Divine Comedy-I: Inferno

Divine Comedy-I: Inferno Summary and Analysis of Cantos XVII-XX

Canto XVII: Summary:

The monster that had approached them, Geryon, symbolized fraud itself. His face was human, gracious and honest-looking, but his body was a combination of a bear and a serpent, and his tail had a scorpion's sting. Virgil suggested that Dante go speak with some shades who sat on the sand nearby while he parleyed with Geryon.

Accordingly, Dante approached a group of despondent people who sat flicking off the flakes of fire which continually fell on them. Purses decorated with emblems hung from their necks: one had a yellow purse with an azure lion, one a bloodred purse bearing a white goose, and one was white with an azure pregnant sow. The last one asked Dante what he was doing there and told him that Vitaliano would be punished there too, and someone who had a green purse with three goats.

Then Dante went back to Virgil who had come to an agreement with Geryon by which he would let them ride on his shoulders and take them down to the next circle. Dante was touchingly frightened, and although he didn't dare say it, wished he could ask Virgil to hold him tightly so he would not fall off. Then Geryon swam out into the air, descending in great sweeps through many torments, and finally set his passengers down on a rock, and disappeared.

Canto XVII: Analysis:

Geryon appears in classical mythology, but in a different form from Dante's monster: there he is made up of three human bodies, or three heads with one body. In mythology, he is not particularly associated with fraud, but here the connection is quite clear. Someone practicing fraud appears to be just and good, just as Geryon's head is noble in appearance ­ but their hidden motives are evil, just as Geryon's body is bestial, and his tail is venemous. Note that when Geryon lands on the edge of the ravine, he lets his tail hang over the side where it is not seen.

The sinners Dante sees are usurers, and their purses bear emblems which make it possible to identify their families, since family emblems were common in Florence. The azure lion on gold refers to the Gianfigliazzi family, for example. Interestingly enough, the one who speaks (and has a sow on his purse) was Reginaldo Scrovegni; his son tried to atone for his father's ill-gotten wealth by commissioning the great painter Giotto to paint a chapel named for him.

Here Dante the author allows himself to make predictions about which he cannot be sure: Vitaliano and the one with the three goats were not dead when the Inferno was written. His including them in the prediction may have been risky, since they were living and might have been offended ­ however usurers were probably used to people making critical remarks about their activities. By calling the one with the three goats the "sovereign cavalier," Dante mocks the willingness of Florentines to grant a noble title to a banker and a usurer, Giovanni Buiamonte dei Becchi.

Dante's fright and his reliance on Virgil during the ride on Geryon's back give a human perspective on a terrifying vision, which is all the more nightmarish for the lack of detail.

Canto XVIII: Summary:

The eigth circle is called Malebolge, which means "Evil-Pouches," because the circle is divided into ten different sections around the chasm in the middle. In the first pouch, Dante saw sinners being scourged by demons as they unsuccessfully tried to escape the whips. Dante thought he saw someone he knew, and although the shade tried to conceal himself by lowering his head, Dante did indeed recognize him to be Venedico Caccianemico. He asked him why he was being punished there, and Venedico explained that he had persuaded a girl named Ghisolabella to do what the Marquis wanted: he was a pander. Venedico also said that there were many other people from Bologna there, like him. A demon then interrupted their conversation and make Venedico go with the others. Climbing along the ridge, Dante then pointed out to Virgil another shade who looked noble even though he was being lashed. This, Virgil said, was Jason, who was being punished for his behavior towards Hypsipyle, a girl he had seduced and abandoned, and Medea. The inhabitants of the first pouch are thus panders and seducers.

In the next pouch, sinners waded through masses of human excrement, of which they tried in vain to clean themselves. Dante recognized one, Alessio Interminei of Lucca, despite his filthiness; Alesso said that he was there because of his flatteries. Virgil pointed out another sinner, a filthy woman who had been Thais, a harlot who had said that she was very grateful to her lover.

Canto XVIII: Analysis:

In contrast to the honorable sodomites, the sinners here are represented as shameful and disgusting. Even Jason cannot retain much dignity, since he is perpetually running around under the whips of the demons. They do not ask Dante to to tell about them in the outside world, but rather seem to try to avoid recognition. Since their sins are all based on deception, this is not out of character: perhaps they do not wish to lose whatever good reputation they still had.

Venedico is supposed to have delivered his own sister Ghisolabella to the lustful designs of a Marquis. In fact he was not yet dead when the Inferno supposedly takes place; Dante was probably unaware of this.

In Greek legend, Jason was a hero who voyaged on his ship the Argo with his companions, the Argonauts. They stopped at the island of Lemnos, where the women had killed the men, except for Hypsipyle who had saved her father's life; Jason seduced and abandoned her. Medea, a princess of a different island, turned against her own people to help Jason in his quest, and was also abandoned; she avenged herself by killing the children she had had with Jason.

The punishment of the flatterers is the most disgusting one so far, and seems rather appropriate. Not much is known about the sinner Dante recognized, and Virgil's story of Thais is a somewhat garbled version of a play by Terence, Eunuchus.

