Week 8: Dante's Inferno

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Canto 12: The Minotaur and the Centaurs

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 800 words.

After more encounters with the damned, Dante and Virgil now meet the Minotaur, the half-man half-bull who was born when Minos's wife Pasiphae, had an affair with a bull. This is the creature kept at the center of the labyrinth, who was defeated by Theseus with the help of Ariadne, the daughter of Minos. They are now about to enter the seventh circle of hell and to descend through its rings. The way down is dangerous because of a rock slide. Virgil explains that the rocks were shaken from their places when Christ made his journey to hell. They find the Centaurs here (creatures who are half-man and half-horse), and the leader of the Centaurs, Chiron, assigns the Centaur Nessus to be their guide. Nessus is an infamous character from classical mythology: he was killed by Hercules for having attempted to rape Hercules's wife Deianira. In order to get his revenge, he gave his own shirt, soaked in blood and poison, to Deianira and told her it was a love charm that would keep Hercules faithful to her forever. But when Hercules put on the shirt, the poison ate away his flesh and he died.

Above the Seventh Circle: The Minotaur

The place we reached to climb down the bank was craggy, and, because of the creature there, also, a path that every eye would shun. The descent of that rocky precipice was like the landslide that struck the left bank of the Adige, this side of Trento, caused by an earthquake or a faulty buttress, since the rock is so shattered, from the summit of the mountain, where it started, to the plain, that it might form a route, for someone above: and at the top of the broken gully, the infamy of Crete, the Minotaur, conceived on Pasiphaë, in the wooden cow, lay stretched out.

When he saw us he gnawed himself, like someone consumed by anger inside. My wise guide called to him: 'Perhaps you think that Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is here, who brought about your death, in the world above? Leave here, monstrous creature. This man does not come here, aided by your sister, Ariadne, but passes through to see the punishments.'

Like a bull, breaking loose, at the moment when it receives the fatal blow, that cannot go forward, but plunges here and there, so I saw the Minotaur, and my cautious guide cried: 'Run to the passage: while he is in a fury, it is time for you to descend.'

The descent to the Seventh Circle

So we made our way, downwards, over the landslide of stones, that often shifted beneath my feet, from the unaccustomed weight. I went thoughtfully, and he said: 'Perhaps you are contemplating this fallen mass of rock, guarded by the bestial anger that I quelled a moment ago. I would have you know that the previous time I came down here to the deep Inferno, this spill had not yet fallen. But, if I discern the truth, the deep and loathsome valley, shook, not long before He came to take the great ones of the highest circle, so that I thought the universe thrilled with love, by which as some believe, the world has often been overwhelmed by chaos. In that moment ancient rocks, here and elsewhere, tumbled. But fix your gaze on the valley, because we near the river of blood, in which those who injure others by violence are boiled.'

The First Ring: The Centaurs: The Violent

O blind desires, evil and foolish, which so goad us in our brief life, and then, in the eternal one, ruin us so bitterly! I saw a wide canal bent in an arc, looking as if it surrounded the whole plain, from what my guide had told me. Centaurs were racing, one behind another, between it and the foot of the bank, armed with weapons, as they were accustomed to hunt on earth.

Seeing us descend they all stood still, and three, elected leaders, came from the group, armed with bows and spears. And one of them shouted from the distance: 'What torment do you come for, you that descend the rampart? Speak from there, if not, I draw the bow.'

My Master said: 'We will make our reply to Chiron, who is there, nearby. Sadly, your nature was always rash.'

Then he touched me, and said: 'That is Nessus, who died because of his theft of the lovely Deianira, and, for his blood, took vengeance, through his blood. He, in the centre, whose head is bowed to his chest, is the great Chiron, who nursed Achilles: the other is Pholus, who was so full of rage. They race around the ditch, in thousands, piercing with arrows any spirit that climbs further from the blood than its guilt has condemned it to.'

We drew near the swift creatures. Chiron took an arrow, and pushed back his beard from his face with the notched flight. When he had uncovered his huge mouth, he said to his companions: 'Have you noticed that the one behind moves whatever he touches? The feet of dead men do not usually do so.'

And my good guide, who was by Chiron's front part, where the two natures join, replied: 'He is truly alive, and, alone, I have to show him the dark valley. Necessity brings him here, and not desire. She, who gave me this new duty, came from singing Alleluiahs: he is no thief: nor am I a wicked spirit. But, by that virtue, by means of which I set my feet on so unsafe a path, lend us one of your people whom we can follow, so that he may show us where the ford is, and carry this one over on his back, since he cannot fly as a spirit through the air.'

Chiron twisted to his right, and said to Nessus: 'Turn, and guide them, then, and if another crew meet you, keep them off.'


Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • how does the Minotaur behave when he sees Dante and Virgil?
  • how can the Centaur Chiron tell that Dante is still alive?
  • who does Chiron aside to be Dante and Virgil's guide?

Source: Dante's Inferno, translated by A.S. Kline (2000). Website: Dante and Others.


Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM