Digital Dante: Students' Work: Classical Horror in Dante's Inferno, Cantos XIII and XXV
Classical Horror in Dante's Inferno, Cantos XIII and XXV
by M. G.
The Collegiate School, 1997
Dante Alighieri's Inferno is a piece of classical literary horror, influenced
primarily by the classical writers Ovid and Virgil. When we speak about
the nature of horror in literature and art, we may imagine horrid ghouls
and demons ripping apart helpless mortals, blood and gore in prodigious
amounts, and eye-popping special effects that would terrify all but the
most staunch movie- goer. In the world of literature today, the horror
genre has become more image-oriented, with horror novelists like Stephen
King and William Peter Blatty almost eliminating the need to use one's
imagination. Alighieri, as a poet, refined the classic techniques of horror
to an art. A shrewd
and imaginative poet, he used graphic images to appease the appetite of
the common reader while not neglecting their need for imaginative cultivation.
His unique blend of image and substance is demonstrated best in two cantos
in the Inferno, Canto XIII (The Wood of the Suicides) and Canto XXV (The
Den of the Snake-Thieves), and it is in these two cantos that we see Alighieri
as the master of the art of horror.
In discussing Alighieri's technique of creating horror in these
two cantos, one would also note that he was greatly influenced by the image-evoking
techniques of Ovid, Virgil, and other classical poets. In Canto XIII, we
see Dante emerging from the Valley of Phlegethon, only to arrive in the
Wood of the Suicides. This scene is important in that it was directly influenced
by Virgil's Aeneid in its is an intensification of the graphic imagery
and metaphors used, almost to the point of being a different interpretation
altogether. Canto XXV, a scene in which we see the hideous transmutation
of both man and beast, is a powerful and terrifying use of grotesque visual
imagery as well as a cleverly masked statement about the nature of thieves.
Greatly influenced by Ovid's Metamorphoses for this canto, Alighieri uses
two separate instances from Metamorphoses related to the theme of transfiguration,
and, ironically, blends them together to create a terrifying new scene.
In Canto XIII, it is important to realize at what point in the grand scheme
of Hell we have reached so that we are familiar with the fact that Dante
and Virgil are situated in the seventh circle of Hell - more specifically
- the den of the Violent against themselves (suicides) and the Violent
against their possessions (squanderers). As we begin the canto, Alighieri
immediately changes the scenery; he moves the two from the bloody banks
of Phlegethon to "a wood on which no path had left its mark."
Alighieri is creating a sense of dark, almost claustrophobic tension with
this forest scene as he did in Canto I: "I found myself within a shadowed
forest, / for I had lost the path that does not stray" (I, 2-3). In both
scenes, Alighieri begins with a sense of awkward uneasiness that keeps
the reader on edge. He goes on to describe the dark forest: "No green leaves
in that forest, only black; / no branches straight and smooth, but knotted,
gnarled; / no fruits were there, but briers bearing poison" (XIII, 4-6).
It is interesting to note the Italian onomatopoeia that Alighieri uses:
"nodosi" [knotted] (XIII, 5) and "n'volti" [gnarled] (XIII, 5). These words
convey twisted, tortured branches. The Italian poet Porena, in commenting
on this part of the Inferno, states that the forest of the second circle
is one of the only two areas of vegetation in all of Hell, the first being
the "meadow of fresh verdure" (IV, 111). However, unlike that meadow, the
forest creates a true feeling of horror.
One of the major influences on Alighieri's description of the wood might
have been the Latin poet Seneca; his poem Hercules Furens describes the
ancient Greek legend of Theseus' voyage to Hades, the underworld, in ghastly
detail. In this forest:
No meadows bud, joyous with verdant view,
no ripened corn waves in the gentle breeze;
not any grove has fruit- producing boughs;
the barren desert of the abysmal fields lies all untilled,
and the foul land lies torpid in endless sloth,
sad end of things, the world's last estate.
We can see the correlation between Seneca's account of the dead forest
and Alighieri's own forest of dead souls. In Seneca's account, Theseus,
in the same manner of Dante, makes the journey to Hades to fulfill a quest
given to him by the Gods. In this passage, we can see Seneca creating a
mood not unlike melancholy sorrow that underlies the entire forest. Indeed,
through all of the horror and uneasiness that Alighieri manifests in the
Inferno, there is a definite aura of pathetic sadness inherent in the damned
souls of Hell. However, Alighieri goes in a different direction in the
setup of his landscape. Instead of appealing to a sad, haunting view of
the forest, as Seneca does, Alighieri creates an eerie tension by comparing
the dens of the "savage beasts that roam between / Cecina and Corneto,
beasts that hate / tilled lands" (XIII,7-9) to these forests, in which
even these savage beasts would not prefer to be. This statement makes the
reader step back and rethink the severity of the desolation apparent here
in this forest. In turn, it catches the reader off guard, and sets him
up for the events to come.
