Fantastic Beasts

'Behold the beast with pointed tail, that leaps past mountains, shatters walls and weapons! Behold the one whose stench afflicts the world!' (Inferno:  XVII, 1-3)

The Divine Comedy is filled with monsters, devils and supernatural beings. While the Bible and its apocrypha provided plentiful reference material for Dante, many creatures were plucked straight from classical tradition. Knowledge of ancient sources was customary among scholars, and in 14th century Italy there was an ongoing interest in the works of antique Roman writers like Ovid, Horace and in particular Virgil. Dante made liberal use of the stories they themselves had adapted from Greek poets, playwrights and mythology.

Hybrid beings and prodigies also populate the text, particularly in the Inferno: such beasts are perversions of the natural order, and their very existence is an insult to God. Although often intended to be read allegorically their presence in the Comedy points to a broader cultural fascination. It is likely that Dante drew on medieval bestiaries and early histories like those of Herodotus and Plutarch, which discuss fanciful races and legendary heroes in scientific terms alongside factual evidence and historical figures. The boundaries between myth, reality, art and science were seldom clear cut in the medieval period, and considerably later.

(Un) Natural Histories