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Symbols in Dante's Inferno

Symbols Examples in Dante's Inferno:

Canto 1

🔒 4

"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.

"She fastens, and shall yet to many more, Until that greyhound come, who shall destroy Her with sharp pain..."   (Canto 1)

The symbolism of the greyhound is one of the most contested elements of the entire work, attributed to various religious and historical figures as well as the second coming of Christ. However, the most frequent attribution is to the ruler Cangrande della Scala, who governed Verona from 1308 to 1329; his name suggests "Great Dog."

"A she-wolf Was at his heels, who in her leanness seem'd Full of all wants, and many a land hath made Disconsolate ere now..."   (Canto 1)

The three beasts in this passage (the she-wolf, the leopard, and the lion) are among the most discussed and analyzed of the entire work. Most often, the she-wolf is said to symbolize lust; the leopard, pride; the lion, greed.  But they have also been said to stand for incontinence, violence, and fraud (respectively). These are the three primary categories of sin identified by Virgil in Canto XI. The appearance of these three symbolic animals foreshadows the broader structure of the journey Dante will take through the layers of Inferno.

"My weary frame After short pause recomforted, again I journey'd on over that lonely steep, The hinder foot still firmer..."   (Canto 1)

One may interpret this line metaphorically as well as literally.  The feet were thought to be the limbs of the soul: the right symbolizing the will and the left symbolizing the intellect. Dante requires both in his journey.

"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. 

"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.

"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.

"the huge belly fledge with wings..."   (Canto 13)

The Harpies were often depicted as having feathers protruding from their stomachs, perhaps a symbol of their insatiable hunger.

"Within the mount, upright An ancient form there stands and huge..."   (Canto 14)

This line refers to a colossal statue inside Mount Ida, an invention of Dante's. Its material—gold for the head, silver for arms and chest, brass for the waist, iron for the lower body—comprise a metaphorical representation of the ages of man, starting with the Golden Age, the earthly Paradise, but devolving to an age characterized by base metal, iron.

"She who with seven heads tower'd at her birth, And from ten horns her proof of glory drew..."   (Canto 19)

Dante interprets the seven heads as the Catholic Church's Seven Sacraments, and the ten horns as the Ten Commandments. "Filthy whoredom" most likely refers to the corruption within the Catholic Church, created by the wealth acquired through the secular power of the church.

"nor in me that cord, Which us'd to mark with leanness whom it girded..."   (Canto 27)

This is a reference to the cord traditionally worn around the waists of Franciscan friars. When the cord had been worn thin, it symbolized the friar's persistent adherence to his vows of poverty and abstinence. 

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