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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 XIV

Summary

Moved by the love he first for Florence the pilgrim picks up the scattered leaves and places them near the soul of the anonymous Florentine (who had committed suicide. See Canto XII). The poets reach the end of the woods and are now at the border of the third round where men who did violence to God and Nature are punished. These include the Blasphemers, Usurers and the Sodomites. The third round is a flat desert where nothing grew. It is dry with burning sand. He compares it to the hot desert crossed once by Cato. Seeing Godís awful justice, Dante the poet reminds his readers that they should let this description be a warning to them and lead a virtuous life.

Many souls were suffering in the desert. They were in separate groups each with its own unique punishment. Some lay on their backs on the burning sand, others crouched while the third group roamed around without stopping. Majority of the souls were damned to wander on the sans. Far fewer lay on the sands but they suffered more pain because of it and cried out more than the others. In addition the desert was being rained on with fire. He compares this storm of fire to the fire that rained down on Alexander and his troops while crossing India. Alexander and his men stepped on this fire to stamp it out. The falling fire in this round made the sand red hot thus increasing the suffering of the punished souls in this round. The sinners had to use their hand, without a pause, to brush away the fire from their bodies.

Dante the pilgrim asks Virgil the identity of one soul stretched out proudly in the sand. The raining fire does not intimate this soul? The soul hears Dante's question and says that death and damnation hasn't broken his spirit. He says he was killed by a thunderbolt Jupiter obtained from his smith. He says that not all the thunderbolts manufactured in Mongibello can scare him. He will give Jupiter no satisfaction by showing pain. This is the soul of Capaneus. Virgil addresses him harshly saying that his (Capaneus') own anger at Jupiter and his fate is the best punishment for his proud soul.


He informs Dante that Capaneus is one of the seven kings who besieged Thekes. He scorned God's name and now his blustering proud words hurt him because they are in vain as he lies there damned in Hell.

He asks Dante to move on taking care not to step on the hot sands but to stay in the boundary of the woods. They reach a stream, emerging from the woods, whose water is red. Dante compares it to the stream that comes from Bulicame. This stream with its stony bed and stony bank ran across the desert over its stony bank to cross the burning desert. Virgil tells him that out of all the wonders that the pilgrim has seen so far in Hell this is the most remarkable one. His curiosity aroused, the pilgrim asks his guide to explain what he means by this remark. Virgil talks of the island of Crete whose king once ruled a pure world. On that island is the mountain Ida. Once it was a fertile haven where Rhea concealed her son. To disguise his presence her servants used to scream whenever he cries. Now Ida is a barren place and in its center stands an old man. The old man's back is to Damietta and he is facing Rome. His head is made of gold, his arms of silver and his legs are brass. The rest of his body is made of iron except his right fort, which is fashioned, from terra cotta. This foot supports more of his weight than the other. His golden head is intact but the rest of him has a fissure. Tears fall down this fissure and drip to his feet. They erode the cave's rock beneath his feet as they run and drain down the stones flowing towards Hell. These tears give rise to the rivers of Hell, namely the Acheron, Sty and Phlegethon. Then these fluid-rivers form the stream the poets now observe running across the desert (third round of the seventh circle). Finally this water drains into the Cocytus. Which Virgil tells the pilgrim he will eventually see for himself.

Dante asks Virgil why he hasn't seen this stream before, starting as it does on Earth. Virgil explains that Dante has come so far down the circular hell without completing a full round of any of the circles ("turning only to the left, you still have not completed a full circle"). And hence there are some things he hasn't seen. Dante wants to know if they'll come across the rivers Lethe and Phlegethon Virgil doesn't mention the first, Dante points out and adds that according to Virgil the second has for its source as the Old Man of Crete tears. Virgil says that the stream with its red water should answer one of Dante's questions. And he will see Lethe in Purgatory (where souls collect to wash themselves / when penitence has freed them of their guilt).

They move on, leaving the woods behind. They walk along the bank of the river to avoid the burning sands. Moreover the fire doesn't rain over the stream and its banks. Thus it affords a safe passage across the desert.

Notes

The two poets now face the burning sands that are the third round where the souls who have done violence to God and Nature are punished. Dante compares the barren, dry desert to the one crossed by Cato. The Cato mentioned here is Cato of Utica (born 95 BC) who supported Pompey during the Roman Civil War. After Pompeiiís defeat Cato goes to Africa to join Metellus Scipio. Cato leads a march across Libya in 47 BC. It is this crossing of his hot Libyan desert that Dante is talking about.

