not to even take notice of Virgil and Dante as they approach or even when they grab onto his fur and climb down his legs. This Satan, now that he is frozen in place in the deepest pit of hell, no longer has the power to defy God and acts as a proxy serving out punishment in them employ of God.


Aside from his wings whirling the icy winds of hell throughout the ninth circle, the only action that Satan is able to take chewing on the most heinous of the souls damned to hell. When I read Dante’s description of Satan chewing on Judas, I automatically thought of the Goya painting of Kronos eating his son. Dante says:

In every mouth he worked a broken sinner

between his rake-like teeth. Thus he kept three

in eternal pain at his eternal dinner.


For the one in front the biting seemed to play

no part at all compared to the ripping: at times

the whole skin of his back was flayed away.

Goya’s painting is a disturbing scene freezing the titan in the act of eating one of his sons, but while Kronos eventually swallows his victims, Satan’s victims are perpetually in the agony of being devoured.


I found both Goya’s painting of Kronos and an earlier painting by Giovanni da Modena. The paintings are so similar that one likely is the inspiration for the other. First, Dante is inspired by the story of Kronos. Then, the painting of Satan is inspired by Dante. Then the painting of Kronos is inspired by the painting of Satan.







Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante, and John Ciardi. The Inferno. New American Library, 2003.

Giovanni. “Satan.” http://www.poderesantapia.com/art/giovannidamodena.htm

Goya. “Saturn Devouring his Son.” https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/saturn/18110a75-b0e7-430c-bc73-2a4d55893bd6

Ithaca and the Heathen World

10 April 2019


According to Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus sets out for Troy with the best of intentions. He is defending the honor of Menelaus, the king of Sparta and fighting a war to retrieve Hellen, Menelaus’ Queen (Homer.) Odysseus sets out on his odyssey not due to a lust for adventure or a desire to engage in untoward actions, but due to fealty to his king and service to his Gods. Odysseus is only detained from his wife and son after the ten years of the Trojan war because he offends Poseidon and not for any self-serving or sinful purposes—at least, not in the context of the value structure of the ancient world.


In Dante’s Christian view of the world and divorced from the context of his own time, Odysseus, now known as Ulysses, has come to a different understanding of the impetus for his adventures. Ulysses says to Dante:

[N]ot fondness for my son, nor reverence

for my aged father, nor Penelope’s claim


to the joys of love, could drive out of my mind

the lust to experience the far-flung world

and the failings and felicities of mankind. (Alighieri 26.89-93.)

Filtered through time and translated by another religious value structure, Ulysses believes that he had broken his covenant with family to seek the worldly pleasures of pillage, plunder, and sins of the flesh like those he engaged in on Circe’s island. Also, when asked about his final voyage, Ulysses starts out by saying that he left from Circe’s island. He says, “When I left Circe, […] who more than a year/detained me […]” (Alighieri 26.86-87.) In Dante’s version of The Odyssey, Ulysses never made it home to Ithaca to save his wife and son from the suitors and never regained the honor of his family. Therefore, Dante transforms Homer’s triumph of human persistence into a tragedy of human folly.


Interestingly, Ulysses has an understanding of the changing world uncharacteristic to the other sufferers of hell. Many times, in the summary or notes (I cannot find examples at the moment), Ciardi explains that the dead while they have the power to predict the future they are unable to see the present state of the living world (Ciardi.) Somehow, Ulysses knows the modern names of places that he had visited when he was lost at sea for ten years. He says:

I put out on the high and open sea […].

As far as Morocco and as far as Spain

I saw both shores; and I saw Sardinia […]. (Alighieri 26.94, 97-98)

Dante’s decision, as a writer, to give Ulysses the special privilege to know the what has been happening in the living world helps to divorce Ulysses from the cultural and religious context in which he lived allowing him to be an example of a suffering and tormented soul rather than a luminary of the heathen world living (in death) among the likes of Homer and Plato.




Work Cited

Alighieri, Dante, and John Ciardi. The Inferno. New American Library, 2003.

Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, 1997.

