Virgil’s mysterious signal summons up from the abyss Geryon, the monster of fraud. Before he negotiates with Geryon to carry them down, Virgil sends Dante off to speak to some usurers nearby. In a while, Geryon carries Virgil and Dante down to the next level of Hell.
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Behold the monster with the barbed tail, who flies over mountains and makes waste of walls and weapons! Behold the beast who makes the whole world stink!” These were the words Virgil directed to me as he summoned that creature to come ashore on the nearby bank. Like a great ship, that obscene image of fraud floated closer as it maneuvered its head and chest onto the shore while its tail hung free in the air, swishing from side to side.
It’s face was that of an honest man, serene and calm. But the rest of it was like a great dragon! It had clawed paws that were hairy up to its armpits, and it’s whole body was decorated with flourishes and swirls like a great Persian carpet – but even they never made such a gorgeous thing! Not to mention Arachne. He looked like a fishing boat half in the water and half out; or like how a beaver, up among the drunken Germans, squats before it springs on its prey. So this monstrosity, the worst of creatures, hung there waiting, half in the air and half on the bank. And off in the distance its tail twitched back and forth and looked like a scorpion’s with its venomous stinger.Virgil’s opening lines here relieve the suspense with which the previous canto ended. Having summoned this monster by throwing Dante’s belt off into the Great Abyss, Virgil introduces him in … Continue reading
As I took in this unbelievable sight, Virgil said: “Now we need to leave the path and make our way toward where that evil creature waits.” We moved off to the right and straight over to the edge so we could avoid the burning sand and the flames. When we got to Geryon’s side – that was its name – I could see a little farther on that there were a group of sinners crouched down in the burning sand close to the edge of the abyss. Seeing me looking in that direction, Virgil said: “So that you will have seen all the different sinners on this level, go over there among them and examine their punishment for yourself. But don’t talk to them too long. While you’re over there I’ll negotiate with this thing and ask him to carry us down on his back.”Dante and Virgil had been walking atop the right bank of the Phlegethon where they were protected from the rain of flames. They now get down from that raised bank with the river at their left … Continue reading
I did what he suggested and, all by myself, I went along the outer edge of that seventh circle to where those sinners sat suffering.Recall that this circle is populated by three different groups of sinners, each identified by their posture or movements. The blasphemers lie upon the burning sand face-up as the rain of flames falls … Continue reading Every one of them was wailing loudly as they waved their hands up and down trying to protect themselves from the flames above and the burning sand below. They looked like dogs in the summer heat tormented by fleas: frantically sniffing here, biting there. As I walked near them I looked at their faces, but I didn’t recognize a single one of them. However, what I did see were leather pouches of different colors tied around each one’s neck. Each pouch had a coat of arms on it, and each sinner seemed to feast his eyes on it. While I was examining those pouches, I saw one that was yellow with blue on it and the face of a lion. I saw another purse that was blood-red showing a white goose.
Another sinner had a white moneybag with a fat blue pig on it.Dante now meets the usurers directly and without the mediation of Virgil. Whereas interest is generally viewed as a fee charged for a loan, usury is the practice of charging an exorbitant rate of … Continue reading
That one yelled at me: “What do you think you’re doing here? Get away from here! I can tell that you’re alive, so, let me tell you that my neighbor, Vitaliano, will soon be coming here to sit with me. I’m a Paduan, and I have to sit here with all these Florentines who do nothing but pester me with their shouts: ‘Send down the sovereign knight with three goats on his pouch.’”On several more occasions as they descend deeper into Hell, Dante will be yelled at by angry sinners. This one is the last of the three usurers who were identified by their money bags – Rinaldo … Continue reading At that he stuck out his long tongue at me, like an ox slurping its nose!This is the second time Dante uses animals to describe the usurers – the earlier one was of dogs tormented by fleas – but this gross gesture is not directed at Dante, it seems. Rather, Rinaldo … Continue reading
Now I began to worry that Virgil might get angry at me for staying too long, so I left those sinners sitting there in their frustration. Returning to that strange creature, I saw that my master was already sitting up on top of its back! He hollered down: “Have some courage! From now on this is how we’re going to descend. Get up here in front of me so I can protect you from that poisonous tail.” When I heard that, I became like a man shivering in the cold – and the thought of shade makes him shake worse! In the end, it was just plain shame that made me obey his words – me, a cowardly servant with his brave master.Now we will descend from the Seventh to the Eighth Circle of Hell where fraud in all its forms is punished. It is notable that, in order to get down to the next circle, Dante must actually climb onto … Continue reading
It was awful up there as I squirmed around while straddling that beast’s great shoulders. It was all I could do to cry out: “Hang on to me, for God’s sake!” But no words came out.
