Analysis Pages

Mythology in Dante's Inferno

Mythology Examples in Dante's Inferno:

Canto 26

🔒 2

"following the track Of Phoebus..."   (Canto 26)

This refers to the path of the sun, represented here by the Roman sun god, Phoebus.

"To the strait pass, where Hercules ordain'd The bound'ries not to be o'erstepp'd by man..."   (Canto 26)

This I a reference to the Strait of Gibraltar, which separates Spain to the North from Morocco to the South, and connects the Atlantic Ocean to the west with the Mediterranean Sea to the east. On either side of the strait are two mountains known as the "Pillars of Hercules": Calpe on the Spanish side and Abyla on the Moroccan side. Legend has it that the two were originally a single mountain until Hercules, with his mighty strength, ripped them into two. Because of how unknown the Atlantic was to classical-era Greeks, the strait was considered the edge of the world, the point beyond which no sailor can pass and hope to survive. 

"Or Argive crew of old..."   (Canto 28)

Here Dante refers to the Argonauts, the crew of the Argos, led by the Greek hero Jason. The Argonauts serve as an example of a fraudulent group: they stole the Golden Fleece from Colchis under false pretenses.

"born of Latian land..."   (Canto 29)

"Latin land" means Italy. Latian or Latium refer to Italy and the people who inhabited Italy before Roman times. In Greek and Roman mythology, the Romans were the descendants of the Trojans, who ventured to Latium in the wake of the sacking of Troy.

"Minos..."   (Canto 29)

Minos, the mythical Greek king, is one of three judges in Hades who determines where the dead shall spend their time. In this context, Minos works under God's supervision. Minos features prominently in Canto 5.

"The nation in Aegina droop..."   (Canto 29)

Dante is comparing the falsifiers and their terrible wounds and illnesses with the victims of the mythical plague at Aegina, caused by Hera.

"Each living thing, e'en to the little worm, All fell, so full of malice was the air (And afterward, as bards of yore have told, The ancient people were restor'd anew From seed of emmets) than was here to see The spirits, that languish'd through the murky vale Up-pil'd on many a stack..."   (Canto 29)

In Book IV of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the story of Aeacus is told. Aeacus was the son of the god Jupiter and the nymph Aegina. He was the ruler of the island Aegina, named for his mother. Juno (or "Hera") destroyed the island with a plague. Zeus repopulated the island by transforming ants into men. Aeacus was the grandfather of Achilles and the father of Peleus.

"Athamas..."   (Canto 30)

This refers to King Athamas, the mythical Greek king of Boeotia. At Juno's command, the Fury Tisiphone altered Athamas's. Deluded, he believed that his wife, Ino, and their two sons were actually a lioness and her cubs. Athamas attacked them, killing his infant son, Learchus. In a frenzy, Ino jumped into the sea with her remaining child. Both were drowned.

"lap Narcissus' mirror up..."   (Canto 30)

In the myth of Narcissus, the handsome young man sees his reflection in the water and becomes so enamored of his own image that he dies in despair because he cannot possess it. 

"Sinon..."   (Canto 30)

In the legend of the Trojan War, Sinon was an Greek soldier who allowed himself to be captured by the Trojans. He falsely said that he had escaped from becoming a sacrifice of the Greeks. He claimed that the Trojan horse was an offering of atonement to Athena for stealing the Palladium (See Canto 26). He told the Trojans that if they succeeded in bringing the enormous horse into the city, they would be safe from future Greek attacks. In reality, Sinon intended to lure the Trojans into accepting the horse so that the Greek soldiers within could open the gates of Troy. Because of Sinon's lies, the Trojans took the horse into their city and were subsequently conquered. 

"wretched Myrrha..."   (Canto 30)

This Greek myth is told in Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Because of her refusal to honor the goddess Aphrodite, Myrrha was beset with an incestuous passion for her own father, King Cinyras of Cypress. Myrrha seduced Cinyras by impersonating her mother. When Cinyras discovered the ruse, he threatened to kill her. Myrrha ran away and was turned into a myrtle (or "myrrh" tree). The god Adonis was later born from her trunk.

"By fortune overwhelm'd, and the old king With his realm perish'd, then did Hecuba, A wretch forlorn and captive, when she saw Polyxena first slaughter'd, and her son, Her Polydorus, on the wild sea-beach Next met the mourner's view, then reft of sense Did she run barking even as a dog; Such mighty power had grief to wrench her soul. Bet ne'er the Furies or of Thebes or Troy With such fell cruelty were seen..."   (Canto 30)

Hecuba was the widow of the Priam, the king of Troy. Hecuba and her daughter, Polyxena, were enslaved by the Greeks who had conquered Troy. Polyxena was sacrificed on Achilles' tomb. Polyxena's murder, as well as the discovery of Polydorus's body on the shore, drove Hecuba insane.

