Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581
Minotaur: Creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man
Centaurs: Creatures with the heads of men and the bodies of horses
Chiron: Chief centaur
Deianira: Wife of Hercules; dipped his shirt in blood of Nessus
Nessus: Centaur who tried to carry off Deianira (wife of Hercules); his blood on Hercules’s shirt caused Hercules so much pain that Hercules burned himself to death
Violent Sinners: Guilty of violence, included Pyrrhus, Achilles’ cruel son
Dante and Virgil see a place where a great landslide has occurred and where the Minotaur has come forth from the resulting cleft. Virgil comments that when he passed that way before the rock had not yet fallen; he states that the great Prince had entered and taken His prey from Dis.
Dante and Virgil look down in the valley and see the river of blood; this boiling river (the Phlegethon) is used to punish those who were violent in life. On the bank at the side of the river Dante sees centaurs racing through the woods with bows and quivers; their arrows keep the violent from escaping from the river of boiling blood. This canto includes some specific persons: Chiron, Deianira, Nessus, and Pholus.
The travelers see the tyrants Alexander, Dionysius, Azzolino, and Obizzo d’ Este. The centaur points out Pyrrhus, Sextus, Attila, and the Pazzian and Cornetan Riniers; he turns, crosses the ford again, and leaves Dante and Virgil alone.
Discussion and Analysis
The landslide was a result of the earthquake at Christ’s crucifixion. The Minotaur is a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man and is guardian of the Seventh Circle. “The rock that had not fallen” has two meanings: Christ had not yet died and the rock with the Minotaur had not yet fallen. “The prey from Dis” is a reference to those whom Christ had rescued from the pit; Canto IV discusses this rescue.
The boiling river of blood is a fitting punishment for those who in life used violence against their neighbor. They had caused blood to be shed; blood now punishes them.
Several specific characters in this Canto probably need further explanation. Virgil and Dante see centaurs—half man and half horse—regulating the punishment of those in the River of Blood. Chiron is chief centaur. Chiron tells Nessus to guide Dante across the shallowest part of the stream and Virgil tells Dante to trust Nessus’s authority; the centaur knows better than Virgil in these matters. Nessus, who attempted to steal Hercules’ wife Deianira, died at the hand of Hercules; Deianira used Nessus’ blood as a dip for Hercules’ shirt. The blood was so caustic that Hercules could not stand the pain; Hercules burned himself to death rather than bear the torture of the blood.
The tyrants whom the travelers see include Alexander, who is probably Alexander the Great; Dionysius, who may be either the Sicilian father or son since both were tyrants of Sicily; Azzolino, a Ghibelline; and Obizzo d’ Este, a thirteenth century Guelph nobleman who had a reputation for cruelty and whose own son probably killed him.
Pyrrhus was the cruel son of Achilles and king of Spirus (an enemy of the Romans). Sextus was a sea pirate and the son of Pompey the Great. Attila is probably a reference to Attilla the Hun, who was called the “Scourge of God.” The Pazzian and Cornetan Riniers were robbers of Dante’s day.
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