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Dante’s Monsters in the Inferno: Reimagining Classical to Christian Judgment

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Gustave Dore, Geryon, Inferno, Canto XVII (note Dore added wings and did not depict scorpion's tail as Dante describedl)

Dr. Patrick Hunt, Stanford University


Dante deliberately amalgamated relict Classicism and his own Christian vision. He did not revive Classicism to the letter or even to the spirit thereof as followed in the Renaissance through Petrarch onward, but instead created a unique medieval epic looking both deeply backward and forward in time. This diachronicity is expanded by imbibing Classical material in one direction and moving toward the Last Judgment in the other direction. By altering aspects of antiquity in his own long view of eternity, he fictionalizes myth truths that may at times wear the complicated garb of "falsehoods" (mezogna) (1) or reimagined truths. This is especially fitting in his use of Classical monsters like Geryon, Cerberus, Medusa and others, where he transforms them into allegories of both spiritual and political significance. (2) While others in the medieval world, mostly clerics, invented fictional otherworldly journeys for moral or didactic religious intent, (3) Dante made of his Commedia a cosmic topos of genius where myth and history meet, where he summons real rather than imaginary personages who curse their chosen hells alongside imaginary beasts and creatures of poetic lore. Given the many studies of Dante’s monsters, (4) here only a few selective monsters are discussed.

Dante's repeated use of Classical authors is well known, for example, as Brownlee shows in echoes of Virgil, Statius, Lucan and Ovid, also especially in Canto 20 where his ancient diviners appear as metonymy of their ancient authors. (5) In many places in the Inferno Dante even minimizes biblical references, as Barolini and others have noted, whereas Classical references abound. While many scholars trace Virgilian allusions in Dante, a great debt to Ovid can be overlooked, where Dante not only imbibes figurative language and narrative but also stylistic features. (6) Where understanding Classical Rome meant looking only backward in Dante’s time, even after a more than a millennium, Christian Rome was mostly forward looking in terms of both individual accountability and the Last Judgment, as “Christianity gave Rome its future orientation.” (7) If Western Civilization became this inevitable fusion of Classical and Christian worlds, when Roman Christianity triumphed over Roman paganism even while syncretizing some of its elements, Dante is one of its original architects not so much by choice as by the force of his creative nous. His monsters trebly serve as vehicles of Classical imitatio, medieval Christian symbolism and rhetoric as well as Mediterranean and especially Italian history. Jewell asserts:

“The reasons for the centrality of Italian literature to the topic of the monstrous are many. They run much deeper than Italy’s ties to Classical Greece and Rome where mortals and demigods were recurrently dogged by monsters of mythic and epic memory…the medieval period was characterized by a Christian renegotiation of classical, especially Neoplatonic, thought, and the idea of the monstrous played an important role in this phenomenon.” (8)

Dante’s imitations alone of Virgil run into the hundreds of passages, either stylistic or thematic. (9) His use of monsters found earlier especially in the Aeneid, however, has the added function of Christological trope, among other meanings. For example, Hercules conquered both Geryon on earth and Cerberus at the gates of the Underworld, like Christ who broke down the gates of Hell in his visit after Calvary, winnowing Pre-Christian souls from Purgatory. Thus, Dante’s monsters not only “show” connections to the supernatural in their polyform nature, graphically expressing their hybridity as harbingers of unseen divine power but also, like their Classical prototypes, are outworkings of divine justice.

While in Classical myth monsters (from monstrare, “to show”) arise out of disrupted nature to punish human hubris on earth - note their likely etymological derivation from the Greek declension of hubris to hubridis (10) - Dante’s monsters are divine instruments of punishment in the Inferno, “ministers of divine justice”. (11) In addition to major passages about Cerberus (Canto VI) and Geryon (Canto XVII), Dante also mentions Medusa (Canto IX), the Minotaur (Canto XII) and centaurs like Nessus (Canto XII) and Cacus (Canto XXV), but this discussion will concentrate mostly on the first two major monsters. As mentioned and elaborated in prior literature, (12) Cerberus, Geryon and Nessus and Cacus were all overwhelmed, tamed or killed by Hercules, a Pre-Christian salvific type invested with probable Neoplatonic symbolism, and other salvific heroes who were sons of Jupiter and Neptune in myth, Perseus and Theseus, likewise conquered Medusa and the Minotaur respectively. Such myth congruences of heroes and monsters integrating Classical and Christian traditions are necessary for Dante and are purposefully woven together to make a whole new literary fabric out of separate threads. Tensions that may thus occur therein are harmonized by the historicity of his denizens of hell, many from among his own contemporaries.

Dante’s monsters are both predictable in the sense that they somewhat mirror Virgilian episodes and somewhat unpredictable in the Christian ethos that the poet creates specifically for each. As Jewiss noted:

“The most obvious place to look for monsters in the medieval world is hell, the dark margins of God’s creation, a space retrieved from Classical antiquity and transformed into the Christian repository for evil. Within a Christian framework, sin must be coupled metaphorically with the monstrous, for transgression is that which deforms and makes ugly.” (13)

In this way, monsters fit Dante’s worldview and his theological intents to make Christian allegories of antiquity.

