Dante's Inferno and Classical Mythology

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  • Topic: Greek mythology, Virgil, Erinyes
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  • Published : July 22, 2010
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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. 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...
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