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Dante Alighieri

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Canto 12

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Canto 12 of Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno.

Inferno | Canto 12 | Summary



The poets continue on into the ravine and come to a great pile of shattered rock. The Minotaur of Crete—part bull, part human—tries to attack them as they near it, but they slip past him as he lunges back and forth in a rage. As they climb over the stones, Virgil tells Dante that the last time he came through Hell the rock had not yet collapsed, forming the pile. He explains that this must have happened when the One—Christ—came into Hell to take away those faithful to God who are mentioned in the Old Testament.

Looking down into the valley, Dante sees a river of blood where those who were violent toward others must boil. A group of Centaurs armed with bows runs around it, shooting anyone who tries to rise too far above the blood. The Centaurs, seeing the two men, stop. One of them calls out from a distance, questioning their presence. Virgil says he will not make an answer to anyone but Chiron, a famous Centaur. As they draw closer to the Centaurs, Virgil explains that he is guiding Dante through the "dark valley." He asks if one of the Centaurs can help Dante, who still has a physical body, across the blood. Chiron assigns this duty to another centaur Nessus who, in Greek mythology, is responsible for the death of Hercules. As he guides them, Nessus explains that the depth a person must stay submerged in blood corresponds to their sins, giving several examples, including Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun.


In this canto the familiar pattern of Virgil and Dante being challenged by some kind of creature, but getting safely past it, reemerges. The Minotaur is another creature from Greek mythology—a half-human, half-bull creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man. As he faces this violent monster, Virgil seems to have recovered from his defeat at the entrance to the city of Dis, and is again full of confidence. The principle of contrapasso is also very evident in the punishments the violent sinners receive; they must boil in a river of blood, for they drew blood in life. They are submerged to a degree that corresponds to the severity of their violence—the more blood they drew in life, the more they boil in now.

Dante's physical body is an important feature in this canto because it means that Virgil must ask the Centaurs for help getting Dante across the river of blood. Just as Dante caused the boat to sink lower in the water in Canto VIII, he moves the heaped stones as he scrambles over them. The rubble over which the two poets climb draws attention to the fact that while Hell and its punishments are eternal, the geography of Hell is mutable and physical, too.

Nowhere in Hell is the name of Christ used, which means that when Virgil wants to describe how Christ came into Hell and took away to Heaven some of those trapped there, he finds other words. In this case he uses "the One." Other heavenly figures are also referred to by code names: God is "the Power that permits [Virgil's] steps" and Beatrice is she "who had just come from singing hallelujah."

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