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.