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Free Study Guide-The Divine Comedy-The Inferno by Dante Alighieri-Notes
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CANTO SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

CANTO XII

Summary

The descending-down the bank is rocky. Dante compares the scene with the landslide that occurred at Trent (in Italy). The slope of the bank is steep strewn with shattered rocks making the descent difficult. Guarding the bank at its bottom is Minotaur ("infamy of Crete"), who is a half man and a half bull. He is the guardian of the Seventh Circle where the violent are punished.

When Minotaur detects the two poets he goes into a paroxysm of rage and bites himself. Virgil enrages him further by saying that they are not the Duke of Athens. The Duke with the help of Minotaur half-sister had sent the half beast half-man to his death. He adds that the Pilgrim is just observer come to learn about Hell. This reminder, of the man who had killed him, sends Minotaur into such a violent fit of rage that the two poets are able to make a hasty escape.

As they move, the rocks are disturbed by the weight of the Pilgrimís body. Virgil explains that this landslide occurred during Christ's descent into Hell. They were not there when Virgil first came there (sent by Erichtho). This event occurred after that, where Christ came to Limbo to collect some chosen souls (to take them to Heaven). He explains Christ's descent in terms of pagan philosophy ("the universe felt love") and resulted in chaos (explained further in the following Notes). This descent resulted in crumbling of the rocky bank in several places.


He (Virgil) points out to the valley where a river of boiling blood flows. This is the river Phlegethon that flows in the seventh circle. In it are punished souls who used violence against others. This is the first round in the circle of the violent. Dante the poet exclaims at how greed and anger can lead to eternal damnation. Guarding this river are numerous centaurs (half-horse, half-men). They shoot arrows at the sinners in the river to ensure that each sinner remains at the depth prescribed to him (according to his sin).

When the centaurs perceive the two poets three of them come towards them. And one of them asks them to explain their presence there. Virgil asks to speak to their leader Chiron. Virgil tells Dante that the centaur who had questioned them is Nessus who died because of Dejanira and used his own blood to avenge his death (explained further in the following notes). He points out Chiron, who was the teacher to Achilles and the centaur Cholus who was known for his drunken wrath.

Chiron notices that the pilgrim is alive (his body weight disturbs the rocks. The souls in Hell have no body weight). Virgil admits this is true and that he is guiding the pilgrim through Hell at the behest of Beatrice ("a spirit came, from singing Alleluiz"). God sanctions their journey. He asks Chiron for a centaur to carry Dante to the ford and across the river. Chiron assigns this duty to Nessus and tells him to dissuade any other centaurs from stopping the poets. As they move along the pilgrim can hear the shrieks of the souls who are boiling in the river. Nessus points to souls sunk till their eyelids in the boiling river. And tells them that they were tyrants who killed people and looted their wealth. Among these souls he points out Alexander, Dionysius, Azzolino and Opizzo d' Esti who was killed by his own stepson. At this point the pilgrim looks at Virgil in enquiry by is told to pay heed to Nessu's words.

Then they reach souls sunk till their necks and Nessus points out Gury de Montfort ("There stands the one who, in God's keep, murderd..."). Others souls, many of whom the pilgrim recognizes, have their heads and chests above the river. Finally the depth of the river decreases so that it is only ankle deep. They reach the ford and thus cross the river. Nessus tells them that the other side of the river increases in depth (both ways, of the circular river) till it reaches its deepest point. Here are punished tyrants like Attila the Hun, Pyrrhus, Seetus, Rinier da Corneto and Rinier Razzo (both highway robbers). Leaving them across the river, he turns back to the ford and goes back to the other side.

Notes

Dante compares the rocky descent down the bank to a great landslide that occurred near Trent in northern Italy. It happened in 883 and caused the river Adige to divert its course. The shattered rocks make the descent a difficult one for Dante. The landslide occurred as a result of an earthquake caused by Christ's descent into Hell.

