David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 17: Geryon”

“Canto 17: Geryon”

  • Who was Geryon? Why is he an appropriate guard for these sinners who have committed fraud?

The guard of the Circles dedicated to punishing fraud is Geryon, a creature with the face of an honest man, the body of a beast or combination of parts of beasts, and a stinging tail like that of a scorpion. Note that Geryon is described as having three parts. Like other triune Guards, Geryon is a perversion of the Holy Trinity. Later, we will see that Lucifer has three mouths — yet another perversion of the Holy Trinity.

Geryon is an appropriate guard because he embodies fraud. His honest-looking face encourages people to trust him, while he hides his tail that will sting his victim. We can certainly guess that Geryon stings the sinners who ride on his back. In doing that, he commits fraud. When Geryon arrives, his stinging tail is out of sight; it hangs down toward the next Circle. Geryon’s honest-looking face convinces the sinners to get on his back, and then Geryon stings him with his tail.

We have learned that the judge Minos flings sinners to the Circle or at least closer to the Circle where they will be punished. Some sinners must travel to the Circle where they will be punished. Phlegyas the ferryman takes them across the swamp named the Styx. Here we see that Geryon flies some sinners from Circle 7 to Circle 8.

In mythology, Geryon was a warrior with three bodies, three heads, and six arms. Hercules killed him during one of his famous Labors.

The character Geryon is also based on Revelation 11:7-11 (King James Version):

7: And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men.

8: And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions.

9: And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle.

10: And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.

11: And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.

Another source is Pliny, Natural History, Book 8, Chapter 30:

Ctesiasinforms us, that among these same Æthiopians, there is an animal found, which he calls the mantichora; it has a triple row of teeth, which fit into each other like those of a comb, the face and ears of a man, and azure eyes, is of the color of blood, has the body of the lion, and a tail ending in a sting, like that of the scorpion. Its voice resembles the union of the sound of the flute and the trumpet; it is of excessive swiftness, and is particularly fond of human flesh.

Source: http://tinyurl.com/lmr4wo6

Translation: Pliny the Elder, The Natural History(eds. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A.)

  • Explain the reference to Arachne when Dante describes Geryon’s belly and flanks (Inferno17.13-18).

Dante, of course, was a very learned man, and he was very familiar with literature and mythology, as well as with the science of his day. About Geryon, Dante writes:

Two paws it had, hairy unto the armpits;

The back, and breast, and both the sides it had

Depicted o’er with nooses and with shields.

With colors more, groundwork or broidery

Never in cloth did Tartars make nor Turks,

Nor were such tissues by Arachne laid.

(Longfellow 17.13-18)

Arachne was a mortal woman who was an expert weaver. She was proud of her skill, and she challenged the goddess Minerva/Athena to a weaving contest. This is never a good idea because the ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses are not always benevolent, and they can do horrible things to human beings with whom they are angry. Arachne’s weaving was perfect, and Minerva/Athena was so angry that she tore it to shreds. Frightened, Arachne tried to commit suicide by hanging herself, but Minerva/Athena did not allow her to die, but instead turned her into a spider. Today, an arachnid is an eight-legged creature, which includes spiders, mites, ticks, and scorpions.

  • What is fraud, and what modern examples of fraud do you know about (perhaps on the Internet)?

When fraud occurs, someone deprives another person of his or her rights by using willful misrepresentation.

We see much fraud occurring in the 20thand 21stcenturies:

1) Nigerian (and other) emails:

Often, people get an email that supposedly comes from someone trying to take millions of dollars out of a country. If you give that person access to your bank account, supposedly so that they can deposit the money into your account, you think you will get a big portion of the money. What happens, of course, is that the person committing fraud transfers money from your bank account to their bank account.

2) Canadian emails:

In these emails you are told that you will get a refund of taxes from the federal government; however, the person committing fraud asks for your bank account information, supposedly so that your refund can be directly deposited into your bank account. What happens, of course, is that the person committing fraud transfers money from your bank account to their bank account.

3) Phishing:

You get an email asking you to update your information at Amazon or PayPal or a bank. The email asks for your bank account information. What happens, of course, is that the person committing fraud transfers money from your bank account to their bank account.

4) Identity theft:

Someone steals your identity, gets a lot of credit cards in your name while pretending to be you, and runs up a huge amount of debt in your name.

5) Genuine placebo:

You can buy pills that will enhance your sexual performance. These pills are legally advertised as a genuine placebo. Some people who don’t know what a placebo is will buy these pills. (A placebo contains no medicine; if it works, it works because the person taking the placebo thinks it works.)

  • What is usury?

An archaic definition of usury is the charging of interest on a loan.

A modern definition of usury is the charging of excessive interest on a loan.

Personally, I favor charging interest on most loans. It helps business.