Erinyes (Furies) and Harpies

The Erinyes or Furies (Canto IX) and Harpies (Canto XIII) also serve Dante’s rhetorical purposes as monstrous, but are not necessarily perceived as monsters themselves even in classical antiquity. In the Inferno, instead the Furies add horrific purpose, bloodstained, girdled in bright green hydras about their waist and crowned with vipers at their brows, screaming, howling and baying as they wound themselves. In Canto IX.38-48 Dante imitates the Underworld of Aeneid VI.545 & ff. with its triple steel walled Tartarus and moated red-hot Phlegethon where the Fury, Tisiphone in her “blood-wet” dress guards its towered gate, but in typical triplicity Dante adds her sisters Megaera and Alecto.

Gustave Dore, Harpies and Suicides in the Wood of Suicides

The mournful thicket of the Harpies opening Canto XIII is a puzzling place, one Dante describes in repetitive negative "nons" (not yet reached other side, unmarked by paths, not green leaves, unsmooth bark, no fruit, no beast infests so rough and dense a wood), all reserved for suicides in their ultimate negation of self. Dante’s Harpies (Arpie from Latin Harpeia) nesting in this poisonous wood are described as odio, loathsome, winged and with bird talons for feet, feathered bodies with distended stomachs, yet with human heads, but even these cannot fully articulate human speech in their screeching lamenti. Dante’s pilgrim is horrified to learn the harpies feed on the thorny foliage, causing pain because inhabiting the stumps were disembodied humans whose voices cry out, and he also discovers to his horror this is the wood of suicides.

Harpies (from Greek ‘αρπυια) in mythology were greatly feared, harpy literally meaning “snatcher” (in Greek harpazein means “to snatch”). At times Harpies may also have been thought to be sudden gusts of wind with mournful sounds, and in superstition they were blamed for sudden disappearances. Hesiod was one of the first Greek poets to mention Harpies in Theogony 265 onward, connected to both winds and birds.

Generally female – Virgil says that had the faces of maidens but were obscene in their habits - as filthy and ravenous bird monsters with human heads, in legend they befouled and stole food from wanderers like the Trojans of Aeneas who stopped on the island of Strophades in Aeneid III. 216-58 and were imagined thus in Italy in Aeneid VII.107-20. In some myths and, for example, on sculpted Classical Greek friezes from the so-called Harpy Tomb of Xanthos, c. 470 BCE, where they appear to carry off human souls of the dead. (14) In some myths Harpies may have also stolen souls of sleeping babies as some have interpreted, and in other variants they abducted and tortured souls en route to Tartarus, but since they were insatiably hungry, it was usually food they pilfered after befouling everything else with excrement as they robbed stranded seafarers. Dante has the harpies stripping what little withered foliage exists in the mostly barren, thorny wood of the suicides, which pains the human souls occupying the twisted, bleeding trees, and Dante’s harpy monsters are the “embodiment of fear” in this wood of despair. (15)


While some have seen Medusa as out of place in the Inferno, like its sinners her curse was self-inflicted, her original human beauty became a monstrous curse because of how she misapprehended it, an omen of her hubris. Even Christine de Pizan said it was originally Medusa’s beauty that was arresting, (16) and its transformation from beauty to horrification is suggested by Dante’s description of the Furies even though they are only harbingers of Medusa. After her disfiguring transformation Medusa was always deemed a monster, as the Furies invoke in almost reverse apotropaic intent that Medusa is worse than their own effect because like a basilisk she can silently turn to stone with one fractional gaze of being seen, whereas they can be seen in all their ugliness. Hollander not only calls her a "watchdog of Dis" but also sees her as an allegory personifying "that which turns hard the will of man in sin" in Dante's use of her. (17) Freccero’s reasoned essay on Dante’s Medusa also makes much of the baffling use of allegory in sightedness and antitheses of “covering” and “uncovering” with the poet’s veil (velami) and antitheses of dottrina and Medusa as Dante commands readers to see (mirate) and understand what lesson is beneath the veil of strange verses (sotto ‘l velami de li versi strani): “it is because the pilgrim averted his eyes from the Medusa that there is a truth to be seen beneath the veil”, both an interpretive and moral threat of doom of petrification, which will happen if the pilgrim does not “turn” (conversion) because then he will never “return” above. (18)

Caravaggio's Medusa, c. 1597

Apotropaic devices possessed much of the similar force in their ability to ward off evil, as eyes painted on ships’ prows, and often warding off evil by evil, as in the myth of Athena/Minerva’s wearing of the Gorgoneion (severed Medusa head) on her aegis, or sculpted eyes that could still see while being seen on profile relief in antiquity, or to protect against the fascinum, “evil eye” in ancient Roman superstition, (19) which practice Virgil mentions through the mouth of Menalcas about bewitching herd animals in Eclogue III.103: “Nescio quis teneros oculos mihi fascinat agnum.” But here in Dante’s Inferno, however, the threat of seeing Medusa to the “living” pilgrim is still very much “alive” and powerful in the realm of the dead.

