David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO, Cantos 25-31 — A Retelling

Chapter 25: The Transformations of Thieves

After Vanni Fucci had made his prophecy, he formed his hands to make obscene gestures, and then he raised them in the air and shouted, “These are for you, God!”

Dante thought, Every snake here is my friend because they punish sinners such as Vanni Fucci.

Good, Virgil thought. Dante is feeling righteous indignation. He realizes that Vanni Fucci ought to be punished severely.

A snake immediately coiled itself around Vanni Fucci’s neck and stopped him from saying anything more. Another snake bound his arms together in front.

Vanni Fucci’s hometown, Pistoia, might as well destroy itself, Dante thought. Its founders were criminals — the remains of Catiline’s army, which tried to end the Roman republic before its time. But its descendants have done more damage than its founders ever did. No sinner I have seen in the Inferno is haughtier than Vanni Fucci — not even Capaneus the blasphemer.

Unable to speak now, Vanni Fucci fled, and a Centaur appeared. On his back were an enormous number of snakes and a fire-breathing dragon.

Virgil said to Dante, “This Centaur is named Cacus. He is not with the other Centaurs who guard the river of boiling blood because he is a thief. He stole Hercules’ cattle and dragged them by the tails into his cave so that their hoof prints would lead in the other direction, away from the cave. One of the cattle lowed, Hercules heard the sound, and he came running to the cave. Cacus barred the doorway, but Hercules tore off the top of the mountain and hurled down boulders to kill Cacus.”

Cacus galloped off to find and punish Vanni Fucci, and Dante saw three sinners whom he had not noticed before. They had seen Dante and Virgil first, and they asked, “Who are you?”

Before Dante and Virgil could answer, one of the sinners asked, “Where is Cianfa?”

Dante remained silent, and he motioned for Virgil to also remain silent.

Then they saw something incredible. A six-legged reptile jumped onto a sinner, and the reptile bit both of the sinner’s cheeks. The reptile’s front legs grabbed the sinner’s arms, the reptile’s middle legs grabbed the sinner’s stomach, and the reptile’s rear legs grabbed the sinner’s legs. Then the two beings transformed into one being.

The two beings melted and flowed together, and a watching sinner shouted, “Agnèl, you are changing! You are not what you were!”

Transformed into one reptile, the two beings who were now one being walked away.

A small four-legged reptile then bit one of the remaining two thieves. The thief and the four-legged reptile stared at each other, and then they transformed in a way that neither Lucan nor Ovid had ever written about. They wrote about single transformations — one thing turning into another — but what Dante and Virgil now saw was a double transformation: The four-legged reptile transformed into a human thief, and the human thief transformed into a four-legged reptile. The four-legged reptile had stolen the human thief’s form.

This is another contrapasso, Virgil thought. In the living world, the thieves stole things that belonged to other people, and in this bolgia the only thing the naked thieves have — their identity — is stolen by other thieves. The snakes and legged reptiles here are thieves, and the only way for a snake or legged reptile to regain a human form is to steal it from another thief.

When a snake or legged reptile bites or wraps itself around a thief, one of three things can happen:

One, the thief can be consumed by fire and reduced to ashes, then be refashioned into his own form again (much like the mythical bird known as the Phoenix is consumed by fire, then is reconstituted as a young bird again),

Two, the thief and the snake or legged reptile can unite into one body, or

Three, the thief can become a snake or legged reptile, while the snake or legged reptile becomes a thief with a human form.

Thieves create a lot of uncertainty. You may think that you have something, but you discover that someone has stolen that thing. In a neighborhood where thieves constantly prey, you can never be sure that something you own will stay in your possession. Similarly, the thieves are never sure what will happen when a snake or legged reptile bites a thief.

In addition, the thieves used their limbs to steal from other people and to run away, and now they often become an armless, legless snake.

After regaining his human form, the thief who had been a four-legged reptile said, “Let Buoso have my old form and run on four legs for a while.”

I recognize two of the thieves, Dante thought. One is Puccio Sciencato. Another is Francesco Cavalcanti, aka Guercio. The citizens of Gaville murdered him, and his relatives avenged his death by decimating — killing every 10th man — the population of Gaville.

Chapter 26: Evil Advisers; Ulysses/Diomedes

Florence, your name is well known in the Inferno, Dante thought. Among the thieves I found five of your most important citizens — and I know that trouble is coming for you.

Now Dante and Virgil climbed up from the vantage point from which they had been able to see into the bolgia of the thieves. Virgil went first, so that he could help pull Dante up the rough spots. In many places, they had to climb while using their hands as well as their feet.

And now they arrived at the eighth bolgia, a place where Dante learned to use his great talents in the service of good, not evil.

Looking into the eighth bolgia, Dante and Virgil saw many, many lights. They looked as numerous as fireflies on a hot summer evening. The lights were flames.

They looked at the flames, which traveled along the bolgia. Dante could not see what was inside the flames, but because he was in the Inferno, he knew that inside the flames were sinners. Similarly, when Elisha witnessed Elijah traveling to Heaven in a fiery chariot, he could see the shining of the chariot in the distance, but not who was in it.

Dante leaned over the bridge so that he could see into the bolgia, and Virgil explained, “Inside the flames are sinners. Burning is part of their punishment.”

Dante replied, “I had guessed that already, but I am glad to hear you confirm what I guessed.

