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Allusion in Dante's Inferno

Allusion Examples in Dante's Inferno:

Canto 1

🔒 4

"Have conn'd it o'er..."   (Canto 1)

In this case, to "con" is to study carefully. Dante has become very familiar with the Aeneid, which includes a long and detailed account of Aeneas' journey to the underworld to learn what the gods have in store for him and the Trojan race.

"A lion came, 'gainst me..."   (Canto 1)

Again, the lion, which represents insatiable hunger and ambition, is one of three animals mentioned in Jeremiah 5:6 that destroys sinners who remain unrepentant.

"a panther, nimble, light, And cover'd with a speckled skin, appear'd..."   (Canto 1)

This reference to a panther is unclear at this point but could allude to one of three animals in the Book of Jeremiah—a lion, a wolf, and a leopard (panther)—that destroy sinners who fail to confess their sins.

"For whose fair realm, Camilla, virgin pure, Nisus, Euryalus, and Turnus fell..."   (Canto 1)

Camilla was the daughter of the king of the Volscians. Nisus and Euryalus were young Trojan soldiers. Turnus was the king of the Rutulians.  All were leaders of indigenous Italians; enemies in life, here they are patriots, key elements in the founding of Rome.

"To Lucia calling..."   (Canto 2)

"Lucia" is Saint Lucy of Syracuse, who was a virgin martyr in the third century.  She is the patron saint of those who suffer from impaired vision. She is also the symbol of illuminating grace. 

"Rachel..."   (Canto 2)

This is a reference to the biblical Rachel, wife of Jacob, in the book of Genesis. Traditionally, Rachel is symbolic of contemplation. Rachel is described as "her of ancient days" since she, as well as Jacob, lived to be unusually old.

"Thou hast told that Silvius' sire..."   (Canto 2)

In the "Aeneid," Silvius is the son of Aeneas and his second wife, Lavinia (daughter of the King of Latinus of Lathum). In Book VI, Aeneas travels to the underworld, where the shade of his father shows him the future glories of Rome.  

"When I beheld a puissant one arrive Amongst us, with victorious trophy crown'd..."   (Canto 4)

Virgil refers to Christ's Harrowing of Hell, an episode following Christ's crucifixion when he descended into Hell and "rescued" several biblical figures, including Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and his twelve sons, Isaac, and Rachel.

"seven gates..."   (Canto 4)

The seven gates of the castle allude to the seven moral virtues of traditional Christian doctrine: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

"Seven times with lofty walls begirt..."   (Canto 4)

The seven walls of the castle are often read as an allusion to the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music.

"and by Camilla there Penthesilea..."   (Canto 4)

Camilla was the daughter of Metabus, king of the Volscians. Metabus and Turns, king of the Rutulians, were the leaders of indigenous Italians who resisted invasions by the Trojans. Penthesilea was the queen of the Amazons, a race of women warriors. She was killed by Aeneas as she fought to save Troy. These events, which are described in The Aeneid, are so old as to be more mythical than historical in nature.

"Electra there I saw accompanied By many, among whom Hector I knew, Anchises' pious son..."   (Canto 4)

"Electra" here is not a reference to the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, the Electra made famous by Sophocles and Euripides. Rather, it is a reference to the daughter of Atlas and the mother of Dardanus, founder of Troy. Her descendants include Aeneas and Hector. 

"The third is Naso..."   (Canto 4)

"Naso" is Publius Ovidius Naso, the Roman poet best known as Ovid (43 BCE – 18 CE). Ovid's most influential poem was the epic Metamorphoses, which Dante references heavily. 

"Lucan..."   (Canto 4)

"Lucan" is the Roman poet and historian Marcus Annus Lucanus (39–65 BCE). Lucan is the author of Pharsalia, an epic bout the conflict between Caesar and Pompey.  

"Flaccus..."   (Canto 4)

"Flaccus" is Quintas Horatius Flaccus (65–8 BCE), a Roman poet. In the Middle Ages he was known mostly for his satires, though he also wrote odes. Flaccus describes himself as a satirist in *Ars Poetica. *

"Israel with his sire and with his sons, Nor without Rachel whom so hard he won, And others many more, whom he to bliss Exalted..."   (Canto 4)

In the Bible, Jacob's name was changed to "Israel" (Hebrew for "struggles with God") after he wrestled with an angel. Jacob's father was Isaac, the son of Abraham. Jacob married Rachel and had twelve sons who became the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel.

