Inferno -- Canto XIV

Capaneus, Old Man of Crete











15 Cato of Utica in 47 B. C. led a Roman army across the Libyan desert. More about Cato in Purgatorio I and II










31 Alexander is supposed to have described this scene in a letter (now known to be a forgery) to Aristotle.









46 The person is Capaneus who took part in the siege against Thebes. He represents the blasphemers in the third round of the seventh circle.





57 Vulcan and the Cyclops forged the thunderbolts of Jove on Mount Etna ("Mongibello" in Sicilian).

58 In the battle of Phlegra, Vulcan was on the side of the Giants.












79 The Bulicame was a hot spring near Viterbo. Prostitutes were not permitted to use the public baths and washed, instead, in a stream running from the spring.










97 Mount Ida on Crete was the site which Rhea (l. 100) chose to hide her son Jupiter from his father Saturn who usually ate his offspring to avoid being replaced by one of them.


103 The Old Man of Crete is described in the lines that follow. He is the center of time, his back to Damietta (l. 104) as the Egyptian past and his face toward Rome as the future, and he embodies the ages of man, from gold to iron and clay. From him flow the three rivers of hell (l. 116) down to the icy pool of Cocytus (l. 119). Lethe (l. 131), the river of forgetfulness, lies on the other side of Cocytus' pit.

          Love of our native city touched my heart:
          I bent and gathered up the scattered sprigs
          And gave them back to him whose voice grew faint.
          From there we reached the border that divided
5        The second from the third ring — and there
          I witnessed the horrendous art of justice.
          To make these unfamiliar sights quite clear,
          I say that we had come out on a plain
          Which banishes all verdure from its bed.
10       The grief-stricken wood enwreathed it all
          Around, as the sad ditch surrounds the wood.
          Here, right at the edge, we checked our steps.
          Dry and dense sand covered the ground’s surface,
          A sand no different in its texture from
15       That the feet of Cato once trampled on.
          O vengeance of God, how much you ought to be
          Held in fear by everyone who reads
          The things that were revealed before my eyes!
          I saw myriad flocks of naked souls,
20       All weeping wretchedly, and it appeared
          That separate sentences were meted to them.
          Flat on their backs, some spread out on the ground;
          Some squatted down, all hunched up in a crouch;
          And others walked about interminably.
25       More numerous were those who roamed around;
          Fewer were those stretched out for the torture,
          But looser were their tongues to tell their hurt.
          Over all the sand, large flakes of flame,
          Falling slowly, came floating down, wafted
30       Like snow without a wind up in the mountains.
          Just like the flames which Alexander saw
          In the torrid regions of India
          Swarming to the ground upon his legions,
          So that he had his troops tramp down the soil,
35       The better to put out the flaming flakes
          And to prevent them spreading other fires,
          So descended the everlasting blaze
          By which the sand enkindled, just like tinder
          Under sparks from flint — doubling the pain.
40       Restlessly the dance of wretched hands
          Went on and on, on this side and on that,
          Beating off the freshly falling flames.
          I began, "Master, you can win out over
          Everything — except the arrogant demons
45       That sortied against us at the entrance gate —
          "Who is that giant who appears to ignore
          The fire, lying so scornful and scowling
          That the rain seems not to make him soften?"
          And that same wraith, when he observed how I
50       Questioned my guide about him, shouted out,
          "What I was alive, I am the same dead!
          "Though Jupiter wear out the smith from whom
          He seized in wrath the sharpened thunderbolt
          Which on my last day was to strike me down,
55       "Though he wear out the others, one by one,
          Serving at Mongibello’s soot-black forge —
          As he bellows, ‘Good Vulcan, help me! help me!’
          "The way he did on the battlefield at Phlegra —
          Though with his whole force he flash out at me,
60       Yet he will never have his fond revenge."
          My guide shot back at him so strongly that
          I had not heard him use such force before,
          "O Capaneus, since your insolent pride
          "Is still unquenched, you are chastised the more:
65       No torture other than your own mad ravings
          Can punish you enough for your grim rage."
          Then with a gentler look he turned to me,
          Saying, "That was one of the seven kings
          Who laid siege to Thebes; he held and seems
70       "To hold God in disdain and prize him little;
          But, as I told you, these affronts of his
          Are the right decorations for his chest.
          "Now follow me and watch you do not ever
          Set your feet upon the scorching sand,
75       But always keep them back close to the trees."
          In silence we next reached a spot where gushed
          Out of the wood a small and narrow brook
          Whose redness makes me still shudder with fear.
          As from the Bulicame flows a stream
80       Which prostitutes then share for their own use,
          So too these waters coursed across the sand.
          Its bed and both its banks were made of stone,
          As were the borders all along its sides,
          So that I saw our passage lay that way.
85       "Of all the things that I have shown to you
          From the time we entered through the gate
          Whose threshold is prohibited to none,
          "Nothing your eyes have looked on up to now
          Is so worthy of note as the stream before you
90       That quenches all the flames above its path."
          These were the words my guide addressed to me.
          At this I begged him to give me the food
          For which he had whetted my appetite.
          "In the middle of the sea there lies a wasteland,"
95       He then declared to me; "it is called Crete,
          Under whose king the world had once been chaste.
          "A mountain rises there that long delighted
          In plants and water: Ida is its name;
          Now it is deserted like a withered thing.
100     "Rhea once chose it for the trusted cradle
          Of her son and, the better to hide him,
          When he would cry she made her servants shout.
          "Within the mountain stands a huge Old Man
          Straight up, his back turned to Damietta;
105      He gazes at Rome as if into a mirror.
          "His head is molded out of refined gold;
          His arms and breast are fashioned in pure silver;
          Then he is made of brass down to his crotch.
          "From there on downward he is all choice iron,
110     Except that his right foot is hard-baked clay,
          And this foot he favors over the other.
          "But for the gold, all the parts are cracked
          By a fissure from which the tears drip out
          That, when collected, penetrate the chasm.
115     "The tears run from the rocks into the valley,
          Forming Acheron, Styx, and Phlegethon,
          Then take their course through the narrow sluice,
          "And, at the point where there is no way down,
          They form Cocytus; and what that pool is like
120     You shall see — I will not describe it here."
          And I responded, "If this rivulet
          Pours down in this way from our upper world,
          Why do we view it only at this fringe?"
          And he replied, "You know this place is round,
125      And, although you have traveled a good distance
          Bearing ever to the left toward the bottom,
          "You have not even yet turned a full circle.
          So then if something new appears to us,
          It should not bring such wonder to your looks."
130     And I again: "Master, where shall we find
          Phlegethon and Lethe? One you omit,
          The other you say is formed by tears of rain."
          "In all your questions truly you please me,"
          He answered; "but the boiling blood-red water
135      Surely should have solved one you have asked.
          "Lethe you will see — but beyond this chasm —
There where the souls alight to cleanse themselves
When their repented sins are wiped away."
          Then he told me, "Now it is time to leave
140      This wood. See that you walk in back of me:
          The margins form a path that does not burn,
          "And all the flames above them are snuffed out."
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