Further in the canto, Dante describes the woods as the "nesting
place of the foul Harpies" (XIII, 10). According to ancient Greek lore,
the Harpies were "fierce, filthy, winged monsters, with the faces of women,
bodies of vultures, and sharp claws. They left a loathsome stench...carried
away the souls of the dead, and served as ministers of divine vengeance,
and punished criminals."
It is interesting to note that the latter part of this definition, illustrating
the harpies as ministers of divine justice, fits perfectly here with Alighieri's
assignment of their role as winged sentinels in the wood of the suicides.
The Harpies are monsters frequently appearing throughout Greek mythology
and classical poetry, one instance being in Virgil's Aeneid, in which the
Harpies "plunder Aeneas on his way to Italy, and predict many calamities
that would overtake him."
However, as in many other instances throughout the Inferno, here we see
Alighieri take the classical interpretation of mythological figures and
give a more frightening aura to them, which adds to the ambience of terror
in this canto: "Their wings are wide, their necks and faces human; / their
feet are taloned, their great bellies feathered; / they utter their laments
on the strange trees" (XIII, 13-15). In this description, Alighieri creates
a sense of terror not only by elaborating on the monstrous proportion and
grotesqueness of the creatures, but on the actual "humanness' of the harpies.
It is, in fact, this similarity of Harpy to man that terrifies the reader;
that the genetic relationship between monster and man might not be so distinct.
After viewing the Harpies, Virgil, serving now as a guide and
teacher, states: "...know that now you are within in the second rinq...therefore
look carefully; you'll see such things / as would deprive my speech of
all belief" (XIII, 20-21). Prior to this point in the Inferno, Virgil has
always served to warn Dante about the dangers and horrors that he has encountered,
making them easier to deal with. Now, however, Virgil simply warns Dante
to "look carefully" (XIII, 20) and view horrors of which Virgil himself
is bereft of explanation. This comment sets up definite suspense at this
point: the reader, like Dante, is left momentarily without explanation
of what is about to happen, thus creating a sense of anxiety. Therefore,
to manipulate his audience, Alighieri subtly brings us closer to the standpoint
of Dante, agonizing over the horrors which await him.
At this point, the suspense begins to mount. Dante first hears
moaning voices, sounds which seem to emanate from nowhere, "so that, in
my bewilderment, I stopped" (XIII, 24). Dante is frozen with terror. Virgil,
seemingly in order to resolve the conflict in Dante's mind about where
the voices are coming from, tells Dante to "tear / a little twig from any
of these plants, / the thoughts you have will also be cut off" (XIII, 28-30).
Alighieri uses Virgil's misleading promise seemingly to allay the terror
that both Dante and the reader are feeling at this moment, but the poet
only sets them up for a horrible surprise:
Then I stretched out my hand a little way
and from a great thorn branch snapped off a branch
at which its trunk cried out: "Why do you tear me?"
And then, when it had grown more dark with blood,
it asked again, "Why do you break me off?"
The visual imagery is, indeed, very striking in the description of Dante's
tearing of the branch from the tree. Sap does not flow from these trees;
dark blood does, creating a moment of gory horror that breaks the suspense
rather sharply and grotesquely. Also, it surprises both Dante and reader
to learn that the source of the sorrowful moans emanate from these trees,
which seem just as alive (or dead, as the case may be) as any of the other
souls in Hell. Not long after that, "...drips and hisses with escaping
vapor, / so from that broken stump issued together / both words and blood;
at which I let the branch / fall, and I stood like one who is afraid" (XIII,
42-45). This example shows the duality in Alighieri's style of horror:
preserving the imaginative element to create suspense and fear in the reader,
and then presenting harsh visual images to create grotesque, stomach-turning
horror. This account of the wood of the suicides is taken, almost directly,
from the Aeneid, where we can see the evident influence on Alighieri's
wood of horrors:
I see an awful portent, wondrous to tell. For from the first tree,
which is torn form the ground with broken roots, drops of black blood trickle
and stain the earth with gore. A cold shudder shakes my limbs, and my chilled
blood freezes with terror.... But when with greater effort I assail the
third shafts, and with my knees wrestle against the resisting sand, a piteous
groan is heard from the depths of the mound, and an answering voice comes
to my ears. "Woe is me! Why, Aeneas, dost thou tear me...for I am Polydorus."
