Dante's Inferno Questions and Answers
by Dante Alighieri

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What are the rivers of hell and their ferrymen in Dante's Inferno?

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The river and ferryman of Dante's Inferno are based on Greek myth rather than on Christian concepts of the afterlife, a reflection of Dante's work during the Italian Renaissance, when themes from ancient history became revived.

The river Dante crosses is called the Acheron, one of the five rivers of the ancient Greek underworld; while the Acheron is a real river in northwestern Greece, here it is symbolic, a metaphor for crossing over into Hell itself.

The ferryman who takes both Dante and his guide, the shade of the Roman poet Virgil, is named Charon. Charon is responsible for ferrying the dead from the living world across the rivers and into Hades. In ancient Greek mythology, this was not seen as a punishment in the same sense of crossing into the Christian hell, but rather an obligation of the dead, who could not stay in the world of the living. In ancient Greek custom, people would be buried with symbolic coins meant to pay the ferryman. At first, Charon refuses to take Dante, since he is not dead, but Virgil insists that they be allowed to pass.

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Dante is portrayed as undertaking an epic voyage,having Virgil to lead him through the Inferno (all-consuming fire such as that 'found' in Hell.) After dealing with some rather more prosaic matters, they find a capacious cave, and decide to plumb its depths. They find themselves in a dream landscape which is night when the outside world is still in sunlight. All around the verdant lush countryside are the ghosts of dead ancestors. The original hero of the myth (Aenas) follows his guiding helper through numerous rivers of this hell, across one called the Styx. The original ferryman was called Charon.

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