Mounting Geryon

27 March 2019

Dante’s status as a simple observer of punished souls is beginning to break down. As he travels deeper, he engages more and more with both the dangers and the inhabitants of Hell. Virgil tells Dante, “Now follow me; and mind for your own good/you do not step upon the burning sand” (Alighieri 14.70-71.) Virgil’s warning to Dante signals that the further the two go away from God the less influence God has to protect them on their trip through Hell. In fact, the summary at the beginning of canto 15 attributes the safety of Virgil and Dante in the desert of the seventh circle to the magical properties of the river and not the power of God (Alighieri and Ciardi 119.)


The rivers of Hell all stem from the tears of the giant of Crete. According to the notes for line 97, the Giant of Crete represents the ages of man deteriorating as they reach the base of the statue (Alighieri and Ciardi 118.) The tears that travel down from the golden section of the statue become the rivers of Hell. If the golden section of the statue represents the civilization of man that was closest to God, then the rivers of Hell must bring the authority of God in a secondary and corrupted form in order to give protection along the borders of the stream that Virgil and Dante follow.


As Dante continues deeper into the depths of Hell, the danger he is in continues to increase. When Dante asks to sit and visit with Bruno Latino, Bruno warns him, “[W]hoever of this train/pauses a moment, must lie a hundred years/forbidden to brush off the burning rain” (Aligheri 15.37-39.) In earlier cantos, Dante is warned that he does not belong in Hell and should return the way he came. Yet, now that he has traveled so far away from the protection of God, he is in danger of being corrupted by the influences of Hell and kept there forever despite the fact that he is still alive. And by the time he reaches the edge of the waterfall, Dante must discard the Franciscan chord, a symbol of God’s authority, and rely on the infernal power of Geryon to continue descending into the depths of Hell. Finally, there is something at stake for Dante as he is at risk of losing his immortal soul.


On a different note, I have been thinking about the connection between Dante’s vision of hell and the hellish imagery of heavy metal music. I know that there is a connection but I am not sure how to articulate it just yet.


The silly tone of this ukulele cover of a Slayer song matches the tone of Dante’s Hell of silliness matched with horrifying imagery. The video is from a series of videos where two ukulele players join a church sponsored ukulele group and play songs inappropriate to the setting. https://youtu.be/97KLphniRAA



Work Cited

Alighieri, Dante, and John Ciardi. The Inferno. New American Library, 2003.

What in the Hell is Dante Doing?

18 March 2019


Dante’s Inferno is not exactly what I expected it to be. I thought it was going to be more Hell Raiser and less Pilgrims Progress. I should have been tipped off by The Inferno being only the first of the three books of The Divine Comedy, but somehow I still expected a harrowing experience of pain and torture. Instead, The Inferno reads more like a guided tour through Walt Disney’s wax museum version of what might look like. The residents of Hell seem not to be in torment but to be resigned to whatever absurd fate that poetic justice deems fit for their crimes. And the monsters of Hell seem little more than carnival barkers dressed up in Halloween costumes ready to back down from their frightening playacting the second a five year old begins to cry.

The reason that this representation of Hell holds such little terror for the reader is the distance at which the terrors are happening. While it is true that Dante does travel deep into the midst of the terrors of Hell, he is never in any sort of danger as none of the torments are even threatened to be leveled against him. And to add more distance between Dante and any danger he may be in, he is led around by Virgil who points out the sights to Dante then explains the poetic significance of the torments that the souls suffer. Over and over again Virgil reminds Dante, the monsters of Hell, and the reader that no harm can come to Dante as they are “on a mission from god,” as the Blues Brothers might say. All in all the story reads like a Sunday school lesson aimed at teaching children not to sin. But I think that is the point; The Inferno is written as an allegory to teach the reader what to avoid if he or she wants to live a good Christian life.

