Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Dante's Inferno questions.

The Forest

The use of the forest as a dangerous setting for man's moral welfare is common in the writings of the early Church Fathers, such as Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), who notes in In Ioannem "this forest [is] so immense and full of snares and dangers."  For Christian writers, the forest often becomes a metaphor for Hell or, more correctly, the absence of God.  Just as a forest, dense with trees, obscures what lies before the wanderer, Dante's own moral compass spins wildly, leading the him deeper into a confused state.  As many commentators on Dante's journey into the forest have noted, the forest mirrors the state of Dante's soul--lacking the light of truth and seeking the light in the wrong place.

The Essence of Comedy

The idea of literature representing unity and symmetry is present in Dante's Divine Comedy.  Dante is unabashed in rejecting fragmentation and disunity in the name of an ordered configuration to being in the world. Dante is admittedly in the midst of a "dark wood" as his journey starts. His embrace of both Virgil as his guide and the power of Christian redemption enables Dante, the pilgrim and author, to find a sense of unity and symmetry in being.  The vision of paradise as one where all opposites are merged is critical in such a construction.

Dante's vision of unity is significant on a couple of levels. The first is that it is challenging to find a more comic text.  While it is not very difficult to find tragedies littering the literary landscape, it is a bit more of a struggle to find a work that is more emphatic of a comic condition to being than Dante's Divine Comedy.  In outlining the different aspects of being, Dante suggests that individuals can find a sense of unity in being if they identify with something larger than themselves.  By the end of his journey, Dante is no longer dispirited and isolated pilgrim.  Rather, he has found purpose and meaning in the world of the divine, embodied by Beatrice.  The fusion of all opposing notions of the good and embrace of totality is significant. Few other works are so emphatic and passionate in their embrace of the unity that is found in The Divine Comedy.  

The embrace of spirituality is matched by the embrace of intertextuality.  Dante is deliberate in having Virgil as his guide.  Through this, Dante embraces the idea that works of literature are interrelated and connected to one another.  Dante's inclusion of works like Homer helps to further this connection.  In Dante's world, unity is present when the individual artist recognizes the sequence in which they are a part.  Literature is an endeavor where one is not in isolation.  There is interconnection and interrelated condition within literature that Dante embraces in his work. This is further reflection of the essence of comedy intrinsic to Dante's work.

Venial Sins, Mortal Sins, and the Catholic Church

In Catholic doctrine, there are two types of sins a person can commit:  venial sins and mortal sins. Venial sins are relatively minor, such as being impatient, gossiping, or stealing something of low value. Venial sins are thought to harm an individual’s relationship with God but not irreparably. Mortal sins, however, are those that so egregious that they kill one’s spirit, destroying feelings of charity and grace within him, and thus separating the individual from God. Mortal sins include murder, fraud, and adultery. One may commit a venial sin accidentally, without malice of forethought, but mortal sins are committed deliberately, with a person’s full knowledge.

Dante’s Circles of Hell are modeled on the work of Sir Thomas Aquinas, who, some fifty years prior to Dante’s writing, ranked sins according to their level of offense against God, from least to greatest. Aquinas’s “system” has influenced philosophers, theologians, and writers for hundreds of years.

The worst of the worst sins, according to Aquinas, are known as the “Seven Deadly Sins.”  They are:

  1. Lust

  2. Gluttony

  3. Avarice (Greed)

  4. Sloth (Laziness)

  5. Anger

  6. Envy

  7. Pride

Additionally, all sin can be categorized as one or more of the following types, from least to greatest offense:

Level One:  Incontinence, or lack of self-control

Level Two:  Violence, a deliberate violation of God’s will

Level Three:  Fraudulence or Traitorousness, using one’s intellect as a weapon

The Virtuous Pagans of Circle One: Virgil, Plato, Socrates, and Homer

As Dante is constructing his version of Hell, he uses Aquinas’s model to condemn his sinners. In Aquinas’s rendering, the first section of hell is the “Vestibule,” a place that is non-descript, which is appropo considering its denizens.  Here one finds the non-believers and the indecisive, those who refuse to choose sides in the eternal war. Opportunists are also housed here; they are those who take advantage of the gullible.

Dante, however, begins with what Aquinas identifies as “Limbo” and calls it “Circle One.”  Infants who die without the benefit of baptism are here; so too are the virtuous pagans. These are people, who, like Virgil himself, are not eligible for forgiveness because they lived prior to Christ’s sacrifice for mankind. Socrates, Homer, and Plato live here. While they have lived good lives, they cannot be in God’s grace, and therefore they exist “without hope” and forever “In desire.”

Virgil explains to Dante:

"The anguish of the people

Who are below here in my face depicts

That pity which for terror thou hast taken.

Let us go on, for the long way impels us."

Thus he went in, and thus he made me enter

The foremost circle that surrounds the abyss.

There, as it seemed to me from listening,

Were lamentations none, but only sighs,

That tremble made the everlasting air.

And this arose from sorrow without torment,

Which the crowds had, that many were and great,

Of infants and of women and of men.

To me the Master good: "Thou dost not ask

What spirits these, which thou beholdest, are?

Now will I have thee know, ere thou go farther,

That they sinned not; and if they merit had,

'Tis not enough, because they had not baptism

Which is the portal of the Faith thou holdest;

And if they were before Christianity,

In the right manner they adored not God;

And among such as these am I myself.

For such defects, and not for other guilt,

Lost are we and are only so far punished,

That without hope we live on in desire."


The Lustful of Circle Two: Francesca and Paolo

Canto V 

In Circle Two, Dante meets the former lovers Paolo and Francesca. Their crime had been lust, and putting their carnal love and desire before their love and obedience to God. Appropriately, these two lovers are forever buffeted by strong winds, just as in life they were blown to extremes by their passion.

Francesca is allowed to pause long enough to explain her neverending misery to the poet:  

"There is no greater sorrow

Than to be mindful of the happy time

In misery, and that thy Teacher knows.

But, if to recognise the earliest root

Of love in us thou hast so great desire,

I will do even as he who weeps and speaks.

One day we reading were for our delight

Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthral.

Alone we were and without any fear.

Full many a time our eyes together drew

That reading, and drove the colour from our faces;

But one point only was it that o'ercame us.

When as we read of the much-longed-for smile

Being by such a noble lover kissed,

This one, who ne'er from me shall be divided,

Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.

Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it.

That day no farther did we read therein."

As Francesca tells her story, her former lover, Paolo, is blown close enough to overhear. He is impaled by emotional pain, and Dante, recognizing his own weakness in regard to Beatrice, swoons:

And all the while one spirit uttered this,

The other one did weep so, that, for pity,

I swooned away as if I had been dying,

And fell, even as a dead body falls.

The Gluttons of Circle Three: Cerebus and Ciacco

Canto VI

Having just left Francesca and Paolo, the lovers guilty of elevating their own lust and desire over God, Virgil and Dante descend into the third circle.  Their progress however, is guarded by a three-headed dog whom Virgil knows as “Cerebus.” This hell hound keeps the sinners in their torment and torments them himself:

Cerberus, monster cruel and uncouth,

With his three gullets like a dog is barking

Over the people that are there submerged.

Red eyes he has, and unctuous beard and black,

And belly large, and armed with claws his hands;

He rends the spirits, flays, and quarters them.

Howl the rain maketh them like unto dogs;

One side they make a shelter for the other;

Oft turn themselves the wretched reprobates.

Busy with his work, it takes a moment for Cerberus to notice the intruders. When he does, the dog-monster snaps and snarls. To silence the beast, Virgil throws mud into the dog’s mouths. Surprisingly, the dog settles down to chew on his “treat.” Like the gluttons he guards, Cerebus too is obsessed with food.

When Cerberus perceived us, the great worm!

His mouths he opened, and displayed his tusks;

Not a limb had he that was motionless.

And my Conductor, with his spans extended,

Took of the earth, and with his fists well filled,

He threw it into those rapacious gullets.

Such as that dog is, who by barking craves,

And quiet grows soon as his food he gnaws,

For to devour it he but thinks and struggles,

The like became those muzzles filth-begrimed

Of Cerberus the demon, who so thunders

Over the souls that they would fain be deaf.

Once they can get closer, Dante observes sinners who are sunken in mud. These condemned souls are constantly bombarded with filthy water and they are pounded by hail. All of the sinners are laying down. However, as Dante and Virgil pick their way across the muck, they pass one sinner who sits bolt upright. His name is Ciacco and he wants to convey some information to Dante.

Ciacco knows Dante can return to the world of light. He calls out to the poet, but Dante knows him not. Perhaps trying to be polite, Dante says that he may be unable to recall the shade’s name as he is overcome by pity and disgust:

"The anguish which thou hast

Perhaps doth draw thee out of my remembrance,

So that it seems not I have ever seen thee.

But tell me who thou art, that in so doleful

A place art put, and in such punishment,

If some are greater, none is so displeasing."

Ciacco, though in Hell, nonetheless has some important information about the fate of the warring political parties above.  He warns that the factions are committing sins for which they will be punished:

"They, after long contention,

Will come to bloodshed; and the rustic party

Will drive the other out with much offence.

Then afterwards behoves it this one fall

Within three suns, and rise again the other

By force of him who now is on the coast.

High will it hold its forehead a long while,

Keeping the other under heavy burdens,

Howe'er it weeps thereat and is indignant.

The just are two, and are not understood there;

Envy and Arrogance and Avarice

Are the three sparks that have all hearts enkindled."

Ciacco appears to be done with speaking but Dante prods the former Florentine to tell him the fate of some particular comrades Dante had known in life. He prods:

"I wish thee still to teach me,

And make a gift to me of further speech.

Farinata and Tegghiaio, once so worthy,

Jacopo Rusticucci, Arrigo, and Mosca,

And others who on good deeds set their thoughts,

Say where they are, and cause that I may know them;

For great desire constraineth me to learn

If Heaven doth sweeten them, or Hell envenom."

Weary, Ciacco replies that their fates are worse than his own, and Dante will discover what punishment was given them as he continues his journey:

"They are among the blacker souls;

A different sin downweighs them to the bottom;

If thou so far descendest, thou canst see them.

But when thou art again in the sweet world,

I pray thee to the mind of others bring me;

No more I tell thee and no more I answer."

Ciacco speaks no more. Dante and Virgil move on.

The Greedy and the Wasteful of Circle Four: Plutus and Charybdis

Canto VII

Having just left Caccio and the others guilty of the sin of gluttony, Virgil and Dante descend into the fifth circle in Canto VII. This is the prison of those who in life had been greedy, wasteful, or engaged in meaningless work. Guarding the condemned is Plutus, the Greek god of wealth.

As the travelers come nearer to Plutus’s charges, he cries out,

“Pape Satan, Pape Satan, Aleppe!” *

(*Note: there is no agreement among scholars on the direct meaning of this exclamation. While all agree it is some sort of invocation of Lucifer, there is no direct translation for the word “aleppe. “)

Dante is frightened, but Virgil tells his charge to ignore the bellowing of the false god and demands that Plutus be quiet and let them pass:

"Let not thy fear

Harm thee; for any power that he may have

Shall not prevent thy going down this crag."

Then he turned round unto that bloated lip,

And said: "Be silent, thou accursed wolf;

Consume within thyself with thine own rage.”

The monster heeds Virgil’s words and falls back. collapsing helplessly just as sails do without benefit of wind.

Pausing as they enter the fourth circle, Dante observes sinners whose behavior remind him those unlucky travelers caught up by Charybdis.  Charybdis is the sea monster of mythology whose thrashing tosses boats to and fro so relentlessly that vessels never make an inch of progress.

The sinners trapped here push heavy weight back and forth without ceasing; they too, never make gain any ground at all. The Avaricious  (the greedy) push the weight forward while, simultaneously, the Prodigal (the wasteful) push it back.  They continually admonish each other, shouting

"Why keepest?" and, "Why squanderest thou?"

As Dante observes the pointless battle, he notices that many of the participants have shaved heads, a sign of the priesthood.  He asks his guide if indeed those souls had been clergy in life; Virgil confirms his suspicions. Dante tries to see if he can recognize any of those former men of the cloth among those furiously pushing but Virgil explains that they are so filthy that their identities cannot be discerned.

Leaving behind these sinners to their eternal task, the travelers come to the River Styx.

The Wrathful and Sullen of Circle Five: The River Styx and the Slime Swallowers

Canto VII

Before the poets can leave the travails of the greedy and wasteful behind them, Dante and Virgil must somehow cross the putrid River Styx. They find a passable place and now in Circle Five, where Dante observes a hideous group of sinners. Here they come to the eternal home of the Wrathful.  Covered in mud, their sight largely obscured, these souls forever try to wound each other, using their corroded teeth as weapons. Unable to look away, Dante describes the horror:

And I, who stood intent upon beholding,

Saw people mud-besprent in that lagoon,

All of them naked and with angry look.

They smote each other not alone with hands,

But with the head and with the breast and feet,

Tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.

As if that wasn’t horrendous enough, there is another terrible surprise awaiting Dante. Virgil points out that beneath the first layer of fetid fighting  is another crowd of sinners. These souls are those condemned for the crime of being sullen. In life, these people had taken the gift of life for granted, neither appreciating the beauty of being alive nor giving thanks to God. Their punishment is to sing hymns without ceasing, their mouths continually filled with slime that they must swallow. Unable to make out the words, Virgil translates for his companion:

Fixed in the mire they say, 'We sullen were

In the sweet air, which by the sun is gladdened,

Bearing within ourselves the sluggish reek;

Now we are sullen in this sable mire.'

This hymn do they keep gurgling in their throats,

For with unbroken words they cannot say it."

Slowly the pair continue on their journey, coming at last to the foot of a tower.

The Heretics of Circle Six: Phlegyas, Philippo Argenti, and the Approach to the Gates of Dis

Canto VIII

Dante and Virgil gladly leave behind the Wrathful and the Sullen in Circle Five. As they walk on, Dante realizes that a light has been guiding them. The pair descend further into Hell:

We to the foot of that high tower had come,

Our eyes went upward to the summit of it,

By reason of two flamelets we saw placed there,

And from afar another answer them,

So far, that hardly could the eye attain it.

