The Exploration of Virgil and Dante’s Underworlds

While physical life is transient, the notion of the immortality of the soul is central to Christianity. Before Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, the residence of the soul’s afterlife was speculative and enigmatic. Dante filled this vacuum by creating a detailed and gruesome depiction of Hell where sinners are punished for the crimes they commit against the Christian God. Dante shapes his perception of Hell from Aeneas’ journey to Dis in Book VI of Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. Although Dante derives his account from Virgil’s writings of the Underworld, it is only a base to which he adapts and develops. Both poems are populated by figures from ancient Greek and Roman mythology and share similar structure and imagery for the exploration of the Underworld by living protagonists. The poems differ in intention with The Inferno focusing on Dante’s voyage of self discovery, search for a Christian concept of the Underworld, while The Aeneid’s intent was to glorify and celebrate the history of Rome, and the importance of fate.

Although there are countless parallels in Dante and Aeneas’ journeys to the Underworld, they follow divergent trajectories that set the tone for the Underworlds created. Aeneas learns in a dream that he must travel to the Underworld and visit his father before a homeland for his people can be established in Italy. Venus, his goddess mother, and the Sibyl, a prophetess of Apollo, guides Aeneas in his journey. In Book VI of The Aeneid, Virgil uses the Underworld to trace Rome’s history back to the heroes of the Trojan War. Unlike Aeneas, Dante enters the pathway to Hell at the midpoint of his life, lost in personal crisis, and unsure of the spiritual road to follow. At the start of Canto I, Virgil is sent by God to escort him through the halls of Hells, so that he may find his way again. “For I had lost the path that does not stray. Ah it is hard to speak of what it was, that savage forest, dense and difficult, which even in recall renews my fear” (Inferno I, 4-6). Dante is setting the scene for a more harrowing journey to the Underworld in which his character must endure.

Dante liberally borrows imagery, structure, and architecture of the Underworld from Virgil. The Aeneid served as a template for Dante’s masterpiece, and Dante acknowledges this by choosing Virgil as his guide through the Underworld. Dante and Aeneas both must cross The River of Styx to enter Hell and are ferried by Charon. Virgil, in The Aeneid writes, “Charon is the squalid ferryman… his white hairs lie thick, disheveled on his chin; his eyes are fires that stare, a filthy mantle hangs down his shoulder by a knot.” (Aeneid VI, 396-398). Dante’s description of Charon is similar, “And here advancing toward us, in a boat, an aged man his hair was white with years-was shouting: Woe to you corrupted Souls!” (Inferno III, 82-84). Virgil created a lower more horrific level of the Underworld known as Dis, guarded by one of the mythological Furies. Parallels can be seen in Dante’s Inferno where fallen angels, the three Furies, and Medusa guard his city of Dis. It is the darkest regions of Hell and encompasses circles six through nine. Virgil had also made reference to an Underworld of nine circles, but unlike Dante, he does not develop the concept into a rigid system where sinners are separated into nine circles depending on the severity of their sin, with the wickeder sent into deeper circles with more severe punishments.

In both Epics, there exists a significant distinction in the shades desire to communicate with the living. When Aeneas passes the Fields of Mourning and recognizes Dido, he calls out to her, weeping with sympathy, and she responds by retreating into the depths of the forest. Conversely, in The Inferno Dante develops the concept that the shades become less interested in communicating as he ventures into the deeper circles. In Canto XXXII, Dante accidently strikes the head of shade with his foot and after an exchange of verbal retorts, the shade refuses to reveal his identity. The shades refusal to reveal his identity exposes his shame from residing in the first ring of the ninth circle of hell, home to the traitors of kin.

