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by Dante Alighieri

Inferno Primitivity Quotes

How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Canto.Line). We used Allen Mandelbaum's translation.

Quote #1

And almost where the hillside starts to rise –
look there! – a leopard, very quick and lithe,
a leopard covered with a spotted hide.
He did not disappear from sight, but stayed;
indeed, he so impeded my ascent
that I had often to turn back again…
…and the gentle season
gave me good cause for hopefulness on seeing
that beast before me with his speckled skin;
but hope was hardly able to prevent
the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.
His head held high and ravenous with hunger –
even the air around him seemed to shudder –
this lion seemed to make his way against me.
And then a she-wolf showed herself; she seemed
to carry every craving in her leanness;
she had already brought despair to many. (Inf. I, 31-51)

The very fact that these three beasts – all predators – block Dante’s path towards the light of morning (allegory for the road the God) suggests their evilness and implies the inhuman nature of sin. In traditional interpretations, the leopard represents lust, the lion pride, and the she-wolf avarice; all of these sins illustrate the concept of incontinence or the inability to restrain one’s baser emotions with reason.

Quote #2

Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries
were echoing across the starless air,
so that, as soon as I set out, I wept.
Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements,
accents of anger, words of suffering,
and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands –
all went to make a tumult that will whirl… (Inf. III, 22-28)

The bestiality of the damned comes across in Dante’s very first impressions of Hell. Right after he crosses the Hellgate, he is assaulted by a cacophony of meaningless sounds, all made by the sinners, but not spoken in words or articulated in any comprehensible way. This suggests the sinners have, to some extent, lost their capacity for language – the defining quality of humans – and are thus no longer human, but animal.

Quote #3

And as, in the cold season, starlings’ wings
bear them along in broad and crowded ranks,
so does that blast bear on the guilty spirits:
now here, now there, now down, now up, it drives them.
There is no hope that ever comforts them –
no hope for rest and none for lesser pain.
And just as cranes in flight will chant their lays,
arraying their long file across the air,
so did the shades I saw approaching, borne
by that assailing wind, lament and moan; (Inf. V, 40-49)

Not only are the lustful souls described with bird imagery, but they are powerless to their feelings of love and lust – as symbolized by their helplessness against the wind. This indicates a lack of control over their emotions, a lack of rationality to stem impulses like sexual lust, and thus an inherent lack of humanity. Because of this inability to control their emotions, they are considered animal, not human.

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