The poets have come to the dividing line between upper hell (Circles One through Five) and lower hell, (Circles Six through Nine). The worst offenders are housed here.  In Circle Six, prior to entering the City of Dis, are the heretics, those who oppose Catholic doctrine.

Unwilling or unable to turn back, the pair proceed. In the distance, Dante observes a flickering light, unlike the ones glowing from the faraway tower. He asks his guide where it is coming from. Virgil implores his charge to look harder. Finally the ferriman comes into view.  It is Phlegyas, son of the Greek god Ares, now tasked with taking souls from one side of the stinking Styx to the other. After a few harsh words are spoken between Virgil and Phlegyas, the oarsman delivers his charges to the opposite shore.

While rowing across, Dante observes condemned souls in the fetid waters. Gone is his usual modicum of compassion for the sinners. Instead, when the shade refuses to give his name, Dante curses him and Virgil shoves the sinner back into the slime.

Dante soon discovers who this heretofore nameless soul is, and why his guide is so virulent in his repulsion.  This disgusting soul is Philippo Argenti, a Florentine and  a member of the Black Guelph party. Allegedly, Argenti opposed Dante’s return from exile. The poet punishes his oppressor by eternally immersing the man in the River Styx, where he is accosted not only by other sinners, but turns violently upon himself as well. As the travelers are pulling away, Dante watches as the terrifying hoard attacks:

They all were shouting, "At Philippo Argenti!"

And that exasperate spirit Florentine

Turned round upon himself with his own teeth.

Glad to leave the horror behind, the poets push on. Dante remarks on the red glow in the distance. Virgil confirms that this is the City of Dis, and that its gates are heavily fortified.

Stopped at the Gates of the City of Dis: Virgil, Dante, and the Problem of Passage

Canto VIII

Phlegyas paddles his charges across the Styx and away from the them pitiful souls mired in the slime. Dante and Virgil now can see the City of Dis more clearly; the rounded tops of the city’s mosques glow red. Virgil explains that

"The fire eternal

That kindles them within makes them look red,

As thou beholdest in this nether Hell."

Coming closer still, Dante can see that the fire-lit mosques are protected by a deep moat and walls of what appear to be iron. Phlegyas takes a circuitous route but finally announces they have arrived, “Debark,” he orders, “here is the entrance."

Rather forced to oblige, Dante steps onto the shore. He is stunned to see vast numbers of guards at the gates. These protectors angrily demand

“Who is this that without death

Goes through the kingdom of the people dead?"

Virgil moves to calm the angry hoard but his words are of no comfort to Dante. The throng will let Virgil, a shade, pass through but the deny the living Dante entrance:

"Come thou alone, and he begone

Who has so boldly entered these dominions.

Let him return alone by his mad road;

Try, if he can; for thou shalt here remain,

Who hast escorted him through such dark regions."

Dante begs the great poet not to leave him, reminding Virgil how exclusively he has relied on the older man’s guidance. If we must go back, please come with me, Dante implores:

"O my dear Guide, who more than seven times

Hast rendered me security, and drawn me

From imminent peril that before me stood,

Do not desert me," said I, "thus undone;

And if the going farther be denied us,

Let us retrace our steps together swiftly."

Virgil tells Dante to not be afraid and that he will take care of things. Unfortunately, and to his likely surprise, Virgil fails to gain Dante passage. The poet returns to his charge downcast but still determined. Virgil recalls that this same throng once tried, and failed, to block Christ’s entrance. They too will eventually be victorious:

"Fear not, for I will conquer in the trial,

Whatever for defence within be planned.

This arrogance of theirs is nothing new;

For once they used it at less secret gate,

Which finds itself without a fastening still.

O'er it didst thou behold the dead inscription;

And now this side of it descends the steep,

Passing across the circles without escort,

One by whose means the city shall be opened."

This brief delay may be a reminder to Virgil that no one, not even someone as great as himself, is more important than Christ or receive better treatment than the Savior.

Through the Gates of Dis: The Terror of the Furies and the Flaming Tombs of the Arch-Heretics

Canto IX

The typically unflappable Virgil tries to comfort his charge as they tarry at the Gates of Dis. But the elder poets own fear causes him to stammer:

"Still it behoveth us to win the fight,"

Began he; "Else. . .Such offered us herself. . .

O how I long that some one here arrive!"

Already terrified, Virgil’s fear is alarming to Dante.  He wonders if anyone has ever crossed the gates before:

"Into this bottom of the doleful conch

Doth any e'er descend from the first grade,

Which for its pain has only hope cut off?"

Virgil reveals that he personally descended to the bottom of Hell:

"Seldom it comes to pass that one of us

Maketh the journey upon which I go.

True is it, once before I here below

Was conjured by that pitiless Erictho,

Who summoned back the shades unto their bodies.

Naked of me short while the flesh had been,

Before within that wall she made me enter,

To bring a spirit from the circle of Judas;

That is the lowest region and the darkest,

And farthest from the heaven which circles all.

Well know I the way; therefore be reassured.

This fen, which a prodigious stench exhales,

Encompasses about the city dolent,

Where now we cannot enter without anger."

Dante, the author, seems to have borrowed this tale from the poet Lucan’s work, Pharsalia. In Lucan’s telling, the witch Erichtho calls a condemned soul back to the living world; she wants the shade to reveal details about the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Dante makes Virgil the sorceress’s emissary for this horrific task. Doing so gives Virgil an explanation for knowing what comes beyond the gates of Dis.  

Somewhat reassured, Dante waits at his mentor’s side; his eyes are drawn to the glowing red dome from which hang three bloody-female like figures. These “women” writhe in agony, a writing akin to the that circle their waists as well those that from their heads like a sort of reptilian hair. These, Dante recognizes, are the “Furies” (also called "Erinyes"), the mythological “Daughters of the Night,” who, once charged with exacting revenge against those who have offended gods (and sometimes mortals).  Now, for their heresy, they are punished in Circle Six.

Virgil identifies the trio:

“This is Megaera, on the left-hand side;

She who is weeping on the right, Alecto;

Tisiphone is between..”

The Furies are sisters in Greek mythology. Megeara punishes people who commit crimes, particularly crimes of infidelity. It is she who causes jealousy and envy.  The second, Alecto, revenges moral crimes, especially unchecked anger. Tisiphone pursues murderers, especially those responsible for fratricide and parricide. Terrified, Dante presses closer to his guide, and rightly so. The sisters are still dangerous. They threaten to call upon their elder sister, Medusa; making eye contact with this Fury will turn men to stone.

Virgil commands:

"Turn thyself round, and keep thine eyes close shut,

For if the Gorgon appear, and thou shouldst see it,

No more returning upward would there be."

Dante complies without hesitation; Virgil himself covers his eyes.

Suddenly, Dante feels a fierce rush of wind. The sensation heightens the poet’s terror, but Virgil tells Dante to open his eyes: the Messenger of Heaven is approaching. Everything in front of the Messenger rushes to get out of his way. At the Gates, the Messenger simply waves a small rod and the doors swing open. The Messenger has no kind words for the suffering sinners of Dis. They deserve to be there for thwarting the will of God. He roars:

"O banished out of Heaven, people despised!"

Thus he began upon the horrid threshold;

"Whence is this arrogance within you couched?

Wherefore recalcitrate against that will,

From which the end can never be cut off,

And which has many times increased your pain?

What helpeth it to butt against the fates?

Your Cerberus, if you remember well,

For that still bears his chin and gullet peeled."

Dante and Virgil follow the Messenger through the Gates of Dis. As they step carefully across the uneven ground, the travelers seeopen tombs, sepulchres, from which flames leap. This is the eternal place of unrest for the arch-heretics (also known as the “Heresiarchs.”  Arch-heretics were those who actively led other people away from the holy word of God. From within their fiery tombs, these souls scream “dire lamentations.” The poets observe but do not comment and continue on.

On the Other Side of The Gates of Dis: Farinata and Cavalcanti

Canto X

Curious about the shades who inhabit the burning tombs, Dante, a Florentine, wants to know if anyone he knows is suffering this gruesome eternity. Virgil replies:

They all will be closed up

When from Jehoshaphat they shall return

Here with the bodies they have left above.

Their cemetery have upon this side

With Epicurus all his followers,

Who with the body mortal make the soul;

But in the question thou dost put to me,

Within here shalt thou soon be satisfied,

And likewise in the wish thou keepest silent.”

Virgil give his charge a bit of a lesson before revealing any identities. First, he tells the younger poet that one day, the tombs will be closed. This will happen on Judgment Day. “Jehoshaphat” is a valley, and the location where God’s judgment is believed will take place.  Here is Epircurus, the archest of the arch-heretics. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who argued that the soul dies with the body. He, and all who bought into his heresy, burn forever more in Circle Six, beyond the Gates of Dis.

As Virgil is explaining, Dante hears a voice whose accent is distinctively Tuscan, the same region of Italy where Dante is from. Virgil identifies the speaker as  Farinata degli Uberti. The shade has managed to struggle to a half-sitting position in order to speak to his former fellow citizen. Farinata asks Dante to identify himself by way of his bloodline. The poet readily complies but Farinata is displeased. He and Dante’s ancestors had been mortal enemies. Farinata’s family drove Dante’s people into exile:

"Fiercely adverse have they been

To me, and to my fathers, and my party;

So that two several times I scattered them."

Unabashed, Dante replies that unlike Farinata, his family lived and were therefore able to return and resume their fight. This ends the conversation between the two, because Dante’s attention is drawn to another soul who has managed to rise from the flames in order to speak. This shade is Cavalcante dei Cavalcanti, the father of Dante’s close friend, Guido dei Cavalcanti,  Like Dante, Guido too went into exile when the Blacks overtook Florence.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Cavalcanti wishes to learn of the the fate of his son from the living poet. Dante has no good news for his friend’s father, but cannot seem to tell the tortured man directly that Guido is dead. Before he Dante can summon the words, Cavalcanti sinks back into his flaming sepulchre.

Farinata, who has been watching this exchange in silence, resumes his conversation with Dante, apparently caring nothing for his fellow suffering soul, Cavalcanti. He tells the poet that despite some bad blood, he alone defended Florence from the hoards who wanted to ransack the city:

Dante, however, seems less inclined to learn more about squabbling and more interested in what the future holds. He entreats the burning shade:

"solve for me that knot,

Which has entangled my conceptions here.

It seems that you can see, if I hear rightly,

Beforehand whatsoe'er time brings with it,

And in the present have another mode."

Cavalcanti discloses that while he can tell Dante the future, he, nor any of the other condemned souls, have any knowledge at all about the present:

"We see, like those who have imperfect sight,

The things," he said, "that distant are from us;

So much still shines on us the Sovereign Ruler.

When they draw near, or are, is wholly vain

Our intellect, and if none brings it to us,

Not anything know we of your human state.

Hence thou canst understand, that wholly dead

Will be our knowledge from the moment when

The portal of the future shall be closed."

Feeling a bit guilty about not telling this tortured father that his son, Guido, is indeed alive, Dante tries to make amends. He tells the shade:

"Now, then, you will tell that fallen one,

That still his son is with the living joined.

And if just now, in answering, I was dumb,

Tell him I did it because I was thinking

Already of the error you have solved me."

Dante would like to learn more but Virgil is at his elbow, pressing the poet to move on. Hurriedly, Dante inquires who else is entombed in flaming graves of Circle Six. He learns that Frederick II and the Ghibelline Cardinal are among the denziens. .

Frederick II, according to Dante, belongs here because of his skepticism towards religion. Frederick garnered so much hate for his disbelief that he became known as the “predecessor to the Anti-Christ.”  The “Anti-Christ” in Christianity is the figure who appears at the end of the world; he is the “false Messiah” who leads untold numbers of people to their eternal doom.

The Ghibelline Cardinal is also punished here in Circle Six.  The Ghibellines, unlike Dante’s party, the Ghelps, were contemptuous of the Church. Aristocratic and arrogant, Dante seemingly has no compunction about placing the Cardinal here.

At Virgil’s urging, the travelers move on. Dante would like to know more about the other inhabitants of the fiery tombs, but he must wait to find out. One day, Virgil explains, a woman (presumably Beatrice) will reveal all. Virgil tells his charge:

"And now attend here;" and he raised his finger.

"When thou shalt be before the radiance sweet

Of her whose beauteous eyes all things behold,

From her thou'lt know the journey of thy life."

With nothing left to say, the pair continue on. A sharp stink invades their nostrils as they descend into a valley.

Preparing for the Worst: Exiting Circle Six and the Expectations for Lower Hell

Canto XI

Dante and Virgil have traveled past the burning tombs of Frederick II and the Ghibelline Cardinal. The stench emanating from the forever flaming bodies is horrendous. Dante and Virgil duck under the cover of one of the stones, trying to take cleaner breaths. Dante sees that the inscription on the tomb reads:

“Pope Anastasius I hold,

Whom out of the right way Photinus drew."

These two men are, in Dante’s estimation, the worst of the arch-Heretics. Phonitus was a Deacon in the Church of Constantinople (the Greek Orthodox Church).  Phonitus believed, and led Pope Anastasius to believe, that Christ’s birth was not miraculous at all; rather, he argued,  Jesus was the product of natural human sexual relations. Additionally, Phonitus tricked the pope into giving him communion, an act strictly forbidden for those outside the Roman Catholic faith.

Virgil tarries, and Dante urges his guide to move on; but Virgil wants to prepare his charge for the horrors that are to come. The next circle will house the Violent. Inside the large seventh circle are three sub-circles. The largest outer ring is reserved for conducted violence against people or property. These murderers and bandits are submerged in a river of blood:

A death by violence, and painful wounds,

Are to our neighbour given; and in his substance

Ruin, and arson, and injurious levies;

Whence homicides, and he who smites unjustly,

Marauders, and freebooters, the first round

Tormenteth all in companies diverse."

The next inner circle imprisons those who have committed violence against themselves: the suicides and the squanderers:

"Man may lay violent hands upon himself

And his own goods; and therefore in the second

Round must perforce without avail repent

Whoever of your world deprives himself,

Who games, and dissipates his property,

And weepeth there, where he should jocund be."

