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CANTO SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
When the Pilgrim sees Virgil turning back, unsuccessful, he is filled with fear. Virgil realizing the Pilgrim's fear put on a brave face and scans the horizon for the angel who will come to help them. He wonders aloud at the delay of the promised help. The Pilgrim who has being listening avidly to every word his guide utters hears the hesitation that his guide is quick to cover up. This increases his doubt and he asks Virgil if anyone has ever descended into Hell from Limbo. Virgil tells him that he himself has made the same journey once before. A victim to the magic of witch Erichtho, he was sent by her from Limbo to deepest Hell (pit of Judas or where Judas lies in Hell). She sent Virgil there to fetch a spirit out for her. He therefore knows the way well and tells Dante the Pilgrim that the only way to enter Dis now is through force.
As Virgil is talking, the Pilgrim's attention is drawn to the tower's top. For there have appeared, quite suddenly, three demonic Furies. The three Furies, all females are known to Virgil. He points them out to Dante and names them. They are the fierce Erinyes and their names are Megaera, Alecto and Tisiphone. The three Furies beat their breasts with their hands and then tear them with their nails. This along with their loud shrieking scares the Pilgrim who moves closer to Virgil. The Furies summon Medusa, to turn the Pilgrim into stone. And bewail that fact of Theseus escape. Virgil, fearing Medusa's appears warns the Pilgrim to turn his back to the tower and to close his eyes. To ensure his safety, Virgil covers the Pilgrim's eyes with his own hands.
Dante the poet addresses the readers to try and understand the hidden meaning of his words. Soon the air of Hell is rent by a loud sound and the noise ripples across all of Hell. Virgil frees his wards’ eyes and bids him look at the marsh's surface. There he sees an angel walking across the surface of the Styx. All the souls in the river fearfully clear the path for the angel. The Virgil signals the Pilgrim to remain quiet and bow down before the angel. The angel touches the gates of Dis with his wand and they open effortlessly. The angel upbraids the fallen angels for opposing Divine Will and reminds them of the results of such vain opposition. He recalls the fate of Cerberus as a result of such resistance. Then he turns around and goes back the way he had come.
After he leaves, the two poets enter the city, comforted by the recent holy visitation. They enter easily, unopposed. Dante, eager to make most of this opportunity looks around to take the whole scene in. He sees pain all around - open tombs lay everywhere. And these tombs were heated by flames so that their inhabitants were subjected to great heat and they cried out in pain. Virgil informs Dante the Pilgrim that in these tombs lie all arch-heretics and their disciplines. Heretics of a particular type lie buried with their own type and the degree of heat depends on their type (the ones who were more heretical are burned more). The two poets then turn to the right and move ahead along the city.
Despite Virgil's assurance Dante’s fear doesn't abate. Virgil's unfinished sentence scares him further still and he imagines the worse. Dante is aware of the incredible nature of this journey and at this point. It seems impossible to him that they will complete it. Therefore, to ally his fears, he asks Virgil if any other soul from Limbo has ever descended deeper into Hell. Virgil agrees that usually a soul from Limbo doesn't make such a journey. But that he (Virgil) has once before descended deep into Hell.
He describes how that journey came about. A witch named Erichtho recalled his spirit back to earth. Erichtho was a Thessalian necromancer who could summon up dead spirits. She sent Virgil to the deepest region of Hell on the earth's center to fetch another spirit for her. The "sphere that circles all" mentioned by Virgil refers to Primum Mobile (a turn from the Ptolemaic system of astronomy). Thus Virgil is well acquainted with what such a journey involves and how to go about it. Virgil says that they can't enter the city "without strife" because they will need outside intervention to get the city gates open. It is beyond Virgil's power to open the gates.
