WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Updated: Oct 21
The Divine Comedy is a wild adventure set against an amazing backdrop of the phantasmagorical. Not only does Dante travel through three realms of the afterlife (while he’s still alive), this extra-terrestrial domain is a place inhabited by mythical beasts, mystical creatures, behemoths, dragons, serpents and birds of legendary proportions – think griffins, and talking eagles constructed from flowers!
Depending in which realm they are sited, these creatures are either monstrous, terrifying and dangerous or beautiful, graceful and resplendent. Placement really is key: the closer a being is to God, the more it radiates His glory and beauty. And perfection.
In the splendour and bliss of Paradise therefore, we see the griffin - majestic and regal - and the Eagle of Justice - dignified and impressive. But, residing in the sewers of the apocalyptic Inferno, sited furthest away from God, we find Geryon, Minos and Cerberus, also Harpies, Furies, demons and man-eating serpents. Most crucially, we meet Satan, once favoured angel Lucifer, now a rabid monster raging and flailing in a supreme vision of bestial hideousness and terror. You see what I mean?
In telling us that these creatures are beasts i.e. unhuman, Dante tells us they are deficient in intellect; incapable of reasoning and lacking in human capacity and emotion. These brutes may be large, powerful, potent and fertile, but they are untamed, savage and feral; uncivilised - the antithesis of all that is Divine beauty.
Immediately Dante is cast into The Dark Wood he is ambushed by three cardinal sins reincarnated in salivating, grunting, snorting bestial form; the lion, the leopard and the she-wolf. It is their intention to distract Dante from reaching the light, enticing him to remain in the darkness of the shadows. Only for the unexpected arrival of virtuous Virgil do these slavering behemoths slink away leaving Dante unhindered to begin his unavoidable journey, but not before he confesses that, as a man, he is open to their temptations. Virgil arrives just in the nick of time.
He meets Minos, a past King of Crete now infernal judge and jury, who, upon taking confession, condemns sinners to their rightful circle of Hell by winding his enormous tail around his bulging, serpentine body to indicate where they are heading. Indeed, too much hesitation and he flicks his barb and casts them there himself.
Cerberus is the salivating three headed hound of Hades - a greater contrast to the Holy Trinity is only to be found in Satan. He defends the entrance to Hell but is easily tempted by a ball of earth Virgil throws to distract him - as greedy as the insatiable Gluttons he so despises. He’s a hideous, snarling, dangerous force and Dante is horrified. So he should be. Cerberus is the guardian of the gates of Hell, after all.
Geryon, a bizarre yet hideous representation of fraud, is the terrifying human-faced dragon that clambers up from a cavernous ravine, snorting, writhing and grunting before swooping back down behind a tumultuous waterfall with a stunned Dante clamped firmly to his back.
Enormous serpents with scales and scutes of horn and glass, with fangs that pierce bodies of sinning souls, turning their combusting victims to dust, also fuse their bodies with these pitiful spirits to create a brand new reptilian beast – half man, half snake. And, finally, just as Dante tries to get his head around this outrageous and disturbing, yet magical scene, he witnesses a serpent become a man and a man become a serpent. It’s a bizarre opera and he’s completely flummoxed.
Yet the worst of these monsters - a contorting, flailing, screeching deformation - is Satan, Dis, Emperor of the Universe of Pain, who is found shackled in the Cocytus, a frozen river of pain. So horrific is the sight he witnesses, a disgusted, shocked but despairing Dante weeps tears of pity yet, despite his terror, he is utterly mesmerised. Again, far removed from the Gospel Trinity, Satan has three heads, each chewing on the bodies of the worst brand of sinner; the traitor. His matted pelt is fetid and rancid, and the stench of his breath, sickening. Veiny bats’ wings, the cause of the unforgiving frosty blasts and icy winds that froze the Cocytus, belie the beautiful and favoured angel he once was. Satan is reduced to a grotesque; a shrieking bestial distortion, shrunken to a tragic parody of the Trinity; the antithesis of Divine love and glory.
Let’s contrast these vulgar, rabid beasts of Inferno with the undeniably glorious and celestial creatures Dante meets at the tip of the Mountain of Purgatory and within Paradise.
The griffin leads the magnificent Pageant of the Sacrament and is a being who exerts such self-control his golden plumes don’t even flutter in the breeze. Part lion, part eagle, Dante is told by Matilda that in looking at the griffin, he witnesses Christ. When he later gazes deep into Beatrice’s eyes expecting to the see the griffin reflected but, instead, sees in one pupil a lion, whole and in the other, an eagle, whole, he accepts it as true. The griffin is regal, exuding splendour, will and serenity. He’s a magnificent spiritual force. And Dante knows it.
The Eagle of Justice, booming his words of wisdom from the sixth star of Paradise, is formed of flowers; a creature constructed from every blossom of the highest Heavens. He claps his wings and each scent of those celestial blooms is released. It’s a wonderfully impressive spectacle and Dante is captivated. Again, sited this close to God, a glorious and beautiful creature commands reverence and awe.
Dante also sees the apostles from the book of Ezekiel, immortalised in a celestial procession as four six-winged creatures, each with plumage of angelic proportions, including feathers of seeing eyes, all crowned with a coronet of leaves – the winged ox, lion, eagle and man. Surreal; phantasmagorical.
The discerning reader will understand that those behemoths residing in the sewer of Hell command fear, terror and danger, representing as they do, the torturous, brutal punishment of sin and all that is evil. They serve as a dire warning to mankind: renounce sin. Conversely, the magnificent, celestial creatures in the highest heavens command reverence and respect as they radiate the might and power of God. They are a force for good and all that is salvation, for they bask in the glow and love of the Divine. They invite mortal man to restore his faith so that, upon ascension, he too can partake in the glory and wonder of God.
Cerberus - greekmythology.wikia.org