Dante's Inferno Canto 17: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

Dante and the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages viewed usury as a violation of the laws of an honest economy. We'll summarize Canto Seventeen, which deals with this sin, and look at some quotes that describe its plot.

What is Usury?

Canto Seventeen of Dante's Inferno continues the discussion of Circle Seven, Ring Three from Cantos Fourteen, Fifteen, and Sixteen. This particular canto discusses the sin of usury. The modern definition of usury is the practice of charging excessive amounts of interest on a loan. Do you ever feel like a victim of usury, perhaps as perpetrated by credit card companies who charge high interest rates?

As we know from Cantos Fourteen through Sixteen, the Seventh Circle of Dante's Hell is dedicated to the violent sins. Usury is a ''white-collar'' form of wrongdoing that we don't usually associate with violence. However, in the Middle Ages, it was considered a serious perversion or violation of the laws of a just economy. It was also defined differently than it is today: medieval theologians believed that charging any interest at all on a loan was usury. Thomas Aquinas, for example, stated that '''it is in accordance with nature that money should increase from natural goods and not from money itself.''

Greedy usurers as depicted by Renaissance painter Quentin Metsys
The Moneylenders by Quentin Metsys

Canto 17: Summary

An Encounter with Geryon, ''That Worst of Beasts''

As Canto Seventeen begins, Dante's guide Virgil points out the next monster they are to encounter, which is named Geryon. He says: ''Behold the beast that has the pointed tail, / That crosses mountains, leaves walls and weapons broken, / And makes the stench of which the world is full!''

Virgil beckons Geryon to come out of the void he lurks in and forward onto the path so Dante can see him better. The creature is ''like a serpent all down his trunk'' with ''two paws, both hairy to the armpits.'' His back, chest, and sides are covered in colorful images of knots and rings, and ''his tail [i]s quivery / And restless in the void where it hung down / Squirming its venomed fork with an upward twist, / Armed like a scorpion.''

Virgil and Dante encounter Geryon at the edge of a void (illustration by Gustave Dore)
Virgil and Dante encounter Geryon

Dante and Virgil descend to their right and approach the beast, carefully avoiding the flakes of fire that rain down on the sandy desert plain in the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle.

An Encounter with the Usurers

While Virgil speaks with Geryon, Dante walks over to some ''doleful people'' sitting nearby on the edge of the void. They are trying in vain to shield themselves from the rain of fire, swatting themselves ''[a]s though fleas or flies or gadflies bit their limbs.''

Each usurer has a purse around his neck decorated with various colors and symbols, which Dante describes in some detail. One has a yellow purse with a light blue lion, and another has a blood-red purse with a white goose. Each usurer gazes hungrily at his own purse.

One of them has a white purse with a light blue pregnant pig on it. He asks Dante, ''What are you doing in this pit?'' and complains that he's being discriminated against by his fellow sufferers. Anxious not to get too involved with them, Dante leaves them and looks for Virgil.

A Ride on Geryon's Back

Virgil has climbed onto Geryon's back, explaining that the only way to safely descend to the next area of Hell is to allow the monster to transport them. He tells Dante to sit in front of him so he can protect him from Geryon's dangerous tail. Dante is terrified, and compares his physical symptoms of terror to a bad fever. If you've ever had a bad case of the flu, you can understand his comparison to sick people with ''nails already blue'' who ''shake'' and ''shiver.'' However, he obeys, squeaking: ''Be sure you hold me tight!'' Virgil tells Geryon to make his descent carefully and gently.

The Descent of the Abyss on Geryons Back (illustration by Gustave Dore)
Geryon in flight

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