Dante's Inferno and Classical Mythology Essay

Dante’s descent into Hell in Inferno, the first part of his Divine Comedy, tells of the author’s experiences in Hades as he is guided through the abyss by the Roman author, Virgil. The text is broken into cantos that coincide with the different circles and sub-circles of Hell that Dante and Virgil witness and experience. Inferno is heavily influenced by classic Greek and Roman texts and Dante makes references to a myriad of characters, myths, and legends that take place in Virgil’s Aeneid, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Some of the most important references, however, are the most obvious ones that are easily overlooked simply because of the fact that they are so blatant. Dante is being escorted through Hell by the poet Virgil, and this is Dante’s first homage to Greco-Roman mythology. The second reference is the actual descent into the underworld. This reference is pulled directly from Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante constructs his vision of the underworld with the help of Virgil’s seminal text.

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Because there are so many classical references in Inferno, the other references that are focused on in this paper are ones that show Dante’s breadth of allusion, as he draws on mythology described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and other parts of the Aeneid. Dante first encounters his future guide as he fearfully finds his way through the landscape in the growing dark of Canto 1. Virgil introduces himself to Dante saying, “I was a poet, and I sang of that just son of / Anchises who came from Troy, when proud Ilion / was destroyed by fire” (Dante 1. 73-5).

Virgil is referencing both the Aeneid and the Iliad in these few lines of poetry. He is alluding to Aeneas, the son of Anchises, and he is also referencing the Trojan War when he talks about Ilion burning. This initial reference is an interesting one because in his own work Virgil attempted to link the Roman Empire to the battles of Troy. This attempt to link the current work to the history of Troy was a common one because the Romans saw Troy as a powerful example of the warrior code that their culture ascribed to. Dante is also doing this in a subtle way by letting Virgil reference the Trojan War for him.

In his essay, Virgil, History, and Prophecy, William Franke states that, “Virgil’s prophetic gift, power and achievement, […] becomes normative for Western tradition, thanks especially to Dante” (74). Though Dante is not directly saying it, he is still able to link his work to the historic past of ancient Greece (the Trojan War) and Rome (Virgil) at the same time. The other overarching reference that Dante is using is the actual journey into the underworld. This tradition began with Homer’s Odyssey, but was much more descriptively complete in Virgil’s Aeneid.

William Franke explains this when he says that, “the descent to the world of the dead—a symbol for the place of revelation of the meaning of life—is a thematic issue that runs as a thread through each of the epic works” (Franke 253). This is important because it is the entire framework for Dante’s story. Without this structural framework of the journey to the underworld, Dante’s Inferno would be a very different story. Because this idea of voyaging into the underworld is already an established tradition, Dante does not need to go into excessive explanations for his readers.

He uses this reference as a way to build the narrative of his story into something that is already recognizable for his audience. Even though Dante is using the Greco-Roman tradition to help his audience conceptualize the descent into Hell, there are differences between the classical version and Dante’s depiction. One of the first differences comes when Dante describes a gate into the underworld that Virgil never recounts in the Aeneid. In Canto 3, Dante tells the reader that the gate says, “Through me the way into the grieving city, / Through me the way into eternal sorrow, / Through me the way among the lost people. […] Abandon every hope, you who enter” (Dante 3. 1-9). This detailed description of the gate into Hell does not appear in Virgil’s description of the entrance to Hades in the Aeneid. Virgil does describe the entrance to the underworld in great detail, though. He says that “the cavern was profound, wide-mouthed, and huge, / Rough underfoot, defended by dark pool / And gloomy forest. Overhead, flying things / Could never safely take their way, such deathly / Exhalations rose from the black gorge / Into the dome of heaven” (Virgil 6. 331-6).

While there is no reference to a gate in Virgil’s account, Dante may have been using the gate imagery as a way to distinguish his work from the Greco-Roman texts. Inferno is an overtly Christian text and Dante may have used the gate as a way to juxtapose the entrance to Hell in relationship to the Pearly Gates that guard the entrance to Heaven. As Dante and Virgil descend through the underworld they encounter many of the supernatural figures that appear in many of the Greco-Roman texts. Very often these creatures are mentioned in passing, given little more than a line of description.

However, in Canto 9, Dante and his guide encounter the three Furies in the sixth circle of Hell and quite a bit of time is given to describing these figures of Greco-Roman mythology. Tobias Foster Gittes explains why the Furies are given more concern by Dante than other mythological characters when he posits that “since the Furies figure prominently in Virgil’s Aeneid, it is only natural that Dante’s Virgil is quick to recognize—and identify by name—the three Furies” (23). This is another homage that Dante pays to Virgil by spending more time on the figures that play larger roles in the Aeneid.

