Canto 17

"LO! the fell monster with the deadly sting!
Who passes mountains, breaks through fenced walls
And firm embattled spears, and with his filth
Taints all the world!"  Thus me my guide address'd,
And beckon'd him, that he should come to shore,
Near to the stony causeway's utmost edge.

Forthwith that image vile of fraud appear'd,
His head and upper part expos'd on land,
But laid not on the shore his bestial train.
His face the semblance of a just man's wore,
So kind and gracious was its outward cheer;
The rest was serpent all: two shaggy claws
Reach'd to the armpits, and the back and breast,
And either side, were painted o'er with nodes
And orbits.  Colours variegated more
Nor Turks nor Tartars e'er on cloth of state
With interchangeable embroidery wove,
Nor spread Arachne o'er her curious loom.
As ofttimes a light skiff, moor'd to the shore,
Stands part in water, part upon the land;
Or, as where dwells the greedy German boor,
The beaver settles watching for his prey;
So on the rim, that fenc'd the sand with rock,
Sat perch'd the fiend of evil.  In the void
Glancing, his tail upturn'd its venomous fork,
With sting like scorpion's arm'd.  Then thus my guide:
"Now need our way must turn few steps apart,
Far as to that ill beast, who couches there."

Thereat toward the right our downward course
We shap'd, and, better to escape the flame
And burning marle, ten paces on the verge
Proceeded.  Soon as we to him arrive,
A little further on mine eye beholds
A tribe of spirits, seated on the sand
Near the wide chasm.  Forthwith my master spake:
"That to the full thy knowledge may extend
Of all this round contains, go now, and mark
The mien these wear: but hold not long discourse.
Till thou returnest, I with him meantime
Will parley, that to us he may vouchsafe
The aid of his strong shoulders."  Thus alone
Yet forward on the' extremity I pac'd
Of that seventh circle, where the mournful tribe
Were seated.  At the eyes forth gush'd their pangs.
Against the vapours and the torrid soil
Alternately their shifting hands they plied.
Thus use the dogs in summer still to ply
Their jaws and feet by turns, when bitten sore
By gnats, or flies, or gadflies swarming round.

Noting the visages of some, who lay
Beneath the pelting of that dolorous fire,
One of them all I knew not; but perceiv'd,
That pendent from his neck each bore a pouch
With colours and with emblems various mark'd,
On which it seem'd as if their eye did feed.

And when amongst them looking round I came,
A yellow purse I saw with azure wrought,
That wore a lion's countenance and port.
Then still my sight pursuing its career,
Another I beheld, than blood more red.
A goose display of whiter wing than curd.
And one, who bore a fat and azure swine
Pictur'd on his white scrip, addressed me thus:
"What dost thou in this deep?  Go now and know,
Since yet thou livest, that my neighbour here
Vitaliano on my left shall sit.
A Paduan with these Florentines am I.
Ofttimes they thunder in mine ears, exclaiming
'O haste that noble knight! he who the pouch
With the three beaks will bring!'"  This said, he writh'd
The mouth, and loll'd the tongue out, like an ox
That licks his nostrils.  I, lest longer stay
He ill might brook, who bade me stay not long,
Backward my steps from those sad spirits turn'd.

My guide already seated on the haunch
Of the fierce animal I found; and thus
He me encourag'd.  "Be thou stout; be bold.
Down such a steep flight must we now descend!
Mount thou before: for that no power the tail
May have to harm thee, I will be i' th' midst."

As one, who hath an ague fit so near,
His nails already are turn'd blue, and he
Quivers all o'er, if he but eye the shade;
Such was my cheer at hearing of his words.
But shame soon interpos'd her threat, who makes
The servant bold in presence of his lord.

I settled me upon those shoulders huge,
And would have said, but that the words to aid
My purpose came not, "Look thou clasp me firm!"

But he whose succour then not first I prov'd,
Soon as I mounted, in his arms aloft,
Embracing, held me up, and thus he spake:
"Geryon! now move thee! be thy wheeling gyres
Of ample circuit, easy thy descent.
Think on th' unusual burden thou sustain'st."

As a small vessel, back'ning out from land,
Her station quits; so thence the monster loos'd,
And when he felt himself at large, turn'd round
There where the breast had been, his forked tail.
Thus, like an eel, outstretch'd at length he steer'd,
Gath'ring the air up with retractile claws.

