Canto 31

THE very tongue, whose keen reproof before
Had wounded me, that either cheek was stain'd,
Now minister'd my cure.  So have I heard,
Achilles and his father's javelin caus'd
Pain first, and then the boon of health restor'd.

Turning our back upon the vale of woe,
W cross'd th' encircled mound in silence.  There
Was twilight dim, that far long the gloom
Mine eye advanc'd not: but I heard a horn
Sounded aloud. The peal it blew had made
The thunder feeble.  Following its course
The adverse way, my strained eyes were bent
On that one spot.  So terrible a blast
Orlando blew not, when that dismal rout
O'erthrew the host of Charlemagne, and quench'd
His saintly warfare.  Thitherward not long
My head was rais'd, when many lofty towers
Methought I spied.  "Master," said I, "what land
Is this?"  He answer'd straight: "Too long a space
Of intervening darkness has thine eye
To traverse: thou hast therefore widely err'd
In thy imagining.  Thither arriv'd
Thou well shalt see, how distance can delude
The sense.  A little therefore urge thee on."

Then tenderly he caught me by the hand;
"Yet know," said he, "ere farther we advance,
That it less strange may seem, these are not towers,
But giants.  In the pit they stand immers'd,
Each from his navel downward, round the bank."

As when a fog disperseth gradually,
Our vision traces what the mist involves
Condens'd in air; so piercing through the gross
And gloomy atmosphere, as more and more
We near'd toward the brink, mine error fled,
And fear came o'er me.  As with circling round
Of turrets, Montereggion crowns his walls,
E'en thus the shore, encompassing th' abyss,
Was turreted with giants, half their length
Uprearing, horrible, whom Jove from heav'n
Yet threatens, when his mutt'ring thunder rolls.

Of one already I descried the face,
Shoulders, and breast, and of the belly huge
Great part, and both arms down along his ribs.

All-teeming nature, when her plastic hand
Left framing of these monsters, did display
Past doubt her wisdom, taking from mad War
Such slaves to do his bidding; and if she
Repent her not of th' elephant and whale,
Who ponders well confesses her therein
Wiser and more discreet; for when brute force
And evil will are back'd with subtlety,
Resistance none avails.  His visage seem'd
In length and bulk, as doth the pine, that tops
Saint Peter's Roman fane; and th' other bones
Of like proportion, so that from above
The bank, which girdled him below, such height
Arose his stature, that three Friezelanders
Had striv'n in vain to reach but to his hair.
Full thirty ample palms was he expos'd
Downward from whence a man his garments loops.
"Raphel bai ameth sabi almi,"
So shouted his fierce lips, which sweeter hymns
Became not; and my guide address'd him thus:
"O senseless spirit! let thy horn for thee
Interpret: therewith vent thy rage, if rage
Or other passion wring thee.  Search thy neck,
There shalt thou find the belt that binds it on.
Wild spirit! lo, upon thy mighty breast
Where hangs the baldrick!"  Then to me he spake:
"He doth accuse himself.  Nimrod is this,
Through whose ill counsel in the world no more
One tongue prevails.  But pass we on, nor waste
Our words; for so each language is to him,
As his to others, understood by none."

Then to the leftward turning sped we forth,
And at a sling's throw found another shade
Far fiercer and more huge.  I cannot say
What master hand had girt him; but he held
Behind the right arm fetter'd, and before
The other with a chain, that fasten'd him
From the neck down, and five times round his form
Apparent met the wreathed links.  "This proud one
Would of his strength against almighty Jove
Make trial," said my guide; "whence he is thus
Requited: Ephialtes him they call.
"Great was his prowess, when the giants brought
Fear on the gods: those arms, which then he piled,
Now moves he never."  Forthwith I return'd:
"Fain would I, if 't were possible, mine eyes
Of Briareus immeasurable gain'd
Experience next."  He answer'd: "Thou shalt see
Not far from hence Antaeus, who both speaks
And is unfetter'd, who shall place us there
Where guilt is at its depth.  Far onward stands
Whom thou wouldst fain behold, in chains, and made
Like to this spirit, save that in his looks
More fell he seems."  By violent earthquake rock'd
Ne'er shook a tow'r, so reeling to its base,
As Ephialtes.  More than ever then
I dreaded death, nor than the terror more
Had needed, if I had not seen the cords
That held him fast.  We, straightway journeying on,
Came to Antaeus, who five ells complete
Without the head, forth issued from the cave.

"O thou, who in the fortunate vale, that made
Great Scipio heir of glory, when his sword
Drove back the troop of Hannibal in flight,
Who thence of old didst carry for thy spoil
An hundred lions; and if thou hadst fought
In the high conflict on thy brethren's side,
Seems as men yet believ'd, that through thine arm
The sons of earth had conquer'd, now vouchsafe
To place us down beneath, where numbing cold
Locks up Cocytus.  Force not that we crave
Or Tityus' help or Typhon's.  Here is one
Can give what in this realm ye covet.  Stoop
Therefore, nor scornfully distort thy lip.
He in the upper world can yet bestow
Renown on thee, for he doth live, and looks
For life yet longer, if before the time
Grace call him not unto herself."  Thus spake
The teacher.  He in haste forth stretch'd his hands,
And caught my guide.  Alcides whilom felt
That grapple straighten'd score.  Soon as my guide
Had felt it, he bespake me thus: "This way
That I may clasp thee;" then so caught me up,
That we were both one burden.  As appears
The tower of Carisenda, from beneath
Where it doth lean, if chance a passing cloud
So sail across, that opposite it hangs,
Such then Antaeus seem'd, as at mine ease
I mark'd him stooping.  I were fain at times
T' have pass'd another way.  Yet in th' abyss,
That Lucifer with Judas low ingulfs,
lightly he plac'd us; nor there leaning stay'd,
But rose as in a bark the stately mast.


