Inferno: The Giants

Among the giants, Dante 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; you can see the pine cone at Wikipedia. Since God punished the people building the tower of Babel by "confusing" their tongues, Nimrod speaks an unintelligible gibberish.

[Notes by LKG]

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

(illustration by Gustave Doré)

Canto 31: The Giants

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]

Next: Ugolino

(900 words)

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