illustration of a human covered in a starry sky walking from the sky and plains toward a fiery opening to hell

The Divine Comedy

by Dante Alighieri

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In what ways does Dante's Inferno participate in earlier epic traditions?    

Dante's Inferno participates in earlier epic traditions, especially the tradition of the Hero's Journey.

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Epics traditionally were novels of poetry that followed "the Hero's Journey" plot line and often "invoked the muse." Some of the most famous examples of this prior to Dante's Inferno were the Iliad and the Odyssey. Since Dante's Inferno also uses these epic characteristics (poetry form, the Hero's Journey,...

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Epics traditionally were novels of poetry that followed "the Hero's Journey" plot line and often "invoked the muse." Some of the most famous examples of this prior to Dante's Inferno were the Iliad and the Odyssey. Since Dante's Inferno also uses these epic characteristics (poetry form, the Hero's Journey, and invoking the muse), the story is participating in that tradition.

"Invoking the muse" usually looks like the author requesting the help of the Muses to tell the ensuing tale. The muses are Greek goddesses of areas such as art, science, and history. Dante invokes the muse when he says,

O Muses, O high genius, now assist me!
O memory, that didst write down what I saw . . . .

Dante's Inferno also follows "the Hero's Journey." One example of this is the use of a "spiritual aid." This comes in the form of Virgil who guides Dante through hell. Dante also experiences the "call to adventure" in Canto 1, when he meets Virgil and must embark on a quest through hell in order to get to heaven.

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Dante's "Divine Comedy", of which the "Inferno" is part, is not a traditional oral epic but a highly literate work that mingles elements from classical epic with a new style of extended Christian allegory seen in many medieval works, and designed to be interpreted by the sorts of allegorical reading discussed in Dante's prose works.

The underworld journey, or journey among the dead, is an element of many traditional epics, including Homer's "Odyssey" and "Gilgamesh". The notion of Virgil as a guide links the "Divine Comedy" explicity to the earlier Latin epic, Virgil's "Aeneid." The religious content is also not uncommon and equally typical is exemplification or narrativization of religio-moral precept. The nature of the narrator as spectator, however, is somewhat unusual.

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