“Canto 9: The City of Dis”
- Who is the sorceress Erichtho?
In Canto 9, Dante and Virgil have a conversation in which Virgil reveals that the sorceress Erichtho earlier had sent him to the bottom of the Inferno. The poet Lucan’s Pharsalia(VI, 507-830) relates a story about Erichtho sending a soul to the bottom of the Inferno to retrieve another soul who would foretell the victor of the Battle of Pharsalia, which took place on 9 August 48 B.C.E. In this battle, the forces of Julius Caesar defeated the forces of Pompey..
Which soul did Erichtho send to find out about the Battle of Pharsalia? We aren’t told, but it can’t be Virgil because Virgil was alive during the Battle of Pharsalia — his dates are 15 October 70 B.C.E.-21 September 19 B.C.E Apparently, we are meant to understand that Erichtho sent more than one soul to the bottom of Hell. She sent souls there on more than one occasion.
The main point is that Virgil is familiar with the territory of the Inferno, since he has traveled it before. By the way, in the Middle Ages, Virgil had a reputation as a sorcerer, so that may be one reason Dante writes about Virgil’s visit to the bottom of Hell.
Apparently, Dante the Poet made up this story, since scholars have found no literary or mythological source for it.
Here is Charles S. Singleton’s translation:
“It seldom happens that any of us makes the journey on which I go. It is true that once before I was down here, conjured by that cruel Erichtho who was wont to call back shades into their bodies. My flesh had been but short while divested of me, when she made me enter within that wall to draw forth a spirit from the circle of Judas. That is the lowest place, and the darkest, and farthest from heaven that encircles all. Well do I know the way…” (Inf. 9.19-30)
Here is Singleton’s commentary:
“Erichtho [was] a Thessalian sorceress, who, according to Lucan (Phars. VI, 507-830), was employed by Pompey’s son Sextus to conjure up the spirit of one of his dead soldiers on the eve of the battle of Pharsalia, so that he could learn what was to be the outcome of the campaign. The story Dante tells about Erichtho’s sending Virgil into the nethermost Hell is of unknown authority. It probably was suggested to Dante by one of the numerous legends associated with Virgil in the Middle Ages, when the Roman poet was universally regarded as a magician. Boccaccio, for instance, in his comment on Inf. I, 71, calls Virgil ‘solennissimo astrolago’ (‘a very great astrologer’) and gives a list of his wonderful performance. (On this aspect of Virgil’s reputation in the Middle Ages, see D. Comparetti, 1955, pp. 266-67; also see E. Moore, 1896, pp. 234-37.) Referring specifically to Dante’s story about Erichtho and Virgil, Boccaccio admits in his Comento that he cannot ‘recall ever having read or heard just what this story was.’ Benvenuto was of the opinion that Dante invented the tale: ‘Ista est simpliciter fictio nova.’ (‘This is simply a new fiction.’) But the ‘fiction’ is, in a sense, not so new: the Sibyl who guided Aeneas through the nether regions declared that she had been there once before and had seen all (Aen. VI, 562-65).”
- Why does Virgil need help from Heaven to enter the City of Dis?
“Dis” is a name for Pluto, Lucifer, and this city.
In Dante’s allegory, Virgil represents Human Reason, which is powerful, but which is less powerful than faith and religion. Reason can do only so much, and then faith and religion have to take over.
As a symbol of Human Reason, Virgil cannot understand why anyone, such as the rebellious angels, would knowingly and deliberately do evil.
- Who are the Furies and Medusa?
The Furies and Medusa help protect the City of Dis. They are mythological creatures. Medusa had snakes for hair and anyone who looked at her was instantly turned to stone. She was originally a mortal woman who committed the offense of giving birth in a temple of Minerva/Athena, who punished her by transforming her into a monster.
The Furies were avenging demons. When Orestes killed his mother (Clytemnestra), who had killed his father (Agamemnon), the Furies pursued him and would not let him rest. You can read about this in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, a trilogy of Greek tragedies.
- How does Virgil protect Dante?
Virgil does take very good care of Dante. He has Dante cover his eyes to protect him from Medusa, and then Virgil also uses his hands to cover Dante’s eyes.
Because he is a pagan, Virgil, however, underestimates the power of God. Virgil tells Dante:
“Turn thyself round, and keep thine eyes close shut,
For if the Gorgon appear, and thou shouldst see it,
No more returning upward would there be.”
One of the lessons that Dante needs to learn in the Inferno is that good is more powerful than evil. The appearance of the angel who unlocks the gate of the city of Dis helps him to learn that. Of course, Dante also learns that Human Reason, as symbolized by Virgil, can do only so much. Occasionally, human beings also need Divine Aid.
- Why are Medusa and the Furies and the rebelling angels appropriate Guards of the Circle devoted to punishing heresy?
Medusa and the Furies are appropriate Guards of this Circle because they are pagan figures, and to a Catholic Christian such as Dante, pagans do not think correctly about God. Of course, the rebelling angels are also appropriate Guards of this Circle because they did not think correctly about God, as they chose to fight against Him rather than fight against Lucifer. Heresy is thinking incorrectly about God.
- Who is Theseus?
The Furies refer to Theseus, who is one of the ancient heroes who has visited the Underworld — others include Hercules, Odysseus, and Aeneas. The Furies refer to their letting Theseus off too easily. According to mythology, Theseus was held captive in the Chair of Forgetfulness. (Readers of the Chronicles of Narnia may remember that C.S. Lewis used a similar chair in The Silver Chair.) Hercules rescued Theseus from Hades.
We also see a reference to Cerberus here. The angel says this to the rebellious angels who have been keeping Virgil and Dante from entering the city:
“What helpeth it to butt against the fates?
Your Cerberus, if you remember well,
For that still bears his chin and gullet peeled.”
When Hercules came to rescue Theseus, Cerberus tried to keep him from entering Hell. Hercules put a chain around Cerberus’ neck and dragged the monster out of Hell and to the upper world. This chafed his neck.
- In what way is Dante the Pilgrim still naïve?
Dante the Pilgrim should trust in God and the three heavenly ladies who are looking out for him; however, he is very nervous when the rebellious angels refuse to allow him and Virgil to pass through the gate and enter the city of Dis. Some of this nervousness comes from Virgil, who is upset about not being allowed through the gate.
- An angel appears to open the gate of the City of Dis. What other opening of the gate of Hell does this remind you of?
Jesus opened the gate of Hell during the Harrowing of Hell.
By the way, The American Heritage College Dictionarydefines “to harrow” as “To inflict great distress or torment on.” Jesus inflicted great distress or torment on the sinners who saw people being released from Hell while they themselves have to stay in Hell forever. Jesus also inflicted great distress or torment on the rebellious angels who wanted to stop him from releasing the virtuous Jews (and apparently at least one pagan — see Dante’s Paradise, Canto 20) from Hell.
Notice that the good angel is able to walk on water. In addition, as the good angel approaches, sinners move away from the good angel the way that frogs move away from snakes, their natural enemies. These things, plus the ease with which the good angel opens the gate of the city of Dis, reveal that good is more powerful than evil. Truly, the good angel seems more annoyed than anything else. The good angel has nothing but scorn for the rebellious angels.
God — Ultimate Goodness — is more powerful than Lucifer — Ultimate Evil.
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