The final circle is exclusively for the tormenting of those who had committed crimes against God or nature. These sinners were, in life, the blasphemers, the sodomites, and the usurers. These shades exist on a plain of sand, which eternally erupts underneath them in excruciating flames:

"Violence can be done the Deity,

In heart denying and blaspheming Him,

And by disdaining Nature and her bounty.

And for this reason doth the smallest round

Seal with its signet Sodom and Cahors,

And who, disdaining God, speaks from the heart.

Fraud, wherewithal is every conscience stung,

A man may practise upon him who trusts,

And him who doth no confidence imburse.

This latter mode, it would appear, dissevers

Only the bond of love which Nature makes;

Wherefore within the second circle nestle

Hypocrisy, flattery, and who deals in magic,

Falsification, theft, and simony,

Panders, and barrators, and the like filth.

By the other mode, forgotten is that love

Which Nature makes, and what is after added,

From which there is a special faith engendered.

Hence in the smallest circle, where the point is

Of the Universe, upon which Dis is seated,

Whoe'er betrays for ever is consumed."

In these verses, Dante is alluding to the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, a city so morally evil that it was destroyed by God (Genesis 19:24-5). Cahors was a city in France, infamous for its usury. Usury is the charging of interest on money lent. It is a sin because Adam’s punishment was to “live by the sweat of his brow” (Genesis 3:19). Since there is no labor involved in collecting interest, medieval Catholics consider the practice sinful.

Virgil then tells Dante that when they get to the Eighth Circle, he will see those who are guilty of fraud, a sin almost every human commits. These sinners include those who had been practicers of

“Hypocrisy, flattery, and who deals in magic,

Falsification, theft, and simony,

Panders, and barrators, and the like filth.

By the other mode, forgotten is that love

Which Nature makes, and what is after added,

From which there is a special faith engendered.

Hence in the smallest circle, where the point is

Of the Universe, upon which Dis is seated,

Whoe'er betrays for ever is consumed."

(Note: “Simony” is the practice of selling spiritual items.  “Barrators” are those who continually file frivolous lawsuits.)

Dante understand the crimes of the condemned, but he asks Virgil why these souls are punished so much more harshly than those of the upper Hell. The elder poet reminds Dante of Aristotle work, Ethics and how sin is divided:  "incontinence, malice, and insane bestiality.”  (Note: “incontinence” means a lack of self control, particularly sexual, but also gluttony, wrath, and sullenness; “malice” means the fraud previously described; “insane beastiality” refers to all the acts of violence also discussed previously.)  

Of these three, incontinence is the least serious although, of course, it still merits punishment. All of these sinners pay their eternal debt in upper hell.  The remainder, the most serious, offenses, are housed below.

Dante understands everything except for the harsh judgment against usury. Virgil explains that the man who thwarts honest work not only cheats his customer, but shows his disdain in real work:

“the usurer takes another way,

Nature herself and in her follower

Disdains he, for elsewhere he puts his hope.”

Time is passing. Virgil notices the changing constellations and tells Dante they must leave the tortured souls of Circle Six behind them.

Pushing Into Circle Seven: The Threat of the Minotaur, the Crossing of Phlegethon, and the Army of Centaurs

Canto XII

Forewarned by Virgil of the horrors to come, Dante and his guide leave the flaming tombs of the arch-Heretics behind them. The path to the first of the lowest circles is incredibly steep. As Dante treads carefully, he compares the rough terrain to the infamous landslides of Marco, a city in northern Italy, near Trent.

"The place where to descend the bank we came

Was alpine, and from what was there, moreover,

Of such a kind that every eye would shun it.

Such as that ruin is which in the flank

Smote, on this side of Trent, the Adige,

Either by earthquake or by failing stay,

For from the mountain's top, from which it moved,

Unto the plain the cliff is shattered so,

Some path 'twould give to him who was above..."

The landing proves even more terrifying than the descent.  At the bottom stands the enormous Minotaur, a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. The Minotaur spies the invaders and becomes enraged, so much so that he confusedly take his anger out on himself, biting his own arm in fury.  

Virgil knows the monster believes that the intruder of his domain to be Theseus, the Duke of Athens (Theseus had slain the Minotaur on Earth). Virgil both rebukes and taunts the beast.  He tells him not only to back down, but also that he and Dante are in Hell, in part, to enjoy watching him suffer. Virgil calls out:


Thou think'st that here may be the Duke of Athens,    

Who in the world above brought death to thee?

Get thee gone, beast, for this one cometh not

Instructed by thy sister, but he comes

In order to behold your punishments."

The gibes enrage the monster even more and goes in pursuit of the intruders. Virgil urges Dante out of his stumbling reach, crying,

“Run to the passage;

While he wroth, 'tis well thou shouldst descend."

Having evaded the Minotaur, the travelers’ challenges are far from over. The rubble underfoot is treacherous. Virgil explains to Dante how the upheaval came about. On Virgil’s previous journey into Hell, he witnessed the rapture of the good men who had died prior to Jesus’s salvation of the damned. The force of Christ’s love shook the universe, even to the depths of Hell. Virgil explains:

“... a little

Before His coming who the mighty spoil

Bore off from Dis, in the supernal circle,

Upon all sides the deep and loathsome valley

Trembled so, that I thought the Universe

Was thrilled with love, by which there are who think

The world ofttimes converted into chaos;

And at that moment this primeval crag

Both here and elsewhere made such overthrow.”

As Virgil concludes his story, the pair find themselves at an impasse. They have reached a river of boiling blood; its name is “Phlegethon.” Dante is terrified to see that the banks are thick with an army of centaurs, monsters that are half man, half horse. These guardians are armed with bows and arrows. One of their legion cries out to Virgil, demanding to know:

“Unto what torment

Come ye, who down the hillside are descending?”

Virgil refuses to answer, saying he will only speak to Chiron, the leader of the centaurs. Surrounded by the herd but continuing to move forward, Virgil points out two individuals among the armed sentries: Nessus, and the leader of the pack, Chiron.

The centaur Nessus was slain by Hercules, who, in turn, was killed by the beast’s poisoned blood. Dejanira’s name in Greek means “man destroyer.” Dejanria was Hercules’s wife. Nessus attempted to rape her and was shot by an arrow launched by Heracles in the attempt. As the centaur lay dying, he gave the woman a cloak soaked in his blood. Nessus claimed that the cloak would preserve Dejanira’s love for Heracles; the grieving wife took the garment to her dying husband, but Nessus had deceived her. The blood was poisonous and he died. (In despair, Dejarina hung herself, thereby committing the mortal sin of suicide.)

Chiron, even though he is condemned, has a more laudable reputation. In life, the centaur had been a tutor to both Hercules and Achilles. He acts as the guardian to Circle Seven.

Eyeing the pair as they come closer, Chiron tells his army to watch out for Dante, as the intruder, unlike Virgil, who is a shade, can actually alter the physical environment. Chiron warns:

“Are you ware

That he behind moveth whate'er he touches?

Thus are not wont to do the feet of dead men."

Virgil tells the centaur that Dante indeed is alive. He explains that he and his charge are on a mission from God and asks that Chiron not only allow passage, but also permit one of the herd to accompany them and carry Dante over the river of blood:

"Indeed he lives, and thus alone

Me it behoves to show him the dark valley;

Necessity, and not delight, impels us.

Some one withdrew from singing Halleluja,

Who unto me committed this new office;

No thief is he, nor I a thievish spirit.

But by that virtue through which I am moving

My steps along this savage thoroughfare,

Give us some one of thine, to be with us,

And who may show us where to pass the ford,

And who may carry this one on his back;

For 'tis no spirit that can walk the air."

Chiron understands and selects Nessus to be their emissary through the circle. Dante climbs on the beast’s back. The trio proceed and Nessus points out some of the tormented souls in the boiling river of blood:

"Tyrants are these,

Who dealt in bloodshed and in pillaging.

Here they lament their pitiless mischiefs; here

Is Alexander, and fierce Dionysius

Who upon Sicily brought dolorous years.

That forehead there which has the hair so black

Is Azzolin; and the other who is blond,

Obizzo is of Esti, who, in truth,

Up in the world was by his stepson slain."

All of these men had committed mass acts of violence against entire populations.  Alexander is almost definitely Alexander the Great, the military conqueror, whose bloody coup of Persia ousted King Darius III. Dionysus was held in contempt by the ancient philosophers, not only for his bloody murders but also for his thirst for revenge and greed. Azzolin (also known as “Azzolinao” as well as “Ezzelino”) was a feudal Italian lord who was regarded as a cruel tyrant who ruled Verona, Vincenza, and Pauda.  Obizzo d’Este is placed in Hell by Dante for his crime of buying a woman from her brother in order to rape her.

Still astride Nessus’s back, the three continue on. They stop in order for centaur to point out Guy de Montfort, who led a rebellion against King Henry III. De Montfort and his brother Simon murdered Henry III at the Church of San Silvestro, taking no mercy on the monarch who clung to the altar and begged for his life. As Dante watches the man’s torment, he realizes that the depth of the river changes in direct correlation to the seriousness of the sinner’s crimes:

"Then people saw I, who from out the river

Lifted their heads and also all the chest;

And many among these I recognised.

Thus ever more and more grew shallower

That blood, so that the feet alone it covered;

And there across the moat our passage was."

Nessus carries Dante across at the lowest point and Virgil follows. The centaur tells the poet that as the river winds lower into the depths of Hell, the waters will become deeper still; in these boiling depths Dante and Virgil will find Attila, Pyrrhus, and Sextus.  

Attila (frequently called “Attila the Hun”) was the great enemy of the Roman Empire, plundering the Balkans, and, along with his armies, left a trail of corpses from Persia to France to Rome. Pyrrhus was regarded by Dante (and others) as a tyrant for his bloody battles in opposition to Rome. For his part, Sextus, or “Sextus Pompey,” is the son of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, (also known as “Pompey the Great"). Sextus is condemned to Hell’s Seventh Circle for his opposition to the Second Triumvirate, the political alliance between Augustus (who had once been known as “Octavian”), Marc Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.

Now safely across, Nessus takes his leave of Virgil and Dante. The poets carry on alone.

Into the Second Ring of Circle Seven: The Harpies and the Punishment of the Suicides

Canto XIII

The centaur named Nessus has taken his leave of the poets. Dante and Virgil tread carefully down and through the treacherous terrain of the second ring of Circle Seven. Here, Dante observes gnarled and blackened trees clinging precariously to the landscape. The leaves of these trees are “dusky” and their branches are so thickly entwined that it is difficult to say which limbs belonged to any particular tree. Instead of fruit, these tree produce poisonous thorns. The dense woods reminds Dante of the wild regions of Marmetta, located between the towns Cecina and Cornetto, near Tuscany, Italy.

“When we had put ourselves within a wood,

That was not marked by any path whatever.

Not foliage green, but of a dusky colour,

Not branches smooth, but gnarled and intertangled,

Not apple-trees were there, but thorns with poison.

Such tangled thickets have not, nor so dense,

Those savage wild beasts, that in hatred hold

'Twixt Cecina and Corneto the tilled places.”

Making the tangled nightmare even more terrifying are the Harpies who perch among and atop the trees.

"There do the hideous Harpies make their nests,

Who chased the Trojans from the Strophades,

With sad announcement of impending doom;

Broad wings have they, and necks and faces human,

And feet with claws, and their great bellies fledged;

They make laments upon the wondrous trees."

Harpies (whose name means “the snatchers”) are large birds with women’s faces, are part of the Greek myth of Phineus. Phineus, the king of Thrace,  had been given the gift of prophecy, but, according to the god Zeus, over-used his power. As punishment for his transgressions, Zeus blinds the once-king. He has the man tied up and puts a never-ending buffet of delicacies before him, food which Phineus can never taste because the Harpies steal it. Eventually, the Harpies are driven away by Jason and the Argonauts. The Harpies returned to their original nesting area in the Strophades, where they found the Trojans feasting and repeatedly stole their victuals as well. One of the Harpies named Celano curses the troops, telling them that they will be so hungry that eventually, they will eat the very tables upon which they now spread their feasts. The threat is terrifying and the Trojans flee.

Dante, the author, finds the Harpies to be perfect guardians of those who have committed crimes against themselves, the suicides. These souls squandered God’s gift of life. For eternity, they will be reminded of this fact.

Mingled with the squawking of the harpies is a blood-chilling sound Dante does not recognize. Virgil tells him to break off a twig of the tree and he will discover the source of the lamentations. When Dante does so, a tortured voice cries out, the voice emanating from its trunk. The voice chastise Dante for the pain he has caused, asking him why he has no pity on the souls of men who are now transformed into trees:

“Why dost thou mangle me?"

After it had become embrowned with blood,

It recommenced its cry: "Why dost thou rend me?

Hast thou no spirit of pity whatsoever?

Men once we were, and now are changed to trees;

Indeed, thy hand should be more pitiful,

Even if the souls of serpents we had been."

Dante attends to the voice but it is difficult to understand, for like a green log on a hot fire, the words seem to be accompanied by hissing and sputtering. Stunned, Dante lets the piece of twig he had plucked fall to the ground. Virgil steps in to offer the injured shade some words of comfort, saying that his charge, new to the rules of Hell, did not know he would be inflicting pain. He also asks that the shade identify who he had been when alive:

"O thou wounded soul,

What only in my verses he has seen,

Not upon thee had he stretched forth his hand;

Whereas the thing incredible has caused me

To put him to an act which grieveth me.

But tell him who thou wast, so that by way

Of some amends thy fame he may refresh

Up in the world, to which he can return."

Moved by Virgil’s rhetoric, the imprisoned soul replies that in life he had been the private counselor to King Frederick II. Though not named in this passage, this man was Pier della Vigna. As the king’s right-hand man, della Vigna had the monarch’s complete trust. The counselor’s closeness to Frederick made many of the others in the court envious, according to the shade. In his relation of his story to the poets, the the former confidant personifies envy as a "whore." These jealous compatriots made della Vigna’s life so miserable that he committed suicide. At the end of his story, the former counselor asks that when Dante returns to the living world, he restore della Vigna’s reputation.

“I am the one who both keys had in keeping

Of Frederick's heart, and turned them to and fro

So softly in unlocking and in locking,

That from his secrets most men I withheld;

Fidelity I bore the glorious office

So great, I lost thereby my sleep and pulses.