Charybdis and Cacus

While ancient monsters often included Charybdis as the maelstrom in the Straits of Messina where two contrary seas meet, in the Inferno (Canto VII) she is reduced to figurative language alluding monstrous destructive waves that crash together and separate again as describing the hordes of the damned rushing about in their half-circle collisions where chaos rules. Charybdis was an oceanographic phenomenon, the worse of two evils relative to Scylla in the idiom “between a rock and a hard place,” a way for myth to explain nature and the dangers of the sea.

Cacus, on the other hand, was treated by Virgil in Aeneid VIII.195-230 & ff. with considerable detail in a narration by King Evander of Latium, some of which Dante echoes. In myth, thieving Cacus was the son of Vulcan and Medusa – having a few characteristics of both in his fire-breathing, horrific evil character – who lived awhile on the Aventine Hill, where in myth he had “often turned the stones under the Aventine mount into a lake of blood”, sotto ’l sasso di monte Aventino, di sangue fece spesse volte laco, much like Nero of old if Suetonius is credible. (20) Having stolen some of Hercules’s cattle, Cacus thought he could hide his crime by forcing the cattle to walk backward into his cave, thus trying to fool anyone who might track them. Hearing a pilfered heifer lowing from within the mountain as he drove his herd past, Hercules discovered the theft and clubbed the half-human monster in his destroyed cave with a hundred blows, only the first ten of which he lived through. In a sense this heroic overkill may spill over into Dante’s hell where sinners are punished beyond physical death.

Dante’s Cacus is thus apropos in Canto XXV’s Circle of Thieves, Bolgia 7, although here in centaur form. While not necessarily always thieves, centaurs were prone to trying to steal women like Deianira the wife of Hercules and Hippodameia the bride princess of the Lapith king Pirithous in the most famous Centauromachy in myth. Cacus the violent centaur is covered with snakes, also bearing a dragon fire-breathing like the original Cacus of myth, and the following transformation of Florentine shades and serpents has likely allegorical power as well, possibly about degradation of the Imago Dei or bestial antithesis to the divine in nostra effige. (21) Early commentators assumed Dante’s centaurs were condottieri, mercenaries hired out by tyrants, often violent but nonetheless instruments of rule however harsh, (22) and this centaur’s full rage (centauro pien di rabbia) deserves Dante’s contrapasso equivocating the sin in life with the punishment in hell. (23)

Early in Canto XXV, the pursuit of the Florentine Fucci by Cacus, where a centaur form is emblematic of violence, with “the load of serpents for his many thefts” and “the fiery dragon for his sacrilege and blasphemy – for he [Fucci] had stolen from the Church” (24) predispose the passage to an allegory of fugitive justice the myth endorses in Hercules’ destruction of Cacus, as in Aeneid VIII where the kingdom of Latium is also thereby freed. In myth, dual-natured centaurs are instruments of chaos whose bestiality usually undermines their humanity. (25)

In Canto XXV Dante often either uses synonymic or derived words of transmutation (e.g., mutare, mutato, converte and trasmutare) alongside slightly negativized words of amalgamation (e.g. confusi, mischiar), his poetic text – mentioning other Roman poets and works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Lucan’s Pharsalia both of whom he slightly demeans, possibly relative to Virgil - might appear to be steeped in hermetic alchemy in descriptive colors of brown, black and white as well as “livid” earlier, all newly changed by the agency of fire partly seen through smoke: Mentre che ’l fummo l’ uno e l’ altro vela di colore novo (“while the smoke veils the one and then the other with new color”), and with allegorical details somehow evoking what one would see in a metalworker’s forge where metal flows serpent-like when molten, (26) evocative considering the father of Cacus was Vulcan in myth. The Latin name Cacus may derive from the Greek kakos, “evil”, which would be consonant with his place in the Inferno as a creature given over to wickedness and without redeeming qualities, although Augustine would have evil only as an absence of goodness, where “no creature is evil, in spite of the fact that some creatures are worse than others,” (27) and even Dante’s demi-monsters like Cacus are creatures that bear traces of the Imago Dei, however marred.


