The monsters in Dante’s Inferno are drawn almost directly from classical mythology.
He creates some small demons and other beings, but the major monsters are taken from Greek and Roman lore. Dante uses monsters in his poem for many purposes. They all have specific jobs and are not just there purely to freighted the reader. Most of the jobs, that the monsters serve are in a modified municipal fashion.
They are ferrymen, and guards to the prisons of hell. The monsters are not truly feared by the other characters of the story, for the people just seem to expect the monsters to do the jobs that they are doing. On the other hand, the demons that Dante creates are objects that strike fear into the hearts of those who see them. There are certain exceptions to the rule but for the most part the monsters fit this general mold. The first monster, that Dante encounters, is the ferryman Charon.
Charon is not a true monster, for he is an old may with circles of flames around his eyes. The main reason that Dante fears Charon is not because he is physically imposing. It is because he is a little uneasy about his passage into the underworld and he does not know what to expect. Keep in mind that he has just passed thru the gates of hell, that are inscribed with some imposing sentences. These words cause Dante to think about whether he is going to be able to return from hell or if he is going to join the dammed. Then he approaches Charon who begins to shout at Dante and his guide Virgil. Dante is so overwhelmed by the scene that he passes out. Charon may not be a horrifying physical monster, but the mental devices that he uses on Dante and their effects, surely make him deserving of the title, monster.
Charon comes directly from mythology, however he has a somewhat different job in this poem. In classical mythology, Charon is the ferryman across the river Styx. In the inferno, Dante makes him the ferryman for the river Acheron and uses another monster for the Styx which is deeper into hell. Charon is a very angry and objects to Dante’s crossing the river because Dante is still alive and he still has the hope of going to heaven. Charon shouts at all the evil spirits that wish to cross the river into hell, for he is trying to speed up their decision to cross. Unfortunately, they have made this decision in their lives and consequently Divine Justice pushes them along. However, the action is still portrayed as a decision and this is why Charon encourages Dante not to make such a mistake.
Virgil explains it to Dante thus: “And they are eager to go across the river because Divine Justice goads them with its spur so that their fear is turned into desire. No good spirits ever pass this way and therefore, if Charon objects to youunderstand well what his words imply.” (Canto 3 L124-130) What Charon’s words imply are that he does not want Dante to cross into hell while he still has a chance to be saved. Dante then passes out, seemingly overwhelmed by not only the situation, and his fear of Charon but also because of the fear of his own mortality. The next monster, that Dante encounters, is the Cerberus, a three-headed dog. The Cerberus guards the gluttons at the entrance to the third circle of hell.
The scene is that the gluttons are in a ditch of foul-smelling mud and are subject to eternal rain and hail. The Cerberus howls and claws them constantly and he clearly represents the sins that he is guarding. Cerberus’ three heads and his insatiable appetite(he turns to Dante and Virgil and starts moving towards them until Virgil throws dirt into the three mouths and the monster’s appetite is quenched) reflect the sins of the gluttons. Their situation in hell also represents their sins in life, for they are like pigs rooting around in mud. The Classical role of the Cerberus is almost the same as the way that Dante uses the monster. In classical mythology, the Cerberus is used to guard the gates of Hades, however in the poem, Dante uses him to guard something else. His hunger is the same in both stories. The classical Cerberus guards the gates of hell and allowed all to go in but none to come out.
There are few occasions where the monster was passed on the way out. These include the myths of Orpheus, Hercules and Aeneas. In the story of Orpheus, the Cerberus is lulled to sleep by the flute of Orpheus as he enters the underworld to retrieve his love Eurydice. In the story of Hercules, he has to go down to the underworld and bring the Cerberus back as one of his twelve labors. Finally, the story of Aeneas is the most important of these myths, for in the Aeneid, Aeneas gains exit from hell by feeding the Cerberus cakes filled with sedatives. This use of food to calm the Cerberus in the Aeneid is clearly the reason that Virgil knows how to handle the monster. The Cerberus is another example of Dante using a classical monster to serve a specific purpose in the poem.
In this case the Cerberus serves as a guard over specific sins which he happens to represent in his own demeanor. Another monster that Dante encounters, that directly reflects the sins which he guards, is the Geryon. The Geryon is another monster what we see in classical mythology. It is described as a scaled and hairy monster with the tail of a deadly serpent. This tail reflects the serpent-like nature of the people of the 8th circle, those accused of fraud. The Geryon delivers the poets from the 7th to the 8th circle and Dante seems more fascinated than terrified by the Geryon. The only discussion we see of his fear towards the monster is when he looks at the tail and wonders how he is supposed to climb back on to go to the 8th circle.
He is more correctly characterized as entranced by the flight of the Geryon. Dante dedicated almost half of the 17th canto to describing its flight. He very eloquently uses metaphors and similes to liken the flight of the Geryon to that of an eel and a falcon slowly searching for prey. “Like a falcon to long in flight from hunting yet too far from the falconer to hear instructions of its failure, that turns within its gyre a hundred downward turns, proud and tired but finally bored, so we descended to that place all fire has claimed,”(Canto 17 L 115-120) The Geryon does not really guard sinners like the Cerberus but the threat of the Geryon always looms over the people of the 7th and 8th circles. The people of the 8th circle have much more to worry about in the category of monsters. For, the aforementioned demons that Dante creates to freighted and horrify the reader are found in the 8th circle of hell.
These demons are the Malebolge who guard those dammed for all types of fraud.The demons inflict wounds on any of the sinners who stick their heads up above the boiling pitch they are submerged in. The demons are clearly sadistic and very lively about their jobs. They seem to really enjoy the torture that they inflict on their prey. This demonstrates that Dante must have really disliked those who committed fraud for him to create such a horrible fate for them. The demons even chase after Dante and Virgil by the end of the canto and Virgil is forced to carry Dante down to the next circle of hell. The fact that the demons turn of the poets reflects the fact that they are truly evil, unlike the other monsters, because they go directly against the divine will that protects Dante and Virgil’s mission.
Essentially, these are all of the monsters that Dante encounters in the underworld. He runs into other assorted demons of his own creation, as well as more classical monsters like the centaurs. However, the other monsters do not play as large a role as the ones mentioned above.
Dante does an excellent job of incorporating classical monsters into his poem. They not only serve to allude to his knowledge of classical literature but he also perfectly incorporates them so that they are doing essentially the same job in both his work and in their respective myths. The monsters are clearly used, not to strike fear into the reader, although they do demonstrate the horror of hell. They are most likely used to more clearly elaborate the situations that they are put in, such as to directly reflect the sinners they are in contact with.
Dante effectively utilizes the different traits of the monsters he uses and they serve to make his poem more successful.