Repetition as Ritual: Echoes of The Odyssey through Time

15 March 2019


Jennifer Clarvoe’s article, “Poetry and Repetition,” is concerned mainly with how the repetitions within a particular text call attention to important elements and highlight unexpected connections within the poem that may go unnoticed otherwise. Clarvoe’s argument that most closely relates Homer’s epic to James Joyce’s Ulysses comes as a discussion of a short poem unrelated to either Homer’s epic or Joyce’s novel based on that epic. She says, “It is not a poem overtly organized by repetition, but one whose subliminal orchestrations have everything to do with these echoes and returns” (Clarvoe 40.) This same sentiment holds true for Joyce’s Ulysses. Aside from the novel’s title and it’s chapter titles which were not included in the original edition (JH 2017,) Ulysses is not overtly organized by the repetition of Homer’s work but has everything to do with echoes and returns to the elements of The Odyssey.

Clarvoe is not silent on the extensive use of repetition in The Odyssey. When she discusses the repetition of the ritual to conjure the dead in The Odyssey, Clarvoe says, “The repetition marks the ritual as ritual, as repeatable; it exists as a form out of time, to be fulfilled in time” (Clarvoe 31.) While the people of ancient Greece are not likely to need to use a ritual to conjure the dead out of the afterlife, Homer uses repetition of other rituals throughout The Odyssey to pass on important aspects of cultural knowledge. While Homer strictly details the rituals to be performed then shows them being performed in strict compliance to the instructions, Homer sets up a theme then iterates on that theme with each succeeding repetition when teaching more nuanced subjects than general life lessons. Homer is able to teach a fuller understanding of cultural expectations through a series of simple stories based on similar themes.

Homer signals the importance death as a theme as he repeats it multiple times throughout the narrative of The Odyssey. The specter of looming death is present within each of the books of Homer’s epic. In book 11, “The Kingdom of the Dead,” Homer even locates death as an actual place within the world as well as the souls that live within it. To Odysseus surprise, he finds Elpenor has beaten him to the underworld even though they had left his dead body on Circe’s island. (Homer 11.56-93.) However, Elpenor’s death is of no surprise to Homer’s audience as they are informed of Elpenor’s death in the previous book (Homer 10.605-617.) Homer uses this repetition of Elpenor’s death in his own words to reiterate the cultural importance of mourning and properly burying the dead. Now that Homer has set up Elpenor’s death as a ritual out of time, to be fulfilled in time, Joyce uses the trip to the graveyard to burry Paddy as a stand-in for Elpenor and as a way of iterating on the theme of death updating the theme for the modern world.

Elpenor’s request for a proper burial (Homer 11.79-80) is transformed in Ulysses. Elpenor warns that if he is not properly buried, Odysseus risks a curse from the Gods. Elpenor’s plea from the dead becomes a chance for Joyce’s Leopold Bloom’s interior dialogue to dissect the modern connotations of being excluded from the excepted burial rights of the dominant culture. In connection with the conversation about a suicide, Bloom thinks, “Refuse christian burial” (Joyce 1922.) The lack of capitalization of the proper noun, “Christian,” within Bloom’s interior monologue serves as a subtle reminder that he, born of Jewish descent, exists outside the bounds of the Christian majority and, therefore, would likely be refused a Christian burial himself. But exclusion of the religious minority is not the only problem that Bloom finds with burial rights since Homer had his say on the matter.

In The Odyssey, Elpenor offers a world where improper burial rights could invite a curse from the Gods. He says, “Don’t sail off/and desert, me left behind unwept, unburied, don’t/or my curse may draw god’s fury on your head” (Homer 11.79-81). But in Joyce’s novel, the curse is no longer the Gods metering out their fury on the living for not delivering the rights to the dead. Instead, the living deliver their curse on the dead for anyone who offends the masses with an improper death. Still on the subject of Suicide, Bloom thinks, “They used to drive a stake of wood through his heart in the grave. As if it wasn’t broken already” (Joyce 1922.) Therefore, Joyce’s modern world may have done away with Gods and the supernatural, but the monsters still inhabit the Earth only they take the form of mob violence and group think.

