Summary and Analysis
At the opening of Canto IX, Dante, waiting outside of the gate to the City of Dis, is afraid. The poets have a few minutes to talk, and Virgil tells Dante of the time when the sorceress Erichtho summoned out a spirit from the lowest circle of Hell. Virgil reassures Dante, again, that no one can stop their journey and asks him to remain where he is, because Virgil will not abandon him.
However, the conversation is short because the angels rush back and slam the gates shut. Virgil returns to Dante, sighing because the fallen angels bar the way. However, Virgil tells Dante that an angel from Heaven will descend to open the gates.
Virgil listens intently for the arrival of the angel because he can't see through the heavy mist. He regrets that he and Dante couldn't enter the gates by themselves, but they were promised help, though it seems long delayed. Dante is alarmed and asks his guide, in a roundabout way, if anyone from the upper circles has ever made this descent. Virgil answers that he was once sent to summon a shade from the circle of Judas, far below here, so he knows the way well.
Three Furies spring into view, saying that they should summon Medusa to turn Dante to stone. Virgil cautions Dante to hide his eyes against the beast, placing his own hands over Dante's eyes.
A noise like a hurricane causes the poets to look toward Styx, and they see a figure crossing without touching the marsh. Spirits rush away from him, and he moves his left hand before him to dispel the fog of the marsh.
Dante recognizes the heavenly messenger, and Virgil asks him to remain quiet and bow down. The angry messenger reaches the gate, which opens at the touch of his wand. He then reproves the insolent angels for trying to stop what is willed in Heaven and reminds them of the injuries suffered by Cerberus when he was dragged to the upper world.
The poets enter the gate into the sixth circle, and Dante is eager to learn about the inhabitants of the city. Dante sees a countryside of sorrow, a huge graveyard with uneven tombs covering the plain. The tombs are raised to a red heat by flames outside of every wall. Moaning and sounds of torment come from the open tombs. Dante asks Virgil what sinners reside in the tombs, and Virgil answers that they are the arch-heretics of all cults and their followers. The poets then turn right.
In Canto IX, Dante returns to his customary style and grasp of his material. There is a short passage of dramatic impact: Virgil, the fearless guide, stands pale and helpless, speaking brokenly to himself. His incantations and reason are useless against those who willfully dared to oppose Jesus himself, and Virgil is forced to ask for the help that Heaven promised. Allegorically, this episode is another reminder that human reason can't achieve salvation without Divine aid. Virgil, as reason, can't understand sin committed in full knowledge and with deliberate will.
Dante is also afraid, but he is sensitive to Virgil's feelings, asking in a roundabout way if the poets will ever leave Hell. Virgil assures Dante that he returned from the darkest lair. Here, Dante tests Virgil's suitability as a guide, and Virgil soon proves himself.
Erichtho sorceress written about by Lucan.
Judaica the final pit of Hell; also, Judecca.
Furies Greek and Roman Mythology. the three terrible female spirits with snaky hair (Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera) who punish the doers of unavenged crimes.
hydras water serpents.
Hecate Greek Mythology. a goddess of the moon, earth, and underground realm of the dead, later regarded as the goddess of sorcery and witchcraft.
Megaera Greek and Roman Mythology. one of the three Furies.
Alecto Greek and Roman Mythology. one of the three Furies.
Tisiphone Greek and Roman Mythology. one of the three Furies.
Medusa Greek Mythology. one of the three Gorgons, slain by Perseus, who turns mortal humans to stone if they look at her.
Theseus Greek legend. the principal hero of Attica, son of Aegeus, and king of Athens; famed especially for his killing of the Minotaur; tried to kidnap Hecate.
Gorgon Greek Mythology. any of three sisters with snakes for hair, so horrible that the beholder is turned to stone.