The courtesan who never from the dwelling

Of Caesar turned aside her strumpet eyes,

Death universal and the vice of courts,

Inflamed against me all the other minds,

And they, inflamed, did so inflame Augustus,

That my glad honours turned to dismal mournings.

My spirit, in disdainful exultation,

Thinking by dying to escape disdain,

Made me unjust against myself, the just.

I, by the roots unwonted of this wood,

Do swear to you that never broke I faith

Unto my lord, who was so worthy of honour;

And to the world if one of you return,

Let him my memory comfort, which is lying

Still prostrate from the blow that envy dealt it."

Dante is so taken aback by Pier della Vigna’s story he is unable to speak. Virgil, therefore, asks the shade to explain two things to Dante, if there is any hope of the living poet to do what the shade asks. First, he says, he must explain how souls become trees. Then he must say if he knows of any way these trapped souls can ever be released.

Realizing this is likely his only opportunity to clear his name, the shade complies. In a voice that is more wind than man, della Vigna explains that the souls had been flung into the second ring of Circle Seven by Minos. With no ability to secure themselves, they root wherever they land. As they grow and become saplings, the Harpies continually eat them.  The tortured, della Vigna says, long for their earthly bodies but this is their punishment for the sin of suicide. They did not appreciate their corporeal forms in life but they will forever appreciate what they willingly squandered for eternity; until Judgment Day, this will be the fate of the suicides. When that day comes, only a small amount of relief will be given to the tormented; only their skins will be restored. These will sit on the tree trunks:

"So may the man

Do for thee freely what thy speech implores,

Spirit incarcerate, again be pleased

To tell us in what way the soul is bound

Within these knots; and tell us, if thou canst,

If any from such members e'er is freed."

Then blew the trunk amain, and afterward

The wind was into such a voice converted:

"With brevity shall be replied to you.

When the exasperated soul abandons

The body whence it rent itself away,

Minos consigns it to the seventh abyss.

It falls into the forest, and no part

Is chosen for it; but where Fortune hurls it,

There like a grain of spelt it germinates.

It springs a sapling, and a forest tree;

The Harpies, feeding then upon its leaves,

Do pain create, and for the pain an outlet.

Like others for our spoils shall we return;

But not that any one may them revest,

For 'tis not just to have what one casts off.

Here we shall drag them, and along the dismal

Forest our bodies shall suspended be,

Each to the thorn of his molested shade."

Della Vigna’s story is interrupted by a “tumult.” There is a chase winding through the thicket of suicide-trees. Suddenly, two naked men come into view. A pack of snapping dogs pursues them. One is not able to run as quickly as the other. The faster man calls the slower man “Lano.”  

“Lano” was a member of the notorious “Spendthrift Club.” The members of this club were the wealthy sons of Italian elites who made it their mission to squander their inheritances on frivolous pleasures. The faster man taunts Lano for his lagging behind. But by not paying proper attention to where he was going and taking the time to tease Lano, the man stumbles. This is enough time for the hounds to descend and tear them man to pieces.  

The man has fallen into a thorny bush. The bush, having many of its branches broken, cries out in pain. The reader learns the man’s name is Jacopo Rusticiucci, of Santa Andrea, Italy. In life, Rusticuicci had been a member of the Ghelph party, and allegedly a sodomite.  

Virgil feels pity for the injured bush. He asks the trapped shade what his name had been in life. The shade replies that he had no name that would be recognizable; that he had simply been an ordinary Florentine. Despite his lack of importance in life, the shade predicts that Florence will never know peace. He claims that the endless unrest is due to John the Baptist, who, because he brought Christianity to Italy, displaced Mars, the Florentine god. Mars, the god of war, will forever seek revenge and never let Florence rest:

"O souls, that hither come

To look upon the shameful massacre

That has so rent away from me my leaves,

Gather them up beneath the dismal bush;

I of that city was which to the Baptist

Changed its first patron, wherefore he for this

Forever with his art will make it sad.

And were it not that on the pass of Arno

Some glimpses of him are remaining still,

Those citizens, who afterwards rebuilt it

Upon the ashes left by Attila" 

At the end of his story, the shade admits that he is in Circle Seven because he too had committed suicide:

"In vain had caused their labour to be done.

Of my own house I made myself a gibbet."

Entering the Third Ring of Circle Seven: Burning Sand, Flakes of Fire, and the Old Man of Crete

Canto XIV

Before Dante and Virgil take leave of the Florentine who has committed suicide and, as punishment, has been transformed into a thorny bush, Dante takes pity on the shade. He gathers up all the broken branches he is able to find and gently places them back on the tangle of twigs.

As they walk, the poets begin to see the forest thinning. Here, there is no foliage of any kind. Planes of sand stretch out before them. The sand is unbearably hot. Dante peers closer and see hundreds of naked, condemned souls writhing and crying out in misery. He notices that those able to move about somewhat are less vocal than those buried in its depths:

“...naked souls beheld I many herds,

Who all were weeping very miserably,

And over them seemed set a law diverse.

Supine upon the ground some folk were lying;

And some were sitting all drawn up together,

And others went about continually.

Those who were going round were far the more,

And those were less who lay down to their torment,

But had their tongues more loosed to lamentation.”

Dante looks up and notices that not only does the burning ground torment the sinners, but so too do flakes of fire falling from the sky. The glowing ash sears whatever flesh is exposed. Those who are able to move can periodically avoid the falling flames, but those trapped in the sand, many buried from the waist down, suffer the ignition of the sand around them the flakes land. They frantically try to beat out the fire, and to Dante, it looks like a macabre dance.

Watching their horror, Dante notices one shade in particular. His eye is drawn to the enormous physical size of the former man as well as the giant’s loud complaints against God. Dante asks Virgil who the shade had been in life, but before Virgil can reply, the giant himself responds, but not with his name. Rather, he continues his vocal denouncement of God (whom he calls “Jove”) and, despite his predicament, claims that God will never will never be able to take revenge against him. The giant is committing the worst sin… blasphemy. He shouts to the travelers:

"Such as I was living, am I, dead.

If Jove should weary out his smith, from whom

He seized in anger the sharp thunderbolt,

Wherewith upon the last day I was smitten,

And if he wearied out by turns the others

In Mongibello at the swarthy forge,

Vociferating, 'Help, good Vulcan, help!'

Even as he did there at the fight of Phlegra,

And shot his bolts at me with all his might,

He would not have thereby a joyous vengeance."

Virgil knows who this blasphemous shade is. The man’s name is Capaneus; he had been one of the seven kings who fought against Thebes. The poets leave the howling giant and walk on; Virgil tells his charge to stay as close as possible to the outer edge of the sand, which is cooler.

The come to a small stream which is red with blood.  It reminds Dante of a hot spring in Florence  called the Bulicame, in which the local prostitutes bathed. Virgil tells him his stream is an offshoot the Phlegethon, the large river of blood that they crossed in Circle Six, just on the other side of the City of Dis.

Virgil, at Dante’s request, tells him more about the creation of the river. The origins of the rivers of Hell come from a weeping statue in the Crete.  It faces Rome and its back is toward Egypt. The left leg is constructed of gold and silver, while the right leg is constructed of clay, each leg, perhaps, representing the strength of Rome and the decline of the Church, respectively. The entire statue is covered in cracks, from which leaks spring. The mysterious tears  eventually seep through the earth and form the four rivers of Hell:  the Acheron, the Styx, the Phlegethon, and the Cocytus.

Dante recalls a fifth river, the Lethe, and asks Virgil why he has not mentioned its presence in Hell. Virgil replies that the Lethe flows not in Hell proper, but in Purgatory, the plane that exists between Heaven and Hell. “Lethe” means forgetfulness. After having their sins purged in Purgatory, the sinners’ memories are wiped clean of their past transgressions so that they can enter Heaven with joy.

The poets move on, deeper into this torturous circle.

In the Center of Circle Seven: Brunetto Latini and the Sodomites

Canto XV

Dante and Virgil are walking along the cooler edge of the burning sands that ring Circle Seven as they descend further into the center of Circle Seven. The travelers are protected by a fine mist that rises from the Phlegethon. The mist serves as a shield, extinguishing the flakes of fire that continually rain down in this circle, punishing those guilty of the crime of blasphemy and other acts of violence against God. The protective shield reminds Dante of the dams built around Italian cities for protection against seasonal flooding. This protective mist, strangely, is even more formidable than those heavy walls:  

“...Even as the Flemings, 'twixt Cadsand and Bruges,

Fearing the flood that tow'rds them hurls itself,

Their bulwarks build to put the sea to flight;

And as the Paduans along the Brenta,

To guard their villas and their villages,

Or ever Chiarentana feel the heat;

In such similitude had those been made,

Albeit not so lofty nor so thick,

Whoever he might be, the master made them.”

While marveling about the mist, Dante notices a group of shades walking in the same direction in which he and Virgil travel. These sinners are the sodomites, those who have had sexual relations with other men.

As the condemned souls get closer to the poets, one of their number recognizes Dante, grabs onto Dante’s cloak and cries out.  Dante struggles to recognize the man’s badly burned visage. Peering closer, Dante asks if the man is Brunetto Latini:

“By some one I was recognised, who seized

My garment's hem, and cried out, "What a marvel!"

And I, when he stretched forth his arm to me,

On his baked aspect fastened so mine eyes,

That the scorched countenance prevented not

His recognition by my intellect;

And bowing down my face unto his own,

I made reply, "Are you here, Ser Brunetto?"

The shade confirms the identification. Dante wants his former mentor to stay and speak, but the sinner explains that any soul who pauses or stops is punished in the same spot for one hundred years:

"O son," he said, "whoever of this herd

A moment stops, lies then a hundred years,

Nor fans himself when smiteth him the fire.

Therefore go on; I at thy skirts will come,

And afterward will I rejoin my band,

Which goes lamenting its eternal doom."

Dante agrees to walk along near Latini, although soon the path they traverse splits. One side goes along the lower edge of the river and is protected by the mist; the other is on a higher plane and it offers no relief from the falling fire. Dante is forced to take the lower and Latini the more elevated way.

Despite their separation, the two are able to exchange words. Latini wants to know how a living man is able to visit Hell; he also asks Dante with whom he travels:

"What fortune or what fate

Before the last day leadeth thee down here?

And who is this that showeth thee the way?"

Dante explains his wandering in the valley of darkness and Virgil’s part in assisting him:

"I lost me in a valley,

Or ever yet my age had been completed.

But yestermorn I turned my back upon it;

This one appeared to me, returning thither,

And homeward leadeth me along this road."

Latini  tells Dante how fortunate he is to be so forewarned in such a vivid way about the eternal torments of Hell. He also laments his own death, in part because he is unable to assist his protege any longer:

"If thou thy star do follow,

Thou canst not fail thee of a glorious port,

If well I judged in the life beautiful.

And if I had not died so prematurely,

Seeing Heaven thus benignant unto thee,

I would have given thee comfort in the work.”

Thinking back to the travails of Earth, Latini tells Dante that his contemporaries, among them the Fiesoles (who had conquered Rome), failed to appreciate Dante’s genius. Furthermore, Latini, the former author and poet, and promoter of elegance in rhetoric, blames the Fiesoles for the decline of Florentine morals and values:  

“But that ungrateful and malignant people,

Which of old time from Fesole descended,

And smacks still of the mountain and the granite,

Will make itself, for thy good deeds, thy foe;

And it is right; for among crabbed sorbs

It ill befits the sweet fig to bear fruit.

Old rumour in the world proclaims them blind;

A people avaricious, envious, proud;

Take heed that of their customs thou do cleanse thee.

Thy fortune so much honour doth reserve thee,

One party and the other shall be hungry

For thee; but far from goat shall be the grass.

Their litter let the beasts of Fesole

Make of themselves, nor let them touch the plant,

If any still upon their dunghill rise,

In which may yet revive the consecrated

Seed of those Romans, who remained there when

The nest of such great malice it became."

Dante’s love for his former teacher overflows. He praises Latini for all he taught him, primarily that the only true immortality for men comes through their work. Still attendant, Dante lets Latini know he is writing down whatever he says, in order that he might have Beatrice weigh in on his instruction. Finally, he assures the shade that he is prepared for Fortune’s arrows:

“For in my mind is fixed, and touches now

My heart the dear and good paternal image

Of you, when in the world from hour to hour

You taught me how a man becomes eternal;

And how much I am grateful, while I live

Behoves that in my language be discerned.

What you narrate of my career I write,

And keep it to be glossed with other text

By a Lady who can do it, if I reach her.

This much will I have manifest to you;

Provided that my conscience do not chide me,

For whatsoever Fortune I am ready.

Such handsel is not new unto mine ears;

Therefore let Fortune turn her wheel around

As it may please her, and the churl his mattock."

Virgil approves of Dante’s speech, nodding silently in agreement. As the three walk on, Dante asks Latini who else are among the sinners who suffer in this circle. But on this count, Latini is not very forthcoming. Although those who eternally shuffle along are legion, Latini names just three:  Priscian, Francesco d’Accorso, and Bishop Andrea dei Mozzi.

Priscian could be one of two people. Scholars believe that the Priscian to whom Dante refers was either an early influential grammarian or he may be referring to a professor of that name who taught at law at Bologna. There may be more credence to the latter as Francesco d’Accorso was also a professor at Bologna. The final sodomite Latini identifies, Bishop Andrea dei Mozzi, had been transferred by Pope Bonfice VIII from Florence to Vicenza, where he died the following year.

Latini notices something that alarms him: smoke rising in the distance. He tells Dante he must go for these are people  “with whom I may not be.” The shade fears the comers and wishes to depart, but first he asks if his own work, the Tesoro has lived on, thus giving his name, at least, literary immortality.  

Before Dante can reply, however, Latini makes a hasty retreat; his speed reminds Dante of the famous races at Verona. The winner was awarded a “green mantle,” a scarf that wrapped over the shoulder and about the waist. Dante, watching the man depart, fantasizes Latini was won the famous prize:

“Then he turned round, and seemed to be of those

Who at Verona run for the Green Mantle

Across the plain; and seemed to be among them

The one who wins, and not the one who loses.”

