Virgil and Dante are prevented from entering the City of Dis, but an angel comes to their assistance.
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For a moment I thought Virgil was turning back, and I went cowardly pale. But when he saw the fear in my face, he changed his demeanor.Dante’s state of mind is fragile since the fiends atop the walls of the city told him to turn around and go back – by himself. Watching Virgil for some kind of a sign, he admits his cowardice … Continue reading He stood very still and alert, as though trying to hear something that he couldn’t quite see yet because of the black fog coming off that foul swamp. He was talking to himself quietly: “We were meant to win that fight…if not…no!” Then aloud: “I was assured that we’d always have help. Damn! How much longer is it going to take for him to get here!”
I knew he was battling his own doubts at that moment as he quickly adjusted his words – because they were different from a few moments before. And that’s what made me really anxious now, because of what he left out – and coward me, I gave a worse interpretation to our situation than what he actually meant.What Dante is describing here is no different from a rather common real-life experience. Including half-heard snippets of what Virgil says to himself as he “[battles] his own doubts,” Dante’s … Continue reading So, looking for some reassurance, I asked: “Tell me, has anyone else ever gone all the way down here from up in the first circle, where those souls discover there’s not an ounce of hope for them – ever?”This not-so-innocent question on Dante’s part is a way to get as much information as he can from Virgil as they wait to be rescued from their perilous situation. Recall that when Dante and Virgil … Continue reading
He said: “It’s really quite rare that one of us should undertake this journey. But, as it happens, I was actually down here once before. It wasn’t long after I had died that my spirit was summoned back into my body by that brutish witch, Erichtho.Erichtho was a dreadful Thessalian sorceress mentioned in Lucan’s Pharsalia (Bk VI), summoned by the son of Pompey to discover the outcome of a battle. There are similarities between Lucan’s … Continue reading She could do those kinds of things, and I was sent through these great walls right down to the very bottom of Hell where Judas is, to bring back some treacherous shade. That has to be the lowest, darkest, farthest place from the great sphere that embraces the whole cosmos. So, don’t worry. I know this road very well. Like a stinking moat, this lifeless swamp surrounds the city of sorrow which now, it seems, we can’t enter without a fight.”This story is told with such direct and effective simplicity that one might never suspect that it is a complete fiction on Virgil’s part! And, of course, we’ve already forgotten that the whole of … Continue reading
He told me other things, but I’ve forgotten them because all of a sudden my attention was riveted on the top of that great tower where earlier we had seen the flames. There, writhing in their hellish madness, sprang up the three Furies! Their blood-stained bodies and gestures were those of women. Bunches of green hydras wound themselves around their waists, and horned snakes and other serpents writhed around their heads like hair!
Virgil knew immediately who they were and grabbed me, crying: “Look up there! The terrible Furies! The one on the left is Megaera, that raving one on the right is Alecto, and the one in the middle is Tisiphone.”Having been confronted by the fiends atop the walls of Dis, Dante being told to go back alone, and Virgil having the gate slammed in his face – one might think that was enough upset for now. The … Continue reading
We stood there gaping at them as they smacked themselves with their flailing hands and tore their breasts with their sharp nails. Frightened to death, I huddled close to Virgil as they shrieked at us: “Come, Medusa, come now! We’ll turn that living one to stone. We were mistaken to let Theseus escape from us so easily!”Having been unsuccessful in scaring Dante and Virgil away, a last-ditch effort of the fiends is to call on the Furies to do the job. When they arrive, frightening as they are, they summon the … Continue reading
Fast as a wink: “Quickly! Do as I say – quickly! Turn around and cover your eyes! If Medusa should really come and you see her – you would never return to your world!” These were Virgil’s panicked words as he grabbed me and turned me around himself. And he didn’t trust me – he put his own hands over mine to keep my eyes covered. Let me tell you, all of you who have sound minds: I hope you clearly understand the meaning behind what I’m trying to tell you here.This is the climactic scene that brings the first part of the Inferno to a close. The apparition of the Furies was frightening enough, but to bring Medusa out would literally turn Dante and Virgil to … Continue reading
Then, still blind-folded like this, all Hell broke loose! The frightening sound of a great blast shot through the foul air, exploding, making everything shake. It was like when hot and cold elements in the air clash together creating great winds that rage unchecked through the forests, blasting everything in front of them, raising tons of dust, and chasing away every living thing in front of them! Once it had passed, Virgil uncovered my eyes and said, relieved: “It’s OK to turn around now. Look over there into that ancient slough where the black mist is thickest. Can you see him?”Dante’s description here is wonderful. Though he never actually sees what he describes, his words convey the reality of the power that is on its way. As with a raging hurricane, nothing can stop … Continue reading
