March 5th, 2018
Discovering the Enneagram in Dante’s Divine Comedy
A few years ago, motivated by my fascination with the parallels between the Enneagram and Homer’s Odyssey, I went looking for the Enneagram in Dante’s Comedy.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with this amazing connection between the Enneagram types and The Odyssey, Odysseus, the protagonist of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, visits nine mythic lands on his journey home after the Trojan War, and those nine locales are populated with characters whose traits match the nine Enneagram types (exactly)—and he visits them in the same order they appear around the Enneagram symbol. The action of The Odyssey is thought to be a metaphor for the journey home “to the true self”—the path of challenges we all must travel to discover our real or higher essential being.
I wondered if Dante might have known about the Enneagram, or something like it. And I wondered if I could find evidence of the Enneagram “path” in Dante’s literary journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. So I did a close reading of the Comedy with the Enneagram in mind.
What I discovered was that there are many, many points of overlap—and while I can’t be sure, it’s very possible that Dante did know about the Enneagram or something like it, as we can see many of its core messages in what Dante brilliantly conveys in different ways throughout his poem.
When I started presenting my synthesis of the Enneagram path with the Comedy in 2013 and 2014, a few people loved it as much as I did. In particular, upon hearing my two-hour version, Nuala and Barry Ahern, my dear friends from Ireland, immediately declared we should present it as a workshop in Florence—Dante’s hometown—and they set about doing all the work to organize it.
The three of us held the workshop, Dante, The Divine Comedy, and the Enneagram: From Fixation to Freedom in Florence in Italy for three years, starting in 2014, and, happily, it now seems to have become an annual event every May. Nuala and Barry have successfully completed their tenure as organizers and facilitators, and my friends and Enneagram colleagues, Helen English and Mauro Vedovello, have now generously taken on this task. With their dedicated support and creative input, this year’s gathering in Florence promises to be another amazing journey of discovery through the Comedy with the Enneagram in mind.
In this blog, I will describe what I see as the top 9 interesting points of intersection between Dante’s epic poem and the Enneagram as a map of personal growth and transformation. I offer my list of nine of the ways lessons I associate with the Enneagram map can be found in Dante’s Commedia to give you a taste of the fascinating way the elements of the Enneagram teaching seem to permeate Dante’s vision.
Threes, Sevens, and Nines abound in the structure of the poem
Many students of the Enneagram know that the symbol represents the coming together of three laws—the law of one, communicated by the circle; the law of three, expressed by the inner triangle; and the law of seven, seen in the hexad or the other inner lines of the diagram.
The enneagram symbol conveys deep meaning, for those who know how to read it—but in this modern era, I don’t think we haven’t made much progress in decoding all of it’s secrets! After all, Gurdjieff (one of the main sources behind what we know about the meaning of the symbol) said, the Enneagram is a symbol of perpetual motion, The Philosopher’s Stone of the alchemists, and something that would make books and libraries entirely unnecessary if we knew how to read all it contains.
In looking at the Enneagram and the Comedy, we do see many parallels in terms of what we might call the “sacred geometry” behind the symbol that was also communicated by ancient wisdom, such as that of Pythagoras. In looking at the Enneagram, we can see that there are several groups of three—three centers of intelligence, three types based in each center, the main type and its wings, the main type and it’s arrow-line-connected points, three core instincts, etc. Here are some of the “Threes” we find in the structure of Dante’s Comedy:
- There are 3 canticles/parts (Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise) with
- 33 cantos each (+ 1 in Inferno) arranged in tercets (verses of 3 lines each in terza rima)
- There are many references to the Trinity
- The poem maps a 3-step path or process of transformation and 3 states of consciousness
- There are three sections of the Inferno and Purgatory
The “hexad,” or the lines connecting the lines that represent the “law of seven” in the Enneagram—and there are many “Sevens” in the Comedy. There are:
- Seven deadly sins
- Seven Terraces on Mount Purgatory
- Seven Virtues
- Seven candlesticks symbolizing the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in the pageant atop Mount Purgatory
- Seven maidens dancing in the same pageant symbolizing the seven virtues
- Seven planetary spheres in Paradise
And of course, the number nine is also central to the Enneagram map—as there are 9 points on the diagram. Nine is significant in the Comedy as well. In scared arithmetic, Nine is known to symbolize the “outer boundary.” And in Dante’s poem, there are:
- Nine circles of Hell
- Nine sections of Purgatory
- Nine spheres of Heaven
- Beatrice symbolized by the number 9 (the square of 3)
2. The opening of the Comedy: Waking up in dark wood
The Enneagram as a map of transformation is all about “waking up” to how our personality patterns limit us and keep us “asleep.” Gurdjieff talked about this a lot and many Enneagram teachers use this language for the positive effects the Enneagram can bring about—it awakens us to how we limit ourselves and how we can manifest our higher potentials through learning about our personality.
When The Divine Comedy starts, Dante the Pilgrim, the main character, wakes up in a “dark wood.” He is disoriented and doesn’t really know where he is. He had wandered off the “the straight path.” When he strayed from “the path of truth” he had become sleepy.