Even Deeper into Circle Seven: The Ring of Three Sodomites and the Phlegethon Waterfall

Canto XVI

Dante’s former mentor, Brunetto Latini, has made a hasty retreat. The poets continue their descent into Hell. The way becomes more steep and the river Phlegethon narrows. Dante hears a distant roar, like the humming of an enormous beehive. Before he can ask what causes the sound, he spies three whirling shades approaching.

The three recognize Dante as a fellow Florentine and call out, asking him to tarry:

"Stop, thou; for by thy garb to us thou seemest

To be some one of our depraved city."

Dante pauses, horrified by their scarred and melting flesh. Dante must have looked hesitant about listening to the sinners, because Virgil urges him to listen and reply:

"Now wait,"

He said; "to these we should be courteous.

And if it were not for the fire that darts

The nature of this region, I should say

That haste were more becoming thee than them."

However, before the trio speaks again, they act very oddly; they link arms and form a wheel-shape, spinning as they come closer to the travelers. Apparently, they keep hold of each other so that no one among them can harm another. As they whirl, Dante gets a glimpse of each of their faces:

"As soon as we stood still, they recommenced

The old refrain, and when they overtook us,

Formed of themselves a wheel, all three of them.

As champions stripped and oiled are wont to do,

Watching for their advantage and their hold,

Before they come to blows and thrusts between them,

Thus, wheeling round, did every one his visage

Direct to me, so that in opposite wise

His neck and feet continual journey made."

After asking, as all the denizens of Hell do, how a living man can be here, the shade reveals that he is Jacopo Rusticucci. Rusticucci identifies his companions as Guidoguerra and Tegghiaio Aldobrandi. Jacopo Rusticucci, as well as the two others, had been Guelphs in Florence when they were alive. What Rusticucci most wants to know from Dante is the state of affairs in present-day Florence. He also makes sure Dante understands that his “savage wife” is responsible for his behavior as a sodomite, and thus his punishment in Hell’s Seventh Circle:

"He in whose footprints thou dost see me treading,

Naked and skinless though he now may go,

Was of a greater rank than thou dost think;

He was the grandson of the good Gualdrada;

His name was Guidoguerra, and in life

Much did he with his wisdom and his sword.

The other, who close by me treads the sand,

Tegghiaio Aldobrandi is, whose fame

Above there in the world should welcome be.

And I, who with them on the cross am placed,

Jacopo Rusticucci was; and truly

My savage wife, more than aught else, doth harm me."

Dante immediately recognizes the names and is almost overcome by compassion for the burning souls. He begins to move from the relative safety of the cooler banks of the Phlegethon, but quickly realizes the foolishness of doing so. From a distance, Dante assures Rusticucci how much he esteemed all three of them in life and that when he returns to the land of the living, he will make sure their names are kept alive:

"Sorrow and not disdain

Did your condition fix within me so,

That tardily it wholly is stripped off,

As soon as this my Lord said unto me

Words, on account of which I thought within me

That people such as you are were approaching.

I of your city am; and evermore

Your labours and your honourable names

I with affection have retraced and heard.

I leave the gall, and go for the sweet fruits

Promised to me by the veracious Leader;

But to the centre first I needs must plunge."

Before taking their leave, Rusticucci asks Dante to tell him whether Florence has become more corrupt due to the influence of Guiglielmo Borsiere, one of the burning circle of three but a recent resident in Hell. Dante tells them that Florence has suffered since Rusticucci’s abscence:

"The new inhabitants and the sudden gains,

Pride and extravagance have in thee engendered,

Florence, so that thou weep'st thereat already!"

In this wise I exclaimed with face uplifted;

And the three, taking that for my reply,

Looked at each other, as one looks at truth."

With this information, the horrific threesome splits from one another. A final plea to Dante is made that he remember their names to the living world, then all three run speedily away from Dante’s sight and hearing.

The poets continue on; the roar Dante heard earlier becomes louder.  The river has become an enormous waterfall, one that reminds Dante of a river in Florence, the Acquacheta, which feeds into the Apennines.

The power of this waterfall is terrifying. But what Virgil does next is even more frightening. The elder poet tells Dante to remove the rope-like belt from around his waist. Virgil tosses the rope  into the churning waters below.

Virgil tells his charge to wait and see what happens:

"Soon there will upward come

What I await; and what thy thought is dreaming

Must soon reveal itself unto thy sight."

Soon, Dante sees something caught in the rope’s lasso, something so horrible that he exclaims, but does not tell the reader what exactly he is witnessing, saying only:

“But here I cannot; and, Reader, by the notes

Of this my Comedy to thee I swear,

So may they not be void of lasting favour,

Athwart that dense and darksome atmosphere

I saw a figure swimming upward come,

Marvellous unto every steadfast heart,

Even as he returns who goeth down

Sometimes to clear an anchor, which has grappled

Reef, or aught else that in the sea is hidden,

Who upward stretches, and draws in his feet.”

Exiting the Seventh Circle: The Monster Geryon and the Usurers

Canto XVII

At the end of Canto XVI, Virgil has thrown the rope that served as Dante’s belt down a waterfall. When the rope lands in a churning river below, its lasso encircled a monster. Then, Dante exclaims that some horror is caught in the loop but does not tell the reader what it is.

The beginning of Canto XVII reveals the beast. Virgil says:

"Behold the monster with the pointed tail,

Who cleaves the hills, and breaketh walls and weapons,

Behold him who infecteth all the world."

Virgil beckons that the beast raise itself out of the water. Dante sees just how hideous the monster is:

"The face was as the face of a just man,

Its semblance outwardly was so benign,

And of a serpent all the trunk beside.

Two paws it had, hairy unto the armpits;

The back, and breast, and both the sides it had

Depicted o'er with nooses and with shields.

At the bottom of the beast, it has a terrible tail:

His tail was wholly quivering in the void,

Contorting upwards the envenomed fork,

That in the guise of scorpion armed its point."

As Dante watches the monster hoist its enormous bulk halfway out of the water, its efforts remind Dante of Germans, and also beavers, an animal that typically leaves its tail in the water when it sits on the banks. (Germany, in Dante’s time, were plentiful in Germany.) There is another reason Dante selects the beaver for comparison to the monster. People erroneously believed (beavers do not eat fish) that beavers caught fish by using their tails to stir up the waters and then scooping them out with those wide, flat tails.

Virgil leads his reluctant charge towards the beast:  

"Now perforce must turn aside

Our way a little, even to that beast

Malevolent, that yonder coucheth him."

Now very close indeed, Virgil spies a group of sinners sitting on some rocks nearby. He encourages Dante to go to them. Virgil will talk to the monster himself; Dante is stunned to learn that Virgil plans to ask the monster to carry them both on his back into Circle Eight:

"So that full

Experience of this round thou bear away,

Now go and see what their condition is.

There let thy conversation be concise;

Till thou returnest I will speak with him,

That he concede to us his stalwart shoulders."

Dante does as Virgil asks and hurries away to talk to the sinners on the rocks not far away; as he comes closer, he sees how they all flick their hands in agony, trying unsuccessfully to avoid the falling flames. Closer still, he does not recognize any individual face among their number. He does, however, recognize the pouches each wears around their neck. Some feature a blue lion on a gold background; several picture a white goose on a red background; finally, others display a pregnant sow on a white background. These symbols, Dante knows, are Florentine ones, used by wealthy families who made their fortunes through usury.

These shades are not interested in talking to Dante. In fact, one of their number tells Dante to leave them, for the place in which Dante currently stands is reserved for a man about to be condemned to the Seventh Circle of Hell. His name, the sinner says, is Vitaliano, another usurer, whose symbol on his neck pouch is three goats

“What dost thou in this moat?

Now get thee gone; and since thou'rt still alive,

Know that a neighbour of mine, Vitaliano,

Will have his seat here on my left-hand side.

A Paduan am I with these Florentines;

Full many a time they thunder in mine ears,

Exclaiming, 'Come the sovereign cavalier,

He who shall bring the satchel with three goats;'"

Dante heeds the shade’s request and returns to Virgil, where he finds his guide already mounted on the terrible back of Malevolent. Virgil bids Dante to climb on too, in front of him, and warns his charge to be cautious of the monster’s horrible tail:

"Now be both strong and bold.

Now we descend by stairways such as these;

Mount thou in front, for I will be midway,

So that the tail may have no power to harm thee."

Despite his nearly overwhelming fear, Dante does as Virgil bids; he climbs on the monster’s back. Virgil then calls the monster by name, Geyron, and tells it to go forward. The “novel burden” is Dante, the living visitor to Hell. Virgil commands:  

“Now, Geryon, bestir thyself;

The circles large, and the descent be little;

Think of the novel burden which thou hast."

The monster complies, moving its enormous bulk backwards until it has enough room to stretch its hideous wings and take off. Its attempt reminds Dante of a boat backing away from a dock:

“Even as the little vessel shoves from shore,

Backward, still backward, so he thence withdrew;

And when he wholly felt himself afloat,

There where his breast had been he turned his tail,

And that extended like an eel he moved,

And with his paws drew to himself the air.”

As the beast gains altitude, Dante is reminded of the characters from Greek mythology, Phaethon and Icarus. Phaethon drove his father’s chariot too close to the son and perished. Icarus, in wings fashioned from feathers and wax, also rose too close to the sun and died. Clearly, Dante is terrified.

A brief look downward only increases Dante’s fear. But his time in Hell thus far has strengthened his resolve and his fortitude; he does not pass out but clings even more tightly to Geyron’s scaly back.

Geyron begins a descent in slow circles; the movements remind Dante of a falcon. FInally, Geyron touches ground. His passengers scramble off his back and Geyron sails away, leaving the poets alone in Hell’s Eighth Circle:

"Even thus did Geryon place us on the bottom,

Close to the bases of the rough-hewn rock,

And being disencumbered of our persons,

He sped away as arrow from the string."

Entering Circle Eight, Pouches One and Two: Malebolge, the Panderers, the Seducers, and the Flatterers


The monster Geryon has flown away, leaving his passengers at the top of the Eighth Circle of Hell. The sight, perhaps unsurprisingly, is simultaneously dreary and terrifying. Nude sinners march through the dim fortress; their unprotected bodies are relentlessly whipped by demons who herd them continuously along. Dante describes the scene as he and Virgil move forward:

"There is a place in Hell called Malebolge,

Wholly of stone and of an iron colour,

As is the circle that around it turns.

Right in the middle of the field malign

There yawns a well exceeding wide and deep,

Of which its place the structure will recount.

Round, then, is that enclosure which remains

Between the well and foot of the high, hard bank,

And has distinct in valleys ten its bottom.

Upon my right hand I beheld new anguish,

New torments, and new wielders of the lash,

Wherewith the foremost Bolgia was replete.

Down at the bottom were the sinners naked;

Beheld I horned demons with great scourges,

Who cruelly were beating them behind.

Ah me! how they did make them lift their legs

At the first blows!’

As Dante watches the grim procession, he is reminded of his nemesis, Pope Boniface VIII and the year of the first Jubilee, which began on February 22, 1300. On this day, the pontiff declared that the king was subordinate to the pope, in matters both spiritual and secular. Furthermore, Boniface arranged for the selling of indulgences during the year-long run of the Jubilee; anyone who visited a Roman Catholic church and made an “offering” was forgiven of their sins by the clergy. The response from the parishioners was overwhelming; so many streamed into Rome that soldiers were required to keep the crowds orderly and two lines moving steadily in and out of St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Dante watches as the tormented souls pass him; one of their number makes eye contact with the poet. Dante immediately recognizes the shade as Venedico Caccianemico, and asks the man what he has done to bring this torment upon himself.

Caccianemico reluctantly confesses that in life, he had sold his sister into sexual slavery:

"Unwillingly I tell it;

But forces me thine utterance distinct,

Which makes me recollect the ancient world.

I was the one who the fair Ghisola

Induced to grant the wishes of the Marquis,

Howe'er the shameless story may be told.”

For some reason, Caccianemico thinks that claiming others are guilty of his sin lessens his own culpability, so he tells other that others from his area, Bologna, are also perpetrators, ones who have said “sipa” (“yes”):

“Not the sole Bolognese am I who weeps here;

Nay, rather is this place so full of them,

That not so many tongues to-day are taught

'Twixt Reno and Savena to say 'sipa;'

And if thereof thou wishest pledge or proof,

Bring to thy mind our avaricious heart."

Dante cannot answer Caccianemico, however, because a demon viciously whips the sinner and the man is forced to move along. The demon shouts,

"Get thee gone

Pander, there are no women here for coin."

Dante and Virgil watch the line of sinners march, come to a rocky ridge, and then turn around, travelling toward the poets and back from whence they had come. Among their number, Virgil points out one man in particular: Jason of the Argonauts:

“See that tall one who is coming,

And for his pain seems not to shed a tear;

Still what a royal aspect he retains!

That Jason is, who by his heart and cunning

The Colchians of the Ram made destitute.

He by the isle of Lemnos passed along

After the daring women pitiless

Had unto death devoted all their males.

There with his tokens and with ornate words

Did he deceive Hypsipyle, the maiden

Who first, herself, had all the rest deceived.

There did he leave her pregnant and forlorn;

Such sin unto such punishment condemns him,

And also for Medea is vengeance done.

With him go those who in such wise deceive;

And this sufficient be of the first valley

To know, and those that in its jaws it holds."

Even though the man is lauded in literature, he also committed a very terrible sin. Virgil tells Dante that Jason abandoned Hypsipyle of Lemnos, after seducing her and getting her pregnant. With Hypsipyle not in the way, Jason was free to go steal the legendary Golden Fleece from Colchis, the land of great wealth that bordered the Earth and the Heavens.

The infamous Jason is now just another of the condemned souls. He moves along without a word to the travelers, spurred on by the whip of his tormentor.

Virgil and Dante walk until they come to a fetid pool. Here, sinners are immersed in excrement. The shades fight among themselves in the mire, and their complaints become mold on their filthy bodies. Edging closer, Dante sees how tremendously deep the moat is in which they are punished; he comes close enough to see some of their smeared faces. One of the condemned espies Dante looking at him in particular and cries out:

“Wherefore art thou so eager

To look at me more than the other foul ones?"

