Page 26. " Let not the portal's amplitude deceive thee "

(Canto 5, line 20)

Alluding to Matthew 7:13, where Jesus says: "Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat".

Page 26. " I came into a place mute of all light "

(Canto 5, line 28)

Here Dante once more describes a visual impression in aural terms, like in Canto 1, line 60.

Page 27. " She is Semiramis, of whom we read That she succeeded Ninus, and was his spouse; She held the land which now the Sultan rules "
The whirlwind of souls in the second circle
Public DomainThe whirlwind of souls in the second circle - Credit: Gustave Doré

(Canto 5, lines 58-60)

Semiramis and Ninus are both half-mythological figures; according to tradition, Ninus was the founder of the Assyrian kingdom. Some versions of the story say that Semiramis later had her husband murdered to take the throne herself after he had conquered all the surrounding Asian kingdoms. In any case, her figure came to have a reputation for murderous lasciviousness, for having all her former lovers killed and even having an incestuous relationship to her son, who according to one version killed her in turn.

In Dante's time, the Sultan referred to the Egyptian king, whose territory reached into western Asia but did not correspond to the areas governed by Semiramis. Sapegno therefore thinks that the "land" may refer to the area between the Assyrian capital and Cairo: Reggio proposes that Dante is mixing up two different places named Babylon, the capital of the Mesopotamian empire and the fortress city in the Nile delta. It might also simply refer to the fact that the heartlands of Egypt once were ruled by the Assyrian empire.

Page 27. " The next is she who killed herself for love, And broke faith with the ashes of Sichaeus; Then Cleopatra the voluptuous. "

"She who killed herself for love" is Dido, one of Aeneas' lovers. According to the Aeneid, she was the daughter of Belus, king of Tyre, and the wife of Phoenician Sichaeus. After her husband's death, she swore an oath to stay faithful to his memory and fled to Africa, where she founded the city of Carthage. However, she fell in love with Aeneas and turned her back on the oath she once swore. When Aeneas followed the gods' bidding and left for Italy, she committed suicide in desperation. This episode is recounted by Virgil in book 6 of the Aeneid - Dante has entirely followed him in his description.

Cleopatra with Caesar
Public DomainCleopatra with Caesar - Credit: Jean-Léon Gérôme
Cleopatra (69-30 BC) was the daughter of Egytian king Ptolemy Auletes, famed for her great beauty and extraordinary intelligence: for example, she is said to have mastered at least six or seven different languages. She was beloved by Caesar, which helped solidify her grip on the throne. Her son Caesarion may have been fathered by Caesar. After Caesar was murdered, she became the lover of the general Mark Antony, one of the triumvirs ruling Rome. Together they planned to distance themselves from the Roman empire and seek independence; after losing a final naval battle against Octavian near Actium, they both committed suicide, she by letting an Egyptian cobra (asp) bite her.

Page 27. " Helen I saw, for whom so many ruthless Seasons revolved; and saw the great Achilles, Who at the last hour combated with Love. Paris I saw, Tristan "

Helen of Troy
Public DomainHelen of Troy - Credit: Evelyn de Morgan
(Canto 5, lines 63-67)

Helen, the epitome of beauty in ancient Western mythology, is said to have been the daughter of Zeus and Spartan queen Leda. Theseus, king of Athens, admired her beauty so much that he abducted her, but she was brought back by the brothers Castor and Pollux. Later, she was married to Spartan king Menelaus, but was again abducted, this time by Paris, son of Trojan king Priamus, which was the direct cause of the Trojan war. After Paris' death, she married again to Deiphobus, Paris' younger brother, who gave her up to Menelaus again after the fall of Troy. After Menelaus' death, the story tells that she was driven away from Sparta and fled to Rhodes and the protection of her friend Polyxo, who however ordered her death by hanging in order to avenge her husband, who died in the Trojan war.

Achilles was possibly the most famous and powerful heroic figure in all of Greek mythology. He was the son of the Myrmidon king Peleus and sea nymph Thetis. To make him invincible, Thetis dipped him in the underworld river Styx: because of this, only the ankle she held while doing this remained vulnerable to weapons. A story tells that the wounds inflicted by his spear could be cured by rust from the same weapon. He went to Troy and fought with the Greeks, where he killed the Trojan commander Hector and dragged his body three times around the city to show his victory. Later, he fell in love with Trojan king Priamus' daughter Polyxena and proposed to her; during their marriage ceremony, Paris fired one of Hercules' poisoned arrows at his ankles, leading to his death.

