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This canto opens with Plutus crying out unintelligibly to Satan as Dante and Virgil sally by. Although Dante shows signs of fear, Virgil reassures him that the demon has no power to stop them.
When our pilgrims pass Plutus, he falls to the ground like sails that suddenly lack wind to propel them forward.
Then he does it again, comparing the sinners’ movements to the waves breaking around the mouth of Charybdis, a famous mythological whirlpool.
So what are the sinners actually doing? Pushing heavy wheels of weights around in a big endless circle.
The Avaricious (greedy people) and Prodigal (reckless spenders) are punished together, divided up into two groups, one for each half of the circle. When they meet at the midpoint pushing their weights, they cry insults to each other: "’Why do you hoard?’ ‘Why do you squander?’" Imagine a square dance where every time you pass your partner, you shout, "Why are you so uncoordinated?"
Dante, with his eagle eyes, notices that some of the sinners are tonsured (have shaven heads) and wonders if they were clergy while alive. He asks Virgil, who confirms his suspicions. Another strike against the Church.
Dante hopes to recognize some faces amongst these sinners, but Virgil undercuts this wish because "the undiscerning life that made them filthy / now renders them unrecognizable." In other words, they’re dirty. So dirty that filth has crusted over their true identities.
Virgil, fully atop his soapbox now, sermonizes that this punishment is no more than what these sinners deserve for squandering and hoarding what Fortune gave them. Now, all the gold in the world cannot save them.
Dante interrupts the story to go on a totally unrelated tangent. He asks Virgil to expound on what Fortune is.
Now Virgil is in his element and gives a long speech, explaining that Fortune is God’s manager of all material goods and that She shifts these assets between nations and peoples in ways that man can neither understand nor predict. Even though people curse her, She is deaf to their insults and goes about her work blissfully.
When Virgil has talked himself out, they move on since it’s getting late.
Our two heroes find a stream of black water, which leads down through ever drearier fields and finally drains into the nasty swamp of the Styx. (Which means that black stream was the river Styx —Underworld river #2, if you’ve been counting.)
Now in the fifth circle, Dante witnesses muddy figures of sinners getting sincerely down and dirty. These mud-fighters are earnestly trying to rip each other’s throats out. So it should come as no surprise that these sinners are the Wrathful.
Virgil, just as mesmerized as Dante, adds a helpful tidbit of information: beneath this lovely sludge is another group of sinners, the Sullen.
Resentfully silent in life, the Sullen now are forced to recite hymns while submerged in this mud, so that their words come out only as gurgles.
Thoroughly disgusted by these "swallowers of slime," Dante and Virgil trudge onwards until they come to the base of a tower.