Study Guide

Inferno

Inferno Summary

The Inferno follows the wanderings of the poet Dante as he strays off the rightful and straight path of moral truth and gets lost in a dark wood. And that, folks, is just the beginning.

Just as three wild animals threaten to attack him, Dante is rescued by the ghost of Virgil, a celebrated Roman poet and also Dante’s idol. When asked why in hell (pun intended) he came, Virgil answers that the head honchos of Heaven—the Virgin Mary and Santa Lucia—felt sorry for Dante and asked the deceased love-of-Dante’s-life, Beatrice, to send someone down to help him. And voila! Virgil to the rescue! He’s an appropriate guide because he’s very much like Dante, a fellow writer and famous poet.

For the rest of the Inferno, Virgil takes Dante on a guided tour of Hell, through all its nine circles and back up into the air of the mortal world. The first circle of Hell (Limbo), considered pre-Hell, just contains all of the unbaptized and good people born and before the coming of Christ, who obviously couldn’t be saved by him. Virgil resides here, along with a bunch of other Greek and Roman poets.

In the second circle, lustful sinners are tossed around by endless storms. Dante speaks to the soul of Francesca da Rimini, a woman who was stuck in a loveless, arranged marriage and committed adultery when she fell in love with a dashing youth named Paolo.

Dante then awakes in the third circle, where the Gluttonous sinners suffer under a cold and filthy rain. Dante talks to the glutton Ciacco, a famous Florentine, who prophesies disaster for Florence. Virgil leads Dante on to the fourth circle, where the Avaricious (greedy people) and Prodigal (reckless spenders) roll heavy weights in endless circles. The next stop on the tour is the fifth circle, where the Wrathful and Sullen are immersed in the muddy river Styx. While they are crossing the Styx, a sinner named Filippo Argenti reaches out to Dante (presumably for help), but Dante angrily rejects him.

Now at the gates of a city called Dis, Virgil takes it upon himself to persuade the demon guards to let them pass. Unexpectedly, he fails. This means that instead of continuing on with the journey, Dante and Virgil must wait for an angel to come down and force open the gates for them. After passing the city of Dis, our dynamic duo enters the sixth circle, where the Heretics lay in fiery tombs. Dante talks to Farinata degli Uberti, who predicts that Dante will have difficulty returning to Florence from exile.

As they cross from the sixth to the seventh circle, where the Violent are punished, Virgil finally begins explaining the layout of Hell. We soon learn that all human sins are divided into three big categories: incontinence (or lacking self-control), violence, and fraud. Everything Dante has witnessed so far has fallen under the first category. The seventh circle will show all the violent sinners. Then the final two circles will include all the sinners of ordinary fraud and treacherous fraud.

Finally, Dante and Virgil ready themselves to cross to the eighth circle. Dante, at Virgil’s command, summons the beast Geryon from the depths with a cord wrapped around his waist. Virgil stays to talk with the beast while urging Dante to look at the last of the Violent sinners. When Dante comes back, they mount Geryon and ride the beast during the descent into the eighth circle.

The eighth circle contains ten pouches, each containing different types of sinners. When Dante and Virgil reach the third pouch where simonists (people who use money to get high positions in the Church) are buried headfirst in the ground while their feet roast in flames, Dante works up the courage to speak to one of the sinners. The soul of Pope Nicholas III mistakes Dante (understandably, because he can’t see him) for his successor and Dante’s hated enemy, Pope Boniface VIII, come to replace him in punishment.

As Dante and Virgil traverse the fifth pouch, in which barrators (or corrupt politicians) are forked by demons and plunged into a river of boiling pitch, Virgil bravely approaches the ruthless demons and demands safe passage across the river. When the sinister demons see that he is sent by God, the head demon, Malacoda, tells Virgil that the nearest bridge has been broken and so assigns ten demons to escort him to the next bridge.

Afraid of the demons, Dante and Virgil escape by crossing into the sixth pouch, where the demons cannot follow. Here, they run into the hypocrites who are forced to stand clothed in robes of lead. After talking to a few of them, Virgil asks for directions to the next pouch. In the valley of the sixth pouch, thieves are continually bitten by serpents whose venom burns them into ashes. Dante converses with one of these sinners, Vanni Fucci, and discovers that he is being punished for stealing sacred relics from the Church. After spiting Dante and committing blasphemy, Fucci is dragged away by serpents.

Our heroes hurry into the eighth pouch, where fraudulent counselors are encased in flames. Ulysses, sharing one tongue of flame with Diomedes, tells his sinful tale to Dante: once home after his long voyage (recounted in the Odyssey), Ulysses was not content to fulfill his duties to his family and country. He longed for adventure so he gathered up his aging crew and set sail again, surpassing the boundaries of human exploration until, in the shadow of the Mount of Purgatory, he and his crew perished in a violent whirlpool.

In the ninth pouch, Dante witnesses the sowers of scandal and schism being disemboweled by a demon with a sword, healed, and punished again—eternally. Dante is so freaked out by this sight that he has to cover his ears to avoid hearing the moans as they pass into the tenth and last pouch.

In the tenth pouch, four different kinds of falsifiers are punished. As they leave, Virgil points out the sinning giants who are immobilized around them in punishment. Nimrod—who was responsible for building the Tower of Babel—has lost the ability to speak coherently. His words are gibberish. Virgil requests that one of the unbound giants, Antaneus, transport them in the palm of his hand down to the last circle of Hell. He complies.

The ninth circle of Hell, where traitors are punished, contains four different zones. The first one, called Caina (after Cain), features traitors to their kin immersed in ice up to their necks. In the second zone, Antenora (where traitors to their homeland suffer the same punishment) Dante is provoked by Bocca degli Abati and uncharacteristically threatens him with violence.

He moves on to the third zone called Ptolomea, where traitors against their guests suffer, immobilized in ice and their tears frozen against their eyes. Dante promises to break the ice off of the eyes of one of them if he tells him his story. This sinner, Fra Alberigo, agrees and Dante learns that this level of sin is so evil that the sinner's soul is condemned to Hell even before his body dies on earth.

In the fourth the final zone, Judecca, where traitors against their benefactors are punished, Dante witnesses the king of Hell, the three-headed Lucifer, giant and frozen at the core. In his three mouths, Lucifer mechanically chews on the most evil mortal sinners—Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.

Now that they've finished their tour, Virgil tell Dante that it's time to leave Hell for good. With Dante clinging to Virgil’s back, the two climb down Lucifer’s massive body, which spans the diameter of the entire Earth, and arrive in the southern hemisphere. Here, Virgil and Dante follow a path back up to the surface of the Earth and emerge to see Heaven’s stars.

  • Inferno Canto I

    • The story opens with Dante experiencing a mid-life crisis. Kind of. When describing his mid-life crisis, he uses ambiguous pronouns, saying "our life’s way." More on that later. Basically, he has strayed from his path and finds himself lost in a dark wood. Creepy.
    • Yeah, it’s so creepy that "death could hardly be more severe!" (Yes, exclamation point included.) Foreshadowing, anyone?
    • Dante is confused about how he got into such a no-man's land. He was "full of sleep" when he strayed from the true path. Now he’s at the bottom of some hill.
    • Dante’s gaze wanders up the hill and he finds the summit all beautifully lit up like Christmas lights by the sun, a real contrast to the dark wood he’s stuck in. Predictably, his heart lifts at this sight.
    • We learn he’s just endured a "night of sorrow." In an elaborate metaphor, Dante compares himself to a shipwrecked swimmer who has just found land and, safe on the beach, turns back to look at the frightening waves. In Dante’s fancy language, he’s just endured "the pass / that never has let any man survive."
    • Wearily, our hero starts climbing the hill (towards the light), but lo and behold suddenly a sinister beast appears to block his way. Actually, it’s just a leopard.
    • Dante backs away from the big, bad leopard. He notices that day has dawned and that lifts his spirits a little.
    • Until he’s faced with a ferocious lion. And then a hungry she-wolf.
    • Dante screams and runs back down the hill.
    • At the bottom of the hill, Dante runs into a ghost. He promptly crumples into a fetal position and begs for mercy.
    • But this is a gabby ghost. The ghost starts talking about where he’s from (Mantua), when he was born (during Emperor Augustus’ reign), and what he was (a poet).
    • Dante suddenly isn't so scared anymore. In fact, he recognizes the ghost.
    • It’s the famous Roman poet Virgil, who is Dante’s inspiration and all-time favorite idol.
    • Dante says something like: "I’ve totally read everything you wrote and when I write I try to be just like you. So could you please make that scary wolf-thingy go away?" (But in more formal epic-like speak.)
    • Virgil is all stern and says, in his wise listen-to-me-or-else way, that Dante must take another path because the she-wolf is always hungry (she’ll eat you) and always interested in sex (she’ll fornicate with you). But never fear, in the end the good Greyhound will come and kill her and send her back to Hell and restore Italy to its rightful glory.
    • Translation: the she-wolf is a symbol of greed, the defining quality of Florence, at least to Dante. The Greyhound symbolizes Italy’s redeemer, though scholars can’t decide exactly whom it represents. So, basically, the Greyhound will come and kill the greed of Florence and everything will be good again.
    • Virgil’s point? Hey, Dante, you should entrust your life to me while I take you on a journey through Hell and Purgatory and maybe even Heaven (if you’re worthy).
    • Predictably, Dante agrees.
    • And so the adventure begins.
  • Inferno Canto II

    • Like all good conversations, the one between Dante and Virgil has apparently lasted all day. Seriously. The sun is setting and Dante mentally fortifies himself for the upcoming night. (Picture an internal pep talk, complete with the you-can-do-it coaching.)
    • To give him courage and virtue and whatnot, Dante invokes the Muses.
    • But he’s still afraid and doubtful of his own abilities. So he asks Virgil in a long, convoluted way why he was chosen for this journey. This includes comparing himself to "he who fathered Sylvius" (meaning Aeneas, from Virgil’s Aeneid) and the "Chosen Vessel" (meaning St. Peter), both of whom traveled in a divine realm (Underworld and Heaven). Dante claims that he’s not nearly as great or heroic as these figures. So, "why me?" he asks.
    • Virgil understands that Dante’s "soul has been assailed by cowardice" and so explains why he (Virgil) was chosen for this task in order to calm Dante’s fears.
    • Virgil’s tells the story of how he came to be here with Dante. Let's jump back into that story:
    • Virgil's soul is hanging out in Limbo (more on this later) when a lady with really pretty eyes appears and asks him to help out her lost "friend." (She overheard news of her "friend’s" trouble in Heaven.) She says she wants Virgil's help because he has a silver tongue or "persuasive word".
    • This lady calls herself Beatrice, and Virgil learns that she’s doing this out of "Love" (yes, with a capital "L") for Dante.
    • Virgil is curious as to why Beatrice came all the way down to Hell (from her boudoir in Heaven) just to tell him this. Beatrice responds that God has arranged it so that the misery of Hell cannot affect her.
    • And the orders for Virgil don't come from just Beatrice. The Virgin Mary herself is so upset by Dante’s predicament that she cried buckets for him and then sent for her very best friend, St. Lucia, to carry her message. Beatrice, even though she loves Dante, cannot possibly do anything for him since she’s a woman (what's up, sexism), so she brings the message down to the decidedly male Virgil.
    • She makes a big deal about Virgil’s wonderful way with words and cries.
    • Smitten, Virgil rushes off and finds Dante just in time to rescue him from the big, bad wolf.
    • Virgil's story ends.
    • Dante’s chest swells with gratitude and he demonstrates his own way with words by comparing himself to drooping flowers that straighten out once touched by sunlight.
    • In fact, he’s so pumped up now that he has a mind-melding moment with Virgil. Observe: "A single will fills both of us."
    • And with that, our emboldened heroes strike out to conquer the world. Or Hell.
  • Inferno Canto III

    • Dante and Virgil stop to look in awe at the Hellgate, on which encouraging words like "ABANDON EVERY HOPE, [YOU] WHO ENTER HERE" appear.
    • There is more to the inscription, which describes the origins of Hell—how it was made by "Justice," "the Highest Wisdom," and "Primal Love."
    • Dante tells Virgil he doesn’t understand the inscription.
    • Virgil, in his sage way, doesn’t really answer Dante’s question, but tells him to be brave. He also describes Hell’s sinners as people who have "lost the good of the intellect." (This is a good place to stick a big bright sticky note because this is an Important Concept.)
    • Dante’s first impression of Hell: it’s noisy. It’s full of "strange utterances, horrible pronouncements, / accents of anger, words of suffering, / and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands…"
    • Horrified, Dante asks Virgil who these people are that scream so loudly.
    • Virgil explains that they’re neutrals, people who failed to choose either good or evil in their lifetimes and so are condemned to exist in a kind of ante-Inferno...pre-Hell, if you will. The "coward angels" are here too—those that sided with neither God nor Lucifer in the great battle that created the Devil.
    • When Dante repeats his question, Virgil (slightly peeved) answers shortly:
    • These sinners have "no hope in death" and their entire existence is driven by envy for any other kind of existence… even one in the true circles of Hell. Virgil says this so quickly and tersely that he implies that these sinners aren’t even worth wasting many words over.
    • While sightseeing, Dante notices the neutrals’ punishment: various insects sting their naked bodies, irritating them and making them run around in big circles under a long banner. Dante is blown away by the sheer number of them; in other words, there are a lot of neutrals.
    • Among the horde, Dante recognizes the one "who made […] the great refusal." Scholars have interpreted this sinner as Pope Celestine V, who abdicated his papal seat just five months after taking office. This paved the way for the election of Pope Boniface VIII, whom Dante hates with a passion.
    • Dante observes a big crowd of people gathering on the banks of a big river and asks Virgil why they seem so eager to cross the river.
    • Our wise man tells Dante to quiet down; he’ll find out why when they actually get there. "There" being the banks of the river Acheron, one of the five rivers of the Greek Underworld.
    • When they do get there, Virgil doesn’t even get the chance to explain before an old man with a long white beard comes up to them and basically says, "No chance the two of you are getting on my boat. Only dead people allowed." This guy is Charon, the ferryman that takes people across the river.
    • Then Virgil gets all up in Charon’s face and one-ups him with "God sent us, so let us through." Or something like that.
    • So Charon is forced to ferry them across, but he’s pouty and sullen about it.
    • Dante, in poet mode, compares all the dead souls gathering on the riverbanks to falling leaves in autumn and later to hunting falcons returning to their masters when called. Dante is big on metaphors.
    • Virgil explains that only sinners ever have to undertake this crossing.
    • All of a sudden, an earthquake hits, complete with a tornado and a "blood-red light."
    • Dante loses consciousness.
  • Inferno Canto IV (the first Circle: Limbo)