As when a snake slithers across a pond and all the frogs dive to the bottom for safety, so I saw thousands of fear-stricken spirits flee before the path of that shining one who walked dry-shod above the murky Styx. Waving his left hand in front of his face, and looking preoccupied, he fanned away the fetid air. I was certain that he was an angel sent from Heaven to rescue us, and I turned to look at Virgil. He didn’t say anything; he just made a sign to keep quiet and bow down in holy respect.Virgil points Dante in the direction of the thickest fog along the Styx, perhaps to say that even the black fog of sin and evil is no barrier to the light and power of God. And sure enough, that … Continue reading
My! What an image of disgust and scorn! As he reached the gate, he touched his wand to it and it opened without any resistance. Standing there looking upward, his voice was deep and magnificent: “You outcasts of Heaven! Vile souls! What cursed insolence has overcome you that you should think to resist the Will you cannot fight? It has increased your suffering more than once. Eternal fools! Why toy with your fate? Think well on your Cerberus, who still bears the marks on his chin and throat for fighting against that Will.” At that, he turned around and glided back across the Styx without as much as a word to us. As before, he had the look of one whose concerns called him elsewhere.The angel obviously passes close to Dante and Virgil as he approaches the gate to Dis with the scornful look still on his face. With a wand in his right hand (he had been fanning his face with his … Continue reading
With the gate now opened and the angel’s words as surety, we moved into the City of Dis without further opposition. Freed from earlier anxiety, I looked forward now to exploring this place and the state of the souls imprisoned within it. Letting my eyes wander here and there, I saw, spreading out everywhere, a land rife with pain and anguish.
Do you know how, at Arles where the Rhone flows, or at Pola near the Gulf of Quarnero, all the sarcophagi are spread out here and there all over those cemeteries? It was the same here inside the gates here, except there was a crueler purpose to the tombs we saw lying everywhere. This cemetery was on fire! The scattered flames made the tombs glow red-hot – far more than any forge would need.
The lid of each tomb was pushed off to one side, and such terrible screams came out of them that I was sure there were burning souls inside. I asked Virgil: “My Master, what spirits are in there, where the very stone cries out their presence in such notes of pain?”
“These are arch-heretics of every sect, along with all their followers. There are more souls than you’d believe crammed into these tombs – like buried with like – and the tombs burn according to the gravity of their heresy.”Once inside the gates of Dis – Hell proper – we enter the Sixth Circle of Hell. For a moment, there’s a palpable sense of relief after the struggle to get in, and Dante, the ever-curious … Continue reading
Then we moved on to the right, walking between the tombs and the high walls.
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Dante’s state of mind is fragile since the fiends atop the walls of the city told him to turn around and go back – by himself. Watching Virgil for some kind of a sign, he admits his cowardice here. Virgil is preoccupied with his own fears, though, and when he sees the fear in Dante’s face, he returns to “guide mode” and puts on a face of assurance.|
|↑2||What Dante is describing here is no different from a rather common real-life experience. Including half-heard snippets of what Virgil says to himself as he “[battles] his own doubts,” Dante’s fear (and cowardice) increase because of what he hasn’t heard and because of Virgil’s change when he sees Dante looking at him. This raises the reader’s anxiety as well.|
|↑3||This not-so-innocent question on Dante’s part is a way to get as much information as he can from Virgil as they wait to be rescued from their perilous situation. Recall that when Dante and Virgil first entered Limbo in Canto 4, Dante was curious to know the opposite of what he’s asking here. He inquired of Virgil whether any souls had ever gotten out, that is, gone upward, not further down. Virgil replied by telling him about the Harrowing of Hell by Christ. Right now, this is both a leading, and an important, question.|
|↑4||Erichtho was a dreadful Thessalian sorceress mentioned in Lucan’s Pharsalia (Bk VI), summoned by the son of Pompey to discover the outcome of a battle. There are similarities between Lucan’s story and Virgil’s story here. And Lucan’s story has similarities with the biblical story of the Witch of Endor, asked by King Saul to summon the spirit of the Prophet Samuel for similar advice in 1 Sam. 28. And in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid, the Sibyl tells Aeneas that she has been in the underworld before. What a wealth of similarities!|
|↑5||This story is told with such direct and effective simplicity that one might never suspect that it is a complete fiction on Virgil’s part! And, of course, we’ve already forgotten that the whole of Dante’s poem is a fiction, which has been his intention all along. Apart from her power to summon up souls of the dead, Virgil tells Dante that Erichtho could reunite those souls with their bodies, something quite contrary to later Christian theology. One might ask just why this was necessary in a place where the entire population were spirits. Virgil is a shade as he guides Dante along his journey. Was his body taken away again when he finished Erichtho’s task? All of this, of course, adds to the mystique surrounding Virgil in the Middle ages, where he was already highly regarded for his epic poem, but he was also considered to be both a magician and a prophet who foretold the coming of Christ in one of his poems.|