"I would address those two together coming, Which seem so light before the wind..."   (Canto 5)

Dante refers to Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, lovers who died while trying to escape from Francesca da Rimini's enraged husband and Paolo's brother, Gianciotto.

"The book and writer both Were love's purveyors..."   (Canto 5)

This is an allusion to Gallahad (or "Gallahault") who acted as go-between for his friend Lancelot in his illicit affair with King Arthur's wife, Guinevere. Because of his assistance in the betrayal, Gallahad's name became synonymous with "panderer." 

"Lancelot..."   (Canto 5)

In the French story Lancelot du Lac, Lancelot, one of the Knight of Arthur's Round Table, falls in love with King Arthur's wife, Guinevere. When he has an affair with her, Lancelot loses his purity and thus becomes incapable of finding the Holy Grail. 

"Tristan..."   (Canto 5)

Here Dante refers to the tale of Tristan and Iseult (also, Isolde). Tristan, King Mark of Cornwall's nephew, falls in love with Iseult, King Mark's fiancee, after they accidentally drink a love potion originally intended for King Mark and Iseult. In a rage, King Mark shoots Tristan with a poisoned arrow, and Tristan, who happens to be embracing Iseult when struck, goes into muscle spasms and inadvertently chokes Iseult as he dies of the poison. 

"Helen..."   (Canto 5)

Helen was the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. She was kidnapped by Paris, the son of Priam, king of Troy. Helen's departure to Troy sparked the Trojan War.

"The next in amorous fury slew herself..."   (Canto 5)

This is a reference to Dido, the queen of Tyra, and later, queen of Carthage. She broke her vow to remain faithful to her husband after his death when she had an affair with Aeneas. When he abandoned her, she killed herself. See Book IV of the Aeneid for the full story.

"Consult thy knowledge..."   (Canto 6)

The discussion of "knowledge" here is an allusion to Aristotle, specifically his work De Anima. Aristotle's writings were given ample commentary by Sir Thomas Aquinas, an Italian friar and philosopher who was born one generation before Dante. 

"Cerberus..."   (Canto 6)

Cerberus is the three-headed dog from Greek mythology who guards the gates of Hades. In Book VI of the Aeneid, Cerberus is fooled when Sybil throws him a honeycake, allowing Aeneas to slip past unnoticed. It is Dante's poetic innovation, however, to anthropomorphize the beast into a speaking, judging agent with canine characteristics. 

"So 't is will'd On high, there where the great Archangel pour'd Heav'n's vengeance on the first adulterer proud..."   (Canto 7)

In the Bible, the figure of Satan—the "first adulterer proud"—begins as Lucifer, one of the heavenly angels. Lucifer's revolt against God leads to his expulsion, a task carried out by the archangel Michael. 

"From Josaphat return'd shall come, and bring Their bodies, which above they now have left. The cemetery on this part obtain With Epicurus all his followers, Who with the body make the spirit die..."   (Canto 10)

Josaphat is a mythical locale in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is thus described in the Bible, Joel 3:2: 

I will also gather all nations, and will bring them down into the valley of Jehoshaphat, and will plead with them there for my people and for my heritage Israel, whom they have scattered among the nations, and parted my land.

Josaphat is a valley that lies between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. This is the site of Last Judgment, when bodies wil be reclaimed, sent to Heaven or sentenced to Hell.

Epicurus (342-270 BCE) was a Greek philosopher who argued that everything had a natural, not a supernatural, explanation. He also argued that the greatest good was freedom from pain and anxiety.  To be free, one must strive towards virtue, temperance, and a harmonious mind and spirit. Epicurus denied that any sort of divine intervention existed, denied the idea of eternal punishment, and denied the eternity of the soul.

"thy ethic page..."   (Canto 11)

Virgil is asking Dante to think about Aquinas's commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle's treatise stands among the most influential philosophical discussion of ethics in history and was widely studied by medieval writers and scholars. Ethics are of great concern to Dante, for they focus on how men lead moral lives or, in Dante's metaphor, walk the right path.

"Nessus is this, Who for the fair Deianira died..."   (Canto 12)

In Greek myth, Nessus is the centaur whom Hercules trusted to take his wife, Deianira, across a river. Nessus subsequently attempted to rape her. Hercules killed Nessus with an arrow poisoned with the blood of the Hydra, but Nessus avenged himself on Hercules by giving Deianira a cloak soaked in his poisoned blood and telling her to give the cloak to Hercules if she ever doubts his fidelity. The blood in the cloak caused such pain that Hercules essentially committed suicide.