Then, indeed, my mind borne down by perplexing dread, I was appalled, my
hair stood up, and the voice clave to my throat.
Virgil's gory interlude fits perfectly into the grand scheme of
Alighieri's vision of the torture of the suicidal. However, Alighieri transforms
Virgil's account into his own style of horror. First, by making the victims
of these woods suicides, instead of murder victims (as was Polydorus),
the implication is that these damned souls inflicted their pain and torture
upon themselves, and were not just victims of circumstance. The crossover
from Virgil to Alighieri is evident in the two most frightening things
in the canto: the blood as sap and the voice issuing from the tree. Alighieri
makes these ideas even more terrifying by extending the suspense and by
generously spewing "dripping" and "hissing" blood on the canvas of this
scene. All through this canto, Alighieri has shown us his ability to both
terrify and inspire us with awe in his writing. He continues to do this
in Canto XXV, the canto of the snake-thieves.
Canto XXV is the second of two cantos in this part of hell, the
den of thieves. It is important to realize Aliqhieri's poetic motives for
creating a torture for petty thieves as painful and grotesque as this one.
Fraud, as Virgil explained in canto XI, is a basic degeneracy of God's
gift of intelligence for private gain. Theft, being a type of fraud, is,
in Alighieri's mind, a subversion of God one of the worst types of fraud
(as it is one of the lower levels of hell). The punishment that Alighieri
chooses for the thieves is horrifying and ironic. In two different situations
t thief horribly mates with serpent, and either mutates or transmutates.
It is ironic that Alighieri portrays the thief as similar to the serpent
in nature: as the thief uses his stealth and cunning to steal material
goods, the snake uses his guile and deceit to kill. We can also see that
Alighieri wanted to suggest that the thieves, who, in their lifetimes stole
many things, are now given the punishment they so richly deserve: to have
their most valuable possessions taken away from them, their identities.
Truly, as Longfellow suggests, "of these five Florentine nobles... nothing
is known about them save what Dante tells us. Perhaps that is enough."
In this, Alighieri is making an implicit statement about the nature of
Two instances of transformation occur in this canto t each frightening
in its own way. The first occurs from line 49 to 78, a long and grotesque
transformation. The man, Cianfa Donati, now a hideous six-footed serpent-monster,
attacks Agnello Brunelleschi. A ghastly mutation takes place. First, the
serpent, in an explicitly sexual assault, clutches Agnello from behind,
stretching "its rear feet out along his thighs / and ran its tail along
between the two, / then straightened it again behind the loins" (XXV, 55-57).
Next, "as if their substance was warm wax" (XXV, 61), they begin to melt
together into one, becoming "neither two nor one" (XXV, 69). Their heads
join together, then extremities appear while others disappear, so that,
in the end, it is a new lifeform, unlike any thing else in the world or
beyond it. As horrifying as it is, Alighieri's transformation of Agnello
and Cianfa was probably influenced by Ovid's Metamorphosis. In the Metamorphosis,
one story concerns the coalescing of both the nymph Salmacis and the son
of Mercury, Hermaphroditus (hence the term "hermaphrodite") into one form.
Here we can see the actual moment of transformation:
The gods heard her prayer. For their two bodies, joined together
as they were, were merged in one, with one face or both. As when one grafts
a twig on some tree, he sees the branches grow one, and with common life
come to maturity, so were these two bodies knit in close embrace: they
were no longer two, nor such as to be called, one f woman, and one, man.
They seemed neither, and yet both.
This passage suggests the act of their transformation as an act
of love - a beautiful ''embrace' of body and spirit where the only emotions
expressed are joy and love. As we can see, Alighieri's style is very different.
He uses his transformation as an act of bodily (and sexual) invasion, disgusting
the reader, and, at the same time, creating a completely different mood:
a sense of mocking horror that Alighieri uses to catch the reader off guard,
and then to truly scare him.
To add to the horror and disgust the reader feels/ Alighieri puts
in one final transformation, almost for good measure. To preface the second
transformation, Alighieri puts in a slight shock to set the reader on edge.