“Can you tell who is in the flame whose tip on top is split in two, just like the flame of the pyre on which Eteocles and Polynices, his brother, were burned?”

Eteocles and Polynices were two brothers who agreed to take turns ruling the city of Thebes, Virgil thought. One brother was supposed to rule for a year, then the other brother would rule for a year, and so on. Eteocles ruled for the first year, but then he refused to give up the throne so that his brother could rule for a year. Angry, Polynices gathered an army together and marched against Thebes, creating the story of the Seven Against Thebes. The two brothers killed each other in combat, and when their corpses were cremated together, the flame split in two over their corpses because even in death they were still angry at each other.

“Inside are the souls of Ulysses and Diomedes, two Greek soldiers of the Trojan War,” Virgil replied. “Ulysses is also known as Odysseus, which is his Greek name, and Homer wrote in his Odyssey about Ulysses’ journeys and homecoming after the end of the Trojan War.

“The two warriors are entombed in the flame together because they are angry at each other. Just like Francesca da Rimini and Paolo are together in eternity as part of their punishment, so are Ulysses and Diomedes punished together in eternity.

“Inside the flame Ulysses and Diomedes grieve for three things. The first thing they grieve for is the trick of the Trojan Horse that led to the destruction of Troy and the founding of the Roman people.”

I wrote about the trick of the Trojan Horse and the founding of the Roman people in my Aeneid, Virgil thought. Other epic poets such as Homer also wrote about the Trojan War. Homer’s Iliad tells the story of events that occur before the Trojan Horse, and Homer’s Odyssey tells the story of events that occur after the Trojan Horse.

Ulysses came up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. The Trojan War had been fought for 10 years, and the forces of Agamemnon and the other Greeks had not been able to conquer Troy by might, and so Ulysses had the idea of using trickery to conquer Troy. The Greeks built a huge wooden horse and left it outside Troy, then they seemed to sail away in their ships and return home. However, the Trojan Horse was hollow and filled with Greek soldiers, including Ulysses and Diomedes, and the ships sailed behind an island so that the Trojans could not see them. A lying Greek named Sinon stayed behind and pretended that he had escaped from Ulysses, who had wanted to kill him. Sinon told the Trojans that if the Trojans were to take the Trojan Horse inside the walls of Troy, then Troy would never fall. Amid great rejoicing, the Trojans took the Trojan Horse inside the walls of Troy. That night, the Greek warriors came out of the Trojan Horse, went to the gates of Troy, killed the Trojan guards, and opened the gates of Troy. Agamemnon and his troops were outside the gates, as they had returned from hiding behind the island. The Greeks then conquered Troy, killing many, many Trojans, including Trojan women and children.

After Troy fell, Aeneas led the Trojan survivors to Italy, where the Trojan men married Italian women. Their descendants became the Romans.

“The second thing that they mourn is another trick — the trick that caused Deïdamia to weep over Achilles,” Virgil continued.

Both Ulysses and Diomedes were instrumental in making Deïdamia grieve, Virgil thought. Achilles was the major warrior for the Greeks in the Trojan War, and his mother, the immortal goddess Thetis, knew that he would die at Troy; therefore, she disguised him as a girl and took him to the court of King Lycomedes, where he pretended to be one of the king’s daughters. There, he seduced Deïdamia, who bore him a son. Ulysses and Diomedes came to the court of King Lycomedes looking for Achilles, and Ulysses was able to learn his identity through a trick. Ulysses, bringing gifts for the king’s daughters, brought a lance and shield with him — Achilles, dressed as a girl, was very interested in those weapons, thus revealing his sex.

Here Ulysses used his great intellect, but its use had bad consequences: One, Achilles killed many, many Trojans; two, Achilles died; and three, Deïdamia mourned him. This is an example of great but misdirected intellect.

“The third thing that they lament is the theft of the Palladium,” Virgil said.

The Palladium was a statue of the goddess Pallas Athena, aka Minerva, Virgil thought. As long as it remained in Troy, Troy would never fall. Ulysses and Diomedes snuck into Troy one night and carried off the Palladium. Here Ulysses and Diomedes used great daring and probably great intellect, and here once again bad consequences followed. As long as the Palladium stayed in Troy, Troy would not fall. By stealing the Palladium, Ulysses and Diomedes helped cause Troy to fall.

“Can they speak from within the flame?” Dante asked. “If they can, I would like to know their story.”

“You should hear their story,” Virgil replied, “But let me do the talking. You and I both are descendants of the Trojans, and for that reason they may not want to speak to us. However, since I am an epic poet and have told part of their stories in my Aeneid, that may be enough for one of them to talk to me.”

When the flame whose tip was divided in two came near the bridge on which Dante and Virgil were standing, Virgil said, “You — the two souls entombed in one flame — if I have deserved any praise from you while I was living, when I wrote my Aeneid, let one of you tell his story. What is your sin, and how did you die?”

The two tips of the flames were of unequal size. The larger of the tips began to move quicker, like a tongue that is talking, and words came out of the flame: “I am Ulysses, and when Troy fell I journeyed on the seas, and I spent a year with the goddess Circe, who turned my men into swine until I made her turn them back into men.

