The themes of Inferno by Dante Allighieri is an embodiment of the perspective on the universality of Christianity and classical mythology to portray not only the journey of death, but also the journey of real life. As a part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, it is valued as one of the most important works of Italian literature, and is considered as the most distinguished Western literature classic as well. This paper focuses on specific features of classic mythology and Christianity as a branch that representing religion as a whole to illuminate the allegory in Inferno.
The mixture of classical mythology can be connected to a variety of aspects. First, rich antique imagery and myths in The Divine Comedy despite its general pro-Christian orientation are difficult to place on the epoch scale which this epic poem belongs to. The literary professionals of Divine Comedy see both the features of Medieval and Renaissance epochs in it. Dante was born on the intersection of two epochs that can be one of the reasons of his unique style of writing. These features that are related to the common worldview of the people of that time, such as the importance of the Catholic Church in Europe, therefore rejecting any displays of human individuality, propagating that all people are equal before God, as well as the notion of the epoch of Renaissance when the man becomes the center of the universe.
There are characters of all times, worlds and beliefs represented in this poem. According to the plot, Dante meets Virgil first. What does this character mean to the audience? Virgil means the encounter of Christianity with antiquity. Dante is an allegory of the entire humanity that is desperately looking for the “right way.” Virgil is an embodiment of world wisdom for he is Dante’s guide and constantly comments and explains all infernal events to him. Virgil who is not Christian (pagan) plays the role reserved for angels in “dream visions”, poetic genre of the Middle Ages. Though The Divine Comedy is represented as a dream, it has nothing in common with a dream vision. The characters are not divine, neither Virgil himself nor the following myth characters: Charon, the ferryman of the livid fen, three Furies who with the greenest hydras were begirt and Cerberus, monster cruel and uncouth. The character of Virgil is full of suggestions. He is a philosopher, the Christ’s prophet and an allegory of human mind. He also has a kind of dramatic meaning. Virgil lost all hopes to contemplate God. His soul is, therefore, very sad at the end of the journey.
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The structure of Inferno is the next aspect worth considering. The structure of Dante’s hell reflects the ancient mythological idea of Hades, the kingdom of death. Antique Hades consists of three levels: Asphodel meadows (limbo), with souls doomed to the eternal wandering, Elysian fields, where the souls just dwell and Tartars – the place of punishment for sinners and evildoers (Ixion, Sisyphus, Tantalus, and Tityos). According to Greek mythology, Hades was the third son of god Cronus and goddess Rhea. He was a God and a ruler of the underworld. He sat on the golden throne with his wife Persephone. His house was surrounded by the impenetrable gateway from which he had the key. The gate was guarded by the dog named Cerberus. This dog let everybody in but did not let anybody out. Hades possessed some domain in the form of dull fields with bare trees. The souls of dead people dwelt in these fields. There was no sigh of joy or sun there. Comparing to mythological Hades, the Inferno of this poem is a bit different. All the Infernal ghosts and monsters are afraid of heaven’s powers, God and angels. Comparing to that, Hades and his court are much more powerful than gods living in the Olympus. The other features are similar. Both Inferno and Hades according to classical mythology are encircled nine times by the sacred river Styx. The Styx joins Cocytus, the river of tears that flows into Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. To get into Hades one should wait on the Acheron bank for the boat, that is ruled by demon Charon, the old man. The trip was not free – each soul had to pay a coin to get to another bank of the river. When one had no money or was alive, he or she was not allowed to get into the boat.
The origins of Dante’s Inferno can be found in Homer’s books. Homer knew about the entrance to the Kingdom of the Death, deep down within the bowels of the Earth. Homer’s books contain the main elements of the classical mythological description of Hades. In particular, he mentions the Hades guardian dog (The Odyssey, book VIII), he mentions a meadow full of asphodel where dwell the souls and the shadows of them that can labor no more (The Odyssey, book XXIV); rivers Cocytus, Pyriphlegeton, Styx and Acheron (The Odyssey, book X), and Tartars (The Iliad, book VIII). These elements are typical for classical description of Hades as mentioned above. Homer, Plato and Virgil also reflect Greek notions about the trial on the sinners in their works. Especially, detailed description of trial is given in Virgil’s Aeneid. There we meet Minos, the judge. According to classical mythology Minos was a son of Zeus and Europa, a king of Crete. After his death, Minos turned into a judge of the dead in the netherworld. In Inferno Minos became more evil looking with having a snake-like tail. In order to judge souls he circles his tail around his body the appropriate number of times. Undoubtedly topography of Inferno is borrowed from ancient poets too (especially Virgil), but there are some specific details in the Divine Comedy. Burning and bloody river Pyriphlegeton, harpies in the “suicidal forest”, Cerberus, and angry Furies on the walls of Dite are among these details. Homer and Virgil’s pit of hell is depicted within mythological notions from antique times. The Divine Comedy though is based on the western Middle Ages doctrine of extramundane world. The hell is structured according to the legend that when Lucifer was falling from the Heaven, he pulled few more angels along with him. He fell into the ground and stuck in there shaping the crater that had become the Hell. This poem shows the Hell, not as a place of suffering only. The spirits in Dante’s Inferno can talk, move, feel different emotions, but they are always making circles. It shows that life goes on in the Hell, but with different decorations.