Dante calls the man by name:  Alessio Interminei of Lucca (There are few details about this man’s life other than that he was a Guelph). The shade hits himself over the head, admits that in life he had been guilty of the sin of flattery, and sinks back down into the excrement.

Virgil then points out one more sinner in the muck, a woman whom he identifies as Thais, a harlot whose sin was being gratuitously thankful to her lover for physical pleasure. Now, immersed in Malebolge, Thais relentlessly scratches at her torn flesh with her filth-encrusted nails.

Disgusted with the sight of her, Virgil stops talking and the two move wordlessly on.

Circle Eight, Pouch Three: The Torment of Pope Nicholas III and the Simonists

Canto XIX

Having passed the second pouch of excrement-encrusted flatterers, the poets carefully step down even lower into the Eighth Circle where they witness the worst punishment yet inflicted on sinners. These condemned souls are the Simonists, clergy who had sold indulgences, that is, money paid to priests that supposedly absolved people of their sins or paid for other special amenities in Heaven. Dante’s disgust with these fraudulent friars is unrestrained. He admonishes them saying that they prostituted themselves for money:

“O Simon Magus, O forlorn disciples,

Ye who the things of God, which ought to be

The brides of holiness, rapaciously

For silver and for gold do prostitute,

Now it behoves for you the trumpet sound,

Because in this third Bolgia ye abide.

We had already on the following tomb

Ascended to that portion of the crag

Which o'er the middle of the moat hangs plumb.

Wisdom supreme, O how great art thou showest

In heaven, in earth, and in the evil world,

And with what justice doth thy power distribute!”

Dante begins his invective by calling out Simon Magus, for whom all Simonists are named. In the Bible, Simon is a man who uses witchcraft (a “magus”).  The story of Simon and the apostles can be found in Acts 8:9-24. After witnessing two of Jesus’s disciples, Peter and John, perform miracles, Simon Magus is so impressed that he asks Peter to teach him how to do the same...for money. Indignantly, Peter chastises the magician, insulted that he believes the gifts of Christ could be purchased. There is a more detailed story about Simon Magus’s clash with Peter in The Acts of Peter. (This story is recorded in one of the books known as the “apocrypha.” These books were written around the same period as the Bible and have many similiarities, but for various reasons, were not canonized by early Christians and are not included in the Bible proper.)

In the apocryphal book, Peter and Simon Magus, in service of the emperor Nero, engage in a magic contest. A demon comes to the aid of Magus, enabling him to fly. Peter performs the sign of the cross; Magus crashes, breaking his legs “in three parts” (presumably, this is symbolic of the godhead: father, son, and Holy Ghost). The crowd who had gathered to watch the contest turns on Magus, stoning him. Grievously injured, Magus later dies under the knife of two physicians.

The punishment for the Simonists is horrific.  They are buried upside down in baptismal basins; their protruding feet are burned by flames. These sinners simultaneously suffocate and burn. The basins in which the Simonists suffocate remind Dante of a baptismal basin which he accidentally broke in Saint John’s Cathedral in order to save someone who was drowning in it. He describes the eternal horror:

“I saw upon the sides and on the bottom

The livid stone with perforations filled,

All of one size, and every one was round.

To me less ample seemed they not, nor greater

Than those that in my beautiful Saint John

Are fashioned for the place of the baptisers,

And one of which, not many years ago,

I broke for some one, who was drowning in it;

Be this a seal all men to undeceive.

Out of the mouth of each one there protruded

The feet of a transgressor, and the legs

Up to the calf, the rest within remained.

In all of them the soles were both on fire;

Wherefore the joints so violently quivered,

They would have snapped asunder withes and bands.”

Dante looks around at the kicking feet and sees one set whose soles are tormented more viciously than others around him. He asks Virgil:

"Master, who is that one who writhes himself,

More than his other comrades quivering,"

I said, "and whom a redder flame is sucking?"

Virgil replies that when they get closer, Dante will see who it is:

"If thou wilt have me bear thee

Down there along that bank which lowest lies,

From him thou'lt know his errors and himself."

Standing before the kicking feet, Dante asks:

"Whoe'er thou art, that standest upside down,

O doleful soul, implanted like a stake,"

To say began I, "if thou canst, speak out."

This is Pope Nicholas III, who had once been the leader of the Inquisition in 1262. Before being appointed to the papacy 1277, when the then-Giovanni Gaetano took the name Nicholas III. This pope was infamous for his nepotism, appointing favored family members to key posts.  

Unable to see, the sinner assumes that Dante is Pope Boniface VIII, for whose arrival in Hell the shade has long anticipated. As Virgil instructs him to do, Dante says he is not Boniface.

Irritated, the shade asks what the travelers are doing in Hell. He also tries to excuse his own life of sin, claiming the money he charged was to support his family.

"Then what wantest thou of me?

If who I am thou carest so much to know,

That thou on that account hast crossed the bank,

Know that I vested was with the great mantle;

And truly was I son of the She-bear,

So eager to advance the cubs, that wealth

Above, and here myself, I pocketed.”

The former pope then describes to Dante and Virgil the punishment in Hell for the Simonists:

“Beneath my head the others are dragged down

Who have preceded me in simony,

Flattened along the fissure of the rock.”

They are buried in rock, and their bodies for the entire third “pouch” of the Eighth Circle of Hell.  Nicholas says that he will descend lower into the layers of rock when Boniface finally is sentenced to eternal torment as will another corrupt member of the clergy, Pope Clement V:

“Below there I shall likewise fall, whenever

That one shall come who I believed thou wast,

What time the sudden question I proposed.

But longer I my feet already toast,

And here have been in this way upside down,

Than he will planted stay with reddened feet;

For after him shall come of fouler deed

From tow'rds the west a Pastor without law,

Such as befits to cover him and me.”

Boniface’s was Dante’s bitter enemy. This pope vastly expanded the power of the Church. Eventually, Boniface sent Dante, and and many other leaders of the white Guelphs, into exile. Pope Clement V’s sins include moving the Papal See to Avignon, France, from Rome:

“For after him shall come of fouler deed

From tow'rds the west a Pastor without law,

Such as befits to cover him and me.

New Jason will he be, of whom we read

In Maccabees; and as his king was pliant,

So he who governs France shall be to this one."

Tired of listening to Nicholas rants and defenses of his own simony, Dante interrupts the sinner’s diatribe to ask him if Christ would have charged Saint Peter for the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, or if the Apostle Peter would have asked Matthias for a fee when he replaced Judas, the betrayer of Christ:

"I pray thee tell me now how great a treasure

Our Lord demanded of Saint Peter first,

Before he put the keys into his keeping?

Truly he nothing asked but 'Follow me.'

Nor Peter nor the rest asked of Matthias

Silver or gold, when he by lot was chosen

Unto the place the guilty soul had lost.”

No longer interested in engaging the shade, Dante tells the former pope that he deserves his fate. Before he takes his leave, the poet rails further on the evils of the papacy. He colorfully calls Rome a whore who accepts money from kings for sexual favors. In doing so, Dante argues, the Church is also guilty of idolatry. The Church, therefore, is as culpable as the heretics which they freely condemn:

“Because your avarice afflicts the world,

Trampling the good and lifting the depraved.

The Evangelist you Pastors had in mind,

When she who sitteth upon many waters

To fornicate with kings by him was seen;

The same who with the seven heads was born,

And power and strength from the ten horns received,

So long as virtue to her spouse was pleasing.

Ye have made yourselves a god of gold and silver;

And from the idolater how differ ye,

Save that he one, and ye a hundred worship?”

Not yet finished, Dante goes on to condemn Constantine, the first Christian Emperor (299-337 C.E.) Constantine’s sin, known as the “Donation of Constantine,” was the granting political control of Italy to the Church. In Dante’s estimation, this transfer of power made the Church too wealthy, leading to corruption:

“Ah, Constantine! of how much ill was mother,

Not thy conversion, but that marriage dower

Which the first wealthy Father took from thee!"

Pope Nicholas, who is still listening, kicks his feet furiously. Virgil, attending to his protege's words quietly, is obviously pleased with his charge’s outbursts:

“And while I sang to him such notes as these,

Either that anger or that conscience stung him,

He struggled violently with both his feet.

I think in sooth that it my Leader pleased,

With such contented lip he listened ever

Unto the sound of the true words expressed.”

Virgil then lifts Dante into his arms and carries him over the bridge, and into the last “pouch” of the Eighth Circle. Once on the other side, Virgil puts Dante down and the two step very carefully down into the incredibly steep valley.

Circle Eight, Pouch Four: Manto and the Diviners, Astrologers, and Magicians

Canto XX

Presumably Pope Nicholas III was still kicking his feet furiously as Dante and Virgil took their leave of him and the other Simonists in the third pouch of Circle Eight. The poets have crossed the bridge  (Virgil physically carrying Dante), and have stepped carefully down the sharp incline into pouch four.

A horrific scene unfolds before them. Lines of sinners march quietly. Upon closer inspection, Dante sees that their heads face backwards; the shades must proceed slowly, as they cannot see what is in front of them. Their sorrow is so great that the tears roll down their backsides:

“Wondrously each one seemed to be distorted

From chin to the beginning of the chest;

For tow'rds the reins the countenance was turned,

And backward it behoved them to advance,

As to look forward had been taken from them.”

Unlike the Simonists for whom Dante had no pity, the state of agony of this group of sinners moves the poet to tears:

“As God may let thee, Reader, gather fruit

From this thy reading, think now for thyself

How I could ever keep my face unmoistened,

When our own image near me I beheld

Distorted so, the weeping of the eyes

Along the fissure bathed the hinder parts.

Truly I wept, leaning upon a peak

Of the hard crag…”

Virgil, however, feels no such pity. He chastises Dante for his emotion:

“Art thou, too, of the other fools?

Here pity lives when it is wholly dead;

Who is a greater reprobate than he

Who feels compassion at the doom divine?

Lift up, lift up thy head, and see for whom

Opened the earth before the Thebans' eyes…”

Virgil points out several of their number. There is the cowardly King Amphiaraus, who, learning of his impending defeat, tried to hide. Also among this number is the gender conflicted Tiresias, who changed his sex from male to female and back again; Virgil continues, naming the diviner Aruns, the man who predicted Rome’s civil war and its outcome:

'Whither rushest thou,

Amphiaraus? Why dost leave the war?'

And downward ceased he not to fall amain

As far as Minos, who lays hold on all.

See, he has made a bosom of his shoulders!

Because he wished to see too far before him

Behind he looks, and backward goes his way:

Behold Tiresias, who his semblance changed,

When from a male a female he became,

His members being all of them transformed;

And afterwards was forced to strike once more

The two entangled serpents with his rod,

Ere he could have again his manly plumes.

That Aruns is, who backs the other's belly,

Who in the hills of Luni, there where grubs

The Carrarese who houses underneath,

Among the marbles white a cavern had

For his abode; whence to behold the stars

And sea, the view was not cut off from him."

Lastly, Virgil points out a woman who in life had been the sorceress Manto, whose long, dirty hair now covers her breasts:

“And she there, who is covering up her breasts,

Which thou beholdest not, with loosened tresses,

And on that side has all the hairy skin,

Was Manto, who made quest through many lands…”

The sight of Manto reminds Virgil of his homeland, Mantua (the town named for the witch). He tells Dante about Manto’s history.  As a young girl, Manto had to leave Thebes after her father was killed; she finally found a place to live near a lake named Benaco. The chief attraction to this marshy, smelly area was its relative safety from the wars that raged not far away. Other people soon came to the same conclusion, and joined Manto in her safer place, eventually naming the town after her, “Mantua.”

While Dante has not said a word, nor are there any indications that Dante disbelieves his mentor, Virgil nonetheless challenges Dante, daring him, in essence, to call him a liar:

“I caution thee, if e'er thou hearest

Originate my city otherwise,

No falsehood may the verity defraud."

Whether he actually doubts Virgil, Dante replies that he indeed believes the elder poets story:

"My Master, thy discourses are

To me so certain, and so take my faith,

That unto me the rest would be spent coals.

But tell me of the people who are passing,

If any one note-worthy thou beholdest,

For only unto that my mind reverts."

Dante then asks for Virgil’s help in identifying more of the sinners in the fourth pouch. Virgil complies, pointing out Calchas, who oversaw the sacrifice of Iphigenia (in “The Aeneid”) and was an interpreter of entrails of the enemy dead. He identifies two astrologers, Michael Scot and Guido Bonatti, and the soothsayer Asdente.

There is nothing more to be said here. Virgil tells Dante it is time to move on as the hour grows late.

Circle Eight, Pouch Five: The Fraudulent Politicians (The “Barrators”)

Canto XXI

The dim light of the fourth pouch is virtually extinguished when Dante and Virgil reach pouch five. Dante compares the utter darkness to the “Arsenal of the Venetians” and the pitch that those warriors used to repair their ships.

They cannot see but Dante continues to proceed; Virgil cries out, “Beware! Beware!”

Heeding the warning, Dante turns just in time to see a “black devil” coming toward them. The winged demon is terrifying; even more horrific is the sight of a sinner tossed over his pointy shoulders. Held fast by his feet, the sinner is immobilized by the devil’s pitiless talons:

"Ah, how ferocious was he in his aspect!

And how he seemed to me in action ruthless,

With open wings and light upon his feet!

His shoulders, which sharp-pointed were and high,

A sinner did encumber with both haunches,

And he held clutched the sinews of the feet."

Obsessed with his prey, the demon pays the travelers no mind. Instead, before pitching the man into the boiling Phlegethon, he calls out to his fellow demons, known collectively as the  “Malebranche”:

"O Malebranche,

Behold one of the elders of Saint Zita;

Plunge him beneath, for I return for others

Unto that town, which is well furnished with them.

All there are barrators, except Bonturo;

No into Yes for money there is changed."

This man, as well as the others who are tormented in this pouch, was guilty of being a corrupt politician; that is, he and his fellow sinners took money from "donors" and awarded those donors choice positions within the government. Dante compares the viciousness of the demons who set upon the sinner to that of a huge dog, a mastiff, tearing apart a thief:

“He hurled him down, and over the hard crag

Turned round, and never was a mastiff loosened

In so much hurry to pursue a thief.”