Interestingly, with his understanding for societies taboo against suicide, Bloom has no problem with the circumstances surrounding Paddy’s death. Looking at the conversation amongst the characters in the carriage Paddy’s death was the direct result of a lifetime’s overindulgence in alcohol. They say:

“— The Lord forgive me! Mr Power said, wiping his wet eyes with his fingers. Poor Paddy! I little thought a week ago when I saw him last and he was in his usual health that I’d be driving after him like this. He’s gone from us.

— As decent a little man as ever wore a hat, Mr Dedalus said. He went very suddenly.

— Breakdown, Martin Cunningham said. Heart.

He tapped his chest sadly.

Blazing face: redhot. Too much John Barleycorn. Cure for a red nose. Drink like the devil till it turns adelite. A lot of money he spent colouring it.” (Joyce 1922)

The total acceptance of Paddy’s life of alcohol abuse and his subsequent death from the same abuse goes totally counter to the many repetitions of the call for moderation within The Odyssey.

Elpenor’s death is likely the strongest of the calls for moderation in alcohol intake as his death is the explicit result of overindulgence. When Odysseus describes Elpenor’s death, he says, “There was a man, Elpenor, the youngest in our ranks,/none too brave in battle, none too sound in mind.[…]/sodden with wine […]/headfirst from the roof he plunged” (Homer 10.608-609, 612, 615.) Odysseus describes Elpenor in a poor light. He shows Elpenore as inexperienced by describing him as the youngest, as a coward by describing him as none to brave, as stupid by describing him as none to sound in mind, and as a possible alcoholic by describing him as sodden with wine. Very early in the next chapter, Elpenore repeats similar lines reinforcing the connections foolishness and drinking to excess. When describing his own death, Elpenor says, “[T]he doom of an angry god, and god knows how much wine—/they were my ruin” (Homer 11.67-68.) But even with the understanding that Elpenor led a foolish life Odysseus agrees to honor him with a hero’s burial. Elpenor says, “[B]urn me in full armor, all my harness, […]/so even men to come will learn my story.” Even though Odysseus describes Elpenor’s death as he would a fool’s death, he agrees to these terms for his burial.

Similarly, Bloom describes Paddy’s death positive terms. He says, “— The best death” (Joyce 1922.) Despite Homer’s repeated calls for moderation and despite the obvious signs of Paddy’s wasted life destroyed by overindulgence of alcohol, Both Elpenor and Paddy are honored in death receiving all the rights due to them as full members of their societies. This contradiction seems to show that in both Homer’s time and Joyce’s time a person’s burial is a time for somber recollections and happy memories of the dead despite what the evidence of their life may show.

Joyce’s subtle callback to Homer’s epic give the text of Ulysses both a framework from which to draw the scenes of the novel, and an ancient world view that in its contradictions with modern thought gives lessons to teach us in the present day how to be good members of society. Clarvoe might say that the repetition of The Odyssey in Ulysses is the ritual out of time to be fulfilled in our time as our lives repeat the same lessons taught three thousand years ago.

Works Cited

Clarvoe, Jennifer. “Poetry and Repetition.” Antioch Review, vol. 67, no. 1, Winter 2009, pp. 30–41. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=36066764&login.asp?custid=magn1307&site=lrc-live&scope=site&custid=magn1307.

Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, 1997.

Joyce, James. UlyssesThe Joyce Project : Ulysses : Pigeonhouse, 1922. m.joyceproject.com/chapters/hades.html.

  1. “Schemas.” The Joyce Project : Ulysses : Schemas, 2017, m.joyceproject.com/notes/010046schemas.html.

