Dante gathers the bush’s scattered leaves and gives them to the bush. He and Virgil then proceed through the forest of tree-souls to the edge of the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell. Here they find a desert of red-hot sand, upon which flakes of fire drift down slowly but ceaselessly. As Virgil expounded in Canto XI, this ring, reserved for those who were violent against God, is divided into three zones. The rain of fire falls throughout all three. The First Zone is for the Blasphemers, who must lie prone on a bank of sand. The falling flakes of fire keep the sand perpetually hot, ensuring that the souls burn from above and below. Among these sinners Dante sees a giant, whom Virgil identifies as Capaneus, one of the kings who besieged Thebes. Capaneus rages relentlessly, insisting that the tortures of Hell shall never break his defiance.
The poets reach another river, which runs red, and Virgil speaks to Dante about the source of Hell’s waters. Underneath a mountain on the island of Crete sits the broken statue of an Old Man. Tears flow through the cracks in the statue, gathering at his feet. As they stream away, they form the Acheron, the Styx, the Phlegethon, and finally Cocytus, the pool at the bottom of Hell.
Crossing the stream, Virgil and Dante enter the Second Zone of the Seventh Circle’s Third Ring, where the Sodomites—those violent against nature—must walk continuously under the rain of fire. One of these souls, Brunetto Latini, recognizes Dante and asks him to walk near the sand for a while so that they may converse. Latini predicts that Dante will be rewarded for his heroic political actions. Dante dismisses this prediction and says that Fortune will do as she pleases. Virgil approves of this attitude, and they move on as Latini returns to his appointed path.
Still in the Second Zone among the Sodomites, Dante is approached by another group of souls, three of whom claim to recognize Dante as their countryman. The flames have charred their features beyond recognition, so they tell Dante their names. Dante recalls their names from his time in Florence and feels great pity for them. They ask if courtesy and valor still characterize their city, but Dante sadly replies that acts of excess and arrogance now reign.
Before leaving the Second Zone, Virgil makes a strange request. He asks for the cord that Dante wears as a belt, then throws one end of it into a ravine filled with dark water. Dante watches incredulously as a horrible creature rises up before them.
Dante now sees that the creature has the face of a man, the body of a serpent, and two hairy paws. Approaching it, he and Virgil descend into the Third Zone of this circle’s Third Ring. Virgil stays to speak with the beast, sending Dante ahead to explore the zone, inhabited by those who were violent against art (Virgil has earlier denoted them as the Usurers). Dante sees that these souls must sit beneath the rain of fire with purses around their necks; these bear the sinners’ respective family emblems, which each “with hungry eyes consumed” (XVII.51). As they appear unwilling to talk, Dante returns to Virgil.
In the meantime, Virgil has talked the human-headed monster into transporting them down to the Eighth Circle of Hell. Fearful but trusting of his guide, Dante climbs onto the beast’s serpentine back; Virgil addresses their mount as “Geryon.” To Dante’s terror and amazement, Geryon rears back and suddenly takes off into the air, circling slowly downward. After setting them down safely among the rocks at the edge of the Eighth Circle of Hell, Geryon returns to his domain.
Throughout Inferno, Dante the poet explains and clarifies the geography of his Hell in the form of periodic lectures given by Virgil to Dante the character. Canto XIV instances one such explanation. The “Old Man”—the statue from which the four rivers of Hell flow—derives in part from the poetry of Ovid and in part from the Bible’s Book of Daniel. Many critics interpret the crumbling statue as representing the decline of mankind. Virgil describes it as comprising four materials: gold, silver, brass, and iron.
Understood as a series, these metals correspond to the four ages of human history that Ovid delineates in his Metamorphoses: the Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze (or Brass) Age, and Iron Age. The left leg of the statue, made of iron, can be seen to represent the Roman Empire, strong and willfully led, while the right leg, made of clay, could be the Catholic Church—cracked by its corruption. Additionally, the statue looks west, toward Rome, in hope of renewal. This statue, along with the beasts at the beginning of the poem and Dante’s cord in Canto XVI, belongs to a group of apparently allegorical objects in Inferno whose symbolic meaning remains ambiguous. Dante may intend them simply to stimulate the imagination, and to add a sense of mystique to the world of his poem.
Brunetto Latini was a Florentine Guelph, renowned for both his writing and his politics; he taught at the university where Dante studied and helped foster Dante’s career. Although Latini provided him in life with kindness and counsel, the poet Dante rather ungratefully places him in Hell, and implicitly accuses his teacher of homosexuality or pedophilia, situating him among the Sodomites.
Perhaps the negative treatment received by Latini at the hands of Dante testifies to a positive aspect of the poem itself. Although Dante often uses Inferno to make jabs at his political enemies and “reward” his allies, this scene suggests that the work transcends mere political propaganda. Thus, although he places many Black Guelphs and Ghibellines in Hell, along with a number of popes, Dante also sees the flaws among his own White Guelphs, declaring, “so long as conscience is not betrayed, / I am prepared for Fortune to do her will” (XV.89–90).
Thus while he may promote particular emperors, and while he certainly doesn’t repress his anger at the papists, he puts forth the following of one’s conscience as the most important rule to follow, regardless of party. This attempt to shift his judgments out of partisan territory also points out religion as Dante’s underlying priority: regardless of one’s political beliefs, sin against God still merits full punishment.
Yet while Dante may maintain religion as the guiding force behind his work, he forgoes few opportunities to make political asides. In Canto XVI, as he talks with the three Florentine souls, Dante continues to reveal his pessimism about the political state of affairs in Florence. His description of the city reflects his state of exile—it is clearly a view from the outside. Moreover, the kinship he feels toward these souls stems from more than his sense of their common geographical origins; it comes from his sense of their common fate. For these three damned sinners are also exiles in their way. Thus, like Dante, they stand in this scene with their eyes turned back toward home, bemoaning the evil that is overrunning Florence but unable to do anything about it.
Dante draws the strange beast Geryon, the guardian of the Eighth Circle of Hell, from classical mythology, changing his form and reducing his number of heads but preserving his status as a symbol of fraud. Having left behind the circles punishing various types of violence, Virgil and Dante now enter the final two circles. While these circles contain many subdivisions of their own, they are both devoted to punishing the greatest sin of all—malice, or fraud. As a symbol of fraud, Geryon signifies this transition.