Upon reading the epics The Odyssey by Homer and The Divine Comedy – Inferno by Dante Alighieri, it is evident how different these two stories are. In The Odyssey, Odysseus is fighting to reach his home, which he did not see for twenty years. The theme for his story is one man’s desire to go home. In Inferno, Dante the character is struggling between good and evil, which is the theme of the story. The character explores in depth the Christian hell and heaven, including the intermediate Purgatory. It is through his experience that he casts his allegiance to God and good. Many differences between these two stories are evident when comparing epic characteristics, epic conventions, and also comparing the different religious backgrounds of the periods in which these stories were written.
Epic characteristics include a hero, superhuman courage, a vast setting, and supernatural forces. In Homer’s The Odyssey, the main character Odysseus is a war hero traveling home. He faces incredible challenges during his return which include, but are not limited to, being cast on an island, battling Poseidon and the seas, fighting turncoat suitors, and reclaiming his home. The setting for his story encompasses his voyage from the island and over the seas until he reaches his home. Odysseus also voyages to the underworld to visit the ghosts, or shades, for guidance.
All throughout Odysseus’ journey, he is aided and challenged by the supernatural powers of different gods. In Dante’s Inferno, the hero of the story is Dante. Dante, the character, is a man who was exiled from his home because of his political beliefs and struggles with the choice between good and evil. His heroism comes in the form of humanity; he faces the challenge that all humans struggle with. His courage is tested by his travels through the nine rings of hell. Dante writes, “therefore look carefully; you’ll see such things/as would deprive my speech of all belief” (1873). Unlike Odysseus, Dante’s courage does not include great physical feats. Dante exhibits courage in testing his own inner strength. The vast setting includes not only hell in Inferno, but Purgatory and heaven are also visited in The Divine Comedy. As for supernatural forces, Dante the character meets many shades and is lead through hell by the deceased poet Virgil.
When reading an epic, there are many conventions that the writers would use. In Dante’s Inferno, these conventions are not as evident as in Homer’s The Odyssey. For example, one epic convention is a long formal speech by the main character. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus used not only weapons but also words when fighting the suitors that invaded his home in his absence.
You yellow dogs, you thought I’d never make it home from the land of Troy. You took my house to plunder, twisted my maids to serve your beds. You dared bid for my wife while I was still alive (495).
In Dante’s Inferno, Dante the character does not make any memorable speeches, at least none as grand as those written by Homer.
One important difference between Inferno and The Odyssey is the religious differences of the time. In ancient Greece, at the time when Homer wrote his epic, the religious belief was polytheism. There existed different gods for different aspects of nature, human or worldly. These include a god of war, a god of love, a god of the seas, and so on. In Odysseus’ voyage, the goddess Athena aids him. Also, the god Poseidon challenges Odysseus as the result of a past grudge. Homer wrote of Poseidon, “Only the god who laps the land in water, /Poseidon, bears the fighter an old grudge/since he poked out the eye of Polyphemos” (227). These gods effect the lives of the people on earth. When Dante wrote Inferno, the world was approaching a Christian majority, much like it is today. Dante acknowledges that the polytheistic beliefs of the past were, in his time, thought to be a sin against God. Dante’s story best reflects this by noting important past figures, such as the poet Virgil or the hero Odysseus, as being in hell for their non-Christian ways.
Although there are many differences between the two epics, Dante’s Inferno and Homer’s The Odyssey contain some important similarities. One, both men each long for a woman whom they loved in the past. The purpose of Odysseus’ journey was to rejoin his wife Penelope. For Dante, he longed for his love Beatrice whom he reunites with not in Inferno but later in The Divine Comedy. A second important similarity is that both men seek guidance from those who lived before them. Odysseus travels to the underworld where he asks his mother for news of his wife: “Still with her child indeed she is, poor heart, /still in your palace hall. Forlorn her nights/and days go by, her life used up in weeping” (351). In Inferno, Dante the character is lead by the poet Virgil, a man whose work Dante the writer admired. While in hell, Dante not only seeks to learn from the sinners there, but he also learns from Virgil. Virgil teaches Dante the character about the sinners and the resurrection. Dante wrote, “remember now your science, /which says that when a thing has more perfection, /so much greater is its pain or pleasure” (1854).
Although very different in nature, both epics can be enjoyable for a modern audience. The Odyssey is a story about fighting against gods and exuding valor in a hero’s actions. The story is written with incredible words that captivate audiences, even today. Inferno was written with great insight to the human struggle between good and evil. That struggle goes on even in today’s modern society.
Alighieri, Dante “The Divine Comedy.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Second Edition. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984. 1836-1962.
Homer “The Odyssey.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Second Edition. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984. 225-530.