David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 12: The Minotaur and the River of Blood”

“Canto 12: The Minotaur and the River of Blood”

  • The 7th Circle, the Circle of the Violent, will be described for the next 6 cantos: 12-17.

During the next 6 cantos, we will see a number of kinds of violent sinners.

  • Why do we see so many half-human, half-animal mythological creatures in this section of the Inferno?

As Mark Musa points out in his notes to Canto 12, “The Sins of Violence are also the Sins of Bestiality, and the perfect overseer of this Circle is the half-man, half-bull known as the Minotaur” (181). Why is violence a sin of bestiality? Perhaps because Nature is red in tooth and claw. Many animals kill other animals in order to eat them. (All food is something that was recently alive. In Nature, few if any animals die of old age.) Centaurs are also guards in this section of the Inferno, and they are half-human and half-animal.

  • Which kinds of people do the violent include?

Canto 12: Sinners who harmed others physically through violence are boiled in a river of blood. These sinners include murderers and bloody tyrants.

Canto 13: The Suicides are punished in a gloomy wood.

Cantos 14 through 17: The Blasphemers, Sodomites, and Greedy Moneylenders are punished in a burning desert.

  • Virgil and Dante descend over the rocks of a landslide. When was that landslide caused?

Christ caused the landslide during the Harrowing of Hell — when Christ rescued virtuous Jews (the Elect) from Hell. In particular, an earthquake that occurred during the Harrowing of Hell caused the landslide. Note that in the Inferno damage occurs. Nothing is ever damaged in Paradise.

The damage caused by the landslide during the Harrowing of Hell is a change since the last time Virgil was here. Virgil died, the sorceress Erichtho sent him to the bottom of the Inferno to find and bring a soul to her, and after Virgil had completed this task, Christ’s Harrowing of Hell occurred.

Virgil tells Dante:

“Now will I have thee know, the other time

I here descended to the nether Hell,

This precipice had not yet fallen down.”

(Longfellow 12.34-36)

  • What is the Minotaur, and why is it an appropriate guard here?

Circle 7 punishes three categories of the violent: those who are violent against other people, those who are violent against themselves, and those who are violent against God. The main guard here is the Minotaur, who was violent. The Minotaur is the half-human, half-bull offspring of Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos of Crete, who is the judge of the damned. Pasiphaë fell in love with a bull, and in order to have sex with the bull, she crept inside a lifelike but artificially created (by Daedalus) wooden cow. The result of their sexual union was the half-bull, half-man Minotaur, which was so violent that Daedalus created a labyrinth for the Minotaur to live in. The Minotaur feasted on the flesh of young Athenians who were given to the Cretans as tribute and put into the labyrinth with him. Eventually, Theseus, the King of Athens, was able to kill the Minotaur. He was afraid that he would get lost in the labyrinth, but Ariadne, Pasiphaë’s daughter, helped him by telling him to tie one end of a ball of string to the entrance, then enter the Labyrinth. He was able to find his way out of the Labyrinth by using the string. Here, as elsewhere, we see a bestial guard. Dante is making the point that sin is bestial in nature. Certainly, beasts can be violent.

Violence is an irrational sin, and the Minotaur is irrational. It even bites itself in rage.

  • What are Centaurs, and what role do they play in this canto? Why are they appropriate guards for this Circle?

The guards of the violent who physically harmed other people are the Centaurs. Centaurs have the torso and head of a human being and the body of a horse, thus they are half-human and half-beast. The mythological Centaurs were often violent.

  • Identify these Centaurs: Pholus, Nessus, and Chiron. What are their stories?

Pholus

In Thessaly, the Centaurs were invited to a wedding, but grew drunk and tried to rape the women guests. Pholus, one of the Centaur guards here in the Inferno, tried to rape the bride.

Nessus

Another Centaur, Nessus, who is also a guard, seized Hercules’ second wife, Dejanira, and tried to rape her. Hercules killed Nessus, but before Nessus died, he told Dejanira to soak a shirt with his blood, and if she ever doubted Hercules’ fidelity to her, to have him wear that shirt. When Dejanira later gave Hercules the shirt to wear, the blood of the Centaur burned his skin so painfully that he committed suicide. Nessus becomes the guide for Virgil and Dante. He leads them to the ford, where the river is shallowest, and he carries Dante across the ford so that Dante does not burn his feet.

Chiron

Not all of the Centaurs are violent — Chiron (the leader of the Centaurs) was the noted tutor of Hercules, Aesculapius (an ancient physician), and Achilles — but enough Centaurs are violent that they are appropriate guards of the violent who physically harmed others. We do note that Chiron is intelligent. We first see him in a contemplative pose (Musa, Inferno12.70-71), and he notices that Dante is alive because Dante “moves everything he touches” (Musa, Inferno12.81), which is not something a dead soul does. In addition, Chiron is a good judge of character; he is very helpful to Virgil and Dante.

  • How are those who harmed others through violence punished, and why is that punishment appropriate?

These violent sinners are punished by being immersed in a boiling river of blood. These violent people caused the blood of other people to flow; now they are immersed in blood. Each sinner is appointed a certain level to be immersed in the river; the more blood the sinner caused to flow on earth, the more deeply they are immersed in the river. Centaurs shoot arrows at sinners who try to rise above their appointed level in the river.

By the way, the name of the river is Phlegethon, which means “Fiery.” Only one river runs through the Inferno. The river’s name changes from place to place, and the water turns to boiling blood here and then back to water later. This should not surprise us; after all, Jesus was able to turn water into wine. (By the way, the writer of this discussion guide can also perform a miracle; he can turn water into coffee.)

  • Who are a few of the people who are being punished in this part of the 7th Circle of the Inferno?

Alexander is here. This may refer to Alexander the Great, who conquered much of the known world (known to his country, that is). According to the Christian historian Orosius, Alexander the Great was cruel and violent. However, this Alexander could very well be Alexander, tyrant of Pherae. According to ancient authors Cicero and Valerius Maximus, Alexander of Pherae was extremely cruel.

Attila the Hun, another noted warrior, is here.

Ezzelino, who burned 11,000 people at the stake on one occasion, is here.

Each of these violent people is up to his neck in boiling blood.

Other violent sinners are up to their chests, waists, knees, or feet in boiling blood.

Dante recognizes many people here, but he does not speak with any of them. This is rare. Since he speaks with people from whom he can learn, apparently violence was not a sin that Dante was much guilty of.

  • How do the Centaurs treat Virgil and Dante?

The Centaurs challenge Virgil and Dante, but after hearing their story, they treat Virgil and Dante well. Chiron even gives them an escort to the next Circle: Nessus, the Centaur responsible for killing Hercules. Dante rides on Nessus’ back.

  • Do you know of any people who are especially violent toward other people?

Any rapist or murderer will do.

Any serial killer such as Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy is a good example of a person who is violent toward other people.

Ted Bundy confessed to killing over 30 young women. He was a serial rapist as well as a serial killer.

John Wayne Gacy raped and murdered young men and boys.

  • Why is Dante the Pilgrim completely silent in Canto 12?

We note that Dante the Pilgrim is completely silent in Canto 12. Apparently, he is learning to concentrate on his education. We remember that earlier Dante the Pilgrim said to Virgil that “I’m trying not to talk too much, / as you have told me more than once to do” (Musa, Inferno10.20-21).

In addition, violence was not one of Dante’s sins. He speaks to no sinner here because he would learn nothing from the sinner.

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