The Seventh circle of the violent is presided over by Minotaur, described by Dante the poet as "the infamy of Crete". Minotaur is half-man, half bull. He was the son of Pasiphae, wife of king Minors of Crete. She disguised herself as a cow (entering a wooden town) and mated with a bull. This is how Minotaur was conceived. He was killed by Theseus (Duke of Athens) with the help of his half-sister Ariadne (Pasiphae's human daughter). Minotaurs conception was unnatural, an act of violence against nature (punished in the third round of this circle). Thus it is filling that he guards this circle. Moreover violence is bestial in nature and it is indeed filling that the guardian of the circle of violent is half-man, half-beast.

By reminding Minotaur of the Duke of Athens and thus putting him into a fit of rage the two poets are able to make an hasty escape. Virgil uses the half-beast's innate rage against itself to outwit it. Rage, clouds the rational mind and it can prove destructive to its owner. This is seen clearly in the case of Minotaur who rage renders him totally incapable of anything rational. There is an implied lesson here for the readers that Dante wishes to convey "uncontrollable rage serves no purpose".

Virgil explains the ruined and rocky terrain around them. It wasn't so when Virgil first descended into Hell (sent by Erichthe). It happened after that, when Christ descended into Hell. The "coming of that one" refers to this descent of Christ during the Harrowing of Hell. He takes the souls of the Elect from the Limbo of Heaven (explained in notes of Canto IV) during this descent. His descent causes an earthquake and shattered the rocky bank of this circle. He uses the Empedoclean doctrine to describe this descent. According to this pagan philosophy, Hate leads to the creation of the universe. And love unites all the different elements of creation and recreates pristine harmony (original chaos) that has been disturbed by Hate. Thus the earthquake leading to chaos in this circle is what is meant by "the universe felt love". That earthquake shook the entire Hell.

Virgil points to a river of boiling blood (Phlegethon) where souls of those who used violence against others and, or their property are punished. It is a fitting Contrapasso. These sinners shed the blood of others on earth and now they are boiled in hot blood in Hell as their eternal punishment.

Ensuring that these souls stay in the river are the centaurs who use arrows to keep the sinners in the river. The centaurs are creatures who are half-horse, half-man. It is filling that these men least guard the souls of tyrants and murderers who are guilty of such bestial sins.

The three centaurs that approach the poets are Nessus, Chiron and Pholus. Nessus is the one who first angrily demands to know what the two poets are doing there. Virgil dubs him "rash". Nessus lusted after Hercule's wife Dejanira. When he tried to rape her Hercules shoots him. Before dying he gives Deganira his blood-soaked robe. He tells her it would preserve her husband's love. She gives it to Hercules and it causes his death. And Dejanira hangs herself.

Virgil asks to be allowed to address Chiron, the leader of the Chiron. Chiron is shown as a quiet thoughtful figure. According to mythology he was the son of Saturn and Philyra. Saturn disguises himself as a horse while he is with Philyra to prevent his wife from discovering him. Chiron was known for his wisdom and well versed in the science of medicine. He was believed to have taught Achilles, Aesculapius and Hercules among many others.

Pholus is described as well known for his "drunken wrath". During the wedding of Pirithous and Hippodamia the centaurs get drunk and try to rape the Lapithaean women. Pholus tries to rape Pirithous, who is the bride, in his intoxicated state!

Chiron notices that the pilgrim's feet cause the rocks to move. A soul in Hell can't do this because it is weightless. Thus he discovers that Dante is alive. Virgil agrees with this and explains the special nature of their journey and requests help to cross the river. Because Dante can't fly and needs help to cross the boiling blood. When Chiron finds out that this journey is at the command of God he assigns Nessus to help them.