  1. Antaeus rose like a mast of a stately "bark," or sailing vessel.

    — Stephen Holliday
  2. Virgil refers to Dante, who, because he will return to earth, can remind everyone in "the upper world" of Antaeus's greatness. Fame is Antaeus's price for his services.

    — Stephen Holliday
  3. The giant Tityus, who tried to rape Apollo's mother, Latona, was killed by Apollo. The giant Typhon was killed by Zeus (Jove) at Phlegra.

    — Stephen Holliday
  4. Virgil flatters Antaeus because he needs the giant's help. Virgil says that men believe the Titans would have beaten if the Olympic gods if Antaeus had participated in the attack. This is an example of dramatic irony, for readers know that Virgil's story may well be a lie.

    — Stephen Holliday
  5. An "ell" is an English measure equal to 45 inches. Antaeus, without considering his head, stands above the rim of the pit by almost 19 feet.

    — Stephen Holliday
  6. Virgil and Dante need Antaeus to transport them to the deepest pit of the Ninth Circle, where Lucifer is chained.

    — Stephen Holliday
  7. Unlike the other giants, Antaeus, the brother of Briareus, is able to speak. His punishment is not quite as restrictive as those of the other giants because Antaeus did not participate in the attack on Mt. Olympus.

    — Stephen Holliday
  8. Virgil describes Briareus, another giant, as equal to Ephialtes in size but even more terrifying. Dante does not describe Briareus, who is traditionally described as one of three giants with one hundred arms who helped the gods defeat an attack by the Titans. Briareus is specifically credited with saving Zeus (Jove).

    — Stephen Holliday
  9. Ephialtes is one of the giants who led the attack against Zeus (Jove) and the other gods on Mt. Olympus. He attempted, along with his twin brother, Otus, to scale Mt. Olympus by stacking Mount Pelion on Mount Ossa in Macedonia. Both brothers were killed by the arrows of the Olympian gods Apollo and Diana, themselves twins as well.

    — Stephen Holliday
  10. Virgil identifies a giant named Nimrod, who is thought to have created the Tower of Babel. As told in the biblical Book of Genesis, Babel was built in an attempt to reach Heaven. God, showing his displeasure, destroyed the tower and sundered the original universal language, supposedly creating the world's many languages.

    — Stephen Holliday
  11. A baldric is a belt worn across the chest to support a weapon, typically a sword, or an instrument, typically a bugle.

    — Stephen Holliday
  12. Virgil tells the Giant to use his rear end—"thy horn"—if he wants to communicate or vent his anger.

    — Stephen Holliday
  13. dThese words, spoken by a Giant, are essentially a string of Hebrew gibberish. Scholars suggest that this reflects Dante's refusal to allow the Giants to say anything intelligible. They are symbols of brute power, not intellectual capacity.

    — Stephen Holliday
  14. "Friezelanders" refers to people from Frisia, a nation in the Middle Ages that roughly corresponds to modern-day Netherlands.

    — Stephen Holliday
  15. These lines allude to the statue of a bronze pine cone that stands in Castel Sant'Angelo, the mausoleum built for the Roman Emperor Hadrian. The cone is said to "top/Saint Peter's fane," or temple, because in Dante's time Castel Sant'Angelo was connected to Saint Peter's Basilica, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church.

    — Stephen Holliday
  16. Monteriggioni is a fortress near Siena whose walls are topped with a series of sixty-foot-tall sentry towers. In its design, it is a typical Tuscan fortified town of the 13th century. Dante uses Monteriggioni as a visual metaphor for the ring of turrets that gird the abyss at the heart of the Ninth Circle.

    — Stephen Holliday
  17. At first Dante thinks that the giants, who tower over the rim of the central pit, are actually towers. The giants are here because they betrayed their rightful ruler by raging against the gods. They are once-powerful beings who are now powerless to help themselves because God is the ultimate wielder of power. Thus the giants reveal one of the central themes of Dante's Divine Comedy: the importance of attaining to God's will.

    — Stephen Holliday
  18. This is an allusion to the Old French epic The Song of Roland. Late in the poem, Roland (Orlando) takes charge of King Charlemagne's rear guard in the fight at Roncevalles against the Moors. Roland is too late in blowing his horn for aid from Charlemagne's main forces, and Roland and all his men are slain. The battle, a historical event, took place in 778 CE.

    Later, we will find Ganelon, the Frenchman who assisted the Moors (Saracens) and betrayed his stepson, Roland. As a result, he became a traitor to his family, his kingdom and, most importantly, his religion.

    — Stephen Holliday
  19. Achilles' spear, which was given to him by his father, Peleus, had the power to wound and to heal. Dante uses the spear as a metaphor for Virgil's sharp words, which first hurt Dante, then fortify him.

    — Stephen Holliday
  20. Dante and Virgil, their time running short, finally arrive in the Ninth Circle, the central pit of hell. This is the home of the Giants—often known as "Titans"—who tried to overthrow the Greco-Roman gods.

    — Stephen Holliday