The Minotaur is a more obvious classical monster with hybrid nature conjoining man and bull, regardless which part wears head or body. At the broken edge of the chasm, here rages the l’ Infamia di Creti, the “Infamy of Crete”. Long ago in myth, instead of sacrificing the bull from the sea to Poseidon as a votive, King Minos of Crete wanted the magnificent bull to stud his cows and the sea god gave him more than he wanted, seeding his wife whose bent mind desired the bull. The captive inventor Daedalus, at the bidding of Queen Pasiphae whose lust for the white bull knew no natural bounds, created a fake cow for her to climb inside for the bull to mount, and the Minotaur was conceived inside the cow, concetta ne la falsa vacca, perhaps also an allusion to the birth shell of Venus, Goddess of Love since concetta can ambiguously suggest both “shell” (Latin concha) as well as the normal “conceived”. Theseus as Duca d’Atene, slew the Minotaur upside but also descended into the Underworld to steal Persephone, and never returned, so when Virgil wonders, “Perhaps you think you see the Duke of Athens”, it is partly because Dante reminds that in Aeneid VI.618 “wretched Theseus sits forever” trapped in Virgil’s Tartarus for his thwarted hubristic crime of abduction.

Gustave Dore, The Two Poets View the Minotaur and Vice Versa

Seeing the poets, the violent Minotaur rages, his mind crazed as he “gnawed himself in rage” (sé stesso morse, si come quei cui l’ira dentro fiacca) the Italian repetitive with alliteratively rich velar consonants (come, quei, cui), and he can only rage not the least because he has a beast-human duality of mind that will never be resolvable. The structure of Canto XII, itself about dualities, “conceals” an image about the human body: “neither the Minotaur nor the centaurs can produce more than half a human body each” (28) ; even Chiron, the noblest of centaurs is still half a beast. The threatening way in which the Minotaur plunges back and forth on the rocks, guardata da quell’ ira bestial, makes the monster’s direction as unpredictable as his mind and body, neither of which can move in unison. Even the Minotaur’s rageful gnawing himself is a form of self-punishment, the accursed pain one nature violently inflicts on the other. Mindless or not, however, typical of the Inferno’s quasi-biblical denizens, rage and gnashing of teeth are eternal (Gospel of Matthew 13:42, 50). (29)


Cerberus was the monstrous triple-headed Hell Dog guarding the Gates of Hell in Canto VI of the Inferno, appropriated by Dante after having guarded the mythical gate of the Classical Underworld from Greek through Roman myth, his task also used by Virgil, allowing the dead to enter but none to escape, as Hesiod first said in Theogony 767-74:

“There, in front, stand the echoing halls of the god of the lower-world, strong Hades, and of awful Persephone. A fearful hound guards the house in front, pitiless, and he has a cruel trick. On those who go in he fawns with his tail and both his ears, but suffers them not to go out back again, but keeps watch and devours whomever he catches going out of the gates of strong Hades and awful Persephone.” (30)

As one of his last punitive labors Juno (Hera) sent Hercules (Heracles) to the Underworld to bring back Cerberus, hoping he would be trapped and never return, but as protectress of heroes Minerva (Athena) came to his aid, showing him how to tame the monster with brains instead of muscling the monster with brawn. In several passages, Virgil locates Cerberus in the Underworld (Aeneid VI. 395-6) for the successful passage of Hercules, where Hercules contravened the normal function of Cerberus by dragging him away from the gate and then has Aeneas face him in following lines (417-18). (31) For Dante, Cerberus was also used as an allegory of uncontrolled gluttony or incontinence of appetite. For the tormented sinners who yielded to gluttony in the Third Circle, implying they were moved more by their stomachs than any beauty, Cerberus rakes them and rips at the embodied spirits with his monstrous claws:

William Blake, Cerberus, c. 1790

“[Cerberus] is the prototype of the gluttons…He has become Appetite and as such he flays and mangles the spirits who reduced their lives to a satisfaction of appetite. With his three heads, he appears to be a manifestation of Lucifer and thus another distortion of the Trinity.” (32)

In Luciferian allegory, Dante directly refers to Cerberus as il gran vermo, “the Great Worm” alluding to many biblical possibilities from Genesis 3 with the serpent in Eden to the great warring dragon of Apocalypse [Revelation] 12:3-4 whose demonic tail drew down a third of the stars in the sky, although in the biblical passage the dragon has seven heads, not three, but the reptilian nature is derogated by Dante, reduced in scorn to being a worm. (33) As in almost every Dante reference, triplicity and Trinitarian allusions abound even in logical but antithetical ways; if God has three persons so must the Devil. The ternary correlation with angels fits that after Lucifer’s expulsion from Heaven, the third of the stars are fallen angels swept down with his prideful fall.

Dante’s Cerberus makes direct imitative reference to Virgil’s description of the Underworld passage of Aeneas, where Dante has Virgil throwing dirt clods into the monster’s gaping, fanged mouths to distract it when it sees the two poets approaching:

“With this action, Virgil imitates the action of the Sibyl who, leading Aeneas through the Underworld, placates Cerberus by casting honeyed cakes into his three throats (Aeneid VI.417-423). By substituting ‘dirt’ for the Virgilian cakes, Dante emphasizes Cerberus’ irrational gluttony.” (34)

Where the Sibyl throws drugged honeycakes in order to subdue it, Dante scornfully reduces the “food” to dirt, not only which the monster finds indistinguishable from other sustenance but also reductively apropos of its underworld locus. Dante describes Cerberus as behaving just like a food-distracted dog, quieting only to bolt its food down, “a hungry cur fighting with only its food,” thus leaving the two poets alone to pass by more safely.

