Dante's Inferno Canto 12: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In Chapter 12, Virgil and Dante enter the Seventh Circle. In this lesson, we will explain what they saw in this circle, who is held here, and how they got through the treacherous land.

Chapter 12 Overview

In chapter 12 of Dante's Inferno, Virgil and Dante find themselves traveling into the seventh circle of hell. There are a total of nine circles, so we are getting pretty deep into hell at this point. This chapter (or canto) describes the first ring or level of this circle. This ring is for those who had 'violence against one's Fellow Man. Murderers and Spoilers.' As we go through this story, Dante refers to Virgil by several different titles, which gives us an insight to how he views Virgil their relationship.

A river called 'Phlegethon' is in this ring, which is a river of boiling blood in which the wrongdoers must spend their eternity. The level of their crimes of violence will determine the depth of blood that they must wade through.

Entering the Circle

Prior to entering the seventh circle, Dante and Virgil encounter a Minotaur. The path here has become quite precarious, with only enough space for one to walk on it and the Minotaur trying to stop them! There are several dangers that Dante faces throughout his journey. This isn't simply a journey of learning, he needs to face dangers and monsters that want to kill him. Dante needs to work for this knowledge.

Virgil (or as Dante refers to him here, his Sage) mocks the Minotaur, asking if he thinks the Minotaur's killer could be found here. The Minotaur rages and begins to act 'As doth a bull, who from his leash breaks free the moment he receives the mortal blow, and cannot walk, but plunges here and there'.

Seeing that the Minotaur is not going to be able to properly give them chase, Virgil and Dante run past into the seventh circle. Typically it doesn't make sense for Virgil to mock the Minotaur in order to get past him. We would think that would simply make him more angry and try to attack them more. But as the wise sage that Dante refers to, Virgil understood what they needed to do to get past the Minotaur.

As they run past, Dante notes that the rocks move beneath his feet due to his mortal 'unwonted load.' It is important to note that his mortal feet move the rocks, while immortal feet do not move the rocks.

The River

Eventually they come to 'the stream of blood. . . wherein boils who by violence harms others.' Along the bank of this boiling river of blood are centaurs. These centaurs each carry a bow. When the centaurs see Virgil and Dante they stop and stare, demanding to know why they are there. Virgil (or teacher, as Dante calls him at this point) says that he will only tell Chiron, the leader.

Centaurs guarded the boiling river of blood
The Centaurs

As they are waiting for Chiron, Virgil explains that these centaurs are here to shoot arrows at any of the souls who try to lift themselves out of the river. These people are not able to remove themselves from the consequences of their actions, they made their choices while on Earth, and they must now face the consequences. Each person is to be buried in the river to such a depth as meets their crime. So, if someone buried up to their eyebrows tries to lift their head out of the river, then they are shot. Once again we see why Dante chose the title that he did for Virgil, teacher, as Virgil takes this moment to teach Dante something.

Eventually Chiron gets there, and he immediately draws an arrow on Dante exclaiming 'Are ye aware that he who comes behind moves what he touches?' In other words, Chiron realizes that Dante is mortal because he is moving rocks as he walks! But Virgil (at this point Dante refers to him as 'Leader') calms Chiron explaining:

'He lives indeed, and thus alone must I needs show to him the dark abyss; necessity is leading him, not pleasure. One who withdrew from singing praise to God, gave me this new commission;'

In other words, they aren't there simply for pleasure or fun, but for necessity as a mission from an angel of God.

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