David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 14: The Desert with Falling Flames”

“Canto 14: The Desert with Falling Flames”

  • Describe the place where the Blasphemers, Usurers, and Sodomites are punished.

The Blasphemers, Usurers, and Sodomites are punished in a desert where nothing is growing. Flakes of fire drop from the sky onto a barren plain, and of course the sinners’ hands are busy brushing the fire away from bodies:

Without repose forever was the dance

Of miserable hands, now there, now here,

Shaking away from off them the fresh gledes.

(Longfellow 14.40-42)

A glede is an ember (a live coal).

The sinners appear in different positions:

1) The Blasphemers, who are least numerous, cursed God, so they lie on their backs, looking upward in the direction of what they cursed.

2) The Usurers (Greedy Moneylenders) are bent over, like a moneylender who is counting money.

3) The Sodomites, who are most numerous, are forever running.

  • Who is Capaneus?

Capaneus is one of the seven kings who attacked Thebes. He died as he cursed Jove, aka Jupiter. In particular, he boasted that Jove could not stop him from attacking Thebes, and Jove killed him because of his boast.

Capaneus, even now, is unrepentant. His hands do not brush away the fire. Instead, he is scornful of the flames.

The story of how Capaneus blasphemed is told in Statius’ Thebaid10:

[…] in mid-heaven Capaneus was heard: “Are there no gods among you,” he cries, “who stand for panic-stricken Thebes? Where are the sluggard sons of this accursed land, Bacchus and Alcides? Any of lesser name I am ashamed to challenge. Rather come thou — what worthier antagonist? For lo! Semele’s ashes and her tomb are in my power! — come thou, and strive with all thy flames against me, thou, Jupiter! Or art thou braver at frightening timid maidens with thy thunder, and razing the towers of thy father-in-law Cadmus?”

Source: http://www.theoi.com/Text/StatiusThebaid10.html


  • How are Virgil and Dante able to travel safely through the burning plain?

A stream (a branch of the river of boiling blood) flows through the burning desert. Above this stream the flames are put out. By staying close to the stream, Dante and Virgil are protected from the flakes of fire.

  • What is the parable of the statue on Crete, and what is the source of the rivers of Hell?

The statue on Crete is made of many kinds of materials, which grow less in quality descending from the head, which is made of gold, to the feet, one of which — the right one — is made of terra cotta (baked clay). The eyes of the statue drip tears. The tears flow to the ground and become the streams and rivers of the Inferno. These are those streams:

Acheron: Charon ferries the souls of the dead across Acheron.

Styx: This stream is a marsh in which the angry and the sullen (or slothful) are punished.

Phlegethon: This is the river of boiling blood in which the physically violent are punished.

Cocytus: Cocytus is not explained here, but it is the frozen ice in the ninth and final circle. Virgil merely tells Dante that he will see it for himself.

Also, the tears form the stream of Lethe, which is located on top of the Mountain of Purgatory.

This reminds us of the ages of Humankind, where a golden age is followed by a silver age, which is followed by other ages in which the quality of Humankind declines.

The tears, of course, apparently become blood when they reach Circle 7 — the circle of the violent. Jesus can turn water into wine, and God can turn water into blood.

The Old Man of Crete shows his back to the Egyptian seaport Damietta, symbol of the pagan world. The Old Man of Crete faces Rome, home of the Pope and symbol of the Christian world.

Dante got the idea of the Old Man of Crete from Daniel 2:31-35:

31:Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible.

32:This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,

33:His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.

34:Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces

35:Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.

  • What is usury? What are some Bible passages about usury?

Lending at interest may be permissible in certain instances; certainly we capitalist Americans believe that. I personally see lots of good reasons for lending at interest. Bonds raise money for investments. However, at times lending at interest is not ethical. For example, the lending could be done at excessively high rates of interest. Here I think of the check-cashing places that prey on the poor. Those business owners can end up in Hell.