The Godless Funeral Procession

27 Feb 2019


The “Hades” chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses repurposes the theme of travel that is central to The Odyssey. Bloom and Daedalus’ trip to the cemetery recalls both Odysseus’ trip to the underworld accompanied by his crew and the suitors’ procession to the underworld led by Hermes. When Odysseus visits the underworld, he is sent under Circe’s orders to head the expedition (Homer 10.540-545.) Bloom and Daedalus are led to the cemetery by an unseen carriage driver. The missing driver in Joyce’s adaptation of homer’s scene is much like Circe’s promise to Odysseus that he will be piloted to the underworld by the north wind. Circe says, “[L]et no lack of a pilot at the helm concern you, no […] the North Wind will speed you on your way” (Homer 10.555, 557.) Although Odysseus must take it on faith that he will make it to the underworld without the aid of an experienced pilot, he is given the assurance from no less than a Goddess that he will reach his destination. When the suitors travel to the underworld in the last chapter of The Odyssey, they are led by Hermes, another of the pantheon of Gods (Homer 24.1-15.)  In the world of The Odyssey, even those who have gravely offended the Gods and have suffered their wrath are led by holy guidance, but Bloom and Daedalus are not given the same supernatural attention. While it can be assumed that Bloom and Daedalus have seen that they have a pilot for their carriage, the reader is given no assurance that there is anyone directing their trip. Therefore, Bloom and Daedalus’ world is shown to be much more tenuous than Odysseus’ world. Bloom and Daedalus must rely on a society directed by humans alone, a society where the existence of a guiding power can only be guessed at.






Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, 1997.

Joyce, James. UlyssesThe Joyce Project : Ulysses : Pigeonhouse, 1922. m.joyceproject.com/chapters/hades.html.

The Lotus Eaters of Blood and Flesh

19 Feb 2019


In the “Lotus Eaters” chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses, the setting of the church adapts the scene from The Odyssey where Odysseus returns to his house disguised as a beggar. Like Odysseus’ dining hall, Joyce’s church room is a place where people gather from the larger community to listen to music, eat food and drink wine (in the form of communion), and perform religious rituals. In The Odyssey Odysseus’ loyal servants serve bread and wine. The narrator says, “Philoetius, trusty herdsman, brought on loaves of bread […]; Melanthius poured the wine” (Homer 20.281-283.) In Joyce’s Ulysses, the bread and wine is served by the priest. Bloom narrates through his inner dialogue. He says, “The priest went along by them, murmuring, holding the thing in his hands. He stopped at each, took out a communion, shook a drop or two (are they in water?) off it and put it neatly into her mouth” (Joyce 1922.) Like Odysseus’ servants, the priest is a servant to his congregation; however, the priest is also a symbol of religious authority. Therefore, Joyce flips the balance of power within his adaptation of the scene.


In The Odyssey, Odysseus must endure the indignity of the suitors taking advantage of his hospitality while they profane his halls with thoughts of criminal acts. Odysseus, as king of Ithaca, is granted a rare view into the petty plottings of his inferiors through his disguise as a beggar. In this scene, Odysseus is shown in contrast to the room full of petty suitors. He is a king temporarily removed from his power to be taught how to act by viewing the bad actions of the suitors and the good actions of his loyal servants. Yet in Joyce’s Ulysses, Bloom sits surrounded by women who likely are fully invested in the ritual of the mas while he profanes the mas by thinking inappropriate thoughts. When Bloom enters the church he thinks, “Nice discreet place to be next some girl. […] Jammed by the hour to slow music. That woman at midnight mass. Seventh heaven” (Joyce 1922.) Bloom is contrasted against these women, not as a king temporarily brought low to learn from the good and bad acts of his inferiors, but as a man of middling authority and questionable morals.


Bloom lashes out in his thoughts against those that he believes to have power over him. As a man of the early 1900s, Bloom would be expected to hold authority over the women. However, he is portrayed in this scene as being subservient to Martha, the woman with whom he plans to have an affair. Also, Blooms seems to be somewhat envious of the women in the church for the joy that they seem to get out of their religious rituals. He diminishes their joy in his mind by thinking of them as if they are ignorant children by relating the religious right to a lollipop. Bloom says, “Look at them. Now I bet it makes them feel happy. Lollipop. It does” (Joyce 1922.) When it comes to the priest who holds religious authority over him, Bloom is much more vicious in his cynical thoughts. Bloom thinks, “Wine. Makes it more aristocratic […]. Pious fraud but quite right: otherwise they’d have one booser worse than another coming along, cadging for a drink” (Joyce 1922.) Bloom continues to diminish the authority of the priest by going after the church as a whole. He thinks, “Squareheaded chaps those must be in Rome: they work the whole show. And don’t they rake in the money too?” Through accusations of vice on the part of those who he feels subservient to, Bloom tries to excuse himself for the path he has taken in life.



