Either Odysseus was the worst sailor in Greek history, or he took the scenic route home for a reason. Dante tended toward the second interpretation. His Odysseus is punished as the Ulysses of the Aeneid, a dirus (dreadful) type who is scelerum inventor, a “contriver of crimes.” In Canto XXVI of Inferno, Dante condemns the Homeric original to the Eighth Circle, among the false counselors, for misusing the gifts of reason and rhetoric, a ten-year streak of lying and trickery. When he gratifies his desire for knowledge and experience, it is at the expense of his family and duties in Ithaca.

This Ulysses is a secondhand scoundrel: out of Latin not Greek, and damned by medieval Christian morals. In Ulysses, James...


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