Dante’s ugly, shapeshifting demon, Geryon, is all around us, covering his rage with a facade of love, compassion, and concern. He is also within us. And this is a truth we must bring to light, because, without it, we cannot really understand the depth and grim reality of the Christian faith.
“Behold the beast with the barbed tail, who flies
Past mountains, scattering armies, smashing walls!
Behold the beast whose stench sickens the world!”
…and that disgusting likeness of deceit
Arrived and lugged his head and chest ashore,
But did not draw his tail onto the beach.
He had the features of an honest man,
So kindly was his countenance at the skin,
But the trunk down below was serpentine.”
So Anthony Esolen translates the opening of the seventeenth canto of Dante’s Inferno. Virgil is describing the gigantic monster of fraud—the Geryon.
The Geryon is a shapeshifting demon, so it is no surprise that the beast is described in various ways in the mythological sources. According to Hesiod, Geryon had one body and three heads. Aeschylus records the tradition that the monster had three bodies. Another ancient tale said the demon had six hands and six feet and is winged. Some accounts state that he had six legs as well, while others state that the three bodies were joined to one pair of legs.
Dante mines the Greek myths for his monsters, but puts his own twist on them. Dante’s Geryon has the paws of a lion, the wings of a bat, a scorpion’s tail, and the body of the wyvern—a two-legged dragon. But crowning these disgusting traits is something terrible and surprising: it is the head and face of an honest man.
The Geryon rises up to wing Virgil and Dante down to the eighth circle of hell—the circle of the fraudulent. In a new book, I have used the Geryon and various other mythological beasts to explore the roots of evil in the human heart. What captivated my imagination was Dante’s ingenious observation that the monster of fraud “has the face of an honest man.” Of course he does. The best liars always say, “I am going to be perfectly honest with you.”
It is notable that the circle where the people of the lie are punished is the largest and deepest in the pit, and only one step removed from the frozen lake where Judas is gnawed on by Satan eternally. In his book of the same name, the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck described his encounters with those he called “the People of the Lie.” From his experience, he explored the depth of evil woven in and through the lives of seemingly ordinary, respectable people. Peck recounts various case histories to explain how the “People of the Lie” function within families.
Firstly, the family member presented to Dr. Peck for psychiatric treatment was rarely the one who was sick. The other family members hid their deep soul-sickness from themselves and projected their distorted problems onto their black sheep—their scapegoat.
One particularly chilling story Dr. Peck tells is about Bobby—a fifteen-year-old high school student who was suffering from depression. He had been a straight “B” student, a gifted athlete, and a popular member of his school. Suddenly he dropped out of sports and started to flunk out. His parents, who were an upright, hardworking, church-going, respectable couple, sent him to Dr. Peck.
Dr. Peck began to talk with Bobby about his relationships. Bobby said he liked his parents well enough. They provided everything for him. He had no complaints.
Dr. Peck asked how they showed their love. Bobby said they gave him stuff. They had given him a Christmas present.
When Dr. Peck asked about the present, Bobby said it was a gun.
Dr. Peck asked what kind of gun.
“Just a gun.”
“Are you a hunter, Bobby? Why did they give you a gun? Was it a special gun?”
“It was my brother’s gun,” Bobby mumbled.
“Your brother?” Dr. Peck didn’t know there was a brother. “Doesn’t your brother need the gun anymore?” he asked.
It turned out that Bobby’s parents had given him the very gun his older brother had used to commit suicide the previous Christmas.
Shocked that these seemingly good, church-going folks could be so insensitive and cruel, he confronted them with what they had done.
They were indignant and couldn’t see the problem.
“Doctor!” protested the uppity Mom. “We sent Bobby to you so you could help him! We never imagined you would blame us for his problems!”
The father pulled out his checkbook, and, smiling with suppressed anger, said, “How much do we owe you, Doctor? We need to settle up and find someone who can really help Bobby.”
Then the mother played the crybaby bully. She pulled out a hankie and started to dab at her eyes. “We’re so disappointed, Doctor. I suppose we’ll have to keep looking for someone who really cares. Someone who is a professional.”
These are the Geryons. They are repulsive beasts, but with the “face of an honest man.” They are gigantic because their power is overwhelming.
Dr. Peck points out that, like their father, the Father of Lies, they are murderers. They may not murder physically, but they kill all that is beautiful, good, and true. They kill the joyful life in others, even though they may not literally slip the knife and slit the throat.
Peck outlines various characteristics of the People of the Lie. First and foremost, they are self-deceiving. They do everything they can to avoid their own guilt and project an image of perfect respectability and goodness. They devote enormous amounts of energy to maintaining their perfect facade.
Their self-deception needs to be fed constantly, and the main way they support their self-deception is by winning the admiration of others. As they convince others of their perfect goodness, their own self-image is reinforced.
They are always aware of their outward image and will be perfectly groomed, well-mannered, and courteous. However, if they happen to be in the company of those who do not have civil manners, they will quickly adopt the same outward form to fit in and be thought good. They are shapeshifters.
Because they cannot face the darkness within themselves, they project their inner resentment and rage onto specific targets. This target may be another individual or a particular ethnic, racial, or religious group. They will always project their inner darkness with a voice of self-righteous indignation and rage.
“Those filthy immigrants!” (or insert here any other person or group) “Somebody needs to step in and rid this country of such scum!”
This is the ugly face of the Geryon’s projection, and it is all around us. However, the truly adept shapeshifter doesn’t display righteous rage. That would mar his meticulously crafted self-image. Instead he will cover the projection of his rage onto others with a facade of love, compassion, and concern. Bobby’s parents saw him as the problem and unconsciously wished for his death, but, outwardly, they only ever spoke about Bobby in terms of their seeming love and concern for his welfare.
“Doctor, we’re so concerned for Bobby! We hope you can help. We can’t understand why he is in such a downward spiral! We love him and know he can do so much better!”
If the person happens to be religious, his religion becomes the ultimate tool for grooming his perfect self-image. Religion can become the Geryon’s ultimate mask.
The People of the Lie use manipulation, emotional blackmail, and mental and spiritual abuse to get their way. They naturally play the victims, when in fact they are the aggressors. They’ll say, “After all I’ve done for you, this is the thanks I get??!!” Or “We’re at our wits end! We’ve tried so hard to help Tammy, and she simply won’t co-operate!” With convincing piety they’ll say, “We have prayed so much about this decision, and we really feel Sam must be confined to that mental health unit for his own good.”
If we have eyes to see it, this behavior is all around and within us. It is the default behavior of our human race and it manifests in a multiplicity of ways and wears the masks of every religious group, political party, ideology, tribe, and clique. Furthermore, our human relationships and business interactions are loaded with the same self-deceit, deep dishonesty, and manipulation. This is why Dante’s eighth circle with its ten subdivisions is the most populous region of hell.
It is crammed full because, at its very heart, the people of the lie are ignorant of their own fault. The hypocrite never repents because he truly believes he has nothing of which to repent. The Geryon has the face of an honest man, and the monster who believes in his mask the most is the one who wears it.
This dark truth is vitally important to bring to the light not only because of its pervasive dominance over the human psyche, but also because, without it, we cannot really understand the depth and grim reality of the Catholic faith. How can we understand the phrase “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” unless we first understand what “the sin of the world” actually is? The “sin of the world” is not the naughty things we’ve done. It is the depth of deception woven into the very fabric of the world. It is the dark secret of our souls and the code that operates the hardware of our whole history. It is the dark shadow within every corner of our society and the venom in the chambers of our heart.
Unless we grasp the depth of this darkness our religion will remain a superficial recitation of bromides designed to make the world a better place and ourselves nicer people. Unless we grasp the depth of this darkness, the cross by which it was defeated, and the sacrifice by which that victory is re-presented will remain a conundrum to modern man and no more than a happy meal for concerned social activists. Unless we grapple with this Geryon our religion will continue to be a mask on the monster rather than the liberation of man.
See also Joseph Pearce’s review of Fr. Longenecker’s new book, Immortal Combat: Confronting the Heart of Darkness.
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The top image is a drawing of “Virgil and Dante sitting on the back of Geryon to be transported from the 8th to the 7th circle of Hell.” Illustration by Bartolomeo Pinelli for a 19th-century edition of The Inferno. This file is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution 4.0 International license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.