Dante’s description of Cerberus echoes Virgil in other ways in Aeneid VI.417-18: “Huge Cerberus sets these regions echoing with his triple-throated howling, crouching monstrously in a cave opposite” as both Virgil and Dante describe Cerberus as monstrous, triple-throated, noisily howling and Hell’s guardian, Dante’s description of Cerberus, however, is also much more ample than Virgil’s standard version: the Inferno’s Cerberus has red eyes (occhi…vermigli), a greasy black beard (barba untra…atra) and a great belly (ventre largo), signifying its unbridled motivation to eat. For Virgil, Cerberus howls, where for Dante the monster deafeningly barks and thunders. In Canto IX.98-99 the ugly throat of Cerberus is also described as scraped clean due to Hercules having temporarily dragged him away while he resisted his destiny. Most of all for Dante, Cerberus as a monster dispensing divine justice, the cruel claws rake, scar and flay the sinners (graffia li spiriti, scuoia e disquatra), something the classical monster could never do, as it could only devour anyone trying to escape back. Even as an incorporeal shade, the disjunction in devouring a shade is nonetheless still a potent threat.

Cerberus is similar to the animation of soul-devouring in the vignette in Egypt’s Hall of Two Truths, Chapter-Spell 125 A-D of the Egyptian Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), where the fearful triple hybrid Ammit (combining a wigged crocodile head with either a hyena or maned lion torso and a hippopotamus rear as a monster ) forever gobbles the souls of those whose sins made their “hearts” weigh more than the proverbial feather of justice of Ma’at. Thereafter the souls have no future. (35) This relict ancient classical function of triple-headed Cerberus – devouring any who might try to leave Hell - bears great resemblance to triple-hybrid Ammit, which was most likely a distant source for some of the Greek Kerberos (Cerberus) myth tradition. In this case triplicity is not only a Danteesque device but also a potent myth function of the hubris-hubridis formula already mentioned.

Detail, Papyrus of Hunefer, 19th Dynasty, c. 1275 BCE (Note triple hybrid Ammit, Gobbler of Souls under right side of the balance scale)


The most complicated of Dante’s monsters may be Geryon, “…one of the most fantastic of Dante’s monsters, Geryon the emblem of fraud,” (36) whose place here has long been debated because his nature is so enigmatic and Dante’s description and use are not in keeping with the classical three-headed Iberian giant slain by Hercules. (37) In myth Geryon lived on the “red” island of Erytheia in the far west, always tinted by sunset, and Hercules appropriated and drove away his herd of red cattle after killing him. According to Hesiod, Theogony 287-290, Geryon’s mother was Kallirhoe, daughter of Ocean, and he was at first only triple-headed. Many have pointed out how often Greek monsters are connected to Poseidon and Ocean, as Hesiod lists, including those in the Inferno like Geryon, including Medusa and her Gorgon sisters (Theogony 273-5), Harpies (Theogony 264-69) and Cerberus (Theogony 311). The Erinyes were born from the drops of blood of castrated Uranus falling on earth (Theogony 176-77-) and the Minotaur was born of the bull Poseidon sent from the sea (Apollodorus, Bibliotheke III.1.3-4). The connection of Geryon and the other monsters to Poseidon and Ocean can account for them as instruments of chaos, like the uncontrollable sea. Other than as manifestations of chaos, these classical text monsters have less in common with Dante’s highly symbolic schemata of punishment.

Archaic Black-Figure Vase, Heracles and Geryon, c. 540 BCE, Louvre Museum, Paris

But Dante has other uses for Geryon that do not need to mirror every classical myth, however much his conquest by the salvific Hercules foreshadows a heroic figure of Christ who himself descended in his harrowing of Hell after his death. By changing Geryon from a triple-bodied giant with three similar bodies or merely a giant with three heads – forms of the classical image as seen on black-figured Greek vase paintings and Roman mosaics (38) - to a giant hybridizing different creatures in one person, Dante offers a bolder allegory:

Geryon…combines the wise man with the scorpion’s tail. As this passage makes clear, he combines the three natures of man, beast, and serpent delineated in the Liber monstrorum di diversis generibus…The most enigmatic of Dante’s monsters escapes definition as he metamorphoses under the poet’s pen…described as one who swims and flies…Geryon is the ever-changing monster who ushers Dante into the realm of fraud, the sin of deception and false appearances.” (39)

In Canto XVII.10 & ff., Geryon is described as having a just man’s face, outwardly kind, but that is his only human part. His wingless torso is serpentine, with hairy fur from his paws to his armpits, and his back and breast are marked with intricate designs Dante does not divulge; in 27-28 his tail is armed with a venomous stinger like a dreadful scorpion’s. This hybrid form also echoes his Classical triple form, with a benign human head at one end with a scorpion's toxic poisonous tail on the other end, a dangerous mixture for Dante's persona to read: which part best expresses of the beast's truer nature? Because the only way down into the Abyss is on the monster’s back, Dante has to overcome his greatest fears. The fact that face and body do not match is part of the fraud; if fooled by the huge kindly face one might never see the arcing scorpion stinger coming overhead to pierce behind, which is part of what Dante feared so greatly and why Virgil sat behind him for protection in the descent.