    • Dante wakes up to find himself at the edge of a great dark valley, in which he cannot see anything. (Yes, they crossed the Acheron while Dante was unconscious.)
    • Virgil says "Let’s go." But he’s really pale.
    • Dante mistakes Virgil's paleness for fear and balks. But Virgil explains that his alabaster complexion does not indicate fear, but rather sympathy for his neighbors. Because this is his home in Hell—Limbo.
    • Here, the sinners sigh as well, but not nearly as loudly or painfully as the neutrals.
    • The inhabitants of this circle of Hell are those who had no control over their salvation: they were either not baptized at birth or born before the coming of Christ. Thus, they don’t suffer as much as other sinners; they only feel the absence of God’s love as a constant ache. Otherwise, they frolic in their pretty fields.
    • (We know what you’re thinking: this is Hell? But trust us, it gets much worse.)
    • Saddened by these sinners’ plight, Dante earnestly asks Virgil whether or not anyone is allowed to leave this place (and presumably enter Heaven) if they are good people.
    • Kindly Virgil answers yes; in fact, he saw it happen. With his own eyes, he saw Christ enter Limbo and take Old Testament worthies like Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, and Rachel into his all-forgiving arms and transport them up to Heaven. (Trivial Pursuit tidbit: this was called the Harrowing of Hell.)
    • Suddenly, Dante sees a fire break up the darkness. The fire is the glow of a luminous castle and men are there.
    • To answer Dante’s inevitable question, Virgil introduces the men as his best buddies, fellow poets like Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan.
    • Virgil chats with his friends for a little while before they notice Dante and invite him in. Dante is ecstatic at being "sixth among such intellects."
    • This circle enters the shining palace and its countless flowering courtyards and gardens. Inside, they encounter a bunch of Greek and Roman heroes like Hector, Aeneas, Caesar, Socrates, Plato, and many more.
    • When they’ve had their fill of reciting poems, Dante and Virgil take their leave.
    • Every step forward brings them into darker and darker territory.
  • Inferno Canto V (the Second Circle: the Lustful)

    • As they descend into the second circle of Hell, Dante notes that it’s a little smaller than the first circle. (This is because Hell is shaped like a funnel, with each successive circle shrinking a little.)
    • There, the huge bull-like judge Minos appears, looming over a great crowd, out of which each individual steps forward to have his say.
    • Dante explains that Minos judges where all sinners go by twining his tail into coils. The number of coils determines which circle the sinner goes into.
    • The very ugly Minos pauses his perpetual dissing of sinners long enough to warn Dante and Virgil to be careful whom they trust.
    • Virgil shoots back with a "God protects us" line, but we can see right through him. He’s as scared as Dante.
    • On that note, they come to the edge of a cliff and see a hurricane-strength whirlwind buffeting the souls of the Lustful (promiscuous, impulsive).
    • Dante compares them to birds like starlings, cranes, and doves because of their helplessness against the wind and because of the cacophonous cries they emit.
    • Virgil, trying to show off, names a bunch of the souls trapped there: Semiramis, Dido, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Paris, Tristan…
    • Star-struck by such names, Dante feels sorry for them and calls out to a couple, wanting to talk to them.
    • They approach and the female soul speaks. She’s really polite and talks in a highfalutin’ style, as if she’s stuck in the rhetoric of courtly love. She thanks Dante for being so kind as to speak nicely to her, then tells her story.
    • She’s Francesca da Rimini, an Italian (from Ravenna) and, in terms of blood, something like a princess. During her life, she was forced into a loveless political marriage with a guy called Gianciotto Malatesta.
    • However, she fell in love with her husband’s younger brother Paolo and had an affair with him. When Gianciotto discovered their adultery, he killed them both. (Yes, he’s in a deeper level of Hell, Francesca tells us.)
    • Dante is so moved by the unfairness of it all that he starts crying. He tends to do this a lot. And he asks how exactly she fell in love.
    • Francesca says that one sunny day, she and Paolo were innocently reading a book. But not just any book. This one portrayed the knight Lancelot being hopelessly smitten by Queen Guinevere. When they get to the part where Lancelot kisses Arthur’s queen, Paolo and Francesca followed suit and shared a passionate kiss. We know it’s passionate because "all his body trembled" and on that day they "read no more."
    • Francesca blames the book for her sin, calling it a Gallehault (the character in Arthurian legend who encourages Lancelot in his forbidden affair with Guinevere).
    • As Francesca concludes her story, her soul mate Paolo bawls his eyes out.
    • Dante, the deepest fibers of his soul stirred to the extreme by their tragic story, passes out, as if dead.
  • Inferno Canto VI (the Third Circle: the Gluttonous)

    • Dante awakens and finds himself surrounded by new sufferers. Thus, he concludes he’s in a new circle of Hell.
    • Now for a weather report: it’s raining. Correction: it always rains in the third circle, where the Gluttonous dwell. Not pure water, either, but filthy polluted stinky rain and hailstones. The earth itself reeks.
    • The sinners here are so traumatized by this rain that they turn back and forth, trying unsuccessfully to keep some part of their body clean and dry.
    • Above these writhing sinners looms Cerberus, the gigantic three-headed guard dog of the Underworld. He snarls at the pilgrims as they approach.
    • Unfazed, Virgil picks up handfuls of stinking mud and hurls them straight into Cerberus’s jaws. The dog actually eats it and, in the meantime, grows quiet. Get it? Cerberus is a glutton too.
    • As Dante and Virgil tour this circle of gluttons, none of the sinners pay attention to them, except one who sits up and demands that Dante recognize him. The sinner knows that Dante is a Florentine (someone from Florence).
    • Dante, being a poet, gracefully asks the glutton to remind him of his name.
    • The sinner suddenly isn’t so free with his words. He introduces himself as Ciacco (also a Florentine), names his sin as gluttony, and then clams up.
    • Dante doesn’t seem at all interested in Ciacco’s life, saying only that Ciacco’s suffering moves him to tears. Then he changes the subject to the future of Florence.
    • So Ciacco goes into prophet mode. (Of course, what he "foresees" is history by the time Dante writes the Inferno.)
    • In very cryptic language, Ciacco presages political strife between the Blacks and Whites (see "In A Nutshell" for more on this). First the Whites will win a battle and drive the Blacks out. But then the Blacks will return with the help of the hated Pope Boniface VIII and crush the Whites, eventually driving many of them into exile, including Dante. Ciacco sees the two parties ignoring reason in favor of "envy, pride, and avariciousness."
    • On that note, Dante continues interrogating Ciacco, naming a bunch of famous Florentines and asking where he can find them now. Ciacco answers that they’re all in Hell, so Dante will see them later.
    • To top off his speech, Ciacco requests that Dante make his name famous in the living world. Then he falls silent. With that, Ciacco lowers himself into obscurity.
    • Virgil interjects with some prophesying of his own. He states that Ciacco will not rise again until Judgment Day.
    • Dante inquires if these sinners’ punishments will get better or worse after Judgment Day.
    • In his convoluted way, Virgil answers with "worse," because then the sinners’ bodies will be reunited with their souls and it won’t be just their souls that are suffering.
    • Our two heroes ponder this sad fact as they walk towards the next circle. Along the way, they meet Plutus, whom we’ll learn more about in the next canto.
  • Inferno Canto VII (the Fourth Circle: the Avaricious and Prodigal; the Fifth Circle: the Wrathful and Sullen)

    • 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.
  • Inferno Canto VIII (the river Styx, the gates of Dis)

    • Belatedly, Dante tells us that this tower—something like a lighthouse—has been guiding them towards itself for a while.
    • As they approach it, Dante notices another flame flickering in the distance. He asks Virgil why.
    • Trying to cultivate his air of mystery, Virgil tells Dante to look harder. Dante does and goes "I see it! It’s a boat!"
    • The boatman gruffly stops them. He, like Charon, has issues with Dante's alive-ness. By the way, his name is Phlegyas. Try to say that five times fast.
    • Virgil puts him in his place, Phlegyas pouts, and they board the boat, which promptly sinks a little under Dante's weight. (Live people are heavier than dead ones.) Thankfully, it doesn’t stop them from crossing the Styx.
    • While on the boat, Dante leans down towards the river and asks one of the mud-encrusted sinners: "Who are you, who have become so ugly?" Seriously.
    • When the sinner gives an ambiguous answer, Dante becomes infuriated and curses him. Which is… well… different from his usual responses to sinners, like crying or fainting.
    • When the sinner reaches out towards the boat (presumably in a gesture of longing), Virgil pushes him back into the river.
    • Then in another switch of personality, Virgil joyously hugs and kisses Dante.
    • Why? Dante is making Virgil proud by feeling righteously indignant enough to not sympathize with sinners and instead to rage at them.
    • He continues, using his prophesying skills to predict that before reaching the far shore, Dante will see a sight that justifies his insult to the sinner.
    • A bunch of muddy sinners attack the same guy Dante did, crying, "At Filippo Argenti!" At which point Filippo goes crazy and starts biting himself.
    • Having filled his meanness quota for the day, Virgil turns into Mr. Explain-Everything again, telling Dante they are approaching the city of Dis.
    • Dante catches sight of it on the horizon and is struck by how red everything is.
    • Yes, red. Apparently, this comes from the eternal flame that burns within the city, signaling that it is within lower (worse) Hell. So says Virgil. In other words, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
    • When they arrive at the gates of the city, they find a thousand enraged sinners trying to bar Dante from getting through. Because of his alive-ness.
    • To recap, we’ve got a thousand angry sinners waving their pitchforks around and spitting at Dante. So Virgil "makes a sign" to fend them off and has a private chat with them.
    • Dante can’t hear what they’re saying. Probably because he’s freaked out by the mad sinners and wants to go home.
    • The citizens of Dis agree to open their gates, but only for Virgil. The live guy has to go back.
    • Dante freaks out at the thought of having to go back on his own, so much so that he tells the reader directly about his fears.
    • Then he begs Virgil to come back with him if these sinners are so intent on blocking their way.
    • Virgil, his ego puffed up now, scoffs at Dante’s words and says he’ll take care of it.
    • So while he does the fast talking, Dante wrings his hands with indecision.
    • And then the crucial moment: the gates slam shut in Virgil’s face and he’s forced to make the slow shameful walk back to Dante. Virgil failed? (Hmm, Important Passage.)
    • Virgil rants at the sinners, but reassures Dante that he will win against them.
    • He tells Dante that this has happened before at the entrance of Hell (when Christ harrowed Hell) and that an angel is now descending to help them. Thank goodness.
  • Inferno Canto IX (the gate of Dis)

    • At the news, Dante turns even paler than Virgil, quite an accomplishment, considering Virgil is a ghost.
    • In a fatherly way, Virgil tries to reassure Dante. But he is so distressed that his words—usually smooth and eloquent—come out choppy and incoherent. Virgil is stuttering.
    • Dante notices his hero’s broken phrases and this only deepens his fear.
    • In an indirect way, Dante asks if anyone from Limbo has ever descended this far down in Hell before.
    • Virgil answers that even though it’s rare, it has happened. In fact, he has traveled down to the deepest level of Hell before, on a mission to recover a soul for the witch Erichtho. (No, this doesn’t mean Virgil is evil, but simply shows that he has an extensive knowledge of Hell and its inhabitants. Besides, the mission wasn’t really evil.)
    • Dante's gaze has drifted up one of Dis’s towers, to take in a horrible sight: three blood-spattered women hanging pell-mell from the turrets. And they have snakes as hair.
    • Following his gaze, Virgil reacts with disgust, identifying the terrifying trio as the Furies. He names each one for Dante’s benefit: Megaera, Allecto, and Tisiphone.
    • The three ladies scratch their chests with their talons and threaten Dante, warning him that Medusa is coming to turn him into stone.
    • Virgil understands this danger because he reacts by turning Dante away from the Furies, ordering him to close his eyes, and even covering them himself.
    • Dante hears the wild rush of something approaching. Something big and possibly scary.
    • Virgil tells him to open his eyes to witness Heaven’s messenger.
    • Dante sees a figure coming with the force of a hurricane, scattering thousands of souls before it, yet its only movement is to thrust the air out of its way with its hand.
    • When this Heavenly Messenger reaches Dis’s gates, he has only to wave his wand to open it.
    • Then he speaks, admonishing the inhabitants of Dis for resisting God’s irresistible will.
    • Dante, awestruck, describes his words as "holy."
    • After the wonder has worn off, Dante and Virgil enter the city to see more pain and suffering.
    • This time, the ground is pockmarked by open tombs, out of which flames burn. There are sinners inside those burning graves, screaming in agony.
    • Here in the sixth circle, Virgil explains that the arch-heretics are punished. Reading Dante's thoughts, Virgil tells him that there are many more suffering here than he might think.
    • On that note, they proceed.
  • Inferno Canto X (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)

