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University Of Texas At Austin

Circle 5, cantos 7-9

Wrath and Sullenness (7-8)
Phlegyas (8), Filippo Argenti (8), Fallen Angels (8), Furies and Medusa (8-9), Heaven's Messenger (9)
Styx (7-8), Harrowing of Hell (8), Dis (8-9), Theseus and Hercules (9), Erichtho (9), Allegory (9)
Study Questions

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Wrath and Sullenness (7-8)
Wrath and Sullenness Wrath and Sullenness Wrath and Sullenness
Like the fourth circle of hell, the fifth circle--presented in Inferno 7 and 8--contains two related groups of sinners. But whereas avarice and prodigality are two distinct sins based on the same principle (an immoderate attitude toward material wealth), wrath and sullenness are basically two forms of a single sin: anger that is expressed (wrath) and anger that is repressed (sullenness). This idea that anger takes various forms is common in ancient and medieval thought. Note how the two groups suffer different punishments appropriate to their type of anger--the wrathful ruthlessly attacking one another and the sullen stewing below the surface of the muddy swamp (Inf. 7.109-26)--even though they are all confined to Styx.
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Dis (8-9)
Dis Dis
Dante designates all of lower hell--circles 6 through 9, where more serious sins are punished--as the walled city of Dis (Inf. 8.68), one of the names for the king of the classical underworld (Pluto) and--by extension--the underworld in general. For Dante, then, Dis stands both for Lucifer and the lower circles of his infernal realm. It may be significant that Virgil--a classical poet who refers to Dis in his Aeneid--is the one who now announces the travelers' approach to Dis in the Divine Comedy. Details of the city and its surroundings in Inferno 8 and 9--including moats, watch towers, high walls, and a well guarded entrance--suggest a citizenry ready for battle.
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Phlegyas (8)
Phleygas Phleygas
The infernal employee who transports Dante and Virgil in his boat across the Styx (Inf. 8.13-24)--circle of the wrathful and sullen--is appropriately known for his own impetuous behavior. In a fit of rage, Phlegyas set fire to the temple of Apollo because the god had raped his daughter. Apollo promptly slew him. Phlegyas, whose own father was Mars (god of war), appears in Virgil's underworld as an admonition against showing contempt for the gods (Aen. 6.618-20). Megaera, one of the Furies, tortures a famished and irritable Phlegyas in Statius' Thebaid (1.712-15).
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Filippo Argenti (8)
Filippo Argenti Filippo Argenti Filippo Argenti
Apart from what transpires in Inferno 8.31-63, we know little of the hot-headed character who quarrels with Dante, lays his hands on the boat (to capsize it?), and is finally torn to pieces by his wrathful cohorts, much to Dante's liking. Early commentators report that his name--Argenti--derived from an ostentatious habit of shoeing his horse in silver (argento). A black guelph, Filippo was Dante's natural political enemy, but the tone of the episode suggests personal animosity as well. Some try to explain Dante's harsh treatment of Filippo as payback for an earlier offense--namely, Filippo once slapped Dante in the face, or Filippo's brother took possession of Dante's confiscated property after the poet had been exiled from Florence. Boccaccio, in his Decameron, highlights Filippo's violent temper by having the character throttle a man who had crossed him (Day 9, novella 8).
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Fallen Angels (8)
Fallen Angels
Dante's fallen angels--they literally "rained down from heaven" (Inf. 8.82-3)--defend the city of Dis (lower hell) just as they once resisted Christ's arrival at the gate of hell. These angels joined Lucifer in his rebellion against God; cast out of heaven, they laid the foundation for evil in the world. Once beautiful, they are now--like all things infernal--transformed into monstrous demons.
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Furies and Medusa (8-9)
Furies Furies Furies Medusa
With the appearance of the three Furies, who threaten to call on the Medusa, Virgil's credibility and Dante's survival certainly appear to be at risk. Virgil is exceptionally animated as he directs Dante's attention to the Furies (also called "Erinyes") and identifies each one by name: Megaera, Tisiphone, and Allecto. This is a moment in the journey when Virgil's legacy as the author of his own epic poem--in which he himself writes of such creatures as the Furies and the Medusa--is central to the meaning of Dante's episode. The Furies, according to Virgil's classical world, were a terrifying trio of "daughters of Night"--bloodstained with snakes in their hair and about their waists--who were often invoked to exact revenge on the part of offended mortals and gods. The Medusa, one of three sisters known as the Gorgons, was so frightening to behold that those who looked at her would turn to stone. Conventionally adorned with a head full of serpents, she was decapitated by the Greek hero Perseus. Representations of Perseus holding aloft the horrible head of the Medusa were common in the early modern period. A Renaissance sculpture of the scene, by Cellini, has for many years decked the Loggia in Piazza della Signoria, one of the main squares in Florence. The fact that the Furies and Medusa were commonly thought to signify various evils (or components of sin) in the Middle Ages, from obstinacy and doubt to heresy and pride, may help to explain the travelers' difficulties at the entrance to Dis.
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Heaven's Messenger (9)
Heaven's Messenger Heaven's Messenger Dis
