It's hard to believe that we're not even halfway through Inferno but we're already on the last three circles. Dante starts to get into a lot of detail as to the punishments for the sins that he considers the most foul. In upper Hell the punishments for sins seemed very broad, most likely because these sins could be considered general; even Dante says they aren't seen to be on the same level as the sins in lower Hell. The sins in lower Hell are more specialized to the sin and the groups of shades are ordered more specifically than the upper levels.
After Nessus takes the poets across the river, he leaves them to the second round of the Seventh circle. The poets find themselves on the edge of a large forest with dark gnarled trees. There are nests of Harpies in the trees. Dante can heard pained cries from in the forest and behind trees and thinks that the shades are hiding from them but Virgil tells him to break off a branch from a tree and see what he learns. When he does as he is told, the tree that Dante breaks off a branch begins to cry out and ask why he would break it. Dante asks the tree who it once was and it tells him about how it was once Pier delle Vigne but eventually the tree falls silent and, after prompting from Dante, explains the punishment for those who commit violence against themselves. If someone commits suicide, their shade is encased in a tree. They are only able to talk when they are bleeding due to the wounds inflicted on them, usually by the Harpies that ravage the forest. On Judgement Day they will go and retrieve their bodies but their souls will not return to them, their bodies will hang from the branches of the their tree for eternity. The poets also see Lano da Siena and Jacomo da Sant' Andrea being chased by vicious hounds which ends in Jacomo being ripped to shreds and the dogs carrying away his pieces. During the struggle, a bush was damaged and Virgil takes Dante over so that he can ask who it once was. The shade informs them that it was just a citizen of Florence and that it has no story to tell.
Harpies = Creatures from Greek mythology. They have the bodies of birds and the faces of women and are known as snatchers of souls or food depending on the story. In Inferno, the Harpies torture the souls of those who committed suicide by ravaging the trees, causing the shades pain.
Reasoning behind punishment (Seventh circle: Violence against self) = Since the occupants of this part of the Seventh circle harmed their own bodies, they are no longer allowed to have a human body. This is punishment is expanded on after Judgement Day when the shades will retrieve their bodies but they won't be able to wear them again, they will have to hang them from their tree branches for the rest of time. They aren't allowed to have their bodies back because they threw them away when they committed suicide.
Pier delle Vigne = Minister to Frederick II. He was imprisoned after someone tried to poison the Emperor and, after the Emperor and guards ripped his eyes out, he killed himself by bashing his head off the stone floor.
Lano de Seina = A squander-er, he lost all his wealth and deliberately put himself in dangerous situations because he didn't want to live in poverty
Jacomo da Sant' Andrea = Another squander-er and arsonist, he used to set fire to his own and other's property until he was killed in 1239.
Violence against Substance = People who squandered but did so with extreme violence. Their punishment is to be chased by feral dogs, torn to pieces and the pieces scattered by the dogs to illustrate the violent way that they ruined their own possessions. This type of waste was very prevalent in Dante's time.
Dante feels pity for the unknown shade and takes the time to put back the fallen leaves before the poets move on to the last part of the Seventh circle. At the edge of the forest is a gigantic desert with burning hot sand. A constant rain of fire falls down on the shades regulated to this area. Blasphemers are stretched out on the sand while the Sodomites run around in aimless circles. Finally the Usurers are huddled on the ground. Dante and Virgil see Capaneus, a blasphemer who, even as his body is stretched across scorching sand and fire falls on him, still scorns God. Virgil tells Dante that Capaneus also suffers because of his inner violence and as they walk down the river bank so they avoid the burning sand, he tells Dante about the Old Man of Crete. The giant statue on the island of Crete is made of various metals, gold for the head, silver for the upper torso and arms, and brass for the lower torso to the crotch. The rest is iron except for the right foot which is terracotta and the load bearing part for the whole statue. All of the statue except for the golden part is split and from the split drips an endless flow of tears that make up the rivers Acheron, Phlegethon and Styx which end in the very center hell, Cocytus. Dante asks about the river Lethe and is told that he will see that later.
Reasoning behind punishment (Blasphemers, Sodomites and Usurers) = Dante believes that these sins (blasphemy, sodomy, usury) qualify as unnatural and sterile acts so those who commit them are sentenced to the empty, lifeless desert where God's wrath, in the form of fire, rains on them constantly. The Blasphemers are forced into a reverential posture on the burning sands to represent their violence against God. Sodomites run around in random circles because Dante sees the activities associated with sodomy as pointless since it goes against God's plans for nature. Usurers are punished severely in Dante's Hell because he saw this a crime against nature, in which he included industry.
Usury = Illegal practice of loaning money at exorbitant rates
Capaneus = A warrior from Greek mythology who, possessing great strength, boasted that even Zeus couldn't stop him from invading Thebes. While he was climbing the walls of the city, Zeus struck him with a thunderbolt and he died.
Symbolism of the Old Man of Crete = Dante uses the statue to symbolize the stages of Christianity, it faces away from Egypt (the beginning of Religion) and faces towards Rome (the future of the church). The various metals illustrate the eras of mankind; gold represents the Golden Age of Innocence and the metals decrease in value from there. One of the legs, the iron one, is meant to be the Holy Roman Empire but the terracotta leg (which supports the majority of the statue) is the Roman Catholic church which Dante sees as weaker. Finally the tears that flow through the less precious metals to make the rivers of Hell are the woes of mankind.
Cocytus = Frozen lake at the bottom of Hell
Lethe = The river of forgetfulness
Dante and Virgil continue walking down the riverbank when a group of shades, sodomites, appear. Dante is recognized by one of them. It takes him a minute but eventually the poet recognizes Ser Brunetto Latino who is a well respected Florentine philosopher and scholar. Brunetto asks if he could walk besides Dante for a little bit and Dante agrees emphatically so the shade walks near the two poets since he can't leave the burning sand and will have to soon return to be with his roving band. As they walk Brunetto asks why Dante is in Hell even though he isn't dead and Dante explains the cause of his journey. Brunetto prophecizes Dante's future woes in Florence and tells him about some of the other shades but eventually he is compelled to run back across the burning with the rest of the shades.
Ser Brunetto Latino = A Florentine nobleman, he became Dante's guardian after his father's death. Even though Brunetto is placed in lower Hell, Dante still treats him with respect. He refers to Brunetto as "master" out of respect and the notes from my translation makes note that in the original Italian, Dante uses "voi" to address Brunetto instead of the less formal "tu".
Dante's definition of sodomite = Dante classifies anything he sees as bestial under the label of sodomy, which to him meant homosexuals and sexual acts that were not meant for procreation (procreation being part of God's plan). By the modern definition of bestiality, people who had sex with animals would be included in this circle but there is no mention of the Minotaur's mother Pasiphae. One theory is that Dante thought that some sins, such as the modern definition of bestiality and cannablisim, were too horrible to talk about.
So there we have the bulk of the seventh circle. Only two more cantos to go here and then we'll be on to the very extensive Eighth circle.