Dante’s Inferno: Canto 9 Retelling — The City of Dis

Chapter 9: The City of Dis

Dante’s face had paled with fear as he saw that Virgil was returning after his unsuccessful attempt to convince the fallen angels to allow them to pass through the gates of the city of Dis.

Virgil waited, looking worried and saying, “We must pass through the gates. Nothing can prevent us from doing that. After all, we have been promised help. Or — no, we will receive help, but it is taking more time than I like for help to get to us.”

Dante was afraid, and he asked Virgil, “Has anyone ever traveled to the bottom of the Inferno from Limbo?”

“That is an unusual journey to take,” Virgil replied, “but I have traveled it before. Not long after I died, the sorceress Erichtho summoned my spirit to her and gave me a task to travel to the pit of Judas at the bottom of the Inferno and bring out a spirit for her to consult. This is something she had done before. While I was still alive, she sent a soul to the bottom of the Inferno to retrieve another soul who would foretell the victor of the Battle of Pharsalia, in which the forces of Julius Caesar defeated the forces of Pompey. Because I have traveled throughout the Inferno, I well know the path that we will take and I am familiar with the place we are now. This swamp of the Styx completely surrounds the city of Dis, which we will enter although not — as you know — without some trouble.”

As they talked, Dante looked up at the city, and above its walls he suddenly saw the three Furies — the Erinyes — fly. They were winged avenging spirits covered with blood — they had snakes for hair, and their purpose in the ancient world was to wreck vengeance against children who killed their parents. These were the avenging spirits who pursued Orestes after he killed his mother, who had killed his father.

Virgil looked up, and he saw the Furies, whom he recognized: “Look! Megaera is on the left, Alecto on the right, and Tisiphone in the middle!” Virgil knew much about the Furies. Alecto had maddened Queen Amata and Turnus to rebel against and fight Aeneas when he and his refugee Trojans tried to establish themselves in Italy. Virgil knew how dangerous the Furies could be.

The Furies hovered in the air, shrieking and tearing their skin with their fingernails, drawing blood. They shouted, “Come, Medusa, and turn this living man into stone. We let Theseus get away from us too easily.”

This is a threat that needs to be taken seriously, Virgil thought. Any living human being who looks at Medusa, who also has snakes for hair, will instantly be turned into stone. In addition, the Furies and Medusa are still angry because Hercules released Theseus from the Inferno when he came into the Inferno to take Cerberus the three-headed dog to the Land of the Living.

Virgil told Dante, “Turn around and cover your eyes because if you see Medusa your journey is over and you will not return to the Land of the Living.”

Dante did as he was told, and Virgil also covered Dante’s eyes with his hands. In doing so, both Dante and Virgil underestimated the power of God and of God’s helpers.

Now came an important event. Sound blasted through the Inferno, and Hell trembled. A hurricane will tear through a forest, uprooting trees and destroying everything in its path. Such seemed to be this sound.

Virgil removed his hands from over Dante’s eyes and told him, “Turn around and look.”

Dante saw over a thousand sinners diving into the muddy marsh of the Styx the way that frogs will dive into the water to get away from snakes, their natural enemies. Then he saw a good angel walking on the water of the Styx, which did not even wet his feet. The good angel did not fear; instead, the good angel was filled with scorn for the sinners and the fallen angels.

Dante was going to speak to Virgil, but Virgil motioned for him to keep silent and to bow low.

The good angel reached the gate of Dis and touched it with his wand, and the gate immediately opened.

Filled with scorn, the good angel said to the fallen angels, “What do you think you are doing? You know that you are powerless against the One Who sent me. You gain nothing but defeat by opposing Him. As you should have learned by now, Ultimate Evil is powerless against Ultimate Good. When Lucifer rebelled against God, you fought on the side of Lucifer. Look where it got you!”

This is much like another opening of a gate of Hell, Virgil thought. When the Mighty Warrior came to rescue the righteous saved souls from Limbo, these fallen angels opposed him, but nevertheless he rescued the souls, causing pain to those sinners who were and are condemned to reside in the Inferno forever. He also caused pain to the fallen angels who opposed Him just as this angel from the Supreme Emperor is causing pain to those fallen angels once again.

The angel from God left; his face showed that he was thinking of more important things than opening the gate — something that was a mere distraction for him.

Dante and Virgil approached the gate of Dis and passed through it. No fallen angel dared oppose them.

Past the gate, Dante saw an ugly landscape. It was filled with sepulchers. These burial chambers were not closed; from them flames leapt up. From the inside of the burial chambers came cries of grief and pain.

Dante asked Virgil, “What kind of sinners are these who reside in the open tombs?”

“Arch-heretics and their disciples are buried here,” Virgil replied. “The tombs hold many more sinners than you suspect, and each kind of heretic is entombed with the other heretics who believed incorrectly about God. The tombs burn more brightly for the greater heresies.”

Dante and Virgil walked toward the tombs.

I can understand why the guards here are the fallen angels and the Furies and Medusa, Dante thought. Medusa and the Furies are appropriate guards of this Circle because they are pagan figures, and of course pagans do not think correctly about God. The fallen angels are also appropriate guards of this Circle that is devoted to punishing heretics 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; the fallen angels, the Furies, and Medusa thought incorrectly about God. Still, tombs don’t need guards, so the guards here need hardly keep a close eye on the sinners in the tombs.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce


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13 Responses to Dante’s Inferno: Canto 9 Retelling — The City of Dis

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