Paris judging between the three goddesses.
Public DomainParis judging between the three goddesses. - Credit: Enrique Simonet
Homer describes Paris as a rather cowardly man with a certain feminine beauty. The legend said that Zeus let Paris decide who was the most beautiful among three goddesses: his wife Hera; Athena, goddess of wisdom and strategy; or Aphrodite, the love goddess. Paris chose Aphrodite, who helped him abduct Helen in return. There are two differing accounts on his death: one tells that he was killed by Achilles' son Pyrrhus; another says that he abandoned his first wife, Oenone, out of love for Helen. During the Trojan war he was wounded by a poisoned arrow fired by Philoctetes and sought the help of Oenone, who was skilled in the art of healing. However, she refused to help him and he died of his wounds.

Tristan was one of the knights of the Round Table of king Arthur. According to the story about him, he was trusted by his uncle King Mark of Cornwall with the mission of bringing him his bride Iseult, the princess of Ireland. After accidentally drinking a love potion intended for the spouses-to-be, they fall irrevocably in love with each other. When their love is discovered by Mark, the couple are banished from the castle. In the end, Mark forgives Iseult, but kills Tristan with a poisoned lance. The poet Boccaccio is to be credited with the fanciful idea that after Tristan was poisoned, Iseult came to see him and died too because of an all too intense embrace.

Page 28. " Speak would I to those two, who go together "

Dante with Francesca and Paolo
Public DomainDante with Francesca and Paolo - Credit: William Blake

(Canto 5, line 74)

These two are Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta. Francesca was the daughter of the lord of Ravenna, Guido da Polenta il Vecchio. In 1275, she was married to Gianciotto Malatesta, son of the lord of Rimini, Malatesta da Verucchio. Gianciotti was a deformed cripple, and the match was in fact a political marriage, with the object of putting an end to the long-lasting rivalry of these two clans of Ravenna and Rimini. Francesca instead fell in love with Gianciotto's brother Paolo, and they started seeing each other secretly. Their affair was discovered by Gianciotto, and in 1285 he had them both killed. Their story is not recorded in any historical work of the period, but the episode was well-known among the people: according to one version, Paolo was required to perform the wedding ceremony with Francesca in place of his brother, letting her believe that she would be married to the handsome Paolo, not the deformed Gianciotto.

Page 28. " Love, that on gentle heart doth swiftly seize "

(Canto 5, line 100) These three tercets, all beginning with the word "Love", are a famous example in the Comedy of the Dolce Stil Novo "Sweet New Style", exemplified by the works of Guido Guinizelli (1230-1276) and Dante, among others. The theme expressed here is typical of this style: Love as a source for noble sentiments and states of mind, as here love is explicitly connected to the "gentle heart".

Page 29. " Caina waiteth him who quenched our life "

(Canto 5, line 107)

Caina is the deepest place in Hell, the bottom layer of the ninth circle, where the souls' sins and their punishments are the worst. Gianciotto Malatesta died in 1304 and was thus still alive when Dante journeyed through hell, and the poem uses the word "waiteth".

Page 29. " Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthral "

Lancelot and Guinevere
Public DomainLancelot and Guinevere - Credit: N. C. Wyeth

(Canto 5, line 128)

Lancelot, the son of a Breton king, was carried off while still a child by "the Lady of the Lake", who raises him. He is therefore known as Lancelot du Lac ("of the lake"). After he had grown up, the Lady sent him to king Arthur, where he became one of the Knights around his Table. His secret love for Arthur's queen Guinevere is what is referred to in this line.

Page 30. " Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it "

Francesca and Paolo
Public DomainFrancesca and Paolo - Credit: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

(Canto 5, line 137)

In the story of Lancelot, Galehaut (Galeotto in Italian) is the one who convinces the timid Lancelot to reveal his love to queen Guinevere. Because of this role, his name was known in the Middle Ages as a sort of shorthand for matchmakers, and therefore the lovers here call both the book and its author "Galeotto".

Page 31. " Cerberus, monster cruel and uncouth "

Public DomainCerberus - Credit: William Blake

(Canto 6, line 13)

Cerberus was a three-headed dog watching at the doors of the underworld in Greek mythology, the offspring of the giant Typhon and half-snake, half-woman Echidna. Virgil, Ovid and other classical authors have all described him with three heads, tail of a snake, etc. Dante follows them here, but adds to the decription.

