Inferno: Fortune and Phlegyas

The goddess Fortune (Latin Fortuna) was one of the most important symbols of the Middle Ages, and she lives on in the name of the television show, Wheel of Fortune. You can read more about Fortuna and her wheel at Wikipedia.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Dante's Inferno unit. Story source: Dante's Divine Comedy, translated by Tony Kline (2002).

Cantos 7 and 8: Styx and Phlegyas

Virgil speaks about Fortune

I said to him: 'Master, now tell me about Fortune also, that subject you touched on, who is she who has the wealth of the world in her arms?'

And he to me: 'O, blind creatures, how great is the ignorance that surrounds you! I want you now to hear my judgement of her. He whose wisdom transcends all things made the heavens and gave them ruling powers so that each part illuminates the others, distributing the light equally. Similarly he put in place a controller and a guide for earthly splendour to alter, from time to time, idle possession, between nation and nation, and from kin to kin, beyond the schemes of human reason. So one people commands — another wanes, obeying her judgement, she who is concealed, like a snake in the grass. Your wisdom cannot comprehend her: she furnishes, adjudicates, and maintains her kingdom, as the other gods do theirs. Her permutations never end: necessity makes her swift; so, often, someone comes who creates change. This is she: so often reviled, even by those who ought to praise her, but, wrongly, blame her with malicious words. Still, she is in bliss and does not hear: she spins her globe, joyfully, among the other primal spirits and tastes her bliss. Now let us descend to greater misery: already every star is declining that was rising when I set out, and we are not allowed to stay too long.'

The Styx: They view the Fifth Circle

We crossed the circle to the other bank, near a spring, that boils and pours down, through a gap that it has made. The water was darker than a dark blue-grey, and we entered the descent by a strange path, in company with the dusky waves. This woeful stream forms the marsh called Styx, when it has fallen to the foot of the grey malignant walls. And I who stood there, intent on seeing, saw muddy people in the fen, naked, and all with the look of anger. They were striking each other, not only with hands, but head, chest, and feet, mangling each other with their teeth, bite by bite.

The kind Master said: 'Now, son, see the souls of those overcome by anger, and also, I want you to know, in truth, there are people under the water, who sigh and make it bubble on the surface, as your eye can see whichever way it turns. Fixed in the slime they say: "We were sullen in the sweet air that is gladdened by the sun, bearing indolent smoke in our hearts: now we lie here, sullen, in the black mire." This measure they gurgle in their throats, because they cannot utter it in full speech.'

So we covered a large arc of the loathsome swamp, between the dry bank and its core, our eyes turned towards those who swallow its filth: we came at last to the base of a tower.

The Fifth Circle: Phlegyas: The Wrathful

I say, pursuing my theme, that, long before we reached the base of the high tower, our eyes looked upwards to its summit, because we saw two beacon-flames set there, and another, from so far away that the eye could scarcely see it, gave a signal in return. And I turned to the fount of all knowledge and asked: 'What does it say? And what does the other light reply? And who has made the signal?'

And he to me: 'Already you can see what is expected, coming over the foul waters, if the marsh vapours do not hide it from you.'

No bowstring ever shot an arrow that flew through the air so quickly, as the little boat that I saw coming towards us through the waves, under the control of a single steersman, who cried: 'Are you here, now, fierce spirit?'

My Master said: 'Phlegyas, Phlegyas, this time you cry in vain: you shall not keep us longer than it takes us to pass the marsh.'

Phlegyas in his growing anger, was like someone who listens to some great wrong done him and then fills with resentment. My guide climbed down into the boat and then made me board after him, and it only sank in the water when I was in. As soon as my guide and I were in the craft, its prow went forward, ploughing deeper through the water than it does carrying others.

(700 words)

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