Dante’s Inferno: Canto 14 Retelling — The Desert with Falling Flames

Chapter 14: The Desert with Falling Flames

Because of Dante’s love of Florence, he gathered up the leaves that had been torn from the bush that was the soul of the anonymous Florentine, and he left them by the bush.

Dante and Virgil continued walking, and they reached the third part of Circle 7. Already they had seen the river of boiling blood and the wood of the suicides. Now they came to a desert of burning sand. Nothing grew here, and nothing could ever grow here. Nothing was in this infertile desert but burning-hot sand and the flakes of fire that rained continuously down on the suffering sinners.

The sinners were of three kinds. Some sinners lay on their backs, facing upward. Other sinners were hunched over looking at something hanging from their necks. Yet other sinners were continuously running.

The greatest number of sinners belonged to the groups who were continuously running, but the loudest sinners were those who lay on their backs because they were most exposed to the falling flakes of flame and so they suffered the most.

The pain felt here came from two places: above and below. The flames fell from above, but the sand below was so hot that it burned all the sinners where they touched it.

Almost everywhere sinners were constantly moving their hands to put out the flames that fell on them. First on one side and then on the other side, flames fell. First on one side and then on the other side, hands moved to put out the flames. The dance of the hands was almost universal. Just one sinner did not deign to put out the flames.

Dante asked Virgil, “Who is the sinner who ignores the flames? Although he could move his hands to put them out, he does not.”

The sinner heard Dante and replied for Virgil: “I am the same here in Hell as I was while I was alive. Jupiter killed me because I blasphemed. I was one of the seven who attacked Thebes, and I challenged any of the gods, including Jupiter, to attempt to withstand me. Jupiter heard my boast and my challenge, and he killed me with a thunderbolt.”

Virgil then said to the sinner, “Capaneus, yes, you blasphemed against your god, and so you are punished here. Your sullenness and pride make the pain you feel even worse because they stop you from brushing the flames away from your body.”

Virgil turned to Dante and said, “As Capaneus has said, he was one of the seven kings who attacked Thebes. His blasphemy has sentenced him here, and here he is still blaspheming.”

Virgil thought, The blasphemers, sodomites, and greedy moneylenders are punished in this 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, infertile desert on which fire rains down and on which nothing can grow.

The blasphemers ought to have loved God, but they cursed God instead. The love of God ought to be fertile and result in good things, but the blasphemers cursed something that ought to be regarded as valuable. Now they lie in the burning, infertile 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 took something that ought to be infertile and made it fertile. The Bible, which Dante has studied, is against lending money at interest to relatives or to poor people, but the greedy moneylenders lent money at interest when they ought not to. The greedy moneylenders are hunched over, looking at the moneybags that hang from their neck.

Finally, the sodomites took something that ought to be fertile and made it infertile. Instead of having sex of a kind that results in children, they had sex of a kind that can never result in children. For this sin, they run continuously in groups with other sodomites.

All of these groups are violent against God. God is not a physical person (except in the case of the Incarnation), so someone may ask, How can a sinner be violent against God?

Blasphemers are violent against God directly. They curse God directly. The greedy moneylenders and the sodomites are violent against God indirectly. The greedy moneylenders take advantage of the poor, although God has several commandments saying to take care of the poor, not harm them. The sodomites are against God in that they are going against the commandment to “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Virgil said to Dante, “Now let us continue our journey. The wood lines the desert. Stay in the wood and do not set foot on the burning sand.”

They walked on until they reached a stream of reddish water. This was a branch from the river of boiling blood. Its bed and banks were made of stone, and it crossed the burning, infertile desert.

“This stream is our way across the burning desert,” Virgil said to Dante. “Above it, the falling flakes of flame are put out. This stream is the most remarkable sight you have yet seen in Hell.”

Intrigued by Virgil, Dante asked him to explain more about the stream.

“In the Mediterranean is an island called Crete,” Virgil said, “and on that island is the place where Rhea hid Jupiter, her son, from his father, Saturn, a monster who usually devoured his children. Whenever the young Jupiter cried, Rhea ordered her servants to shout loudly to conceal Jupiter’s presence from his cannibalistic father.

“A statue of an old man is located on Crete. The Old Man of Crete is made of many kinds of materials, which grow less in quality descending from the head to the feet. The Old Man’s head is made of gold, his arms and shoulders and chest are made of silver, the rest of his torso is made of brass, and his legs and one foot are made of iron. His other foot — the right one — is made of baked clay.”

Virgil thought, And so it is with the ages of man. At first there was a golden age, which was followed by a silver age, which was followed by other ages that became successively more degraded.

Virgil continued, “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.

“Except for the golden head, the statue is flawed. The eyes of the statue drip tears. The tears flow to the ground and become the streams and rivers and pools of the Inferno. These are those streams and rivers and pools:

“The Acheron, over which Charon ferries the souls of the dead.

“The Styx, a marsh in which the angry and the sullen and the slothful are punished.

“The Phlegethon, a name which means fiery.

“The Cocytus, which you will later see for yourself.”

Dante asked, “You did not mention the Lethe, and when will I see the Phlegethon?”

Virgil replied, “You have already seen the Phlegethon, which was the river of boiling blood in which the physically violent were punished.

“You will see the Lethe later, but not in Hell. It is in a place where those who have purged themselves of sin gather to wash.

“Now it is time to move on. Stay by me, and stay by the stream. Above the stream the flakes of falling flames are put out.”

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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