In The Inferno Dante’s alteration of Virgil’s ideas of how the living interact with shades dramatically affects the experience for Dante the pilgrim and readers. The structural difference in their protagonists’ encounters with shades is the result of Dante’s confrontational approach. In The Inferno, Dante equips himself with the power to touch the shades, whereas at one point in Virgil’s story it is shown that Aeneas is unable to hug the shade of his father. “Three times he tried to throw his arms around Anchises’ neck; and three times the shade escaped from that vain clasp.” (Aeneid VI, 924-926). By adding physical aspect to encounters, Dante creates a more realistic and personal Underworld. The realism enhances the affect that Dante the pilgrim is in real danger. In a later scene in Canto XXXII scene, Boca refuses to reveal his identity, and Dante responds by inflicting pain on him. “At that I grabbed him by the scruff and said: you’ll have to name yourself to me or else you wont have even one hair left up here.” (Inferno XXXII, 97-99). Dante’s ability to physically interact with shades makes the Underworld tangible. Dante, a mere mortal inflicts further suffering on a soul, who is already being punished in one of the deepest circles of Hell.

The differences in the two Underworlds concepts of Limbo reflect a fundamental difference in religious philosophy between the paganism of Virgil’s Rome and the medieval Christianity of Dante. The first stop for all souls in Virgil’s Underworld is Limbo. There souls wait to cross the River of Styx and those whose bodies are unburied must wander for a hundred of years before Charon, the ferryman, will carry their souls to ”start the pathway to the waters of Tartarean Acheron.” (Aeneid VI 390-391). Nothing is crueler and more damning for a Trojan warrior than to die without an honorable burial. In Dante’s Underworld the first stop is not Limbo, but the Ante-Inferno and Neutral. The Ante-Inferno is where souls who did not make conscious moral decision are housed because they do not constitute acceptance into either Heaven or Hell, and Neutral is where are the angels that neither sided with God nor Satin reside. Dante wrote, “The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them-even the wicked cannot glory in them.” (Inferno III 40-42) Limbo in Dante’s Underworld is the first ring of Hell after a soul crosses the River of Styx. Residing in Limbo are all the unbaptized including virtuous and moral pagans who were born before the First Coming. These souls did not sin, but Dante’s view was Christian and according to Christian theology those who were unbaptized were damned to Hell and not allowed entry into heaven. Residing in this region were Virgil, along with other great Greek and Roman philosophers, poets, and heroes. For these sinners Dante had sympathy and creates a first circle where punishment was milder. Dante wrote, “There was no outcry louder than the sights that caused the everlasting air to tremble. The sighs arose from sorrow without torments.” (Dante IV 26-28). The different descriptions of Limbo by Dante and Virgil demonstrate the fundamental Christianity of Dante’ epic in contrast to the pagan aspects of Virgil’s Underworld. The Underworld created by Dante is a rigid system, without forgiveness, unlike Virgil’s Underworld, where after a hundred years souls are allowed to cross Styx and enter the Groves of the Blessedness.

Although in both epics shades are given the ability to see into the future the authors’ intentions with these concepts vary. The climax in Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld is when Anchises describes in detail what will become of their Trojan lineage, stating that Romulus will found Rome, a Caesar will eventually come from the line of Ascanius, and that Rome will reach a Golden Age of rule over the world. “Augustus Caesar, son of a god who will renew a golden age in Latium.” (Aeneid, VI 1049-1050). It is clear that Virgil gives the souls living in the Land of the Blessedness the power to see into the future for the opportunity to celebrate Rome’s future glory. In contrast Dante depicts the shades inability to see into the future as a means of inflicting suffering. In Canto X, Dante encounters Farinata, a Tuscan politician, and in the midst of their conversation another shade arises and voices concern about his son’s fate. At this point, Dante has discovered another of the ingenious punishments in Hell confirmed when his fellow Tuscan tells him, ” We see things remote from us… But when events draw near or are, our minds are useless;” (Inferno X, 100-102).

Dante is indebted to Virgil because he adopted many of the structures and characters of the Underworld from Book VI of The Aeneid; however, Dante transformed the epic poem about the history of Rome into a uniquely powerful exploration of a personal and Christian journey through the Underworld. As Virgil said to Dante “For I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul” (Canto II 32, Dante can also say I am not Virgil. What Dante has accomplished in The Inferno is a powerful vision of a Christian exploration of sin and the divine retribution of God from the perspective of a medieval Christian. He also has made The Inferno a political and religious commentary. He criticizes the venality and immorality of member of the Catholic and comments on politics in his native Tuscany. Dante has borrowed mythological characters from Virgil and Roman mythology, but has transformed them into his own vision of the Underworld.