There appears a second, black serpent (Guercio Cavalcante), which suddenly
strikes and pierces Buoso degli Abati through the "parte onde prima e preso
/ nostro alimento" [the part where we first take of our nourishment] (XXV,
86), the navel. The two, both stunned, stand and face each other and begin
their own strange transformation. From lines 103 to 135 this transformation
occurs. First, the "smoke" of their souls meet and mix together; in doing
so, they "answered each other" (XXV, 103). The transformation is brief,
like the other, but equally as repulsive. While Buoso' legs join together
into one single limb, Guerchio's tail cleaves in two and, slowly and horrifyingly,
takes on the form that the other had. The two eventually swap skin, arms,
feet, faces, and finally, tongues. The transformation, or more appropriately,
the transmutation, ("trasmutarsi; the word refers to the double metamorphosis
of two forms which exchange their matter")
is complete. After this revolting change of bodies, Alighieri adds a bit
of humor to signify the end of the terror, almost to let us off the hook.
"I'd have Buoso run / on all fours down this road, as I have done,' (XXV,
138-139) states Guerchio with a malicious spit in Buoso's direction. This
scene, as stated by Alighieri himself in one of the few authorial notes
to the reader, was, like the first scene, influenced primarily by one of
the stories in Ovid's Metamorphosis: the story of Cadmus. Upon viewing
Ovid's story we can see the clear similarities and differences between
Alighieri's and his:
As he was speaking, his body did indeed begin to stretch into
the long belly of a snake; his skin hardened, and turned black in color,
and he felt scales forming on it, while blue-green spots appeared, to brighten
its sombre hue. Then he fell forward on his chest, and his legs, united
into one, were gradually thinned away into a smooth pointed tail. His arms
yet remained: so, holding out these remaining arms, with tears streaming
down his still human cheeks: 'Come, my wife, my most unhappy wife,' he
said. 'Come, and while something of me yet remains, touch me: take my hand,
while it is a hand, before I am entirely changed into a snake.' He tried
to say more, but suddenly his tongue divided into two parts - though he
wished to speak words failed him: whenever he made an attempt to lament
his fate, he hissed.
The similarities are many: the snake, the order of the transformation,
the delicate sadness that surrounds both of the encounters, and most importantly,
the final loss of speech, the one true method of human communication. Alighieri
conveys the same message about speech in his description: that only through
language can people truly be influenced, that the loss of communication
between people is the cruellest loss of all. However, both poems are very
different in their respective styles. Alighieri's account takes a much
more terrifying and shocking approach. While Ovid's victim, Cadmus, sadly
laments his fate, the thieves in Alighieri's poem spitefully launch themselves
at each other, yet treating this horrible display almost as were a daily
occurrence. Alighieri's style, coupled with his graphic descriptions, gives
his characters a certain life that makes them all the more terrifyingly
real. At the end of these two encounters, we can see the effect that it
has had on Dante. He writes: "And so I saw the seventh ballast change /
and rechange [mutare and transmutare]; may the strangeness plead for me
/ if there's been some confusion in my pen" (XXV, 142-144). In this, Dante
is apologizing to the reader for the possible after-effects of the horrible
spectacle that Dante has just observed and chronicled. Again, this type
of internal commentary within the story makes it all the more convincing,
and all the more terrifying. After all is said and done, Dante says, "my
eyes were somewhat blurred, my mind / bewildered" (XXV, 144-145) as if
this encounter, whether or not it had a lasting effect on the reader, had
a definite effect on Dante himself, one which causes him become disturbed
and shaken by the horror that has just witnessed. In truly sympathizing
with Dante, the reader feels the same aftershocks of fright that he feels,
but the reader is safe: the terror is concluded....until the start of the
Dante Alighieri was one of the first great writers who understood
the importance of horror in literature. His epic narrative journey, although
consisting of three parts, is mostly remembered for the Inferno. The dark
side of human nature, the beast within all of us, and the insanity of the
soul interest us because they emancipate us, if only for a short time,
from the humdrum of our succinct, bland lives into a world where the rules
of the world break down at the sub-atomic level, and are built back up
again, not in God's image, but our own, sometimes twisted, ones. Horror
excites us; it fills our bodies with adrenalin and emotion that we can
rarely find anywhere else. Although it is almost 700 years old, Dante's
Inferno still fulfills our age-old need to be scared, amazed, and entertained.