    • As they traverse the sixth circle of the Heretics, the world of burning dead, Dante asks if he can see any one of these entombed sinners. Because if you haven’t noticed, the lids of the tombs are open.
    • What Dante really wants, as Virgil well knows, is to see if any of his Florentine friends are here.
    • Virgil answers that the tombs will be open until Judgment Day. He goes on to explain that everyone here is a follower of Epicurus (the Greek philosopher) who claimed that the soul dies with the body. Obviously, that was a bad thing to say because it goes against God’s doctrine and everyone who believes it winds up in Hell.
    • Suddenly, their conversation is interrupted by a voice that speaks eerily to Dante. It says that his accent sounds Tuscan (Dante is in fact from Tuscany), and the speaker want to talk with Dante about that.
    • Dante grabs onto to Virgil’s sleeve and whimpers because the voice is coming from an open tomb.
    • Virgil tells him to go back there and talk to Farinata. He’s made the effort to stand up in his torturous tomb for you.
    • Virgil pushes the cowering Dante towards the towering Farinata and orders him to answer appropriately.
    • Farinata sternly asks Dante who his ancestors were.
    • Dante meekly answers and, following Virgil’s instructions, tells everything.
    • But despite his efforts, Farinata frowns. It turns out that there’s bad blood between his own family and Dante’s, so much so that Farinata’s family drove them out.
    • Dante retorts that at least his family returned to fight back, unlike Farinata’s.
    • Before Farinata can reply, another soul rises up and begs Dante to tell him where his son is.
    • Dante eyes him up and down and apparently recognizes him… because he answers. And, being a poet, he makes his answer all ambiguous.
    • A quick aside for some brief, if complex, family history: This man is Cavalcante dei Cavalcanti, one of Dante’s political allies. His son, Guido, was a famous poet and Dante’s close friend. Like Dante, Guido was exiled when the Blacks took over Florence.
    • From Dante’s reply, Cavalcante gets the idea that his son is dead. When Dante doesn’t rush to correct him, the poor soul falls back inside his tomb in a great show of grief.
    • Farinata, who has watched this exchange with indifference, resumes the conversation with Dante as if nothing has happened. He regrets that his family proved so cowardly in comparison to Dante’s but asks why the Florentines are so mean to his kin.
    • We now interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you a minor history lesson: Dante cites the battle of Montaperti as the cause of strife between their families. To clarify, Farinata was a leader of the Ghibelline party, the sworn enemy of Dante’s Guelph party. At Montaperti, the Ghibellines defeated the Guelphs. So there are some hard feelings.
    • But Farinata defends himself against Dante’s charges, saying he was not alone in standing against Dante’s people at Montaperti. But, when all his Ghibelline friends suggested ransacking Florence, Farinata alone defended Dante's hometown.
    • But something is bothering Dante. Instead of pursuing this line of thought, he asks Farinata to clarify something for him. He asks if the dead can see the future, but not the present.
    • In his fancy way, Farinata answers yes. He and his fellow sinners can divine the future, but know nothing about the present state of human affairs.
    • Now, Dante feels bad about lying to Cavalcante (since he can’t see the present). He tells Farinata to let Cavalcante know that his son Guido is indeed still alive.
    • Now Virgil is telling Dante to get a move on so Dante hurriedly ask his last questions: Who else is in this circle? Can you name them?
    • Farinata answers that this circle features such celebrities as King Frederick II, the Ghibelline Cardinal, and others.
    • Virgil, hauling Dante along, asks why he looks so worried. Dante tells him about these random other people that Farinata won’t tell him about.
    • Virgil, being all authoritative again, informs Dante that one day he will meet an all-seeing divine woman (read: Beatrice) that will be able to tell him everything. The message: don’t worry about it.
    • So they keep walking. Virgil chooses to turn to the left, following a path that goes down into a valley.
    • A rather stinky valley.
  • Inferno Canto XI (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)

    • The valley's horrible stench is coming from more burning tombs.
    • Dante and Virgil retreat until they’re behind one of the tombs.
    • Dante reads the inscription on the tomb. It says, "I hold Pope Anastasius." This was a pope who denied the divinity of Christ.
    • Virgil, who apparently has a really sensitive nose, tells Dante that they’re going to sit tight here until their delicate sinuses get used to the horrible smell.
    • Dante says they should use this time wisely. The irritable Virgil tells him to shut up, because he’s already thought of that.
    • Virgil begins explaining the structure of Hell to Dante. We know—we could’ve used this lesson earlier, too.
    • Virgil starts with the next circle. That would be the seventh, the circle of the Violent. It’s divided into three smaller rings, to indicate the three types of violence: 1) violence against God and nature, 2) violence against oneself, and 3) violence against one’s neighbor.
    • Those who practice violence against their neighbors—like murderers, plunderers, and robbers—reside in the first sub-circle.
    • Suicidal people inhabit the second ring.
    • Blasphemers and usurers occupy the third ring.
    • But the most evil category of sin, Virgil explains, is fraud. And sadly, this sin is most particular to human beings.
    • So, in the eighth circle reside the sinners whose fraud "cut[s] off / the bond of love that nature forges." These include people like hypocrites, flatterers, sorcerers, falsifiers, simonists, thieves, barrators, and panderers, to name just a few.
    • But, that’s just ordinary fraud. The ninth circle contains those sinners who’ve committed really bad or treacherous fraud.
    • Dante says to master Virgil that he understands. But what about all those in the previous circles? Why aren’t the sinners there punished as harshly as those in the circles to come? Isn’t God angry with them too?
    • Virgil scolds him for being so stupid. Seriously. He reminds him of a beloved book, Aristotle’s Ethics, which divides sin into three categories: "incontinence, malice, and mad bestiality." (By "malice," he means fraud, "incontinence" means lack of self-control, and by "mad bestiality," he means violence.)
    • The least offensive of these three is incontinence and that’s what all the prior circles have contained (lust, gluttony, avarice, prodigality, wrath, sullenness—if you’re keeping track).
    • Dante, being a model student, now asks Virgil to revisit the sin of usury (yes, we missed the first mention too) and why it’s so bad. Usury is the practice of charging exorbitant interest rates on loaned money.
    • So Virgil starts in with all this mystic stuff about how man’s labor and art follow nature and thus are in line with God’s will. In other words, it is good and natural for men to labor and to earn their living off the sweat from their brows.
    • Usurers, in making a living by generating money unnaturally, violate nature and thereby sin.
    • Lesson over. Virgil notices that the constellations in the sky are changing. So it’s time to move on.
  • Inferno Canto XII (the Seventh Circle, First Ring: the Violent against their Neighbors)

    • Our two heroes descend down a bank so steep that Dante compares it to the famous landslides of Marco.
    • At the bottom, they catch sight of the hideous half-man, half-bull creature that is the Minotaur. It responds to the sight of them by biting itself.
    • Virgil shouts to the Minotaur that Dante is not his hated enemy and slayer, Theseus, the "Duke of Athens," but is only here to watch him suffer. That makes the man-bull furious and he charges them.
    • Dante and Virgil hightail it out of there, down the embankment.
    • Once they’re no longer in danger of being impaled by longhorns, Virgil tells Dante how the landslide came about:
    • When Virgil visited this part of Hell before (on his Erichtho run), he saw Christ rapture the good men from the Old Testament out of Hell. At that moment, "I [Virgil] thought the universe felt love" and it was that primal force that caused the earthquake and created the rubble strewn path.
    • But enough of Virgil’s past; he now fixes Dante’s attention on the upcoming river which marks the boundary of the seventh circle. It is Phlegethon, full of boiling blood.
    • But here comes trouble. Along the banks of the fiery river race herds of centaurs, who are half-men, half-horse creatures all armed with bows and arrows.
    • They surround our pilgrims, threatening them with arrows, but Virgil speaks out boldly, requesting to see Chiron (the head centaur) and refusing to speak to anyone else.
    • As the two parties cautiously approach one another, Virgil whispers various centaurs’ names to Dante, introducing them and their crimes of violence.
    • Chiron approaches with an arrow drawn and says to his herd, "Have you noticed / how he who walks behind moves what he touches?" In other words, Dante actually affects the environment when he passes through it… which means he’s alive.
    • So Virgil brazenly confirms Chiron’s suspicions, telling him that both Dante and he are here on a mission from God. He reassures the centaurs that they are not robbers and asks them to lend him one of their herd to guide them across the river. Oh, and to allow Dante to ride on his back.
    • Chiron wheels about and chooses Nessus to guide and defend the two poets.
    • By the way, Nessus’s past crimes including raping Deianira (Hercules’s wife) and indirectly causing Hercules’s death. So our heroes entrust themselves to a half-equine rapist and murderer. Welcome to Hell.
    • Walking along the riverbank, Dante witnesses the sinners screaming in the boiling blood. Nessus adds his commentary, naming the sinners: Alexander, Dionysus, Ezzolino, Obizzo.
    • At this point, Virgil concedes authority to Nessus and tells Dante to listen to the centaur as they travel.
    • Further along, they come across some sinners immersed up to their throats in hot blood. Nessus names one as Guy de Montfort (who murdered Prince Henry).
    • Dante notices that the depth of the bloody river changes in response to the nature of each sinner’s violent deed.
    • At a place where the river is only ankle-deep, they cross.
    • Nessus explains that on this side, the river eventually grows deeper and deeper until it completely submerges the tyrants like Attila, Pyrrhus, Sextus, Rinier of Corneto, and Rinier Pazzo.
    • Then Nessus leaves them, turning around to cross the river again and go home.
  • Inferno Canto XIII (the Seventh Circle, Second Ring: The Violent against Themselves)

    • So eager are our pilgrims to continue on their journey that they don’t even wave goodbye to Nessus, but start wending their way through the woods before our horse-friend even reaches the far bank.
    • As they walk, they notice there is something seriously wrong with the trees. Hmmm, like they have black leaves, instead of green. And that their branches are gnarled and knotty, instead of nice and natural and straight. And instead of bearing tasty fruits and flowers, these trees have poisonous briers.
    • Dante, using his poet’s knowledge, recognizes this as the homeland of the Harpies, those inverted angels who stink to high Heaven and harassed Aeneas and company on their way to Italy. (Note: Another reference to Virgil's Aeneid).
    • Virgil now takes the opportunity to state the obvious: they’re now in the second ring of the Seventh circle.
    • Right on cue, a slew disembodied voices start moaning all around them.
    • Freaked out, Dante stops dead in his tracks.
    • Virgil suggests that Dante might discover the source of these crying voices if he breaks a branch off a tree.
    • So Dante does as he’s told, at which point the violated tree goes "Owww! Why’d you do that, man?" and proceeds to bleed black blood (no, not sap) from its wound.
    • Ignoring Dante’s gape-mouthed amazement, the tree goes on to explain that he (and the rest of the forest) used to be men and would’ve expected greater mercy from a fellow (former) brother.
    • Dante compares the speaking tree to the sounds that a burning log makes. You know, hissing sap and all. Of course, he does this in his head to keep from offending the tree.
    • Meanwhile, Virgil steals Dante’s spotlight in making a roundabout apology to the tree that goes something like, "you poor soul, if only Dante had believed my words he wouldn’t have hurt you, but because he’s slow like that, I had to make him maim you. It hurt me as much as it hurt you. I swear."
    • Virgil continues, asking the injured tree to introduce itself and tell its story so that Dante can make a proper apology.
    • The tree is moved by his "sweet speech" (another instance of Virgil’s "persuasive word") and feels compelled to tell his story.
    • Turns out this guy was a bigshot in life. He was Pier della Vigna (though he never says so), otherwise known as the private counselor to Emperor Frederick II, and so trusted by His Majesty that Pier boasts he had "the keys / of Frederick’s heart" and served him faithfully.
    • To show he can match Virgil in poetic-ness, Pier then turns to personification. His downfall, he claims, was brought about by Envy, which he personifies as a "whore." In other words, he was so loved by Frederick that it made all the other bigwigs jealous. So they started nasty rumors about him.
    • And Pier, thoroughly disgusted by it all, killed himself.
    • While we’re having our "Wha?" moment, Pier hurriedly tries to justify himself, claiming he never betrayed Frederick. He begs Dante to clear his reputation once he returns to the living world.
    • In the awkward silence that follows, Virgil finally encourages Dante to speak and ask questions.
    • But Dante’s not having any of it. He’s in I-feel-so-bad-for-him-I-can’t-speak mode and tells Virgil to do the question-asking.
    • Seizing the opportunity to flaunt his persuasiveness, Virgil asks Pier to tell him two things: 1) how does a suicide victim become a tree? and 2) can one ever be freed? He claims that knowing such things will help Dante restore Pier’s reputation in the world above. Which is only a little fib.
    • As Pier answers, it becomes more and more obvious that he is no longer a man. For instance, "the wind become[s] his voice" as he tells of suicidal souls judged by Minos and flung into the seventh circle. But their souls have no proper place and wherever Fortune flings them is where they take root and sprout into trees. As saplings, they are tortured by the Harpies, who—for all their famous ferocity—eat leaves.
    • The suicides, Pier claims, long for their fleshly bodies more than any other sinners. But they cannot have their bodies back because they willingly gave them up by taking their own lives.
    • Only when Judgment Day comes will they be reunited with their bodies, but even then their former skins will only be able to sit atop the stumps of their trees.
    • As they’re waiting for tree-man to go on, a sudden commotion breaks out.
    • Dante, drawing on his endless supply of metaphors, compares it to the cracking sounds made by a hunter and his quarry running through the woods.
    • To the left are two naked men, fleeing desperately from a pack of hounds. (Wow, Dante was right.)
    • The quicker one begs for death while the slower one names his companion as "Lano" and teases him about being slower.
    • By wasting his breath teasing his friend, the second man loses his footing and falls into a thorn bush. Ouch!
    • There, the hounds find him and rip him limb from limb.
    • Dante and Virgil approach.
    • Ironically, it is not the dismembered sinner who weeps and speaks, but the thorn bush, which has had all its branches broken in the unfortunate encounter.
    • It blames the runner, Jacopo da Santo Andrea, for its pain.
    • Virgil addresses the poor plant, asking it for its name.
    • The thorn bush, instead of answering, says only that it is a Florentine and sadly predicts that Florence will never be at peace (because when John the Baptist brought Christianity, he replaced the pagan patron of Florence, Mars, the god of war. Presumably, Mars wants revenge and so plagues Florence with never-ending civil war).
    • The thorn bush ends by admitting its own sin of suicide.
  • Inferno Canto XIV (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: The Violent against God)

