Inferno: Descending on Geryon's Back

In Greek mythology, Geryon was one of the giants, and here in Dante's Inferno Geryone is imagined as an especially monstrous creature with great wings, a man's face, lion's paws, and the body of a dragon. You can read more about the legends of Geryon at Wikipedia.

In this episode, you will see that Dante and Virgil ride on this winged monster to reach down to the eighth circle of Hell called the Malebolge, male bolge in Italian, "the evil trenches." You can read more about the geography of the Malebolge at Wikipedia.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Dante's Inferno unit. Story source: Dante's Divine Comedy, translated by Tony Kline (2002).

(illustration by Gustave Doré)

Canto 17-18: Descending on Geryon's Back

The poets descend on Geryon's back

I found my guide, who had already mounted the flank of the savage creature, and he said to me: 'Be firm and brave. Now we must descend by means of these stairs: you climb in front; I wish to be in the centre, so that the tail may not harm you.'

Like a man whose fit of the quartan fever is so near that his nails are already pallid, and he shakes all over, by keeping in the shade so I became when these words were said: but his reproof roused shame in me that makes the servant brave in the presence of a worthy master. I set myself on those vast shoulders. I wished to say: 'See that you clasp me tight,' but my voice did not come out as I intended.

He, who helped me in other difficulties at other times, embraced me as soon as I mounted and held me upright. Then he said: 'Now move, Geryon! Make large circles, and let your descent be gentle: think of the strange burden that you carry.'

As a little boat goes backwards, backwards, from its mooring, so the monster left the cliff, and when he felt himself quite free, he turned his tail around to where his chest had been and stretching, flicked it like an eel and gathered the air towards him with his paws. I do not believe the fear was greater when Phaëthon let slip the reins, and the sky was scorched, as it still appears to be; or when poor Icarus felt the feathers melt from his arms as the wax was heated, and his father Daedalus cried: 'You are going the wrong way!' as mine was when I saw myself surrounded by the air on all sides and saw everything vanish, except the savage beast.

He goes down, swimming slowly, slowly, wheels, and falls, but I do not see it except by the wind on my face and from below. Already I heard the cataract on the right, make a terrible roaring underneath us, at which I stretched my neck out with my gaze downwards. Then I was more afraid to dismount because I saw fires and heard moaning, so that I cowered, trembling all over. And then I saw what I had not seen before, our sinking and circling through the great evils that drew close on every side.

As the falcon that has been long on the wing descends wearily, without seeing bird or lure, making the falconer cry: 'Ah, you stoop!' and settles far from his master disdainful and sullen, so Geryon set us down, at the base, close to the foot of the fractured rock and, relieved of our weight, shot off like an arrow from the bow.

The Eighth Circle: Malebolge 

There is a place in Hell called Malebolge, all of stone and coloured like iron, as is the cliff that surrounds it. Right in the centre of the malignant space, a well yawns, very wide and deep, whose structure I will speak of in due place.

The margin that remains, between the base of the high rocky bank and the well, is circular, and its floor is divided into ten moats. Like the form the ground reveals, where successive ditches circle a castle to defend the walls, such was the layout displayed here. And as there are bridges to the outer banks from the thresholds of the fortress, so from the base of the cliff causeways ran, crossing the successive banks and ditches, down to the well that terminates and links them.

We found ourselves there, shaken from Geryon's back, and the Poet kept to the left, and I went on behind him.

(700 words)

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