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The poem shows a combination of antique and Christian themes. In the Canto 14, Dante speaks of the origin of water flows of Inferno. This description is very interesting and a very typical one. First three lines describe the island of Crete and its famous mountain Ida, on which Rhea saved Zeus from the death (it is a well-known fact of ancient mythology that Cronus, the husband of Rhea used to eat his own children. Zeus was saved by a miracle). But the next lines resemble the Christian story of king’s Nebuchadnezzar dream. Nevertheless, the poem is trying to tell something else. This grand old man means the humanity that went through golden, silver, copper and iron ages. His feet are kiln-baked clay that means the unstable contemporary conditions of humanity.
The classical mythology is based on the stories of ancient gods, heroes, different creatures and ordinary people. Inferno is also full of different creatures, good and evil. Basically, each circle has its guardian (Charon, Cerberus, Minos, Plutos etc.) and/or chastener (demons, centaurs, harpies etc.), and in the first circle we meet Charon and Minos as the guardians. They are both mythological characters. Charon, as mentioned earlier is a ferryman, meanwhile Minos is a judge, sitting in judgment on the dead. In the third circle, there goes Cerberus, the angry monster. In the fourth circle, the guardian is Plutos. In the fifth circle, the guardian is Phlegyas. The entrance to the sixth circle is guarded by Furies. Next, the seventh circle is guarded by Minotaur. The chasteners are centaurs and harpies. In the eighths circle, the guardian is Geryon, a fearsome giant. The chasteners of the eighths circle are demons. In the last ninth circle, the guardians are giants. The poem shows that myth characters can coexist with devils from the Bible. Together with Christian demons and devils there are antique giants, centaurs, minotaurs, harpies, furies, judge Minos, ferryman Charon, dog Cerberus etc. There are giants in Malebolge who wanted to win the heaven according to the antique tradition. Together with antique heroes we meet biblical king Nimrod who planned to build the Tower of Babel. All these martyrs suffer for one sin – the pride for their desire to be equal to God.
At the same time, such characters as Charon, Cerberus, Minos, and Minotaur are transformed into the devils that punish the sinners. For instance, one of the circles is guarded by Cerberus. This is a myth character – a dog with the three heads. He is turned into the demon with three heads in the poem, combining animal and human features.
The poem shows the most of its mythological characters in the first two circles of Inferno. In the first circle Dante meets the great poets of the antiquity: Homer, Horace, Lucan, Ovid, and Virgil. He meets there Roman and Greek heroes Aeneas, Electra, Hector, Lavinia with her father Latin, and Penthesilea,an Amazonian queen. He also meets there the scientists, poets and doctors: Anaxagoras Aristotle, Averroes, Avicenna, Democritus, Diogenes, Empedocles, Euclid, Heraclites, Hippocrates, Orpheus, Plato, Ptolemy, Socrates, Seneca, and Zeno.
On entering the gate of Inferno he comes into the limb. There souls dwell that could not recognize “true God”. Comparing to the catholic tradition, limb was a place for sinners who repented of their sins before they died. After purifying trials they get access to heaven – a place where pure souls are). Poem’s Limb resembles Greek Elysium, blessed country of beauty, happiness and peace. Souls of just do not suffer there; they can lead their conversations wisely and peacefully. Nevertheless Virgil regrets a lot that he did not know God, “For such defects, and not for other guilt; lost are we and are only so far punished; that without hope we live on in desire." (Dante 57) These words show one of the particular features of Greek world-view. To Socrates the biggest immorality was ignorance for the knowledge was equal to the good. Wise men were considered to be unable of doing evil things. Virgil therefore is so upset they did not know Christianity.
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In the second circle, Dante meets Semiramis, Dido, Helen of Troy, Achilles and Paris. There the poem places those sinners who were guilty of their love or lust. There is Dido who committed suicide because of her love to Aeneas, and Helen of Troy, whose love to Paris led to the collapse of Troy. The poem shows that ancient Greeks did not relate lust to something bad. Ancient understanding of morale was reduced to the natural law. The most important virtues were wisdom, moderation, justice and fortitude. Moral ideas of ancient Greeks were cult of pleasures (hedonism), cult of joy, and the moral of duty and of moderateness. The highest moral was that of Socrates and Plato – they appreciate the notion of good the most. Plato tried to explain people that death is good if the man lives wisely and righteously and it means evil and sufferings if he behaves unrighteous and unwisely.
To conclude the entire poem’s commentary about classical mythology, we can say it is quite ambiguous. On the one hand, this mythology is showed as defective for it is deprived of the knowledge of the truth. On the other hand, we can notice that mythology played an important role in ancient Greeks’ life. Dante’s poem helps to make the whole picture of the ancient point of view clear. It also helps to interpret classical mythology in a new, more Christian way significant for Renaissance society as well as the next generations. The Divine Comedy is therefore considered being one of the greatest examples of classical literature. It will never lose its actuality.