Chapter 17: Geryon
“Behold the monster that makes the world stink!” Virgil said to Dante as he motioned for the monster to land.
And the monster — the embodiment of fraud — did land.
Dante and Virgil saw the guard of the Circles dedicated to punishing fraud: Geryon, a creature with a face like that of an honest man, a body made of a combination of parts of beasts, and a stinging tail like that of a scorpion.
Geryon has three parts, Virgil noted. Like other triune guards, Geryon is a perversion of the Holy Trinity.
Geryon is an appropriate guard of Circle 8 because he embodies fraud. His honest-looking face encourages people to trust him, while he hides his tail that will sting his victim. Geryon usually stings the sinners who ride on his back, but he won’t do that to Dante and me. When Geryon first gets sinners to trust him and then he stings them with his scorpion’s tail, he commits fraud.
Look at Geryon. He is displaying his honest-looking face, but he is trying to keep his stinging tail out of sight; it is hanging down the cliff leading to the next Circle. He is trying to commit fraud even as I look at him.
Geryon provides transportation to the next Circle. Minos flings sinners down into Hell, but at least some sinners must travel further down to the Circle where they will be punished. Just as Phlegyas the ferryman takes sinners across the Styx, so Geryon flies sinners from Circle 7 to Circle 8.
Dante was surprised by the way the monster looked. His face made you want to trust him, but the rest of him was animalistic. He had clawed paws, not hands. He had hairy legs instead of arms. His back, his belly, and his flanks seemed to be painted with exotic designs like those of some snakes. And he had a stinging tail like that of a scorpion, although he was attempting to keep it out of sight.
“Now we need to go to the evil beast,” Virgil said to Dante. They did, being careful to stay off the burning sand. Dante looked around and saw some sinners close to the edge of the burning sand.
Virgil noticed Dante looking at the sinners and told him, “Go and see them. That will complete your knowledge of the torments in this Circle. But don’t stay long. I will be here convincing the evil beast — whose name is Geryon — to take us down to Circle 8.”
Dante walked toward the sinners, who were in pain because of the flakes of flame falling from the sky onto them and because of the burning sand on which they crouched. Their hands moved constantly, brushing off flames and trying to provide some protection from the burning sand. They resembled dogs trying unsuccessfully to get relief from fleas as they constantly scratched here and scratched there.
Because when they were alive, the greedy moneylenders took something that ought to be infertile and made it fertile, now that they are dead they are in this burning plain with fire raining down on them. Here they are bent over, just like living greedy moneylenders who bend over their tables and count their money. Hanging from the necks of these sinners in Hell are moneybags, which they gaze at greedily just as they did while they were living.
Dante looked carefully at the faces of several sinners, but he recognized no one, although he knew that the sinners were greedy moneylenders because of the moneybags that were hanging from their necks. These sinners’ love of money had kept them from accomplishing something great in the Land of the Living. Because they were undistinguished in the Land of the Living, they cannot be distinguished in the Land of the Dead.
However, although Dante could not recognize any individual greedy moneylenders, he did recognize the families that the greedy moneylenders came from by looking the designs — the coats of arms — on their moneybags. He identified a member of the Gianfigliazzi family of Florence because the sinner had a yellow purse that was decorated with a blue lion. He identified a member of the Ubriachi family of Florence because the sinner had a red purse that was decorated with a goose. And he identified a member of the Scrovegni family of Padua because the sinner had a purse that was decorated with a blue sow.
The sinner who was a member of the Scrovegni family told Dante, “What are you looking at! Get away from me! What are you doing here!
“But since you are alive, I will tell you that soon my neighbor Vitaliano will arrive here in this Circle of Hell and sit on my left. We will then have one more Paduan among all these Florentines.”
The Paduan then stuck his tongue out at Dante, who returned to Virgil lest he anger his guide by staying too long.
Virgil, who was already sitting on the back of Geryon, told Dante, “Now is the time for courage and strength. This is our transportation to the next Circle. Sit in front of me so that I will be between you and this monster’s stinging scorpion’s tail.”
Dante was afraid, but he obeyed Virgil and mounted Geryon’s back. He thought about asking Virgil to hold on to him, and Virgil, reading Dante’s mind, did just that.
Virgil then ordered the monster, “Geryon, take flight, and fly gently. Remember, on your back is a living person.”
Geryon launched himself in flight and descended.
Dante was afraid. He thought, I am more afraid than Phaëthon was when he took flight. 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 consisting 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 the Earth sometimes and going too far away from the Earth sometimes. 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, Jupiter killed Phaëthon with a thunderbolt and Apollo was able to drive the chariot again, and so everything went back to normal.
I am even more afraid than Icarus, Daedalus’ son, was when he fell out of the sky. Icarus was 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.
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.
That is exactly what happened. Icarus became excited because he was flying, he flew too high, the wax of his wings melted, and he drowned.
Dante and Virgil could hear the roaring of the waterfall as they descended. Dante looked out at the terrain of Circle 8 as they descended, but leaning outward frightened him so much that he quickly stopped doing it.
Geryon was angry at Dante and Virgil because he had expected to be able to torment some newly arrived sinners when he answered the signal of the cord that had been used by Dante as a belt.
When Geryon descended in spirals from Circle 7 to Circle 8, he was like a falcon that was angry at its master. When Geryon landed, he made sure to land in such a way that Virgil and Dante were almost up against the jagged cliff.
And as soon as Virgil and Dante got off his back, Geryon took off like an arrow shot from a bowstring, getting away from Dante and Virgil as quickly as possible.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:
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