"The meshes, that I take the lioness And the young lions at the pass:" then forth Stretch'd he his merciless talons, grasping one, One helpless innocent, Learchus nam'd, Whom swinging down he dash'd upon a rock, And with her other burden self-destroy'd The hapless mother plung'd: and when the pride Of all-presuming Troy fell from its height..."   (Canto 30)

This story is told in Book IV of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

One of Zeus's many loves was Semele, whom Zeus impregnated. She was the daughter of the founder of the city of Thebes, Cadmus. Zeus accidentally killed her with a strike of lightening when he appeared to her in his godly form. Their unborn child somehow survived and was placed in Zeus's right thigh, where he was eventually born. The baby was given to Semele's sister, Ino. Hera, Zeus's wife, discovered the bastard child and was livid. In revenge for her husband's treachery, Hera angered Ino's husband, Athamas, to the point that he killed his and Ino's son, Learchus. In her grief, Ino jumped into the sea with their other son, Melicertes. The child of Zeus and Semele turned out to be Dionysus.

"Tityus' help or Typhon's..."   (Canto 31)

The giant Tityus, who tried to rape Apollo's mother, Latona, was killed by Apollo. The giant Typhon was killed by Zeus (Jove) at Phlegra.

"Seems as men yet believ'd, that through thine arm The sons of earth had conquer'd..."   (Canto 31)

Virgil flatters Antaeus because he needs the giant's help. Virgil says that men believe the Titans would have beaten if the Olympic gods if Antaeus had participated in the attack. This is an example of dramatic irony, for readers know that Virgil's story may well be a lie.

"Antaeus..."   (Canto 31)

Unlike the other giants, Antaeus, the brother of Briareus, is able to speak. His punishment is not quite as restrictive as those of the other giants because Antaeus did not participate in the attack on Mt. Olympus.

"Briareus..."   (Canto 31)

Virgil describes Briareus, another giant, as equal to Ephialtes in size but even more terrifying. Dante does not describe Briareus, who is traditionally described as one of three giants with one hundred arms who helped the gods defeat an attack by the Titans. Briareus is specifically credited with saving Zeus (Jove).

"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.

"these are not towers, But giants.  In the pit they stand immers'd, Each from his navel downward, round the bank..."   (Canto 31)

At first Dante thinks that the giants, who tower over the rim of the central pit, are actually towers. The giants are here because they betrayed their rightful ruler by raging against the gods. They are once-powerful beings who are now powerless to help themselves because God is the ultimate wielder of power. Thus the giants reveal one of the central themes of Dante's Divine Comedy: the importance of attaining to God's will.

"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.

"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.

"My song, the tuneful maidens, by whose aid Amphion wall'd in Thebes..."   (Canto 32)

According to Greek mythology, the Muses assisted Amphion in building the wall of Thebes by playing their lyres so beautifully that the rocks tumbled down from Mount Cithaeron and created the walls themselves. 

""Lo!"  he exclaim'd, "lo Dis! and lo the place, Where thou hast need to arm thy heart with strength." ..."   (Canto 34)

In Canto 8, Dante and Virgil encounter Dis, the walled city that contains the deepest circles of hell, the 6th through the 9th. In this line, when Virgil exclaims, "'Lo Dis! and lo the place,/Where thou hast need to arm thy heart with strength,'" he is referring to Satan. In Roman mythology, Dis—often known as Dis Pater—was a subterranean god of agriculture and mineral wealth. Later, he was absorbed into Pluto and Hades, also subterranean gods. When Dante combined the Greco-Roman and Christian mythological traditions in the Inferno, he conflated Dis, Hades, Lucifer, and Satan into the same figure—the great devil at the bottom of the lowest ring of hell.

"Upon his head three faces: one in front Of hue vermilion, th' other two with this Midway each shoulder join'd and at the crest; The right 'twixt wan and yellow seem'd: the left To look on..."   (Canto 34)

Lucifer (Latin for "bearer of light") stands as the opposite of God in every way. Dante depicts him as a horrific trinity, with three faces—reddish, black, and a yellowish-white. This trinity contrasts the Christian Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Some scholars speculate that Dante chose the colors to represent the three races known to him: reddish, or ruddy, to represent Europeans; black for Africans; and yellowish-white for Asians.

"That emperor, who sways The realm of sorrow, at mid breast from th' ice Stood forth..."   (Canto 34)

"That emperor" is Lucifer. For Dante, Lucifer is the most important traitor to his benefactor in the history of mankind, for his benefactor was God.

Analysis Pages