Although the arrival of the messenger from heaven--who rebukes the demons so that the travelers may enter Dis (lower hell)--was anticipated by Virgil (Inf. 8.128-30; 9.8-9), the precise identification of the powerful being is never made clear. Literally "sent from heaven" (Inf. 9.85), he supports both classical and Christian interpretations in his appearance and actions. As an enemy of hell who walks on water (Inf. 9.81) and opens the gates of Dis as Christ once opened the gate of hell (Inf. 8.124-30), the messenger is certainly a Christ-like figure. He also bears similarities to Hermes-Mercury, the classical god who--borne on his winged feet--delivers messages to mortals from the heavens. The little wand of the heavenly messenger (Inf. 9.89) recalls the caduceus, the staff with which Hermes-Mercury guides souls of the dead to Hades. Both Christ and Hermes were strongly associated with the kind of allegory Dante describes in Inferno 9.61-3--namely, the idea that deeper meaning is hidden beneath the surface-level meaning of words. See allegory.
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Styx (7-8)
The Styx is a body of water--a marsh or river--in the classical underworld. Virgil describes it in his Aeneid as the marsh across which Charon ferries souls of the dead--and the living Aeneas--into the lower world (Aen. 6.384-416). Dante's presentation of the infernal waterways--and the topography of the otherworld in general--is much more detailed and precise (and therefore more realistic and recognizable) than the descriptions of his classical and medieval precursors. The Styx, according to Dante's design, is a vast swamp encompassing the fifth circle of hell, in which the wrathful and sullen are punished. It also serves a practical purpose in the journey when Dante and Virgil are taken by Phlegyas--in his swift vessel--across the marsh to the city of Dis. Note the effects of Dante's body--modeled on a similar scene in the Aeneid (6.412-16)--when he boards Phlegyas' craft (Inf. 8.25-30).
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Harrowing of Hell (8)
The harrowing of hell is previously described in Inferno 4. Virgil now alludes to a specific effect of the harrowing--damage to the gate of hell--in noting the arrogance of the demons at the entrance to Dis (Inf. 8.124-7).
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Theseus and Hercules (9)
The heavenly messenger pointedly reminds the demons at the entrance to Dis that Dante will not be the first living man to breach their walls. Theseus and Hercules, two classical heroes each with a divine parent, previously entered the underworld and returned alive. Hercules, in fact, descended into Hades to rescue Theseus, who had been imprisoned following his unsuccessful attempt to abduct Persephone, Queen of Hades. While the Furies express regret at not having killed Theseus when they had the chance (Inf. 9.54), the heavenly messenger recalls that Cerberus bore the brunt of Hercules' fury as he was dragged by his chain along the hard floor of the underworld (Inf. 9.97-9). In the Aeneid Charon tries to dissuade Aeneas from boarding his boat by voicing his displeasure at having previously transported Hercules and Theseus to the underworld (6.392-7).
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Erichtho (9)
Dante's desire to know--with not-so-subtle implications--if anyone has previously made the journey from upper hell, say Limbo, down to lower hell is evidence of the mind games that he and Virgil occasionally play with one another during their time together (Inf. 9.16-18). Given the impasse at the entrance to Dis, Dante understandably wants to know if his guide is up to the task. Virgil's savvy response that, yes, he himself once made such a journey, is his way of saying: "Don't worry, I know what I'm doing!" Virgil's story, that he was summoned by Erichtho to retrieve a soul from the lowest circle of hell (Inf. 9.25-30), is Dante's invention. Dante the poet thus invents a story so that Virgil can save face and reassure Dante the character. The poet likely based this story on a gruesome episode from Lucan's Pharsalia (6.507-830): Erichtho, a blood-thirsty witch, calls back from the underworld the shade of a freshly killed soldier so he can reveal future events in the civil war between Pompey and Caesar. By making Virgil a victim of Erichtho's sorcery, Dante draws on the popular belief--widespread in the Middle Ages--that Virgil himself possessed magical, prophetic powers.
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Allegory (9)
When Dante interrupts the narrative to instruct his (smart) readers to "note the doctrine hidden under the veil of strange verses" (Inf. 9.61-3), he calls upon the popular medieval tradition of allegorical reading. Commonly applied to the interpretation of sacred texts (e.g., the Bible), allegory--in its various forms--assumes that other, deeper levels of meaning (often spiritual) lie beneath the surface in addition to (or in place of) the literal meaning of the words. Allegory was also used to "moralize" (or Christianize) classical works, such as Ovid's Metamorphoses. The medieval Platonic tradition often allegorically interpreted texts according to a body of esoteric doctrine believed to originate with Hermes (hence "hermeticism").
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"sotto 'l velame de li versi strani" (9.63)
under the veil of the strange verses
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Study Questions
How would you describe Dante's behavior and attitude toward Filippo Argenti?
Why is this reaction, so different from Dante's earlier responses to Francesca and Ciacco, appropriate here?
Why is Virgil not able to overcome on his own the resistance of the demons at the entrance to Dis?
How might this relate to the teaching that is hidden "under the veil of the strange verses" (9.63)?
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