Dante’s Inferno: Canto 31 Retelling — Towering Giants

Chapter 31: Towering Giants

Virgil had at first made Dante feel ashamed, but his next words eased Dante’s pain, just as Achilles’ lance, which he had received from his father, was reputed to injure — and to heal the injury it had caused.

They continued their journey in a place that was not fully day and yet not fully night. Dante was unable to see very far ahead, but he did hear the blast of a horn — a horn that was much louder than thunder. He looked in the direction from which the horn-blast had come, and he remembered the horn of Roland.

Roland was one of the paladins of Charlemagne, Dante thought. While Roland was leading the rearguard, he and his men were attacked in a pass. Roland was proud and he did not blow his horn for help until it was too late. He and all of his men were killed.

The sound of the horn that Dante heard now was more ominous than that of the horn of Roland.

Looking ahead, Dante saw what appeared to be towers. He asked Virgil, “What city is this that lies ahead?”

Virgil replied, “You cannot see clearly in this dimness and at this distance. When we reach that place, you will see that you are mistaken that it is a city. But so you are prepared for what you will see, I will tell you that you are seeing giants. They stand in the well that goes from Circle 8 to Circle 9. You are seeing only the top half of their bodies; the rest is in the well, hidden from our sight.”

As they approached closer, it was as if a fog had lifted and Dante could now see clearly. A mountain fortress has towers, and here in the Inferno were towering giants, the enemy of Jupiter. Just as the fallen angels had rebelled against their Christian God, so these giants had rebelled against their pagan god. Just as the fallen angels had failed to defeat their Christian God, so the giants had failed to defeat their pagan god.

Jupiter had conquered the giants with his thunderbolts, and now, when the giants heard thunder, they feared.

Dante had approached close enough that he could see clearly the face and features of one of the giants. He could see the head, shoulders, chest, much of the stomach, and the two huge arms of the giant, a member of a race that is now extinct in the Land of the Living.

The giants combined the faculty of intellect with enormous strength and an evil will. No mere mortal man can defeat a being with such a combination of features. Better by far to face criminals who are stupid and weak rather than intelligent and strong.

In Rome is a sculpture of a pinecone that stands over seven feet tall. The face of the giant was just that size. The rest of him was in proportion to the giant’s face.

The giant shouted, “Raphel may amech zabi almi!

Contemptuous, Virgil shouted at the giant, “You are a blathering idiot who can shout only nonsense syllables. If you need to make a sound, blow on your horn. It is tied around your neck, and if you weren’t so stupid, you could easily find it.”

Virgil then said to Dante, “This giant is Nimrod, who was so proud that he thought that he could build a tower that would reach Heaven. To stop the tower from being built, God created many languages instead of the one language that human beings had spoken until that time. Because the workers were now speaking different languages, they were unable to coordinate their actions and so the Tower of Babel was not built. Because of Nimrod’s pride, God changed the speech of human beings, and now human beings no longer share the same language.

“We have no need to stay here. He cannot understand our words, just as we cannot understand his nonsense syllables.”

Dante and Virgil continued walking, and they came to another giant, who was bigger and fiercer than Nimrod. This giant’s arms were bound; one arm was bound in back, and the other arm was bound in front.

“This giant is named Ephialtes,” Virgil said to Dante. “He was so proud that he thought that he could overcome Jupiter and the other gods, and so he is chained here. He and his brother — Otus, a twin — attempted to put one mountain on top of another mountain in order to reach the gods and make war on them. The pagan god Apollo killed both brothers.”

“If I may, I would like to see Briareus, another giant who challenged Jupiter,” Dante said.

“Soon, you will see the giant Antaeus,” Virgil said. “Antaeus will be able to help us get down into the final Circle of Hell. He is unchained because when his fellow giants challenged Jupiter, he did not join the fight. Because of that, he is worthy of some respect, although he sinned in other ways.

“Briareus is further away, and we will not be able to see him.”

Antaeus, the son of Mother Earth and the sea-god Neptune, was strong as long as he touched his Mother Earth, but he became weak when he was lifted into the air, Virgil thought. He used to challenge passersby, kill them, and collect their skulls hoping to eventually have enough to make a temple to Neptune, his father.

Antaeus fought Hercules. After hurling Antaeus to the ground a number of times, Hercules discovered his secret and lifted him into the air and strangled him.

Ephialtes shook himself, and the earth trembled. Dante felt that he had never come so close to death as he had then.

They reached Antaeus, and Virgil said to him, “You are a great hunter, and you once killed a thousand lions in the valley of Zama, where the Roman general Scipio Africanus defeated the Carthaginian general Hannibal and won the Second Punic War against Carthage.

“You are also strong. Many think that if you had fought alongside the other giants in their war against Jupiter, then the giants would have won.

“Please, if you will, put us down onto Cocytus, the frozen lake of Circle 9. Please don’t make us ask one of the other giants, such as Tityus or Typhon, for help. This living man here can give you what you want: fame in the Land of the Living.”

Antaeus was willing to help them. He stretched out his hands, and they held Virgil, who told Dante to come to him. Virgil then held Dante as the giant lifted them both.

Dante wished that another way of entering Circle 9 existed, but Antaeus put Virgil and Dante safely down into Circle 9, where are punished the worst sinners who ever existed, including especially Lucifer and Judas.

Antaeus then straightened up, and he was as tall as the mast of a huge ship.

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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