Page 32. " Excepting one, who sat upright as soon "
Ciacco stopping Dante in Hell
Public DomainCiacco stopping Dante in Hell - Credit: Gustave Doré

(Canto 6, line 38)

This one is Ciacco, according to older commentators a name for a pig, known as such for his gluttonous character. He does not figure in historical writings, but is said to have been Florentian. Some have guessed his identity as the poet Ciacco dell'Anguillaia, others as a certain banker, who ate and drank so much that he went blind. The "anonymous commentator" of Florence says that he was a social climber and parasite, while Boccaccio disputes this and says that he was a man of meagre means but unlimited appetite, with a glib tongue and an obsequious manner, who made friends with the upper classes and sought out any occasion for a free meal, which made him notorious among his contemporaries. Most interesting among the comments made concerning him is perhaps grouping him with poet Forese Donati and Dante himself as the three most notorious revellers of Florence! As Sapegno points out, Dante does not treat him with contempt, but seems to pity him.

Page 33. " Thy city, which is full Of envy so that now the sack runs over "

(Canto 6, lines 49-50)

To expose and criticize the Florentian factional fighting, along with the idea that it was all due to envy, is one of the main themes of the Comedy, and it is directly touched upon here for the first time. The clan rivalries in Florence had a long history, which mostly took the form of opposition between the political groupings of the Guelfs and Ghibellines, which divided all of Italy in two during the 12th to 14th centuries. The two groupings arose after the death in 1125 of Henry V, last Holy Roman Emperor of the Salian dynasty. The Guelfs supported Henry's descendant Lothair of Supplinburg, the Duke of Saxony, while the Ghibellines supported his rival Frederick of Hohenstaufen, Duke of Swabia. The Pope in Rome sided with the Guelfs. After many years of warfare, the positions of the two groupings evolved into one supporting the city republics and the Pope (the Guelfs) and the other supporting the monarchy and the nobility (Ghibellines), which further developed into inter-city warfare (like when Florence was dominated by the Guelfs and the Ghibellines controlled Milan). Later, there arose not only rivalry within each city (Florence itself was divided between Guelfs and Ghibellines after 1215), but opposition arose within the parties as well, most famously exemplified by the division of Florentine Guelfs into the Black and White parties during the late 13th and early 14th century. The Black party was led by Corso Donati and were regarded as more radical, the Whites' leader was Vieri de Cerchi, and they were rather more moderate. Dante himself belonged to the Whites.

Page 33. " They, after long contention, Will come to bloodshed; and the rustic party Will drive the other out with much offence "

(Canto 6, lines 64-66)

Referring to the Black and White factions clashing with each other on Piazza Santa Trinita in Florence in May 1300, where youth from the Donati and Cerchi families broke out fighting during the Calendimaggio (carnival) celebrations. One of the Cerchis was hurt, which escalated the conflict between the families. In history writing of the time, the event was assigned a pivotal significance in the long standing Black-White conflict.

The "rustic party" are Cerchi's side, the Whites, since they had roots in the country. They had something of a reputation of being "nouveaux riches", possessing proud tempers and rustic habits. "The other" are of course the Blacks, Donati's party. After the May 1300 incident, the ruling officials of Florence (among whom were, at the time, Dante) decided in June to banish the main offenders on both sides from the city. In June the following year, after Black party plans for a coup had been discovered, all the important Black leaders were banished and levied heavy fines.

Page 33. " and rise again the other By force of him who now is on the coast "

(Canto 6, lines 68-69)

Referring to the Whites' loss of power in January 1302. "Him who now is on the coast" is believed by most commentators to refer to Dante's nemesis Pope Boniface VIII, though some believe it might be the French count Charles of Valois. This is disputed by both Sapegno and Reggio, who say that Charles was occupied with a war in Flanders at the time and therefore had no part in that particular conflict. Early historical writings tell that Boniface VIII endeavoured at the time to show the same generous attitude to both the Blacks and Whites, while his implicit support was for the Blacks. To achieve control over Florence, on All Soul's Day 1301, November 1, Boniface sent Charles of Valois there under pretense of mediating the conflict there, while his true intent was helping the Blacks to power. After the Blacks gained power, they started persecuting the Whites, which resulted in three years' banishment and a fine of five thousand florentines for Dante during this period. Because he never presented himself to court, his sentence was changed in June the same year to lifelong banishment and confiscation of all personal property.

