Essay on Underworld Journey in Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Inferno

Published: 2021/11/23
Number of words: 1133

Arguably, the striking similarity between Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s inferno is that the main characters undertake an underground journey. In the Inferno, Dante sets out into hell both as an epic hero and as a poet. Dante’s underworld journey is largely inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid that delineates Virgil’s journey into the underworld of his hero Aeneas (Berg et al.,14). Although Dante’s inferno was written circa 1400 years after Virgil’s Aeneid, the two texts share a significant amount of similarities. This paper presents a robust discussion of the Underworld journey in Dante’s inferno and Virgil’s Aeneid. The paper also evaluates the significance of the underworld in the two texts.

Virgil’s Aeneid got written at Pagan’s era when most people perceived the afterlife more as a mythological underworld than hell (Clausen and Maro 42). Dante’s poem, on the other hand, however, presents the Christians ethics and moral value behind after life. Partly, this explains why Dante’s afterlife is a considerably more unforgiving, harsh and strict place when compared to Virgil’s afterlife (Berg et al., 28). Both the two texts have an epic author/poet and hero. In Virgil’s text, the epic hero is Aeneas. In Dante’s inferno, the epic hero is his ‘less great pilgrim version of himself.’ Besides, both Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s inferno are epic stories. Specifically, they feature the story of an epic hero undertaking a very dangerous journey into the underworld.

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In the two stories, the epic heroes get led through the underworld. In Virgil’s the Aeneid, Aeneas is led through the underworld by Sybil. Zues had given Sybil superpowers. In Dante’s inferno, Virgil’s ghost leads him through the underworld. Admittedly, this represents Dante’s acknowledgment of Virgil’s influence over him. Further, both Sybil and Virgil act fearlessly in the underworld (Horsfall 45). However, there is a subtle difference between how the two conduct themselves. Notably, when Virgil leads Dante into the lower echelons of hell, he seemingly appears more shaken than is expected of his calm self. Dante did this intentionally to illustrate the escalating levels of punishment as one progressively descends into hell (Thompson 33). Further, this is the main lesson and theme that Dante (the pilgrim) learns in his journey into the underworld.

Additionally, when Virgil wrote the Aeneid, it was in response to The Odyssey by Homer. Similarly, when Dante wrote the Inferno, he was responding to Virgil’s text. Homer had established himself as one of the prominent Greek epic poets (Horsfall 71). He inspired Virgin to aspire to a similar high claim and stature. In the Aeneid, Virgil continually alludes to the Odyssey to illustrate that Aeneas was a better epic hero compared to Odysseus. In the Inferno, Dante replicates a similar tradition by trying to overshadow Aeneas. Admittedly, both Dante and Virgil created their stories using a similar blue print. In particular, each one of them was fully aware of the author that preceded him/her.

There are also parallels between the two stories. Notably, in Virgil’s the Aeneid, Aeneas learns through a dream that he has to travel into the underworld and meet his father so that home for his people can be set in Italy. As mentioned in the preceding section, Aeneas is guided by Sibyl (the prophet of Apollo) and Venus (his goddess mother). Virgil, in particular, uses the underworld in his text to trace the history of Rome back into the era of the heroes of the Trojan War (Clausen and Maro 58). Dante, on the other hand, embarks on his journey to hell after he gets lost in personal crises during the midpoint of his life. He is unsure of what spiritual path he should follow. In the beginning of Canto 1, God sends Virgil to escort him through the hallways of hell so that he can rediscover his path. “I had lost the path that does not stray. Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was that savage forest, dense and difficult, which even in recall renews my fear” (Dante and Carson, 4-6). Herein, Dante sets a scene for his harrowing journey through hell, where his character will continually get tested.

Dante’s journey into the word is significant in that it extolls the virtue of justice. Precisely, the underworld journey in Dante seeks to illustrate that sin in life will get commensurately punished in death. Partly, this explains why, in the text, Dante spends much time discussing ‘contrapasso,’ which essentially means counter penalty. The underlying idea is that all crimes should be paid for either through a fee or penalty. In Dante’s inferno, Pier della Vigna gets depicted as a poet who committed suicide after he got imprisoned unjustly for a mistake that was not his (Dante and Carson 64). Pier della Vigna’s death was not only horrific but also gruesome. The correctional officers ripped out his eyes. After that, he slammed his head against the prison walls to death. In his underworld journey, Dante meets Pier della Vigna in the seventh circle of hell, where violent offenders usually get condemned for eternity. Dante subsequently learns that individuals who commit suicide usually get punished by being stuck at one place on hell. Principally, in his journey into the underworld, Dante wanted to show that any wrongdoing on earth would get punished on hell commensurately.

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In Aeneas’ journey into the underworld, Virgil aims at highlighting Rome’s glory. It is imperative first to note that Virgil had been instructed to write the Aeneid as a myth, which would both illustrate and legitimize Rome as an empire that had conquered most of the known world. During the time, Virgil wrote the text, order, and good governance was associated with Rome. However, before the arrival of Trojan, Rome was characterized by a high level of emotional irrationality, chaos, and the existence of war. In this regard, through his journey into the word Virgil highlighted Rome’s destiny and the desirable virtues.

To sum it up, the paper has presented a detailed discussion of Virgil’s Aenid and Dante’s inferno. Specifically, the paper has looked at the similarities and differences of the underworld journey delineated in the two pieces. Lastly, the article has looked at the significance of the underworld journey in both tales.

Works Cited

Berg, Marcus, Enrico Pajer, and Stefan Sjors. “Dante’s inferno.” arXiv preprint arXiv:0912.1341 (2009)

Clausen, Wendell Vernon, and Publius Vergilius Maro. Virgil’s Aeneid and the tradition of Hellenistic poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Dante, Alighieri, and Ciaran Carson. Inferno. London: Penguin Classics, 2013.

Horsfall, Nicholas. Virgil,” Aeneid” 6: a commentary. Walter de Gruyter, 2013.

Thompson, David. Dante’s epic journeys. JHU Press, 2019.

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