"Perchance thou deem'st The King of Athens here..."   (Canto 12)

Virgil cleverly reminds the Minotaur, who is blocking their way, of his death by Theseus—the "King of Athens." This so enrages the Minotaur that he starts biting himself and ignoring his duty to guard the pass into this section of Hell.

"The infamy of Crete, detested brood Of the feign'd heifer..."   (Canto 12)

This is an allusion to the wife of King Minos of Crete, Pasiphae, who fell in love with a beautiful white bull and desired to mate with him. She asked Daedalus, a great artisan, to construct the shell of a "fake" heifer; she climbed into this shell and mated with the bull.  The result of this liaison was the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull creature consumed by rage. King Minos had Daedalus construct a maze, called the Labyrinth, to keep the Minotaur. Because Athenians had killed King Minos's son, Androgeos, Minos required Athens to send seven young men and women each year to Crete to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. One year, Theseus, with the help of Ariadne, Minos's daughter, entered the Labyrinth as a sacrifice and killed the Minotaur. The Minotaur stands as a symbol of animalistic rage and violence.

"This of the seven kings was one, Who girt the Theban walls with siege..."   (Canto 14)

Virgil refers obliquely to the Thebaid, an epic by Statius recounting a war of seven kings, including Capaneus, who siege the city of Thebes. One of the themes in the Thebaid is Capaneus's constant and unrelenting scorn for the gods.

"good Mulciber..."   (Canto 14)

"Mulciber" is an alternate name for Vulcan, the Greek god of fire and the forge, and maker of the gods' armor.

"the son Of Ammon..."   (Canto 14)

Ammon is an Egyptian god, sometimes considered a counterpart to the Greek god Zeus. Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE), who had once called himself "Son of Zeus" decided to add the epithet "Son of Ammon" after conquering Egypt. To Alexander, the two titles were identical because the two gods were one and the same.

"The soil that erst by Cato's foot was trod..."   (Canto 14)

This is an allusion to the Roman statesman Cato (234–149 BCE), specifically his early life spent on a farm. Cato later became a revered philosopher and urged the Roman elite to return to the simpler, more natural life of an agriculture-based economy. He spoke out against ostentation and displays of wealth, as well as criticized some of the most powerful leaders in Rome.

"Verona's champain try their speed For the green mantle..."   (Canto 15)

This refers to the foot races held near Verona, Italy, and the victor's laurels.

"I commend my TREASURE to thee..."   (Canto 15)

Brunetto refers to his own work Il tesoretto ("The Little Treasure"), which bears several similarities to Dante's journey in the underworld. Brunetto recounts how, after learning that he will have to live in exile after the Ghibellines defeated the Guelphs, he loses the right path and enters a "selva diversa," a strange forest. Like Dante and his Beatrice, Brunetto meets Nature in the form of a beautiful woman who leads him to a better path based on knowledge.

"ill-fated Icarus..."   (Canto 17)

Daedalus and his son Icarus escaped from King Minos of Crete using feathers fastened onto a wooden frame with wax. As they soared above the Aegean Sea, Icarus flew higher than he was supposed to. Despite Daedalus' warnings, he flew high enough for the sun's heat to melt the wax. The frame lost its feathers, and Icarus fell into the sea—now called the Icarian Sea. Dante compares his own vertiginous dread to that of plummeting Icarus.

"Phaeton..."   (Canto 17)

Phaeton is the son of the Greek god Apollo. When he was old enough, he begged Apollo to allow him to drive the sun-chariot across the sky. Despite Apollo's misgivings, he granted Phaeton the wish, but Phaeton soon allowed the horses to run wild. Because the earth was in danger of burning up as the sun came closer to the earth, Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at Phaeton, who fell from the chariot into the river Eridanus and died. Dante compares the dread he feels as he rides on Geryon's back to the dread Phaeton felt as he drove, and fell from, Apollo's chariot.

"Nor spread Arachne..."   (Canto 17)

In Greek mythology, Arachne is an expert weaver who challenges Pallas Athena to a weaving contest. Arachne chooses as her subject the gods' love affairs, angering Athena, who then destroys the weaving. In despair, Arachne commits suicide by hanging, and Athene turns her into a spider. The Latin word arachnid, which denotes spiders, derives from Arachne.

