Dante's Inferno Canto 9: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

In Canto 9 of Dante's 'Inferno', Virgil and Dante face threats from the Furies and Medusa before finally entering the sixth circle of Hell in the city of Dis. This lesson summarizes Canto 9 and looks at key quotes.

Canto 9: Brief Overview

Recall at the end of Canto 8, we saw Virgil fail in his attempt to enter the city of Dis, a lower region of the underworld. When we begin Canto 9, Dante is feeling nervous because seeing Virgil fail for the first time has shaken his confidence in his guide. Dante and Virgil chat for a few minutes about the difficulty of their journey into the depths of Hell, and then the Furies, three Greco-Roman goddesses who torment criminals and other sinners, suddenly appear. The Furies taunt Dante and Virgil for a moment and then call upon Medusa, another Greco-Roman figure, who turns to stone anyone who looks directly at her. Virgil makes Dante look away, and suddenly, a creature arrives from Heaven to drive away all the tormentors, allowing Virgil and Dante to enter Dis. The two poets enter the city, see the heretics who suffer in the first section they come to, and have a conversation about the nature of the heretics' punishment.

Dante and Virgil Reach an Impasse

Canto 9 opens with this admission from Dante:

''The hue, which coward dread on my pale cheeks

Imprinted, when I saw my guide turn back,

Chas'd that from his which newly they had work,

And inwardly restrain'd it.''

Apparently, seeing Dante look terrified is enough to convince Virgil to wipe the fear off his face and try to appear composed. It is clear, though, from the way that Virgil begins to stammer after this, that he is not at all certain how they will move forward.

The Furies

The Furies
Furies

As Dante and Virgil talk to each other about how difficult their journey is, and how infrequently anyone ventures so far into the underworld, their situation takes a sudden turn for the worse:

''...in an instant I beheld uprisen

At once three hellish furies stain'd with blood:

In limb and motion feminine they seem'd;

Around them greenest hydras twisting roll'd

Their volumes; adders and cerastes crept

Instead of hair, and their fierce temples bound.''

The Furies are terrifying figures whose primary role is to torment people -- not exactly who you want to see when you are already trying to travel through the underworld. As you can see from Dante's description, they are technically female, but they have snakes rather than hair, and hydras twist and turn around them.

The Furies Call Medusa

As if they themselves are not bad enough, the Furies decide to also invoke Medusa, who is not only terrifying, but is also able to turn to stone all who look on her. Virgil immediately warns Dante to be careful:

''...Turn thyself round, and keep

Thy count'nance hid; for if the Gorgon dire

Be shown, and thou shouldst view it, thy return

Upwards would be for ever lost.''

In the end, Virgil decides to play it safe and hide Dante's head himself. After all, there is nothing to be done if Dante turns to stone and ends up trapped in the underworld.

Heaven Sends Help

At this point, it's probably clear that Virgil does not have a great plan in mind. Luckily, Heaven sends help in the form of a creature who is capable of driving away all the monsters who are bothering the two poets. Dante watches him save the day:

''...Ah me! how full

Of noble anger seem'd he! To the gate

He came, and with his wand touch'd it, whereat

Open without impediment it flew.''

Not only does this creature drive away the Furies and Medusa, but he does what Virgil could not: open the gates to the underworld. Finally, Virgil and Dante can enter the city of Dis.

Dis and the Heretics

As he does with each new level of Hell he enters, Dante describes Dis, the sixth circle, here (Note that Dis extends all the way to the ninth circle):

The City of Dis caption=

''I soon as enter'd throw mine eye around,

And see on every part wide-stretching space

Replete with bitter pain and torment ill...

...for 'midst the graves were scattered flames,

Wherewith intensely all throughout they burn'd,

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