Canto 12: Violent Against Neighbors

Adrienne Perry

Even the terrain in hell can change.

As Dante and Virgil head into the first round of hell’s seventh circle, they stand on the edge of a devastating and treacherous pit. No accidental tourist, Virgil has passed through “this dark way to the depths of Hell” before; yet he notes that the topography, on this journey, has changed dramatically (112). Dante describes it as a “ruin” similar to “the result of an earthquake/or of some massive fault in the escarpment—” (111). Given the photographs of downed houses, upturned roads, and piles of rubble from Haiti, Chile, or eastern Turkey, it isn’t hard to imagine the “broken cleft” our poet and his guide saw. Without warning, earth and hell rip open and then seal off their wounds like a boxer’s bloody mouth opening and closing.

My Uncle Richie was a pugilist and a Jehovah’s Witness; he would have seen no accident—indeed, only continued portent—in the physical, human, and spiritual upheavals of the last few months. Virgil looks at his “hellscape” and also sees the hand of God at play. After all, it was in the coming of Christ, as he “took/ the souls from Limbo, that all Hell was shaken…” (112). Virgil goes on to say that, in that eventful moment, he “thought the universe felt love/ and all its elements moved toward harmony,” though we see more convincing evidence in this canto of “ancient rock…stricken and broke open” (112). To my ear the poetry in these lines and in this canto soar, even though they do so, like a bird flying down a mineshaft, in hell’s ever darkening, deepening, shape-shifting landscape. (Mi dispiace, Dante, for not unpacking more of it here and by so doing seeking to revel in those moments of exquisite poetry.)

The river of blood proves to be the most obscene and disturbing part of this scene. The Minotaur didn’t have it easy above ground, and in hell he’s as dodgy as the path Dante and Virgil must navigate to pass him. The centaurs, with their bows and arrows at the ready, have a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude. Split between man and beast, their very physical being makes them possessors of a (potentially) terrible, unpredictable power. (Just like animals; just like us.) And yet, outside of the few moments when their arrows are turned toward this creature who “moves what he touches,” their attentions remain trained on the souls cooking, at various depths, in the river (113). Somehow, I expected the river of blood to be red, but it is instead a “scalding purple” in my translation. A gruesome reduction.

In hell, I’m beginning to realize, all of a river’s good—indeed much of nature’s good—appears turned on its ear. True, earthly rivers cause destruction and wreak havoc, yet they also make life possible. They replenish the land as they flow seaward. They transport us and our “goods,” literally and metaphorically, up and down river. Crossing the Mississippi or flying above the Colorado makes easy a sense of wonder. Rivers baptize us, they heal us, they usher us from one shore of our existence to the next. They don’t turn into the burning Cuyahoga River, in other words, without some sin. Nor do we get, without some sin, a river of blood that feeds into itself, in a loop with depths both profound enough to cover a man and shallow enough for some critters to barely wet their hooves.

As children we used to prick our fingers and become blood brothers/sisters with the other kids in our neighborhood. Someone always had the needle if someone else had the will. We might not all have been born of the same family, from the same blood, yet by combining our red sap we could become kin to one another and symbolically unite our family trees. We went around saying that we were brothers and sisters to one another, not only because of this ritual, but because someone had heard at church that we were all brothers and sisters in the eyes of God. For a few weeks, this neighborly, embracing notion of “blood” relations took off like a match to dried grasses.

Everyone hanging out in the river of blood either ignored or forsook that basic notion of brotherhood, even though their sins appear to be on a sliding scale—a hierarchy which leaves Dionysius and Alexander up to their eyelashes and a bunch of cats, whom Dante recognizes, free from the waist up. Though of a similar type, not all of these sins are created equal. Is Eichmann covered over, Ted Bundy bare from the shoulders up, and woman who poisoned her neighbor wading up to her kneecaps? The centaurs may be ready to shoot them back down when they get “uppity,” but these questions invite questions about the nature of sin and hell and justice.

Nessus guides Dante and Virgil expertly past the river to “deeper Hell,” explaining the various figures and their sins along the way. At one telling moment, Virgil raises his hand to hush Dante, “Let him be the teacher now, and I will listen” (114). I wondered what Nessus was thinking, whether this was all in a day’s work for a centaur and a soldier of sorts. After he carries them across the river, he goes back across the ford without fanfare. There is work. There is hell. There is the reality of blood. Much like, when we as girls asked my father about Vietnam, “Have you ever killed anyone?” All of the blood in him froze. He didn’t answer. He walked upstairs, back to his work, without saying a word.

6 responses to “Canto 12: Violent Against Neighbors

  • jeffvamos

    Love these insights, Adrienne. And their relationship to your life. Reading them was a great way to start the day.

    I too remarked on how accommodating the Centaurs seem to be; wonder why? The military mentality that is so easy to ‘command’. Is Virgil using some form of trickery here to get them to do his bidding – the necessary deception that is required to negotiate this part of hell? And what of the “half-human” aspect?

    And I really love the insight about the river – you’re right, there’s no “telos,” destination; it’s an ever flowing conveyance of suffering, with no beginning or end – as opposed to a river “whose streams make glad the city of God.” A conveyance bearing those in it to the great destination, one with both a source and an “end”, goal, purpose.

    And, also this canto brings to mind the contrast between this place and what lies beyond Satan’s backside (Purgatory): does D want us to see that the difference between hell and purgatory is the existential relationship to suffering? In purgatory, suffering is meaningful; it “gets you somewhere”, is transforming those souls into the likeness of God, whose reality they will eventually see in heaven.