“I made my way back to Ithaca, but I did not stay there long, even though I had been away for 20 years. I spent 10 years at Troy, and it took an additional 10 years for me to return home to Ithaca. Not the duty I owed to my son, not the duty I owed to my father, not the duty I owed to my loving wife, Penelope, could keep me there. I wanted to seek out more adventures and more knowledge.”

Ulysses lacked the Roman virtue of pietas, Virgil thought. Pietas is giving respect where respect is owed: to one’s country, to one’s father, to one’s wife, and to one’s son. Ulysses had been away from Ithaca for 20 years, but quickly he grew bored and wanted to set out for adventures, leaving behind his father (Laertes), his wife (Penelope), and his son (Telemachus). These are people who suffered while Ulysses was away from his kingdom of Ithaca, and Ulysses ought to have stayed on Ithaca to take care of his family and his people. Instead, he placed his thirst for adventure ahead of his family and his kingdom. Pietas is a virtue that Aeneas, the hero of my Aeneid, had in abundance.

“I wanted adventure,” Ulysses continued, “and I wanted knowledge and experience — I wanted knowledge and experience of all human vices and of all human virtues.”

Part of what you wanted is good, Virgil thought. To want knowledge and experience of all human virtues is a very good thing. But part of what you wanted is very bad. You wanted knowledge and experience of all human vices. That is forbidden knowledge. No one should have the knowledge and experience of being a drug addict, a rapist, a murderer.

“I set sail with a small group of men — not many — who were loyal to me,” Ulysses continued. “We sailed the Mediterranean, and we came to the Pillars of Hercules. I wanted to sail beyond them.”

The Pillars of Hercules are also known as the Strait of Gibraltar, Virgil thought. Hercules split a mountain in two to form the Pillars of Hercules. This was a warning to pagan sailors not to go any further. Of course, what lies outside the Pillars of Hercules is the Atlantic Ocean, an ocean that was very dangerous for ancient ships to sail on. Any ancient ship that sailed west into the Atlantic Ocean would probably run out of food long before reaching land, and everyone on board would perish. By going beyond the limits set for ancient sailors, Ulysses was seeking forbidden knowledge.

“I was old and tired, and my men were old and tired,” Ulysses continued, “but I wanted to sail into the Atlantic Ocean. I told my men, ‘Brothers, we have had many adventures together. Let us have another great adventure. Do not deny yourselves anything. Experience everything. We are Greeks, and we were born to pursue knowledge and experience.’”

You scammed your men, Virgil thought. They should have returned to Ithaca, but you convinced them to sail out into the Atlantic Ocean for bad reasons.

“My men cheered, and we set sail into the Atlantic Ocean,” Ulysses continued. “Our voyage was mad, but we went. We made our way to the southern hemisphere, and we saw a mountain slope the likes of which I had never seen before. At first, we were happy to see the mountain, but a storm arose from the mountain. The wind crashed into our ship four times, and the fourth time the wind hit our ship, we sank. Above us, the sea grew calm.”

I know which mountain you saw, Virgil thought. It was the Mountain of Purgatory, and a pagan must have special permission from God to be on that mountain.

Dante, I hope that you are learning from Ulysses’ story. Here we have a man of great abilities, but he did not use his gifts in the correct way. Instead of using his gifts for good, he used them for evil — to seek knowledge and experience of all human vices. You, Dante, have great abilities. Do not misuse them, or you will end up in the Inferno forever.

Chapter 27: Guido da Montefeltro

The flame punishing the souls of Ulysses and Diomedes moved away, and another flame came toward Dante and Virgil, both of whom directed their attention toward this flame because of the roaring sounds that came from its tip.

These roaring sounds remind me of another roar, Virgil thought. Phalaris was a cruel ruler of the city Agrigentum in Sicily. He commissioned Perillus to construct a hollow bull of metal to be used as an instrument of torture. The victim would be placed inside the bull, and then the bull would be heated. As the victim roasted, the victim screamed. Phalaris ordered that the bull be constructed in such a way that the screams of the victims would sound like the bellowing of a bull.

After Perillus used his great abilities to construct the bull — something that he ought not to have done — Phalaris made him the first victim to be placed in the bull and roasted. This is poetic justice, and contrapasso is very much concerned with poetic justice. Additional poetic justice occurred when Phalaris was overthrown and also became a victim of the bull.

In this story, we see a person being punished for the misuse of great abilities, and of course, the sinners in this bolgia are being punished for that sin.

I know the story of Guido da Montefeltro, who is like Perillus. He sinned at the request of another person, and he pays for that sin.

The sinner inside the flame had recognized Virgil’s dialect and now spoke to him, “It has taken me a while to reach you. Please wait a while and speak to me. If you are a newcomer to Hell, can you tell me news of whether the inhabitants of Romagnol are at war? I come from that region.”

Virgil told Dante, “You speak to this sinner — he is Italian.”

Dante said to the sinner in the flame, “The leaders of Romagnol always have war in their hearts, but their country is not presently at war, although Romagnol has a troubled past.

“But who are you and what is your story? I did you a favor by answering your question, so do me a favor and answer my question. I can make your fame long-lasting in the Land of the Living.”

“If I thought that you would ever leave the Inferno, I would not answer your question,” the sinner in the flame answered, “but since I have heard that no one ever leaves here, I will answer your question.