And just then, as he had saved me so many times before, my dear Virgil put his arms around me and held me tight. “Get moving, Geryon!” he cried out to the creature. “Go gently and make wide circles. Remember that you’re carrying a living man.”This is a scene of grave danger as the two travelers make the transition from one circle to the next in the only way possible. Virgil’s care and concern for Dante here is heart-warming. In his … Continue reading
Well, you know how a boat backs slowly away from the shore. That’s what Geryon did. And when he was out there in mid-air, he turned completely around, and swishing his tail like an eel he paddled through the air with his hairy paws. I honestly don’t think Phaeton was more frightened when he lost control of the sun’s chariot and burned the Milky Way into the sky. Or, for that matter, Icarus, when his wings began to fall off and he plunged into the sea. And there I was, in mid-air with nothing around us and nothing to hold us up but that monster we sat on!Such an unusual scene, amplified by Dante’s terror, merits nothing less on his part but comparison with great stories from classical mythology. Phaeton, the son of Apollo, begged his father to let … Continue reading
The creature swam along slowly in the dark air, gently spiraling downward. I could tell this only because I could feel the breeze as we moved. And soon, I began to hear the tremendous roar of the waterfall crashing to the ground below us. I leaned over to look down, but that only increased my fright, for now I heard the sounds of moaning down there, and I could see flames. Trembling, I held on for dear life, as the walls of this great abyss began to close in on us.
As we descended, I was reminded of how a falcon, tired from flying and finding no prey, slowly circles and circles before landing instead of swooping down quickly. Just so, Geryon landed at the foot of those jagged cliffs, and once we got down from him he shot off like an arrow.Given the decreasing circumference of the Great Abyss, it would still have been miles across – plenty of room for this tired falcon (Geryon) to slowly, gently spiral downward. At Canto 29:9, … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Virgil’s opening lines here relieve the suspense with which the previous canto ended. Having summoned this monster by throwing Dante’s belt off into the Great Abyss, Virgil introduces him in curt, unflattering terms and, of all the monsters in his Inferno, Dante will shortly describe this one, the most deadly, in the fullest detail by giving us external impressions and physical characteristics.
This is Geryon, the Monster of Fraud, and everything about this creature suggests fraudulence, including the fact that he is not named until line 97. Virgil describes him in global terms of power and force: he flies over mountains, lays waste to anything that would try to stop him, and he makes the whole world stink. Floating up out of the dark abyss, Dante appropriately describes him first as a kind of ship maneuvering the front half of itself – head and chest – onto the shore, while the rest of it, we soon discover, is serpentine or dragon-like, with a venomous tail like a scorpion. Upon closer examination, Dante provides additional details: he has an honest human face, clawed paws and arms like a great beast, and a body covered with designs like an oriental carpet. The mention of Arachne from classical mythology gives an boost to the fabled picture Dante gives us here. Turned into a spider for her presumption easily leads to image of fraud as a web of deceit. No doubt, the Poet also means this three-part creature – human, animal, and reptile – to be a perversion of the Trinity. Apart from symbolism or simply pure fiction, such a three-natured creature would surely be a fraud. And the mix of benignity, power, and death amplify Dante’s descriptions and Virgil’s warnings.