Nessus leads them across the river and points out various sinners along the way. The souls are sunk in the river at varying depths. The depth increases in proportion to the atrocity of their sinful actions. First they come across those shades that in their lifetime had killed men as well as looted their wealth. Since they committed violence against their fellow men as well as against their property they are sunk till their eyelids in the boiling blood that now burns them. Nessus points out Alexander. This could be Alexander the Great (356 B.C. - 323 B.C.) . Dante's chief source of ancient history was Orosius who described Alexander the Great as a violent ad vicious man. But many modern critics believe that the reference is to Alexander, tyrant of Pherae (4 th century BC) Both Cicero and Valerius Maximus wrote of his extreme cruelty. Adding substance to this hypothesis is the fact that both these writers connect Alexander of Pheare with the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse who is the next soul Nessus points out. This could be Dionysius the elder, tyrant of Syracuse (405 BC - 367 BC) who was known for his savage cruelty. It is also possible that it is his son Dionysius the younger who followed his father as a tyrant in 367 BC and was equally vicious. "Azzaline" is a Ghibelline chief and tyrant by the name of Ezzelino III da Romano (1194 -1259 A.D.). He was so savage that he was called a "Son of Satan".

Opizzo d' Esti" is Obizze d' Esti, the Marquis of Ferrara. A cruel tyrant he was believed to have been murdered by his son Azzo. Although Dante refers to Azzo as his stepson. This could be because he wanted to underline the unnatural crime (killing his own father) or because he believed Azzo to be the son of another man borne by Obizzo d' Esti's wife. This could explain why Dante looks at Virgil when Nessus says "stepson". Because Azzo was believed to be Esti's son. It is to be noted that Dante doesn't question Virgil as profusely as he did in the earlier cantos. Now he is aware that Virgil is aware even of his unstated doubts and will clear them. Moreover, he is heeding Virgil's earlier advice (Canto X) and thus talks sparingly. Moreover he has become an avid learner and uses observation as a tool for this purpose. Virgil proves his knowledge of his pupil's unstated doubts by advising him to Reed Nessus words when Dante turns towards his guide in surprise at the mention of the word "stepson".

As they go further they reach souls that are immersed in the hot blood up to their throats. These are souls who did violence against men but not their property. Hence their punishment is less sever than the former shade who did violence to men as well as their wealth. Nessus points out to a solitary shade, "the one who, in God's keep, murdered the heart still dripping blood above the Thames." The reference is to Gury de Montfort, one of Charles d' Anjou's emissaries. Edward I, King of England, killed Guryís father. To obtain revenge Gury stabs Edward I's cousin Prince Henry (son of Richard, Earl of Cornwall) during Holy Mass at the church in Viterbo in 1272 A.D. History says that Gury puts Henry's heart in a cup and places it over the London bridge over the river Thames. Dante writes "still dripping blood over the Thames". This indicates the fact that Henry's murder remained un-avenged. Dante recognizes other souls guilty of murder in the boiling river but doesn't name them.

They reach the shallow part of the river (the ford) and soon find themselves across on the other side. Nessus tells them the opposite bank increases in depth on both arms of the circular river till it reaches the deepest point. In this depth the cruelest of all tyrants are sunk all the way in. Here lies suffering "Atlila, known as scourge of earth". Atlita was the king of the Huns (406 - 453 A.D.) . He was so cruel that he was called the "scourge of God". Also punished here is "Pyrrhus", referring to Pyrrhus (318 -272 BC) who was the king of Epirus and fought thrice against the Romans during the years 280 276 B.C. The Romans finally defeated him. Commentators like Boccaccio believe that Dante is referring to an ancestry of the King of Epirus, that is, Pyrrhus the son of Achilles. "Sextus" is thought to be the younger son of Pompey the Great. He became a pirate and caused famine in Rome by stopping the supply of grain from Africa. Or it could be, according to some critics, Sextus Tarquinius Superbus, who raped and caused the death of his cousin's wife Lucretia. Also punished here are Rinier da Corneto and Rinier Lazzo two highway robbers well known in Dante's day.

Depositing the two poets across the bloody boiling river (Phlegethon by name) Nessus turns back to rejoin the other centaurs.

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