Dante and Chaucer: Trailblazers for the Reformation of the Catholic Church

To the heedless reader, Dante’s Inferno and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales are generally interpreted as mere works of fiction designed and created for the sole purpose of entertainment. To fully glean the authors’ intended message, though, one must carefully analyze the rhetoric and style of each work. If both pieces of art are not attentively examined, the reader would neglect Dante’s and Chaucer’s layered themes of the criticisms of church representatives’ behaviors in their poems. These influential artists anticipated the beginnings of the Catholic Reformation, exemplified heavily in Inferno and The Canterbury Tales. In the view of the authors, Catholic church officials were found to be flawed in that they were incredibly corrupt and placed a sinful emphasis on worldly wealth. Nearly a century before the era of the Reformation, starting in 1517 with Martin Luther’s Theses, Dante and Chaucer both catalyzed the movement for the Reformation by subtly rebuking the church, indirectly through their works of fiction.

Although Dante offers sharp commentary of the politics of his home city-state of Florence throughout the Inferno, his commentary about the position of church officials is of especial interest. His criticism his important because of its future roles in significant historical events of the consequent split of the Catholic church into the Protestant sect. During the lifetime of Dante, church corruption was rampant. Everyone from priests to the pope was guilty of the sin of avarice, defined by the intense gluttony of monetary wealth. Dante’s disdain for church representatives is represented by the placement of them in the structure of his Inferno. To understand the severity of Dante’s scorn directed towards the sinful church leaders, one must first understand the construction of his Hell. Dante’s Hell was assembled on the severity of the sin committed; the graver the sin, the deeper in Hell the sinner was condemned to. Thus, in Canto XIX, (page 454) many of the important church leaders, including Pope Nicholas III, are found in the eighth circle of the Inferno, which is the second to last circle of Hell. For reference, the lustful are found in the second circle, while the arch-heretics are found in the sixth circle (page 391). Now that the basis of structure has been set, form of punishment follows a similar overarching set of rules in the Inferno. Dante finds Pope Nicholas III “writhing more than any of his comrades… licked by a redder flame” (page 454). Because Nicholas III was not a mere priest, but rather the pope of the entire Catholic church, entrusted with “the keys into his keeping” (page 456), his form of punishment was more drastic than the others, exemplified by the brighter burning, hotter flame.

In Dante’s conversation with Pope Nicholas III, he argues that the pope “brings grief upon the world” by instead of worshipping God, “he worshipped hundreds… not differing from the idolater” (page 456). This very scene stands as Dante’s viewpoint of the deficiencies of church representatives; that they place more importance on worldly wealth than they did on righteously leading the Catholic church. Also, Pope Nicholas III was not the only pope guilty of these sins. As exemplified by the ability of the tormented to see into the future, but not the past, described on page 455, more popes were to be condemned to the same whole that Pope Nicholas III was already placed in, supporting the idea that multiple church representatives were enveloped in fraud and deception. While these factual events did not lead to widespread change in Dante Alighieri’s lifetime, they would provide the necessary stimulant that would lead to the events of Martin Luther. Dante performed this role as a catalyst by first introducing the idea that the church was involved in corruption and deceit. While not directly covered in the Inferno, this preliminary introduction was necessary because of the sheer power of the Catholic Church, and its effective ability to silence opponents and sway public interest. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a frame story of a variety of people on a pilgrimage to a cathedral in Canterbury. It is notable to point out; while Chaucer may have created a setting with religious overtones, being that of a pilgrimage, it is actually quite ironic because the characters described in the frame story also represent Chaucer’s criticisms of church representatives.

In Dante’s Inferno, he informs the audience of his criticisms of church representatives by their place in his Hell. In contrast, Chaucer uses irony to display his opinion on the issue. For example, when describing the Prioress, she is portrayed as “finding what pleases her best” (page 665). This claim is supported by the fact that she wears a rosary in adherence to the love and admiration of Jesus Christ, but, nuns were not allowed to wear flamboyant articles, let alone jewelry in the first place (page 666). By wearing the rosary, the Prioress is signifying that she does not pay particular attachment to the Catholic Church, or to the principle beliefs upon which it is based. This example is representative of Chaucer’s viewpoint that church officials are heavily corrupted, and that the Catholic Church as a whole should not be trusted because of their dishonesty and fraud.