Lending money at interest is not always wrong, according to the Bible. You may not ethically charge a relative interest, and you may not ethically charge a poor person interest. However, in some circumstances you may lend money at interest.

  • What modern examples of usury do you know about (e.g., check-cashing places)?

Modern check-cashing places really do charge high amounts of interest. The interest on a payday loan can be 500 percent in a year. Huge profits are why so many check-cashing places sprang up so quickly.

A tax preparer may give you your expected tax refund in advance — for a high rate of interest.

A loan shark may charge you a high rate of interest — and break your arms and legs if you don’t pay the loan back.

  • How are the Usurers punished? Why is that punishment appropriate?

The Greedy Moneylenders (Usurers) take something that ought to be infertile and make it fertile. The definition of usury has changed over time, but originally, as in the Bible, it meant lending money at interest. The Bible is against lending money at interest to relatives or to poor people, although Jews are allowed to lend money at interest to non-Jews; thus, Jews became moneylenders in the Middle Ages. In modern times, usury is charging an unethically high rate of interest. In my opinion, the owners of modern check-cashing places and the CEOs of many credit-card companies in America are sinful.

Because the Greedy Moneylenders have been taking something that ought to be infertile and make it fertile, they are in this burning plain with fire raining down on them. Here they are bent over, like the Greedy Moneylenders of Dante’s time who bent over their tables and counted their money. Hanging from their necks are moneybags, which they gaze at greedily just as they did while they were living. Dante writes that the Greedy Moneylenders seem to “feast their eyes” on these moneybags (Musa, Inferno17.57). Despite the presence of the moneybags, the Greedy Moneylenders are suffering. Dante writes about them:

Out of their eyes was gushing forth their woe;

This way, that way, they helped them with their hands

Now from the flames and now from the hot soil.

(Longfellow 17.46-48)

In addition, Dante cannot recognize any of the Greedy Moneylenders by looking at their faces; they were so preoccupied with making money that they have lost their individuality. However, although Dante cannot recognize any individual Greedy Moneylenders, he can recognize the families that the Greedy Moneylenders come from by looking the designs — the coats of arms — on their moneybags. For example, the Gianfigliazzi family of Florence is identified by the yellow purse with a blue lion. In addition, the Ubriachi family of Florence is identified by the red purse with a goose, and the Scrovegni family of Padua is identified by the purse with the blue sow.

The sins of Violence are also Sins of Bestiality, and we see that these Greedy Moneylenders are much like beasts. Their hands move constantly, like the hands of other sinners here, as the flakes of fire rain down like them:

Not otherwise in summer do the dogs,

Now with the foot, now with the muzzle, when

By fleas, or flies, or gadflies, they are bitten.

(Longfellow 17.49-51)

  • How does Virgil show that he is a caring guide during the flight on Geryon?

Virgil, as always, is a caring guide. Geryon, the symbol of fraud, is dangerous because of his scorpion’s stinger. Therefore, when Virgil and Dante seat themselves on Geryon to be flown into the next Circle, Virgil seats himself in back, near the scorpion’s stinger. Virgil tells Dante,

“Now we descend by stairways such as these;

Mount thou in front, for I will be midway,

So that the tail may have no power to harm thee.”

(Longfellow 17.82-84)

As we have already seen, Virgil knows the thoughts of Dante the Pilgrim. Here, Dante is afraid and he wants Virgil to hold on to him. Although Dante does not say that out loud, Virgil does exactly that (Musa, Inferno17.94-96).

In addition, while Dante was talking to the Greedy Moneylenders, Virgil was talking to Geryon, arranging their flight into the next Circle. Geryon is not happy to be their transportation, as we shall see. However, Virgil and Dante are on a mission from God, and Geryon knows that he is unable to resist God.

God uses evil creatures for His purpose. Geryon, like many of the guards in the Inferno, is evil, but he serves God’s purpose by serving as a guard of the sinners in the Inferno — and by serving as transportation for Virgil and Dante. Once again, we see that good is more powerful than evil.

  • Dante compares his fear while flying on Geryon to the fear of two people who undertake other flights: 1) the flight of Apollo’s son Phaëthon, and 2) the flight of Icarus. Explain the flight of Apollo’s son Phaëthon.

Phaëthon was Apollo’s son, but he was born to a mortal woman, and so he was a mortal. One day, he journeyed to see his father, who wanted to give him a gift — a gift of anything he wanted. Phaëthon decided that he wanted to drive his father’s chariot. Apollo was the Sun-god, and he drove the chariot that warmed and lit the Earth. However, Apollo knew that only a god could handle the horses that drove the chariot, and he begged his son to choose another gift. However, Phaëthon was determined to drive the chariot. Since Apollo had sworn an inviolable oath by the River Styx, he had to let Phaëthon drive the chariot.