Since Dante’s guide is Virgil, perhaps the most appropriate Geryon sources for Dante are Aeneid VI.289 and VIII.202, where as has been pointed out in VI.289 in Aeneas’ underworld descent that Geryon is periphrastically alluded in the words forma tricorporis umbrae (40) as a “triple-bodied shade.” But in using Geryon to different ends than Classical myth, Dante manipulates many different images to create a holistic monster, mostly lacking Classic monstrousness in terms of malevolence and instead rendering a composite being who acts as a vehicle for transporting Dante and Virgil to the abyss. Here Dante “collapse[s] a wildly incompatible range of literal senses into a single level of narrative…Geryon conflates classical myth, Christian doctrine, literary criticism and exegetical terminology as literal meanings of creatures.” (41)

Geryon is also ambiguous in exact medium through which he moves in the Abyss, because Dante describes his locomotion in various figurative ways: “Geryon remains in a disquietingly indeterminate position as he travels through a medium described as air and water.” (42) One of the most interesting recent studies about Dante’s description of Geryon and his flight down into the Abyss comes not from a literary analysis but from a physicist. Dante’s prescience about an aspect of science is not entirely surprising given his powers of description. When Dante carefully describes the gradual downward motion of Geryon spiraling into the Abyss (100-108) while swimming though air, he remarks in the absence of seeing anything that while he knows they must be descending in wheeling round, he has no perception of motion and can only perceive motion by the wind against his face. (43) The physicist Ricci believes the perceptive poet intuitively grasped what Galileo established centuries later as the Galilean invariance principle regarding the imperceptibility of motion without a visual frame of reference and the physicist was not surprised given Dante’s incredible sensory detail and immense powers of description.

Synthesizing Christian apocalyptic lore, Dante’s Geryon is also a figure of the Antichristus mysticus derivable for Dante from the biblical Apocalypse (Revelation) 9:7 about the deep Abyss, where, after the fifth angel sounds his trumpet, a star falls to the earth with a key to unlock the Abyss. Then smoke rose from the Abyss “as from a giant furnace” and where locust-like creatures with thundering wings and human faces came out of the smoke with tails of scorpions and the power of scorpions to sting. (44) Since Dante describes Geryon as a composite creature out of the Abyss, a beast bearing a human face but having a scorpion’s tail, the comparison is apt. Dante’s Geryon thus sums up past, present and future judgment in a fusion of Classical and Christian tradition, taking the long view of time and eternity as might be expected from such a great poet.


Dante’s monsters may be derived from classical sources but are transformed into very different, allegorical creatures, each one at a symbolic junction of the story and with a specific association with both sinners and divinely-assigned tasks to fulfill, a liminal function as boundary markers of infernal sub-territories, each on a different turf.

“Each circle below Limbo is inhabited or guarded by a monster. More precisely, monsters dwell a the edges, at notable thresholds on the pilgrim’s journey. Thus in addition to marking the transition from one level to another, they help to define the entrance to the Gates of Hell and to Hell proper, the gates of the city of Dis and the exit from the eternally dark realm. Most significantly, monsters appear at difficult junctures on the journey, places where the terrain is impossible to traverse without their intervention.” (45)

While Dante’s monsters – Cerberus, Erinyes, Harpies, Medusa, Cacus, Geryon and others - are not creatures of obvious order, nonetheless they order the Inferno in a different way. They mete out punishment appropriate to each circle of hell where, often similar to their sinners in appropriate locations, they too mostly suffer and rage as they painfully maim sinners who are also their bait because Dante has crafted them as the direst personification of fear. Dante’s sinners might have wished that only earthly foreshadowings of accountability and judgment in this life were as effective as their horrific encounters after the fact. In the face of his monsters who link Classical and Christian worlds through the past, present and future, Dante warns, Caveat lector. As he claims he did, Dante the Poet wishes to make us tremble.


Teodolinda Barolini, "Re-Presenting What God Presented: The Arachnean Art of Dante's Terrace of Pride. Dante Studies 105 (1987) 43-62.

Christopher Bennett Becker. “Dante’s Motley Cord: Art and Apocalypse in Inferno XVI.” Modern Language Notes 106.1 Italian issue (1991) 179-83.

