Erichtho: Circle 5, Inferno 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.