Geryon is variously described in classical mythology as having lived somewhere in or near southern Spain. He has been described as having three heads on one body, sometimes three bodies, and sometimes with many more hands and legs, etc. In the story of the Tenth Labor of Hercules, the hero sets out to take Geryon’s famous herd of red cattle, which he does after killing him. In other stories, Geryon’s kindly face lures strangers into a false sense of hospitable security – only to be murdered by him! Interestingly, though, Dante does not follow any of the major classical threads of the Geryon story. Instead, he creates him from his own imagination, yet seems to follow a general description written in the third century by Solinus in his Collectanea rerum memorabilium (LII,37-38). Describing a fabled creature called a “manticore,” he writes:
“He walks about with the face of a man, the body of a lion, and his tail is spiked as is the stinging tail of a scorpion….He has so much power with his feet and he is able to jump so far that neither the greatest distance nor the broadest barriers can withstand him.”
And from the symbolic perspective, Langdon describes Geryon as:
“the wonderfully drawn symbol of Fraud, the sin of perverted Reason, which is described as stronger by far than all defensive or offensive armor, and as spiritually the most foully corruptive of all classes of sin.”
Finally, the image of a beaver and the mention of drunken Germans seems strange here, but these are simply additional “pokes” at the fraudulent appearance of Geryon. It seems that from the time of the Roman historian, Tacitus, Germanic peoples were depicted as savages, often give to excessive eating and drinking; and the beaver, as a creature of the wilds, adds to the savage atmosphere. This great monster, Geryon, covered with gorgeous decorations, half-docked along the edge of the cliff is like a beaver squatting along some wild stream with its tail in the water to attract fish. Dante wants to see the whole overblown scene as a fraud. That’s what Geryon is.
|↑2||Dante and Virgil had been walking atop the right bank of the Phlegethon where they were protected from the rain of flames. They now get down from that raised bank with the river at their left just before it falls into the Great Abyss in front of them. From there they must have been able to see Geryon below them on the right for Dante to provide such vivid descriptions as he has just done. Interestingly, this is the second of only two places in the Inferno where the Poets turn to the right (the other is in Canto 9 as they approach the City of Dis and the heretics in the fiery tombs). One might think of the two directions in terms of good and evil, upright and wicked, light and dark, etc. Thus, left signifies darkness and evil; right signifying goodness and light. The symbolism of turning to the left in Hell (in Latin, the word for left is sinister) is easy to see because it has also been the “usual” direction the two poets have traveled. Going to the right in the realm of heresy and fraud makes sense in terms of a righteous rejection of the fraud involved in both sins. At this point, Dante actually names the monster for the first time.
There is one final group of sinners against God and Nature in this Seventh Circle that Dante has not yet had contact with – the usurers. It’s curious that he didn’t see them when he was on top of the dyke watching Geryon rise up out of the Abyss. Only when he nears the creature does he notice this other group, and Virgil sends him off – by himself, to find out about them. This will also be the second time Dante has been left on his own with a sinner – the other time was also with the heretic, Farinata in Canto 10. And it’s now that Dante – without comment – learns what he probably would rather not have learned: that they’ll be going down into the Abyss on Geryon’s back!
|↑3||Recall that this circle is populated by three different groups of sinners, each identified by their posture or movements. The blasphemers lie upon the burning sand face-up as the rain of flames falls on them from above. The sodomites run about the plain of burning sand in packs or groups, burned and scorched by the flames. They cannot stop without incurring a worse punishment. And now we meet the usurers, who sit crouched upon the burning sand trying to defend themselves against the rain of flames the best they can.|
|↑4||Dante now meets the usurers directly and without the mediation of Virgil. Whereas interest is generally viewed as a fee charged for a loan, usury is the practice of charging an exorbitant rate of interest, far in excess of what may be allowed by law, and generally enriching the lender at the expense of the one to whom the money is loaned. The moral and ethical principles involved are fairly clear, and the charging of interest is prohibited in the Old Testament (see Exodus 22:24, Leviticus 25:36f). The major religions of the West take a strong view against it, especially when it makes the misery of the already poor and destitute even worse. Because usurers amplify human misery, one might easily think that there is – or should be – a place in Hell for them. However, this is not why Dante puts them here. And though his reasoning is actually quite different from modern thinking, it is fascinating to see the Medieval mind at work here.
