Week 8: Dante's Inferno

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Canto 9: The Heretics

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 800 words.

Dante and Virgil now meet the Furies, including Tisiphone who you might remember from Vergil's Aeneid. The Furies then summon Medusa, a mythological creature called a "Gorgon" who was able to turn into stone anyone who looked at her. An angel, a messenger from heaven, arrives in their midst and rebukes the inhabitants of hell. Dante then sees the heretics who are punished by burning fires in their tombs.

The Furies and Medusa

And he said more that I do not remember, because my eyes had been drawn to the high tower, with the glowing crest, where, in an instant, three hellish Furies, stained with blood, had risen, that had the limbs and aspects of women, covered with a tangle of green hydras, their hideous foreheads bound with little adders, and horned vipers.

And Virgil, who knew the handmaids of the queen of eternal sadness well, said to me: 'See, the fierce Erinyes. That is Megaera on the left: the one that weeps, on the right, is Alecto: Tisiphone is in the middle.'

Then he was silent. Each one was tearing at her breast with her claws, beating with her hands, and crying out so loudly, that I pressed close to the poet, out of fear.

'Let Medusa come,' they all said, looking down on us, 'so that we can turn him to stone: we did not fully revenge Theseus's attack.'

'Turn your back.' said the Master, and he himself turned me round. 'Keep your eyes closed, since there will be no return upwards, if she were to show herself, and you were to see her.'

Not leaving it to me, he covered them, also, with his own hands.

O you, who have clear minds, take note of the meaning that conceals itself under the veil of clouded verse!

The Messenger from Heaven

Now, over the turbid waves, there came a fearful crash of sound, at which both shores trembled; a sound like a strong wind, born of conflicting heat, that strikes the forest, remorselessly, breaks the branches, and beats them down, and carries them away, advances proudly in a cloud of dust, and makes wild creatures, and shepherds, run for safety. Virgil uncovered my eyes, and said: 'Now direct your vision to that ancient marsh, there, where the mists are thickest.'

Like frogs, that all scatter through the water, in front of their enemy the snake, until each one squats on the bottom, so I saw more than a thousand damaged spirits scatter, in front of one who passed the Stygian ferry with dry feet. He waved that putrid air from his face, often waving his left hand before it, and only that annoyance seemed to weary him. I well knew he was a messenger from Heaven, and I turned to the Master, who made a gesture that I should stay quiet, and bow to him.

How full of indignation he seemed to me! He reached the gate, and opened it with a wand: there was no resistance. On the vile threshold he began to speak: 'O, outcasts from Heaven, why does this insolence still live in you? Why are you recalcitrant to that will, whose aims can never be frustrated, and that has often increased your torment? What use is it to butt your heads against the Fates? If you remember, your Cerberus, still shows a throat and chin scarred from doing so.'

Then he returned, over the miry pool, and spoke no word to us, but looked like one preoccupied and driven by other cares, than of those who stand before him. And we stirred our feet towards the city, in safety, after his sacred speech.

The Sixth Circle: Dis - The Heretics

We entered Dis without a conflict, and I gazed around, as soon as I as was inside, eager to know what punishment the place enclosed, and saw on all sides a vast plain full of pain and vile torment.

As at Arles, where the Rhone stagnates, or Pola, near the Gulf of Quarnaro, that confines Italy, and bathes its coast, the sepulchres make the ground uneven, so they did here, all around, only here the nature of it was more terrible.

Flames were scattered amongst the tombs, by which they were made so red-hot all over, that no smith's art needs hotter metal. Their lids were all lifted, and such fierce groans came from them, that, indeed, they seemed to be those of the sad and wounded.

And I said: 'Master, who are these people, entombed in those vaults, who make themselves known by tormented sighing?'

And he to me: 'Here are the arch-heretics, with their followers, of every sect: and the tombs contain many more than you might think. Here like is buried with like, and the monuments differ in degrees of heat.' Then after turning to the right, we passed between the tormented, and the steep ramparts. [...]


Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what do the Furies (Greek Erinyes) look like?
  • why did Dante have to keep his eyes closed when Medusa came?
  • what punishment is inflicted on the heretics?

Source: Dante's Inferno, translated by A.S. Kline (2000). Website: Dante and Others.


Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM