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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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CANTO XII

Virgil and Dante have walked to the edge of the plain housing
the tombs of the Heretics. They find themselves facing a sheer
precipice. Virgil leads Dante to a place where a large pile of
rocks makes the precipice passable. At this point, they
encounter the Minotaur, half man and half bull, and must find
a way past him. Virgil taunts the monster with a reference to
Theseus who, in the Greek legends, slew him in the upper
world. The poets take advantage of the monster's raging fury
to slip past him down the rocks to the edge of Phlegethon, the
river of boiling blood. This is Circle Seven, where the Violent
are punished. Phlegethon boils those who were Violent against
their neighbors.



Before they even step off the rocks, Dante and Virgil are
challenged by the guardians of the river, the centaurs, who are
half horse and half man. The centaur Chiron, the legendary
tutor of such Greek heroes as Achilles and Theseus, speaks to
the poets and asks if, indeed, Dante is still living. Chiron
employs Nessus, the centaur who fell in love with Hercules'
wife and tricked her into poisoning Hercules, to carry Virgil
and Dante across the river.

Virgil points out to Dante that the river is not of the same
depth all around. In the deeper part, those who committed
their lives to violence-the conqueror Alexander the Great, the
Greek god of frenzied revelry Dionysius-are boiled. Those
who were less violent are boiled to a lesser degree, as the river
is only ankle deep in some parts. It is at this point that Nessus
tells the poets to cross.

NOTE: What do the two kinds of mythological monsters in this
canto have in common? Each is a compound of man and
beast. The Minotaur is part man and part bull; the centaurs
are part horse and part man. As guardians to the first circle of
the sins of violence, they suggest to us that such sins spring
from the perversion of the human spirit, to the point that
animal passions outdo human reason. In the myth, the
Minotaur was the product of lust, pride, and deceit. Annually
he devoured the sacrifice of seven boys and seven girls until
he was defeated by Theseus. Here, the monster cannot do his
job because he is caught in a blind rage. These monsters
reinforce the transition from the sins of incontinence, loss of
control, to the sins of violence, the lust for destruction.

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