Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Into the Abyss

His thoughts still wracked by the gruesome sights of cleaved souls, it was with a profound sense of foreboding that Dante ventured onward, deeper and deeper into the Inferno on his dark journey (for the previous episode in this story, please click here). After a rebuke from his guide, Virgil, for his sympathy for the damned souls, the two poets arrive at the edge of a rickety bridge, with the final of the Rotten Pockets of the Eighth Circle of Hell stretching far below on the valley floor...

The Falsifiers
Painting by Giovanni di Paolo
" Wierd shrieks of lamentation
   pierced through me,
   like arrow shafts whose tips
   are barbed with pity,
   so that my hands were
   covering my ears "

It was as all the plague hospitals in marshy, malaria ridden Tuscany had been crammed together into one fetid ditch, Dante thought. The screams of agony rang through his ears, and the grotesque stench of decay rose to his nostrils. Covering their noses with their drapes, the two poets descended to the foot of the mountains, as the din grew louder yet. Fighting back a wave of nausea, Dante looked on, as the rocky floor was strewn with the bodies of men and women struck with the most terrible afflictions. His eyes noticed two men, writhing in pain, frantically slashing at the sores on their flesh with their own nails, desperate to relief the itching that would not cease. For here in the last Rotten Pocket are punished the falsifiers, those who through their lies and perjury in life were a disease upon society. So now their bodies are corrupted by disease in death. Among the many Italians condemned to this plight, Dante spies two souls history knows well. The first, the wife of Potiphar, who through her false accusation incriminated Joseph, the second, Sinon, the Greek spy who persuaded the men of Troy to take the Horse within their walls. Many too, are afflicted with insanity, and frantically cavort around, acting more as beast than men, snapping and biting at any that approach. They see the lady Myrrha too, who through the malicious designs of the gods, seduced her own father whilst disguised (and who, incidentally, that myrrh is named after). Shuddering with disgust, our pilgrims turn their back on the rotten trench, and move on into the darkness.

Antaeus lowers Dante and Virgil
to the Ninth Circle of Hell
Painting by William Blake
Feeling his way through the impenetrable blackness, not for the first time Dante's ears nearly bled with a thunderous noise that blasted throughout Hell. The sound of a horn trumpeting not far ahead roused both men to their senses. As the darkness rolled aside, a city of many, gargantuan, towers seemed to appear. Blinking, with a start Dante realised that they were no towers. Giants! The most colossal beings the cosmos had ever seen. For here, straddling the chasm of the Ninth Circle were the Titans themselves, supreme beings whom the Olympian Gods had fought that devastating war for the mastery of the Heavens (a story which is told here). There too was the race of Giants who had followed them, and tried in vain to overthrow Jupiter himself. With a face greater in form than the mightiest cathedrals in Christendom, the giant Nimrod, who had blown the horn, looked down upon them. Dante's courage began to buckle in fear as he gazed back at the being who, in his pride, had dared to raise the Tower of Babel to God's throne, and was responsible for the fact that man no more speaks a common language. Approaching closer, Dante saw Ephialtes too, the Giant who dared to raise the mountains high to Olympus' lofty heights and seize the Heavenly Halls by force. Terrifying though they were, the Giants were tightly bound in chains, and could not move, but only leer in deathly silence. All that is, except for the Giant Antaeus, whom Heracles had once slain in ancient times. At Virgil's stern command, however, Antaeus obliged, knowing as he did the folly of violating the divine mandate which protected both pilgrims. Opening his titanic hand, Antaeus gently lowered Dante and Virgil into the Ninth and final Circle of Hell, as Virgil expressed relief to Dante that they had not been forced to venture further within the Giants, for deeper within was bound the most fearsome monster that ever lived - Typhon, a terrible abomination who struck fear into the hearts of mortals and gods alike (whose story is also told here).

