Dante’s Inferno: Canto 13 Retelling — The Suicides

Chapter 13: The Suicides

Not yet had Nessus reached the other bank of the river of boiling blood than Dante and Virgil were walking in a forest that did not have a path. No green leaves could be seen, but only black leaves. No smooth branches could be seen, but only entangled and crooked branches. No fruit could be seen, but only poisonous thorns. No grubby wood such as this exists anywhere in the Land of the Living.

Here were the Harpies, who are half-human and half-bestial. Part of them is female and human, and part of them is a bird. With their human faces, they shriek, and with their wings, they fly.

“Remember where you are,” Virgil told Dante. “We have left the river of boiling blood, and soon we will be in a desert of burning sand. Right now, we are in the second of the three areas that punish those sinners who are guilty of violence. This wood is more remarkable than you think right now. Look carefully around you. I will not tell you what you are seeing because you would not believe my words.”

Dante looked, and he listened. All he saw were grubby shrubs, but he could hear the sounds of lament coming from somewhere — he knew not where — in addition to the shrieks of the Harpies. Puzzled by the sounds of lament, he stopped.

One of Virgil’s powers was being able to read Dante’s mind. He knew why Dante was puzzled, and so he said, “Break off one of the branches you see in this forest, and your puzzlement will vanish.”

Dante broke off a branch, and the place where the branch had been attached to the shrub oozed with blood. The blood bubbled, and a voice complained, “Why do you injure me by tearing off one of my branches? Why don’t you pity the pain I am suffering? All of us shrubs were human beings once, but even if we had been snakes you should show us more pity.”

Dante dropped the branch he had broken off.

Virgil said to the sinner whose branch had been broken off, “I knew that my companion would never believe with words alone what he is now seeing, so I urged him to break your branch. Unfortunately, even though I wrote about a similar event in my Aeneid, I knew that my companion would not believe unless he had direct experience.”

That is true, Virgil thought. In my Aeneid, Aeneas broke a branch and then the shrub began to bleed and to speak to him. It turned out that Polydorus, a Prince of Troy, was buried there. The prince was murdered with spears so the murderers could take his wealth. The body fell to the ground, and the spears took root and grew.

“Please, tell my companion who you were. He can keep your name alive in the Land of the Living. You need not be forgotten. My companion is still alive, and he will return to the Land of the Living.”

“Your words please me very much,” the shrub said. “I want to be remembered. My name is Pier delle Vigne — Peter of the Vines. I served the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.”

Pay attention, Dante, Virgil thought. Remember who Frederick II is. Frederick II fought the Pope for control of Italy. He died in 1250, and we know that Frederick II ended up in the Inferno in a tomb with Farinata, so we know that he died an unrepentant sinner.

“I was the Chief of Staff to Frederick II,” Pier delle Vigne continued. “I controlled who got access to the Holy Roman Emperor. I also advised Frederick II — I advised him on whether something was good or bad. I served him so faithfully that I lost sleep through overwork as well as losing my life. Envy turned up in the court of Frederick II, who was my Caesar. Envy made all the others my enemies, and my enemies turned Frederick II — my Augustus — against me. False accusations were made about me, and they were believed. Even though I was loyal and just to Frederick II, I behaved unjustly against myself. When you return to the Land of the Living, tell everyone that I was loyal to my emperor. Tell everyone that I am here because of the blow that Envy gave me.”

Be careful, Dante, Virgil thought. Like other sinners in the Inferno, Pier delle Vigne has told his story in a very self-serving way. He is blaming Envy for his problems. Envy turned everyone against him. Envious people convinced Frederick II that Pier was disloyal to him, so he put Pier in prison. While in prison, Pier committed suicide. Of course, we know that Pier — not Envy — was the person who committed suicide. In addition, Pier delle Vigne overvalued Frederick II, whom he calls “Caesar” and “Augustus.” And because Pier is in the Inferno, we know that he undervalued God. Of course, although Pier delle Vigne was loyal to Frederick II during Pier’s life, he was disloyal to God when he committed suicide.

Virgil then said to Dante, “If you wish to know anything more, ask your questions now.”

“You may ask him questions,” Dante replied. “I am so overcome with pity for him that I cannot say anything more to him.”

Why are you overcome with pity? Virgil thought. Do you pity him because of the false accusations that envious people made against him? That kind of pity is acceptable. Or do you pity him because he committed suicide? That kind of pity is unacceptable. I hope that you are learning not to allow yourself to be scammed by these sinners who, after all, are exactly where they ought to be. I hope that you have learned something since you spoke with Francesca da Rimini.

