Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe
"Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe" is the opening line of Canto VII of Dante Alighieri's Inferno. The line, consisting of three words, is famous for the uncertainty of its meaning, and there have been many attempts to interpret it. Modern commentators on the Inferno view it as some kind of demonic invocation to Satan.
The line is a shout by Plutus. Plutus (also identified with Pluto and Hades) was originally the Roman god of wealth and the underground, but in the Inferno, Dante has made Plutus into a repulsive demon who guards the fourth circle, where souls who have abused their wealth through greed or improvidence are punished. The full strophe, plus the following four, which describes Dante's and Virgil's entire meeting and confrontation with Plutus reads:
"Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!",
"Pape Satan, Pape Satan, Aleppe!"
|—Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow|
The scant information that can be gleaned from the text is this:
- Virgil understands the meaning ("And that benignant Sage, who all things knew..."), and is replying.
- That the line is just the beginning of something else ("Thus Plutus with his clucking voice began...).
- It is an expression of anger ("And said: "Be silent, thou accursed wolf / Consume within thyself with thine own rage.").
- That it has the effect of a threat to Dante (And that benignant Sage, who all things knew, / Said, to encourage me: "Let not thy fear / Harm thee; for any power that he may have / Shall not prevent thy going down this crag.").
The only word with fairly obvious meaning is "Satàn", namely Satan; which comes from the Hebrew word הַשָׂטָן (ha-Satan), which translated literally means "the adversary".
The earliest interpretations
Some interpretations from the earliest commentators on the Divine Comedy include:
- The word "pape" might be a rendering of Latin papae, or from Greek παπαί (papaí). Both words are interjections of anger or surprise, attested in ancient authors (comparable to the English "damn!", or just "oh!").
- The word "aleppe" could be an Italian version of the word for "alef", the Hebrew letter א (a) (compare Phoenician alep and Greek alpha). The consonant shift here is comparable to that in Giuseppe, the Italian version of the name Joseph. In Hebrew, alef also means "number one" or "the origin that contains everything". It may also be interpreted as a metaphor for the "head", "the first and foremost". This was an attribute for God in late medieval expressions, meaning "the majesty" (of God). "Alef" was also a medieval interjection (like "Oh God!").
With these interpretations, the verse would mean "Oh, Satan, o Satan, god, king!".
The prayer theory
The word "pape" might come from Latin Pape, an old Roman term for "emperor", or "father". The double mention of "pape" together with "Satan" (here interpreted as the fallen angel Satan) and the break (the comma) in the hendecasyllable, gives it a tone of a prayer or an invocation to Satan, although there is no apparent verb. It might be also an invocation of the evil within the intruders.
Domenico Guerri's theory
Abboud Rashid's theory
Abboud Abu Rashid, the first translator of the Divine Comedy into Arabic (1930–1933), interpreted this verse as a phonetic translation of the spoken Arabic, "Bab Al-Shaytan, Bab Al-Shaytan, Ahlibu!", meaning "The door of Satan, the door of Satan, proceed downward!". According to some scholars, although Dante did not speak Arabic, he could have drawn some inspiration from Islamic sources. Doubts arise, however, because the meaning of this interpretation does not really match the reaction of Dante and Virgil (anger and fear), nor Virgil's answer.
The Hebrew theory
Some commentators claim that the sentence is phonetic Hebrew, "Bab-e-sciatan, bab-e-sciatan, alep!". This would be the opposite of the sentence that Jesus spoke in the Gospel according to St Matthew 16:18, "...and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it". The meaning of this utterance would be that Hell (Satan) has conquered.
The French theories
There are also two suggestions of translations from French. The first reads: "Pas paix Satan, pas paix Satan, à l'épée" ("No peace Satan, no peace Satan, to the sword"). The second is: "Paix, paix, Satan, paix, paix, Satan, allez, paix!" ("Peace, peace, Satan, peace, peace, Satan, let's go, peace!"). The latter phrase can be interpreted as "Satan, make peace!". Benvenuto Cellini, in his autobiography, reports hearing the phrase in Paris, transliterating it as "Phe phe, Satan, phe phe, Satan, alè, phe" and interpreting it as "Be quiet! Be quiet Satan, get out of here and be quiet."
- This article is partially translated from the Italian Wikipedia.
- Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell: notes on Canto VII, Penguin, 1949, ISBN 0-14-044006-2.
- Mark Musa, Inferno: notes on Canto VII, Penguin, 2002, ISBN 0-14-243722-0.
- Björkesson, Ingvar (2006). Den gudomliga komedin (Divine Comedy), comments by Ingvar Björkesson. Levande Litteratur (in Swedish). Natur & Kultur. p. 425. ISBN 978-91-27-11468-5.
- Italian text from Princeton Dante Project.
- Vittorio Sermonti, Inferno, Rizzoli 2001, p. 134.
- Berthe M. Marti, "A Crux in Dante's Inferno," Speculum, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Jan 1952), pp. 67–70.
- Domenico Guerri, Di alcuni versi dotti nella "Divina Commedia", Città di Castello, 1908
- Philip K. Hitti, "Recent Publications in Arabic or Dealing with the Arabic World," Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Dec 1934), pp. 435–438.
- Ernesto Manara, in Il Propugnatore, 1888.
- Benvenuto Cellini (tr. Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter E. Bondanella), My Life, Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-19-282849-5, p. 262 and note on p. 438.