“I am Guido da Montefeltro. I had two careers: First I was a soldier, and then I was a monk. I blame Pope Boniface VIII for my being in Hell. While I was alive, I was wily like a fox. I was shrewd and had great abilities. I was a warrior, but I was also known for trickery. I became world-famous.”

Guido is overstating his fame, Virgil thought. He was important regionally, but he was hardly famous throughout the world.

“When I grew old, I became concerned about the afterlife,” Guido continued. “I confessed my sins, and I became a Franciscan monk — it could have worked!”

It could have worked, you think, Virgil thought, but obviously it didn’t. You are in the Inferno. God does not make mistakes, so you are where you belong. You tried to scam God by becoming a Franciscan monk, but obviously it didn’t work. Repentant sinners don’t end up in the Inferno, so obviously you did not sincerely repent your sins.

“Pope Boniface VIII chose to make war on a family of Christians instead of making war on the Jews or the Muslims,” Guido continued. “Pope Boniface VIII became Pope when Pope Celestine V resigned, but the Colonna family did not believe that the resignation of Pope Celestine V was valid; therefore, the Colonna family opposed Pope Boniface VIII. Pope Boniface VIII ran into a problem. He was fighting the Colonna family, and the Colonna family was barricaded inside Palestrina, a fortified city at the top of a mountain in Italy. Because of the location of the fortified city, it was going to be very, very difficult to take.

“Pope Boniface VIII came to me to give him advice about how to conquer the Colonna family. I stayed silent — Benedictine monks ought to be concerned with peace, not war. They should not give advice about how to conquer Christians.

“Pope Boniface VIII then said to me, ‘Don’t worry about the fate of your soul. I am the Pope, and I have two keys. These keys will unlock the gates of Heaven. I tell you now that the sin you will commit by answering my question is forgiven.’”

Dante, pay attention, Virgil thought. Guido da Montefeltro was a scammer while he was alive, but in his story he is now being scammed by Pope Boniface VIII, who is still alive, but who will be damned to Hell when he dies. We know that he will be punished with the other Simonists in the third pocket of Circle 8. Pope Nicholas III, a sinner there, told us that.

“I was impressed by Pope Boniface VIII’s reasoning,” Guido continued. “I said to him, ‘Father, since you have assured me that my sin is forgiven, this is how you may conquer the Colonna family: Make a promise to them, but do not keep your promise.’”

Guido knew that he was sinning by offering this advice, Virgil thought. His advice to Pope Boniface VIII was to make promises, then not keep your promises — tell the Colonna family that you want to be friends and that you will give them what they want, and then when they come out of the fortified city, destroy the city so that the Colonna family no longer has this stronghold. In other words, arrange a truce, and then break the truce as soon as it is advantageous for you.

In fact, Pope Boniface VIII followed this advice. When the Colonna family left the fortified city, the Pope had it destroyed.

“When I died, Saint Francis came to escort my soul away from Hell,” Guido continued, “but one of the black Cherubim also came to get my soul. The fallen angel cried, ‘Don’t touch this soul! He is mine! Unrepentant sinners go to Hell! He must go down into the Inferno because he did not repent sincerely. A sin cannot be forgiven unless the sinner is repentant, and one cannot repent a sin at the same time that the sinner is committing it! The “repentance” is cancelled out by the deed! Examine my logic for flaws, and you will see that my logic has no flaws.’

“The fallen angel took me to Minos, who wrapped his tail around himself eight times and sent to this place of fire. And here I will stay forever.”

Guido spent his life scamming others, yet he did not recognize the scam when Pope Boniface VIII scammed him. He has lost the good of intellect, Virgil thought. In addition, Guido tried to scam God with a fake repentance. Obviously, that scam failed.

Ulysses also lost the good of intellect. He should have known that he should have stayed home with his family now that he was old and tired. He should have also realized that it is better not to experience and not to know some things. However, he went on a final voyage and got his men and himself killed.

Dante, we have spent a lot of time in this bolgia because you have something important to learn here. Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro are very intelligent people. Both felt a temptation to misuse their intelligence and their powers of persuasion. Both scammed other people.

As a very intelligent man, you, Dante, may feel the temptation to misuse your intelligence and your powers of persuasion. Here in the Inferno you need to learn not to do that. If you, Dante, misuse your great abilities, you can end up in the Inferno just like Ulysses, Diomedes, and Guido da Montefeltro.

The flame moved on, and Dante and Virgil continued their journey, moving on to the ninth bolgia, where the sowers of discord are punished.

Chapter 28: The Schismatics

And now Dante and Virgil saw a scene of bloodshed. Imagine the results of many bloody battles with a great number of casualties displaying the horrifying wounds of war: limbs cut off and torsos slit up the middle, and much blood flowing.

One such bloody battle was the Battle of Cannae. During the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed the Alps — with war elephants! — and invaded Italy. He had much early success in the war, although the Romans eventually won. One of Hannibal’s greatest successes was at the Battle of Cannae. So many Roman soldiers were killed that the Roman historian Livy related that the Carthaginian soldiers gathered three bushels of gold rings from the fingers of the dead Roman soldiers.

Such blood and carnage as could be seen at Cannae — and other battles — could be seen in the ninth bolgia of Circle 8 of the Inferno. Here the schismatics — the sowers of discord — were punished.