The demons haul the man under water, prodding him with like meat in a stew, never allowing him to resurface:

Not otherwise the cooks their scullions make

Immerse into the middle of the caldron

The meat with hooks, so that it may not float.

As they poke and prod the sinner, one cries out,

“Here the Santo Volto has no place!

Here swims one otherwise than in the Serchio;

Therefore, if for our gaffs thou wishest not,

Do not uplift thyself above the pitch."

The “Santo Volto” to which the demon refers is a sculpture of Christ on the cross. The sculpture was housed in cathedral of San Martino in Lucca, Italy and is said to have be created by the Nicodemus with the help of Joseph of Arimethea. Joseph owned the tomb in which Christ’s pre-resurrected body was placed.  The devil also mentions the Serchio; this was a nearby river to the cathedral of San Martino in which people swam for pleasure. The demon is saying that calling out to Christ will do him no good and the river in which he is being drowned is hardly for pleasure. He then commands the sinner to not try to resist.

The travelers watch the torment in silence until Virgil orders Dante to stay hidden as the demons go about their grim work; furthermore, Virgil increases Dante’s fear by telling him that he has personally witnessed the viciousness of the demons as he “scuffled” with them on his previous journey into Hell:

"That it be not

Apparent thou art here, crouch thyself down

Behind a jag, that thou mayest have some screen;

And for no outrage that is done to me

Be thou afraid, because these things I know,

For once before was I in such a scuffle."

Dante obeys but then Virgil seemingly ignores his own advice by personally confronting the demon horde, ordering them to disarm:

"Be none of you malignant!

Before those hooks of yours lay hold of me,

Let one of you step forward, who may hear me,

And then take counsel as to grappling me."

The demons allow their leader, Malacoda,(which translates as “Evil End”) to approach Virgil; he asks the poet what he is doing in Hell. Virgil replies that he is carrying out the will of God and that the demon is beyond foolish if he thinks that Virgil and Dante can be deterred from their heavenly mission:

"Thinkest thou, Malacoda, to behold me

Advanced into this place," my Master said,

"Safe hitherto from all your skill of fence,

Without the will divine, and fate auspicious?

Let me go on, for it in Heaven is willed

That I another show this savage road."

Malacoda recognizes the veracity of Virgil’s claim and orders his army to “Strike him not” (meaning Dante)  as the pair pass.

Virgil calls out to Dante, who then joins his mentor, leaving his hiding place. The demons are excited to see the living human and want to torment him:

“Wherefore I started and came swiftly to him;

And all the devils forward thrust themselves,

So that I feared they would not keep their compact.

And thus beheld I once afraid the soldiers

Who issued under safeguard from Caprona,

Seeing themselves among so many foes.

Close did I press myself with all my person

Beside my Leader, and turned not mine eyes

From off their countenance, which was not good.

They lowered their rakes, and "Wilt thou have me hit him,"

They said to one another, "on the rump?"

And answered: "Yes; see that thou nick him with it."

Malacoda, however, orders his minions to leave him be, chastising one in particular named Scamiglione. The demon then tells the poets they can pass, but the bridge they seem to be intending to use is broken:

"You can no farther go

Forward upon this crag, because is lying

All shattered, at the bottom, the sixth arch.

And if it still doth please you to go onward,

Pursue your way along upon this rock;

Near is another crag that yields a path.

Yesterday, five hours later than this hour,

One thousand and two hundred sixty-six

Years were complete, that here the way was broken.

I send in that direction some of mine

To see if any one doth air himself;

Go ye with them; for they will not be vicious."

Malacoda offers to allow some of his demons to accompany Dante and Virgil to the next passable bridge, calling them out by name: Alichino, Calcabrina, Cagnazzo, Barbariccia, Libicocco, Draghignazzo, Ciriatto, Graffiacane, Farfarello, and Rubicante:  

“I send in that direction some of mine

To see if any one doth air himself;

Go ye with them; for they will not be vicious.

Step forward, Alichino and Calcabrina,"

Began he to cry out, "and thou, Cagnazzo;

And Barbariccia, do thou guide the ten.

Come forward, Libicocco and Draghignazzo,

And tusked Ciriatto and Graffiacane,

And Farfarello and mad Rubicante;

Search ye all round about the boiling pitch;

Let these be safe as far as the next crag,

That all unbroken passes o'er the dens."

This, however, is a proposal Dante, at least, is loathe to accept, especially since the demons are continuing their menacing ways:

"O me! what is it, Master, that I see?

Pray let us go," I said, "without an escort,

If thou knowest how, since for myself I ask none.

If thou art as observant as thy wont is,

Dost thou not see that they do gnash their teeth,

And with their brows are threatening woe to us?"

Virgil reassures his charge, telling him that the display is for the sinners they are employed to torment, not for them:

"I will not have thee fear;

Let them gnash on, according to their fancy,

Because they do it for those boiling wretches."

The demons and the poets go, one of them making a vulgar noise with his behind, the “trumpet of his rump.”

Circle Eight, Pouch Five Continued: The Barrators on the Other Side of the Bridge

Canto XXII

The demon Barbariccia had been selected by Malacoda (along with others of his kind) to accompany the poets to a functioning bridge. To herald their departure, Barbariccia made a sound like a trumpet from his buttocks. Dante thinks about all the strange and noisy processions he has witnessed and none come close to matching the march of the devils, not even the Aretines. The Aretines were dezines of Arrezo, in Tuscany, Italy. There was also a French poet named Pietro Aretino, whose patron was the French King, François I. Aretino wrote bawdy verses and lived a very morally loose life.

“Vaunt-couriers have I seen upon your land,

O Aretines, and foragers go forth,

Tournaments stricken, and the joustings run,

Sometimes with trumpets and sometimes with bells,

With kettle-drums, and signals of the castles,

And with our own, and with outlandish things,

But never yet with bagpipe so uncouth

Did I see horsemen move, nor infantry,

Nor ship by any sign of land or star.

We went upon our way with the ten demons;

Ah, savage company! but in the church

With saints, and in the tavern with the gluttons!”

Despite the noise of their guides and their fearful aspect, Virgil and Dante follow. Although the fifth pouch is nearly lightless, Dante nonetheless stares intently at the water. He occasionally catches glimpses of sinners' arms and legs jutting out of the boiling river. The sight reminds him of dolphins’ backs rising above the water and of frogs briefly coming up above the surface:

“Ever upon the pitch was my intent,

To see the whole condition of that Bolgia,

And of the people who therein were burned.

Even as the dolphins, when they make a sign

To mariners by arching of the back,

That they should counsel take to save their vessel,

Thus sometimes, to alleviate his pain,

One of the sinners would display his back,

And in less time conceal it than it lightens.

As on the brink of water in a ditch

The frogs stand only with their muzzles out,

So that they hide their feet and other bulk,

So upon every side the sinners stood;”

As promised, the demons do not harm Dante but they continue to torment any sinner they are able to catch in the water. One of them, a demon named Grafficane, hooks one of the unfortunate souls, a “frog” to slow to avoid capture, with his sharp talons. As the demon hoists the shade aloft, its elongated form then reminds Dante of an otter:

“And Graffiacan, who most confronted him,

Grappled him by his tresses smeared with pitch,

And drew him up, so that he seemed an otter.”

Dante has learned the names of all of his demon-guides. He listens as Grafficane orders Rubicante to tear the sinner apart. But Dante begs Virgil to stop them and inquire who the sinner had been in life. Virgil complies and fearlessly approaches the tormented shade and asks where he was born.

Perhaps to delay his torturers, the shade offers much information. He says that he was born in Navarre, Spain, and that growing his father was a “wastral” (a waste of a person). He became close to King Thibault, whom he considers his adopted father. His sin was embezzlement and shady dealings with money in general. What the sinner does not offer, however, is his name.

"I in the kingdom of Navarre was born;

My mother placed me servant to a lord,

For she had borne me to a ribald knave,

Destroyer of himself and of his things.

Then I domestic was of good King Thibault;

I set me there to practise barratry,

For which I pay the reckoning in this heat."

The demon named Ciriatto will be delayed from his grim task no longer; he gouges a hole in the sinner, tearing him open with one of his forked horns. Barbariccia, too, is ready to attack but refrains; instead, he asks Virgil to continue his interrogation of the sinner. The demon warns, however, that he cannot hold off the hoard much longer.

Virgil speaks to the sinner again, but instead of demanding the shade’s name, Virgil asks him whether there are any more “Latians” (that is, Italians) under the river. The man replies that indeed there are, and that one is submerged very near himself, adding that he wishes he too were underneath the boiling waters rather than being subjected to the flaying of the demons above:

“The Guide: "Now tell then of the other culprits;

Knowest thou any one who is a Latian,

Under the pitch?" And he: "I separated

Lately from one who was a neighbour to it;

Would that I still were covered up with him,

For I should fear not either claw nor hook!"

Libicocco, one of the devils, will be delayed no more. He ferociously attacks the sinner while his compatriot, Draghignazzo, awaits his turn. Both are temporarily stopped by Barbariccia, who still wants to know the identity of this particular sinner immersed in the Phlegethon; he asks Virgil to find out:

"And Libicocco: "We have borne too much;"

And with his grapnel seized him by the arm,

So that, by rending, he tore off a tendon.

Eke Draghignazzo wished to pounce upon him

Down at the legs; whence their Decurion

Turned round and round about with evil look.

When they again somewhat were pacified,

Of him, who still was looking at his wound,

Demanded my Conductor without stay:

"Who was that one, from whom a luckless parting

Thou sayest thou hast made, to come ashore?"

Any delay means a few more moments of staying his torture, so the sinner is happy to comply. He tells Virgil that the man next to him is Friar Gomita from Gallura. Gallura is one of four districts in Sardinia, all of which were then a part of Pisa, Italy. In life, Friar Gomita had been a chaplain to Nino Visconti, a “guidice” or judge, of Pisa. Friar Gomita took bribes from convicted persons and secured their release. When Visconti learned of his chaplain’s avarice, he had Friar Gomita hung.

The desperate sinner also names another of his friends in the mire, Don Michael Zanche of Logodoro. This man had been the son of Emperor Frederick II and the governor of Sardinia under King Enzo. His sin had been the defrauding of Enzo’s widow after the king’s death, ploying her with flattery and obtaining a choice position as “Lord of Logodoro.”

"It was the Friar Gomita,

He of Gallura, vessel of all fraud,

Who had the enemies of his Lord in hand,

And dealt so with them each exults thereat;

Money he took, and let them smoothly off,

As he says; and in other offices

A barrator was he, not mean but sovereign.

Foregathers with him one Don Michael Zanche

Of Logodoro; and of Sardinia

To gossip never do their tongues feel tired.”

As the nameless Navarrese speaks, he spies one of the demons, Farfarello, coming to renew his torturous task but Barbariccia staves him off. Terrified, the shade offers to call others of his friends to the surface if only the demons will not attack him personally further:

"Tuscans or Lombards, I will make them come.

But let the Malebranche cease a little,

So that these may not their revenges fear,

And I, down sitting in this very place,

For one that I am will make seven come,

When I shall whistle, as our custom is

To do whenever one of us comes out."

The demons appear to find his attempts at delay humorous. Cagnazzo says he is aware of the shade’s trickery. Alinchino warns that if the sinner tries to dive under the water, he will be attacked from above. While they are laughing and boasting, however, the sinner actually does escape:

“Cagnazzo at these words his muzzle lifted,

Shaking his head, and said: "Just hear the trick

Which he has thought of, down to throw himself!"

Whence he, who snares in great abundance had,

Responded: "I by far too cunning am,

When I procure for mine a greater sadness."

Alichin held not in, but running counter

Unto the rest, said to him: "If thou dive,

I will not follow thee upon the gallop,

But I will beat my wings above the pitch;

The height be left, and be the bank a shield

To see if thou alone dost countervail us."

O thou who readest, thou shalt hear new sport!

Each to the other side his eyes averted;

He first, who most reluctant was to do it.

The Navarrese selected well his time;

Planted his feet on land, and in a moment

Leaped, and released himself from their design.”

The captors are enraged. They howl and then turn on each other. They lose their balance and fall into the boiling river. Unable to extricate themselves, Barbariccia sends the remaining Malebranche to get them out. While all the demons are so engaged, Virgil and Dante quietly take their leave.

Circle Eight, Pouch Six: The Jovial Friars and Caiaphas (The Hypocrites)


Dante and Virgil have stolen away after the Malebranche become distracted by attacking sinners in the boiling Phlegethon of Pouch Five.

Soon they observe sinners in a grim procession. They walk single file; Dante compares their steps to those of the “Minor Friars.” He is referring to the Franciscan monks who walk in this manner; additionally, the hypocrites doomed for eternity to this pouch of Hell are dressed in monkish garb.

As they proceed, Dante recalls a story about a frog and a mouse written by Aesop, the ancient Greek fabulist. In this tale, a mouse asks a frog to carry it across a stream.  The frog agrees, but when the pair has traveled about halfway across, the frog goes underwater. The mouse drowns but its body floats to the surface. A hawk (also known as a “kite”) flying overhead spies the both the frog and the mouse, swoops down and eats them both.

“Silent, alone, and without company

We went, the one in front, the other after,

As go the Minor Friars along their way.

Upon the fable of Aesop was directed

My thought, by reason of the present quarrel,

Where he has spoken of the frog and mouse;

For 'mo' and 'issa' are not more alike

Than this one is to that, if well we couple

End and beginning with a steadfast mind.”

Dante is fearful that the demons from which they took their leave will be angry at their unannounced departure and will pursue them. The very thought is terrifying and  makes Dante’s hair stand up.  He says to Virgil:

"These on our account

Are laughed to scorn, with injury and scoff

So great, that much I think it must annoy them.

If anger be engrafted on ill-will,

They will come after us more merciless

Than dog upon the leveret which he seizes,"

I felt my hair stand all on end already

With terror, and stood backwardly intent,

When said I: "Master, if thou hidest not

Thyself and me forthwith, of Malebranche

I am in dread; we have them now behind us;

I so imagine them, I already feel them."       

Virgil does not comfort his protege; instead, he agrees that the demons will be furious and suggests they hasten their departure, deeper into Pouch Six.