"Which against Charles thy hardihood inspir'd..."   (Canto 19)

This refers to Pope Nicholas's conspiracy against Charles d'Anjou, King of Naples and Sicily.

"Jason shall be call'd, of whom In Maccabees..."   (Canto 19)

This passage refers to the story of the biblical Jason, who was named high priest after successfully bribing King Antiochus, as detailed in Maccabees 4.

"Carrara's hind..."   (Canto 20)

This refers to the region of Carrara in northern Italy—Tuscany, to be specific. Carrara is known for producing very pure white marble. 

"one of Santa Zita's elders..."   (Canto 21)

Canonized in 1690, Zita was a servant woman of the Italian city of Lucca, and several miracles were attributed to her. She is known as Saint Zita, or, in Italian, Santa Zita.

"As dolphins, that, in sign To mariners..."   (Canto 22)

These lines allude to the nautical legend which holds that dolphins surface near vessels to warn sailors of approaching storms.

"The present fray had turn'd my thoughts to muse Upon old Aesop's fable, where he told What fate unto the mouse and frog befell..."   (Canto 23)

This is a reference to the fable Aesop in which a mouse asks a frog to carry him over a stream. The frog ties the mouse to his leg. As they cross, the frog tries to drown the mouse by holding it under water. The mouse puts up a fight; the struggling frog and mouse attract the attention of a hawk. The hawk gobbles up the frog but frees the mouse. 

"minor friars..."   (Canto 23)

"Minor Friars" are Franciscan monks, members of a monastic order founded in 1209. Following their spiritual leader, Francis of Assisi, the Franciscans strove toward humility and lived in purposeful poverty. They went begging in pairs, the older friar walking ahead of the younger. Virgil and Dante walk through the Fifth Pouch of the Eighth Circle in such a manner.

"The' Arabian Phoenix..."   (Canto 24)

The Phoenix is a mythological bird that lives for 500 years, burns to ashes, and then spontaneously regenerates itself. Because of its ability to be reborn after death, the Phoenix came to be associated with Christ.

"What if in warbling fiction he record Cadmus and Arethusa, to a snake Him chang'd, and her into a fountain clear..."   (Canto 25)

In Book IV of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Prince Camdus (son of King Agenor of Phonecia) and Camdus's wife, Harmonia, were both turned into serpents for the crime of killing a dragon sacred to the god Mars. Arethusa's story is also found in Book V of Ovid's Metamorphoses. She was transformed into a fountain to escape Alpheus, the river god. Her attempt to escape was unsuccessful, however, as Alpheus mingled his waters with hers.

"Lucan in mute attention now may hear, Nor thy disastrous fate, Sabellus! tell, Nor shine, Nasidius..."   (Canto 25)

In Book IX of Lucan's Pharsalia, he tells the story of Sabellus, a soldier in Cato the Younger's (95–46 BCE) army. While in the Libyan desert, Sabellus is bitten by a snake. The wound becomes infected and festers. His whole body swells until finally bursting. 

"Circe..."   (Canto 26)

Circe is an enchantress who tries entrap Ulysses, seduces him, and transforms his crew into swine. Circe appears in Book X of The Odyssey.

"Caieta, ..."   (Canto 26)

v"Caieta" is often translated to "Gaeta." This is a town on Italy's southern Coast. Aeneas named the town after his nurse, who died there. The event is described in Book VII of the Aenied.

"Elijah's chariot, when the steeds erect Rais'd their steep flight for heav'n; his eyes meanwhile, Straining pursu'd them..."   (Canto 26)

In the Old Testament Book of Kings, Elijah is a prophet and miracle worker who encourages worship of the Hebrew God. This passage of Inferno describes his final miracle. As detailed in 2 Kings 2:3–9, Elijah is assumed into heaven when a chariot of fire wheels down through the sky, drawing Elijah upward in a spiraling whirlwind.

"As the Sicilian bull, that rightfully His cries first echoed, who had shap'd its mould, Did so rebellow, with the voice of him Tormented, that the brazen monster seem'd Pierc'd through with pain..."   (Canto 27)

There are many classical tales about a bronze bull constructed by Phalaris, the tyrant of the Sicilian city-state of Akragas in the 6th century BCE. The "Sicilian bull" was a torture device. Victims were placed inside the hollow interior and roasted alive. Their cries of pain would pass through pipes in the neck of the bull, making a grotesque sound resembling the bellowing of a bull. The creator of the bull, the Athenian Perillos, expected to be handsomely rewarded for completing the device. Instead, Phalaris forced Perillos into the bull, scorching him close to death before ordering him to be thrown from a cliff.

