The Beasts and Monsters in Dante's Inferno

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The Beasts and Monsters in Dante's Inferno

The Inferno is the first section of Dante's three-part poem, The Divine Comedy. Throughout Dante's epic journey into the depths of Inferno he encounters thirty monsters and five hybrid creatures.  The most significant of these monsters are of central importance to his journey and to the narrative, as they not only challenge Dante's presence in Inferno, but are custodians of Hell, keeping in order or guarding the "perduta gente".  In this essay I am concentrating on these prominent beasts, namely Minos, Cerberus, Plutus and Geryon, establishing why they feature in Dante's eschatological vision and discussing the sources which influenced his inclusion of these particular creatures. These four monsters all fulfil important functions as well as representing important themes in Inferno, establishing them as symbols which reinforce Dante's allegory.

Minos, as the infernal judge and agent of God's justice, represents our own conscience and morality.  When the sinners come before him "tutta si confessa", which causes the reader to reflect on their own sins.His terrifying treatment of the souls is significant as after Charon, he is one of the first figures who they encounter on their passage into Hell, and his unique method of demonstrating which area of Hell that the souls should be sent to increases the horror and adds to the alarming atmosphere.

His warning to Dante, is similar to several of the infernal custodians, who continually remind him that he should not be in the Otherworld,

tu che vieni al doloroso ospizio,

guarda com'entri e di cui tu ti fide non t'inganni l'ampiezza de

l'intrare (1)

However, Cerberus's reaction to Dante is one of obvious malice and vice, and rather than comment on his presence he merely "le bocche aperse e mostrocci le sanne". Dante depicts Cerberus as a personification of gluttony, whose task is to guard the gluttons of the third circle, and his quasi-human form, with "la barba unta e atra" and "'l ventre largo", are fitting attributes which illustrate the gluttony he represents.  This gastronomic theme is continued with Dante's description of him as "il gran vermo", creating the image of a worm gorging itself on food, but this is also connected with Satan himself, who is described as "il vermo reo che'l mondo fora" in Canto XXXIV.

Plutus, the next monster Dante encounters is also associated with thefigure of Satan due to his description of "il gran nemico", as herepresents greed which was seen as the source of all ills (2).  Hisrepresentation of greed and avarice is strengthened by Virgil's rebuketo him,

            Taci, maladetto lupo! (3)

As this associates Plutus with the She-wolf from Canto I who is correlated with one of the triple divisions of Hell, the sins of the disordered appetite, and this inherent connection with greed is marked by Plutus's function as guard of the avaricious and prodigal of the fourth circle.

Dante and Virgil meet Geryon when they need to descend to the 'malebolge'.  He has a different purpose to the other monsters I have discussed as he is essential for the continuation of Dante's journey, providing the only transportation between the sins of violence in the seventh circle to the sins of fraud in the 'malebolge'.  Geryon is the most intricately described of all the beasts in Inferno, which is significant as he represents the intricacies of fraud.  He is summoned by Dante's "corda", which links him immediately with the leopard of Canto I, as Dante tells the reader that,

            ..con essa pensai alcuna volta

            prender la lonza a la pelle dipinta (4)

This leopard is the allegorical symbol of fraud, highlighting Geryon's association with this vice.

He is the only triple-hybrid that Dante and Virgil come across, and this strengthens his representation as "quella sozza imagine di froda", as the first part of him that they see is his face, which resembles that of a "uom giusto", hiding his poisonous tail and beastly body. The succession of Geryon's bodily parts represent the chronological sequence of fraudulent activity as his honest face engages initial trust, the intricate patterns painted on him confuse and complicate and at the end of the process the sting in his tail brings about death or loss.(5)  This emphasizes Geryon's detailed association with fraud and this reflects Dante's classification of sin, as the sins of fraud are considered the most serious and these sinners receive the harshest punishments.