3. The nature of “sin” and the way it’s punished in The Inferno
One of my favorite things about the Enneagram is that you don’t have to “believe” in anything for it to work. The type patterns—if you are honest with yourself—are self-verifying (as Helen Palmer always used to say). And the difficulties we often face are just a consequence of the fact of being comfortable in our habitual patterns, even when they don’t serve us. Our ego has a hard time letting go of what we know and how we usually assert control such that we continue to suffer from our personalities limitation until we make a big effort to do the inner work it takes to become aware and interrupt them and change our patterns through an act of will.
Dante depicts the “sin” connected to being trapped in our egos, in a similar way. The sins that send people to hell could be overcome if these people (shades) could develop the self-awareness such that they could stop doing what they do over and over again. In The Inferno, in which Dante depicts what happens if you don’t become self-aware and so get stuck in your personality patterns forever, the “punishment” is the sin itself!
The people in Hell are located in the various levels of Hell according to what their sin was—in Enneagram terms, their “passion”—so Dante tells us much about the nature of these passions—how they operate, what happens when we don’t rise above them, and how we can get caught up in them eternally if we don’t become conscious of our motives, our behavior, and the impact of our behavior on others. Thus, the “lustful” are whirled about by winds forever, just as they were controlled by their own lustful appetites. The penalty for each passion is being trapped forever in it—either an exaggeration of it or the opposite of it.
4. The depiction of the sinners (the “shades”) in The Inferno
Just like people who can’t see beyond their own egos—or personality biases–the “shades” in Hell blame others for their fate, don’t take responsibility for their own actions, and can see the past and the future, but are not “present.”
5. The structure of Purgatory
Purgatory is structured in terms of the “seven deadly sins” or seven of the Enneagram’s passions or “chief features.” Just like the Enneagram maps a “vice to virtue” teaching, in which we are instructed to become more aware of our main unconscious patterns and aim for the higher opposite of them, each terrace on the mountain of Purgatory has a thoroughly detailed process in which the spirits of the people there work against their passions (“sins”) and work toward the higher virtue associated with it.
Just as the teachings behind the Enneagram tell us, it takes sometimes difficult inner work to really reverse our habits and express our highest gifts.
6. The central importance of Humility in the Purgatory
The first terrace of Purgatory is the terrace of Humility. I believe this is Dante’s way of communicating the fact that the first step in growing beyond the ego is to be able to see and own when we are acting from ego. And very often, this is much less easy than we think. While Humility is the higher virtue of the Two, it’s not just for Twos. Everyone who seeks to do the hard work symbolized by climbing the mountain must develop the humility to be able to see our errors and feel our pain, such that we can learn to do things differently than our habits might direct us to.
7. The atmosphere in Purgatory
The atmosphere in Purgatory is starkly contrast to that of Hell in The Inferno. Whereas in Hell there is only the sound of screaming and crying—of fear and grief and anger—on the mountain of Purgatory, there is the sweet sound of people singing together in unison. Purgatory is a place of humility and brotherly love, where everyone works together collectively to work against their unconscious habits. This mirrors the idea that Gurdjieff taught, that “alone, one many can do nothing,” that we must work together to really be able to ascend.
8. The nature of inner work in Purgatory
Not only do the shades work together and support each other in Purgatory, but the work of purging sins and manifesting more and more of the virtues is shown to be very hard work. I value the Enneagram map and the teachings behind it because they have helped me to see that while growth is often difficult, and that it necessarily involves encountering the shadow and feeling pain, there is also hope in that this work leads somewhere—there is a specific path to freedom when you take the journey of self-development.
And one of the interesting elements of Purgatory is that everyone who dies and goes to heaven must go up the whole mountain—we all have to work on all the passions or sins—but we have to spend more time on the terrace associated with our “main” sin—our as Dante calls it, our “besetting sin.” So, Dante meets a man who had to spend a few years on every terrace, but he had to spend 50 years on the terrace of wrath—and a 30 years on the terrace of sloth. I read this to mean this man was a Type One with a lot of Nine in him!
9. The idea of “unity in diversity” as communicated in The Paradise
One of the ways Gurdjieff described the Enneagram symbol was as a symbol of “unity in diversity.” I understand this to mean that while we are all unique, there are common patterns we share that we can see in the personality patterns. There may be millions of individuals all special in their own way, but nine sets of type patterns and 27 subtype egos or personalities.
Early on in the Paradise section of the Comedy, in the first nine cantos of the Paradise, there is an emphasis on the doctrine of derivation, or how from the One comes many. Gurdjieff speaks of this same kind of thing when he says that the enneagram is a symbol of “unity in multiplicity.” Society involves a diversity of function, which implies mankind’s different gifts and abilities, and the difference among humans is the ultimate reflection of the diversity of the stars.
The souls Dante encounters on his way up to the top of Paradise represent, by means of the sphere in which they appear to him, the visible signs of the degree of grace they have attained in relation to the capacity they have been given. However, what will be ultimately symbolized in Dante’s final vision of the Rose (at the top of heaven in the Empyrean) is the equality with which every blessed soul experiences God’s grace regardless of its capacity. This mirrors the two meanings of the Enneagram “types” we can discern reflected in all three parts of the poem – they are both equal in a basic way has having the capacity for free will and growth, and diverse expressions.
If you want to join us this year as we explore the intersection of the Enneagram map and The Divine Comedy, you can find information on my workshops page and you can register here: www.danteandtheenneagram.com