Kevin Brownlee. "Dante and the Classical Poets" in Rachel Jacoff, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dante, 2007 ed, 141-60, esp. 141, 148, 150, 152 & ff.

Raymond J. Clark. “The Cerberus-Like Function of the Gorgons in Virgil's Underworld (Aen. 6.273–94).” The Classical Quarterly 53.1 (2003) 308-309.

Ernst Robert Curtius. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. “Dante” (Chapter 17). W.R. Trask, tr. Bollingen Series XXXVI. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990 [1953] 7th pr., 348-79.

Matthew W. Dickie. "Heliodorus and Plutarch on the Evil Eye." Classical Philology 86 (1991) 17-29.

Raymond Faulkner, Carol Andrews, eds. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000.

Christopher Frayling. Strange Landscape: A Journey Through the Middle Ages. London: Penguin Books, 1995, 159.

John Freccero, Foreward, in Robert Pinsky, tr. The Inferno of Dante. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. 11th pr.

John Freccero “On Dante’s Medusa” in Marjorie Garber and Nancy Vickers, eds. The Medusa Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003, Chapter 45, 109-121 [reprinted from Freccero, Medusa: The Letter and the Spirit, 1972].

John Block Friedman. “Antichrist and the Iconography of Dante’s Geryon.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes XXXV (1972) 108-122.

Marjorie Garber and Nancy Vickers, eds. The Medusa Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003, 57.

Aron Gurevich. Medieval Popular Culture: Problems of Belief and Perception. J. M. Bak and P. A. Hollingsworth, trs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997 repr., 144.

Robert Hollander. Allegory in Dante's Commedia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969, 240, 253.

Patrick Hunt. “Kentauros: Near Eastern and Not-So-Greek-Hybrid” Yale University Graduate Classics Colloquium paper, April, 1999.

Keala Jewell, ed. Monsters in the Italian Literary Imagination. Wayne State University Press, 2001, 12.

Virginia Jewiss. “Monstrous Movements and Metaphors in Dante’s Divine Comedy” in Keala Jewell, ed. Monsters in the Italian Literary Imagination. Wayne State University Press, 2001, 179-184 & ff.

Christopher Kleinhenz. "Notes on Dante's Use of Classical Myths and the Mythological Tradition.” Romance Quarterly 33 (1986) 477-484.

Christopher Kleinhenz. “Infernal Guardians Revisited: ‘Cerbero, il gran vermo.’ (Inferno VI.22) Dante Studies 93 (1975) 185-99.

Richard Lansing. Dante and Classical Antiquity: the Epic Tradition. [Dante: The Critical Complex, vol. 2.] London and New York: Routledge, 2002, 107.

Gèrard Luciani. Les Monstres dans “La Divine Comédie". Paris: Lettres Modernes, 1975.

Mark Musa, ed. Dante’s Inferno. Indiana Critical Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995, 59.

Desmond O’Grady. Rome Reshaped: Jubilees 1300-2000. New York: Continuum Books, 1-5, 63-5 on Dante.

Robert Pinsky, ed. The Inferno of Dante, foreward by John Freccero. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. 11th pr.

Paul Priest. “Looking Back from the Vision: Trinitarian Structure and Poetry in the Commedia”. Dante Studies 91 (1973) 113-30.

Leonardo Ricci. “History of Science: Dante’s insight into Galilean invariance (Inferno VI.103-08).” Nature 434 (2005) 717.

John D. Sinclair. Dante: The Divine Comedy: 1. Inferno. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Madison Sowell, ed. Dante and Ovid: Essays in Intertextuality. Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, vol 82. Center for International Scholarly Exchange, Columbia University, vol. 2. Binghamton, NY, 1991, 11

Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Jeremy Tambling. “Monstrous Tyranny, Men of Blood: Dante and Inferno XII.” The Modern Language Review 98.4 (2003) 881-97.


