03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas, Art & Humanities

Dante’s Inferno: “Minotaurs, Centaurs, and Harpies, Oh My!” (Circle 7)

Dante’s Inferno: “Minotaurs, Centaurs, and Harpies, Oh My!” (Circle 7)

In honor of re-reading Dante’s Inferno this quarantine with a friend and then moving on to (finally) read Purgatorio & Paradiso I went back looking at all essays I wrote and fell in love with my badass 20 year old self. 🙂 So in search of written material ready for the blog I present to you a series of 4 essays on Dante’s Inferno written by yours truly many years ago while studying in Florence, Italy for 6 weeks. I had the wonderful pleasure to also visit Dante’s home in Florence and his burial place in Ravenna, I think that makes me a groupie! 🙂


P.S. read my first essay here:

The beasts that appear in the various circles of Hell can be seen as a perfect antithesis to Virgil as a symbol of Reason. The hybrid beasts and Virgil are polar opposites. In our daily lives, our beastly nature and our reason are also always battling each other for power over our actions. The half human, half beast guardians that populated Hell physically represent this ongoing battle. They depict the mental tug-of-war between what we want to do and what we should do. Often times, the animal anatomy consists of the lower half of these guardians, while the torso and head are depicted as “human.” This particular split shows that the human part is the rational mind, while the beast half is lower, traditionally seen as the more irrational part of us. Sins of Violence, where these hybrid guardians dwell, can also be considered Sins of Bestiality, sins of unrestrained primal desire. Human intellect is supposed to keep these animalistic passions in check, providing reasons why we should avoid these obvious carnal sins. These creatures, and the sinners in these circles of Hell, show how this bestial nature often times temporarily conquers the rational mind.

The Minotaur and Centaurs perfectly represent irrationality winning over intellect because both are the products of perverted sexual encounters. The Centaurs, half horse and half men, are descendants of intercourse between Saturn, in horse form, and Philyra. Also, the “infamy of Crete”, half man and half bull Minotaur, is a result of an unnatural union between Pasiphaë and a bull. Dante the Poet underscores the Minotaur’s beastly violence in his description of the Minotaur’s actions and the short retelling of his history from creation to death. The Minotaur reacts violently and starts to buck wildly when Virgil mentions his killer, the Duke of Athens, Theseus. The centaurs also perfectly display intellect versus desire because in mythology they symbolize wisdom, astrology, and scholarly knowledge yet their lower halves represent unrestraint, impulse, and primal nature. Although most of the hybrid creatures are realized through thoughtless, impulsive acts, they do not represent lust. These creatures guard the seventh circle, which begins the circles of the various violent crimes against others, self, and God.

Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil encounter three centaurs, Chiron, Nessus, and Pholus, right before they enter the Sins of Violence. Chiron is the only centaur in all of mythology that does not have a violent past based on lust and destruction; instead, he was known as a wise scholar and tutor.  Nessus provides safe passage for the two travelers over the river with the tyrants into the Wood of the Suicides. Nessus is a perfect vehicle for violence because, according to mythology, he attempted raped Hercules’ wife when he trusted Nessus to provide safe passage for her over the river (just as he gives Dante safe passage). In addition to that act, Nessus also inadvertently caused Hercules’ death and his wife’s subsequent suicide by fraud.

In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the centaurs attacked the females at a wedding because they were lustful and intoxicated. According to myth, Pholus not only participated in the attack upon this Lapith wedding, but he attempted to rape the bride. The Lapiths are Greek, and so, they represent human intellect and achievement. This story is illustrated in Michelangelo’s Battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs. This relief sculpture is on display in the museum Casa Buonarroti. I was able to discuss the role of bestiality and rationality in the context of this work of art. Michelangelo carved the relief with contorted limbs, bulging muscles, and mass confusion to perfectly depict the centaur’s inconceivable act at a rational event. His work of art shows irrationality winning over human intellect. The centaurs and their legendary violence make them the perfect guardian for the Circles of Violence.

The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides 1824-7 William Blake 1757-1827 Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations from the Art Fund, Lord Duveen and others, and presented through the the Art Fund 1919 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03356

In addition to the Minotaur and Centaurs, there are Harpies in the Wood of the Suicides. The Harpies have the heads of women with the bodies of birds. In the forest, they cause pain to the trees of the shades of the suicides by nesting in them. To me, the Harpies represent death because they remind me of crows. In western culture, crows are signs of death and decay. Ironically, when the Harpies break of pieces of the trees and cause them to bleed and feel pain, they allow the trees to regain their former human voices. Without the Harpies or other disturbances that break their branches, the shades of the suicides would never be able to talk for all eternity. Out of all of the violent sinners, the suicides appear to have the worst punishment. Losing your humanity, in part like the hybrid creatures or in whole like the trees, is the worst punishment. At least all of the other sinners retain their human forms while dealing with their consequences. Unlike the others, the trees of the suicides lose their bodies, their identity, and their voices. The only way to regain any part of this is to be broken and bleed.

Each of these hybrid creatures personifies their particular Circle of Hell due to their particular anatomy of part beast and part human. The centaurs, Minotaur, and harpies all symbolize and embody their particular sins in Hell. The hybrid creatures are most common in the three Circles of Violence because they, themselves, are products of violence and they physically represent humanity’s inner battle and fight between balanced Reason and irrational want. All of the sinners in Hell are constantly reminded that their rational side lost this battle and that they gave in to their wants, rather than listening to their heavenly Reason and moderation.

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