Inferno: The Minotaur and the Centaurs

The Greek myth of the monstrous Minotaur, half-bull and half-man, slain by the hero Theseus with the help of Ariadne, figures prominently here in Dante's poem. You can read more about the Minotaur at Wikipedia.

After the Minotaur, they also meet another hybrid type of creature, the centaurs, who are half-man and half-goat. You can read more about the centaurs at Wikipedia, and the famous centaurs who are named here, Nessus and Chiron, also have their own Wikipedia articles.

[Notes by LKG]

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

Canto 12: The Minotaur and the Centaurs

Above the Seventh Circle: The Minotaur


(illustration by Gustave Doré)


The place we reached to climb down the bank was craggy and, because of the creature there also, a path that every eye would shun. The descent of that rocky precipice was like the landslide that struck the left bank of the Adige, this side of Trento, caused by an earthquake or a faulty buttress, since the rock is so shattered from the summit of the mountain, where it started, to the plain that it might form a route for someone above: and at the top of the broken gully, the infamy of Crete, the Minotaur, conceived on Pasiphaë, in the wooden cow, lay stretched out.

When he saw us, he gnawed himself, like someone consumed by anger inside. My wise guide called to him: 'Perhaps you think that Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is here, who brought about your death, in the world above? Leave here, monstrous creature. This man does not come here, aided by your sister, Ariadne, but passes through to see the punishments.'

Like a bull, breaking loose at the moment when it receives the fatal blow, that cannot go forward but plunges here and there, so I saw the Minotaur, and my cautious guide cried: 'Run to the passage: while he is in a fury, it is time for you to descend.'

The descent to the Seventh Circle

So we made our way, downwards, over the landslide of stones that often shifted beneath my feet from the unaccustomed weight. I went thoughtfully, and he said: 'Perhaps you are contemplating this fallen mass of rock, guarded by the bestial anger that I quelled a moment ago. I would have you know that, the previous time I came down here to the deep Inferno, this spill had not yet fallen. But, if I discern the truth, the deep and loathsome valley shook not long before He came to take the great ones of the highest circle, so that I thought the universe thrilled with love, by which as some believe, the world has often been overwhelmed by chaos. In that moment, ancient rocks, here and elsewhere, tumbled. But fix your gaze on the valley, because we near the river of blood, in which those who injure others by violence are boiled.'

The First Ring: The Centaurs: The Violent

O blind desires, evil and foolish, which so goad us in our brief life, and then, in the eternal one, ruin us so bitterly! I saw a wide canal bent in an arc, looking as if it surrounded the whole plain, from what my guide had told me. Centaurs were racing, one behind another, between it and the foot of the bank, armed with weapons, as they were accustomed to hunt on earth.

Seeing us descend, they all stood still, and three, elected leaders, came from the group, armed with bows and spears. And one of them shouted from the distance: 'What torment do you come for, you that descend the rampart? Speak from there; if not, I draw the bow.'

My Master said: 'We will make our reply to Chiron, who is there, nearby. Sadly, your nature was always rash.'

Then he touched me, and said: 'That is Nessus, who died because of his theft of the lovely Deianira and, for his blood, took vengeance through his blood. He, in the centre, whose head is bowed to his chest, is the great Chiron, who nursed Achilles; the other is Pholus, who was so full of rage. They race around the ditch, in thousands, piercing with arrows any spirit that climbs further from the blood than its guilt has condemned it to.'

We drew near the swift creatures. Chiron took an arrow and pushed back his beard from his face with the notched flight. When he had uncovered his huge mouth, he said to his companions: 'Have you noticed that the one behind moves whatever he touches? The feet of dead men do not usually do so.'

And my good guide, who was by Chiron's front part, where the two natures join, replied: 'He is truly alive and, alone, I have to show him the dark valley. Necessity brings him here, and not desire. She, who gave me this new duty, came from singing Alleluiahs: he is no thief, nor am I a wicked spirit. But, by that virtue, by means of which I set my feet on so unsafe a path, lend us one of your people whom we can follow so that he may show us where the ford is and carry this one over on his back, since he cannot fly as a spirit through the air.'

Chiron twisted to his right, and said to Nessus: 'Turn and guide them, then, and, if another crew meet you, keep them off.'


(800 words)






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