"One is that dame The false accuser of the Hebrew youth..."   (Canto 30)

This biblical story is told in Genesis 39:6-20. The "dame" is the wife of Potiphar, one of the Pharaoh's officers. She repeatedly tried to seduce Joseph, but he spurned her advances. Joseph was Potiphar's overseer. In revenge for his rejection, she claimed that he tried to rape her. Joseph was imprisoned due to the charges. For her lies, she is punished in hell as a falsifier.

"Ephialtes him they call..."   (Canto 31)

Ephialtes is one of the giants who led the attack against Zeus (Jove) and the other gods on Mt. Olympus. He attempted, along with his twin brother, Otus, to scale Mt. Olympus by stacking Mount Pelion on Mount Ossa in Macedonia. Both brothers were killed by the arrows of the Olympian gods Apollo and Diana, themselves twins as well.

"Nimrod is this, Through whose ill counsel in the world no more One tongue prevails..."   (Canto 31)

Virgil identifies a giant named Nimrod, who is thought to have created the Tower of Babel. As told in the biblical Book of Genesis, Babel was built in an attempt to reach Heaven. God, showing his displeasure, destroyed the tower and sundered the original universal language, supposedly creating the world's many languages.

"Saint Peter's Roman fane..."   (Canto 31)

These lines allude to the statue of a bronze pine cone that stands in Castel Sant'Angelo, the mausoleum built for the Roman Emperor Hadrian. The cone is said to "top/Saint Peter's fane," or temple, because in Dante's time Castel Sant'Angelo was connected to Saint Peter's Basilica, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church.

"So terrible a blast Orlando blew not, when that dismal rout O'erthrew the host of Charlemagne..."   (Canto 31)

This is an allusion to the Old French epic The Song of Roland. Late in the poem, Roland (Orlando) takes charge of King Charlemagne's rear guard in the fight at Roncevalles against the Moors. Roland is too late in blowing his horn for aid from Charlemagne's main forces, and Roland and all his men are slain. The battle, a historical event, took place in 778 CE.

Later, we will find Ganelon, the Frenchman who assisted the Moors (Saracens) and betrayed his stepson, Roland. As a result, he became a traitor to his family, his kingdom and, most importantly, his religion.

"Achilles and his father's javelin caus'd Pain first, and then the boon of health restor'd..."   (Canto 31)

Achilles' spear, which was given to him by his father, Peleus, had the power to wound and to heal. Dante uses the spear as a metaphor for Virgil's sharp words, which first hurt Dante, then fortify him.

"Not more furiously On Menalippus' temples Tydeus gnaw'd..."   (Canto 32)

In Greek myth, Tydeus was one of the Seven Kings Against Thebes. He killed Menalippus, and although Tydeus was mortally wounded himself, he chewed on Menalippus' skull in celebration.

"Through Antenora roamest..."   (Canto 32)

The second pouch of the Ninth Circle is where those who betray their countries are punished. "Antenora" is a reference is to the Trojan prince Antenor, who wanted Paris to return Helen to Menelaus for the good of Troy. Homer casts Antenor in a positive light in the Iliad. Dante, following the accounts set forth in medieval histories of the Trojan War, believed that Antenor conspired with the Greeks and therefore placed him here with other traitors to their country.

"Not him, whose breast and shadow Arthur's land..."   (Canto 32)

This line is a allusion to King Arthur's son, Mordred, who attempted overthrow Arthur and was killed by Arthur. Arthur's spear went through Mordred, allowing sunlight to shine through the wound.

"banners of Hell's Monarch do come forth Towards us; therefore look," so spake my guide, "If thou discern him..."   (Canto 34)

Virgil's comment is an ironic reference to a 6th-century Christian hymn, “The Standards of the King Advance.” The hymn refers to the cross, an emblem adopted later by the Crusaders for their shields and tabards, the cloak they wore over their armor.

Dante and Virgil have entered the Fourth Ring of the Ninth Circle, also called Judecca, where traitors to their benefactors are punished. Among them is the most notorious traitor in Christian history, Lucifer.

The name Judecca reflects the unfortunate but prevalent anti-Semitism of 13th century. Christian Europeans viewed Jews as the assassins of Christ, a view that led most European countries to restrict Jews to living in specific areas away from the Christian majority.

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