Recall that in Canto 11 Dante and Virgil had to stop their descent until they could get used to the terrible stench coming up from the bottom of Hell. Dante urged Virgil to use this temporary stop to explain the structure of Hell, which he was more than happy to do. Basically, Virgil explained, the macro-structure of Hell is a series of nine descending circles, most of which are also divided into sub-sections. The Seventh Circle, which we have been on since Canto 12, is reserved for the sins of violence, and it is divided into three parts where three different sins of violence are punished: (1) violence against others, (2) violence against oneself, and (3) violence against God, Nature, and Art. In this third section of the Seventh Circle, which we have been on since Canto 14, the first group we encountered were the violent against God – blasphemers (Capaneus). Moving along, we came to the second group, those violent against Nature: sodomites (Brunetto Latini and the three noted Florentines). Now we come to the third group, those violent against Art: usurers. Modern readers may be confused by how one sins against Art, and even more confused at how usury is that sin because we tend not to think in these categories anymore. But here is the reasoning.
When God created the Earth, He gave it over to Adam and Eve and told them to be fruitful and multiply. In other words, He turned the work of ongoing creation over to us humans. From here on, Dorothy Sayers’ commentary in her translation of the Inferno is masterful:
“What [Dante] is saying is that there are only two sources of real wealth: Nature and Art – or, as we should put it, Natural Resources and the Labor of Man. The buying and selling of Money as though it were a commodity creates only a spurious wealth, and results in injury to the earth (Nature) and the exploitation of labor (Art). The attitude to men and things which this implies is a kind of blasphemy; since Art derives from Nature, as Nature derives from God, so that contempt of them is contempt of Him” (Penguin Books, 1949).
As for the usurers themselves, Dante does an interesting thing: he does not name them nor does he ask for their names. Their unrecognizableness, of course, is part of their contrapasso, not to mention that their faces cannot be seen because they’re all crouched over looking down at the money bags tied around their necks. Instead, Dante cleverly notes that each money bag has a colorful coat of arms on it, which he describes in sufficient detail that his early readers surely would have identified the family and who the particular usurer was. Three are identified in this way. (1) the yellow and blue with the face of a lion was Catello Gianfigliazzi of Florence; (2) the red with a white goose was Ciappo Ubriachi also of Florence; and (3) the white with a blue pig was Rinaldo Scrovegni of Padua (the famous Scrovegni Chapel in Padua was commissioned by his son, Enrico. It is filled with magnificent frescoes by Giotto). Note how the details of the money bags contrasts with the lack of facial recognition. The sin has erased the sinners’ most prominent human characteristic – their faces. Note also how the designs on the money bags link the usurers subtly with the fraudulent Geryon whose back is covered with designs and decorations.
