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.
Paganism vs. Christianity ThemeTracker
Paganism vs. Christianity Quotes in Inferno
Canst thou be Virgil? Thou that fount of splendour
Whence poured so wide a stream of lordly speech?
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.
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.
Tormented there [...] Ulysses goes
With Diomede, for as they ran one course,
Sharing their wrath, they share the avenging throes.
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.