The Divine Interpretation: A Study of Metaphor in Dante’s Inferno
by Melanie Barker
The Animal Symbolism in Canto I of Inferno emulates the negative connotation within animal imagery assumed by Christianity.
Dante’s symbols, the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf, symbolize carnal sins which are divided into three categories of severity:
- The sins of malice and fraud,
- The sins of violence and ambition,
- And the sins of incontinence
In contrast, pre-Christian tradition embraces animal symbolism as a positive and powerful force, intrinsic to human nature. Those cultures focus on more “honorable” animal traits and distribute these characteristics to humans in a complimentary manner.
Pre-Christian tradition employs animals to describe favorable traits in people through their own philosophies and beliefs in the majesty of the animal kingdom.
Dante uses the leopard to represent malicious or fraudulent sins because the leopard, having a spotted pelt, will disguise himself from a potential creature of prey.
The leopard will bide his time and strike at the most optimal moment, when its prey least suspects it. Dante develops this association because those who commit sins of fraud usually present themselves respectably, rather than revealing their true motive.
In Canto XVII Dante introduces Geryon, the embodiment of fraud. He is described as a horrid beast who at first glance seems an innocent man.
“His face was the face of any honest man, / it shone with such a look of benediction; / and all the rest of him was serpentine…” (Inferno XVII 10-12).
Here Dante is alluding to the Christian representation of fraud, Satan, who is symbolized by the snake. In relation, he too presents himself fraudulently as he presents himself to Eve as a creature of Eden. Satan too became the ultimate predator as he induced the fall of man. This vicious nature can be compared to that of the leopard.
Following the leopard, Dante the Pilgrim’s righteous path is blocked by the lion. Dante uses the lion to denote sins of violence and ambition because the lion is considered to be an aggressive and assertive creature that has a tendency to satisfy his own needs, by whatever violent means necessary.
The brutality of the lion’s natural habitat is evident as a lion, who fears no other creature, will assert his position in the food chain, by use of brute force.
Dante makes a metaphoric symbol of the lion, as one who commits violent and/or ambitious sins can be compared with many similarities, to a lion that ravages the savannah in search of food or a mate.
The last animal Dante encounters on the path is the she-wolf. Dante employs the she-wolf to represent the sins that a human cannot resist, such as lust and adultery.
He chooses the she-wolf as she is mysterious and because wolves tend to hunt in packs. In relation, sins of this irresistible nature tend to be coupled, as the wolves hunt together, in numbers.
For example, one who sins in lust may follow up with another sin of adultery. The mystery and excitement of an adulterous relationship can be related to the “mysterious” persona of the wolf.
Dante also develops this symbol as that of a female wolf, as opposed to a male wolf, because the female is infamous for her sexual treachery throughout ancient culture.
Perhaps Dante is developing on the vision of women described in Isaiah 3:16 which reads:
“Moreover the Lord saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet:”.
Women have been portrayed as sultry temptresses aimed at enticing Christian men to do things unbecoming of the god fearing man, as displayed in Christian Literature, which then filters into the human psyche.
Psychoanalyst Carl Jung emphasizes the collective unconscious as being inhabited with archetypes that are derived from primal animal behaviors that all humankind possesses.
(Huffman 494) Researcher William McDougal proposes in his “Instinct” theory of motivation, that humans are compelled by behaviors that are unlearned, uniform in expression and universal to the species.
(Huffman 440) It is these carnal compellations that Christianity attempts to inhibit that are chronicled throughout Christian verse.
Dante’s metaphoric trio is specifically mentioned in the Holy Bible as noted in the 8th edition of The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. Jeremiah 5:6 reads:
“Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the evenings shall spoil them, a leopard shall watch over their cities: everyone that goeth out thence shall be torn into pieces: because their transgressions are many and their backslidings are increased”
By using these three particular animals in his symbolism, Dante is alluding to the negative conception the bible invokes in its symbolic representation of the animals.
In Inferno, Dante first encounters the leopard which blocks his path to righteousness.
“Beyond the point the slope begins to rise / sprang up a leopard, trim and very swift! It was covered by a pelt of many spots. / And everywhere I looked, the beast was there” (Inferno I 32-35).
Here, Dante is drawing on the sinister conception of the leopard that lays in wait of its prey. This leopard camouflages himself much as the fraudulent may mask their sinister intentions.
In contrast, this sinister characterization is avoided in Nigerian philosophy, Benin, which embraces animals as symbolism of deities. In Benin, the Oba or king is all powerful and is the owner of the land and its people.
(Eboreime) The Oba and royal power, represented by images of the leopard, focuses on more positive traits such as speed, agility, cunning, and prowess.
(Peck, Coote) For example, Dante regards the preying leopard as a demonic physical threat, whereas Nigerian philosophy would view this same leopard as a patient and skilled hunter. Another African myth comes from the pygmies of Zaire. Tore, the wood god, is represented by the leopard. He is said to be the ‘lord of the animal’ and patron of the hunt.
(Lindemans) This conception also focuses on the leopard as a graceful hunter. The African people glorify the leopard for the same characteristics that are frowned upon in Christian literature.
Following the leopard, Dante encounters the lion, which he uses to symbolize sins of violence and ambition. A group of lions is called a pride, which is also a sin of ambition, punishable in Dante’s Hell. A lion is the ruler of the land and asserts himself as such.