Both of the travelers are correct; their fear is justified. Just as soon as Virgil recommends their hasty departure, the angry, winged demons appear on the horizon. Like a mother who will protect her child at all costs, Virgil swoops Dante into his arms and spirits him away as quickly as possible. When they come to the edge of a precipice, Virgil sits and they slide down together. The travel downward reminds Dante of water flowing over a mill; while swift, they feel every bump along the way:

"When I beheld them come with outstretched wings,

Not far remote, with will to seize upon us.

My Leader on a sudden seized me up,

Even as a mother who by noise is wakened,

And close beside her sees the enkindled flames,

Who takes her son, and flies, and does not stop,

Having more care of him than of herself,

So that she clothes her only with a shift;

And downward from the top of the hard bank

Supine he gave him to the pendent rock,

That one side of the other Bolgia walls.

Ne'er ran so swiftly water through a sluice

To turn the wheel of any land-built mill,

When nearest to the paddles it approaches,

As did my Master down along that border,

Bearing me with him on his breast away,

As his own son, and not as a companion."

They finally reach the bottom, much to Virgil’s relief as the demons may not pursue them into the next pouch. This greatly enrages the Malebranche, who howl in fury as they watch their prey get away unscatched:

“Hardly the bed of the ravine below

His feet had reached, ere they had reached the hill

Right over us; but he was not afraid;

For the high Providence, which had ordained

To place them ministers of the fifth moat,

The power of thence departing took from all.”

Now safely in Pouch Six, the pair can observe the denizens. Here, men in golden cloaks walk as if they can barely move. Outwardly, they are dazzling but inwardly they are miserable. These sinners move exceedingly slowly, crying as they go, and weighed down by the lead that lines their garments. This punishment mimics the execution technique of Frederick II, who killed those condemned by placing them in a leaden enclosure which then was fired until it melted around them:

"A painted people there below we found,

Who went about with footsteps very slow,

Weeping and in their semblance tired and vanquished.

They had on mantles with the hoods low down

Before their eyes, and fashioned of the cut

That in Cologne they for the monks are made.

Without, they gilded are so that it dazzles;

But inwardly all leaden and so heavy

That Frederick used to put them on of straw.

O everlastingly fatiguing mantle!”

Dante asks Virgil to help him identify anyone he might know. Before Virgil can respond, one of the shades overhears Dante’s accent and cries out for the travelers to stop. The poets tarry and two of the sinners approach, looking them over wordlessly:

“And one, who understood the Tuscan speech,

Cried to us from behind: "Stay ye your feet,

Ye, who so run athwart the dusky air!

Perhaps thou'lt have from me what thou demandest."

"Whereat the Leader turned him, and said: "Wait,

And then according to his pace proceed."

I stopped, and two beheld I show great haste

Of spirit, in their faces, to be with me;

But the burden and the narrow way delayed them.

When they came up, long with an eye askance

They scanned me without uttering a word.”

The shades confer among themselves, asking each other whether or not Dante is a living soul. They also want to know why the travelers are not dressed in the golden, leaden robes:

“Then to each other turned, and said together:

"He by the action of his throat seems living;

And if they dead are, by what privilege

Go they uncovered by the heavy stole?"

Then said to me: "Tuscan, who to the college

Of miserable hypocrites art come,

Do not disdain to tell us who thou art."

Dante wants to know what causes the shades to cry so much. They explain that the robes are made of lead and unbearably heavy. They are being punished in this manner because they are the “Jovial Friars.” This was the nickname by which the military order called  the “Glorious Virgin Mary” was known. The order, “Frait Gaudenti,” gained a wide reputation as being unobservant of their vows.  Addtionally, they failed to keep the peace and the region of Florence known as “Gardingo” became particularly violent and corrupt. Catalano and Longeringo are two of that order, and they are the ones who come to speak to Dante and Virgil:

"These orange cloaks

Are made of lead so heavy, that the weights

Cause in this way their balances to creak.

Frati Gaudenti were we, and Bolognese;

I Catalano, and he Loderingo

Named, and together taken by thy city,

As the wont is to take one man alone,

For maintenance of its peace; and we were such

That still it is apparent round Gardingo."

Dante becomes distracted from the Jovial Friars’ tale when he sees an enormous man, naked and pinned to the ground, in the pose of one who has been crucified. This, Catalano informs Dante, is Caiaphas, the man who ordered Jesus crucified alone instead of all the Jews. In this undignified and painful manner, Caiaphas must pass eternity; additionally, for all time as well, anyone who crosses through Pouch Six, steps on and over him. Moreover, Catalano continues, the same fate has befallen all of Caiaphas’ relatives and friends:

“This transfixed one, whom thou seest,

Counselled the Pharisees that it was meet

To put one man to torture for the people.

Crosswise and naked is he on the path,

As thou perceivest; and he needs must feel,

Whoever passes, first how much he weighs;

And in like mode his father-in-law is punished

Within this moat, and the others of the council,

Which for the Jews was a malignant seed."

Virgil is horrified at the sight and wants to depart. He asks the Jovial Friars if exiting is possible without tipping off the Malebranche. Catalano replies that there is a bridge that the travelers may cross; although it is broken in many places, enough of the rubble protrudes to make passage possible. Virgil is irritated that the demons have lied to him; his surprise is curious to Catalano, who responds that lying is the nature of devils and they should not be trusted to tell the truth:

"Many of the Devil's vices

Once heard I at Bologna, and among them,

That he's a liar and the father of lies.”

Still annoyed, Virgil takes his leave and Dante follows obediently after him.

Circle Eight, Pouch Seven: Vanni Fucci and the Thieves

Canto XXIV

Leaving the hypocrites in Pouch Six seems to have depressed Virgil. As Canto XXIV begins, Dante describes his mentor’s demeanor, comparing the great poet to a farmer in winter. This agrarian looks out over his snow-covered fields and becomes filled with worry; nothing can be accomplished while the weather is so inhospitable. However, conditions soon improve and the snow begins to melt. Relieved, the farmer then goes out to tend to his sheep.

“In that part of the youthful year wherein

The Sun his locks beneath Aquarius tempers,

And now the nights draw near to half the day,

What time the hoar-frost copies on the ground

The outward semblance of her sister white,

But little lasts the temper of her pen,

The husbandman, whose forage faileth him,

Rises, and looks, and seeth the champaign

All gleaming white, whereat he beats his flank,

Returns in doors, and up and down laments,

Like a poor wretch, who knows not what to do;

Then he returns and hope revives again,

Seeing the world has changed its countenance

In little time, and takes his shepherd's crook,

And forth the little lambs to pasture drives.”

Likewise, Virgil’s spirits improved when he and Dante finally arrive at the broken, but passable, bridge:

“Thus did the Master fill me with alarm,

When I beheld his forehead so disturbed,

And to the ailment came as soon the plaster.

For as we came unto the ruined bridge,

The Leader turned to me with that sweet look

Which at the mountain's foot I first beheld.”

Dante has his doubts about being able to safely cross the broken bridge, but Virgil urges him on but cautiously, advising:

"To that one grapple afterwards,

But try first if 'tis such that it will hold thee."

As they carefully descend, Dante thinks back to the hypocrites of the previous pouch and is grateful that his robe is not leaden; it is heavy enough as it is:

“This was no way for one clothed with a cloak;

For hardly we, he light, and I pushed upward,

Were able to ascend from jag to jag.

And had it not been, that upon that precinct

Shorter was the ascent than on the other,

He I know not, but I had been dead beat.”

Dante begins to tire from the laboriousness of the climb. He knows that were in not for Virgil’s insistence, he probably would have given up:

“Still we arrived at length upon the point

Wherefrom the last stone breaks itself asunder.

The breath was from my lungs so milked away,

When I was up, that I could go no farther,

Nay, I sat down upon my first arrival.”

Virgil is displeased. He tells his charge that laziness will not help him; indeed, laziness has never helped anyone:

"Now it behoves thee thus to put off sloth,"

My Master said; "for sitting upon down,

Or under quilt, one cometh not to fame,

Withouten which whoso his life consumes

Such vestige leaveth of himself on earth,

As smoke in air or in the water foam.”

Like a coach given a pep talk to a depleted player, Virgil tries to rally the young poet:  

“And therefore raise thee up, o'ercome the anguish

With spirit that o'ercometh every battle,

If with its heavy body it sink not.

A longer stairway it behoves thee mount;

'Tis not enough from these to have departed;

Let it avail thee, if thou understand me."

It works. Dante finds a store of strength and rises, ready to move forward:

“ Then I uprose, showing myself provided

Better with breath than I did feel myself,

And said: "Go on, for I am strong and bold."

Despite his declaration, Dante is tired, in both body and soul. To keep himself going, he begins talking aloud to himself; he is surprised to soon hear another voice, faint though it is, on the other side of the bridge. The voice sounds angry. Dante tries to see into the pitch dark pouch:

“Upward we took our way along the crag,

Which jagged was, and narrow, and difficult,

And more precipitous far than that before.

Speaking I went, not to appear exhausted;

Whereat a voice from the next moat came forth,

Not well adapted to articulate words.

I know not what it said, though o'er the back

I now was of the arch that passes there;

But he seemed moved to anger who was speaking.

I was bent downward, but my living eyes

Could not attain the bottom, for the dark;”

Dante asks Virgil to help him find the voice once they cross. Virgil warns the poet to keep his exchange very short:

“Wherefore I: "Master, see that thou arrive

At the next round, and let us descend the wall;

For as from hence I hear and understand not,

So I look down and nothing I distinguish."

"Other response," he said, "I make thee not,

Except the doing; for the modest asking

Ought to be followed by the deed in silence."

There is hardly a moment to feel relief once the treacherous crossing has been traversed, for as soon as the travelers come to the other side of the bridge, they see that the ground is writhing with countless serpents. The sight is so horrific that it exceeds, in Dante’s estimation, many of the horrors he knows about. First he mentions Libya. There is a story by the Roman poet Lucan, who recounts the story of Sabellus (a collective name for Roman soliders) who is bitten by a snake; its venom liquifies the man’s body and it absorbs into the desert sands of Libya:  

"Where it connects itself with the eighth bank,

And then was manifest to me the Bolgia;

And I beheld therein a terrible throng

Of serpents, and of such a monstrous kind,

That the remembrance still congeals my blood

Let Libya boast no longer with her sand;"

The names Dante mentions thereafter, Chelydri, Jaculi,  Phareae, Cenchri, and Amphisbaena are all breeds of snakes that Lucan names in his work Pharsalia.  The Chleydri are said to move in a cloud of smoke. The Jaculi are exceedingly fast-moving. The Pharee use their tales to make holes in ground and hide, awaiting victims. The Chenchri are said to never move in a single direction. The Amphisbaena is a terrifying, two-headed serpent. Ethopia is on the other side of Libya and it too is very hot and inhospitable:

“For if Chelydri, Jaculi, and Phareae

She breeds, with Cenchri and with Amphisbaena,

Neither so many plagues nor so malignant

E'er showed she with all Ethiopia,

Nor with whatever on the Red Sea is!”

Raising his gaze from the horrifying ground, Dante then sees naked sinners, futilely fleeing from the striking serpents. The snakes continually sink their venomous fangs into whatever flesh they are able; some bind sinners’ hands behind them while others entwine themselves around body parts they can capture:

“Among this cruel and most dismal throng

People were running naked and affrighted.

Without the hope of hole or heliotrope.

They had their hands with serpents bound behind them;

These riveted upon their reins the tail

And head, and were in front of them entwined.

And lo! at one who was upon our side

There darted forth a serpent, which transfixed him

There where the neck is knotted to the shoulders."

Once a serpent makes a clean strike, the sinner turns into a pile of ashes. Their horror is by no means over, however. Like the mythical Phoenix, each condemned soul rises again, re-formed, only to be struck and envenomed again. The tears that the sinner cries upon being rejuvenated are the spices used to embalm bodies:  incense and amomum, nard, and myrrh. The “winding sheet” is what was used to wrap corpses prior to burial. The sinners’ embalmed tears are the only thing that wraps around him, instead of the traditional winding sheet:  

“Nor 'O' so quickly e'er, nor 'I' was written,

As he took fire, and burned; and ashes wholly

Behoved it that in falling he became.

And when he on the ground was thus destroyed,

The ashes drew together, and of themselves

Into himself they instantly returned.

Even thus by the great sages 'tis confessed

The phoenix dies, and then is born again,

When it approaches its five-hundredth year;

On herb or grain it feeds not in its life,

But only on tears of incense and amomum,

And nard and myrrh are its last winding-sheet.

And as he is who falls, and knows not how,

By force of demons who to earth down drag him,

Or other oppilation that binds man,

When he arises and around him looks,

Wholly bewildered by the mighty anguish

Which he has suffered, and in looking sighs;

Such was that sinner after he had risen.”

Dante is properly horrified by the display. Virgil asks who the man-turned-to-ashes-and-turned-back-again is.  The sinner first tells the travelers that he is a mule, one who carries out the crimes of others. Then he confesses that his true name is Vanni Fucci, previously a native of Pistoria. Dante asks Virgil to inquire of Fucci what sin had condemned him to the Seventh Pouch of the Eighth Circle. It seems that Dante had been an acquaintance of his man in Italy and that he had known him to be a man of anger; apparently Dante believes this sin should have condemned the shade to Circle Five, where the wrathful are tormented. Therefore, Dante wants Virgil  to ask what greater sin the man committed:

"Tell him to stir not,

And ask what crime has thrust him here below,

For once a man of blood and wrath I saw him."

Fucci is distraught that Dante has seen him in his present condition. He finally tells the poets that his sin had been stealing holy relics from a cathedral:

"It pains me more that thou hast caught me

Amid this misery where thou seest me,

Than when I from the other life was taken.

What thou demandest I cannot deny;

So low am I put down because I robbed

The sacristy of the fair ornaments,

And falsely once 'twas laid upon another;”

After his confession, Vanni Fucci makes a prediction.  He prophesies that the Pistorians will oust the Blacks, but the Blacks will fight back and be victorious over the Whites. The only reason Fucci is telling Dante, a White (“Bianco”) Guelph, this is to that it “may give thee pain."