A schism is a break, Virgil thought. It is especially a break within a church, as in the future will occur between Catholics and Protestants, or as is the case now between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, or between Islam and Christianity. However, a schism can also occur in politics, as when rival, hate-filled political parties are formed, or within families, as when a son and a father hate each other. In the ninth bolgia, the sowers of religious discord, of political discord, and of familial discord are punished.

Dante and Virgil saw a sinner whose body was split open from his chin to his anus. His guts had spilled out, and Dante and Virgil could see his heart and his stomach and his intestines.

The sinner looked at Dante, opened up his chest, and said, “Look at how I am punished! I am Mahomet, aka Muhammad, and in front of me is Ali, who weeps. He is split from his chin to the top of the head. The sinners you see here are the schismatics. We walk this Circle, and a devil wielding a sword wounds us. By the time we have completed a round of the Circle, we are healed and the devil wounds us again. Because we caused divisions when we were alive, the devil causes divisions in us now that we are dead.”

Muhammad and Ali, the founders of Islam, caused a schism within the Christian Church by having Islam break away from Christianity, Dante thought. Because of this, these two schismatics are punished by being slit with a sword wielded by a devil.

Muhammad then asked Dante, “But who are you, and what is your story?”

Virgil answered for Dante, “He is not dead yet, and he has not been sentenced to this bolgia for sins committed in the Land of the Living. I am dead, and I am his guide. My purpose is to educate him by escorting him throughout the Inferno.”

Over 100 sinners in the ninth pocket stopped to look at Dante when they heard that he was still alive.

Muhammad said to Dante, “Since you are still alive, when you return to the Land of the Living, tell Fra Dolcino to stock up on food, or else he will lose his struggle and join me here in the Inferno.”

Fra Dolcino is a heretic who in 1307 will be burned at the stake, Virgil thought. Pope Clement V will oppose him, and Fra Dolcino will hide out in some hills near Novaro. He and his followers will run out of food, and the forces of the Pope will be able to capture him and burn him at the stake.

Another sinner with an ear and his nose cut off, and with his throat cut, said to Dante, “I have seen you when I was alive, unless I am deceived by your resemblance to someone else. If you return to the Land of the Living, remember Pier da Medicina, and tell Messer Guido and Angiolello that they will drown when they are tied in a sack and thrown into the water near Cattolica. A tyrant will murder them.”

Dante replied, “If you want me to carry your message back to the Land of the Living, tell me who is the sinner beside you.”

Pier da Medicina grabbed the jaws of the sinner beside him and opened them, revealing that the sinner’s tongue had been cut out. “This sinner is Curio, whose tongue is cut out each time he completes a journey around the Circle. Curio urged Julius Caesar — who is in Limbo — to cross the Rubicon River, thus starting civil war among the Romans. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, he said, ‘Thus the die is cast,’ meaning that there was no turning back now, as he had disobeyed the orders of the Roman Senate.”

Another sinner then showed Dante that his hands had been cut off. He raised the stumps of his blood-dripping arms in the air and said, “I am Mosca, who started the split of Florentines into rival Ghibelline and Guelf factions. Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti was engaged to be married to the daughter of Lambertuccio degli Amidei, but when a better offer came along — Aldruda, a member of the Donati family, offered him her daughter to be his bride — he took it. Although Aldruda offered to pay the expenses of the broken engagement, this was a major insult to my family, the family of the jilted bride, and I advised that Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti be killed. After he was killed, the two factions of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines began.”

“May all of your family be punished for the evil you have created,” Dante, a victim of the schism between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, said.

Good work, Dante, Virgil thought. The main thing for you to learn here in this pocket is to recognize the evil of extreme factionalism, and in your reply to Mosca you have shown that you have learned that.

Dante saw one more thing, a thing so incredible that he wondered whether anyone would believe it. He saw a man whose head had been cut off — the body was carrying the head like a lantern.

The sinner held up his severed head, and the severed head said, “I am Bertran de Born, and in the 12th century I urged Prince Henry of England to rebel against his father, who was King Henry II. Thus, I urged the son of a family to rebel against its head, and so my head is cut off each time I complete a journey around the Circle. My punishment is the perfect contrapasso.”

Chapter 29: The Falsifiers (Alchemists)

Dante kept looking at the sinners in the ninth bolgia, and Virgil said to him, “Why do you keep staring at these sinners more than you looked at other sinners? This Circle is 22 miles around, and you will not be able to see all the sinners here.”

Dante and Virgil moved toward the tenth bolgia, and Dante explained, “I was looking for someone in particular. A member of my family is most likely in that bolgia.”

“Think no longer of that member of your family,” Virgil replied. “You have other things to think of, and to see. I saw the man you are speaking of. His name is Geri del Bello, and I heard his name called out. You did not see him because you were busy looking at Bertran de Born, but Geri saw you and he was angry.”

“I know why he was angry,” Dante replied. “He was murdered at the hands of the Sacchetti family, and his murder has not been avenged. Geri del Bello wants me to murder a member of the Sacchetti family to avenge his death.”

Yes, Virgil thought, and if you avenge the death of Geri del Bello by killing a member of the Sacchetti family, then a member of the Sacchetti family will kill either you or a member of your family in retaliation, and the blood feud will continue. In addition, you will most likely end up in the Inferno when you die. I certainly hope that this trip through the Inferno is teaching you to avoid extreme factionalism.

