Chinese Medicine Healing Chronic Illness Health Poetry

Latency and Dante’s Last Circle of Hell

Dante Alighieri by Sandro Botticelli (
Dante Alighieri by Sandro Botticelli (
Dante's Inferno by Sandro Botticelli (
Dante’s Inferno by Sandro Botticelli. Click on any picture to see it in more detail. (

Latency is defined as the condition of being concealed. Our bodies render latent anything with which we choose not to deal. This includes those pesky colds and digestive influenzas that interfere with our ability to earn a whole paycheck. Most of us would rather tough it out than stay at home and allow ourselves the cleansing experience these minor illnesses provide. Unfortunately a lifetime of such behaviour adds up to an accumulation of toxicity that fills our holding areas. Often we start to encounter the overflow beginning at the age of forty. “Body only have forty-year warranty,” Shīfù Kenny Gong used to say. Recurrent joint pain, sinusitis and digestive problems are just a few of the symptoms indicating this has happened. Chronic issues build for a long time before they manifest. A lot of dross gets deposited first. A knowledgeable Chinese medical practitioner is able to cleanse pathogens from these areas of latency. An attentive doctor understands the appropriate time to hand the patient a mop and broom to clean the house that is her body. Someone who is already tired must build her energy first before tackling these Stygian stables.

Traumas that overwhelm a person’s rational thought are also put into latency but much more deeply. These are extraordinary events that defy our ability to process them. I am referring to misfortunes such as murder, incest, rape and physical or mental abuse. They challenge “the most basic civic, familial, and religious foundations of happiness.” (Storey, The Dante Encyclopedia, p. 306.) A person exposed to these kinds of betrayal at a very young age may not retrieve the memories until they are much older. The more profound the perfidy, the longer it takes to remember. Sometimes it is necessary for the abuser to die before the victim feels safe enough for absolution. It is never fair to prompt a person who has buried this kind of legacy. The memories will arise spontaneously when the victim is healthy enough to process them for the first time. Often they appear several years after retirement when the body has had time to recover from years of labour.

The levels of Dante's Hell by Sandro Botticcelli (
The levels of Dante’s Hell by Sandro Botticelli (

Extreme trauma is buried below the abyss. In acupuncture theory, this is the region referred to by a point on the inner ankle called Kidney 3 by English speakers or Tài Xī (太谿/溪), the Great Ravine, by Chinese speakers. The last character begins with the radical Xī meaning to bind:

Xī, meaning 'to bind'
Xī, meaning ‘to bind’

It is composed of Zhăo, signifying claws or talons, which truss pathogens with silken threads, as a spider wraps his dinner:

Zhăo or talons
Zhăo or talons
Xì or threads
Xì or threads

The second radical is a valley or Gŭ, inferring as Dante wrote, that the disposal site is at the centre of the earth:

Gŭ or valley
Gŭ or valley

Ravine can also be written with the contracted water radical Shŭi because its flow carves them from the earth:

Xī or ravine, another similar character
Xī or ravine, another similar character
Shŭi or water
Shŭi or water. Can you see water moving in all directions to seek the lowest position?

Representing water, the kidneys encompass our constitution or DNA. These experiences can induce certain gene sequences to turn on or off at this level. Tumours at a young age, whether benign or otherwise, can be an indication of this situation. Endometriosis at menarche might be an example. Early onset leukemia might be another. The offending article is so far beneath the surface, it is frozen. Think of an ice cube around a putrifying memory. This is the bottom ring of Dante Alighieri’s hell. His Inferno houses those who have challenged social stability at the expense of joy (see above). It is a deep place, at the centre of the earth. Lucifer is frozen in ice up to his chest, allowing each of his three heads to chew on one of the worst betrayers.

