The Devil's pitchfork

In the 990604 column on the Devil’s goatlike
characteristics, Cecil made a comment about
the generally associated pitchfork being derived from Neptune’ trident. I believe it more likely that it derived from Dante’s “Inferno”. There is a truly memorable scene from, I believe (could be mistaken, been a while since I read it), the 6th Circle, where
the damned were tortured in pits of boiling pitch (reserved for grafters, etc.). The demons guarding the pit were truly scary; as I recall, they nearly threw Dante and Virgil into the pitch! They were armed with large
forks (thus “pitchforks”) they used on anyone attempting to get out.

I cannot recall any pre-Dantean (doesn’t mean there isn’t any, of course) association of devils and pitchforks, but plenty of post-Dantean references. This seems more logical to me than the Neptune idea. Sorry, Cecil.

The article is

(See, that’s how it’s done.)

Ah, but where did Dante get the idea?

The Divine Comedy is filled with references to Greek and Roman mythology. I beleive it’s quite possible that Dante was thinking of Neptune’s trident when he described demons with forks.

I seem to recall mideval block etchings of demons with forks. Certainly, these would predate the Italian Renaisance. I’ll try to find a cite for this.

First of all, let me join the others in welcoming DannGreycat to the SDMB. Second of all, let me provide a link to a Dante’s Inferno website by a Luke Kleinberndt of Trinity College in Connecticut: This site features the Inferno in its entirety in both English and the original Italian. You can also choose cartoon-like pen-and-ink drawings by Botticelli* or the more-familiar highly-detailed engravings of Gustave Dore. Scroll to the bottom and click on “Cantos” (“Chapters?”) to access the poem. Hope your browser can handle frames. Satan Himself does not appear till the final Canto. Dore drew him with huge bat-like wings and a Pan-like head and face, but no pitchfork. Botticelli drew him with three faces, just as Dante described him. Enjoy!

*It looks to me like the Botticelli drawings were preliminary sketches for a series of paintings or engravings. Does anyone know if this series was ever done, or is this all Botticelli did?


Well, I’ve spent way more time than I really should have looking at hundreds of medieval woodcuts and have yet to find one damned (pun intended) pitchfork! I withdraw my contention that they were common in medieval art. Demons seemed to have favored swords and pikes back then:

Thanks for the welcome, people.

Ursa: Entirely too many years ago, I went
through the same exercise, although it was
in some musty stacks at UC Davis :-), and
reached the same conclusion.
As for the Trident of Neptune being Dante’s
inspiration, possibly, but I have my doubts.
The Trident was more a sceptre than anything,
while Dante’s demons used their forks as
simple tools. I could see Lucifer having
such a symbol of office, but Dante’s Satan is a far cry from Milton. Besides, in several
translations, the demons at the pit of grafters (I was wrong, it was 8th circle, not
6th) also had grappling hooks, and other tools.

You are, of course, completely correct about
the influence of Greek/Roman mythology on Dante; after all, who was his guide?
Jab1: Thanks for the cite on the site :-).
Will take a look.

Irishman: OK, noted and logged. Thanks!