Inferno: The Old Man of Crete and Geryon

Here Virgil shows Dante the "Old Man of Crete" who is an allegory for the ages of humanity: at first there was a golden age, which was corrupted and became the silver age, followed by the bronze age, and then the most corrupt age of all: the iron age, with a foot of clay. This allegorical vision is based on a famous dream recounted in the Book of Daniel in the Bible.

[Notes by LKG]

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

Cantos 14 and 17: Geryon

The Old Man of Crete

'Now follow me, and be careful not to place your feet yet on the burning sand, but always keep back close to the wood.'

We came, in silence, to the place where a little stream gushes from the wood, the redness of which still makes me shudder. Like the rivulet that runs sulphur-red from the Bulicame spring near Viterbo that the sinful women share among themselves, so this ran down over the sand. Its bed and both its sloping banks were petrified, and its nearby margins: so that I realised our way lay there.

'Among all the other things that I have shown you since we entered though the gate, whose threshold is denied to no one, your eyes have seen nothing as noteworthy as this present stream that quenches all the flames over it.' These were my guide's words, at which I begged him to grant me food, for which he had given me the appetite.

He then said: 'There is a deserted island in the middle of the sea, named Crete, under whose king Saturn, the world was pure. There is a mountain there called Ida, which was once gladdened with waters and vegetation and now is abandoned like an ancient spoil heap. Rhea chose it, once, as the trusted cradle of her son and, the better to hide him when he wept, caused loud shouts to echo from it. Inside the mountain, a great Old Man stands erect, with his shoulders turned towards Egyptian Damietta, and looks at Rome as if it were his mirror. His head is formed of pure gold, his arms and his breasts are refined silver: then he is bronze as far as the thighs. Downwards from there he is all of choice iron, except that the right foot is baked clay, and more of his weight is on that one than the other. Every part, except the gold, is cleft with a fissure that sheds tears which collect and pierce the grotto. Their course falls from rock to rock into this valley. They form Acheron, Styx and Phlegethon; then, by this narrow channel, they go down to where there is no further fall and form Cocytus: you will see what kind of lake that is, so I will not describe it to you here.'

The Rivers Phlegethon and Lethe

I said to him: 'If the present stream flows down like that from our world, why does it only appear to us on this bank?

And he to me: 'You know the place is circular, and though you have come far, always to the left, descending to the depths, you have not yet turned through a complete round, so that if anything new appears to us, it should not bring an expression of wonder to your face.'

And I again: 'Master, where are Phlegethon and Lethe found, since you do not speak of the former and say that the latter is formed from these tears?'

He replied: 'You please me, truly, with all your questions, but the boiling red water might well answer to one of those you ask about. You will see Lethe, but above this abyss, there, on the Mount where the spirits go to purify themselves when their guilt is absolved by penitence.'

Then he said: 'Now it is time to leave the wood: see that you follow me: the margins which are not burning form a path, and over them all the fire is quenched.' [...]

The poets approach Geryon

'See the savage beast, with the pointed tail, that crosses mountains, and pierces walls and armour: see him, who pollutes the whole world.' So my guide began to speak to me and beckoned to him to land near the end of our rocky path, and that vile image of Fraud came on and grounded his head and chest, but did not lift his tail onto the cliff.

(illustration by Pinelli)

His face was the face of an honest man, it had so benign and outward aspect: all the rest was a serpent's body. Both arms were covered with hair to the armpits; the back and chest and both flanks were adorned with knots and circles. Tartars or Turks never made cloths with more colour, background, and embroidery, nor did Arachne spread such webs on her loom. As the boats rest on the shore, part in water and part on land, and as the beaver, among the guzzling Germans, readies himself for a fight, so that worst of savage creatures lay on the cliff that surrounds the great sand with stone.

The whole of his tail glanced into space, twisting the venomous fork upwards, that armed the tip, like a scorpion. My guide said: 'Now we must direct our path, somewhat, towards the malevolent beast that rests there.'


(900 words)

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