    Seems a lesson here: do we see suffering as something we inflict on others – something meaningless and to be “endured”? Or is it something we might actually DO for others’ sake – i.e. instead of inflicting it on others, to “do” (suffer) for them? “Love willing to suffer and die” as my friend Gil Bailie says. Something that – not that we would choose it – is possibly for some redemptive purpose?


  • Anne

    I wanted to ask about this particular section of hell. The river of blood seems to be riddled with warriors mixed in with the assassins and highwaymen. Now granted, Attilla the Hun is historically portrayed as a bloodthirsty (hence the river of blood?) person, but remembering that history is written by the ‘winners’ of wars, the end of Adrienne’s commentary really shook me. Are some of those souls in the river of blood only the warriors that ‘enjoy’ killing?
    My other thought was on the Centaurs. They are also tormented souls, since they cannot escape their job as guardians of this level of hell. Is Dante thinking because of the beastiality of these creatures they have no souls? Interestingly he portrays Chiron as a rather majestic and fair creature, allowing them quickly to go through this level and have a guide.
    You know, I am realizing that this discipline of reading a Canto a day and really thinking about it is making me come up with more questions than answers…….someday a face-to-face discussion class on Dante would be helpful!

  • Bob Sinner

    Helpful insights, all! Thank you so much. Bob

    A few additional thoughts / questions.

    1. About the “River of Blood”: It is the Phlegethon {in English means “flaming”), one of the five major rivers found in the underworld of classical myth, along with the rivers Styx, Lethe, Cocytus, and Acheron. It paralleled the better-known River Styx. In “The Phaedo,” Plato refers to it as “a stream of fire, which coils round the earth and flows into the depths of Tartarus.” Perhaps it is purple, Anne, because of the medieval connection of royal and purple? Blood for the river is appropriate to Dante’s usage, because blood flows from men, but these violators of fellow men are forced to sink into it.

    2. Halflings: I agree with Jeff about the significance of the inclusion of the mythical beings such as the Minotaur and Centaurs in this canto [and the Harpies in the next Canto, 13, being as they are miss-matched part man and part beast]. Note that the Minotaur is beast on top [and hence, in mind], while the centaurs tend to be somewhat more man-like in action because they are ‘man-topped’ and beast bottomed. It is also interesting that Virgil, wise in the ways of the classical world, decides to addresses the “best of the centaurs,” Chiron. Chiron was held as the superlative centaur: intelligent, civilized and kind. He was known for his knowledge and skill with medicine.
    But, ironically, it is Nessus, not Chiron, or even Heracles’ old comrade Pholus, who Chiron picks to guide Virgil and Dante along the river. And Virgil even chides Dante to listen to his wisdom! The irony is that Nessus was the least dependable of the centaur group [he is generally considered responsible for Heracles eventual death].

    3. Choice: Choice once again [and many times to come] plays an essential role in hierarchy: deliberate intellectual choice is the worst type sin [see notes on heresy].

    4. A different world: In Dante’s world, violence to property was considered as bad as violence against life.

    5. War makers: Dante considers them mass-murderers whether they are deemed “successful” or “losers.” Hence we have both Alexander the Great [still considered a hero by most in 1300 Florence, and Attila the Hun. War makers are by necessity “Blood thirsty”

  • Bob Sinner


    Somehow I accidentally posted this in canto 11 instead of here. This is the same comment in the corrected canto. Bob

    Bob Sinner
    March 10, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    Our journey to Elizabeth Detention Center [holding place (prison) for “illegal immigrants”] last night was a sad, but enlightening one, which draws forth anger at (seeming?) injustice.
    I would place EDC partly in Purgatory [for those who are lucky and have help] and partly in hell [for those who have some hope but no luck, and for those who have lost all hope].
    I met with Aziz, a young man in his twenties from Tajikistan, whose visa ran out and was picked up by immigration within a few days. He has been kept in a room for 45 males [pretty much the norm there] for 4 months now. He did not openly complain, but was obviously dejected. His hearing is April 5.
    Two others in the group met with Ebeneezer [yes, real name] from Ghana, a very cheerful young man who has made a couple of previous attempts to gain sanctuary in the USA [he comes by cargo ship]. He was cheerful and exuded hope [but then, he has been at the center for three days now].
    Which circle would they be in? Hard to say – what circle is designed for those who enter or stay in country without proper credentials?
    Which circle did it seem like? Well it was crowded and dehumanizing. Not sure. Sorry to go off main topic, but [unfortunately] it just seemed to fit in. Bob

  • Anita Milne

    I am intrigued that the deformation of ancient rock – “here as elsewhere” – is the result of the Holy Saturday visit of Christ, that is, (parenthetically?) that love creates chaos in the universe. I’m used to thinking of love as order and harmony, and sin, especially killing, as disorder and yet there is this: our well-ordered systems – personal and social – protect our sins. So “batter my heart, Thou three-personed God,” as John Donne begged – break my stone heart. At the level of murderous protection of those societal systems I’m reminded of Jack Nicholson shouting, “you can’t handle the truth,” in A Few Good Men. “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns.” Also, Rene Girard on the role of murdered scapegoats in the maintenance of order. As the scapegoat who would not stay either silent or murdered, Christ was chaos.

    It’s been terrific following this conversation as I journey with Dante and this cohort.

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