|↑6||Having been confronted by the fiends atop the walls of Dis, Dante being told to go back alone, and Virgil having the gate slammed in his face – one might think that was enough upset for now. The two travelers have been waiting for the divine assistance that will gain them admission into the City of Dis, and Virgil has filled the time with assuring stories intended to bring some sense of calm over the frightened Dante. What more could happen? Something so dangerous that it could end the poem right here! But the momentary calm is shattered by the arrival of the Furies atop the tower where earlier Dante and Virgil had seen the signal flames. Dante describes them for us wonderfully before Virgil names them. The Furies, also known as the Eumenidies or the Erinyes, are frightening primordial characters from Greek and Roman mythology, found most often as avenging goddesses (thus their name) who pursue and torment those who have committed terrible crimes. They are perfect personifications of remorse and guilt. Some commentators see in these infernal women a parody of the three blessed ladies (Mary, Lucy, and Beatrice) who came to Dante’s help in Canto 2, and even a parody of the Trinity. Megara is often referred to as “the jealous one,” Alecto is the goddess of “unceasing anger,” and Tisiphone is the “voice of revenge.” And to add to their classical attire they’re accessorized with dreadful poisonous serpents and (Dante leaves this out) they had bat wings. Wild with rage, like the fiends who summoned them, they beat and tear at themselves.|
|↑7||Having been unsuccessful in scaring Dante and Virgil away, a last-ditch effort of the fiends is to call on the Furies to do the job. When they arrive, frightening as they are, they summon the ultimate weapon: Medusa. While she is one of the most terrifying figures in classical mythology, it is this feature that probably makes her one of the most recognizable, with her severed head frozen in the shriek of a savage death and her head covered with writhing serpents. Anyone who dared look at her was literally petrified – they were turned to stone! Before all of this, however, she was apparently a beautiful woman who was raped by Neptune in the temple of Athena. Furious at this sacrilege, the goddess changed her into a near monster. She was killed by Perseus who cut off her head. One has to admire how Dante structures this canto with moments of confrontation followed by calm, with numerous characters from classical mythology popping up to cause additional tension and fright. The mention of Theseus brings another classical story to the fore. There are several stories in classical mythology about Theseus. Proserpina was abducted by Pluto and taken into the underworld. In order to steal her back Theseus accompanied his friend Pirithous went into the underworld to find her. Pluto killed Pirithous, but spared Theseus by keeping him seated on the Chair of Forgetfulness. In the story Dante appears to be familiar with, Theseus was rescued by Hercules, much to the regret of the Furies who intended to kill him. Thus their “fury” over the mistake they made in not killing him sooner.|
|↑8||This is the climactic scene that brings the first part of the Inferno to a close. The apparition of the Furies was frightening enough, but to bring Medusa out would literally turn Dante and Virgil to stone and bring the heaven-willed journey to a full stop right here. Furthermore, this final desperate act on the part of the fiends suggests somewhat the opposite, that instead of desperation, what is needed to penetrate the walls of Dis is fortitude, grace, and strength of will. This is the subtle (or not so subtle) message that Dante hopes his readers will understand when he literally steps off this speeding train for a moment to address us personally. But there is more. In the frenzy of terror that ensues, and we almost miss this, Virgil abandons all sense of decorum and becomes so protective of Dante that he grabs the gaping pilgrim, turns him around and tells him to cover his eyes. And not trusting him, Dante tells us that Virgil put his own hands over Dante’s hands as though to doubly protect him. There is a great deal to be amazed at in this scene, but there is also something troubling. Not only does Virgil fail to trust that heavenly assistance is on the way, but he actually steps back into the mythical story of Medusa and so completely believes it that he does everything he can to protect Dante from what is only a fiction. Medusa is often a symbol of utter despair and hopelessness, and if she’s affected anyone it’s Virgil whose main symbolic role in the poem is that of human reason at its highest. Divine assistance is needed more than ever at this moment because Dante cannot see – literally and figuratively, and because the Furies and Medusa represent an unrecoverable despair that overcomes the weak soul and, like Dante at the beginning of Canto 1, drive it down into the dark forest. Moreover, even Dante’s “pagan” guide seems to have lost faith. Dante the poet steps out of the poem to help us grasp this – and to have faith that help is on the way.|
