Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno: Cantos 13-16, Circle 7, Rings 2-3 – Forest and Desert

Circle 7, Ring 2 – The Self-Violent

Close to the river of blood is the forest of the suicides. Rather than being a forest with suicidal shades, however, Dante discovers that the forest is the sinners. Here those who destroyed their own bodies are given “bodies” of trees – trees that bleed when broken, and can only speak when bleeding. Once again we see Dante’s amazing use of the sinner’s evil becoming incarnate – those who make their last statement in blood can now only make statements in blood. Harpies (defiled birds with the heads of women) continually eat the leaves of the trees giving them “pain and pain’s outlet simultaneously.”

So bizarre is this circle that Virgil does not think Dante will believe him, so he has Dante break off a tree branch in order to speak with a tree-soul. He finds that these souls have been deprived of bodies as shades and will not get them back even after Judgment Day. Instead they will drag their bodies back to these trees and hang them on the branches – forever deprived of what they discarded. Gallagher notes that the two shades Dante speaks with committed suicide by reckless behavior, not in some teen angst-inspired act.

Circle 7, ring 3 – The Violent Against God, Nature, and Art

Leaving the shade (no pun intended) of the forest, Dante and Virgil come to plain of burning sand and fiery rain. Here are punished the sins of violence against Creator, Creation, and the right use of Creation. The violent against God are the blasphemers. There not many of them in Dante’s day, but I imagine there are far more lying on their backs facing the heaven they scorned now. An interesting figure here is Capaneus, a blasphemer who is shown to have no remorse and continues to shout at heaven even in his suffering. So far none of the shades have seemed particularly repentant, and this is an important point. The inferno is a place of permanence, not of repentance. God has granted that these shades be what they made themselves to be.

“What I was living, the same am I now, dead.”

The violent against art are the usurers, who sit bent over in the sand as if counting their ill-gotten gains. Usury is the taking of interest on monetary loans. The problem is that one is not making money by creating, but making money with money – which should be a means of procurement, not an ends in itself. Plato and Aristotle considered interest as contrary to the nature of things, as did many classical writers. No absolute prohibition can be found in the Bible although Ex. 22:25, and Dt. 23:19-20, forbid the taking of interest by one Jew from another. Based on biblical passages (e.g., Gen. 3:19; Luke 6:35) theologians considered the lending of money at interest to be sinful. Thomas Aquinas similarly considered usury to be contrary to nature because “it is in accordance with nature that money should increase from natural goods and not from money itself.” Usury was equated with heresy at the Council of Vienne in 1311.

The violent against nature are said to be sodomites, although my translation does not make this clear. These run continuously through the burning sands. As J. Budziszewski has pointed out, homosexuality is an act that replaces the means of creating life with that of ridding the body of death – reversing the roles of the body in an action that is sterile and misses the ends of the sexual act. Blaspheming God, using money to make money, and sodomy are all sterile acts that do not produce what creation was meant to produce. Now these shades spend eternity in the sterile burning sands, under rain that does not produce life but only increases the sterility of this circle. More on this below.

“What fearful arts the hand of Justice knows.”

As Dante and Virgil cross the sands under the protection of the mist coming up from a rill runoff from the blood river, we learn  that the ultimate source of the rivers of the inferno is a statue called The Old Man of Crete, but in Dante’s hands it is described as that of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the Book of Daniel. The tears of all the woes of mankind flow down a fissure in the mountain where the statue stands and forms the source of the rivers in hell. The statue’s back is toward the east (false myths?) and toward the west (true religion?) and relies more heavily on the age of the Roman Catholic west.

As Virgil and Dante journey across the sands, he speaks to a group of the sodomites. One in particular, Brunetto Latino, is singled out and comes to speak with Dante. He must continue walking lest the shade receive the punishment for stopping (lying in the sands for 100 years unable to brush off the flaming rain). Oddly, Brunetto spoke out against homosexuality in his writings and no history remains to show why Dante would have thought him a sodomite.This might be why Dante expresses surprise that he is there. In fact, few of those Dante lists in this area were known sodomites. Some have suggested that perhaps sodomy was only one kind of sin against nature being punished here, and that perhaps political or other sins might be as well.  It is interesting that Virgil pays respect to these shades – they are clergy and scholars of renown. Perhaps they unnaturally chose to preserve their lives through fame and not family. Contra this theory, Hollander notes that “‘Soddoma’ is used clearly to identify homosexual activity in Purg. 26 (vv. 40 and 79) and thus makes clear its meaning in Inf. 11.50 and therefore the nature of the sin encountered in Inf. 15 and 16.”

This brings up another very important issue for the whole of the Comedy. Dante has sodomites in Purgatory as well as the Inferno. People are not eternally judged by their sin, rather by their faith. Works are judged (Rev. 20) but these are in separate books from the Book of Life. The latter determines a soul’s ultimate place of existence after death, while the former determines what kind of existence the person will experience in the place to which it goes. The difference, in the end, is not between sinners and non-sinners, but of faithful repentance.


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