Chaucer further illustrates his point that many church officials are corrupt by the description of the Monk. The Monk also demonstrates the author’s point that church officials are corrupt by his willingness to adhere to the religion to which he is a leader of. Instead of reading the Bible and engaging in religious thought and prayer, the Monk would rather go hunting because “he is heedless of rules” (page 666). Chaucer adds to the character development of the Monk by stating that he “would not give you one plucked hen… for that text” (page 666). According to interpretation of this quote, the text here in question is the Holy Bible. Because the Monk does not feel any responsibility for the principles of his position, he would rather go out and use his time according to his hobbies, which are to hunt. All of these quotes support the claim that Chaucer is again creating a contrast in his characters, representative of his viewpoint as a whole. The specific contrast in these characters has been that they are both in positions of authority in the church, but they act as if they are corrupted, further exemplified by the choice of the Monk’s clothing, which is very ornate. Jesus Christ taught that his followers should be humbled, and show modesty towards other people, but the Monk is comprehensively disregarding this teaching, additionally exemplifying his malfeasance.

Perhaps the most notably and intriguing example of corruption in Chaucer’s tale is that of the Pardoner, who confesses that he advertises false relics to Christians (page 713). Chaucer’s description of the Pardoner is a direct representation of the type of church official that Martin Luther will later take advance against, as described in The 95 Theses. Similar to Dante, by exposing the public to the idea of church corruption masked by a façade of fiction, Chaucer was able to pave the way for the Reformation. When the Reformation actually came around, many of these ideas published by Reformists such as Luther were already discussed by literary greats such as Chaucer or Dante.

Dante and Chaucer were both influential authors who shaped the view of the public in their works of fiction, the Inferno and The Canterbury Tales. They claimed that the representatives of the Catholic Church were unfit for their respective positions, based on the scandals of church corruption. Church corruption was a substantial issue of the time because the widespread grip it had among the lower class, and the power it bestowed to the higher-class elites, who could use this position for monetarily gain. Chaucer and Dante would herald in an era of Reformation by first introducing the idea that church officials were corrupt to the general public. These ideas would eventually catch fire like an Inferno and be spread by religious pilgrims all over the continent of Europe.

Symbolism of the Three Beasts

Symbolism in literary works is used when one thing is meant to represent something else, in order to create meaning and emotion. In the first part of Dante Alighieri’s three-part epic poem entitled Divine Comedy, there are many symbols the author uses to effectively convey his message to the readers, particularly the symbol of the three beasts the persona first encounters in Canto I. Inferno, meaning ‘hell’ in Italian, details the journey of the persona as he ventures through Hell. Before he enters the gates, however, he encounters three beasts, which are used by the author as a symbol of the three major divisions in Hell the persona will soon witness.

To begin with, the poem begins shortly before the dawn of Good Friday in a dark forest. The persona finds himself lost in the “dark wood”, astray from the straight path, or the path of truth. Allegorically, this could mean that the persona has committed great sins in his life, but now he wants to repent and find the path back to salvation and truth. However, before this can happen, his path is blocked by three beasts, which are thought to represent the three kinds of sin that bring the unrepentant soul into Hell. These three animals are actually taken from Jeremiah 5:6 in the bible, which says “Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the evenings shall spoil them, a leopard shall watch over their cities: every one that goeth out thence shall be torn in pieces: because their transgressions are many, and their backslidings are increased.” Therefore, because the persona has committed many sins and has turned his back on God, the three beasts have come to take him to Hell.

