Inferno

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Themes and Colors
Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Theme Icon
Paganism vs. Christianity Theme Icon
Individual Fame Theme Icon
This World vs. the Afterlife Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Inferno, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Paganism vs. Christianity Theme Icon

Dante's epic poem is obviously a deeply Christian work. One might be surprised, then, to find that it is filled with allusions to pagan mythology and is populated not just by biblical figures, but also by characters of Greek and Roman myth and history. Perhaps the most important character after Dante is, after all, a pagan: Virgil. But despite how strange this might seem to us, this is actually a common occurrence in the middle ages (and later in the Renaissance), where authors had to find ways of fitting the classical heritage they revered and studied into their Christian culture. Dante accomplishes this masterfully in the Inferno, and one of the most notable features of his work is this incorporation of classical, pagan motifs into a thoroughly Christian framework. He does this in several ways.

First, while many classical figures are present in the poem, they are only present in hell. Thus, while acknowledging the presence of mythological creatures like the centaurs, Dante relegates them to an ungodly place. Moreover, he sometimes turns mythological figures who are not entirely monstrous into full-blown monsters. Minos, for example, is simply a judge in the underworld in Greek mythology. He retains this role in Dante's hell, but becomes a horrid monster with a frightening tail. Dante also includes some classical heroes in his hell, including Ulysses (Odysseus), whom he rewrites into a sinful over-reacher who tries to sail to the ends of the earth after he successfully returns home (Homer's Odyssey shows Odysseus efforts to get home from the Trojan War). By rewriting figures from classical mythology, Dante is able to include them in his epic scope while subsuming them within his Christian system.

Another challenge for Dante involving figures of classical antiquity is posed by the great poets of ancient Greece and Rome whom Dante admired, as well as other great men of ancient history. Dante has these souls dwell in the first circle of hell, punished only by being excluded from heaven proper. This allows Dante to venerate these great men (such as Homer, Socrates, Plato, and Cicero) without compromising his rigid Christian ideas about salvation. Virgil is the most striking example of this. Virgil was a pagan who lived before the time of Jesus. However, he was widely acknowledged in the middle ages as the best poet of ancient Rome and there was also a popular idea that one of his poems actually predicted the birth of Jesus. Thus, Virgil is able to attain a kind of special status: while relegated with other good pagans to the first circle of hell, he is the one chosen to guide Dante on his holy journey. But in the end, after guiding Dante through hell, he will not be able to guide him to heaven, because he cannot enter there. Dante's epic is rife with tensions between the pagan influences Dante admires and Christian ideas he values, but in the end Christianity trumps everything else.

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Paganism vs. Christianity Quotes in Inferno

Below you will find the important quotes in Inferno related to the theme of Paganism vs. Christianity.
Canto 1 Quotes

Canst thou be Virgil? Thou that fount of splendour
Whence poured so wide a stream of lordly speech?

Related Characters: Dante (speaker), Virgil
Page Number: 1.79-80
Explanation and Analysis:

After being thwarted by several animals, Dante glimpses the shade of Virgil, who will become his guide. Dante then goes on to praise Virgil for his poetic prowess.

This interaction is the first of many in which Dante will seek to recognize a historical figure he encounters in the Inferno. Phrasing his greeting as a question—“Canst thou be Virgil?”—implies a certain surprise and indicates that the identifications will not always be automatic. Dante then clarifies his surprise by recalling the reason for Virgil’s fame. He uses the metaphor of a fountain spurting water to relate to Virgil’s creation of language. So as a renowned Roman poet, he is a “fount of splendour” for his ability to produce excellent verse—which is deemed a “stream of lordly speech.” The water imagery highlights the bountiful and rejuvenating quality of Virgil’s verse and foreshadows how Dante will be guided by it along the various bodies of water in the Divine Comedy.

That Dante (the writer) has selected Virgil to be his guide is highly significant. Beyond conveying his personal preference for Virgil's poetry, Dante has made the daring choice of selecting a pagan guide through a Christian landscape. He could well have chosen the figure to be Jesus or another Christian figure, but instead he selects a famed Roman poet. Such a choice reveals the relative importance of classical art even within the confines of a Christian society and poem. Dante has positioned his own work within a famed classical lineage, demonstrating that the text may be theological in nature but that it draws on a Greek and Roman heritage.

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For the Emperor of that high Imperium
Wills not that I, once rebel to His crown,
Into that city of His should lead men home.

Related Characters: Virgil (speaker)
Page Number: 1.124-126
Explanation and Analysis:

Virgil lays out the route that Dante will take, first through Hell and then ascending toward Heaven. He notes that another spirit will have to play the role of the guide later, because Virgil is not permitted in heaven.

Dante cleverly introduces the pagan backstory of his guide Virgil with the reference to “once rebel to His crown.” As a result, God—deemed “Emperor of that high Imperium”—has demanded that he not be allowed to enter heaven. This pronouncement fits with the general tenants of Christianity, which would relegate non-believers to Hell. (And, according to the Christianity of Dante's time, all people born before Christ's resurrection--like Virgil--must automatically go to Hell as well.) Despite having evidently renounced his earlier credences and come to adopt some form of Christianity, Virgil is still barred from “that city of His”: heaven. As a result, he will only play the role of the guide in the Inferno and most of Purgatory, after which Dante must be brought “home” by someone else.

This passage sets the limits in how prominent of a role figures like Virgil could play in Dante’s work. As pagans, they could never have access to any realm beyond Hell—but Dante was able to humanize them and give them important roles within those confines. His text can thus be seen as a complicated negotiation between affirming the merits of classical artists and philosophers and confirming the rightness of his own Christian dogma.

In some interpretations, Virgil is also seen to represent reason and human talent, which, in the allegory of the poem, can only take one so far. At some point, even one with the reason and skill of Virgil must take a leap of faith and hand his life over to God (or, in the poem, to God's representative Beatrice, who leads Dante to Heaven itself).

Canto 4 Quotes

They sinned not; yet their merit lacked its chiefest
Fulfillment, lacking baptism, which is
The gateway to the faith which thou believest;

Or, living before Christendom, their knees
Paid not aright those tributes that belong
To God; and I myself am one of these.

Related Characters: Virgil (speaker), Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan
Page Number: 4.34-39
Explanation and Analysis:

Dante has now entered the first circle of Hell: Limbo. Virgil explains to him that those present in Limbo have not actually sinned, but since they were never baptized, they cannot ascend to heaven.

This passage develops the complex theme of how to contend with classical artists and philosophers whose works and lives are admirable. For being technically pagan, they cannot be sanctified in a dogmatic religious work like Dante’s. Virgil affirms “their merit”—which refers to their various artistic accomplishments—yet saying that their merit “lacked its chiefest fulfillment, lacking baptism” implies that their works would never reach their complete potential due to their spiritual flaws. Dante thus subtly canonizes these figures, while also leaving them sufficiently defective to appeal to a Christian audience.

Virgil clarifies, too, that this fate befalls both those who live during Christianity but were never baptized, as well as those who predated “Christendom.” Thus Limbo becomes a place for people who could not have reasonably ever been baptized or believed in the “proper” religion—who failed to do so through no personal fault of their own, but rather because their era did not allow them to do so (whether because they lived before Christ, or died as babies, or, presumably, lived in countries where Christianity did not yet exist). In acknowledging that he himself fits into this category, Virgil further clarifies why he may play Dante’s guide here but can ultimately never enter heaven. That the text’s guide is himself morally implicated here serves to generate sympathy for those who reside in Limbo—a technique that will be used in many of the ensuing circles.

Canto 26 Quotes

Tormented there [...] Ulysses goes
With Diomede, for as they ran one course,
Sharing their wrath, they share the avenging throes.

Related Characters: Virgil (speaker), Ulysses, Diomedes
Page Number: 26.55-57
Explanation and Analysis:

Virgil informs Dante about the fates of two souls hiding beneath a split-flame. Ulysses and Diomede, he explains, are being punished for having stolen the palladium of Troy.

As he did in Limbo, Dante here incorporates classical figures and references into his own work. Instead of denying the importance of pagan figures in a Christian worldview, he finds a way to include them within the poem’s religious and artistic framework. This strategy is particularly effective when applied to the characters of Ulysses and Diomede, who are featured in the two most important classical Greek epics: the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both texts feature the underworld as a prominent location, but it functions radically differently from Dante’s. In Homer’s works, Ulysses is treated as a hero both above and below ground. Thus Dante has actually rewritten Homer’s narrative, which was in fact praised many Cantos before in Limbo. In this way, Dante is able to set his text in conversation with classical figures, but also rise above them by claiming the moral high ground of his Christian associations.

Canto 32 Quotes

As ‘tis, I tremble lest the telling mar
The tale; for, truly, to describe the great

Fundament of the world is very far
From being a task for idle wits at play,
[...]

But may those heavenly ladies aid my lay
That helped Amphion wall high Thebes with stone,
Lest from the truth my wandering verses stray.

Related Characters: Dante (speaker)
Page Number: 32.5-12
Explanation and Analysis:

As is characteristic by now, Dante opens Canto 32 by observing how difficult it is for him to recount his journey. He asks the muses to assist him in conveying the events that will transpire.

The precise anxiety that Dante holds to his artwork has shifted here. Before, he was primarily worried about including a sufficient quantity of information—always reflecting on the number of people and sights that he failed to include. Here, on the other hand, he is concerned with accuracy. Saying, “lest the telling mar the tale” differentiates between the actual content (“tale”) and the form (“telling”) through which that content is conveyed to the audience. Dante worries that his particular tale has great stakes being “the great fundament of the world” and that therefore “idle wits” may be likely to incorrectly convey the information. He thus sets the stakes of his endeavor and also shows how any who are indeed able to convey the “tale” would be quite impressive for having done so.

That Dante seeks help in this endeavor from the muses (ancient Greek goddesses) is quite provocative. He cites an example of their prowess in classical mythology: helping “Amphion wall high Thebes with stone,” yet one must recall that this action and its tale were pre-Christian, and thus heretical to the Church. The muses, after all, belonged to the Greek and Roman pantheons, and it was traditional in the Greek classics, such as Homer's, for the speaker to ask the muses for aid is conveying his tale. Once more, Dante straddles a complicated line between affirming his Christian roots and incorporating classical figures and traditions. That he believes the muses will allow his verses to center on “truth” reveals a firm commitment that the two worlds can bridged to great spiritual and aesthetic benefit.