|↑9||Dante’s description here is wonderful. Though he never actually sees what he describes, his words convey the reality of the power that is on its way. As with a raging hurricane, nothing can stop it. At the sound of it, the old Virgil seems to return as he points Dante in the right direction – which, at its best, human reason should always do. Keep in mind that after he and Virgil got out of the boat in the previous canto and approached the gates of Dis, Dante has never actually moved. He’s been like a stationary camera recording everything that happens – and there has been plenty of action. The fiends from atop the walls screamed at them and told him to go back out of Hell alone; Virgil attempted to negotiate, but they slammed the gates in his face; the Furies appeared; they threatened to bring Medusa; Dante was turned around and “blindfolded”; and now this great blast announces the long-awaited divine assistance.|
|↑10||Virgil points Dante in the direction of the thickest fog along the Styx, perhaps to say that even the black fog of sin and evil is no barrier to the light and power of God. And sure enough, that light walks, perhaps he glides, across the swamp sending waves of fear into those who thought they could prevent what was heaven-ordained. The connection with Jesus walking across the water, recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John, to both the fright and amazement of his disciples comes to mind here. The preoccupied (bored?) look and waving hand give us a clever sense of the angel’s disgust at the smell of this place. But when Dante turns to Virgil, he’s told to stay silent and bow down in respect. As we’ll see, he keeps quiet, but he kept looking.|
|↑11||The angel obviously passes close to Dante and Virgil as he approaches the gate to Dis with the scornful look still on his face. With a wand in his right hand (he had been fanning his face with his left) he touches the gate and it simply opens without further ado. Before the angel departs, he rebukes the startled fiends for thinking they could resist the power of God. And, fascinating, even the angel reverts to mythology as he reminds those wicked spirits that “your Cerberus” still has a skinned chin and throat for having tried what they’ve tried. What is this about? As noted earlier, when Theseus and Pirithous went into the underworld to rescue Persephone, Pluto killed Pirithous but he spared Theseus. Hercules rescued Theseus, chained up Cerberus and dragged him out of the underworld, skinning his chin and throat in the process.
Now with all the high drama over, set before the closed Gate to the City of Dis, pitting the forces of Hell against Dante and Virgil, featuring a cast that included hellish fiends, the Furies, Medusa, references to Theseus and Cerberus, and a powerful angel, the gate is miraculously opened and the two travelers are left standing there alone and speechless. With all the screaming threats that came from the fiends and the Furies and the angel’s rebuke, one might think there would be some words from the angel to Dante and Virgil. No, he simply turns around and leaves. But why is this? Because the angel’s role is really allegorical. He enters this drama in order to reenact an earlier one: the drama of Christ breaking down the gates of Hell after his death and bringing up all the souls of the just who, since the sin of Adam and Eve, awaited their release. Virgil had explained this in Limbo. With his part done, the angel leaves and the two travelers continue on their journey.
|↑12||Once inside the gates of Dis – Hell proper – we enter the Sixth Circle of Hell. For a moment, there’s a palpable sense of relief after the struggle to get in, and Dante, the ever-curious pilgrim, scans the landscape. Whether or not he had ever been to Arles or Pola, or heard about them from travelers, the ancient Roman cemeteries there serve as perfect models for the one he sees here. As in those necropolises so here, many large open sarcophagi fill the grounds. Except, as Dante notes, these serve a “crueler purpose.” The open tombs are red hot, fiery, and filled with screaming souls. Ironically, as in the world above cemeteries house dead bodies, this one houses dead souls. This is a huge cemetery for heretics, Virgil tells Dante, housing “more souls than you’d believe,” he says (and this time it’s Virgil who does the counting). It should be noted here that by “heretic”(in the religious sense) Dante isn’t referring to those who propound teachings contrary to accepted doctrines or dogmas. For Dante, a heretic is one who denies the immortality of the soul. In his Convivio (II, vii, 8) he writes: “I say that of all stupidities that is the most foolish, the basest, and the most pernicious, which believes that after this life there is no other; for if we turn over all the scriptures both of the philosophers and of the other sage writers, all agree in this that within us there is a certain part that endures.” Thus, as the contrapasso here, these immortal souls are buried forever in tombs or monuments that, in the world above, would be reserved for those who believe in the resurrection of the body and the ultimate reunion of the body and the immortal soul. Since they believed that the soul dies with the body, the tomb was the end of life. And so here in Hell they’ve buried themselves forever.
Technically speaking, inside the walls of Hell proper is where premeditated sins of violence and fraud are punished. This Sixth Circle houses heretics who are (usually) not given to violence or fraud. Nor is heresy a sin of the flesh like those punished in previous circles. Rather, heresy, one might say, is a sin of the mind, and therefore it’s punished on the outer edge of Hell proper between the sins of the flesh and those of premeditated violence. One might say it is a sort of Limbo of lower hell, insofar as the word limbo means “edge.” But, while the souls in Canto 4 did not suffer physical torment, these in the following cantos will suffer terrible physical punishments.