Page 34. " The just are two, and are not understood there "

(Canto 6, line 73)

Dante does not specify who these two "just" people are. It might be that "two" is an unspecific number here, used to convey how few the just are. Some people believe it refers to Dante himself and the historian Compagni, or Dante and the poet Guido Cavalcanti. Sapegno says of the idea that Dante includes himself among these "two" here that it certainly would be outrageous, but far from impossible. Modern commentator Mazzoni proposes, after his reading of St. Thomas' Aristoteles commentary, that these "two" are not people, but two modes of "justness", one natural, unwritten justice, and one specified in law, none of which were obeyed in Florence.

Page 34. " Farinata and Tegghiaio, once so worthy, Jacopo Rusticucci, Arrigo, and Mosca "

Farinata degli Uberti
Public DomainFarinata degli Uberti - Credit: Andrea del Castagno

(Canto 6, lines 79-80)

Farinata, real name Manente di Iacopo degli Uberti, was the leader of Florence's Ghibelline faction from 1239. In 1248, he banished the Guelfs from the city, but in 1251, after the death the preceding year of the Ghibelline-friendly emperor Frederick II, the Guelfs made it back into the city and eventually achieved power. Most leading Ghibellines, including the Uberti family, were banished from the city in 1258. Farinata fled to Siena, from where he secured the support of Sicilian king Manfredi. In 1260, after a decisive victory over the Guelfs at the Battle of Montaperti, he could return to Florence and assumed power again. At this junction, most Ghibellines were in favour of razing Florence to the ground, which he, unsupported, managed to prevent. Farinata died in 1264, after which the Guelfs again rose to prominence and posthumously condemned him as an heretic. In Canto 10 of the Inferno, he is shown being punished for his heresy in the sixth circle of Hell.

Tegghiaio, full name Tegghiaio Aldobrandi degli Adimari, was an important figurehead of the Florentine Guelf party. In 1238, he assumed an official position in San Gimignano, where he managed to resolve a conflict with the city of Volterra; from 1256 he served in Arezzo. He was one of the leading Guelf commanders during the war of 1260 and died before 1266. In Canto 16 of Inferno, he is punished for sodomy in the seventh circle.

Jacopo Rusticucci was a wealthy Florentian belonging to Cavalcanti's Guelf faction, achieving an important official position in 1254. Together with Tegghiaio, he managed to achieve relative peace between Florence and other Tuscan cities. He is portrayed together with Tegghiaio in Canto 16.

Mosca belonged to the Ghibelline Lamberti family and was born in the late 12th century. He held official positions in Florence, Viterbo and Todi. During the 1229-1235 years of war between Florence and Siena, he was Florence's military commander. In 1242 he assumed office in Reggio, where he died the following year. In the incident that became known as the legendary origin of Guelf-Ghibelline factional fighting in Florence, the killing of a youth named Buondelmonte in 1215, he was a primary instigator, and is therefore punished in the eighth circle of hell in the Comedy.

Nothing is known about the Arrigo mentioned here, but since he is mentioned together with Mosca, commentators have guessed that he belonged to the Fifanti family and participated in the 1215 killing of Buondelmonte. Some believe that he is Arrigo di Cascia, who like Tegghiaio and Rusticucci was instrumental in achieving peace between Volterra and San Gimignano, since he is mentioned in conjunction with them.

Page 34. " He wakes no more This side the sound of the angelic trumpet; When shall approach the hostile Potentate "

(Canto 6, lines 94-96)

Until the angel's blow their trumpets for the Final Judgement, the souls lying prone on the ground will not wake and stand up. The "hostile Potentate" is Jesus Christ.

Page 35. " Return unto thy science "

(Canto 6, line 106)

That is, the philosophy of Aristotle. Commentator Mazzoni explains that Dante here alludes to St. Thomas' commentary of Aristotle's "On the Soul", where a similar message is to be found. That is to say, after the Final Judgment, when souls have rejoined their bodies and therefore are again more perfect, the punishment of the punished will appear even worse, while the joy of those blessed will be even greater.