The groups of souls that are punished in this desert are: the Blasphemers, Usurers and the Sodomites. The sterile sands of the punishment underline the sterility of their sinful acts on Earth. The Blasphemers who cursed Gods name and did violence to him suffer maximum punishment: they are lying on the backs on the burning sands with fire raining down on them. Usurers who extorted money from others by charging exorbitant interest on loans suffer a degree lesser: they sit crouched in the desert . The Sodomites (male homosexuals) who violated the laws of nature (heterosexuality) suffer the least relative punishment. Only their feet are in contact with the desert sand as they run non-stop in the hot sands. Usurers also do violence to Nature because they do not make money by honest labor as Nature intended man to. Moreover all these sinners are rained upon with fire. And their hands are continually moving in a grotesque Lance to brush the fire from their bodies. Thus these souls that did violence to God and Nature are now subjugated to violence to their own person from which there is no escape.

Dante compares the fire that rains down to the one that Alexander and his troops encountered in India and trampled upon to extinguish. Alexander wrote to Aristotle describing the snowstorm and then a firestorm that befalls him in India. He had his troops trample the snow. But Dante's source (Albertus Magnus's "De meteoris") confuses snow with fire and states Alexander's men trampling the fire. Dante makes the same mistake here.

Dante notices one of the blasphemers lying disdainfully on the burning sands, proudly disregarding the extreme discomfort. He hears Dante and reveals himself to be Capaneous, one of the seven Kings who attacked Thebes. Capaneous had cursed Joue (Jupiter) who killed him with a thunderbolt. Now in Hell he is as proud as ever and as defiant of the fire falling on him as he of the thunderbolt that killed him--he died with blasphemy on his lips. At Phlegra Joue routed the Titans who tried to take our Olympus. He (Joue) asked for Vulcansí help ("Help me, good Vulcan"). Vulcan and Cyclopes both provided him with thunderbolts. Vulcan is the blacksmith of the Gods. And "Mongibello" or Mt. Aetna was where Vulcan's furnace was located. Thebes was fought over by the two sons of Oedipus: Eteocles and Polynices. To support Polynices the King of Argos, Adrastus led an expedition of seven Kings against Thebes and Eteocles. One of these seven Kings was Capaneus.

Virgil addresses Capaneus with an anger that he hasn't so far shown. He scorns Capaneus' pride and says that although the fire may not burn him his angry pride that rages through him surely burns him. And this pride of his that causes him so much suffering (because it is impotent before God and His justice) is enough of a punishment.

Avoiding the hot sands the two poets move on till they reach a stream that emerges from the woods and rivers across the desert. Its red waters remind Dante of the stream that emerges from Bulicame. Bulicame was a hot spring, rich in sulfur, making it popular as a watering place. It was located near Viterbo. This mineral rich water had a reddish color like the stream Dante now witnesses in Hell. Prostitutes living near Bulicame were required to live away from the other people and so a special stream channeled the spring water to where they lived. Being prostitutes they weren't allowed to use the public baths.

Dante is perceptive enough to realize that they will be able to cross the driest by walking on the stony bank of this stream. Virgil explains the extraordinary source of this stream. He talks of the island of Crete. Crete was known as the birthplace of the Trojan civilization. The Trojan Aeneas founded Rome and here Crete is also seen as the birthplace of the Roman civilization (This is according to the works of Virgil and may explain why Dante chose Crete in this instance). Crete lays at the middle of the known world (consisting of Asia, Africa and Europe). According to Roman mythology Rhea chose Mt. Ida on Crete to hide her infant son Jupiter from Saturn, his father. It was Saturn's practice to consume his newborn sons. To keep his hiding place a secret Rhea had her servants scream when the baby cried.

Dante's "Old Man of Crete" is the most elaborate symbol in the whole of "Inferno". This statue lies in Mt. Ida with his back to Damietta and facing Rome. Damietta was an important seaport in Egypt and is therefore the symbol of the pagan world. Rome stands for the Christian civilization. The "Old Man" symbol is taken from the book of Daniel. But Dante gives it a different meaning. The golden head stands for the Golden Age of man. According to Christianity this was before man fell from Grace. The three declining ages of men are indicated by the silver arm and breast, brass trunk and iron legs.

The terra cotta (clay) foot symbolizes the Church. The clay foot shows the church having being weakened by corruption and politics. The whole statue has fissures except the golden head. And through these fissures run the tears of the Old Man. They are sign of man's sins and sorrows in all the ages except the very first (The Golden Age which was the age of innocence). These tears run down the mountain, into Hell forming the rivers of Hell. All these rivers are circular and connected by tributary streams. Mt. Ida was once like Eden but now is like a barren wasteland. And the Old Man in the now barren mountain is like the state of man after his fall from Grace (due to the original Sin in the Garden of Eden). The cracks in the statue are the manifestation of man's sins.

The pilgrim is curious to know about the rivers of Lette and Phylegethon, which he thought were in Hell. Virgil tells him that the river of boiling blood they encountered before (Canto XII) is the Phlegethon. And he will see the Lethe in Purgatory. He tells Dante to walk on the "margins" or the riverbanks, which do not burn. And walking along these the two poets begin their journey across the burning desert.

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