Week 8: Dante's Inferno

Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Canto 31: The Giants

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 1000 words.

As they descend into a pit, Dante thinks that he sees towers rising up from the pit, but Virgil corrects him: these are the bodies of Giants, buried up to their navels. One of the Giants whom Dante sees is Ephialtes, who tried to revolt againt the rule of Jupiter, but who was defeated by the god Apollo. He sees the Giant Antaeus, who also revolted against the rule of Jupiter and who was defeated by the hero Hercules. Dante also meets Nimrod, the legendary hunter of the Bible (often supposed to be of gigantic stature) who built the tower of Babel. Dante says that Nimrod's face is the size of the "bronze pine cone" from St. Peter's cathedral in Rome; it was approximately seven or eight feet high. Since God punished the people building the tower of Babel by "confusing" their tongues, Nimrod speaks an unintelligible gibberish.

The Giants that guard the central pit

We turned our back on the wretched valley, crossing without a word, up by the bank that circles round it. Here was less darkness than night and less light than day, so that my vision showed only a little in front: but I heard a high-pitched horn sound, so loudly, that it would have made thunder seem quiet: it directed my eyes, that followed its passage back, straight to a single point. Roland did not sound his horn so fiercely, after the sad rout, when Charlemagne had lost the holy war, at Roncesvalles.

I had kept my head turned for a while in that direction, when I seemed to make out many high towers, at which I said: 'Master, tell me what city this is?'

And he to me: 'Because your eyes traverse the darkness from too far away, it follows that you imagine wrongly. You will see, quite plainly, when you reach there, how much the sense is deceived by distance, so press on more strongly.'

Then he took me, lovingly, by the hand, and said: 'Before we go further, so that the reality might seem less strange to you, know that they are Giants, not towers, and are in the pit, from the navel downwards, all of them, around its bank.'

As the eye, when a mist is disappearing, gradually recreates what was hidden by the vapour thickening the air, so, while approaching closer and closer to the brink, piercing through that gross, dark atmosphere, error left me, and my fear increased. As Montereggione crowns its round wall with towers, so the terrible giants, whom Jupiter still threatens from the heavens, when he thunders, turreted with half their bodies the bank that circles the well.


And I already saw the face of one, the shoulders, chest, the greater part of the belly, and the arms down both sides. When nature abandoned the art of making creatures like these, she certainly did well by removing such killers from warfare, and if she does not repent of making elephants and whales, whoever looks at the issue subtly, considers her more prudent and more right in that, since where the instrument of mind is joined to ill will and power, men have no defence against it.

His face seemed to me as long and large as the bronze pine-cone, in front of St Peter's in Rome, and his other features were in proportion, so that the bank that covered him from the middle onwards, revealed so much of him above that three Frieslanders would have boasted in vain of reaching his hair, since I saw thirty large hand-spans of him down from the place where a man pins his cloak.

The savage mouth, for which no sweeter hymns were fit, began to rave: 'Rafel mai amech sabi almi.'

And my guide turning to him, said: 'Foolish spirit, stick to your hunting-horn, and vent your breath through that, when rage or some other passion stirs you. Search round your neck, O confused soul, and you will find the belt where it is slung, and see that which arcs across your huge chest.'

Then he said to me: 'He declares himself. This is Nimrod, through whose evil thought, one language is not still used, throughout the whole world. Let us leave him standing here, and not speak to him in vain: since every language, to him, is like his to others, that no one understands.'


So we went on, turning to the left, and, a crossbow-shot away, we found the next one, far larger and fiercer. Who and what the power might be that bound him, I cannot say, but he had his right arm pinioned behind, and the other in front, by a chain that held him tight, from the neck down, and, on the visible part of him, reached its fifth turn.

My guide said: 'This proud spirit had the will to try his strength against high Jupiter, and so has this reward. Ephialtes is his name, and he made the great attempt, when the Giants made the gods fear, and the arms he shook then, now, he never moves.'


And I said to him: 'If it were possible, I would wish my eyes to light on vast Briareus.'

To which he replied: 'You will see Antaeus, nearby, who speaks and is unchained, and will set us down in the deepest abyss of guilt. He whom you wish to see is far beyond, and is formed and bound like this one, except he seems more savage in his features.'

No huge earthquake ever shook a tower, as violently as Ephialtes promptly shook himself. Then I feared death more than ever, and the fear alone would have been enough to cause it, had I not seen his chains. We then went further on, and reached Antaeus, who projected twenty feet from the pit, not including his head.

[... Dante and Virgil now pass from the eighth circle with its many chasms into the ninth circle of hell, where they will meet Count Ugolino and hear his story... ]

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

  • what did Dante think the Giants were when he caught sight of them from a distance?
  • why were the Giants being punished?
  • what kind of language did Nimrod speak?

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