Page 35. " There we found Plutus the great enemy "

(Canto 6, line 115)

Plutus, in Greek mythology, was the god of wealth, while Pluto was the king of the underworld, also called Dis. The opinion of many commentators is that since Lucifer, not Pluto, is assigned the role of king of the underworld in Dante's poem, this Plutus (Pluto in the original Italian) should refer to the god of wealth, especially as he stands guarding the entrance to the fourth circle, where souls guilty of greed and wastefulness are punished. Also, the appellation "the great enemy" to Plutus ("Pluto") is consistent with Dante's view that "the love of money is the root of all evil."

Page 36. " Pape Satan, Pape Satan, Aleppe! "
Plutus in circle 4
Public DomainPlutus in circle 4 - Credit: Gustave Doré

(Canto 7, line 1)

This invocation of Plutus is by most modern commentators regarded as some kind of "devilspeak" devoid of any real meaning: however, many older commentaries tried to explain it in some way and generally arrived at rather similar conclusions concerning the meaning of "Pape": it is similar to the Greek "papai", a word used to convey surprise. "Aleppe" has brought on more fanciful explanations: some say it means "pain", others that it stands for "God". Its similarity to Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, has caused many to interpret it as an interjection of woe, as in Jeremiah 1:6, "Then said I, Ah, Lord GOD! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child."

Page 36. " where Michael wrought Vengeance upon the proud adultery "

(Canto 7, lines 11-12)

Referring to archangel Michael punishing the rebellious angels led by Lucifer.

Page 37. " As doth the billow there upon Charybdis, That breaks itself on that which it encounters "

(Canto 7, lines 22-23)

Together with Scylla, Charybdis was a mythical sea monster found in the Homeric poems, among others. They were later rationalized as a rock (Scylla) and a whirlpool (Charybdis) in the Strait of Messina in southern Italy, where the Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas meet.

Page 37. " Rolling weights forward by main force of chest "
Sinners rolling weights in circle four

(Canto 7, line 27 ff)

In Dante's fourth circle of Hell, those souls guilty of the opposite sins of avariciousness and wastefulness are punished by being forced to roll weights in opposite directions. Ironically, they still scold each other for the sin opposite their own, and Dante marks them out by their respective traits of character as "with the fist closed" and "with tresses shorn".

Page 38. " For all the gold that is beneath the moon, Or ever has been, of these weary souls Could never make a single one repose "

(Canto 7, lines 64-66)

Some commentators augment the meaning of this passage to say that not all the gold in the world is enough relieve any soul at all from continuous suffering - anyway, for a gloss to these lines, see the Convivio book 4 chapter 12.

Page 39. " Even by those who ought to give her praise "

(Canto 7, line 92)

Perhaps alluding to a passage in Boethius' "Consolation of Philosophy": "The very thing which is now the cause of thy great grief ought to have brought thee tranquillity. Thou hast been forsaken by one of whom no one can be sure that she will not forsake him." The meaning would then be that people abandoned by the Lady Fortune are thereby exempted from painful vacillations between hope and despair and should therefore praise her, not "crucify" her.

Page 39. " But she is blissful, and she hears it not; Among the other primal creatures gladsome "

(Canto 7, lines 94-95)

Again, see Boethius: "She heedeth not the wail of hapless woe, But mocks the griefs that from her mischief flow. Such is her sport; so proveth she her power". "Primal creatures" refers to the angels in Paradise.

Page 39. " Let us descend now unto greater woe; Already sinks each star that was ascending When I set out, and loitering is forbidden "

(Canto 7, line 97-99)

"To greater woe", that is, down to the fifth circle, where the angry souls are punished. Sapegno concludes from Virgil's statement of the time that more than twelve hours has passed since he set off to rescue Dante. Counting from the time at the beginning of Canto 2 (sunset) and the end of Canto 11 (about two hours before sunrise), he estimates that it is now about midnight on the night between March 25 and 26. Reggio concurs, with the reservation that time in the poem is altogether fictional and only serves to give a realistic feel to Dante's travels; thus it would be unnecessary to demand too much exactness.

Page 40. " Saw people mud-besprent in that lagoon "

Sinners fighting in circle five
Public DomainSinners fighting in circle five - Credit: William Blake

(Canto 7, line 110)

The poem divides the wrathful souls in angry ones and sullen ones; these first ones are of the former kind. Wrath is one of the traditional cardinal sins of Christianity (together with pride, greed, lust, gluttony, envy and sloth), but this division into two kinds of wrath, one more active and one more passive, is to be traced to St. Thomas Aristotle commentaries, where the wrathful are divided into three types.