Dante is doing this to give credit to the historical author and the character that Virgil plays in the Inferno. This reference to the Furies is one of the places that Dante and Virgil come very close in their individual descriptions of mythological creatures. In the Aeneid, Virgil describes Juno calling on the Furies when he says, “From the dark underworld / Home of the Furies, she aroused Allecto / Grief’s drear mistress, with her lust for war, / For angers, ambushes, and crippling crimes. Even her father Pluto hates this figure, / […] for her myriad / Faces, for her savage looks, her head / Alive and black with snakes” (Virgil 7. 443-50). This description is mirrored by Dante when he describes the three Furies saying, “Suddenly, in an instant, stood up three / Furies of Hell, stained with blood, who had the limbs / and gestures of women / and were girt with bright green water snakes; / little asps and horned serpents they had for hair, / which wound about their fierce temples” (Dante 9. 7-42). Dante even uses the same type of action verbs, invoking the suddenness of the Furies’ emergence. Virgil and Dante both place emphasis on the snakes that issue from the Furies’ head, though Dante changes the color from black to green. This is another case in which Dante draws on mythological characters that would not exist if it were not for the classical texts. The descriptions in Inferno would be far less imaginative and interesting without the preceding texts that Dante is able to draw from.

In Canto 12, Dante and Virgil come across the centaur, Nessus. Jeremy Tambling describes this scene when he says, “Virgil and Dante encounter […] the centaurs, […] the guardians of Phlegethon, the river of blood. They see the violent bathed in blood, who are named by the centaur Nessus” (881). This physical placement by Dante is fascinating and shows his breadth of knowledge of Greek mythology. Nessus appears in the Metamorphoses, and is described by Ovid, “Along came Nessus, powerfully built, / and knowing where the river could be forded” (9. 55-6). In Dante’s story, Nessus has been transformed into a guardian of a river of blood. Nessus’ placement is Dante playing on the mythology that surrounds his character. Nessus is known for attempting to rape Hercules’ wife, Deianira, when he offers to help her cross the river Evenus. Nessus later dies, but not without giving a poisoned garment to Deianira that eventually leads to Hercules’ death. Virgil warns Dante of this when he says, “‘That is Nessus, who died because of fair Deianira and himself avenged himself’” (Dante 12. 67-9).

The river of blood that Nessus is guarding and the souls of the violent that are immersed in it is the perfect place for Nessus’ character to be located within Dante’s story. Dante is allowing the characters own violent mythological history to be part of the current narrative. Dante Alighieri’s Inferno is a rich text that uses descriptions and references from classical mythology to help the audience understand more clearly the world that Dante’s character is experiencing. By using characters, heroes, and situations from the Greco-Roman tradition, Dante is building off of a pre-established framework that lends credence to his narrative.

Using the Roman author Virgil as his guide in the story is particularly interesting because through Virgil, Dante is able to associate his story with the long and respected tradition of Greece and Rome. Though Dante does not strictly adhere to all of the tropes that are part of Greco-Roman mythology, he uses his keen awareness of the mythology to place certain characters in places within his narrative that make perfect sense. Because Inferno is a Christian text and Dante was using it as a way to help believer’s in their spiritual journey, he transposed the pagan characters ound in Greek and Roman mythology and placed them into the metaphysical world of the Judeo-Christian Hell. This placement makes for a fascinating blend of the Christian, Greek, Roman and early medieval understandings of the world, and helps makes Dante’s Inferno the timeless classic that it is. Works Cited Alighieri, Dante. Trans. Robert M. Durling. Inferno. New York: Oxford, 1996. Print. Franke, William. “Dante’s Inferno as Poetic Revelation. ” Philosophy and Literature 33. 2 (2009): 252-66. Web. 30 April 2010. Franke, William. Virgil, History, and Prophecy . ” Philosophy and Literature 29. 1 (2005): 73-88. Web. 30 April 2010. Gittes, Tobias Foster. “O vendetta di Dio: The Motif of Rape and Retaliation in Dante’s Inferno. ” MLN 120. 1 (2005): 1-29. Web. 11 Apr 2010. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Charles Martin. New York: Norton, 2005. Print. Tambling, Jeremy. “Monstrous Tyranny, Men of Blood: Dante and “Inferno” XII. ” Modern Language Review. 98. 4 (2003): 881-97. JSTOR. Web. 11 Apr 2010. Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage-RandomHouse, 1990. Print.


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