The passage to the First Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell takes Virgil and Dante through a ravine of broken rock. At the edge, the monstrous Minotaur threatens them, and they must slip past him while he rages to distraction. As they descend, Virgil notes that this rock had not yet fallen at the time of his previous journey into the depths of Hell. Coming into the ring, they see a river of blood: here boil the sinners who were violent against their neighbors. A group of Centaurs—creatures that are half man, half horse—stand on the bank of the river with bows and arrows. They shoot at any soul that tries to raise itself out of the river to a height too pleasant for the magnitude of his or her sin.
The head Centaur, Chiron, notices that Dante moves the rocks that he walks on as only a living soul would. He draws an arrow, but Virgil commands him to stand back, and he obeys. Because the broken rocks make the ring treacherous to navigate, Virgil also asks that a Centaur be provided to guide them through the ring around the boiling blood. Chiron provides one named Nessus, on whose back Dante climbs.
Leading Virgil and Dante through the ring, Nessus names some of the more notable souls punished here, including one called Alexander (probably Alexander the Great), Dionysius, and Atilla the Hun. Those who lived as tyrants, and thus perpetrated violence on whole populations, lie in the deepest parts of the river. After fording the river at a shallow stretch, Nessus leaves the travelers, who continue on into the Second Ring.
In the Second Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, Virgil and Dante enter a strange wood filled with black and gnarled trees. Dante hears many cries of suffering but cannot see the souls that utter them. Virgil cryptically advises him to snap a twig off of one of the trees. He does so, and the tree cries out in pain, to Dante’s amazement. Blood begins to trickle down its bark. The souls in this ring—those who were violent against themselves or their possessions (Suicides and Squanderers, respectively)—have been transformed into trees.
Virgil tells the damaged tree-soul to tell his story to Dante so that Dante may spread the story on Earth. The tree-soul informs them that in life he was Pier della Vigna, an advisor to Emperor Frederick, and that he was a moral and admirable man. But when an envious group of scheming courtiers blackened his name with lies, he felt such shame that he took his own life.
Dante then asks how the souls here came to be in their current state. The tree-soul explains that when Minos first casts souls here, they take root and grow as saplings. They then are wounded and pecked by Harpies—foul creatures that are half woman, half bird. When a tree-soul’s branch is broken, it causes the soul the same pain as dismemberment. When the time comes for all souls to retrieve their bodies, these souls will not reunite fully with theirs, because they discarded them willingly. Instead, the returned bodies will be hung on the soul-trees’ branches, forcing each soul to see and feel constantly the human form that it rejected in life.
At this point, two young men run crashing through the wood, interrupting Dante’s conversation with the tree-soul. One of the men, Jacomo da Sant’Andrea, falls behind and leaps into a bush; vicious dogs have been pursuing him, and now they rend him to pieces. Virgil and Dante then speak to the bush, which is also a soul: it speaks of the suffering that has plagued Florence ever since it decided to make St. John the Baptist its patron, replacing its old patron, Mars (a Roman god). The bush-soul adds that he was a Florentine man in life who hanged himself.
When Virgil comments in Canto XII about the broken rocks he and Dante must navigate, he alludes to the earthquake that, according to the Gospels, occurred upon Christ’s crucifixion. Noting that the rocks had not yet fallen when he first descended into Hell, in the late first century
Virgil’s comment also seems to suggest that Hell experiences the effects of the passage of time: Virgil can remember a physically different Hell, and the souls can anticipate the return of their bodies. This notion of Hell possessing a past, present, and future would seem to contradict the eternal nature of the place. However, Hell does not seem vulnerable to the force of time per se, but rather to the force of God’s will over time. The changes in Hell mentioned here correspond to two divine events: the Harrowing and the Last Judgment. After this second event, time will disappear altogether.
The pool of boiling blood serves as an allegorically apt punishment for those who were violent toward others: they sit eternally submerged in the blood after which they lusted in life. This punishment, like so many in Dante’s Hell, proves impeccably flexible according to the sinners’ degrees of sin, allowing for individualized penalties of excruciating exactitude. The soul of an individual who killed only one person, for example, stands with his legs in the burning blood, while the soul of a tyrant such as Alexander stands with his entire head covered. The scene also provides Dante with an opportunity to voice his politics: while a more objective view of history might rank many other leaders among these tyrants, Dante exempts them from punishment here. The conspicuous absence of Roman leaders in particular testifies to Dante’s great reverence for Rome.
It seems odd at first that the Suicides’ punishment is to be turned into trees; the reader does not see how this punishment fits into Dante’s usual pattern until one of the trees begins his speech about the Last Judgment. Then we see how the punishment fits the crime: having discarded their bodies on Earth, these souls are rendered unable to assume human form for the rest of eternity. In committing suicide, these souls denied their God-given immortality and declared that they did not want their bodies; their punishment is to get their wish only after they have recognized the error in it.
Finally, at the end of Canto XIII, the bush-soul gives us some interesting information about the history of Florence. When Florence was Christianized, it abandoned the god Mars as its patron and turned its allegiance toward John the Baptist. The “art” of Mars is war; his resentment at being replaced, the bush asserts, causes Florence to be plagued by infighting. Dante here employs the common classical device of using mythological legend to account for earthly events, a device found frequently in ancient Greek and Roman literature. Yet he is only half-serious about this explanation: Inferno’s frequent political jabs make it clear that Dante has plenty of flesh-and-blood enemies on whom to blame Florence’s civil strife.