Page 40. " Beneath the water people are who sigh "

(Canto 7, line 118)

These are the "sullen" rather than "angry" souls - Sapegno finds Dante's description of their sins here rather difficult to make sense of. Other commentators have pointed out that maybe the proud (among the fighting) and the envious (among the bubbling) are meant to be included among these souls punished in the fifth circle: in that way, all the seven cardinal sins would have been dealt with in the first few circles.

Page 42. " I say, continuing, that long before "

(Canto 8, line 1)

A theory about the compositional history of the "Comedy" hinges on the word "continuing" here. A tradition of commentators beginning with Boccaccio believe that Dante stopped writing his poem for a certain period of time, to resume it at a later stage. According to this theory, the previous seven Cantos were written before the time of Dante's banishment, and were then lost together with other writings. Several years later, the manuscript would have found its way back to Dante, when he stayed with the Malaspinas in Lunigiana (around 1306). Consequently, certain commentators believe a marked shift in aesthetic quality occurs starting with the eighth Canto, while other reject the whole theory altogether as an unlikely construction.

Page 42. " And, to the sea of all discernment turned "

(Canto 8, line 7)

The "Comedy" is full of different respectful adresses directed at Virgil: "the sea of all discernment" is probably one of the weirder ones...

Page 43. " Phlegyas, Phlegyas, thou criest out in vain "

(Canto 8, line 19)

Phlegyas was a character in Greek mythology, son of Chryse and Ares, the god of war. After Apollo had seduced and later ordered his daughter Coronis killed, Phlegyas set fire to the Apollonian temple at Delfi, an episode mentioned both in the Aeneid and Statius' "Thebaid". Dante makes him into his fifth circle's guardian devil and a symbol of wrath. His task seems to be carrying souls from the Stygian shores and throwing them into the swamp for their punishment.

Page 43. " And only when I entered seemed it laden "

(Canto 8, line 27)

I think this is the first time in the Comedy Dante mentions his weight as a feature distinguishing him from the massless souls in the Inferno: "dividing more of the water than 'tis wont with others" two lines later also refers to this. He is to return to this theme several times further on.

Page 43. " "Thou seest that I am one who weeps," he answered "

Virgil pushing Filippo Argenti from the boat
Public DomainVirgil pushing Filippo Argenti from the boat - Credit: William Blake

(Canto 8, line 36)

This is Filippo Argenti de Cavicciuoli, a member of the Florintine Guelf Adimari clan, a Black party supporter and thus a political opponent of Dante. A knight possessing considerable riches, he is said to have received the nickname "Argenti", "silver", after shoeing his horse with silver. He is remembered as a man of imposing build, warrior-like bearing and explosive temper, and is mentioned by name in Boccaccio's Decameron. It is also likely that the knight in Novelle nr. 114 by Franco Sacchetti refers to him - where, interestingly, Dante himself is portrayed as a rather difficult character. According to tradition, Filippo is supposed to once have slapped Dante, and another member of the Adimari family is said to have taken possession of Dante's belongings and/or contributed to his banishment.

Page 44. " Blessed be she who bore thee in her bosom "

(Canto 8, line 45)

Compare Luke 11:27.

Page 44. " The city draweth near whose name is Dis "

(Canto 8, line 68)

As noted in a previous bookmark, Dis is also another name for Pluto, the mythological lord of the underworld. "The City of Dis" as a name for Hell is used by both Virgil in his Aeneid and by Ovid in the Transformations.

Page 45. " Its mosques already, Master, clearly "

(Canto 8, line 70)

Religious prejudice, it must be assumed, leads Dante to use this Arab word to describe the watchtowers of the city of devils.

Page 46. " O my dear Guide, who more than seven times "

(Canto 8, line 97)

This type of general, unspecific use of certain numbers like "seven", "three" and "two" was much more common in Dante's time than today.

Page 46. " None can take from us, it by Such is given "

Virgil facing the devils at the gate
Public DomainVirgil facing the devils at the gate - Credit: Gustave Doré

(Canto 8, line 105)

Note again how Dante consistently avoids to the word "God".