|↑5||On several more occasions as they descend deeper into Hell, Dante will be yelled at by angry sinners. This one is the last of the three usurers who were identified by their money bags – Rinaldo Scrovegni of Padua. He recognizes that Dante is alive, but not that he’s a Florentine. City rivalry is clear here as this Paduan complains bitterly that he has to sit with Florentines who can’t wait for another of their compatriots to join them. Of course, he does the same thing with Dante, telling him that he can’t wait for his Paduan countryman, Vitaliano, to join him! Note how they all tell on each other. This sinner is identified by early commentators as Vitaliano del Dente, the podestà (mayor or chief magistrate) of Padua in 1307.|
|↑6||This is the second time Dante uses animals to describe the usurers – the earlier one was of dogs tormented by fleas – but this gross gesture is not directed at Dante, it seems. Rather, Rinaldo Scrovegni, the Paduan, directs it to the “sovereign knight” – the prince of Florentine usurers, Giovanni Buiamonte, a public figure who was given the title “knight.”|
|↑7||Now we will descend from the Seventh to the Eighth Circle of Hell where fraud in all its forms is punished. It is notable that, in order to get down to the next circle, Dante must actually climb onto Geryon, the personification of Fraud. While Virgil, who is already mounted on the beast, is careful to keep Dante safe from the beast’s venomous stinger, there is nothing he can do to save his companion from the sheer fright of flying, when such a thing would be unheard of for 600 years! But at least in the face of Fraud – actually upon it – Dante, with honesty, admits his shame and cowardice.|
|↑8||This is a scene of grave danger as the two travelers make the transition from one circle to the next in the only way possible. Virgil’s care and concern for Dante here is heart-warming. In his fright, Dante forgets that his guide can read his mind. Nevertheless, one can picture the two of them, Dante in front embraced by his guardian.|
|↑9||Such an unusual scene, amplified by Dante’s terror, merits nothing less on his part but comparison with great stories from classical mythology. Phaeton, the son of Apollo, begged his father to let him drive the chariot that bore the sun across the sky each day. Apollo refused several times, noting the danger he faced daily, the power of the horses, the experience needed, and the importance of the task. But Phaeton continued to plead until his father relented, and as predicted, the young god was overcome with fright and in his panic lost control of the horses. Letting go of the reins, the chariot careened out of control, scorching the Milky Way into the sky as it flew downward. It would have burned the Earth had not Zeus, at the last minute, struck Phaeton with a lightning bolt and killed him.
Daedalus and his son, Icarus, escaped from Crete by making wings which they fastened to themselves with wax. Warned by his father not to fly so high, Icarus ignored him. The heat of the sun melted the wax fastening his wings, and he plunged to his death in the sea.
Both stories were used as examples of pride in the Middle Ages, and though Dante tells them to describe his fear, it’s clear that pride plays a double role in fraud: the perpetrator is certain that he can “get away with it,” and the victim is tricked by his pride into thinking he’ll never be fooled.
One final point here. On Phaeton’s tomb was this epitaph: “Here Phaeton lies who in the sun god’s chariot fared. And though greatly he failed, more greatly he dared.” While Dante might have thought all was lost, and that like his two referents he would fall to his death in the Great Abyss, he dared greatly in writing his Comedy which to this day he carries like a sun across the sky.
|↑10||Given the decreasing circumference of the Great Abyss, it would still have been miles across – plenty of room for this tired falcon (Geryon) to slowly, gently spiral downward. At Canto 29:9, Virgil will tell Dante that the circumference at that point is 22 miles, though this measurement has to be understood more figuratively than literally. But Dante has some time now to put his senses to work. He feels the breeze on his face (he’s sitting in the forward position), he hears the roar of the waterfall, he leans over and is frightened, he hears the sounds of moaning, and he sees flames. Speaking of flames, modern readers might think of Hell as a burning place because that image is so pervasive in our cultural consciousness. But there isn’t a lot of burning in Dante’s Inferno. The flames he sees in flight are most likely in the eighth section of the Eighth Circle – quite far down, but enough to give him a sense of perspective as they near the place where Geryon will let them off. In Dante’s time, falconry was a popular sport and he would have been acquainted with the movements of those birds well enough to compare a recalcitrant bird’s landing with Geryon’s. Generally, they ascend very quickly and fly in slow wide arcs until they spot some prey and dive down on it. If it sees no prey and the falconer allows the bird to tire instead of bring it back correctly, the bird will slowly descend and land where it wants. Geryon’s fast departure is most likely in counterpoint to his slow ascent at the beginning of this canto. Furthermore, the falcon is lured back to its master’s arm by a twirling device with wings and a piece of meat. Geryon, the personification of fraud, was lured up out of the Abyss by Virgil throwing Dante’s cord over the edge. The creature may have flown off in a huff having been lured down but, in the end, given no reward.|