Inferno VII: The Wrathful Smite Each Other in the River Styx
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”
Canto seven includes a scene of great ferocity, as those whose anger and spiteful nature guided them in life are condemned to beat, kick and bite one another while floating in the River Styx.
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Dante had a ferocious sense of humor and this is evidenced throughout L'Inferno, wherein he subjects friend and foe alike to dreadful fates—punishments ranging from the inconvenient to the inhumane. He reserved a great deal of his ire for political rivals who are eternally tortured, burned and humiliated in the bowels of Hell. And, while he pitied the misfortune of the timing, he added historical figures who (sometimes merely because they were born before Christianity was in flower) were doomed to lives of boredom, aimlessness or shame.
In one of my favorite scenes, dozens of furious souls are damned to partake in a raging battle in the bloody River Styx in Canto Seven. Arriving on the scene he sees all manner of chaos and carnage happening among the participants—an angry, mud-soaked mob immersed in the bloody waters, biting, kicking, drowning, punching and slapping each other.
And yet, somehow this scene carries with it a terrific sense of absurdity, and it's tough to explain why. I suppose the very notion of people immersed in blood, attacking one another with utter malice is terrifying, but somehow it's worth a chuckle:
In la palude va c’ha nome Stige
questo tristo ruscel, quand’ è disceso
al piè de le maligne piagge grige.
E io, che di mirare stava inteso,
vidi genti fangose in quel pantano,
ignude tutte, con sembiante offeso.
Queste si percotean non pur con mano,
ma con la testa e col petto e coi piedi,
troncandosi co’ denti a brano a brano.
It becomes a swamp by the name of Styx,
this sorry brook, when it descends
at the foot of the malignant, grey shore.
And I, who stood intent,
saw muddy people in the quagmire,
all of them naked and inflamed.
They struck each other not only with their
hands, but with their heads, breasts and feet,
and tore each other piece by piece with their teeth.
For me, head butts are entirely reminiscent of the theatrical absurdity of pro wrestling, and Dante's refined and shocked countenance adds a bit more to the spectacle.