Canto 21 Summary and Analysis
Barrators: Sinners who made money in public office
Demons: Include Hacklespur, Hellkin, Harrowhound, Libbicock, Dragonel, Barbinger, Grabbersnitch, Rubicant, Farfarel, Belzecue
The Fifth Bowge is dark and filled with the bubbles of boiling pitch; to prevent the sinners from drawing themselves from the pitch, demons keep pushing them down, much as a cook stirs a cooking pot of stew to make sure all bits and pieces in the pot are submerged.
Virgil suddenly pulls Dante aside and cries, “Look out!” A winged demon, carrying an alderman, is moving quickly behind Dante. This alderman is a barrator, who made money from hidden deals and from grabbing money in secret.
Virgil instructs Dante to hide and wait; Virgil confronts the demons directly and explains that he and Dante must pass. The demons summon another of their numbers; this demon, named Belzecue, protects them and allows them to pass.
Belzecue tells them that five hours from this time (minus one day) will mark the time that an earthquake occurred 1266 years ago. This quake destroyed a bridge without which passage will be difficult. Belzecue tells the two travelers that he will send some demons to protect them as they travel.
Dante is reluctant to have these companions, but Virgil says that the grimaces the demons make are intended for the sinners and not for them. As the two travelers leave, they see the demons stick out their tongues at Belzecue, who plays a bugle as they leave.
Discussion and Analysis
The sinners in this trench are punished by darkness, pitch, and demons with forks. Just as money stuck to the fingers of the barrators in life, so the boiling pitch will stick to them as punishment in Hell. The barrators are confined to darkness to symbolize their black, evil deeds that were done under cover.
The earthquake that Belzecue mentions occurred at the time that Christ died on the cross; most experts believe that the death came at 3:00 p.m. If death was at 3:00 p.m., as the gospels declare, then the contact with Belzecue occurred at 10:00 a.m.
Dante’s apprehension about the demons who will accompany them is foreshadowing of later occurrences as Belzecue gives them false directions in order to entrap them. When the journey recommences, the demons bid each other good-bye by sticking out their tongues. Belzecue trumpets good-bye with a loud cry.