The typically unflappable Virgil tries to comfort his charge as they tarry at the Gates of Dis. But the elder poets own fear causes him to stammer:
"Still it behoveth us to win the fight,"
Began he; "Else. . .Such offered us herself. . .
O how I long that some one here arrive!"
Already terrified, Virgil’s fear is alarming to Dante. He wonders if anyone has ever crossed the gates before:
"Into this bottom of the doleful conch
Doth any e'er descend from the first grade,
Which for its pain has only hope cut off?"
Virgil reveals that he personally descended to the bottom of Hell:
"Seldom it comes to pass that one of us
Maketh the journey upon which I go.
True is it, once before I here below
Was conjured by that pitiless Erictho,
Who summoned back the shades unto their bodies.
Naked of me short while the flesh had been,
Before within that wall she made me enter,
To bring a spirit from the circle of Judas;
That is the lowest region and the darkest,
And farthest from the heaven which circles all.
Well know I the way; therefore be reassured.
This fen, which a prodigious stench exhales,
Encompasses about the city dolent,
Where now we cannot enter without anger."
Dante, the author, seems to have borrowed this tale from the poet Lucan’s work, Pharsalia. In Lucan’s telling, the witch Erichtho calls a condemned soul back to the living world; she wants the shade to reveal details about the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Dante makes Virgil the sorceress’s emissary for this horrific task. Doing so gives Virgil an explanation for knowing what comes beyond the gates of Dis.
Somewhat reassured, Dante waits at his mentor’s side; his eyes are drawn to the glowing red dome from which hang three bloody-female like figures. These “women” writhe in agony, a writing akin to the that circle their waists as well those that from their heads like a sort of reptilian hair. These, Dante recognizes, are the “Furies” (also called "Erinyes"), the mythological “Daughters of the Night,” who, once charged with exacting revenge against those who have offended gods (and sometimes mortals). Now, for their heresy, they are punished in Circle Six.
Virgil identifies the trio:
“This is Megaera, on the left-hand side;
She who is weeping on the right, Alecto;
Tisiphone is between..”
The Furies are sisters in Greek mythology. Megeara punishes people who commit crimes, particularly crimes of infidelity. It is she who causes jealousy and envy. The second, Alecto, revenges moral crimes, especially unchecked anger. Tisiphone pursues murderers, especially those responsible for fratricide and parricide. Terrified, Dante presses closer to his guide, and rightly so. The sisters are still dangerous. They threaten to call upon their elder sister, Medusa; making eye contact with this Fury will turn men to stone.
"Turn thyself round, and keep thine eyes close shut,
For if the Gorgon appear, and thou shouldst see it,
No more returning upward would there be."
Dante complies without hesitation; Virgil himself covers his eyes.
Suddenly, Dante feels a fierce rush of wind. The sensation heightens the poet’s terror, but Virgil tells Dante to open his eyes: the Messenger of Heaven is approaching. Everything in front of the Messenger rushes to get out of his way. At the Gates, the Messenger simply waves a small rod and the doors swing open. The Messenger has no kind words for the suffering sinners of Dis. They deserve to be there for thwarting the will of God. He roars:
"O banished out of Heaven, people despised!"
Thus he began upon the horrid threshold;
"Whence is this arrogance within you couched?
Wherefore recalcitrate against that will,
From which the end can never be cut off,
And which has many times increased your pain?
What helpeth it to butt against the fates?
Your Cerberus, if you remember well,
For that still bears his chin and gullet peeled."
Dante and Virgil follow the Messenger through the Gates of Dis. As they step carefully across the uneven ground, the travelers seeopen tombs, sepulchres, from which flames leap. This is the eternal place of unrest for the arch-heretics (also known as the “Heresiarchs.” Arch-heretics were those who actively led other people away from the holy word of God. From within their fiery tombs, these souls scream “dire lamentations.” The poets observe but do not comment and continue on.