Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 758
Three Furies: Queen Medusa’s handmaids: Alecto, Magaera, Tisiphone
The Heavenly Messenger: Helper to Virgil and Dante; possibly St. Paul
The Heretics: In open graves; had trusted reason rather than the church
Medusa: Evil, serpent-haired goddess; could turn people to stone
Dante begins to lose hope when Virgil is denied entrance to the City of Dis. Even Virgil is pale at this point. Dante asks Virgil if he has ever made the trip before and Virgil tells him that he had once gone to the City of Dis at the insistence of a witch named Erichtho. Virgil’s task at that time had been to bring a soul from Judas’s circle in the lower realms. Dante, however, does not listen well because he is watching the red-hot battlements (breastworks) of the tower.
Dante’s eyes are drawn upward to the tower, where he sees three shapes: the three Furies named Alecto, Magaera, and Tisiphone. They threaten to summon Medusa to turn Dante and Virgil to stone. Virgil turns Dante around to prevent his looking in case Medusa does come.
A great wind blows and then one comes from Heaven to help the two travelers. The messenger chastises the spirits and reminds them how Cerberus had tried to rebel, was chastised, and still bears the scars from the experience.
The heavenly messenger returns to other matters, and Virgil and Dante continue. They see that the stone slabs designed to cover the graves in this area are no longer in place; the souls within the open tombs sigh aloud. Flames leap forth from the graves.
Discussion and Analysis
Dante is quick to lose his faith when Virgil cannot gain quick admission into the City of Dis. Virgil himself says that help is a long time in coming; this could be a reference to the delay in the second coming of Christ or an allusion to the fact that people in dire straits should seek help quickly since they cannot survive on their own.
Some interpreters see Dante’s question about Virgil’s previous journey as a ploy to take Virgil’s mind from the pressures of the moment. Other references suggest that Dante is seeking to rebuild Virgil’s confidence by reminding him that he has successfully made the trip once.
Erichtho is a witch with power over the dead. Virgil says that he made a trip at another time to bring a shade up from the lower realms for her. Since Dante does not listen carefully to the explanation that Virgil gives for removing the shade from the lower realms, the reader (and most interpreters of The Inferno) are at a loss as to Virgil’s explanation beyond the fact that he was bringing up one from Judas’s circle. (Supposedly this particular Judas is Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus.)
Dante refers to the Furies also by their Greek name of Erinyes. The three Furies worry and fret those who have committed sins and have a guilty conscience. The three Furies threaten to fetch Medusa, with her hair of serpents. A person has only to look at Medusa to be turned to stone; for this reason, Virgil asks Dante to turn away. The reference to stone may symbolize the hardening of one’s heart, a conscious act which prevents a sinner from gaining forgiveness. The Furies are like the guilty conscience of a sinner and Medusa is like the hardening heart of a sinner; just as the Furies and Medusa keep Virgil and Dante from entering Hell, a guilty conscience and a hard heart keep sinners from entering Heaven.
At this point a messenger from Heaven arrives. This messenger asks the spirits why they kick against the pricks of the great Will. It is possible that this messenger, who chastises the Furies, is the Apostle Paul. It was Paul who heard, on his way to Damascus, a heavenly voice asking him why he kicked against the pricks; most interpreters consider this question to be an inquiry as to why Paul (or the spirits) persecuted Christ. Again, Christ is not called by name in this wicked place; rather the spirits refer to “the great Will.”
The travelers hear the sighing of the heretics within their open graves and see the flames shooting from the open tombs. The tombs have iron outside and flames within; the flames may symbolize punishment and the iron may symbolize the iron will which brought sinners here. Iron is impenetrable; thus, sinners are bound to the suffering caused by their own sins.
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