Works Cited

Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, 1997.

Joyce, James. UlyssesThe Joyce Project : Ulysses : Pigeonhouse, 1922. m.joyceproject.com/chapters/lotus.html.


13 Feb 2019

The “Calypso” chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses starts off with a short inventory of Leopold Bloom’s tastes in food. The narrator says, “Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine” (Joyce 1922.) Two paragraphs later he inventories the food that he puts on his wife’s plate. And somewhat later in the chapter, Bloom inventories the city in one long paragraph of stream of consciousness thought.  Bloom narrates his thoughts:

“[T]he loose cellar flap of number seventy five. […] [T]he steeple of George’s church. […] Boland’s breadvan delivering with trays our daily […]. [S]entry there, old ranker too, old Tweedy’s big moustaches […]. Turbaned faces going by. Dark caves of carpet shops, big man, Turko the terrible[…]. Cries of sellers in the streets. […] The shadows of the mosques among the pillars: priest with a scroll rolled up. A shiver of trees, signal, the evening wind. […] Fading gold sky. A mother watches me […]. High wall: beyond strings twanged. Night sky, moon, violet, colour of Molly’s new garters. Strings. […] A girl playing one of those instruments […]” (Joyce 1922.)

These inventories both bring Bloom’s world to life in vivid detail and connect Ulysses to The Odyssey with the use of a literary technique that is characteristic of the epic.


Also in this chapter, Joyce compares Bloom’s cat to the Greek Gods. In The Odyssey, Calypso is tagged with the epithet “lustrous goddess” (Homer 5.87, 96) and Bloom’s cat is described as lustrous creature. The narrator says, “Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes” (Joyce 1922.) The cat is also described the same way that the Greek Gods are often shown in The Odyssey. The narrator says, “They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too” (Joyce 1922.) The reason why Odysseus had such a difficult time getting home from Troy is because Poseidon holds a grudge against him for blinding Polyphemus (Homer 1.22-24, 10.583-596, 614-619.) Therefore, Poseidon evinces the vindictive qualities of the Greek Gods. In this week’s readings, Athena shows how, like the cat, the Greek Gods understand more about humans than humans do about them (Gods and cats.) Odysseus is told by Athena what he must do to successfully rid his house of the unwanted suitors. Athena says, “[T]hanks to me the Phaeacians all embraced you warmly. And now I am here once more, to weave a scheme with you […] and tell you all the trials you must suffer in your palace” (Homer 13.343-344, 347-348.) But this comparison of the cat to the gods also juxtaposes the way the Greek Gods are revered in Greek Myth with lack of significance that the Greek Gods have in contemporary times.


In Joyce’s Ulysses, the cat, while being compared to the powerful Greek Gods, is dependent on Bloom for her very subsistence. The cat lives in Bloom’s house because he feels that he can get some use out of the cat. Bloom expects the cat to catch mice. While Bloom looks for some small thing to feed the cat, the narrator says, “Give her too much meat she won’t mouse” (Joyce 1922.) Also like Calypso holding Odysseus captive, Bloom has a fascination with the way the cat looks. The same quote about Bloom watching the cat’s lithe black form that compares the cat to the Greek Gods also compares the cat to Odysseus being admired by Calypso and Bloom to Calypso admiring Odysseus. And like the Goddess who doesn’t quite understand how Odysseus sees the world, Bloom wonders at how the cat sees the world. Illuminating Blooms thoughts, the narrator says, “Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower?” (Joyce 1922.) And like Odysseus standing at the shore staring across the ocean and longing to be home, the cat sits looking at the door hoping Bloom will open it and let her leave (Joyce 1922.) Joyce’s re-examination of the relationship between Calypso and Odysseus in this chapter shows that Bloom has a heightened awareness of the power discrepancy between him and his cat. And as a stand-in for Calypso, Blooms relationship with the cat highlights the abusiveness of a physical relationship between Calypso and Odysseus as a human can be little more than be an unwilling pet to a God.




