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Dante Alighieri

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Canto 17

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Canto 17 of Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno.

Inferno | Canto 17 | Summary



A beast with the face of what appears to be a trustworthy man but with the body of a serpent and a tail tipped like a scorpion's, appears and lands on the edge of the ravine, his tail dangling. Virgil and Dante descend to it. As they get closer, Dante can see sinners sitting nearby. Virgil encourages him to go closer to them, so he can see the state they are in. When he gets closer he can see that they are constantly trying to wave off the flames and hot sand. They have purses around their necks, each with a different color and emblem. One asks Dante why he is there, explains that other Florentines should be there as well, then tells him to "be off."

By now, Virgil has climbed aboard the beast's back, and invites Dante to climb up as well. Dante is afraid, but ashamed to admit it, so he obliges. Virgil tells the beast—Geryon—to carry them, and so they ride on his back as he flies downward. Geryon lands, the poets disembark, and the beast disappears "like an arrow from a bow."


The beast Geryon is another mythological creature Dante places in his Hell. In Greek mythology, Geryon is the grandson of Medusa on his father's side, but also of Titans (giant deities) on his mother's side. He has three heads and three pairs of legs, and is known to have extraordinary strength. In Hercules' tenth labor, he kills Geryon and steals his herd of cattle. Dante transforms this three-bodied man into a three-part monster with the head of a man, body of a serpent, and tail of a scorpion. Because the number three is found throughout Dante, and has religious significance, any three-part monster is a twisted imitation of the Trinity (the Christian doctrine of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). As a monster with the face of a gracious man, Geryon is suited to guard those whose sin was fraud.

Dante has been growing in his confidence and courage, and this canto shows just how far he has come. Virgil sends him off alone to talk to some of the shades—something new for Dante. Dante also overcomes his intense fear with bravery, even though he notes that it is the kind of bravery that comes from not wanting to admit you are afraid. And even though he is afraid, Dante describes his experience of flight in beautiful poetry, comparing himself to Phaethon (who was struck down by Zeus when unable to control the sun chariot) and Icarus (who fell to his death when he flew too close to the sun and melted his wings made of wax), and then giving in to the amazing experience of "the wind upon my face and the wind rising" as Geryon "wheels" and "descends." The last thirty-six lines of this canto contain some of the most vivid imagery found in Inferno.

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