Inferno: The Harpies and Capaneus

Virgil and Dante meet the notorious tyrants of the world, and they also meet the rebellious Capaneus whose story is told in the epic poem by Statius, The Thebaid. This poem is no longer widely read, but it was famous in the Middle Ages, so Capaneus was a familiar mythological figure. He was a fierce warrior who boasted that even Zeus himself could not oppose him. This boast offended the god Zeus who hurled a thunderbolt at Capaneus and thus killed him. You can read more about Capaneus 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).

(painting by Flores)

Cantos 12, 13, and 14: Capaneus

The Tyrants, Murderers and Warriors

We moved onwards with our trustworthy guide along the margin of the crimson boiling, in which the boiled were shrieking loudly. I saw people immersed as far as the eyebrows, and the great Centaur said: 'These are tyrants who indulged in blood, and rapine. Here they lament their offences, done without mercy. Here is Alexander and fierce Dionysius of Syracuse, who gave Sicily years of pain. That head of black hair is Azzolino, and the other, which is blonde, is Obizzo da Este, whose life was quenched, in truth, by his stepson, up in the world.'

Then I turned to the poet, and he said: 'Let him guide you first now, and I second.'

A little further on, Nessus paused, next to people who seemed to be sunk in the boiling stream up to their throat. He showed us a shade, apart by itself, saying: 'That one, Guy de Montfort, in God's church, pierced that heart that is still venerated by the Thames.'

Then I saw others who held their heads and all their chests, likewise, free of the river: and I knew many of these. So the blood grew shallower and shallower, until it only cooked their feet, and here was our ford through the ditch.

The Centaur said: 'As you see the boiling stream continually diminishing on this side, so, on the other, it sinks more and more, till it comes again to where tyrants are doomed to grieve. Divine Justice here torments Attila, the scourge of the earth; and Pyrrhus, and Sextus Pompeius; and for eternity milks tears, produced by the boiling, from Rinier da Corneto and Rinier Pazzo, who made war on the highways.' Then he turned back, and recrossed the ford.

The Second Ring: The Harpies - The Suicides

Nessus had not yet returned to the other side when we entered a wood, unmarked by any path. The foliage was not green, but a dusky colour: the branches were not smooth, but warped and knotted; there were no fruits there, but poisonous thorns. The wild beasts that hate the cultivated fields in the Tuscan Maremma, between Cecina and Corneto, have lairs less thick and tangled. Here the brutish Harpies make their nests, they who chased the Trojans from the Strophades with dismal pronouncements of future tribulations. They have broad wings, and human necks and faces, clawed feet, and large feathered bellies, and they make mournful cries in that strange wood.


The Third Ring: The Violent against God

O God's vengeance, how what was shown to my sight should be feared, by all who read! I saw many groups of naked spirits who were all moaning bitterly: and there seemed to be diverse rules applied to them. Some were lying face upward on the ground, some sat all crouched.=m and others roamed around continuously.

Those who moved were more numerous, and those that lay in torment fewer, but uttering louder cries of pain. Dilated flakes of fire, falling slowly, like snow in the windless mountains, rained down over all the vast sands. Like the flames that Alexander saw falling in the hot zones of India over all his army until they reached the ground, fires that were more easily quenched while they were separate, so that his troops took care to trample the earth — like those fell this eternal heat, kindling the sand like tinder beneath flint and steel, doubling the pain. The dance of their tortured hands was never still, now here, now there, shaking off the fresh burning.


I began: 'Master, you who overcome everything except the obdurate demons that came out against us at the entrance to the gate, who is that great spirit, who seems indifferent to the fire and lies there, scornful, contorted, so that the rain does not seem to deepen his repentance?'

And he himself, noting that I asked my guide about him, cried: 'What I was when I was living, I am now I am dead. Though Jupiter exhausts Vulcan, his blacksmith — from whom he took, in anger, the fierce lightning bolt that I was struck down with on my last day — and though he exhausts the others, the Cyclopes, one by one, at the black forge of Aetna — shouting: 'Help, help, good Vulcan,' just as he did at the battle of Phlegra between the gods and giants — and hurls his bolts at me with all his strength, he shall still not enjoy a true revenge.'

Then my guide spoke, with a force I had not heard before: 'O Capaneus, you are punished more in that your pride is not quenched: no torment would produce pain fitting for your fury, except your own raving.'

Then he turned to me with gentler voice, saying: 'That was one of the seven kings who laid siege to Thebes: and he held God, and seems to hold him, in disdain, and value him lightly, but, as I told him, his spite is an ornament that fits his breast.'

(800 words)

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