And, Dante, you have much to learn here. You will be under attack one day. You will lose your political position, and you will be exiled. Like Pier delle Vigne, you will be discouraged and you will wonder whether life is worth living.

The main thing you can learn here is to not act like Pier delle Vigne. Pier delle Vigne committed suicide, and he ended up in the Inferno. If you, Dante, commit suicide when you are discouraged, you can end up in the same place as Pier delle Vigne.

I know that you will be sent into exile, and I know that you will be discouraged, but if you wish to stay away from eternal punishment in the Inferno, you must respond to your discouragement differently from the way that Pier delle Vigne responded to his discouragement.

As human beings, we have free will, and we can choose how we respond to disaster. We can give in to discouragement and commit suicide, or we can respond in a more courageous way.

Virgil then said to Pier delle Vigne, “So that my companion may keep your name, please tell him how souls become shrubs here, and please tell him whether a soul will ever leave these shrubs.”

“Briefly,” Pier said, “after a person commits suicide, Minos judges his soul and sends it here in Circle 7. The soul drops in this wood the way a seed drops. The soul germinates like a seed and grows into a shrub. The Harpies then feast on it, breaking its branches and causing it pain. By breaking a shrub’s branches, the Harpies give it an outlet through which to express grief as the blood comes bubbling from the wound.

“Like the other souls in the Inferno, we will be given our bodies on Judgment Day, but our soul will not be reunited with our body. Instead, our body will hang from our branches. We rejected our body, and therefore it will not be reunited with our soul.”

Here we have another contrapasso, Virgil thought. The suicides are the grubby shrubs of this wood. The suicides cannot even determine when they will talk; they can communicate only when one of their twigs or branches is broken because they use the resulting hole as a mouth until the blood congeals — the blood oozes from the wound the way that sap oozes from a broken twig or branch.

The punishment of the suicides is appropriate because by killing themselves, the suicides gave up the privilege of self-determination. As shrubs, the suicides have no free will because plants have no free will. This is appropriate because in life the suicides rejected free will by committing suicide.

Because the suicides gave up their right of self-determination, they no longer have self-determination in the Inferno. Minos throws their souls into Circle 7, and the souls sprout wherever they fall. As grubby shrubs, the suicides cannot move around, and they cannot even speak unless someone breaks off a twig or branch.

The suicides have no free will because they rejected the chance to use free will to solve their problems. The suicides rejected their bodies, so they will not be reunited with their bodies.

In life, the suicides mutilated themselves. Now, as shrubs, they can no longer mutilate themselves.

Just then, Virgil and Dante heard the sound of a hunt when dogs chase their prey. Two naked souls came running, crashing amidst the shrubs and breaking many branches, causing the souls who were the shrubs to cry out in pain.

One of the naked souls said, “I wish that death would come quickly.”

The other naked soul replied, “Lano, you did not run so quickly when you were in battle.”

I know who these sinners are, Virgil thought. They are Lano of the wealthy Maconi family and Giacomo da Sant’ Andrea. They are Profligates who violently wasted their wealth so they are here in the Circle that punishes the violent. Giacomo da Sant’ Andrea once deliberately set on fire several houses that he owned just because he wanted to. Lano of Siena violently wasted his wealth, and then he deliberately sought death in a 1287 battle; he could have escaped by retreating, but stayed to fight so that he would die. That is a kind of suicide.

The spendthrifts who are punished in Circle 4 merely wasted their wealth, while the profligates here in Circle 7 violently wasted their wealth and then courted death.

Tired, Giacomo da Sant’ Andrea hid himself among the shrubs, while Lano continued running. The black dogs that had been pursuing the two profligates found Giacomo da Sant’ Andrea and tore him to pieces, and then they carried away the pieces in their mouths.

While tearing apart Giacomo da Sant’ Andrea, the black dogs also broke many branches of the shrub, and Virgil brought Dante close so that he could hear the shrub complain: “Giacomo da Sant’ Andrea, why did you hide in me? You have brought me much pain because you brought to me the black dogs that tore my branches and took my leaves from me.”

Virgil asked the shrub, “Who are you?”

The shrub answered, “I am a Florentine who committed suicide by hanging myself in my home. The first patron of Florence was Mars, the Roman god of war. But Florence exchanged this patron for John the Baptist, whose image is stamped on the gold coins of Florence. Because of this, Mars swears that endless sorrow will come to Florence.”

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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