Dante writes of the lion:
“…he was coming straight toward me, it seemed, / with head raised high, and furious with hunger” (Inferno I 46-47).
The reader draws the violent, destructive nature from the lion symbol which is also displayed in Christian literature.
Perhaps I Peter 5:8 displays this paradigm best as it reads,
“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
Dante invokes the reader’s conception of the lion as he uses him to represent sins that involve violence against others. This symbolism births feelings of fear and recognition of the danger of the lion as one to fear, which spawns a literary barrier to serve as a deterrent from sin.
The lion is also symbolic in Egyptian Mythology. The goddess of war and vengeance, Sekhmet or “Powerful One”, contrasts this negative perspective of animal symbolism that Dante portrays. She is pictured with the head of a lioness and symbolizes divine retribution.
The Egyptian Sun God, Ra, calls upon his daughter, Sekhmet, to slaughter humans that had concocted a plan to rebel against him, in his aging and vulnerable state.
Ra punishes humanity be sending his vengeful daughter. She single handedly defends her father, the almighty Ra by ravaging through the rebellious village, devouring those who plotted against him. Sekhmet, in all her glory, wades through the blood of the punished, claiming her father’s exaltation. (Willis 41) Beginning around 1000 B.C.E., Sekhmet began to be portrayed with an alter persona, Bastet. With the changing persona, her appearance changed as well.
She began to be depicted as a domesticated cat. Her new duty is to be an “avenger,” and slay enemies of Egypt and enemies of the gods. (Cass)
While Egyptian myth conjures the vicious and vengeful spirit of the lion, they do so respectfully and recognize the strength and brutality in a grandiose manner.
The story of Sekhmet’s wrath recognizes that she attacked only to protect her father. Sekhmet’s power was dually respected and feared. Messengers of Sekhmet were thought to be infectious disease. Following this notion, her priests also served as doctors. (
Willis 50) While the Egyptians shared many of the same characterizations of the lion as Christians, they applied them differently.
Egyptian conception focuses on the strength and power of the lion and makes its mission divine retribution, as opposed to the brutality and violent nature that is the focus of Dante’s symbolic representation.
Following the lion on the path is the she-wolf. Dante, using the she-wolf to represent the sins of incontinence writes of the she-wolf:
“And now a she-wolf came, that in her leanness / seemed racked with every kind of greediness / (how many people she has brought to grief!)” (Inferno I 49-51).
He draws from the reader’s negative perception of the wolf, which attributes the wolf as of a predatory nature.
The she-wolf is portrayed as a callous hunter who does not differentiate her victims, nor is she merciful. This view is also displayed in Christian literature, especially in the Bible.
Genesis 49:27 reads:
“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he devours the plunder”.
The author focuses on the negative characteristics of the wolf as a violent and agitated hunter whereas other culture and mythology revere the wolf for its majestic power.
Dante opposes this positive vision with his symbolism, as he uses the wolf to represent the sins that humans find irresistible. He uses the mystery and power of the wolf to emphasize the enticing and alluring manner of these particular sins.
Contrastingly, Native American kinship with the wolf is prevalent as they view the wolf as the brother of man.
(Maxwell 348) The Chipewyans honor the wolf as their creator. Their creation myth attributes the body of a wolf to have become the world. The land is made of his flesh, fish are made from his internal organs, and birds were created from his skin.
(Maxwell 330) Sub arctic tribes, such as the Ingalik and Koyukon of Alaska, hold the wolf in the highest regard. Members of the tribe are forbidden to kill wolves, as they are considered as brothers to the tribesmen.
(Maxwell 348) Native American antiquity accounts for humanity having spawned from animals and does not differentiate the two. They believe their ancestors began life as animals and then transformed themselves into human beings.
(Willis 31) The First Nations view wolves as teachers or pathfinders. A wolf is seen as fiercely loyal to their mates and therefore dedicated to their families.
(Beaupre) Roman Mythology offers another positive conception of the wolf, with the ancient story of Romulus. Along with his infant twin Remus, he was abandoned beside a river. They were rescued by a she-wolf and reared alongside her cubs for a few years.
(Lindemans) This mythological she-wolf is given a nurturing and affectionate persona that may stem from the animal’s loyalty to the pack. While focusing on the characteristics more becoming to the wolf, the Romans have allowed a positive conception into human psyche that differs drastically from the sinister huntress we encounter in Dante’s Inferno.
While many pre-Christian and non-Christian faiths may use animals symbolically, they tend to focus on less sinister traits or emphasize these animalistic traits in a positive light. Christianity has long sought to exterminate the primal instinct of humanity.
Thus, their use of animals in a symbolic manner tends to focus on the negativity of animal behavior. Animals will submit to their carnal desires instinctively, as will humans, which is an underlying problem in the Christian plight to purify humanity and deter them from sin.
By experiencing Dante’s animal symbolism in the Inferno, the reader connects to his negative view of animal behavior. Which is the exact form of carnal human nature the Church sought to eradicate from humanity, so as to lessen chance of sin.
Human beings are prone to their impulses. Mankind bears an interpersonal conflict between his urges and his will. These “animalistic” urges force one of Christian faith to feel guilt for having submitted to them. Some may say that it is will and faith in God that separates us from the animal kingdom.
This is the reasoning behind Dante’s choice of individual animals as representative of the three dimensions of sins depicted in Inferno.
One can clearly see the type of negative animal symbolism that pervades both the Old and New Testaments, in Dante’s Inferno.
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