A NEW CANTO FOR DANTE’S INFERNO: XXXIII.5

ACROSS THE ICE THEY WALKED in the deepest circle of the Inferno. The Pilgrim came to sinners trapped waist deep in the ice with chained arms, those who betrayed God by using his gift of religion as a weapon to corrupt and destroy. Horses attached to the chains are spurred and repeatedly tear the arms of the sinners while snakes covered in mucus slither up the inside of their throats and ooze from their mouths as excrement flows from their ears.  The sinners’ eyes are corrupted by a certain blindness in which they only see burning fire. Virgil explains to the Pilgrim why these sinners are here and their punishments and then identifies several of them. Leaning down in front of one of the sinners, the Pilgrim talks with a man who identifies himself as Pope Urban II. Frequently interrupted by snakes spewing from his mouth, the man tells the Pilgrim of his sanctioning the first crusade in the name of the Christian God. The Pilgrim is moved to pity but corrects himself, remembering Virgil’s lesson. Once finished they continue across the ice towards the sound of beating wings.

The biting cold gnawing at my mortal skin,

I moved quickly behind my guide,

creator of Rome’s ancestor.                                     3

Hundreds were planted in the ice,

as crops that will never be picked,

sown into th’infertile ground by their own sins.                            6

Waist-down frozen in the ice never to move

and their arms raised and fastened as He on the cross,

to chains which horses, betraying their riders, pulled once spurred.                9

Again and again the sinners’ arms tore off then regrew

by hell’s tricks and the horses strength

only to have the flesh divided anew.                                12

And from the mouths repeatedly poured a vile thing,

slithering and writhing, The Fall’s plotter,

bathed in that which the sick hack up.                                 15

On the ice moved thousands

of that which lacks any limbs,

with forked tongue and evil words.                                 18

And those creatures swam in excrement

which poured from the ears of the sinners,

flowing over the ground on which I stood.                             21

The poet made reason of madness:

“these shades received religion, a shield from God,

and wielded it as a sword for their own ambitions.                         24

Claiming to be God’s hand, doing His bidding,

they corrupted the ears of many with their vile words,

betraying their Lord, the worst sin of all.                             27

So that which does a man’s bidding,

his arm and hand, so precious,

is torn from socket, as they did their Lord’s arm,                            30

those whose words were of the snake,

deceiving and manipulative behind the name of God,

and who filled innocent ears full of corrupting filth.                        33

Thus their words will flow forever in their truest form,

their ears shall be filled with what they spoke to others.

They who proclaimed themselves the arms of god will have none.”                36

Punished for betrayal and abuse of religion,

these shades suffered, with a sight to see only

burning things, for that is how they saw all things in life.                         39

“Look, oh Pilgrim, upon they who drink the hemlock

and take others with them in towers and kindergartens,

the innocents stolen by misguided faith.                                 42

And they, the hooded white who hated black,

forever covered in the blackness of excrement,

spewing from their ears.                                    45

And those, so hateful in their speech,

who celebrate at funerals and limit love to damn the different,

lead Christians into the cave, not out of it.”                            48

A few among hundreds in the ice,

these armless sinners wailed and belched and heaved,

together a song of sorrow and disgust.                                 51

I went on through the filth until I came

to a man, his robes worth all the weight of Rome,

yet stained in death by his deeds in life.                                 54

I lowered myself and asked him:

“Tell me your name; who are you,

why have you forsaken Him?”                                    57

He answered: “I am Pope Urban II,”

pausing as a serpent burst from his mouth,

“the Crusades were my doing.                                    60

The Holy sands stained red

of Jews, Muslims, all who lived there,

flowing rivers of blood through Jerusalem,                            63

thousands slain by sword and arrow,

the trapped souls of innocents taken too early,

taken for Christianity, for God, for me,                                66

flowing to the River Styx where Charon claims them.

It was done all for God by my word,

but all for me by God’s word.”                                    69

Looking down, Alberigo’s hair still clenched in my tight hand,

I was taken by pity for the man’s mistakes,

man’s imperfection leads to such things.                                72

But Virgil next to me, a hand on my shoulder,

I remembered his lesson on pity and sin,

and the pity was gone.                                        75

Turning my back on the pope,

I walked, the sounds of writhing and dripping

still loud behind me, yet a new sound beat my ears.                        78

Gusts of wind, mightier than Aeolus’ gift which the

crew let loose before Ithaca, pressed the cold

to my skin and the sorrow to my soul.                                 81

NOTES

  1. creator of Rome’s ancestor – Virgil, author of the Aeneid, created Aeneas in his work. Aeneas is widely regarded as the ancestor or hero of Rome.