Works Cited

Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, 1997.

Joyce, James. UlyssesThe Joyce Project : Ulysses : Pigeonhouse, 1922. m.joyceproject.com/chapters/telem.html.

Odysseus, King under the Mountain: A Reference to The Hobbit while Discussing a Different Tolkien Novel that is Off Topic

4 Feb 2019

Odysseus’ wanderings through the landscape of ancient Greek myth are more than just a rehashing of the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. Homer uses themes from The Argonautica to anchor Odysseus’ tale within the cannon of Greek myth. Repeating themes from the stories that people are already familiar with signals to his audience that the story that he is telling is of just much importance as the story from which he is borrowing. Therefore, borrowing themes from The Argonautica signals the audience to pay attention as the story they are about to hear is loaded with important lessons that will help them to become better citizens.


Homer’s allusion to the clashing rocks from The Argonautica comes shortly on the heels of Odysseus’ trip to Hades where he performs ritual sacrifice to Persephone and the ghosts of the underworld in order to speak to Tiresias (Homer 11.30-41 and 12.69-72.) This ritual is described by Circe in chapter 10 and then repeated by Odysseus in chapter 11 (Homer 10.569-576 and 11.30-41.) According to Jennifer Clavore’s “Poetry and Repetition,” Odysseus’ instruction of how to do the ritual and then his following through with the ritual in strict obedience to the instruction signals the cultural importance of the ritual (Clavore 31.) Therefore, the circumstances of The Argonautica being repeated within the text of The Odyssey signals with their repetition that the themes are of great cultural importance. The long list of ghosts that Odysseus spoke with also helped to anchor the tale of The Odyssey into the myths of the ancient Greeks as Odysseus spoke with many of the notables of Greek myth such as Heracles’ mother (Homer 11.302-303,) Oedipus’ mother (Homer 11.307,) and Ariadne, the daughter of Minos (Homer 11.364-365.)


According to M. L. West, the most apparent borrowing that Homer takes from The Argonautica comes from the section of The Odyssey that deals with the clashing rocks (West 39.) While the clashing rocks are mentioned, Odysseus is instructed to take a different rout avoiding the dangers as he does not have the magical ship the Argo or the protection of Hera (Homer 12.73, 76-80.) Therefore, Odysseus does exist within the same mythic construction of the ancient world but he is only following the same rout taken by a predecessor and not claiming Jason’s exploits as his own. In fact, Circe even says, “One ship alone, one deep-sea craft sailed clear, the Argo, sung by the world, when heading home from Aeetes” (Homer 12.73-75.) Circe even admits that the story of the Argo had been “sung by the world.” Therefore, she is stating that the exploits of Jason and his crew are general knowledge of everyone who is hearing Odysseus, and she is inviting Odysseus to learn the lessons taught in myth the way that the audience of The Odyssey is expected to learn from it. So if The Argonautica is actually known by the world, the way that Circe claims it is, Jason’s exploits are in the public domain and the typical rules of copyright and attribution of the intellectual property of others do not apply.


Somewhat off topic, Odysseus’s descent into the underworld reminded me quite a bit of Aragorn’s time with the ghosts in Return of the King, the third book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s ghosts could not rest until they had redeemed themselves for the pact that they had broken with their king and they obey Aragorn because he is of the royal line, and Homer’s ghosts come at the behest of Odysseus both because he had made a sacrifice to them and because he had the favor of Circe and Athena.

Works Cited

Clarvoe, Jennifer. “Poetry and Repetition.” Antioch Review, vol. 67, no. 1, Winter 2009, pp. 30–41. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=36066764&login.asp?custid=magn1307&site=lrc-live&scope=site&custid=magn1307.

Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, 1997.

West, M.L. “‘Odyssey’ and ‘Argonautica.'” The Classical Quarterly 55.1 (May 2005): 39-64.