Now Dante and Virgil reached the bridge over the last of the Malebolge. They looked down, and they saw many sinners who had been afflicted with illness. Imagine all the sick of all the hospitals in a sickness-infested country crammed into one ditch, and you can imagine what Dante and Virgil were seeing.

I have been here before, and I know what kind of sinners are being punished here, and why, Virgil thought. In the tenth and final bolgia are punished those who are falsifiers of various kinds. These sinners are punished with various illnesses. This is as it should be, for sin is a kind of illness or disease.

The alchemists have leprosy (the alchemists tried to change lead into gold, and now their skin turns from healthy to diseased). The evil impersonators are insane (the evil impersonators made other people confused about who the evil impersonators were; now the evil impersonators, who are insane, are confused about who they are). The counterfeiters — who made what they had bigger than it should be — have dropsy, aka edema (which makes part of their body swell up and be bigger than it should be). The liars — whose testimony stank — are feverous and stink.

All of these sinners are falsifiers. The alchemists are falsifiers of things. The evil impersonators are falsifiers of persons. The counterfeiters are falsifiers of money. The liars are falsifiers of words.

Dante marveled at the numbers of the sinners who were afflicted with illness. Some sinners were lying against or on other sinners. Some sinners crawled on their hands and knees. Many sinners did not have the strength to stand up.

Dante saw two sinners, each leaning against the other’s back. They were scratching themselves, trying to kill a never-ending itch. Their skin was covered with scabs, and as they scratched the scabs collected under their fingernails. No curry-comb was ever applied to a horse faster by a stable boy eager for bed than the sinners applied their fingernails to their bodies.

Virgil asked the two sinners, “Are any of the sinners here Italian?”

“Both of us are,” answered one of the sinners. “But who are you?”

“I am the guide of this living man,” Virgil replied. “My purpose is to show him all the Circles of the Inferno.”

Both sinners turned to look at Dante, and Virgil said to Dante, “Ask them whatever you wish.”

“So that I may keep your memory from fading away in the Land of the Living,” Dante said, “tell me who you are and where you are from.”

One of the sinners said, “I am Griffolino da Arezzo, and I told a bishop’s son that I could teach him to fly, so that then he could fly through the window of any woman. The bishop’s son, whose name was Alberto da Siena, paid me well to teach him how to fly, but of course I could not deliver on my promise; therefore, Alberto reported me to the authorities as a magician, and I was burned at the stake. Of course, this makes me guilty of fraud, but I am punished in the tenth bolgia of Circle 8 of the Inferno for another kind of fraud — that of being an alchemist. Minos sent me here, and Minos cannot err.”

Alchemy is a bastard form of chemistry, Virgil thought. Alchemy is the study of how to turn base metals into gold; for example, an alchemist would love to turn iron, which is cheap, into gold, which is expensive. Alchemists, of course, are guilty of fraud. They get money from other people whom they trick.

“No people are as silly as the Sienese,” Dante said to Virgil.

Capocchio, who had been burned at the stake for alchemy, was the second of the two sinners. Dante had known him when he was alive and they both were students, and then as now Capocchio delighted in mocking the silly Sienese.

Capocchio said to Dante, “Remember the Spendthrifts’ Brigade — a club of wealthy Sienese who deliberately wasted their fortunes. One member of the Spendthrifts’ Brigade was Niccolo de’ Salimbeni. He introduced the use of very expensive cloves to Siena, and he used to set a bed of cloves on fire and roast pheasants over them.

“Dante, if you look closely at me, you will recognize me.”

Chapter 30: The Falsifiers (Evil Impersonators, Counterfeiters, and Liars)

The ancient world knew what insanity was.

Juno, the wife of Jupiter, was often jealous, for her husband often gave her good reason to be often jealous. His affairs with other goddesses and with mortal women were many.

When Jupiter had sex with Semele, she bore him the god whose name is Dionysus, aka Bacchus. Hera pretended to become friends with Semele, and she expressed doubt that the father of Semele’s child was actually Jupiter. Semele insisted that Jupiter reveal himself to her in his divine form, something that mortals are unable to look upon and live. Her request was insane, and she died, but Jupiter rescued the fetus that was inside her, and he sewed the fetus into his own thigh until the baby was ready to be born. This is why Dionysus is known as “twice-born.”

Juno also made insane King Athamas, the husband of Ino, Semele’s sister. Ino, the Queen of Thebes, had made Juno angry by raising Dionysus, who was Ino’s nephew and Jupiter’s son. After Juno drove King Athamas insane, he saw his wife coming toward him with two sons — each of her arms held a son. He thought that she was a lioness and his two sons were lion cubs, and he wanted to kill them. He grabbed one son, whose name was Learchus, and dashed his brain out against a rock. His wife drowned herself and her other son.

Another example of insanity from the ancient world was that of the aged Hecuba, Queen of Troy. For many years, she was happily married to Priam, King of Troy, but Troy was fated to fall, and at the end of her long life, she suffered much misfortune. She saw the great Greek warrior Achilles kill her son Hector, the main defender of Troy. During the fall of Troy, she saw Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, kill her husband, Priam, at the altar of Jupiter. After Troy fell, Hector’s son, Astyanax, was thrown from the high walls of Troy and killed. Hecuba and the other women and children of Troy were made slaves. One of her daughters, Polyxena, was sacrificed on the grave of Achilles, and one of her sons, Polydorus, who had been sent away from Troy to Thrace so that the royal bloodline would continue even if Troy were to fall, was murdered for the treasure he had. Hecuba saw the unburied corpse of this son in Thrace. Because the corpse was unburied, her son’s soul could not enter the Land of the Dead. To be unable to enter the Land of the Dead is a horrible fate for a soul. All of this suffering took away Hecuba’s reason, and she became insane.