Although it is clear that the beasts represent sins, much critical analysis has gone into identifying these sins. Traditional interpretations think that the beasts represent lust, pride and greed, while others say they represent the sins of youth, middle-age and old-age. However, the physical descriptions, as well as evidence from the poem, suggests that the beasts represent the three major divisions of hell. The three divisions, which coincides with the seven deadly sins, are incontinence, which includes lust, gluttony, avarice and anger; the sins of violence; and malice, which includes the sins fraud and treachery. The leopard is symbolic of malice, the lion is symbolic of violence and the she-wolf represents incontinence. Many critics assigns the leopard to incontinence and the she-wolf to malice, though, to correspond the order the beasts arrive with the order of the gates of Hell. However, critic Aldo S. Bernardo explains that, from Lucifer’s view at the bottom, which he says is the “basic perspective from which the entire poem should be viewed,” malice would be the first division, therefore the leopard would be a symbol of this division, as it appears first, and the she-wolf would be a symbol of the last division, incontinence, as it appears last.

The first beast the persona encounters is the leopard, which, as previously stated, is symbolic of the division in Hell entitled malice. Upon seeing this beast, the persona describes it as being “covered with a spotted hide.” Critic Melanie Barker explains that the spotted hide would help the leopard to “disguise himself from a potential creature of prey,” which is the ultimate act of fraud and treachery, because the leopard can hide itself, and then strike at its prey when the time is right. Additionally, in Canto XX, the persona’s guide, Virgil, explains that fortune-tellers and soothsayers must walk with their heads on backwards, unable to see what is ahead, because of the fraud they committed in their life, “they had their faces twisted toward their haunches, and found it necessary to walk backward, because they could not see ahead of them.” When the persona first sees the leopard, a similar situation occurred, where the leopard “impeded [his] ascent” so he had to walk backward, unable to see what lay beyond the dark wood. Also, the persona says, “and the gentle season, gave me good cause for hopefulness on seeing, that beast before me with his speckled skin; but hope was hardly able to prevent, the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.” The persona gets a false sense of hopefulness when he encounters the leopard that soon turns to fear upon witnessing the lion, which is what the leopard represents; fraud and treachery.

Furthermore, after the leopard, the persona then encounters a lion, which represents the second division of Hell; violence. When the persons first witness the lion, he says that it had its “head held high and ravenous with hunger.” This suggests that the lion is extremely hungry, wanting to devour, or kill, the persona. This violent act is exactly what the lion represents, and the persona even says that “the air around him seemed to shudder,” meaning that even the air around him was afraid of the violence the lion could exhibit. However, many critics suggest that the lion represents pride, as it is described with its “head held high.” They argue that lions are naturally prideful and rarely ever violent towards humans, however, the lion is also described as being “ravenous with hunger.” If a human is around a lion when it is hungry, many sources say that the lion would kill the human. The lion in this poem seems to be voracious, which would mean that it’s more violent than prideful in this poem. Also, lions ensure they remain at the top of the food chain by using “whatever violent means necessary [and] use of brute force,” according to critic Melanie Barker, therefore the association of the lion with violence is a rightful one. Additionally, in the bible verse these beasts are taken from, the lion is described to be slaughtering the people of the cities.

Lastly, the third beast that the persona sees is the she-wolf, which is representative of the division called incontinence. Incontinence, as described by critic David Bruce, “is not being able to control yourself.” The she-wolf is described as carrying “every craving in her leanness.” To crave something means to desire intensely, therefore the she-wolf carries everyone’s desires in her, and these desires, presumably bad desires, such as sexual desires, or lust, causes people to turn away from the right path and commit sins. The persona says that she “had already brought despair to many,” meaning she has caused so many people to sin and to wound up in Hell, suffering for the rest of their lives. Also, the wolf is the beast that finally causes the persona to retreat and lose hope, therefore she must represent the division that causes people to retreat and not be able to control their sinful desires. Moreover, in the bible’s description, the wolf does not have a gender, but in Dante’s poem, he specifically states the sex of the wolf as female. It is said that women are “infamous for [their] sexual treachery throughout ancient culture,” as suggested by critic Melanie Barker, therefore it makes sense that this wolf would be female or would appear female to the male persona, to try to make the persona indulge in his sinful desires.

Although many critics have tried to decipher the symbolic meaning behind the beasts presented to the persona in Inferno by Dante, it is clear that these beasts are representative of the three major divisions of Hell in the poem. The physical descriptions, as well as other evidence in the poem, suggests that the leopard is symbolic of malice, the lion represents violence and the she-wolf represents incontinence.