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Art and Images in Psychiatry
March 2003

The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2003;60(3):229. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.60.3.229

WILLIAM BLAKE'S (1757-1827) last and perhaps most beautiful illustrations were his 102 drawings and 9 etchings for Dante's Divine Comedy. Blake was commissioned to do them after finishing his engravings of The Book of Job.1 Blake's illustrations, rather than his poems, may be his most enduring legacy. At age 67 years, he taught himself medieval Italian in preparation for illustrating The Divine Comedy. Blake is mostly true to Dante's story, although he is in dialogue with him and brings his own religious views to the task, shown by his marginal notes on the illustrations.2,3 Because Blake reported religious visions, those who did not know him well sometimes questioned his sanity; his defenders, however, thought the visions were the products of an active imagination. Indeed, Blake saw the imagination as the spiritual sense.

Dante portrays an afterlife in which the damned can neither change nor repent, where death brings intense eternal punishment. Blake was disturbed by the violence, vengeance, and vindictiveness that were expressed in Dante's Inferno; he sought to juxtapose vengeance with forgiveness. In some illustrations, Blake depicts Dante's characters as capable of genuine repentance and receiving forgiveness even after death—the same forgiveness that Dante desired for himself.3

Lack of forgiveness is strikingly demonstrated in the regions of hell reserved for the violent: those expressing violence toward others (tyrants), the self (self-murderers), or God (blasphemy). Minos, who assigns the levels in the Inferno, sends these souls to the seventh and eighth of the 9 circles of hell. Particularly severe is the seventh circle, described in canto XIII. Here the plight of those who commit suicide, depicted in Blake's Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides, is shown. Historically, suicide resulting from despair was viewed as a crime against both God and Man—an unforgivable sin. This view was not apparent until after the fourth century and followed the teaching of St Augustine: the perpetrator of a suicide denied the divine regulation of mortality.

William Blake (1757-1827), English. The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides, 1824-1827. Illustration to Hell, Canto 13 of Dante's Divine Comedy. Watercolor. Copyright Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY.

William Blake (1757-1827), English. The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides, 1824-1827. Illustration to Hell, Canto 13 of Dante's Divine Comedy. Watercolor. Copyright Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY.

In the illustration, Dante (red) and Virgil (blue) are led by Nessus, the Centaur, to the Wood. Dante hears moaning but cannot detect its origin until Virgil proposes that he break off a twig from a tree. The tree bleeds and cries out in pain as its branch falls to the ground. Looking closer, we see that the forms of souls are embedded in these thorn trees, thrown helter-skelter, some right side up, others upside down, as is the woman in the tree to Dante's right. The Suicides have been uprooted from their bodies and are now randomly dispersed. Their tender leaves are eaten daily by Harpies (half woman, half vulture), who are shown in the treetops. Harpies are akin to the Furies, who in early Greek mythology snatched out the soul when commanded to do so by the gods. The Self-Murderers, having fallen into the material world and having committed a seemingly senseless act, are punished by constant pain—a part of themselves dying each day only to regrow and be destroyed.

Dante is overcome with pity and cannot speak, signaling Virgil to question Pier delle Vigne, embedded in the tree facing him. Pier, a trusted advisor to Frederick II of Sicily, was regarded in Dante's time as a medieval Judas for betraying his patron; the Biblical Judas' hanging himself was a greater sin than his betrayal.4 When apprehended, Pier was blinded and jailed; he killed himself to avoid more slander and scorn from those who had been envious of his former position. Using gentle speech, Virgil elicits his story and Pier asks Dante to restore his reputation.

The utter hopelessness for those who commit suicide is documented in this canto when Virgil asks "if from such limbs one ever is set free."4(p245) Pier responds that the body can never be reclaimed; even at the time of the Last Judgment, the Self-Murderer cannot return to his or her body but must drag that soulless body to the tree and hang it on the thorns, where its painful Shade resides.

Although suicide is no longer legally a crime and now tends to be viewed as a way of dying rather than a way of killing, the act continues to be stigmatized. Harwood et al5 studied bereavement following suicide and other causes of death in elderly patients using the Grief Experience Scale and the Montgomery-Åsberg Depression Rating Scale. Although there was no difference in depression scores between the 2 groups, ratings for stigmatization, shame, and a sense of rejection were significantly different in those bereaved by suicide, suggesting that these areas should specifically be addressed in therapy.

Suicide has many motives; sometimes it is rationally planned or is a response to painful emptiness, hopelessness, or physical pain. It may occur as an irrational impulse or angry reaction or have no explanation at all. Such motives need to be discussed and understood. Blake's prescription for forgiveness is critical for family and friends who survive, and Virgil's gentle questioning at times of despair may engage the distraught person and perhaps prevent a fatal act. Still, suicide continues to be stigmatized; an understanding of societal attitudes and the specific beliefs and special counseling needs of those bereaved by untimely death is essential to their care.

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