However, although we Americans may believe in lending at interest, the Bible may prohibit it — at least in certain cases. For example, thou shalt not lend money at interest to your brother, especially if your brother is poor, although you may lend money at interest to strangers. Here are a few Bible passages about lending at interest:

Deuteronomy 23:19: Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury:

Exodus 22:25: If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.

Leviticus 25:35-37: And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee. Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase.

Deuteronomy 23:20: Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury: that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all that thou settest thine hand to in the land whither thou goest to possess it.

  • Why is the punishment given to the Blasphemers and the Usurers fitting?

The Blasphemers, Sodomites, and Greedy Moneylenders (Usurers) are punished in a scorching desert. All of these sinners have committed sins in which they are violent against God or God’s gifts. All of these sinners have committed sins in which they either take something that should be fertile and make it infertile or take something that should be infertile and make it fertile. These sinners are on a sandy desert on which fire rains down and on which nothing can grow.

The Blasphemers ought to love God, but they curse God instead. The love of God ought to be fertile and result in good things, but the Blasphemers curse something that ought to be regarded as valuable. They lie in the sandy desert and face upward, looking toward that which they cursed. Of course, when they open their mouths to curse God, flakes of fire fall into their mouths.

In contrast, the Greedy Moneylenders (Usurers) take something that ought to be infertile and make it fertile. The definition of usury has changed over time, but originally, as in the Bible, it meant lending money at interest. The Bible is against lending money at interest to relatives or to poor people, although Jews are allowed to lend money at interest to non-Jews; thus, Jews became moneylenders in the Middle Ages.

In modern times, usury is charging an unethically high rate of interest. In my opinion, the owners of modern check-cashing places and the CEOs of many credit-card companies in America may end up in the Inferno, and in my opinion, they belong there. Because the Greedy Moneylenders have been taking something that ought to be infertile and making it fertile, they are in this burning plain with fire raining down on them. Here they are bent over, like the Greedy Moneylenders of Dante’s time bent over their tables and counting their money. Hanging from their necks are moneybags, which they probably gazed at reverently in life — and now with revulsion. Dante cannot recognize any of the Greedy Moneylenders by looking at their faces; they were so preoccupied with making money that they have lost their individuality. Because the Greedy Moneylenders are bent over, gazing greedily at the moneybags hanging from their necks, they are less able to avoid the flakes of flame falling on their bodies.

By the way, Dante does not identify any Jews as Greedy Moneylenders in The Divine Comedy.

  • Do you know of any famous Blasphemers or Greedy Moneylenders?

Many credit-card companies and modern check-cashing places are Greedy Moneylenders. They charge very high prices for the loans. The same thing is true of some tax-preparation places that advance people their coming tax refund.

Unfortunately, blasphemy is very common nowadays. Many people very easily take the Lord’s name in vain. Some people are capable of saying things such as Cincin-Goddamn-nati.

One of theTen Commandments says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain.” Many people think that the commandment means that we should not say things such as “God damn.” Tucson Weeklycolumnist Tom Danehy writes, “In my entire life, I’ve said the word ‘God,’ and I’ve said the word ‘damn,’ but I have NEVER said them together. Not one time, not even while singing along to the Steppenwolf song ‘The Pusher.’” That fiercely anti-drug song includes the line “God damn the pusher man.” However, Mr. Danehy says that he asked his parish priest about this commandment and the phrase that he avoids saying:

What’s funny is that I asked my parish priest about that when I was growing up, and he said that the commandment wasn’t about that particular phrase, but rather people having the nerve to speak for God: ‘Oh, God will punish you for that,’ or, ‘It’s a sin to build a nuclear weapon’ — that sort of thing, which makes a lot more sense to me, although I’m still never putting those two words together, just in case the aforementioned parish priest had it wrong. (Source: Tom Danehy, “PETA’s claims that good Christians should be vegetarians lack biblical backing.” Tucson Weekly. 5 March 2009 <http://tinyurl.com/mroh2qz&gt;.)


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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