His serpentine torso and writhing tail connect him with the previous monsters that Dante has encountered.  The twisting movement of Geryon's tail reminds the reader of the manner with which Minos wraps his tail around the sinners, and the description of Cerberus as "il gran vermo" adds to this snaky imagery associated with these beasts.  The power the monsters have in their tails would have been meaningful for Dante's readers as it was commonly noted in medieval times that a beast's tail showed its ferocity and held much of its strength.  This is illustrated by Brunetto Latini's descriptions of the dragon and the lion in his Li Livres dou Tresor, as well as in Revelations where

            the power of the horses their tails; for their tails

            were like snakes.(6)

This association with serpents is also significant as the serpent was the first deceiver (7), establishing the deception and terror connected with these monsters which adds to the uncertain and disordered atmosphere in Inferno.

Dante's readers would have been familiar with the beasts he discusses in Inferno as they are firmly rooted in Greek mythology, and even though Dante embellishes and debases the traditional depiction of these monsters to add interest and horror to his vision of the Otherworld, his portrayal of them clearly stems from their mythological backgrounds.

Similarly to his role in Inferno, Minos is traditionally a judge of the dead in the Underworld, and his position in Hades reflects the justice and fairness with which he ruled his people when he was King of Crete. However, Dante alters Minos' kingly stature and creates a terrifying beast with a torturous method of judgement.  He dehumanizes Minos by turning him into a monster with a serpent's tail, elevating the fear of the sinners who come before him, and contributing to the alarming images of Inferno.

The traditional classical interpretation of Cerberus is as the three-headed guard of the gate to Hades and devourer of corpses, but by portraying him as a symbol for gluttony and as "lo demonio" Dante demeans this image, as Cerberus is seen as a torturer of the sinners rather than a devourer.  It is described that,

            graffia li spirti ed isocia ed isquatra (8)

The alliteration of s's combined with the hard t's in this line emphasize the violence and cruelty of the monster's actions, stressing the souls' torments and the terror he causes.

In Inferno Cerberus's "tre gole" illustrate the gluttony he represents and this is emphasized when he is even satisfied by the clod of earth that Virgil throws him.   Dante also degrades Plutus by making him into a gibbering giant.  He can be seen as a combination of Pluto, the God of the Underworld and Plutus, the personification of wealth, and Dante connects him with these figures to establish his position as an infernal guardian and reinforce his representation of avarice.

Dante also adapts Geryon to suit the horrors of Inferno.  The classical Geryon has three heads which Dante turns into three body parts, basing his monster on the fabulous Manticore, described by Brunetto Latini.

            It has a man's face...its eyes and legs and body are like a

            lion's, and it has the      tail of a scorpion. (9)

By making him a tripartite beast, Dante metamorphoses Geryon into a fantastic creature like the classical Chimera, which is described as having "the head of a lion, the body of a she-goat, and the tail of a snake" (10).  Dante's readers would have recognised this association, as well as connecting Geryon with the familiar images of the 'draconopede' or serpent with a human face, first mentioned in Genesis. (11), and the locusts in Revelations whose "faces were like human faces" and who had "tails like scorpions" (12).

He also combines elements of Antichrist iconography discussed at the time, as in medieval accounts of Antichrist's advent, he is described as appearing "under the semblance of justice" which clearly relates to the adjective "giusto", which Dante uses to describe Geryon's face. This is illustrated in an interesting Fourteenth century image of Antichrist (Fig1), which depicts a creature with striking similarities to Dante's Geryon.  This beast also has the feet of a lion, a serpent's torso as well as a seemingly innocent human face, and placed at the side of Antichrist is a scorpion, which is significant as scorpions were commonly perceived as symbols of fraud.

This presents Geryon as a fusion of Dante's classical and biblical readings.  His amalgamated form and the extended imagery associated with him illustrate the detail with which Dante has constructed this monster, emphasizing the complications of fraud and strengthening Dante's allegory.

