The Inferno (Hell) is the first part of The Divine Comedy, followed by the Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven). It is a classic Christian theological text that uses strong poetic imagination and allegorical allusion. Though originally written in Italian between 1308 and 1321 AD, the work is widely translated and its themes are drawn upon by generations of writers since. Written in first person narrative, the comedy is about the imaginative events and experiences of Dante (and his companion poet Virgil) as he traverses through Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso in his afterlife. Dante meets both mythological and real people during his long voyage. He also comes across mythological creatures that pose moral dilemmas and questions to him. By successfully resolving such challenges, Dante (and by extension anyone with faith in Christ) steadily attains spiritual salvation. The rest of this essay will dwell on the mythological creatures and the nature of their interaction with Dante and Virgil through the Inferno.
The first part of Inferno begins on the eve of Good Friday in the year 1300. The world of the Inferno is dangerous and dark. Dante is lost in a thick forest (a symbol for sin) and he is haunted by wild carnivorous beasts such as lions and wolfs. As Dante suffers in despair, the ancient poet Virgil comes to his rescue. Together, both of them seek repentance for their sins. Their sins are broadly classified under self-indulgent sins (lust, gluttony, wrath and greed), violent sins and malicious sins (dishonesty and treason). (Alvarez 89) Having successfully negotiated the diabolical challenges in this hellish underground, Dante and Virgil move on to the gates of the City of Dis in Canto 8, where
“more than a thousand devils bar their entrance. Since hostility and unwillingness to co-operate are defining traits of infernal creatures, Dante and Virgil are not surprised that their progress has been impeded once again. The first creature to block their way was Charon, followed by the infernal judge Minos. In both of these cases the opposition was overcome easily enough with words uttered like a magic formula.” (Pugliese, 2005, p. 175)
The next mythic creature that Dante and Virgil encounter is Geryon. Taken from Greek mythology, Geryon was vanquished in battle by Hercules. Geryon is one among several classical monsters that were defeated by the superior skill and power of Hercules. As Virgil describes in Inferno Canto 6, Geryon is a ‘triple-bodied hybrid’. By virtue of this physique, “Dante metamorphoses Geryon into a fantastic creature like the classical Chimera (Oion, goat, and serpent), mentioned along with Geryon in the same Canto” (Alighieri, 1996, p. 272) Geryon is described in the 10th Canto through these dramatic opening lines ‘Behold the beast the whole world stink’. This opening signifies the threat and mysteriousness surrounding the creature from the sea. This unusual canto opening points to the fact that, like Cantos 8 and 9, “it forms a major transition between divisions of Hell, for we now move from the circle of violence to the two circles of fraud (simple fraud and treacherous fraud.” (Alighieri, 1996, p. 268) Dante makes it clear that Geryon is a manifestation of fraud. The magnitude of this fraud is such that it renders powerless physical barriers and protections such as walls, armour and even mountains. Geryon’s scorpion-like tail is full of poison. Here poison is a metaphor for deception and fraud. The opposing virtues are truth and genuineness.
The three headed dog-like creature Cerberus poses a tough challenge to Dante and his companion during their spiritual quest. Cerberus guards the third circle of Hell and devours on those spirits which are guilty of gluttony. Dante’s description of Cerberus is taken after its original imagination by Virgil in Aeneid. Consequently, the three headed dog-like creature that guards the entrance of the third circle. It has an intimidating presence, accompanied by a loud growl and with snakes rising from its neck. His three throats produce
“a deafening bark, and he eagely devours like a dog intent on his meal – the fistful of dirt that Virgil throws into his mouths” Other features of Cerberus, such as his red eyes, greasy black beard, large gut, and clawed hands perhaps link him to the gluttonous spirits who suffer in the sixth circle” (Raffa, 2007, p. 40)
One of the unfortunate gluttons meted out punishment in the third circle is Ciacco, who rises up and acknowledges Dante as an inhabitant of Florence. Using his powers of prophecy Ciacco predicts that there were to be an epic battle between the two political factions of the ancient city, with the victory first going to white Guelphs, only to be squandered to the opposing black Guelphs in three years. After giving Dante the identities of other Florentines who are languishing in other circles of Hell, Ciacco “falls back to the ground, not to rise again until the Last Judgment at the end of time.” (Raffa, 2007, p. 39) Having the obstacle of Ciacco thus removed, Dante and Virgil march on to other circles.
The winged creature representing Florence is another terrifying encounter for Virgil and Dante. This reptilian nature of this winged dragon is noted from the description “he who possesses the sea, the land and the whole globe”. (Alighieri, 1996, p. 406)
Plutus is another creature which Dante and Virgil encounter on their long journey through the circles of Inferno. Like Cerberus, Plutus is also a hybrid representing the vice of greed. It is hence coined the God of Wealth. Plutus possesses “the power of speech and the ability to understand Virgil’s dismissive words, while at the same time displaying animal features and a distinctly bestial rage.” (Raffa, 2007, p. 46) The wolf-like Plutus that informs Satan that Dante and Virgil are approaching the fourth circle. Virgil confronts Plutus valorously and silences him temporarily, which allows the duo to pass through unhurt. Herein arrives an enlightenment for Dante as he witnesses a
“multitude of shades damned for the sin of avarice (holding wealth too tightly) or its opposite, prodigality (spending too freely). The two groups push heavy boulders with their chests around a circle in opposite directions: when the avaricious and the prodigal collide, they turn and, after casting insults at one another, repeat the journey in the other direction.” (Raffa, 2007, p. 45)
This scene so disgusts Dante that he loses track of individual identities of the shades fighting. It is the ever alert Virgil who notes the “presence of many clerics, including cardinals and popes, among the avaricious. He also explains to Dante the divine role of Fortuna in human affairs.” (Raffa, 2007, p. 45)