Lake Cocytus
Engraving by Gustave Doré
As the Giant released them, Dante felt a strange new sensation. Their journey throughout Hell had been a long and torturous one, through Eight Circles they had descended; now just one remained, the final bastion of Sin where those who have committed the most heinous crimes of all are bound. For it is within this Circle that the greatest sinner of them all, Satan himself, is shackled in an eternity of torment. Here was the very Pit of the Universe itself, and the weight of all the cosmos, and all Hell, pressed down upon those bound within the Final Circle. Edging forwards, Dante felt a sudden, piercing cold at his feet. They were walking atop the surface of a vast lake, frozen solid by the sheer cold, an ethereal icy wind blasting over its surface from a distant source. This was the Lake Cocytus, in which were imprisoned forever those beings guilty of that gravest of crimes - Treachery. No lake or river on Earth bore ice so thick, Dante thought, no mountain which crashed upon it would so much as crack its sheets of clear crystal. To his horror, our pilgrim noticed the souls of men and women, encased in the ice below and all around him, frozen solid, yet all too aware, eyes wide in blind terror. The souls frozen in Cocytus in the Ninth Circle are ordered into five Rounds, according to the seriousness of their betrayal  Here, in the First Round, known as Caïna, are tortured those who betrayed their own kin. The souls here, Dante notices, are frozen to the face in the ice, their heads alone, blue with the deathly chill, are free. Among the many Dante knew in life, there are those legendary in history here too. For Cain himself, the Son of Adam and Eve who murdered his own brother Abel in the Book of Genesis, is held here as the Round's namesake. Near Cain's side writhes Sir Mordred, the Knight of the Round Table who betrayed and slew King Arthur himself, his own father, in battle during a climactic duel (whose story will be told in a future post).

Count Ugolino
Illustration by Giovanni Stradano
Shaken, but resolute, Dante and Virgil made their way deeper into Cocytus' icy grip, closer to the heart of the Universe. Starting to shiver uncontrollably, Dante covered his face with his robes, desperate to shield his eyes from the frigid wind. Suddenly a scream pierced through the roaring gale, and Dante realised he had accidentally kicked a poor soul in the face. After a plethora of wrathful words from the man, nearby souls identified him as Bocca degli Abati. Dante recoiled in unveiled fury, for this was the man who betrayed his native Florence, siding with Siena in the crushing Florentine defeat that was the Battle of Montaperti. For here was Round Two of the Final Circle, named Antenora, where those who betrayed their city, party or nation suffer the eternal price. Held here is the Round's namesake, Antenor, the counsellor to King Priam of Troy, who treacherously opened the Gates of the great city to the Greek hordes. Proceeding further in, Dante stops by two souls, one gnawing on the head of another. The man looks up and introduces himself as Count Ugolino, and his companion as Archbishop Ruggieri. Ugolino had conspired to overthrow the Ghibelline (pro-Imperial party in medieval Italy) and replace it with a Guelph (pro-Papacy party in medieval Italy) regime in his native Pisa. Ruggieri, his co-conspirator, later turned on Ugolino, imprisoning him and his family in a tower until they starved to death. Now in Hell both men are punished for their treachery. Time draws in, and both poets continue along Cocytus' icy sheets. The blasting winds grow unbearable, and Dante turns to his guide, "What causes such  a wind, my master? I thought no heat could reach into these depths". Virgil turned, with a dark look, and replied "Before long you will be where your own eyes can answer for themselves...", as both men walked on, and the very heart of Hell opened up before them...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
Dante: Inferno (Penguin Classics)
(A good version with both English and Italian text, as well as illustrations)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Divine Comedy (Oxford World's Classics)
(A readily accessible and well annotated version which also contains Purgatorio and Paradisio)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Divine Comedy: Volume 1: Inferno (Penguin Classics) (Pt. 1)
(A good version with both English and Italian text, as well as illustrations)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Divine Comedy (Oxford World's Classics)
(A readily accessible and well annotated version which also contains Purgatorio and Paradisio)

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