Inferno

.. In round three of the seventh circle, blasphemers (the violent against God), sodomists (the violent against Nature, the child of God), and usurers (the violent against Art, the child of Nature and thus the grandchild of God) are scalded by rains of fire on a plain of burning sand. (The unnatural rain is a fitting punishment for their unnatural actions.) Dante walks along the banks of a rill flowing across the plain and converses with Ser Brunetto Latini, whose writings Dante greatly admired and from whom he learned numerous literary devices. When the Poets come within hearing distance of the waterfall that lunges from the seventh into the eighth circle, three Florentines rush over to Dante and begin speaking of Florence’s present tate of degradation. At the top of the waterfall Dante removes a cord from his waste and drops it over the edge, signalling the approach of a great monster.

The monster is Geryon, the Monster of Fraud, who will fly them down the cliff. As Virgil negotiates for their passage, Dante examines the souls of the usurers. He sees them crouching on the edge of the burning plain with purses (bearing the coats of arms of prominent Florentine families) hanging from their necks. Returning to Virgil, he mounts Geryon’s back with him and they fly around the waterfall and down the cliff. Geryon deposits them in the eighth circle, Malebolge (Evil Ditches) which consists of ten bolgias (ditches/pockets); those guilty of simple fraud are punished therein. Stone dikes running from ditch to ditch will serve as bridges on which the Poets can cross them.

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The first bolgia contains the souls of panderers and seducers, eternally driven by lashes from horned demons. The souls of the flatterers are sunk in excrement. The souls of simoniacs (those who corrupted the Church by making a profit from it) are in the third bolgia, jammed upside-down inside tube-like holes in the ground with fire scalding the soles of their feet, and are jammed farther into the holes as new sinners arrive to take their places. (Baptismal fonts in Northern Italy were constructed similarly in Dante’s time, and by making a mockery of baptism the simoniacs are punished likewise.) Dante (good Catholic that he is) makes a heated denouncement of these sinners, and afterwards is carried up a ledge to the fourth bolgia by Virgil. They stand on the bridge over the fourth bolgia and gaze upon the souls of fortunetellers and diviners.

In life these people wished to see into the future through forbidden methods, so their heads are placed backward on their shoulders – they can never see in front of themselves and can only walk backwards through eternity. In the fifth bolgia are the souls of the grafters, sunk in boiling pitch and guarded by demons who tear them with grappling hooks if they dare to rise above the surface. These demons present the only physical danger to Dante during his journey (some have surmised that this is due to the fact that Dante was exiled from Florence on false charges of grafting). Virgil hides Dante behind some rocks while he negotiates with the demons leader, Malacoda, and is guaranteed passage to the next bridge, as the one intended to be crossed lies shattered. When two of the demons are tricked into the pitch by a couple of wily sinners, a rescue is organized by the remaining demons while Dante and Virgil take advantage of the confusion to sneak away.

Fearing pursuit by the demons, the Poets slide down the bank of the sixth bolgia to hide. There they see the souls of the hypocrites moving slowly round a narrow track, weighted down by outwardly beautiful robes that are actually made of lead. (Excellent symbolism here – in life their outward appearance was that of bright holiness, but now their consciences bear the weight of their ugly, terrible guilt.) The Poets find that Malacoda lied to them about the existence of the bridge and are obligated to climb up the opposite bank to exit the seventh bolgia. They walk the length of the bridge across the seventh bolgia and observe the souls of the thieves. These souls are trapped in the coils of reptiles who bind their hands behind their backs and pierce their veins. Some sinners appear to Dante as humans, others as reptiles; he watches as one of the reptiles latches itself onto one of the humans and exchanges forms with him.

The eighth bolgia contains the souls of the evil counselors – those who abused their God-given gifts for evil purposes – who are completely engulfed in flames. Dante speaks to a flame and finds that the souls of Ulysses and Diomede, soldiers in the Trojan war, are contain within and listens to the story of Ulysses’s last voyage. He then speaks to a lord of Romagna, discussing its tragic state of affairs. The Poets continue to the ninth bolgia, where they see the sowers of discord. Because in life they separated what God had intended to be united, they are hacked at and torn apart by a demon bearing a bloody sword. They are divided into three classes: sowers of religious discord (Mohammed is chief among these), sowers of political discord, and sowers of discord among kinsmen.

Virgil hurries Dante onto the bridge over bolgia ten, where they observe the falsifiers. These souls are subjected to various kinds of corruption (disease, filth, darkness, stench) as they corrupted society in life by their falsifications. They are divided into four classes: alchemists (falsifiers of things), evil impersonators (falsifiers of persons), counterfeiters (falsifiers of money), and false witnesses (falsifiers of words). Dante observes two of the falsifiers quarrel with one another until he is reprimanded by Virgil. The Poets approach the Central Pit, which contains Cocytus, the final circle of Hell. The Pit is guarded by half-buried Titans, placed here because they symbolize earthly passions that men must strive to overcome.

One of the Titans helps the Poets by lowering them to Cocytus in the palm of his hand. Cocytus is a frozen lake and the souls guilty of treachery against those to whom they were bound by special ties are frozen to varying degrees within. This ice is divided into four concentric rings: Cana (named for the biblical Cain, it contains the souls of the treacherous against relatives), Antenora (for the treacherous to their country, named for the Trojan who betrayed his city during the Trojan war), Ptolomea (named for Ptolemaeus Maccabeus who murdered his father-in-law, for the treacherous to guests and hosts), and Judecca (named for Judas Iscariot, reserved for the treacherous to their masters). Satan himself is in the very center, beating his huge wings in a vain attempt to free himself from the grip of the ice. He has three hideous faces (a mockery of the Holy Trinity) and chews a sinner in each of his mouths – Judas, Cassius, and Brutus. To exit Hell, the Poets climb down Satan’s hairy flanks until they pass over the center of gravity and emerge at the Mount of Purgatory on the other side of the world to finally gaze at the stars.

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