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.[01] 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."[02] 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.[03] 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.[04]
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."[05] 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."[06] 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?"

(XIII, 31-35).
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.[07]

 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."[08] In this, Alighieri is making an implicit statement about the nature of thieves.

 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.[09]

 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")[10] 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.[11]

 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 next canto.

 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.