Two sinners whom Dante saw in the tenth bolgia of Circle 8 were insane. They were so driven to do acts of horror to the other sinners that no stories of insanity from the ancient world could match what these two sinners in the Inferno did. One insane sinner used his teeth to grab Capocchio by the neck and carry him off.

Griffolino d’Arezzo said, “The insane sinner who grabbed Capocchio by the neck and carried him off was named Gianni Schicchi. He has rabies, and he bites all of us.”

Gianni Schicchi is an evil impersonator, Virgil thought. He had acting ability and he could imitate well the voices of other people, so Simone Donati, the son of a wealthy Florentine patriarch named Buoso Donati, hired him after the patriarch died because he was afraid that the patriarch had left much wealth outside of the family and he wanted Gianni Schicchi to dictate a new will that would leave the wealth to the family. Gianni Schicchi did dictate a new will, but he stated (while pretending to be the dying patriarch) that he wanted a lot of the wealth, including a very valuable mare, to go to Gianni Schicchi.

“Who is the other insane sinner?” Dante asked Griffolino d’Arezzo.

“She is named Myrrha, and she is another evil impersonator. She fell in love with her own father, pretended to be someone else, and slept with him.

“While they were alive, the evil impersonators made people confused about who they were; now that they are dead, the evil impersonators are insane and are themselves confused about who they are.”

Dante then looked at the other sinners in the bolgia. He saw a sinner so afflicted with dropsy, which makes parts of the body swell up, that had his arms and legs been cut off, he would have resembled a lute, a musical instrument that is shaped like a pear. The sinner’s belly was enormous, in comparison with which his face was tiny. His mouth was open, in the manner of a person with a raging thirst and parched lips.

“You there,” the sinner said, “you who are not being punished here — why, I do not know — look at me and know that my name is Master Adamo. In life, I was rich and I had everything I wanted. In death, I would love to have even one drop of water. In my mind I picture the streams of water in my homeland, and this tortures me even more than my dropsy does.

“In life, I was a counterfeiter. Gold florins are supposed to be made with 24 carats of gold, but the gold florins I made had 21 carats of gold and three carats of a less valuable metal. I would love to see my employers down here in this bolgia with me. If it were possible for me to drag my body even one inch in 100 years, I would have already started on a journey around this Circle to find the one employer who is already supposed to be here and to find the others who will join him. I would have already started on this journey even though this Circle is 11 miles in length and a half-mile, at least, in width.

“As a counterfeiter, I made coins appear to be more valuable than they really were. Now my body is bigger than it should be.”

“Who are the two sinners next to you?” Dante asked Master Adamo.

“They were here already when I arrived,” Master Adamo replied. “One is Potiphar’s wife, who tried to seduce Joseph, who resisted her advances. She then bore false witness against him and said that he had tried to seduce her.

“The other sinner is Sinon, the lying Greek. His lies convinced the Trojans to take the Trojan Horse inside the city of Troy. He convinced the Trojans that if the Trojan Horse were taken inside the city, then Troy would never fall. Of course, he lied. The Trojan Horse was filled with Greek warriors who came out of the horse during the night. They went to the gates of the city, killed the guards, and then opened the gates to let in Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army, and his soldiers. Troy fell that night.

“These liars literally stink so bad in the Inferno because their lies metaphorically stank so bad in the Land of the Living.”

Sinon was one of the sinners in the Inferno who did not want his name to be remembered in the Land of the Living. He struck Master Adamo in the belly, which made a sound like a drum being struck. But dropsy had not affected Master Adamo’s arms, and he struck Sinon — hard.

The two started wrangling in argument.

Master Adamo said to Sinon, “I may have dropsy, but I still have an arm that is ready to hit you.”

Sinon replied, “But your arm was not ready when you were burned at the stake, although it was very ready to engage in counterfeiting.”

Master Adamo said, “You are telling the truth now, but you did not tell the truth at Troy.”

Sinon replied, “While I was alive, my words were false, and while you were alive, your coins were false. I am in Hell for a few false words, but you are in Hell for many, many false coins.”

Master Adamo said, “Remember the Trojan Horse, and may all the world remember the Trojan Horse and the part you played in its story.”

Sinon said, “May your punishment continue eternally. May your thirst always be agonizing, and may your body always be swollen.”

Master Adamo said, “As much as I suffer, you also suffer. I burn with thirst, and you burn with fever.”

Dante kept listening to this vulgar debate, and Virgil was growing bored. Already they had seen enough here. Nothing more was to be learned here, and Dante had much, much more to learn.

“Keep listening to this debate, and I will grow angry,” Virgil said to Dante.

Ashamed, Dante turned to Virgil. He was too ashamed to speak, but Virgil knew his thoughts and his repentance.

“You have repented your interest in this useless wrangling between sinners, so let us move on,” Virgil said. “We have more to see and more to do. Interest in such petty wrangling as this is useless and silly.”