Lucifer frozen up to his chest by Sandro Botticelli (
Lucifer frozen up to his chest by Sandro Botticelli (
Lucifer's three heads and bat-like wings by Sandro Botticelli (
Lucifer’s three heads and bat-like wings by Sandro Botticelli (

Below the abyss a person has no consciousness of the material buried there. It is like freezing garbage to cut down on the smell and, on a mountain, discourage bears. It is true, as in Dante’s telling, that it causes chronic pain akin to being a giant’s chew toy, like the hapless sinners in Lucifer’s three mouths. Cocytus or the river of wailing surrounds the last ring of hell. Any blockage down below creates one above in the head, as any good plumber knows (AKA Chinese medical practitioner). It is essential to have an upper air vent if one expects sewage to flow down. If one end is clogged, the other is too. Think of dipping a straw in liquid and putting your finger over the upper opening. When you lift the straw from the fluid it remains in the straw until you release your finger. An obstructed head causes foggy thinking from accumulated fluid, like a cloudy sky ready to rain. When Dante sees the huge wings of Lucifer, he describes just this state:

A far-off windmill turning its huge sails
when a thick fog begins to settle in,
or when the light begins to fade, 6

that is what I thought I saw appearing.
And the gusts of wind it stirred made me shrink back. 10

The wind Dante describes is what Chinese medicine calls internal wind. It arises from excess heat in the body, like the fire in hell’s upper rings. This is the heat that the body attempts to hold latent. Unresolved illness or trauma functions like decomposing organic material in an unturned compost pile. It gets hot in the centre! This, despite the cold packed around it. Internal wind provokes abnormal movement in those afflicted. Examples are tremours or the spasms of blood vessel walls that induce hypertension.

When we had moved far enough along the way
that my master thought the time had come to show me
the creature who was once so beautiful, 18

he stepped aside, and stopping me, announced:
“This is he, this is Dis; this is the place
that calls for all the courage you have in you.” 21

How chilled and nerveless, Reader, I felt then;
do not ask me – I cannot write about it –
there are no words to tell you how I felt. 24

I did not die – I was not living either!
try to imagine, if you can imagine,
me there, deprived of life and death at once. 27

These last stanzas chronicle the difficulty of confronting trauma that is devastating. They underscore the importance of patience until one is sufficiently healthy to face the truth. The death of beauty and hope sequestered in one’s being is shocking to behold! Dante also makes reference to the nervous system, which is affected more by in utero trauma. This may lead to illnesses such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis or cystic fibrosis.

Dante & Virgil climbing up Lucifer's leg to heaven by Sandro Botticelli (
Dante & Virgil climbing up Lucifer’s leg to heaven by Sandro Botticelli (

The greatest artists, such as Dante, are clearly informed by the collective consciousness:

When we had reached the point exactly where
the thigh begins, right at the haunch’s curve,
my guide, with strain and force of every muscle, 78

turned his head toward the shaggy shanks of Dis
and grabbed the hair as if about to climb –
I thought that we were heading back to Hell. 81

“Hold tight, there is no other way,” he said,
panting, exhausted, “only by these stairs
can we leave behind the evil we have seen.” 84

Dante describes the location of an acupuncture point called Support Mountain or Chéng Fú (承 扶) where the thigh meets the buttocks. Two hands hold a seal, the kind stamped to close an envelope:

Chéng 'to support'
Chéng ‘to support’
Shŏu or one hand
Shŏu or one hand
Gŏng or two hands
Gŏng or two hands
Jíe or seal
Jíe or seal

In this interpretation, they are retaining latent material. The area is cupped to release it (see to read about cupping). Chéng also refers to establishing order from the chaos created by internal wind. Being closest to heaven, the lungs perform this function in Chinese medicine. Fú also has the radical for hand and that for a man:

Fū or man
Fū or man

It takes a strong grip to maintain latency and hold up the mountain that is the body. The conservation of latency consumes a fair amount of energy. This last stanza describes what happens when we clear the lion’s share of our latency. Remember, it can take a long time, depending on our strength and its virulence. As the protagonist, Dante is ushered by the poet Virgil. A patient needs a wise facilitator in this challenging process. Choose prudently. In earlier stanzas Virgil explains to Dante that a great weight has been lifted from him:

“You think you’re still on the center’s other side,”
he said, “where first I grabbed the hairy worm
of rottenness that pierces the earth’s core; 108

and you were there as long as I moved downward
but, when I turned myself, you passed the point
to which all weight from every part is drawn. 111

The sensory orifices open in the head, which gives us more clarity. Our eyes are no longer shrouded by the experiences of the past. We see heaven because the stars shine from its black canopy the way our eyes do from their sockets. Each day arrives as if we are newborn to the planet. It is easier to fulfill our potential and our destiny without the burden of latency.

We climbed, he first and I behind, until,
through a small round opening ahead of us
I saw the lovely things the heavens hold, 138

and we came out to see once more the stars.

All quotes are from Canto XXXIV of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno translated by Mark Musa.