Study Guide

Inferno Primitivity

By Dante Alighieri

Primitivity

Inferno Canto I
Dante

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.

Inferno Canto III
Dante

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.

Inferno Canto V (the Second Circle: the Lustful)
Dante

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.

Inferno Canto VIII (the river Styx, the gates of Dis)
Dante

They were all shouting: "At Filippo Argenti!"
At this, the Florentine, gone wild with spleen,
began to turn his teeth against himself. (Inf. VIII, 61-63)

After being violently rejected by Dante and called a "dog" by Virgil, Filippo Argenti goes mad and, unable to contain his rage, turns his wrath upon himself. His behavior seems distinctly bestial because only animals turn to as visceral a punishment as biting when enraged; for the most part, humans do not.

Inferno Canto XII (the Seventh Circle, First Ring: the Violent against their Neighbors)
Dante

And at the edge above the cracked abyss,
there lay outstretched the infamy of Crete,
conceived within the counterfeited cow;
and, catching sight of us, he bit himself
like one whom fury devastates within.
Turning to him, my sage cried out:…
"Be off, you beast; this man who comes has not
been tutored by your sister; all he wants
in coming here is to observe your torments."
Just as the bull that breaks loose from its halter
the moment it receives the fatal stroke,
and cannot run but plunges back and forth,
so did I see the Minotaur respond; (Inf. XII, 11-25)

Not only is the Minotaur the unnatural spawn of man and animal, a "counterfeited cow," but it acts on animal impulses, biting itself, rearing in rage, and charging its offenders. It is no coincidence that Dante describes its movements as those of a haltered bull.

Then Chrion wheeled about and right and said
to Nessus: "Then return and be their guide;
If other troops disturb you, fend them off."
Now with our faithful escort, we advanced
along the bloodred, boiling ditch’s banks,
beside the piercing cries of those who boiled.
I saw some who were sunk up to their brows,
and that huge Centaur said: "These are the tyrants
who plunged their hands in blood and plundering.
Here they lament their ruthless crimes; here are
both Alexander and the fierce Dionysius,
who brought such years of grief to Sicily." (Inf. XII, 97-108)

Here in the circle of the violent, the beastly figures (Centaurs – half man, half horse) prove to be more human than the human sinners. While the Centaurs speak coherently, the sinners only give out "piercing cries." Surprisingly, the Centaurs – despite their reputation of senseless violence – show mercy to Dante and Virgil, even providing them with a guide to protect them.

Inferno Canto XXI (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators)
Dante

He threw the sinner down, then wheeled along
the stony cliff: no mastiff’s ever been
unleashed with so much haste to chase a thief. (Inf. XXI, 43-45)

Already inhuman by nature, this demon confirms bestiality when his savagery towards the struggling sinner spurs Dante to compare him to a fierce guard dog, a mastiff. His "unleashed" behavior suggests that, like the incontinent sinners, the demon is unable to contain his baser instincts.

Inferno Canto XXIV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)

"Mule that I was, the bestial life pleased me
and not the human; I am Vanni Fucci,
beast; and the den that suited me – Pistoia." (Inf. XXIV, 124-126)

The thief Vanni Fucci admits to his subhuman existence by describing himself as a "beast" living in a horrid "den" of a city. Although he has much to be ashamed of ("mule" here, Mandelbaum suggests, means "bastard" or "illegitimate child," as Fucci was), Vanni Fucci later lashes out at Dante in wrath, cursing him with an ominous prophecy simply out of spite. It seems that he takes a measure of perverted pride in his actions.

Inferno Canto XXV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)
Dante

…his tongue, which had before been whole and fit

for speech, now cleaves; the other’s tongue, which had

been forked, now closes up; and the smoke stops.

The soul that had become an animal,

now hissing, hurried off along the valley;

the other one, behind him, speaks and spits…
…"I’d have Buoso run
on all fours down this road, as I have done." (Inf. XXV, 133-141)

This passage illustrates, in a very visceral way, Dante’s idea that language is a purely human phenomenon. The thief that mutates into a snake has his tongue split in two so that it is no longer "fit / for speech" and can only hiss as he slithers away. The sinner who has exchanged his serpent form for a human one, however, now possesses a whole tongue and commences to speak articulately.