Chapter 31: Towering Giants

Virgil had at first made Dante feel ashamed, but his next words eased Dante’s pain, just as Achilles’ lance, which he had received from his father, was reputed to injure — and to heal the injury it had caused.

They continued their journey in a place that was not fully day and yet not fully night. Dante was unable to see very far ahead, but he did hear the blast of a horn — a horn that was much louder than thunder. He looked in the direction from which the horn-blast had come, and he remembered the horn of Roland.

Roland was one of the paladins of Charlemagne, Dante thought. While Roland was leading the rearguard, he and his men were attacked in a pass. Roland was proud and he did not blow his horn for help until it was too late. He and all of his men were killed.

The sound of the horn that Dante heard now was more ominous than that of the horn of Roland.

Looking ahead, Dante saw what appeared to be towers. He asked Virgil, “What city is this that lies ahead?”

Virgil replied, “You cannot see clearly in this dimness and at this distance. When we reach that place, you will see that you are mistaken that it is a city. But so you are prepared for what you will see, I will tell you that you are seeing giants. They stand in the well that goes from Circle 8 to Circle 9. You are seeing only the top half of their bodies; the rest is in the well, hidden from our sight.”

As they approached closer, it was as if a fog had lifted and Dante could now see clearly. A mountain fortress has towers, and here in the Inferno were towering giants, the enemy of Jupiter. Just as the fallen angels had rebelled against their Christian God, so these giants had rebelled against their pagan god. Just as the fallen angels had failed to defeat their Christian God, so the giants had failed to defeat their pagan god.

Jupiter had conquered the giants with his thunderbolts, and now, when the giants heard thunder, they feared.

Dante had approached close enough that he could see clearly the face and features of one of the giants. He could see the head, shoulders, chest, much of the stomach, and the two huge arms of the giant, a member of a race that is now extinct in the Land of the Living.

The giants combined the faculty of intellect with enormous strength and an evil will. No mere mortal man can defeat a being with such a combination of features. Better by far to face criminals who are stupid and weak rather than intelligent and strong.

In Rome is a sculpture of a pine cone that stands over seven feet tall. The face of the giant was just that size. The rest of him was in proportion to the giant’s face.

The giant shouted, “Raphel may amech zabi almi!

Contemptuous, Virgil shouted at the giant, “You are a blathering idiot who can shout only nonsense syllables. If you need to make a sound, blow on your horn. It is tied around your neck, and if you weren’t so stupid, you could easily find it.”

Virgil then said to Dante, “This giant is Nimrod, who was so proud that he thought that he could build a tower that would reach Heaven. To stop the tower from being built, God created many languages instead of the one language that human beings had spoken until that time. Because the workers were now speaking different languages, they were unable to coordinate their actions and so the Tower of Babel was not built. Because of Nimrod’s pride, God changed the speech of human beings, and now human beings no longer share the same language.

“We have no need to stay here. He cannot understand our words, just as we cannot understand his nonsense syllables.”

Dante and Virgil continued walking, and they came to another giant, who was bigger and fiercer than Nimrod. This giant’s arms were bound; one arm was bound in back, and the other arm was bound in front.

“This giant is named Ephialtes,” Virgil said to Dante. “He was so proud that he thought that he could overcome Jupiter and the other gods, and so he is chained here. He and his brother — Otus, a twin — attempted to put one mountain on top of another mountain in order to reach the gods and make war on them. The pagan god Apollo killed both brothers.”

“If I may, I would like to see Briareus, another giant who challenged Jupiter,” Dante said.

“Soon, you will see the giant Antaeus,” Virgil said. “Antaeus will be able to help us get down into the final Circle of Hell. He is unchained because when his fellow giants challenged Jupiter, he did not join the fight. Because of that, he is worthy of some respect, although he sinned in other ways.

“Briareus is further away, and we will not be able to see him.”

Antaeus, the son of Mother Earth and the sea-god Neptune, was strong as long as he touched his Mother Earth, but he became weak when he was lifted into the air, Virgil thought. He used to challenge passersby, kill them, and collect their skulls hoping to eventually have enough to make a temple to Neptune, his father.

Antaeus fought Hercules. After hurling Antaeus to the ground a number of times, Hercules discovered his secret and lifted him into the air and strangled him.

Ephialtes shook himself, and the earth trembled. Dante felt that he had never come so close to death as he had then.

They reached Antaeus, and Virgil said to him, “You are a great hunter, and you once killed a thousand lions in the valley of Zama, where the Roman general Scipio Africanus defeated the Carthaginian general Hannibal and won the Second Punic War against Carthage.

“You are also strong. Many think that if you had fought alongside the other giants in their war against Jupiter, then the giants would have won.

“Please, if you will, put us down onto Cocytus, the frozen lake of Circle 9. Please don’t make us ask one of the other giants, such as Tityus or Typhon, for help. This living man here can give you what you want: fame in the Land of the Living.”

Antaeus was willing to help them. He stretched out his hands, and they held Virgil, who told Dante to come to him. Virgil then held Dante as the giant lifted them both.

Dante wished that another way of entering Circle 9 existed, but Antaeus put Virgil and Dante safely down into Circle 9, where are punished the worst sinners who ever existed, including especially Lucifer and Judas.

Antaeus then straightened up, and he was as tall as the mast of a huge ship.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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