Not greater was the dread when Phaeton
The reins let drop at random, whence high heaven,
Whereof signs yet appear, was wrapt in flames;
Nor when ill-fated Icarus perceiv'd,
By liquefaction of the scalded wax,
The trusted pennons loosen'd from his loins,
His sire exclaiming loud, "Ill way thou keep'st!"
Than was my dread, when round me on each part
The air I view'd, and other object none
Save the fell beast.  He slowly sailing, wheels
His downward motion, unobserv'd of me,
But that the wind, arising to my face,
Breathes on me from below.  Now on our right
I heard the cataract beneath us leap
With hideous crash; whence bending down to' explore,
New terror I conceiv'd at the steep plunge:
For flames I saw, and wailings smote mine ear:
So that all trembling close I crouch'd my limbs,
And then distinguish'd, unperceiv'd before,
By the dread torments that on every side
Drew nearer, how our downward course we wound.

As falcon, that hath long been on the wing,
But lure nor bird hath seen, while in despair
The falconer cries, "Ah me! thou stoop'st to earth!"
Wearied descends, and swiftly down the sky
In many an orbit wheels, then lighting sits
At distance from his lord in angry mood;
So Geryon lighting places us on foot
Low down at base of the deep-furrow'd rock,
And, of his burden there discharg'd, forthwith
Sprang forward, like an arrow from the string.


  1. By comparing Geryon to a falcon that has not been able to find either food or a lure to justify his flight, Dante suggests that Geryon is displeased with the task carrying the two men. As soon as they land, Geryon disappears like an arrow from a bow, eager to be rid of them.

    — Stephen Holliday
  2. In an example of verisimilitude—creating the semblance of reality—Dante takes great care to describe the flight of Dante and Virgil on Geryon realistically. As they descend, the air rushes up into Dante's face.

    — Stephen Holliday
  3. 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.

    — Stephen Holliday
  4. 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.

    — Stephen Holliday
  5. Virgil requests that Geryon fly in wide circles so that he and Dante don't fall off.

    — Stephen Holliday
  6. Geryon has blue nails, and so Dante compares him to a victim of malaria who, starved of oxygen, has blue nails.

    — Stephen Holliday
  7. Virgil has successfully convinced Geryon to transport him and Dante to a lower circle of Hell.

    — Stephen Holliday
  8. The usurer who addresses Dante, and whose purse is white with a blue pregnant sow, is thought to be from the Scrovegni family. He tells Dante to leave and then sticks his tongue out. This man may be Reginaldo Scrovegni, who was known for his greediness. Scrovegni predicts that two usurers still alive during Dante's visit—Vitaliano del Dente and Giovanni Buiamonte of the Becchi family—will join him in the underworld.

    — Stephen Holliday
  9. The sinner whose purse is red with a white goose is a member of the Obriachi family of Florence, perhaps Locco Obriachi, notorious for lending at excessive rates in Sicily.

    — Stephen Holliday
  10. Dante identifies the usurers not by their names but by the symbols on their purses, which tell him which money-lending family they represent. In the first encounter, Dante sees a yellow purse with a blue lion, the emblem of the Gianfigliazzi family. This was most likely held by Catello di Rosso, well known for his usury in France and Italy but most condemned because he left his family in poverty after his death.

    — Stephen Holliday
  11. Because these sinners are money lenders and value money above all things, they look longingly at the pouches of coins suspended from their necks.

    — Stephen Holliday
  12. Virgil and Dante need Geryon's help to traverse the underworld and progress down into deeper layers. Virgil plans to enlist Geryon to help them.

    — Stephen Holliday
  13. The phrase "greedy German boor" is evidence of the Middle Age Italians' attitude towards their Germanic neighbors, who are often characterized as drunken country bumpkins, unsophisticated,  and compared to relatively slow-thinking, stubborn animals.

    — Stephen Holliday
  14. 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.

    — Stephen Holliday
  15. In Greek mythology, Geryon is described as a three-headed or three-bodied monster, whom Hercules kills. In Inferno, Dante describes him as a serpent-like creature with a human head, with an appealing face, a serpent's body, hairy claws, and a scorpian's tail.

    — Stephen Holliday
  16. Dante and Virgil arrive in the Third Zone of the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle, an area reserved for sinners guilty of violence against nature and art. Dante identifies this sin with usurers, those who lend money at high interest rates to take advantage of borrowers' distress.

    — Stephen Holliday