Page 46. " For once they used it at less secret gate, Which finds itself without a fastening still "

(Canto 8, lines 125-126)

This is commonly taken to refer to the time when Jesus descended into Limbo to rescue certain souls as described in Canto 4: he would then have run into patrol at the outer gate of Hell (the "less secret gate") which ever since he broke through the devil's ranks has been "without a fastening".

Page 49. " Was conjured by that pitiless Erictho "

(Canto 9, line 23)

Erictho was a Thessalian witch figuring in Lucan's "Pharsalia" who possessed the power to call souls back from the dead. On the eve of the great battle of Pharsalus, she summons one of the dead to deliver a prophecy of the end of the battle to Pompey's son Sextus. In book 6 of the Aeneid, where the Sibyl leads Aeneas through the underworld, she points out to him that it was Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, who first guided her through those domains. Dante's poem evokes Virgil's narrative at this point, and is taken as some as a demonstration by Dante that he didn't believe in the idea, widely endorsed during the Middle Ages, that Virgil himself had been a master of witchcraft.

Page 49. " And farthest from the heaven which circles all "

(Canto 9, line 29)

The chrystalline heaven or Primum Mobile, the topmost layer of the nine heavens circling the earth - therefore also naturally the farthest from the center of the earth, where Hell is. Medieval astronomy held that the Earth was fixed at the center of the universe, while nine layers of heavens circled about it.

Page 49. " The three infernal Furies stained with blood "
The three Furies in Circle 6
Public DomainThe three Furies in Circle 6 - Credit: Gustave Doré

(Canto 9, line 38)

The three Furies are: Alecto, the never resting; Megaera, the grudging; and Tisiphone, the vengeful. In Greek mythology, they were goddesses of vengeance, pursuing and punishing those who have committed certain ill deeds like killing or breaking oaths. Tradition holds that they turned black when angered, but were normally white. The Furies are often mentioned in classic literature, and figure for example in the works of Virgil, Ovid and Stasius. They are the Roman version of a corresponding Greek group of divinities called the Erinyes - which is how Virgil terms them in the poem - born of the river Akhenaton and Nyx, the night goddess. Dante calls them "handmaids of the Queen of everlasting lamentation" - the Queen would refer to Persephone or her Roman equivalent Proserpina, married to Hades/Pluto.

Page 50. " Medusa come, so we to stone will change him! "

Head of Medusa
Public DomainHead of Medusa - Credit: Caravaggio

(Canto 9, line 52)

Medusa was the youngest and fiercest of the three Gorgon sisters, daughters of the sea god Phorcys. A direct look upon her face would turn a person into stone: a mythological explanation of this power tells that she once copulated with Poseidon in the temple of Athena, who cursed her for it, and also turned her hair into snakes. Eventually, she was decapitated by Perseus, but the magic never vanished.

Page 50. " Avenged we not on Theseus his assault! "

(Canto 9, line 54)

Theseus, one of the foremost heroes of the Greek pantheon, was one of the Argonauts participating in Jason's hunt for the golden fleece. Among other deeds, he killed the bull-headed Minotaur, abducted the Amazon queen Hippolyta and became the king of Athens. Together with his friend Pirithous, prince of the Lapiths, he descended into the Underworld to abduct its queen Persephone. However, in the underworld, they became magically fixed to rocks and could not escape. Theseus was later rescued by Hercules. Apparently, the Furies think that if they had punished Theseus properly, people would not, like Dante, come down to the Underworld of their own accords.

Page 50. " Observe the doctrine that conceals itself Beneath the veil of the mysterious verses! "
The Angel opening the city of Dis while Virgil covers Dante's eyes
Public DomainThe Angel opening the city of Dis while Virgil covers Dante's eyes - Credit: William Blake

(Canto 9, lines 62-63)

Dante does not explain which "doctrine" he means. Several interpretations have been proposed, according to some of which he intends Medusa to be a symbol for heresy, or for sexual lust, set to distract and delude people. As the Furies are traditionally goddesses of vengeance, they have also been proposed to symbolize the "regret", which tries to make Dante abandon his resolve. Be that as it may, even if the "doctrine" here might allude to something concrete but now obscure, it is a general theme of the poem that man must overcome obstacles like Medusa and the Furies on his way to rebirth and atonement for sins; in some measure, the "reason" symbolized by Virgil will help him not to "look in the wrong direction", but to succeed completely, heavenly grace in the form of the angel about to arrive is also necessary.