Three grotesque Furies appear on the tower and draw Dante's attention immediately. These three (Tisiphone, Megaera and Alecto) are figures from classical mythology. Their task is to avenge crime in mythology. But in "Inferno" they are hellish and a distortion of the holy Trinity. Moreover they are the opposites of the three Heavenly Holy ladies (Mary, Lucia and Beatrice mentioned in Canto II). The three Furies are "handmaids" to the wife of Pluto, the "queen of timeless woe". Pluto is the classical god of the underworld and his wife is Persephone or Hecate. The Furies summon another devilish woman, Medusa. Medusa was a Gorgon (another classical mythological figure). On her head, instead of hair, she had serpents and anyone who looked at her face was turned to stone. Virgil, well versed in classical mythology, fears Medusa and so covers Dante's eyes with his hands to prevent any possible harm.
The three Furies are out for blood and want to destroy the Pilgrim. They mention their regret over the light treatment meted to Theseus. Theseus was a great King of Athens and a Greek hero. He had come to Hades with his friend Pirithous (king of the Lapithae) to abduct Proserpina for his friend. Proserpina had been stone by Pluto and taken to be his queen in Hades. Pluto kills Pirithous but Theseus that the Furies are regretting. They want to ensure that the Pilgrim doesn't escape.
Next, Dante the poet directly addresses his readers to understand the hidden meaning of his words. He is drawing the reader's attention to the imminent arrival of the angel. This coming of the angel is analogous to the first Advent of Christ. In his first Advent Christ descends into Hell. In the second he (Christ) descends into men's heart to help them battle against sin. And the third Advent is Christ appearance on Earth on the Judgement Day. JUST as the angel's descent into Hell is analogous to the first Advent, similar analogies for the next two Advents are found in "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso". Thus Dante the poet brings balance to the entire structure of the "Divine Comedy". The three Advents of Christ were a commonly held belief of medieval Christians during Dante's time.
The angel appears accompanied by a blast of sound so loud that the hole of Hell shakes. Dante the poet compares his advance to violent winds that move unstoppable through forests scattering trees, animals and shepherds. It is very dramatic and it serves to underline the power and majesty of God and his servants (the angels is one of God's servants). The word of God is mighty and Hiss will is supreme, before it Hell and its guardians are as powerless as a forests and its inhabitants before the might of Nature.
The souls of sinners clear a path for the angel, who effortlessly walks upon the water of the Styx (reminiscent of Christ walking on water). The two poets bow respectfully before the angel who just touches his wand to open the gates of Dis. The angel upbraids the inhabitants of Dis for their insolence that is the cause of their suffering It is their insolence and disobedience to God that caused them to be damned to Hell. He asserts the invincible power of God's word and God's will which can not ever be denied. He points out that their refusal to respect God's will is vain. He mentions the mangled Cerberus. Hercules enters Hell to rescue Theseus. During this be chains Cerberus (the three-headed dog of Hell) and drags him out of Hell thus tearing the skin around his neck. Just as Cerberus was helpless against Hercules so are the sinners before God and in any match against God.
Having performed his mission the angel returns to Heaven. The two poets, under the protection of his recent action, move into the city. They meet with opposition and the Pilgrim looks around eagerly. They are now in the sixth Circle where the Heretics are punished. Heretics are ones who disbelieve the Christian doctrine. He uses the imagery of Arles and Pola to describe the terrain of the Sixth Circle. Artes, a province city was near the Rhonal delta. It was the site of a famous Roman cemetery of Aliscamps. It was covered by numerous tombs. Pola, a city in Istria (now Yugoslavia) on the Quarnero Bay was known for its ancient burying ground. Thus this circle, like these cities is covered by many tombs. These tombs are heated by flames so that the souls inside are burning and in great pain. His is clear from the cries coming from the tombs, which are open (the lids are pushed to one side). Virgil tells the pilgrim that arch-heretic and their followers suffer in these tombs. Heretics that sinned more grievously lie with similar type and burn more. Then the two poets turn right and move on. Usually they circle left but here and later on (Canto XVII) they turn left. Why they do this is unclear but I must be remarked upon.