(1) Lansing, 107
(2) Gurevich, 144: “Dante’s Other World is allegorized. Though allegory for medieval man was not equivalent to fiction, and it is unlikely that for Dante hell, purgatory and paradise were mere poetic metaphors, nevertheless this impressive picture of otherwordly reality was created precisely by Dante.”
(3) Frayling, 159: “well-known literary genre of ‘otherworldly visits’…[in Dante] the condemned in hell are not plagued by reptiles and fanged beasts of sculpture…they are plagued forever by their worldly sins…Other world…which Dante transformed from the world of folklore to the world of art…”
(4) Gèrard Luciani. Les Monstres dans “La Divine Comédie.” Paris: Lettres Modernes, 1975 (according to Jewiss “the most thorough treatment of the topic”); many others have written extensively on Dante’s monsters, e.g., Christopher Kleinhenz. "Notes on Dante's Use of Classical Myths and the Mythological Tradition.” Romance Quarterly 33 (1986) 477-484. I do not yet have text for what looks to be a promising study: Christopher Livanos. “Dante’s Monsters: Nature and Evil in the Comedy” in C. Kleinhenz, ed. Symposium on Dante Alighieri and the Medieval Cultural Traditions. Dante Studies, forthcoming.
(5) Kevin Brownlee. "Dante and the Classical Poets" in Rachel Jacoff, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dante, 2007 ed, 141-60, esp. 141, 148, 150, 152 & ff.
(6) Madison Sowell, ed. Dante and Ovid: Essays in Intertextuality. Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, vol 82. Center for International Scholarly Exchange, Columbia University, vol. 2. Binghamton, NY, 1991, 11. Also see Teodolinda Barolini, "Re-Presenting What God Presented: The Arachnean Art of Dante's Terrace of Pride. Dante Studies 105 (1987) 43-62, and elsewhere.
(7) O’Grady, 1
(8) Jewell, 12
(9) Curtius, 359, “Dante’s hundreds of imitations of the Aeneid…”
(10) Regarding hubris-hybridis, I tried this idea out on John Boardman in early 2007, and he encouraged my reading.
(11) Sinclair, 164
(12) Lansing, 274n43
(13) Jewiss, 181
(14) Archaic style Lykian tomb monument, British Museum. GR 1848-10-20.1 (Sculpture B287). Not all agree they are harpy representations, but rather sirens. One of the figures shown seated on the Lykian tomb relief may have been the dynastic Lykian king Harpagus, hence the possible homophonic association with the mythical harpy (‘αρπυια).
(15) Sinclair, 176.
(16) Garber and Vickers, writing about Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies in The Medusa Reader, 57
(17) Robert Hollander. Allegory in Dante's Commedia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969, 240, 253.
(18) John Freccero, ch. in Garber and Vickers, 110-112 & ff
(19) Matthew W. Dickie. "Heliodorus and Plutarch on the Evil Eye." Classical Philology 86 (1991) 17-29.
(20) Suetonius, De Vitae Caesarum: Vita Neronis 28-29, 37; Tacitus, Annales XV 39-40, 44, where Nero’s uncontrollable lusts and violent thievery bathed Rome in blood, robbed Romans of all classes and persecuted Christians to death, including burning them as torches at his orgies by his Domus Aurea lake.
(21) Priest, 21 & ff
(22) Sinclair, 164
(23) note of Nicole Pinsky in Robert Pinsky’s Inferno translation, 340
(24) Sinclair, 317
(25) Patrick Hunt. “Kentauros: Near Eastern and Not-So-Greek-Hybrid” Yale University Graduate Classics Colloquium paper, April, 1999
(26) Classical Hebrew makes this clear where nahash (נחש) is serpent and nehoshet (נהשת) is bronze serpent in the fiery serpent biblical passage of Numbers 21:5-9, although for Dante to have known this is not attestable.
(27) derivable from Augustine, De Natura boni contra Mani 14 in Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, Cambridge University Press, 2001, 44
(28) Tambling, 881.
(29) Matthew 13:42, 50 And [God] shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
(30) Hesiod Theogony 767-74, tr. Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Hesiod's Theogony. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.
(31) Raymond J. Clark. “The Cerberus-Like Function of the Gorgons in Virgil's Underworld (Aen. 6.273–94).” The Classical Quarterly, 53.1 (2003) 308-309. Virgil’s placement of Cerberus corresponds with the location of other monsters and snakes in a lost Heracles catabasis, 309n6.
(32) Musa, 59
(33) Christopher Kleinhenz. “Infernal Guardians Revisited: ‘Cerbero, il gran vermo.’ (Inferno VI.22) Dante Studies 93 (1975) 185-99.
(34) Musa, 59
(35) Raymond Faulkner, Carol Andrews, eds. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000, 115-18. From the Papyrus of Ani, see the British Museum sheet EA 10470/3 or from the Papyrus of Hunefer, see the British Museum sheet EA 9901/3, both 19th Dynasty, around 1275 BCE.
(36) Becker, 179
(37) Friedman, 109, esp. in “Dante’s figure of fraud hardly resembles the classical Geryon, a three-headed Spanish king slain by Hercules.”
(38) e.g., Archaic c. 540 BCE. Black-Figure Vase, Musée du Louvre, Paris F3, Beazley 310309; and the magnificent late Roman mosaics in the late 3rd century CE Triclinium at Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina, Sicily, depicting The Labors of Hercules show a bleeding triple-bodied armored giant felled by the hero.
(39) Jewiss, 183
(40) Friedman, 109
(41) Lansing, 107
(42) Jewiss, 183
(43) Ricci, 717: “The poet’s vividly imagined flight unwittingly captures a physical law of motion. In 1632 Galileo described his experience of motion aboard a large ship and exposed in detail the invariance principle…I suggest that more than three centuries earlier, in the Divine Comedy, his fellow countryman Dante Alighieri intuitively grasped what Galileo was later to establish.”
(44) Friedman, 112
(45) Jewiss, 184

Copyright © 2009 Dr. Patrick Hunt
Stanford University