    • Soft-hearted Dante, overcome by the anonymous thorn bush’s sad story, shares the suicide’s love of Florence. He shows his respect by gathering up all the broken branches and tenderly placing them back into the thorn bush.
    • Then, Dante and Virgil move on to the third ring, which is geographically distinguished from the second by its flat, decidedly non-forested plain. It’s sandy. That’s a big deal. And this sandy plain is set like a little island within the forest.
    • Because sand doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, Dante takes this opportunity to declare how fearful God’s punishment really is. Only after that does he describe the sinners.
    • There are huge flocks of naked sinners. They either walk, crouch, or lie in the sand. Those who can actually move about are quieter than those pinioned to the ground. More on this later.
    • It gets worse. Huge flakes of fire rain down endlessly from the sky. Dante, in metaphor mode, compares them to snow falling from the windless sky onto the Alps and then alludes to Alexander the Great’s expedition to India, when his troops were tormented by falling fire. (Never mind that that makes little sense.)
    • This explains why those sinners lying on the ground are noisier. They’re in more pain, because the rain of fire ignites the dry sand on which they burn. Dante calls the frantic movements of the sinners’ hands, beating out the flames, a "dance."
    • Dante notices a giant man lying in the sand and loudly cursing God. Predictably, he asks Virgil who it is.
    • The giant, who has giant ears to go along with the rest of him, hears Dante and answers.
    • Rather loudly, the giant denies that Jove (the Roman way of saying God) will ever be able to take revenge against him, even if He throws down all his thunderbolts (Jove’s favorite pastime) to smite him. This is what we call blasphemy.
    • Virgil, his piety aroused, reprimands Capaneus (that’s the giant’s name) and tells him that it is his own arrogance that makes him suffer.
    • More gently, Virgil tells Dante that Capaneus is one of the seven kings who fought against Thebes.
    • So Dante won’t burn his tender feet, Virgil instructs him to walk along the edge of the sand, closer to the forest than to the desert.
    • They come across a little stream that flows out of the woods. It seems innocent enough, until Dante notices that its water is red. (Yes, it’s another incarnation of Phlegethon.)
    • Apparently red is a bad color for Dante because it reminds him of Bulicame, a hot spring which provides the bathwater for Italian prostitutes.
    • In his fanciful way, Virgil points out that this little stream is important.
    • Dante begs Virgil for more information.
    • So Virgil goes into story-telling mode: Once upon a time, there was a nice island called Crete ruled by a nice king. In that land, there was a mountain called Ida where the goddess Rhea once hid her son, Jove, from his not-so-nice cannibalistic father, Saturn.
    • Just when it seems like the story’s getting good, Virgil sidetracks the tale to focus on the Old Man of Crete, a huge statue located within Mount Ida and constructed of many fine metals (gold, silver, brass, iron) as well as clay. Its back is turned towards Egypt and it faces Rome.
    • (Note: scholars have interpreted the statue as a symbol of mankind’s degeneracy. The statue’s left iron leg represents the strength of the Roman Empire while its right leg—made of soft clay— represents the corruption of the Church. Learn more.)
    • Here’s the thrust: every part of the statue is cracked and from each crack drips the statue’s tears. (Don’t ask how a stone figure can cry. We don’t know either.)
    • These tears eventually trickle from the mountain down through the depths of the earth and form Hell’s rivers, the Acheron, Styx, Phlegethon, and Cocytus (which Dante will see later).
    • At this point, Dante interrupts with a question. If these rivers originally flow from the mortal world, why can we only see them in Hell?
    • Virgil’s rather unsatisfactory answer: Hell’s circles are… well… round. And as far down as we’ve come, we still haven’t completed the circle. So don’t be surprised if you see something new. Like rivers.
    • Dante’s last question: where is the last famous Underworld river, Lethe? You didn’t mention it.
    • Virgil’s answer: it’s further on. Not in Hell, but in Purgatory… and because it’s the river of forgetfulness, it absolves some worthy sinners of their memories and allows them to be reincarnated with a clean slate.
    • Now it’s time to move on and Virgil tells Dante to keep walking along the riverbank because it doesn’t burn there.
  • Inferno Canto XV (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: the Violent against God)

    • In their leisurely walk along the banks of the Phlegethon, Dante describes the protective mist that rises from the river and shields them from the fiery rain. He compares the misty shield to dams built by the Flemings or Paduans to defend their towns from seasonal floodwaters.
    • When they are far from the suicidal woods, our heroes run into a new company of sinners walking the same way. (This group of sinners, by the way, are sodomites.)
    • One of them squints at Dante. Suddenly he cries, "This is marvelous!"
    • On closer inspection, Dante recognizes the sinner as his former mentor, Ser Brunetto Latini.
    • Dante begs him to rest for a little while and talk to him. But Brunetto refuses. No surprise, since anyone who stops, even for a moment, is held behind for a hundred years and burns in the fiery rain.
    • At this point, the riverbank apparently splits into a higher and lower path, with only the lower one protected by the mystic misty shield.
    • Dante walks along the lower path while Brunetto is forced to take the higher one and they talk while walking in that awkward parallel path.
    • Brunetto asks why Dante is here in Hell if he’s still alive. And also who his guide is.
    • Dante answers that yesterday he got lost in a dark valley and Virgil here showed up to help him.
    • Brunetto realizes Dante must be blessed to take this spiritual journey while alive and regrets not being able to stay alive long enough to encourage Dante in his works.
    • He blames the Fiesoles, the natives whom the Romans conquered, for failing to understand or appreciate his and Dante’s intellectual work and blames them for all the Florentines’ bad traits.
    • In his ranting, Brunetto warns Dante to stay away from the Fiesoles lest they either devour him or lure him into false beliefs.
    • Dante wisely changes the subject, lavishing Brunetto with praise and saying how much he misses him.
    • Dante then shows off everything he learned from Brunetto. Like A) how man only gains immortality through his works (not his soul), B) how Dante is writing down everything Brunetto says so that when he meets Beatrice, she can comment on his teachings, and C) how he is prepared for whatever Fortune throws his way.
    • At this last comment, Virgil nods and winks his approval.
    • To further his knowledge, Dante asks Brunetto who else is in this group of sinners.
    • Suddenly Brunetto becomes reluctant to talk. He names only three fellow sodomites, Priscian, Francesco d’Accorso, and Bishop Andrea dei Mozzi, before finding an excuse to leave.
    • That excuse is "Oh dear, I see new smoke rising from the sand ahead, which obviously means some unsavory people are coming. Gotta go!"
    • But before he scrams, he asks that Dante value his most famous work, the Tesoro (a really popular poem), through which his name lives on.
    • As he departs, Dante compares his speed with that of racers running the famous Verona race during Lent. The prize is a bolt of green cloth. Brunetto moves so fast that Dante fancies him winning first prize.
    • In other words, Brunetto really wants to get out of there.
  • Inferno Canto XVI (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: The Violent against God)

    • We’ve finally reached the point where the Phlegethon falls into a new circle, quite noisily with the sound of a "beehive’s hum." But we’re still going to stay in this circle for another canto.
    • So who are these people Brunetto’s so eager to avoid? Three quick little Florentines (also sodomites), all burnt and scorched from the flaming rain.
    • The speedy trio recognizes Dante by his clothes as someone from their "indecent country."
    • With one glance, Virgil deems these Florentines worth speaking to and tells Dante so.
    • But the three Florentines sure behave weirdly. When they reach our pilgrims, they link hands and form a wheel around them.
    • One, appealing to Dante’s compassion, asks him to tell them who he is and why he’s still alive in Hell. We’re pretty sure Dante is getting tired of this question too.
    • But because he’s such a well-mannered gentleman, the speaker first introduces his pals—Guido Guerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi—and himself, Jacopo Rusticucci.
    • (History lesson: Dante recognizes them as allied Guelphs who tried to dissuade their fellow Florentines from fighting at Montaperti.)
    • At hearing those beloved names, Dante contemplates leaving his safe path to brave the burning one above just to talk to them… but then decides he doesn’t like pain.
    • So he satisfies himself by simply telling them how deeply he feels for them and how much he honored them in life. Then he brags a little, saying he will bring their names great fame, but that first he has to go to the center of Hell.
    • But, thankfully, Jacopo just wants to know if Florence is still a good town or if it’s been corrupted by bad guys like Guiglielmo Borsiere, a recent addition to the sodomite gang.
    • Dante’s reply goes something like "all newcomers are bad, because new money is bad!"
    • The trio stares at him. Then they say "Okay, thanks" and skedaddle.
    • Unfazed, Dante and Virgil frolic along until they reach the ending point of Phlegethon, which Dante monumentally compares to the river Acquacheta cascading down the Apennines. In other words, the river becomes a great big waterfall which any sane man would not want to jump down.
    • Oh, what to do now? Virgil has an idea.
    • He orders Dante to remove the cord from around his waist.
    • Virgil makes a lasso and throws it down the ravine.
    • Even Dante thinks this is a little strange. Which, he assumes, means that something strange will happen.
    • What emerges from those dark depths is so incredible that Dante calls it a "truth which seems a lie," but he swears (and he addresses the reader directly) that "by the lines / of this my Comedy," what he sees is real.
    • But all he tells us of this spectacular event in this canto is that some sort of monster rises from the depths like a diver swimming to the water’s surface.
  • Inferno Canto XVII (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: the Violent against Nature and Art)

    • Virgil, at his melodramatic best, heralds the monster’s coming: "Behold the beast… whose stench fills all the world!"
    • And here he is, "that filthy effigy of fraud," who has the face of a man, the body of a serpent, two paws, hair in his armpits, a really gaudy hide all braided and twisted into knots, and a pointy tail with a poisonous tip.
    • In a pretty funny simile (only made funny by its anachronism), Dante compares this monster to Germans and a beaver. Why? The beast is sitting on the riverbank, his tail dipped in the water, right on the boundary between land and water. Like Germany.
    • As for the beaver metaphor, apparently medieval biologists thought beavers caught fish by sticking their tails in the water and secreting some oily substance that fish liked.
    • Virgil makes the assumption that Dante wants to meet the ugly thing. So they walk towards it, being careful not to burn their feet.
    • When they reach it, Virgil’s reasoning takes another leap. He notices a few straggling sinners sitting on some rocks a few feet away. So he shoos Dante away towards them, encouraging him to "experience this ring in full." Meanwhile (get this), Virgil plans to negotiate with the monster to see if it won’t let them ride it into the next circle. (You do that, Virgil. We’ll scoot on ahead with Dante.)
    • Dante wanders off (read: runs away) to the sinners and notices them flicking their hands at the torturous flames.
    • Our hero doesn’t recognize any of them on sight, but he does recognize the little emblazoned pouches they wear around their necks. The symbols on them are crests of Florentine families famous for practicing usury. There’s a blue lion on a gold field, a white goose on a red field, and a pregnant blue sow on a white field.
    • The guy with the last purse is mean to Dante. He tells Dante to get lost because the spot where Dante is standing is meant for his usurer friend, Vitaliano. They’re all awaiting him and this other "sovereign cavalier" whose family emblem is three goats.
    • Intimidated by them, Dante won’t let on his annoyance and instead compares them to oxen.
    • Instead of staying to converse, Dante heads back to Virgil. Against all odds, Virgil has succeeded in gaining the monster’s trust.
    • Virgil orders Dante to climb up on the beast’s shoulders and sit in front of him, so that he can protect mortal Dante from the venomous tail.
    • Dante is quaking in his boots, but he’s not about to admit it to Virgil. Instead, he feels shame at his fear (especially when Virgil is showing none) and clambers on.
    • As always, though, Virgil is there for him and holds on to him as he calls the monster by name, Geryon, and instructs it to take off.
    • Geryon takes flight in a rather weird way, scrambling backward until there’s no more ground beneath him before spreading his wings.
    • Dante, wild with fear, still has the presence of mind to conjure up a simile, comparing Geryon’s movements to a boat backing away from its moorings.
    • Now Dante can’t stop with the similes; they keep coming as if from an unhinged poetic mind. Which is exactly what’s going on. Dante compares his fear to that of Phaethon (who lost control of his father’s sun chariot) and Icarus (whose makeshift wings melted because he flew too high).
    • He makes the mistake of looking down. But instead of passing out—as he might’ve done earlier —Dante simply clings tighter to Geryon’s back and absorbs all the hideous sights of sinners suffering.
    • Geryon flies downward in ever-decreasing circles, movement which Dante (still in a metaphoric frame of mind) compares to a trained falcon falling to the ground in exhaustion after failing to locate its prey.
    • Once they reach the bottom and our pilgrims scramble off, Geryon disappears.
  • Inferno Canto XVIII (the Eighth Circle, First Pouch: Panderers and Seducers; the Second Pouch: Flatterers)

    • Dante takes his sweet time introducing the eighth circle of Hell to us.
    • This circle has a nickname, Malebolge (which translates roughly to "evil pouches"). It’s surrounded by a wall of dull iron-colored stone, and the valley itself is divided into ten pouches.
    • Of course, Dante can’t help but compare the design of the eighth circle to stuff like a moat protecting a castle or fortresses seen from a birds-eye view that are scored with lots of bridges and ditches.
    • As usual, Virgil takes the lead, walking to the leftmost side while he and Dante witness the sinners on the right.
    • These nude sinners march in a long line while they are whipped on every side by horned demons.
    • Dante compares their march to one he saw the year of Jubilee in which Pope Boniface VIII (yes, the man Dante hates) granted indulgences to those who visited Roman churches. Predictably, a bunch of guilt-induced peasants flooded Rome, forcing the soldiers to herd them across the bridge in two lines, a gigantic one headed toward St. Peter’s Cathedral and the other headed back.
    • Dante locks eyes with one of the sinners and realizes he’s seen him before. The sinner, in response, tries to hide his face. But it’s no use.
    • Bluntly, Dante names him as Venedico Caccianemico and asks him what brings him on such a trip to Hell.
    • In answer to Dante’s "plain speech," Venedico responds reluctantly. He admits that he pandered his sister Ghisolabella into doing sexual favors for a Marquis. (Just for reference, "panderer" is a euphemism for "pimp." So this is the pouch of pimps.)
    • But Venedico defends himself, saying he’s not the only Bolognese (from the region of Italy called Bologna) here. He claims there are many who say "sipa" (the Bolognese word for "yes") in this circle.
    • At this point, a demon steps in to ram Venedico on the head with a cudgel. That’s the demon way of saying, "Shut up! And get a move on because there are no women for you to pimp here."
    • Dante and Virgil then come across a rocky ridge, which marks a boundary. The marchers (also harassed by demons) now return, walking in the same direction as our pilgrims.
    • Virgil points out one majestic looking man among them, Jason of the Argonauts. He explains that this handsome man seduced and impregnated Hypsipyle of Lemnos, then abandoned her in her pregnancy, to steal the Golden Fleece from Colchis.
    • After this unhappy news, our dynamic duo crosses a bridge into the second pouch where flatterers are immersed in a ditch of excrement.
    • Here, the sinners howl and fight among themselves. They’re so nasty that their sighs turn into mold that grows on their bodies.
    • Dante and Virgil just manage to keep themselves clean by watching from the very top of the bridge, where Dante spies someone he thinks he recognizes. He can’t tell for sure whether it’s a layman or cleric
    • Upset that he’s attracted undue attention, the sinner screams at Dante, asking why he has picked him out among all the filthy people here.
    • Dante answers, identifying him as Alessio Interminei of Lucca.
    • At which point, Alessio beats himself over the head and admits that he is here because of the things he used to say: he is a flatterer.
    • Virgil then points out another sinner—this time a girl. He explains that she is Thais, a courtesan who gave excessive thanks to her lover for sex. And now she scratches herself with her excrement-filled nails.
    • They move on.
  • Inferno Canto XIX (the Eighth Circle, Third Pouch: Simonists)