As I kept my eyes fixed upon those sinners,
a serpent with six feet springs out against
one of the three, and clutches him completely.
It gripped his belly with its middle feet,
and with its forefeet grappled his two arms;
and then it sank its teeth in both his cheeks;
it stretched its rear feet out along his thighs
and ran its tail along between the two,
then straightened it again behind his loins.
No ivy ever gripped a tree so fast
as when that horrifying monster clasped
and intertwined the other’s limbs with its.
Then just as if their substance were warm wax,
they stuck together and they mixed their colors,
so neither seemed what he had been before; (Inf. XXV, 49-63)

The thieves’ punishment of being transformed into hideous beasts (like "a serpent with six feet") reflects their lack of respect for boundaries. Because in life, they did not recognize other people’s property as off limits, they are punished with a violation of their own physical boundaries; they must become one another, sticking together and "mix[ing] their colors" like "warm wax." Dante considers the ability to distinguish between one’s property and another’s a purely human one, not recognized by beasts; thus, by failing to respect boundaries, the thieves forfeit their humanity and become beasts, both physically and spiritually.

Inferno Canto XXX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Counterfeiters of Persons, Counterfeiters of Coins, Falsifiers of Words)
Dante

When Juno was incensed with Semele
and thus, against the Theban family
had shown her fury time and time again,
then Athamas was driven so insane
that, seeing both his wife and their two sons,
as she bore one upon each arm, he cried:
"Let’s spread the nets, to take the lioness
together with her cubs along the pass";
and he stretched out his talons, pitiless,
and snatched the son who bore the name Learchus,
whirled him around and dashed him on a rock;
she, with her other burden, drowned herself.
And after fortune, turned against the pride
of Troy, which had dared all, so that the king
together with his kingdom, was destroyed,

then Hecuba was wretched, sad, a captive;
and after she had seen Polyxena
dead and, in misery, had recognized
her Polydorus lying on the shore,
she barked, out of her senses, like a dog –
her agony had so deformed her mind.
But neither fury – Theban, Trojan – ever
was seen to be so cruel against another,
in rending beasts and even human limbs,
as were two shades I saw, both pale and naked,
who, biting, ran berserk in just the way
a hog does when it’s let loose from its sty.
The one came at Capocchio and sank
his tusks into his neck so that, by dragging,
he made the hard ground scrape against his belly.
And he who stayed behind, the Arentine,
trembled and said: "That phantom’s Gianni Schicchi
and he goes raging, rending others so." (Inf. XXX, 1-33)

In the first two mythological anecdotes, Dante suggests that certain uncontrollable emotions – while rendering one bestial – are appropriate in context and may even be worthy of pity from an onlooker. Athamas, driven to madness by the gods, and Hecuba, howling like a dog for her murdered children, inspire compassion in readers, and rightly so. However, Gianni Schicchi – attacking others in the midst of his maniacal rage – does little to move readers to see him in a favorable light. Indeed, his animalistic attributes (his tusks), unlike Hecuba’s pathetic howl of grief, are menacing and even make his fellow shades "tremble" in fear.

Inferno Canto XXXII (the Ninth Circle, First Ring Caina: Traitors to their Kin, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to their Homeland or Party)
Dante

No clamp has ever fastened plank to plank
so tightly; and because of this, they butted
each other like two rams, such was their fury.
And one from whom the cold had taken both
his ears, who kept his face bent low, then said:
"Why do you keep on staring so at us?
If you would like to know who these two are:
that valley where Bisenzio descends,
belonged to them and to their father Alberto.
They came out of one body; and you can
search all Caina, you will never find
a shade more fit to sit within this ice – (Inf. XXXII, 49-60)

These two brothers, whose fury against each other rages so intensely that they "butted each other like two rams," have lost themselves so much in their anger that someone else must speak for them, in order to identify them. Both have given in so much to their animal natures that they have forsaken the human gift of language.