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Soft-hearted Dante, overcome by the anonymous thorn bush’s sad story, shares the suicide’s love of Florence. He shows his respect by gathering up all the broken branches and tenderly placing them back into the thorn bush.
Then, Dante and Virgil move on to the third ring, which is geographically distinguished from the second by its flat, decidedly non-forested plain. It’s sandy. That’s a big deal. And this sandy plain is set like a little island within the forest.
Because sand doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, Dante takes this opportunity to declare how fearful God’s punishment really is. Only after that does he describe the sinners.
There are huge flocks of naked sinners. They either walk, crouch, or lie in the sand. Those who can actually move about are quieter than those pinioned to the ground. More on this later.
It gets worse. Huge flakes of fire rain down endlessly from the sky. Dante, in metaphor mode, compares them to snow falling from the windless sky onto the Alps and then alludes to Alexander the Great’s expedition to India, when his troops were tormented by falling fire. (Never mind that that makes little sense.)
This explains why those sinners lying on the ground are noisier. They’re in more pain, because the rain of fire ignites the dry sand on which they burn. Dante calls the frantic movements of the sinners’ hands, beating out the flames, a "dance."
Dante notices a giant man lying in the sand and loudly cursing God. Predictably, he asks Virgil who it is.
The giant, who has giant ears to go along with the rest of him, hears Dante and answers.
Rather loudly, the giant denies that Jove (the Roman way of saying God) will ever be able to take revenge against him, even if He throws down all his thunderbolts (Jove’s favorite pastime) to smite him. This is what we call blasphemy.
Virgil, his piety aroused, reprimands Capaneus (that’s the giant’s name) and tells him that it is his own arrogance that makes him suffer.
More gently, Virgil tells Dante that Capaneus is one of the seven kings who fought against Thebes.
So Dante won’t burn his tender feet, Virgil instructs him to walk along the edge of the sand, closer to the forest than to the desert.
They come across a little stream that flows out of the woods. It seems innocent enough, until Dante notices that its water is red. (Yes, it’s another incarnation of Phlegethon.)
Apparently red is a bad color for Dante because it reminds him of Bulicame, a hot spring which provides the bathwater for Italian prostitutes.
In his fanciful way, Virgil points out that this little stream is important.
Dante begs Virgil for more information.
So Virgil goes into story-telling mode: Once upon a time, there was a nice island called Crete ruled by a nice king. In that land, there was a mountain called Ida where the goddess Rhea once hid her son, Jove, from his not-so-nice cannibalistic father, Saturn.
Just when it seems like the story’s getting good, Virgil sidetracks the tale to focus on the Old Man of Crete, a huge statue located within Mount Ida and constructed of many fine metals (gold, silver, brass, iron) as well as clay. Its back is turned towards Egypt and it faces Rome.
(Note: scholars have interpreted the statue as a symbol of mankind’s degeneracy. The statue’s left iron leg represents the strength of the Roman Empire while its right leg—made of soft clay— represents the corruption of the Church. Learn more.)
Here’s the thrust: every part of the statue is cracked and from each crack drips the statue’s tears. (Don’t ask how a stone figure can cry. We don’t know either.)
These tears eventually trickle from the mountain down through the depths of the earth and form Hell’s rivers, the Acheron, Styx, Phlegethon, and Cocytus (which Dante will see later).
At this point, Dante interrupts with a question. If these rivers originally flow from the mortal world, why can we only see them in Hell?
Virgil’s rather unsatisfactory answer: Hell’s circles are… well… round. And as far down as we’ve come, we still haven’t completed the circle. So don’t be surprised if you see something new. Like rivers.
Dante’s last question: where is the last famous Underworld river, Lethe? You didn’t mention it.
Virgil’s answer: it’s further on. Not in Hell, but in Purgatory… and because it’s the river of forgetfulness, it absolves some worthy sinners of their memories and allows them to be reincarnated with a clean slate.
Now it’s time to move on and Virgil tells Dante to keep walking along the riverbank because it doesn’t burn there.