    • Dante opens this canto with an invective against simonists (clerics who sell absolution and other priceless heavenly favors for money). He calls them sinners who "fornicate for gold and silver!"
    • Dante and Virgil are now in the third pouch.
    • So how are the Simonists punished? In the rocky ground, they are buried upside-down in holes the size of baptism basins and their feet protrude, only to be burnt by flames. Eternal suffocation and immolation.
    • Biographical aside: Dante puts a great deal of emphasis on the likening of the holes to baptism basins, and recounts a story where he accidentally broke one in the church of San Giovanni.
    • Moving on… one sinner is subjected to redder flames than any of the others and Dante asks who it is.
    • Virgil suggests they go down and find out. And Dante agrees.
    • At the feet (literally) of the sinner in question, Dante calls out to him—whoever he is—to name himself.
    • How’s this for some interesting imagery: in standing next to the inverted sinner, Dante (unconsciously?) takes on the role of a friar at the confession of an assassin.
    • Hilariously, this sinner mistakes Dante for his successor in simony, Pope Boniface VIII, now come to take his place in Hell. After all, the sinner has his head buried in bedrock; he can’t see the guy standing up there.
    • But you’ve got to give the guy some credit: he realizes that Boniface is a few years early; in actuality, at the time of Dante’s writing, Pope Boniface was still alive.
    • Like anyone else accused of being their arch-enemy, Dante is shocked silent.
    • To prevent any mischief, Virgil strictly orders Dante to correct Nicholas’s mistake and to reveal his name. Meekly, Dante does so.
    • Then, the Pope changes his tone, irritably asking what they want from him and twitching his feet accordingly.
    • He launches into a boastful description of how he once wore the mantle of the papacy. He attempts to justify his simony by claiming he was just trying to fatten the purses of his family.
    • He explains to them what happens to simonists once their successors show up in Hell: they drop further into the stony ground so that the whole third pouch (of the eighth circle) is full up to the bedrock with buried simonists.
    • Pope Nicholas prophesies that after Pope Boniface goes to Hell, he will be followed by an even more evil churchman, Pope Clement V, who will bargain with the French king to guarantee his election and later abduct the papacy and spirit it away from Rome and into Avignon.
    • But Dante’s heard enough about how wicked everyone else is.
    • He sassily asks Pope Nicholas how much Christ charged St. Peter before giving him control of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Or how much the Apostles charged Matthias for taking Judas’s place amongst the Apostles after his betrayal. (The answer, of course, is nothing.)
    • With this rhetoric of righteous indignation, Dante pronounces Pope Nicholas’s punishment just.
    • Only Dante’s respect for the papacy or papal office, keeps him from talking even more smack about simonists.
    • But he goes on anyway, depicting Rome (the papal seat) as a whore who fornicates with kings for money. This makes the popes into idolaters just as heinous as the heretics they condemn.
    • Dante even goes so far as to accuse Constantine for ever funding the Church after his conversion to Christianity.
    • Pope Nicholas, upon hearing Dante’s rant, kicks hard—either out of indignation or his guilty conscience.
    • Virgil is so pleased with Dante’s temper that he picks him up in his arms and carries him like a baby across the bridge to the fourth pouch.
    • Having been set back down again, Dante must watch his feet because the way down into the next valley is very steep.
  • Inferno Canto XX (the Eighth Circle, Fourth Pouch: Diviners, Astrologers, and Magicians)

    • After his unprecedented rage at Pope Nicholas III, Dante announces his intent to write material for this canto with a brazen new authority.
    • When he looks down into the fourth pouch, he sees a group of sinners walking slowly, as if participating in a holy procession.
    • To his amazement (and our horror), a closer inspection reveals that these sinners’ heads are turned backwards on their shoulders so that they’re forced to walk backwards because they can't see in front of them. And in a sadistically comic twist, they cry while they walk so that their tears trickle down their buttocks.
    • Dante is so horrified by this that he tells his reader how the tears sprung to his eyes.
    • As Dante breaks down, Virgil turns on him with scorn. He has no pity for the sinners.
    • He urges Dante to look at the many sinners here, pointing out famous ones like Amphiaraus (a king who foresaw his own defeat and tried to hide from it), Tiresias (who changed himself from a man to a woman and back again), Aruns (who predicted Caesar’s victory), and the witch Manto (after whom Virgil’s hometown Mantua is named).
    • Manto is particularly grotesque with her long hair on her backward-turned head covering her bare breasts.
    • Now Virgil makes a strange sidetrack to verify the origins of Mantua.
    • He traces the history of Manto, who lived as child in Thebes but left the war-torn town after her father died. She wandered until she came to a marsh around Lake Benaco and there she settled. Later, other people realized the brilliance of having an unassailable—if stinky—marsh town and joined her, founding the town of Mantua.
    • As Virgil finishes his little tale, he dares Dante to try to discredit him.
    • But Dante has no interest in doing that and instead appeases Virgil by acknowledging his authority.
    • As usual, Dante wants to know the names of the sinners in this pouch.
    • Virgil points out more notable ones, like Calchas (a minor character from his Aeneid), Michael Scot (an astrologer), Guido Bonatti (also an astrologer), and Asdente (a shoemaker/soothsayer).
    • Virgil decides to move on because the moon is getting low on the horizon, or—as the medieval Italians like to say—"Cain with his thorns already… touches the sea."
  • Inferno Canto XXI (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators)

    • Our first impression of this next pouch is that it’s really dark.
    • So dark, in fact, that Dante takes a good long time comparing it to the color of the tar manufactured by the Venetian arsenal and used to fix their ships.
    • As Dante is dutifully trying to make out what’s happening in that pitch-black valley, Virgil cries out for him to be careful.
    • When he turns around to look, Dante almost passes out at the sight of a black demon racing towards them.
    • Lucky for them, the demon doesn’t see them because he’s busy tormenting a sinner draped over his shoulder.
    • From his speech Dante learns that this sinner is a barrator (or corrupt politician) from Lucca.
    • The spiny demon throws the barrator into the river of boiling pitch and calls the rest of his gang (the Malebranche—which translates to "Evil-Claws") to come join him.
    • They crowd around to poke and push him under with their grappling hooks and pitchforks, just like cooks submerge bits of meat in their soup.
    • Virgil very wisely tells Dante to keep down so that they’re not spotted by the demons.
    • Just when we were beginning to completely trust Virgil, he screws it all up by sauntering up to the band of demons and ordering them to put their weapons down.
    • Like in a bad horror movie, they corner him and laugh off his request. They let their leader, Malacoda ("Evil-Tail"), approach him to ask the one intelligent question they seem capable of: what is a live man doing down here?
    • Oh boy. Here we go again.
    • Virgil pulls out his "will of God" card and Malacoda agrees not to harm Dante.
    • Virgil then calls the cowering Dante out of his hiding place in the rocks. As he scurries to Virgil’s side, he notes the sinister smiles and lip-licking and tail-lashing of the demons.
    • One proposes stabbing Dante’s butt with a pitchfork. Everyone else gives a great hurrah, but Malacoda stops the party with a sharp order to the offender, Scarmiglione.
    • Then he tells Virgil that it’s no use continuing the way they’re going because the bridge is broken. He volunteers ten of his demon band to accompany them to the next unbroken bridge, as long as they keep to their task of torturing sinners along the way.
    • Dante is understandably distraught. He whispers to Virgil that he doesn’t want demon company to the next bridge. He trusts Virgil alone.
    • What he’s really saying is that he doesn’t want become lunch.
    • But Virgil reassures him; all their evil gesturing and ill will is for the sinners, not them.
    • As they start walking, the demons turn into vulgar comedians. Barbariccia, the head demon, sounds the signal to set off: he farts loudly or, in poetic terms, makes "a trumpet of his ass."
  • Inferno Canto XXII (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators)

    • Dante is so startled by Barbariccia’s strange signal that he calls it the weirdest one he’s ever heard… more so than the Arentines’ trumpets, bells, and drums. We concur.
    • He and Virgil head out with their demonic guides.
    • Dante scans the surface of the pitch for glimpses of the sinners underneath. He compares the various limbs sticking out of the pitch to quick flashes of dolphins’ backs seen at sea or frogs’ snouts in a pond.
    • Whenever the demons approach with their pitchforks cocked, the sinners dive under.
    • Continuing his frog metaphor, Dante sees one of the demons, Grafficane, finally succeed in snaring a sinner, whom he compares to a sluggish frog. And then he promptly contradicts himself, by comparing the sinner to an otter.
    • In a quick aside, Dante pats himself on the back for learning all the demons’ names.
    • Grafficane tells his buddy Rubicante to sink his talons into the sinner.
    • Dante begs Virgil to stop them by asking stuff about the sinner in question.
    • So Virgil steps forward and blurts the first the thing that comes to his mind: "O sinner, where were you born?"
    • Like everyone else in this poem, the sinner offers us a lot of information. Pretty soon, we not only know his birthplace (Navarre—now Northern Spain), but also the occupation of his father (a wastrel or professional loser), his adopted father (King Thibault), and his sin (swindling money). But not his name.
    • Having gotten what he wanted, Virgil watches as another demon named Ciriatto rips the sinner open with a tusk. And then Barbariccia prepares to stab him. But, interestingly, he seems to have taken Virgil’s side.
    • Still threatening to disembowel the sinner, Barbarricia turns to Virgil and politely asks him to continue the interrogation. And to hurry up or else his demon pals might kill the guy.
    • So Virgil scrambles for another question: "So… do you have any Italian friends here?"
    • Nameless sinner says "yes" and indicates there’s another Italian right there (points) in the pitch. He wishes to sweet Jesus that he were him.
    • At this point, Libicocco loses patience, flourishes his hook, and tears out a chunk of flesh from the sinner.
    • Another demon Draghignazzo looks like he’s about to snap too, so Barbariccia tells them to back off.
    • Cue Virgil, who steps forward to ask the identity of the aforementioned sinner in the pitch. The Navarrese sinner, distracted a moment by his gaping wound, answers that it’s Fra Gomita, a clergyman.
    • We learn from him that Fra Gomita served a bunch of different masters, but always managed to pawn some gold from them.
    • Apparently, he has a friend named Don Michele Zanche, a fellow swindler.
    • The nameless sinner is quiet now because he sees a demon getting ready to maul him. Barbariccia promptly shoos the guilty party, Farfarello, back.
    • By this time, the sinner is so scared that he offers to summon his barrator friends out of the pitch (by whistling) if they show him mercy. Hmm… on earth, we call that betrayal.
    • A demon, Cagnazzo, laughs him off, claiming it’s a trick by which the sinner hopes to escape them. Another happy demon, Alinchino, threatens the sinner that if he tries to dive back into the pitch, they’ll take to wing to torment him from the air.
    • As they’re all cackling evilly, the sinner does just that; he escapes.
    • The demons go "uh oh" and take to wing, but it’s too late. The sinner has disappeared beneath the boiling pitch.
    • The demons are furious.
    • Calcabrina is so mad he attacks his fellow demon Alinchino. In typically incompetent henchmen fashion, they both fall—entangled—into the pitch, and promptly get stuck.
    • Barbariccia, the head honcho, shakes his head in disgust and sends the rest of the party to fish them out.
    • Meanwhile, Dante and Virgil take this opportunity to slip away.
  • Inferno Canto XXIII (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators; Sixth Pouch: the Hypocrites)

    • Our heroes rush away silently.
    • Even in his fear, Dante pulls a metaphor out of the bag, comparing the demons to Aesop’s fable about a mouse and a treacherous frog.
    • After conveying this juicy little literary tidbit, Dante voices his fear to Virgil. He’s scared that the demons will be angry (which they will be) and will come after them (that too).
    • Dante’s so scared, his hair curls up. Literally.
    • Dante suggests that they hide since he hears the demons coming.
    • Virgil agrees in an overdone poetic way. He suggests going down that steep bank over there.
    • Just then, the shadow of the approaching danger looms on the horizon. The demons are coming.
    • Virgil snatches Dante up like a mother rescuing her child from a fire and runs like nobody’s business to the edge of cliff. Taking a seat, he proceeds to slide down with much flailing and screaming and butt burning.
    • Dante has the presence of mind to make a metaphor. Virgil’s sliding down the slope is like water running on the down cycle of a mill wheel. In other words, it’s really fast.
    • Just as they touch bottom, the demons appear at the top, roaring their rage to the world because they can’t cross the border to the next pouch.
    • That’s that.
    • Dante and Virgil find the next group of sinners, a bunch of men walking around in circles and dressed in really tacky gold cloaks. And the cloaks are really heavy too, because they’re lined with lead on the inside.
    • Dante asks Virgil to keep his eyes peeled for someone they know.
    • A gaudily-dressed sinner overhears, recognizes Dante’s Tuscan accent, and shouts at them to stop!
    • So Dante and Virgil join the circle of sinners to talk to the two who are interested.
    • The two sinners confer among themselves: why is that guy alive and how come he doesn’t have to wear these fashion atrocities like we do? (Turn to Dante.) So… what’s your name?
    • Dante answers shortly: Yes, I’m Tuscan and yes, I’m alive. So what else is new? But who are you? And what kind of punishment is this?
    • They tell Dante that they’re condemned to walk around (very slowly) with these ridiculously heavy cloaks on because they are Jovial Friars (hypocrites) whose selfishness screwed up the region of Gardingo.
    • Dante is about to berate them, but stops because he just noticed something crucified.
    • It’s another giant, naked sinner who is crucified to the ground, writhing and sighing.
    • Fra Catalano (apparently one of the Jovial Friar’s names) tells the gape-mouthed Dante that that’s Caiaphas, the priest who came up with the idea to crucify Jesus alone, instead of all the Jews. The crucifixion idea sort of backfired, and he has to bear the pain of any passing traffic running over him.
    • That’s not all. Catalano tells our heroes that the same punishment afflicts Caiaphas’s family members and friends.
    • Virgil is amazed at the sight of Caiaphas.
    • Then he asks the Friars if there’s a way to get out of here without calling the demons back.
    • Good news. There is indeed a bridge close by. It’s broken, but that doesn’t matter. There’s enough rubble heaped on the sides and bottom to make passage possible, if not easy.
    • So, Virgil has one of those mysteriously quiet contemplative moments and shows his displeasure: the demons lied to him about the broken bridge.
    • At which point one of the Friars fires back with something akin to "You actually trusted them? Don’t you know demons are liars?"
    • Virgil leaves in a rage, with Dante dogging his steps.
  • Inferno Canto XXIV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)