As Apollo had foreknown, Phaëthon could not control the horses, and the chariot drove wildly over the sky, coming too close to Earth sometimes and being too far away sometimes. In fact, at one point the chariot came so close to the Earth that it turned the people in Africa black. Eventually, the chariot came so close to the Earth that the Earth was about to catch fire. Fortunately for the people living on the Earth, Zeus killed Phaëthon with a thunderbolt and Apollo was able to drive the chariot again, and so everything went back to normal.

  • Define “allusion.”

The website <http://guweb2.gonzaga.edu/faculty/wheeler/lit_terms_A.html&gt; defines “allusion” in this way:

A casual reference in literature to a person, place, event, or another passage of literature, often without explicit identification. Allusions can originate in mythology, biblical references, historical events, or legends. Authors often use allusion to establish a tone, create an implied association, contrast two objects or people, make an unusual juxtaposition of references, or bring the reader into a world of experience outside the limitations of the story itself. Authors assume that the readers will recognize the original sources and relate their meaning to the new context. For instance, if a teacher were to refer to his class as a horde of Mongols, the students will have no idea if they are being praised or vilified unless they know what the Mongol horde was and what activities it participated in historically. This historical allusion assumes a certain level of education or awareness in the audience, so it should be taken as a compliment rather than an attempt at obscurity.

  • Why is it important to know mythological stories?

It is important to know mythological stories because literature is rich in allusions to them. Here in Dante at this point we see references to two mythological stories about Phaëthon and Icarus. If the reader knows the stories, the allusions are meaningful. If the reader does not know who Phaëthon and Icarus are, the allusions fall flat.

Sometimes readers find Shakespeare difficult because of all the allusions to mythology. For example, if you do not know who Phaëthon is, this allusion that Juliet makes in Romeo and Julietwill fall flat:

“Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,

Towards Phoebus’ lodging: such a wagoner

As Phaëthon would whip you to the west,

And bring in cloudy night immediately.”

(Shakespeare 3.2.1-4; Signet Classic Edition)

However, if you know who Phaëthon is, the allusion will be meaningful. You will understand two things:

1) Juliet is so eager for Romeo to come to her on their wedding night that she does not care if the world is destroyed. She wants Romeo as soon as possible. In addition, of course, we know that Romeo and Juliet’s world will be destroyed.

2) Phaëthon is a doomed, impetuous youth, and he reminds us of Juliet, who, like Phaëthon, is doomed, impetuous, and young. Of course, Romeo is also doomed, impetuous, and young.

  • Dante compares his fear while flying on Geryon to the fear of two people who undertake other flights: 1) the flight of Apollo’s son Phaëthon, and 2) the flight of Icarus. Explain the flight of Icarus.

Icarus is the son of Daedalus. Daedalus built the wooden cow that Pasiphaë crept into when she fell in love with a bull and wanted the bull to make love to her. After Pasiphaë gave birth to the Minotaur, Daedalus built the Labyrinth that housed the Minotaur. Obviously, Daedalus was ingenious, but he doesn’t seem to have always used his ingenuity to accomplish good things.

To make sure that no one could ever learn the secret of how to get out of the labyrinth, the King of Crete imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus, his son.Daedalus fashioned wings made out of wax and feathers so that he and his son could fly away from the island where they were imprisoned. Daedalus warned his son not to fly too high, for if he did the sun would melt the wax, the feathers would fall out of the wings, and he would fall into the sea and drown.

This is exactly what happened. Icarus became excited because he was flying, he flew too high, the wax of his wings melted, he fell into the sea, and he drowned.

  • According to Mark Musa, Geryon is angry at Virgil and Dante because he has been defrauded. What evidence exists for this interpretation?

The defrauding would occur when Virgil drops Dante’s belt down to Geryon, who takes it as a sign that sinners are awaiting transportation down to a lower Circle. As an agent of evil, Geryon would be angry that instead of two sinners who will be punished in the two lowest Circles, Virgil and Dante await transportation.

As Mark Musa points out, Geryon shows his displeasure in a few ways:

1) Geryon’s descent is compared to that of a falcon that is “perched in anger and disdain” (Musa, Inferno17.132) toward his master.

2) Geryon lands in such a way that Virgil and Dante are almost up against the jagged cliff.

3) As soon as Virgil and Dante get off his back, Geryon shoots “off like a shaft shot from a bowstring” (Musa,Inferno17.136).

This seems plausible to me. We remember the boatman Phlegyas, who was deceived by a signal into thinking that two sinners needed to be ferried to their place of punishment (Canto 8). Similarly, the dropping of Dante’s belt into the abyss deceived Geryon.

In Canto 5, we learned that when Minos judges sinners, the sinners “are hurled below” (Musa, Inferno5.15). Apparently, some sinners are not thrown all the way to their place of punishment but must journey to reach it.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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