Dante’s Inferno: Canto 12 Retelling — The Minotaur and the River of Boiling Blood

Chapter 12: The Minotaur and the River of Boiling Blood

As Dante and Virgil continued on their journey, they saw ruins. They also saw the Minotaur, one of the guards of Circle 7.

I know your story, Dante thought about the Minotaur. You are the half-human, half-bull offspring of Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos of Crete, who is now the judge of the damned in the Inferno. Virgil and I saw him earlier. Pasiphaë fell in love with a bull, and in order to have sex with the bull, she crept inside a lifelike cow that she ordered the skilled inventor Daedalus to create. 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.

The Minotaur saw Dante and Virgil. The sight so enraged the monster that it began to bite itself.

Virgil called to the Minotaur, “Do you think that you are seeing Theseus again — the man who killed you? You are mistaken, beast! The man who is with me is here to see your misery.”

The Minotaur then began to twist and turn with anger, the way that a bull does just before it dies.

Virgil said to Dante, “Run past the Minotaur while it is distracted by its anger.”

Virgil and Dante made it past the Minotaur, and they began to climb over the ruins they saw, the result of a great earthquake. As Dante climbed over the ruins, the rocks moved, unaccustomed as they were to the weight of a living man.

“The last time I climbed down here to this Circle, there were no ruins,” Virgil said. “I remember that an earthquake struck just before the Mighty Warrior took from Limbo the souls of those who were destined for Heaven. You know that event as the Harrowing of Hell. That earthquake caused the ruins you see here.

“But now look into the valley. There you will see a river of boiling blood in which are punished those who were physically violent against others.”

Dante looked, and in addition to the river of boiling blood he saw Centaurs — beings with the body of a horse but the torso, arms, and head of a man. They were the guards here, and they were armed with bows and arrows.

Have you noticed that so many guards in the Inferno are half-man, half-beast? Virgil thought. There is a reason for that. Sin can be bestial in nature. Certainly, the sins of violence are bestial in nature; after all, many animals are red in tooth and claw because they kill other animals in order to eat them. Human beings at their finest are not like animals; human beings at their worst are very much like carnivorous animals.

The Centaurs saw Dante and Virgil, and one shouted at them, “Who are you, and for what Circle of Hell are you destined? Speak, or I will draw my bow!”

Virgil shouted at the Centaur, “I will answer your questions when we reach you and can talk to Chiron. You are as rash as ever, so I won’t answer you now.”

Virgil then said to Dante, “Not all of the Centaurs are violent — Chiron, the leader of the Centaurs, was the noted tutor of Hercules, the ancient physician Aesculapius, and Achilles — but enough Centaurs are violent that they are appropriate guards of the violent who physically harmed others.

“The Centaur who challenged us is Nessus, who is violent. He seized Hercules’ 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.

“Many of the Centaurs are as violent as Nessus. In Thessaly, the Centaurs were invited to a wedding, but grew drunk and tried to rape the women guests. Pholus, the Centaur who stands beside Chiron and Nessus, tried to rape the bride.

“As you can see, the Centaurs are the guards here. These sinners who were physically violent against other people are punished by being immersed in the river of boiling 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.”

When Virgil and Dante reached the group of three Centaurs, Chiron, their leader, said to the other Centaurs, “Have you noticed how this one moves the stones he steps on? He is alive! The souls of dead people can’t do what he does!”

“This man is indeed alive,” Virgil said to Chiron. “My divine duty is to take him through Hell — a journey that he makes out of necessity. A soul from Heaven gave me this task. This living man is not a sinner trying to escape from Hell, and I am acting in accordance with the will of the Heavenly lady who came to me.

“Please give us a guide to escort us across the river of boiling blood at the ford. This living man needs to be carried over.”

Chiron ordered Nessus, “You be their guide and escort. Make sure that no one interferes with them.”

Obviously, Chiron is intelligent, Virgil thought. He realized that Dante is a living man, and he immediately made up his mind to help us.

As they moved along the river of boiling blood, Nessus pointed out some of the sinners being punished. Among the sinners up to their eyelids in boiling blood are cruel tyrants such as Alexander the Great. According to the Christian historian Orosius, Alexander the Great was cruel and violent. Attila the Hun, another noted warrior, is also immersed in boiling blood here. Ezzelino, who burned 11,000 people at the stake on one occasion, is punished here by being immersed in boiling blood up to his eyelids. Other violent sinners are up to their chests, waists, knees, or feet in blood.

As Nessus, Dante, and Virgil moved along the river, it got shallower and shallower until they reached the ford, and Nessus carried Dante and Virgil across it. Dante and Virgil dismounted, and Nessus crossed the river and returned to Chiron.

Dante did not speak to anyone here, nor did he need to, Virgil thought. Although Dante has sinned, violence is not one of his sins.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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