    • Dante opens this canto with an elaborate extended simile: in the winter, a farmer looks out in dismay at the snow-covered ground (because he can’t get anything done in such weather) but later his worry lightens because he sees the snow has melted. So he goes out to herd his sheep. This is compared to Virgil’s initially-worried-but-later-happier reaction when they reach the collapsed bridge.
    • He pushes Dante to get a move on and helps him down the rocky bank.
    • Dante is grateful he doesn’t have one of those leaded cloaks on because the path is really steep. He tells us, if it wasn’t for Virgil’s support, he would’ve given up.
    • At one point, Dante stops, exhausted. Virgil calls him out for being lazy because, he claims, those who are lazy never earn fame in the world and thus are lost to memory when they die.
    • Inspired, Dante gets up and announces to Virgil, "I’m buff enough." Or something similar. And so they climb up the far side of the bridge.
    • Dante keeps talking so that he doesn’t sound weak, and to his surprise, an unknown voice from the next pouch answers him.
    • They’re at the summit of the bridge at this point so Dante tries to catch a look at the speaker, but it’s too dark to see anything. Dante says they’ll cross the bridge and then find him.
    • So they do and the first thing Dante sees is that the valley is filled with swarms of coiling snakes.
    • It’s so horrifying that it exceeds, according to Dante, all the pestilences of Libya or Ethiopia.
    • And amongst these serpents run a bunch of sinners, with no hope of cover.
    • The snakes do cruel, nasty things, like binding the sinners' hands with their bodies and knotting themselves around their thighs.
    • As soon as they’ve been bitten by these serpents, the sinners turn into piles of ash that collect on the ground. But only momentarily. In the next moment, they rise to re-form again, like the mythical phoenix.
    • The poor sinner-turned-ash-turned-sinner again looks about in bewilderment.
    • Virgil asks the sinner who he is.
    • Oddly, the sinner calls himself a mule before actually naming himself as Vanni Fucci and saying he is from Pistoia.
    • Dante interjects here and tells Virgil to ask him what his sin was. He hints that he knew Vanni Fucci as a "man of blood and anger," meaning that he should be the Fifth Circle.
    • Vanni overhears Dante and is ashamed of himself. He’s more ashamed at having been caught by Dante than by his actual sin, which was stealing holy relics from a church. He’s a thief.
    • Then, he tells Dante not to take too much joy at seeing him suffer, because Dante’s beloved Whites are going to fall.
    • Vanni launches into a cryptic prophecy, which translates as: Pistoia will first throw out the Blacks, but they will strike back with a military force (or poetically a "vapor" from Mars, the god of war) from Val di Magra and deliver the Whites a smashing defeat.
    • He tells this to Dante to "make [him] grieve."
  • Inferno Canto XXV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)

    • As Vanni Fucci finishes speaking, he throws his fists up in figs against God—a gesture of blasphemy. There goes Dante’s respect for him.
    • Indeed, Dante claims that now he considers the torturous serpents his friends.
    • As if in response, one snake coils around Vanni’s neck to shut him up. Then his buddies join him in wrapping Vanni up so completely that he can’t move.
    • Dante is so disgusted by Vanni’s behavior that he wishes Pistoia (Vanni’s hometown) would just destroy itself. Even Capaneus’s behavior cannot compare in its atrocity to Vanni’s.
    • As Vanni flees, he is immediately replaced by a centaur whose backside is covered in writhing snakes. But that’s not all: his human parts, his head and torso, are tortured by a mini-dragon who sets his skin aflame.
    • Just as we’re all wondering what this guy could’ve possibly done to get such a horrible punishment, Virgil tells us. Apparently, the centaur is called Cacus. Unlike his violent brothers, Cacus stole cattle from the herd of Hercules and thus was punished by having Hercules beat him to death. (In fact, Dante tells us Hercules administered one hundred blows with his club, but Cacus had already died by the tenth.)
    • As Virgil’s explaining these details, Cacus passes beneath them and immediately after him follow three nude souls.
    • But Dante is so preoccupied counting Hercules’s blows that he doesn’t notice them until one cries out, "Who are you?" It is ambiguous to whom this question is directed, because it never gets answered.
    • It has only the effect of bringing Dante and Virgil to attention.
    • Dante doesn’t recognize them but they luck out when one calls the name of another, asking where Ciafna is.
    • Right on cue, Ciafna leaps out. But it’s not what we expect; instead of a human being, it is a serpent with six legs… so more like giant, vicious caterpillar.
    • Ciafna pounces on the man who called him, gripping his limbs with its many legs while savaging the man’s face with its jaws.
    • As if that weren’t scary enough, predator and prey now begin melding together, exchanging color and shape. Dante compares their icky amorphous shape to that of a newly-lit paper which is just beginning to lose its color.
    • The two creatures now stare at each other and wonder aloud at the transformation. Here, we find out that the man’s name is Agnello.
    • Dante continues with a really sickening description of their union. Their two heads melt together, their limbs grow and twist together, and basically the final product is this hideous, totally alien figure that is not quite man but not quite snake either.
    • Another little serpent flashes by and attacks one of the two bystanders, piercing him straight through the navel.
    • But the impaled sinner doesn’t react at all. In fact, he only yawns.
    • They stare at each other, snake and man. And dramatically, their bodies begin smoking.
    • At this point, Dante is in full poet mode. He grosses us out. Now he tells the other famous Classical poets that they cannot match Dante in describing snake attacks or magical transformations.
    • Back to the repulsive transformation: within the smoke, the serpent’s tail divides into two while the sinner’s legs merge, the serpent’s skin grows soft while the sinner’s grows hard; the serpent sprouts limbs as the sinner loses his; the serpent grows hair as the sinner’s falls off.
    • The transformed serpent then stands upright and grows a face with ears, while the man, now prone on the ground, has his ears absorbed back into his head.
    • Finally, the man’s tongue becomes forked while the serpent’s becomes whole. In short, man and serpent have exchanged forms; one has become the other.
    • The man—now a snake—slithers off, hissing.
    • The man—who was a snake—now speaks. He names the man he attacked (the newly-formed snake) as Buoso and takes delight in his suffering.
    • Dante remarks on the freakiness of the transformations and is so distraught by them that his sight becomes blurred.
    • But that doesn’t stop him, as they’re all leaving, from recognizing the third sinner, the only one who didn’t undergo a gruesome transformation, as Puccio Sciancato, another thief.
  • Inferno Canto XXVI (the Eighth Circle, Eighth Pouch: the Fraudulent Counselors)

    • Dante’s takes this opportunity to diss Florence. He does it ironically, saying how "great" the city is because of those thieves that Dante recognized, five were Florentines.
    • He prophecies that rival cities, like Prato, will one day battle Florence. Dante only wants that day to come faster. No love for his hometown.
    • Our dynamic duo makes its way into the next pouch. And it only gets harder. This time they have to crawl on their hands and knees up and down jagged rocks that serve as a makeshift staircase into the next valley.
    • Because crawling on gravel makes people (even epic poets) grumpy, Dante begins griping about the sinners. He says that they should use their talents (because obviously thieves and counselors have some talent) for good, not evil.
    • At first sight of the next pouch, Dante describes it with a metaphor, comparing it to the swarms of fireflies a resting farmer can see hanging over his crops in the evening. Because in this pouch, there are a lot of flames.
    • Ready for another metaphor? The movement of the flames is like that of Elijah’s chariot, which rose to Heaven as a star.
    • So why are there rising tongues of flame? Because each individual flame contains a sinner that moves when he moves. Cool, right? Also: really painful.
    • Dante is so interested that he leans dangerously over the bridge to see the sinners.
    • Virgil senses his eagerness and decides to show off his knowledge. He tells Dante that each flame contains a sinner.
    • Dante already knows this and politely tells Virgil so, but it’s obvious he’s proud that he outguessed Virgil.
    • Instead of dwelling on it, he assumes the position of ignorant student again and asks who that double flame is that is approaching.
    • Virgil, the all-knowing, answers him: Ulysses and Diomedes. He explains with authority that these two were almost single-handedly responsible for the Trojan horse and the sacking of the Palladium (Athena’s temple) and that’s why they’re punished together in a single flame. This was something Virgil happened to recount in his Aeneid.
    • Dante begs Virgil to let him talk to the two sinners. He’s pretty desperate.
    • Virgil indulges him. But on one condition, that Dante doesn’t speak. Virgil wants to talk to them and his excuse is that because they’re Greek, they might look down on Dante’s Italian.
    • Virgil approaches them, obsequiously and politely asking one of them to describe his death.
    • So the bigger of the twinned flames (because Ulysses was a greater hero than Diomedes) begins to wag back and forth like a tongue trying to speak. Well, in fact, that’s exactly what it is.
    • Eventually the flame-tip/tongue finds its voice and tells its story. Here's his tale:
    • Ulysses’ return journey from the Trojan War (recounted in the Odyssey) isn't as straightforward as he might have hoped. Instead, because of a few mishaps, he ends up doing a lot more exploring.
    • He sails past Spain and Morocco and even passed the pillars of Hercules, which at the time are the boundaries of the known world.
    • Then, to encourage his tired crew, he gives a grand speech. "Brothers, we’ve explored further than any man ever has before. And we should continue exploring. Because we’re men, not animals! And we crave knowledge."
    • So with the men rearing to go, they sail out with the wind and with joy in their hearts until they reach (gasp)… the Southern hemisphere. (We know this because suddenly the stars turn upside down.)
    • They sail for five days until they see a really high mountain rising in the distance. This is the Mount of Purgatory. Apparently, God decides "this is far enough" because then a whirlwind springs up, heads straight for the boat, and everyone dies.
    • Ulysses ends the tale of his death.
  • Inferno Canto XXVII (the Eighth Circle, Eighth Pouch: the Fraudulent Counselors)

    • Ulysses, in his flaming garb, is silent. Virgil condescends to let him leave.
    • But he’s immediately replaced by another inquisitive tongue of flame. Except this one is making a weird sound.
    • So weird that Dante compares it to… a medieval brass bull that someone constructed as an instrument of torture. As victims were roasted inside, their screams supposedly imitated the sounds a bull makes.
    • So this new flame/sinner sounds like dying bull. He’s in a lot of pain. So much so that at first, Dante cannot understand a word he’s saying.
    • But eventually the words find their way up the flame and to the tongue/flame tip.
    • This sinner has gotten the impression that Virgil’s a nice guy because he granted Ulysses permission to leave. So now, he implores Virgil to stay and talk to him and have some pity on a poor creature being roasted alive.
    • The first thing he wants to know is if his hometown, Romagna, is at war or peace.
    • Dante is listening attentively (read: dying to answer), when Virgil elbows him and says, "What are you doing? Talk to the guy. He’s Italian."
    • Dante obeys and we find out that Romagna is still being ravaged.
    • Then, Dante goes into all the specifics about cities within Romagna. Ravenna is still standing. Forli has defeated the French. Rimini has fallen to the rule of two evil Italians who spend their days plotting against the world and sinisterly twisting their mustachios. Faenza and Imola follow the lead of a flip-flopping lion ("Lion" being a metaphor for some Italian leader we’ve never heard of). And Cesena is still struggling for its freedom.
    • Now down to business: Dante asks the sinner who he is.
    • Because it would be rude to just take all the information and leave, the sinner replies. He tells Dante he’s only revealing his identity because Dante—being in Hell and all that—can’t possibly tattle on him in the living world. Hmm, English majors would call this dramatic irony.
    • Enter into sinner’s story: First he was a soldier and then saw the light, repented of his ways, and became a friar of the Franciscan order. (Note: if you were a medieval Italian like Dante, you’d know this fellow’s name is Guido da Montefeltro.) He did this with the goal of absolving his sins. But then Pope Boniface VIII ruined everything!
    • Here, he gives us some history: as a young man, he is… ahem… crafty. In other words, a backstabber, turncoat, snitch, and general cheater.
    • But then, he sees the error of his ways and becomes a friar. He even would’ve made peace with God if it weren’t for that blasted pope.
    • See, Boniface isn’t doing nice Popish things like curing the sick or baptizing kittens, but is instead feuding with Christian families. Namely, the people who support the previous pope and see Boniface as illegitimate. Or really mentally sick. (We’re going to go with the sick interpretation since Guido describes the "fevered" Pope seeking his counsel just as the leper Constantine sought Sylvester’s advice.)
    • So Guido is stuck with the job of telling the leader of the Christian faith whether or not to go to war with this rival family. Here is the deciding factor: Boniface goes, "Psssst! Guido! If you side with me, I’ll clear all your sins from your record. Free ticket to Heaven!" In other words, the Pope trades absolution (or forgiveness of one’s sins) for a friar’s permission to wage war on an innocent family.
    • When Guido dies, Saint Francis (remember, he’s in the Franciscan order) appears and he’s all ready to ascend with him to the pearly gates when… drumroll please… a demon appears. Or "a black cherubim" if you’re Dante.
    • St. Francis is debriefed on Guido’s evil counsel, the demon snatches Guido up, Minos judges him fit for the eighth circle, and voila! Here he is.
    • Back to the present: Guido is so distraught after telling his story that he leaves.
    • Then our heroes leave too, crossing the bridge into the next pouch.
  • Inferno Canto XXVIII (the Eighth Circle, Ninth Pouch: the Sowers of Scandal and Schism)

    • Here, in the ninth pouch, Dante’s words fail him. Words can no longer capture the sheer volume and degree of suffering, of all the "blood and wounds," present here.
    • Dante does the next best thing; he crafts a metaphor. He compares all the wounded here to the carnage wrecked in about five different battles. All those dead piled up couldn’t match the horror of this pouch.
    • Because it really is gross. The first sinner Dante sees has literally been eviscerated, his body slit down the middle so we can see all his gooey insides. And to make it worse, the sinner reaches up with his hands to open his chest wide for Dante to see.
    • This sinner introduces himself as Mohammed. He points out a fellow sinner, whose face is chopped in half. That’s Ali, the man responsible for splitting the Muslims up into the rival factions of the Sunnis and Shiites.
    • So, says Mohammed, we’re all sowers of dissension here (read: we make brothers go for each others’ throats) so we’re punished by being cut in half.
    • So the sinners walk in circles until they reach a point where a big bad demon with a sword slashes them in half, then they keep walking and dripping gore everywhere, eventually heal, then come back to be hacked again.
    • But then Mohammed asks who Dante is that he’s allowed not to have his guts hanging out his body.
    • Virgil answers that Dante is still alive, is on an educational field trip sanctioned by God, is getting a tour of Hell.
    • Apparently it’s a big deal to the sinners because all their ears perk up suddenly and a hundred pairs of eyes scrutinize Dante.
    • Mohammed goes on, ignoring Dante’s stage fright. Since Dante’s alive, Mohammed wants him to carry a message to his buddy Fra Dolcino, telling him to get some food quickly or else he’ll starve while under siege. (Dante apparently fails to do this because Fra Dolcino indeed dies of starvation.)
    • Mohammed leaves.
    • Another guy comes up to speak, with his throat slit and using this wound like a mouth.
    • He recognizes Dante and names himself as Pier da Medicina. Pier wants Dante to spread his fame in the mortal world and also to take a message. This time it’s to tell two men from Fano to be very careful or else they’ll be betrayed by the foul Malatestino and be drowned aboard their very own ship.
    • Dante’s feeling lucky today so he agrees to carry the message if Pier will point out another famous sinner to him.
    • Pier does so immediately, patting another guy on the head to indicate "that’s him."
    • It’s Curio, the man who convinced Caesar betray his friend Pompey and invade the city of Rome, starting a civil war there. So guess what? His conniving tongue is cut in half and, here in Hell, Curio can no longer speak.
    • The next guy who comes along has had his hands chopped off. Goes by the name of Mosca and contributed to the strife between the Guelphs and Ghibellines.
    • Dante, having seen the outcome of this, tells Mosca that he brought death to his own family, information which sends Mosca running away screaming.
    • Now, the most hideous of the hideous. Dante is so freaked out by this next guy that only his good conscience allows him to talk about it.
    • Along comes a man, carrying something in his hands. Oh, it’s his head. Then headless man carries his head like a lantern, and upon reaching Dante, lifts it up so he can talk.
    • He challenges Dante to find anyone in Hell who suffers greater pain than he does.
    • With his (literally) disembodied voice, he identifies himself as Bertran de Born, the notorious man who turned Prince Henry against his father, King Henry II.
    • Such family strife is so bad that Dante compares it to Bertran of Achitophel who turned Absalom and David against one another.
    • Because he divided father from son, Bertran is forced to carry his own decapitated head. He calls this "the law of counter-penalty," known to Italian scholars as "contrapasso," (a Hugely Important Concept) but known best as the rule of what goes around, comes around.
  • Inferno Canto XXIX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers of Metals)

