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The Three Beasts

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Leopards And Lions And She-Wolves, Oh My!

As if the leopard, lion, and she-wolf that menace Dante in his quest to get to the sunlight aren't scary enough, each represents a different type of sin. Yup: not only are these animals bloodthirsty, they're jam-packed symbols of sin.

Let's check out these beastly beasties:

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)

Traditional interpretations have stated that the leopard is a symbol of fraudulence, the lion is a symbol of pride, and the she-wolf is a symbol of avarice or greed. The leopard has few physical characteristics suggesting its interpretation as fraudulence, but the prideful lion (which, incidentally, run in packs called—you got it, you've seen The Lion King—prides) has his "head held high."

The she-wolf is described most fully. She "carr[ies] every craving in her leanness," meaning she is painfully skinny. Which explains why she represents avarice or greed. She’s got nothing... and she wants it all.

But even more interesting is Virgil’s explanation that a Greyhound will eventually come to kill the she-wolf and "restore low-lying Italy." This seems to imply that greed afflicts the whole boot-shaped peninsula.

Well, we know that this is true for Florence, given the city’s illustrious textile and banking industry and the political squabbling taking place there at the time. However, nobody can agree about who the Greyhound represents... although everyone can agree it's probably not a Greyhound Bus.

This means that it's up to you, Shmoopers. Can you crack the Greyhound code?

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