4-6. Dante uses the imagery of the sinners frozen in the ice as a field in which crops have been sown, but which will never be reaped, or “picked.” He references the idea that the sinners damned themselves to hell when he says “sown into th’infertile ground by their own sins”

  1.  arms raised and fastened as He on the cross – Dante means that the sinners’ arms are raised and chained to the horses in a similar fashion as Jesus’ arms were nailed to the cross. This helps to continue the theme of betrayal, as Jesus’ crucifixion was the result of Judas Iscariot betraying him.
  1. betraying their riders – The horses, which are normally ridden by humans, are instead tearing humans apart and betraying those who they would normally serve.

13-14. a vile thing… The Fall’s plotter – Dante is referencing the snake in the Garden of Eden who convinced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, causing Adam and Eve to lose the favor of God and beginning the Post-lapsarian time.  This loss of God’s favor and Adam’s sins as representing the sins of man is called “The Fall.”

  1. bathed in that which the sick hack up – Covered in mucus, the substance that runs from the nasal passage down the throat during sickness, such as a cold.
  1. that which lacks any limbs – Dante is again referencing the snake, which has no limbs.
  1. as they did their Lord’s arm – Virgil is explaining that by claiming to be the arm of God, these sinners metaphorically tore off the arm of God by assuming the role of God and slandering His name through their actions.

38-39. The sinners corrupted other minds and corrupted the Earth through their actions, metaphorically burning the creations of God.  Since it seems that they undervalue the gift of life and the Earth, they are forced to physically see everything around them as burning.

40-42. Dante is making two references here. The first is to the death of Socrates, who was forced to commit suicide by drinking poisonous hemlock. The second is to suicide extremists who kill themselves, “drink the hemlock,” and take others with them. He notes that this is because of misguided faith, or in other words religion that has diverged from God’s intent or is being bent to achieve alternative ambitions. This is a contemporary example, as Dante references “towers and kindergartens.” The terrorist group Hamas targeted Israeli kindergartens and Al Qaeda targeted the World Trade Center Twin Towers. Consequently, Dante is damning those terrorists to this circle of hell.

43-45. Dante is referencing those, who through racism towards blacks in the name of religion, have betrayed God and true religion. This is a contemporary allusion to the Ku Klux KLan, or KKK. His wordplay is on the word “black,” ironically stating that the color the KKK hated in life covers them in death.

46-48. Dante is referencing extremist Christians, particularly in the United States, and mostly directed towards the Westboro Baptist Church, which pickets soldiers funerals and condemns homosexuals. He notes that such hateful rhetoric and action leads Christians into the cave and not out of it. “The cave” is the allegorical Socratic dwelling of the unenlightened.

  1. his robes worth all the weight of Rome – Meaning that his robes are of such high quality that they must be worth all the gold and wealth in Rome.
  1. why have you forsaken Him? Here, Dante is referencing Jesus’ last words, which are “Why have you forsaken me?” and simply asking why the man has betrayed God and damned himself to Hell.
  1. flowing to the River Styx where Charon claims them – A reference to the Greek mythological character who ferries souls across the River Styx into the underworld, Dante reintroduces the idea of Charon who the Pilgrim met earlier. This grumpy old character makes several cameos in literature.

68-69. Pope Urban II is saying that in his word, or by what he said, the Crusades and all that the Crusaders did was in the name of God and for the sake of Christianity. But, in God’s word, meaning the true teachings and instructions of the Christian scriptures, what the Crusades had done was all merely for the Pope and his ambitions and did not represent God’s word or will.

  1. Alberigo’s hair still clenched in my tight hand – In CANTO XXXIII, the Pilgrim rips the hair from a sinner named Alberigo without pity or restraint. Dante reveals at this moment that he is still holding the hair of Alberigo. Perhaps because of the fright and gravity of the events transpiring around him, he has been so enthralled as to forget the hair in his hand. Once reminded it is there, he remembers his cruelty to Alberigo.

79-80. Dante is referencing The Odyssey, where Aeolus, master of winds, gives Odysseus and his crew the bag of winds to return them home to Ithaca. Once very close to Ithaca, the crew is suspicious of what the bag holds and they decide to open despite Odysseus’ commands. The wind is released creating a storm and blowing them far way from home, ruining the progress they had made. This is also a fitting example because the crew betrays their superior, Odysseus.

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