    • After seeing all these lamed, maimed, and decapitated people, Dante’s in a weepy mood. Or, as he puts it, he has "eyes inebriate" which technically means drunk.
    • Virgil doesn’t like tears. He tells Dante to get it together, especially since time is running short and this pouch alone is twenty-two miles across.
    • Dante stands his ground, though. That was unexpected, seeing how Dante’s usually subservient to Virgil.
    • Dante is forced to keep walking when Virgil shows no sign of stopping and explains as they go.
    • What he saw that made him cry so much was a soul from his own family.
    • Virgil is pitiless, telling Dante to forget about him. Then he reveals a little known fact. As Dante was talking to Bertran de Born, Virgil noticed Dante’s kinsmen atop the bridge, a man named Geri del Bello, pointing at Dante and screaming curses at him. After a while, he got tired of being ignored and skulked away.
    • Surprisingly, Dante still defends Geri. We learn that Geri was violently killed in a feud between the Aligheris and the Sachettis. Because his death has not been avenged, he’s angry at Dante. But this only makes Dante feel sorry for him.
    • They walk and talk, crossing the bridge into the last pouch. At the top, they can see all the sinners but Dante’s more worried about the sounds than the sights.
    • He claps his hands over his ears to keep out all the tortured screaming.
    • There’s so much clamor from people in pain that Dante compares the scene to famous hospitals all over medieval Italy, because of the stench as well as the noise. Imagine the stink emanating from thousands of festering bodies.
    • So Dante and Virgil climb down the final bank, keeping to the leftmost path.
    • At the bottom, Dante sees the falsifiers that "unerring Justice" punishes. He compares the site to the myth of Aegina. To put it succinctly, Aegina was a pretty nymph who caught Jupiter’s eye. He raped her. Juno (Jupiter’s wife) got jealous and infested Aegina’s island with a pestilence that wiped out everyone. Later, Jupiter felt bad for what he’d done so he repopulated the island by turning all the ants into people.
    • The point is that there’s more suffering here in the ninth pouch of Hell than there was on Aegina.
    • Basically, everyone here is afflicted with some horrible disease.
    • Dante runs across two sinners propped up against each other. He compares them to two pans stacked on top of each other.
    • The two sinners are attacking each other with their claws. Then, because Dante likes metaphors, he compares their fighting to a disgruntled stable-boy left to work the midnight shift and taking his frustration out on his horse… by attacking its coat with a currycomb.
    • In case you didn’t get that, he throws another metaphor at you: the two sinners attack each other just like a kitchen knife scrapes the scales off a fish.
    • Virgil addresses the two combatants in his majestic way: "O you who use your nails to strip yourself…" (Yes, Virgil has a way of endearing himself to his listeners.) He asks them if there are any Italians here.
    • The answer, of course, is yes. These two are Italian. And they… like everyone else in Hell… want to know who he is.
    • You know the routine by now. I’m-leading-this-live-man-down-through-the-circles-of-Hell-and-no-you-can’t-hurt-him-so-take-that explanation.
    • So this throws the spotlight on Dante; all the sinners peer at him with arched eyebrows and Virgil nudges him forward to make his speech.
    • We’re in familiar territory again. Dante persuades the sinners to identify themselves by promising to make them famous once he gets back to the living world. Except now he’s as tired of the same old rut as we are so he adds an ironic twist: please, don’t let your "vile and filthy torment / make you afraid to let me know your names."
    • So the first sinner tells us he cheesed off the Bishop of Siena by telling his buddy that he could teach him to fly. Since this obviously didn’t happen, the pal got mad. That wasn’t what got him to Hell. That just got him in trouble with the Bishop, who then discovered he practiced alchemy. That’s what got him burned at the stake. Which is why Minos’ tail indicated the eighth circle.
    • We discover this alchemist’s name is Griffolino.
    • Dante sneers down at Griffolino and calls the Sienese the vainest people ever.
    • Before Griffolino can protest, another sinner jumps in, agreeing with Dante and promptly naming off three more pompous Sienese noblemen.
    • Having put himself in Dante’s good graces, the sinner proceeds to identify himself rather proudly as Capocchio, an alchemist renowned for creating credible imitations of precious metals.
    • But the final irony is… Capocchio is Sienese too.
  • Inferno Canto XXX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Counterfeiters of Persons, Counterfeiters of Coins, Falsifiers of Words)

    • Because Dante opens this canto with two mythological references, let’s have a mini mythology lesson.
    • There once was a beautiful Theban princess named Semele whom Jupiter impregnated. Finding out, Jupiter’s wife Juno goes berserk with jealousy and drives Semele’s brother-in-law, Athamas, insane. Athamas sees his wife and children, thinks they’re lions, and kills one son. Meanwhile, his wife Ino grabs the other son and commits double suicide.
    • Mythology lesson #2: After Troy falls to the Greeks in the Trojan war, Queen Hecuba of Troy goes wild with despair after seeing her daughter Polyxena sacrificed and her son Polydorus murdered. Her overwhelming grief causes her to howl out like a dog.
    • Point is, Dante references both these myths in a double set of epic similes. Neither Semele’s nor Hecuba’s situation can be matched in cruelty with what the next pair of sinners does to one another.
    • The two aforementioned shades run about raging like wild hogs. One sprints over to Capocchio and sinks his teeth into his neck.
    • Griffolino, still here from the last canto, tells Dante that the guy is Gianni Schicchi, whose crime is impersonation. In his friend’s will, Gianni wrote himself in as someone else just so that he could inherit his late friend’s best horse.
    • Then Dante asks about another sinner and Griffolino identifies her as well.
    • She’s Myrrha, a princess who fell in love with her father and impersonated another woman to sleep with him.
    • After these two falsifiers of persons pass by, Dante turns to survey the rest.
    • He sees a man who’s been twisted into the shape of a lute, has the flesh of the face rotting off, and is bloated by a disease called dropsy. This horribly deformed sinner can still speak and identifies himself as Master Adam.
    • Master Adam's punishment is constantly craving a drink of water. He’s tortured by thoughts of his hometown’s river, the Arno, flowing past nice moist green hills. Turns out, this is the place where he committed his sin, counterfeiting coins in Romena.
    • But Master Adam’s biggest concern is not getting a drink, but finding Guido II so he can take his revenge. He’s heard through Hell’s grapevine that Guido is already amongst them and says he’d gladly cross the eleven-mile diameter of this pouch to find him. It was Guido who first convinced Master Adam to counterfeit his coins.
    • Dante changes the subject. He asks who those two sinners are sitting beside Master Adam and, oh, whose bodies happen to be smoking.
    • Master Adam yawns and introduces them to Potiphar’s wife (who falsely accused Joseph of raping her) and Sinon of the Greeks, who tricked the Trojans into taking the Trojan horse inside their city walls. Both are afflicted by a fever so fierce that it makes their skin smoke. (Note: both of them are falsifiers of words.)
    • Sinon, who hears himself being insulted, reaches out to slap Master Adam on the belly. Which, remember, is bloated.
    • This gives off a sound like a drum.
    • So Master Adam strikes back, slapping Sinon in the face.
    • Now begins the verbal abuse: Well, you told lies at Troy. Oh yeah? Well, you made coins that were worthless. At least I’m only here for one crime. You jerk! What about the Trojan horse? May you be plagued your whole life. Well, may you never get a drink of water! Well, may your fever burn you up!
    • Everyone, Dante included, is fascinated by this game of one-upmanship when Virgil comes and spoils everything.
    • He conks Dante on the head and warns him to stop watching this utterly shameful and wholly pointless argument.
    • Dante duly hangs his head in shame and wants to apologize so much that Virgil takes Dante under his arm, forgives him, and gently tells him that such "bickering is base."
    • Then they fall asleep.
  • Inferno Canto XXXI (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers)

    • Dante decides to talk about Virgil’s tongue.
    • He compares Virgil’s tongue to Achilles’ lance, which has the power to heal any wound it inflicts simply by touching it again. Similarly, Virgil’s tongue and, by extension, his words, have the power to hurt (as we just saw), but also the power to heal.
    • Having reconciled their love for each other, they continue up the bank towards the ninth and final circle.
    • Trouble is, it’s dark and they can’t see where they’re going.
    • Fortunately they still have a sense of hearing. Of which fact they’re brutally reminded when they’re deafened by a bugle’s blast.
    • It’s such a scary sound that Dante compares it to Roland’s horn, which sounded at the defeat of the unconquerable Charlemagne.
    • Apparently, horn riffs can cure blindness because Dante suddenly makes out the shapes of hundreds of high towers in the distance. Here’s his thought process: high towers = city. Let’s ask Virgil exactly what city.
    • And in his cryptic way, Virgil says, "You’ll see clearly once we’re out of the shadows. So move faster! Now!"
    • Then, Virgil has a change of mind and fesses up. He admits that those "towers" in the distance aren’t really buildings, but giants trapped in the central pit of Hell. But because they’re so supernaturally tall, their torsos can be seen here, while their legs are embedded in the banks of the final circle.
    • Having made this discovery, Dante suddenly becomes afraid. The closer he gets to Giant City, the more his fear grows.
    • As one fearsome giant comes into view, Dante blesses Nature for stopping further procreation of these creatures (because, in Greek mythology, Earth was the giants’ mother) and for depriving Mars (god of war) of the very first WMDs.
    • From Dante’s perspective, the giant’s face is as large as St. Peter’s pine cone (we kid you not), which really makes no sense unless you actually know what that is. Turns out, it’s a giant ornamental pinecone used to decorate first the Roman Pantheon, then St. Peter’s Basilica, and later the Vatican itself. Point is, the pine cone is big.
    • Back to the description of the giant. He’s so big that the bank which encases his legs looks like an apron. To give us some perspective on how tall just his torso is, we’re told that not even three Frieslanders stacked on top of each other could reach his head.
    • Suddenly, he speaks: "Raphel mai amecche zabi almi." (No, it makes no sense in Italian either.)
    • Virgil responds with an emphatic medieval version of "Shut up!"
    • Then, since Dante is bewildered at his master’s meanness, Virgil explains to him who the giant is: Nimrod.
    • Nimrod was a king in Babylon, responsible for the building of the Tower of Babel, a doomed project which ended up with God smiting down the tower, breaking up man’s single language into thousands of unintelligible ones, and then condemning Nimrod to Hell.
    • Virgil continues. For the division of all men’s languages, leading in turn to the division of all men into different nations and races, Nimrod deserves all the punishment he receives in Hell. This, of course, includes depriving him of his own language so that nobody can understand him.
    • Our heroes turn left and continue down until they come to another giant, far larger and fiercer than Nimrod.
    • Dante can’t identify this giant, but sees only that he’s in restraints. As in chained and tied and arms bent behind him.
    • Our guide Virgil recognizes this giant as Ephialtes, who challenged the gods way back when. And obviously lost. For taking up arms against the gods, Ephialtes’s arms are now immobilized.
    • By now, Dante is tired of Virgil lecturing to him and decides to show his own knowledge of giants. He asks Virgil when they can see Briareus, another of the giants who challenged the gods.
    • To which, Virgil answers: "We’ll see Anteaus soon. Oh, and Anteaus will take us to the bottom."
    • Finally, Virgil addresses Dante’s question, saying that Briareus is still far ahead. And really, really scary.
    • At his comrade’s name, Ephialtes shakes himself, trying to get out of his chains. This causes an earthquake and now Dante’s really sorry he mentioned the name.
    • They walk on, unharmed, until they reach Antaeus.
    • From Virgil’s fancy address, we learn where Antaeus lived (the valley of Bagradas river), what he ate (lions!), and what he’s like (had he been born in the time of Ephialtes, the giants would’ve won the war against the gods).
    • But despite all this, Virgil puts their lives in his hands and asks him politely to deposit them down below.
    • And then Virgil offers him something in return: Dante’s words of praise. Like everyone else in Hell, Antaeus wants worldwide fame.
    • Apparently, that’s all it takes, because Antaeus stretches out his hands eagerly and picks up Virgil.
    • Panicking just a little in the grip of a murderous giant, Virgil shouts to Dante to come here, so that he doesn’t lose him.
    • Dante approaches slowly because Antaeus reminds him of the tower of Garisenda, precariously tilted (like the tower of Pisa) and about to fall.
    • But he resigns himself and the giant proves surprisingly gentle, lowering them safely to the bottom.
    • Then, he rises, tall as a ship’s mast.
    • And so we reach the final circle.
  • Inferno Canto XXXII (the Ninth Circle, First Ring Caina: Traitors to their Kin, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to their Homeland or Party)