The place of these monsters extends from mythology into classical and biblical literature, and Dante's inclusion of these beasts in his vision show the influence previous depictions of Otherworlds had on his work.  This tradition of monsters in fiction, especially setting them in representations of the afterlife, is illustrated in The Apocalypse Of Peter and The Vision Of Paul.  Throughout both these apocalyptic visions the presence of beasts and devils are described, whose purpose is to torment and torture the sinners.

Dante's Inferno clearly follows in this traditional depiction of Otherworld inhabitants as the 'angels' that feature in these texts are described by Peter as having "their raiment dark, according to the air of the place" (13) and are strikingly similar to Dante's 'Malebranche'.  They grapple the sinners with the same tools, hooks and "irons with three prongs", and Paul describes them as,

            angels without mercy, having no pity, whose countenances were

            full of fury,     and their teeth sticking forth out of their

            mouth.....out of the hairs of their head    and out of their

            mouth went forth sparks of fire. (14)

The fury of these devils and their lack of pity towards the sinners is also reminiscent of the infernal custodians, as well as the continuous reference to "venemous beasts" and "worms".  Peter's mention of "a worm that sleepeth not, [who] shall devour their entrails"(15) seems particularly close to Dante's Cerberus, who is described as "il gran vermo" and tortures the sinners in a similar fashion.  The function of these demons is also similar to Dante's monsters, as they all watch over the sinners as well as actively punishing them.  Just as Minos terrifies the souls in Inferno by coiling his tail around them, one of the devils in The Vision Of Paul is described as,

            having a great razor, red-hot, and therewith cut the lips of

            that man and the   tongue likewise. (16)

However, to create his own bestial monstrosities Dante combines elements of these traditional inhabitants of the afterlife in Christian texts with those in classical texts, in particular Virgil's Aeneid, which Dante draws on throughout The Divine Comedy.

The Aeneid features a diverse range of beasts and monsters including those that I am discussing, with the exception of Plutus.  The Sibyl tells Aeneas that,

            Many varieties of monsters can be found Stabled here at the

            doors (17)

The hybrid monsters in Virgil's Underworld, such as the centaurs and the Harpies, are placed with the Dreams, hinting at their impossibility and strangeness.  It is significant that "the three-bodied Geryon" is also placed here, as Dante would have viewed him in the same fantastical light as these other grotesque creations, who terrify Aeneas to the point that he "shakes with a spasm of fear".

Virgil's Minos conforms to the traditional classical depiction of a fair judge of the dead.  His method of judgement sharply contrasts the bizarre manner that Dante's Minos employs as he,

            Summons a jury of the dead: he hears Every charge, examines the

            record of each; he shakes the urn. (18)

Dante's version is considerably more horrific and violent, as discussed earlier, but this shows the individuality of the monsters he has created, despite the fact that they feature in earlier visions.

Dante's Cerberus draws heavily on Virgil's description of,

            Huge Cerberus, monstrously couched in a cave  confronting them,

            Made the whole region echo with his three-throated barking (19)

This detail concerning the deafening barking which echoes around the cave is used by Dante to illustrate further torment for the sinners, as he describes that the noise,

            'ntrona/l'anime si, ch'esser vorrebber sorde. (20)

The idea of the echoing sounds also reminds the reader of the spiralling structure of Inferno, which enables the noises of Hell to reverberate and seem even louder.

However, Dante portrays a harsher, more blood-thirsty beast, and the human features he gives to Cerberus to create the image of gluttony repulse his readers as well as frightening them.

This harsher depiction is also illustrated by Dante changing what is thrown to Cerberus to abate his barking and to let the pilgrim and his guide past him.  In The Aeneid, the Sibyl throws him a "cake of honey and wheat infused with sedative drugs" which sends the beast to sleep, rather like a drowsy dog in his "cave kennel", but in Inferno Virgil hurls soil at Cerberus which merely occupies his attention for a moment whilst he gobbles it down.  Although both monsters seem desperate for food, the enthusiasm with which Dante's Cerberus devours the mud launched at him emphasizes his personification of gluttony and also creates a more distressing image.

