David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 25: The Transformations of Thieves”

“Canto 25: The Transformations of Thieves”

  • What is the punishment given to the Thieves, and why is it fitting?

In the 7thbolgia the Thieves are punished. In the living world, the Thieves stole things that belonged to other people, and in this bolgia the only thing they have — their identity — is stolen by other Thieves. In the seventh bolgia are many, many snakes, which turn out to be other Thieves. The Thieves, like most sinners in the Inferno, are naked and have no possessions.

The Thieves used their limbs to steal from other people (for example, pickpockets) and to run away, and now they often become an armless, legless snake.

  • Which kinds of transformations do we see in Cantos 24-25?

In this bolgia, when some thievish companions in human form wonder why another thief in human form is missing, they have cause for alarm because the thief in human form has been transformed into a thief in the form of a snake or other reptile. We see this when the thievish companions miss Cianfa (Musa, Inferno25.43), who quickly reappears as a six-legged reptile who attacks Agnel, with the result that they are transformed into one creature.

When a snake or reptilebites or wraps itself around a Thief, one of three things can happen:

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

2) the Thief and the snake or other reptile can unite into one body, or

3) the Thief can become a snake or other reptile, while the snake or other reptile becomes a Thief with a human form.

  • Why are three kinds of transformations found in this bolgia?

Thieves create a lot of uncertainty. You may think that you have something, but you come home after work and 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 bites a Thief.

  • What does Dante mean by the words “snake” and “serpent”?

By the words “snake” and “serpent,” Dante means various kinds of reptiles, including reptiles with legs. We see that in the transformation in which a Thief becomes a snake and a snake becomes a Thief.

The transformation starts when “a little serpent” (Musa, Inferno25.83) bites a Thief who has human form. The serpent becomes a Thief in human form and says, “Let Buoso run / the valley on all fours, the way I did” (Musa, Inferno25.140-141).

We are prepared for this in Canto 24 by Dante the Poet’s statement that Libya with all its “so great a plague of venom” (Musa, Inferno24.88) cannot compete with that found here. Dante mentions various kinds of reptiles found in Libya, and similarly we have various kinds of reptiles in this bolgia.

  • What is a fig (obscene gesture)?

Vanni Fucci makes a fig in each hand. He thrusts his thumb between the two nearest fingers. Supposedly, this represents sexual intercourse. According to Mark Musa, the gesture means “F**k you!” or “Up yours!”

Vanni Fucci aims the figs at God, and even says, “Here, God, I’ve shaped them just for you!” (Musa, Inferno25.3).

Immediately the snakes start coming after him. The guard Cacus, who carries many, many snakes and a fire-breathing dragon on his back, also comes running after Vanni Fucci to punish him. Cacus apparently has special knowledge of what blasphemies sinners perform in this bolgia, even when he cannot see a particular sinner, because Vanni Fucci flees and then Cacus arrives, looking for him so he and the snakes and the fire-breathing dragon on his back can punish him.

Obviously, Vanni Fucci is still rebellious in the Inferno. So is the sinner Capaneus, a Blasphemer whom we saw in Canto 14. Both sinners continue to blaspheme and to rebel against God.

  • How does Dante the Pilgrim show that he is learning the lessons of the Inferno?

Dante approves of the snakes going after Vanni Fucci, and he even says that the snakes “became my friends” (Musa, Inferno25.4).

Therefore, Dante is learning that God does not make mistakes. Dante is capable of righteous indignation; he approves of the way that the Thieves are being punished in this bolgia.

  • The guard of the Thieves is Cacus. Who is Cacus?

The guard here is Cacus, a Centaur who once stole cattle from Hercules. We read about him in Book 8 of Virgil’s Aeneid. 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 arrives to punish Vanni Fucci. He is carrying many snakes and a fire-spitting dragon on his back (Musa, Inferno25.17-24).

  • Where is Dante the Poet perhaps somewhat boastful?

Dante may be boastful when he describes the double transformation where a snake turns into a Thief and a Thief turns into a snake. He says, “Let Lucan from this moment on be silent” (Musa, Inferno25.94). He also says that Ovid ought to be silent as well (Musa, Inferno25.97).

The reason for Dante’s saying these things is that these two Roman authors described only single transformations (one thing transforming into another), whereas Dante is describing a double transformation (two different things exchanging forms). Lucan tells of two soldiers, Sabellus and Nasidoius, who were bitten by snakes and burned to ashes as a result (much like the transformation we see in Canto 24). Ovid tells of Cadmus being turned into a serpent and of Arethusa being turned into a fountain. Of course, here the superiority is in content, which is due to Dante’s being in the Inferno. Dante is not saying explicitly that he is a better poet than Lucan and Ovid.


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