    • Dante finds that his words fail him again. He claims his verse does not have the phonetically harsh, "crude and scrannel" qualities fit to describe the evilest regions of Hell. Thus, he reluctantly writes on as he always has. All the while, of course, he’s humbling himself, calling his own language childish and inadequate.
    • To further show his humility, Dante invokes the Muses for a second time, praying to them to render his verse accurate and true.
    • As he and Virgil travel down, far below Antaeus’s feet, Dante suddenly hears a voice ordering him to watch where he walks, or he might step on the heads of his fellow brothers. Not something you’d hear out on your daily stroll.
    • So Dante looks down to find before him a frozen lake (the river Cocytus), iced over so thickly that it no longer even seems like water, but rather like glass.
    • The ice is so thick that, according to Dante, if a mountain were to fall on it, the edges of the lake wouldn’t so much as creak.
    • Caught fast in ice up to their chins are the sinners, their teeth chattering from the cold.
    • They look so pathetic that Dante compares them to the frogs, wholly submerged in water except for their muzzles.
    • Dante notes that they all keep their heads bent down, while cursing the cold.
    • As Dante is sightseeing, he notices two sinners whose heads are so close together that their hair intermingles.
    • But Dante is not quite so shy and asks them directly who they are.
    • The two must bend their necks back to look up at Dante. But just when we expect them to speak, we find that they’ve been crying and that the cold has frozen their mouths shut. Instead of speaking, they only butt heads.
    • Another sinner speaks up and helpfully identifies the twins as the Bisenzio brothers, who killed each other over politics.
    • The speaker condemns them as the souls most worthy for this punishment in Caina, even more so than Mordred (who betrayed his father, King Arthur), Foccaccia (no not the bread, but a guy who killed his cousin), and Sassol Mascheroni (who also killed a relative, but more importantly has a big head that blocks the speaker’s view).
    • Then, after naming everyone else’s crimes, the speaker identifies himself as Camiscione dei Pazzi, a Ghibelline famous for killing a kinsman for political power. He attempts to make his crime seem less heinous by highlighting the evil of his kinsman’s sin.
    • These are but a few of the sinners whom Dante sees; there are thousands, made "doglike" or bestial by the harsh cold.
    • As our heroes continue onwards, Dante—either accidentally or by destiny—kicks a sinners’ head smack dab in the face.
    • Immediately, the sinner starts cursing and saying, "Why’d you kick me so hard? Are you here to revenge Montaperti?"
    • Our patient Dante politely asks Virgil to stop for moment while he clears up a misunderstanding.
    • He then goes on to roughly ask the cursing sinner who he is.
    • Instead of answering, the sinner replies with a mirroring question, asking who Dante is that he thinks he can just go around kicking poor people, as if he were alive.
    • Predictably, Dante answers haughtily "I am alive and, even better, I can give you lasting fame in the mortal world."
    • But, unpredictably, the sinner wants nothing of the kind; he only wants to be left alone, instead of bearing this pointless flattery.
    • Suddenly, Dante snaps. Just loses it. He grabs the sinner by the nape of the neck and screams at him to identify himself or else Dante will keep pulling until he’s lost all his hair.
    • But in vain. The sinner is not impressed or intimidated.
    • So Dante actually goes through with his threat, pulling out the sinner’s hair in handfuls and making the poor guy scream in pain until another irritable sinner shouts for Bocca to shut his trap. (Ah, now we know his name.)
    • Dante threatens the sullen sinner, saying that because he has been so uncooperative, Dante will slander his reputation up in the living world.
    • Bocca (degli Abati) still doesn’t care. Only he wants Dante to mention the shame of his fellow sinners—Buoso da Duera, Beccheria, Gianni dei Soldanieri, Ganelon, and Tebaldello—all traitors to their country or party.
    • After they leave the indefatigable Bocca, Dante comes across a truly gruesome sight: two sinners submerged close together, so close that one’s head rears over the other’s, actually chewing it.
    • Dante, with a touch of black humor, describes the upper head as the lower one’s hat, and its chewing as that of a person eating his daily bread.
    • In still another simile, Dante compares the sinner’s gnawing to that of Tydeus’s mad fit when he bit his enemy Menalippus’s skull after killing him.
    • Curious as always, Dante asks the sinner to explain why he’s eating another person. As incentive, Dante promises to bring word of him back to the mortal realm so long as his tongue doesn’t dry up and the sinner’s tale reveals that he’s right for chewing on another person.
    • Let the challenge begin.
  • Inferno Canto XXXIII (the Ninth Circle, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to the Homeland or Party, Third Ring Ptolomea: Traitors against their Guests)

    • The hungry sinner raises his mouth from the bleeding skull, wipes his lips on his victim’s hair, and begins to speak.
    • He says that reliving his story causes him pain. But if it’ll shed light on the truly nasty nature of his betrayer, he’ll be happy to talk. And cry. At the same time.
    • He tells Dante he doesn’t know who Dante is, but according to his accent, he sounds Florentine.
    • Finally, he starts his story. His name, by the way, is Count Ugolino—which already sounds like a sinister name—and his meal here is named Archbishop Ruggieri.
    • We find out Ugolino isn’t a very good storyteller because he ruins the ending before even beginning. So it seems this Archbishop tricked him into something and later killed him. According to Ugolino, this is common knowledge.
    • But what people don’t know is just how cruel and premeditated his murder was.
    • Here's Ugolino's story:
    • As a magistrate of Pisa, Ugolino is forced into some tough decisions. One of them is ceding three of Pisa’s fortresses to hostile neighboring cities, a move which many consider a betrayal.
    • Later, political reasons force Ugolino to be exiled from Pisa. Then the trap is set and the two-timing Archbishop Ruggieri invites Ugolino back into the city, and then betrays him.
    • Ugolino is locked away in a Pisan tower (no, not the leaning one) called the Eagles’ Tower, but— after his death—known by the nickname of the Hunger Tower.
    • Well, our Count is locked away there for "several moons" when he has a dream. And because dreams suddenly become important when you’re scared and hungry, this is what happens:
    • Archbishop Ruggieri appears as a lord and master of the hunt, riding with his allies Gualandi, Sismondi, and Lanfranchi (all Ghibelline families) and hunting down a lone wolf and his poor pups from a Pisan mountain with a bunch of hounds. After only a short flight, both father and son wolves are attacked by the hounds. The wolves represent Ugolino and his sons.
    • When Ugolino wakes up in the morning, he hears his sons (yes, who are there with him) crying in their sleep and begging for some bread.
    • Here, Ugolino stops his story to ask for Dante’s pity, telling him he should already be crying at his sad plight.
    • Back to the story. As the day goes on, the boys expect the food that is usually brought to them.
    • But instead of food comes the sound of people nailing up the doors of the tower.
    • Upon hearing his doom, Ugolino turns silently to his sons. He’s curiously quiet; he doesn’t cry, doesn’t say a word, and inside he "turned to stone."
    • But his four sons cry and little Anselm asks his father what’s wrong. But Ugolino doesn’t answer and he refuses to speak or weep the whole day and night.
    • When the first ray of the new dawn touches him, Ugolino sees his sorry self reflected in his sons’ gazes. He can’t take it anymore and snaps; he starts biting his hands out of grief.
    • His sons mistake his behavior for hunger and tell him, heartbreakingly, that it would be better if their good father ate them instead. Their reasoning? "You clothed us, father, in our miserable flesh [a.k.a. gave birth to us], so you should be able to strip us down too."
    • At this, Ugolino grows calm and falls silent for the next two days. Notice that he doesn't say anything to comfort his kids.
    • On the fourth day, Gaddo (a son) throws himself at his father’s feet, begging for help. Then he dies.
    • Throughout the next two days, the remaining three sons resign themselves to the same fate, and Ugolino goes blind. But he’s still silent.
    • Finally, after all his sons are dead, he gropes around blindly. In the moment of truth, he breaks his silence, calling after his sons. They’re dead.
    • He ends his story with a really cryptic line: "then fasting had more force than grief." Which could mean that a) he kept not eating despite his grief or b) he ate his dead sons.
    • Back in the present: Ugolino goes wild with grief and bites down on Ruggieri’s skull again.
    • Dante is as horrified as we are, but he expresses it rather differently. He curses Pisa, wishing that the neighboring islands of Caprara and Gorgona would dam up the river Arno so that all Pisan citizens would drown.
    • So goes his thought process: even if Ugolino were guilty enough to deserve death by starvation, his sons were innocent. It’s so unfair..
    • They move on, passing into the third ring, where they find sinners, not bent in the ice, but lying flat on it. It’s so cold there that they are not even allowed to weep because their tears immediately freeze into a sort of "crystal visor" over their eyes.
    • Dante, too, is feeling the effects of the cold; he’s going numb.
    • But, against all odds, he feels a wind against his skin. Strange. So he asks Virgil about it. (Note: medieval thinkers assume that the heat of the sun causes wind, so in this cold dark place, Dante wouldn’t expect any wind.)
    • Virgil, in his maddeningly mysterious way, answers that Dante will soon see for himself the source of this wind.
    • Suddenly, one of the sinners cries out to them. He mistakes them for fellow sinners and implores them to remove the veil of frozen tears from his face, so he can have a moment of relief before his tears begin freezing again.
    • To which Dante replies that he’ll grant him this boon in exchange for the sinner’s name and story. Interestingly, Dante promises to do this on pain of banishing himself to Hell. Ooh.
    • So the sinner starts: his name is Fra Alberigo and he claims to have nurtured fruits in a bad garden, for which he’s now being punished. No, that doesn’t mean he’s a terrible horticulturist, but is symbolic for his crime. Alberigo invited his relatives over for dinner, then had them assassinated. The assassins’ signal? Fruit.
    • Alberigo claims that his punishment is too severe for his crime.
    • But Dante’s doing some math in his head and because things don’t add up, he asks Alberigo if he’s already dead. What an interesting question.
    • Alberigo answers that he doesn’t know. Because Ptolomea (this place) is special: it has the power to take a soul to Hell (via a demon) before the sinner has even died.
    • To illustrate his point, Alberigo points out the sinner behind him, a guy named Branca Doria.
    • Dante accuses Alberigo of lying because he knows that Branca Doria is still living.
    • But Alberigo insists that Branca’s been his neighbor for while, even before the other sinners Dante saw earlier arrived in Hell.
    • Here's the big question: how can a soul be in one place and the body in another? Here’s how it works, according to Alberigo: once a traitor commits a crime against his guest, a demon from Ptolomea possesses the sinner’s live body on earth and hurls the sinner’s soul down to Hell. So a demon-possessed Branca is still living on earth.
    • Now, Alberigo calls in his favor, asking Dante to relieve his eyes. But Dante refuses. Even after promising to do so on pain of eternal condemnation.
    • Dante is even proud of his refusal, calling it a "courtesy" to the sinner.
    • He proceeds to curse the Genoese (because apparently both Alberigo and Branca were from Genoa) as a people so corrupt that their souls can be in Hell while they’re still living.
  • Inferno Canto XXXIV (the Ninth Circle, Fourth Ring Judecca: Traitors against their Benefactors)

    • "Vexilla Regis prodeunt inferni" opens the final canto. It's Latin and means "the banners of the King of Hell draw closer."
    • Appropriately, these words are spoken by Virgil, who—as you know—is Roman and speaks Latin.
    • He tells Dante to keep his eyes peeled for the big cahuna, Lucifer himself.
    • So our hero strains his eyes through the darkness to glimpse something like a whirling windmill in the distance. It’s whirling because of that infernal wind. Remember that? Now, it’s so strong that Dante has to use Virgil as a windbreaker.
    • In this final region of Hell, all the sinners are completely submerged in ice. Dante can see them frozen in all their funny positions beneath him.
    • Virgil, deciding to milk Dante’s awe for all it’s worth, stops to announce that this is Dis. And Dante will have to be brave.
    • Dante now turns to his reader and tells us how he froze with fear, to the point where he almost couldn’t write.
    • He tries to convey what it feels like to be there: "I did not die, and I was not alive."
    • He now witnesses Lucifer in all his glory. "Glory" meaning size. Lucifer is BIG. So big that Dante claims he himself is closer in size to a giant than a giant is to Lucifer. Big beyond imagination.
    • Dante wonders how Lucifer could possibly have been beautiful once… because he’s nauseatingly ugly now.
    • Observe: Lucifer has three heads—one blood red, one yellow, one black. Underneath each head flap, a pair of enormous bat-like wings. Bingo! This is the source of the freezing wind.
    • Out of his six eyes, Lucifer is crying. His tears fall into his three mouths which are chewing a bloody pulp.
    • Lucifer’s favorite snack? Sinners. Namely traitors to their benefactors. In the central mouth is a man clawing at the air in his agony because his back is completely stripped of skin.
    • Virgil interjects that this is Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Jesus.
    • Virgil continues: the man in the black mouth is Brutus, who betrayed Julius Caesar.
    • Brutus writhes in pain but keeps silent.
    • The last sinner being eaten is Cassius, who also betrayed Caesar.
    • It’s time to go. That’s it, folks, says Virgil. He seems in quite a hurry to leave.
    • But it’s not easy to leave Hell. It requires Dante to jump on Virgil’s back and hold on for dear life as Virgil times his jump, leaps onto Lucifer, and rappels down using the devil’s hairy hide as ropes.
    • When they reach Lucifer’s unmentionables, Virgil switches it up. Instead of climbing down, he turns around and begins to climb up Lucifer’s legs.
    • Dante freaks out because he thinks Virgil’s lost his mind and is taking them back to Hell.
    • But Virgil, panting, reassures him. They are indeed leaving the Inferno.
    • Because Virgil isn’t in great shape, he drops Dante off on a rocky crevice for a moment. As he’s catching his breath.
    • Dante leans out to look back up toward Lucifer’s torso, but the world has turned upside down; instead of Lucifer’s chest, he sees Lucifer’s legs.
    • Virgil irritably snaps at Dante to get up and get going because they’ve got a long way to go and it’s getting late. They start walking.
    • As they go, Dante finally asks the question that’s on all of our minds. What just happened? Why are we suddenly upside-down but actually right-side up? And what time is it?
    • Virgil, rolling his eyes at Dante’s questions, explains that they’re no longer in the northern hemisphere. When they passed Lucifer’s privates, gravity reversed itself (so Virgil had to turn around to keep going the same direction), and now they are right under Jerusalem, where Christ died.
    • (Note: medieval thinkers thought that Lucifer’s body spanned the diameter of the earth.)
    • Virgil goes on to explain the time of day, which also was switched around. When in the northern hemisphere it’s morning, it’s evening in the southern hemisphere. So it’s now dawn here.
    • Virgil just gives us information we might need later: here, in the southern hemisphere, there’s nothing but ocean. You know why, Dante? Because when Lucifer fell from Heaven, he fell into the southern hemisphere before lodging inside the earth. All the land there got so scared of him that they all picked up their landy legs and ran to the northern hemisphere, leaving only water behind.
    • Dante has stopped listening in favor of exploring his surroundings.
    • He finds that he and Virgil are in a cave with a burbling stream in it (the Lethe). To his delight, the slope is nice and easy.
    • So our dynamic duo heroically follows this stream back to the surface of the world, not stopping to rest.
    • They emerge under God’s great sky to see the stars.
    • Having literally gone to Hell and back, Inferno ends.