Virgil's brief mention of Geryon describes the classical "triform" monster who pastured a herd of magnificent cattle.  His ghost is present in the Underworld as he was slain by Hercules, but despite the limited description concerning him, Dante clearly uses these images of Geryon as a base from which to develop his own ideas and blend elements of his other sources.

The visual sources that Dante would have drawn upon would have been a combination of the works of the painters of his own time and the images in the form of mosaics in the Baptistry in Florence, and the visual culture in which he was writing would have included traditional depictions of monsters in the images of Hell and Judgement, influencing the way Dante created his own images of the bestial.

The images taken from the mosaic entitled Giudizio Finale on the ceiling of the Baptistry in Florence (Figs. 2 & 3) include fierce looking demons and ferocious serpents.  Similarly to Dante's 'Malebranche', some of the devils hold implements with which to torture the sinners and have beards, attributes which Giotto also gives his devils in his fresco of The Last Judgement (Fig.4).  This is significant as Dante's Cerberus is also described as having, "la barba untra e atra" and constantly torments the sinners, illustrating Dante's efforts to follow in the traditional depiction of Hell's inhabitants. This is also shown by the similarities between the coiling tail that Dante gives Minos and the snake in Giudizio Finale (Fig.2), which has a particularly long, curling tail that even appears to be attempting to entwine itself around a sinner as Minos does in Inferno.

The numerous snakes and reptiles that are depicted in these images are important, as in Inferno Dante gives Minos, Cerberus and Geryon serpentine attributes, showing that in his use of this motif, he has deviated little from previous imagery associated with eschatological visions.  The images of these serpents are also similar to Dante's monsters as they are directly involved in the punishment of the sinners by scratching and biting them.

Dante's embellishment of the previous images of the beasts that I have described, and the presence of the infernal custodians help to evoke the horrifying atmosphere of Inferno, and his encounters with such monstrosities make his journey more terrifying.  The vocabulary that describes them, the noises that they make, and their movements, all accentuate their bestial strangeness.  This also adds to the alarming images that Dante has created, as speech and noise are repeatedly used to illustrate the chaos and discord in Inferno.  The eloquent sinners even use speech to deceive and persuade, showing the confusion and deception that continually reverberates around Hell in the form of coherent words as well as yelps and cries.

All the guardian figures are described making horrid sounds which frighten the reader as well as the sinners and Dante.  Minos stands at the entrance "ringhia", and Cerberus's loud, resounding barking emphasizes the continual torment the sinners face, but the most significant words are uttered by Plutus.

            "Pape Satan, pape Satan aleppe!" (21)

This gibberish that he shouts "con la voce chioccia" epitomizes the instability of Inferno and the abandonment of rational thought and expresses the sort of babble that Dante sees fitting for "una fiera crudele" of Hell.

However, the language of the beasts also has a dramatic purpose as they provide an interesting method of conveying information about Inferno to the reader, such as Minos's warning to Dante and his unusual illustration of how the sinners are judged.  The monsters also form strategic narrative devices, as their confrontations with Dante and Virgil continue the pattern of incident and movement in the text, adding variety and tension.

The beasts form an inherent and essential part of the narrative because of the excitement and terror that they add to Dante and Virgil's journey, as well as reinforcing Dante's classification of sin.  They also illustrate the traditional motifs of Otherworld visions, whilst simultaneously expanding and developing previous representations of the afterlife in order to form original and exciting creations.  This shows the importance Dante placed on the inclusion of these beasts as they not only express the influence of other works on Inferno, but also his own spectacular creativity and fantasy.

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MLA Citation:
"The Beasts and Monsters in Dante's Inferno." 27 Nov 2015

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