Canto XIX: Summary:

This canto opens with a condemnation of the simonists, followers of Simon Magus. Dante and Virgil came to the next section of Malebolge, where the livid rock was perforated by large holes. Feet stuck out of each hole (the sinner was buried head-downwards in the rock) and the feet were on fire, and kicked and writhed desperately. One of them seemed to be tormented more than the rest, and Dante wanted to know who it was, so Virgil suggested that they descend down to where the heads were. Dante asked the sinner to speak, and was surprised to hear himself addressed as Boniface: evidently the speaker expected Pope Boniface to join him there in punishment. Dante made it clear that he was someone else, and the sinner explained depairingly that he had been Pope, and was damned for his avarice and corruption of the Church ­ his simoniacal practices. He predicted that Boniface would be punished there also, as would his successor, "a lawless shepherd from the west."

Dante was so angry at the extent of the corruption that he attacked the sinner (Pope Nicholas III) and all other simoniacal popes in a scathing invective, accusing them of trampling on the good and lifting up the wicked. They had introduced the seven headed one who sits on the waters into the world. Dante lamented the fact that Constantine had given the early pope a treasure.

Nicholas III kicked his heels in response and Virgil, pleased with Dante, carried him up to the next valley.

Canto XIX: Analysis:

According to the Bible (Acts 8:9-24), Simon Magus tried to purchase the power of conferring the Holy Spirit. "Simony" thus means the sale of spiritual goods, such as ecclesiastical offices or indulgences. Simony in the Catholic Church was one of the reasons the Reformation developed: Martin Luther among others strongly objected to the pratice of selling indulgences (by buying an indulgence, one bought forgiveness for a sin, and dispensed with years spent in Purgatory). However in the Inferno Dante shows no sign of wishing to separate from the Church; rather he calls for reform.

Pope Nicholas III was elected in 1277 and died in 1280; his reference to cubs of the she-bear refers to his family name, Orsini. To "advance the cubs" would be to promote his own family members in the Church hierarchy without regard to their legitimacy. This was indeed common practice in the Church, which was by no means free of the patronage systems which dominated the rest of political networking.

Nicholas' prediction about the lawless shepherd from the west is a product of the lag between the fictional date of the Inferno and the actual time of its composition: Clement V was elected in 1305. His time as Pope began one of the more complicated Papal eras, the Babylonian Captivity, which is the name given to the time when the Pope was based in Avignon rather than Rome. Clement was politically close to the king of France. During the Babylonian Captivity there were sometimes two or even three different Popes claiming legitimacy at the same time: we can see why Dante may have been disillusioned with the system. One should also remember his political position as a White Guelph, and that he was generally in favor of Imperial power over Papal power.

The reference to the one who sits on the waters is taken from St. John's Apocalypse: he saw the Whore of Babylon (a symbol of worldly corruption) riding on a seven-headed monster. Here the Whore is the corrupted Church; the seven heads are the seven sacrements and the ten horns are the commandments.

Canto XX: Summary:

In the next valley Dante saw sad processions of weeping spirits whose heads were set backwards on their bodies so that their tears ran down their backs. Dante wept to see the sad distorsion of humanity, but Virgil told him that pity was inappropriate where God had set the punishment. He told him to look up and see Amphiaraus, and Tiresias who had turned into a woman and back again, and Aruns, and the sorceress Manto. She had founded Virgil's home-city, Mantua, Virgil said: after her father died and her city was enslaved, she wandered through many lands, finally settling in a land in a marsh with her slaves. After she died the city was called Mantua after her; this, Virgil said, was the only true story of the origins of Mantua.

Dante asked Virgil if any of the passing souls were worthy of notice, and accordingly Virgil pointed out Eurypylus, an augur of the time of the Trojan War, as well as Michael Scot, Guido Bonatti, and Asdente. There were also women who had left their spinning to become diviners.

Dante and Virgil continued on their way, because time was short.

Canto XX: Analysis:

The sinners here are diviners, astrologers, and magicians, and their activies (since they are punished in the seventh circle) are all classified as fraud. This is interesting because it implies that they used trickery rather than genuine magic: apparently Dante did not believe in astrology and its like. He is somewhat exceptional in this, as it is by no means true that by 1300 most people did not believe in magic. Although practitioners of magic might easily have been persecuted as heretics or impious witches, their arts still provoked fear and awe in many people. Most of them tried to forsee the future, for which their heads are now turned backwards so that they can't see in front of themselves at all.

It is strange that Virgil tells Dante not to weep at the misery of the soothsayers: Dante frequently weeps with pity, and Virgil does not rebuke him. Virgil himself grew pale when he entered Limbo. It would be an interesting question to try to discover what it is about sorcery that arouses Virgil's anger and pious disdain to such a point.

Amphiaraus is another of the seven kings who fought Thebes. He foresaw his death and tried to avoid battle, but died in an earthquake all the same. Manto was a Theban soothsayer. Michael Scot and Guido Bonatti were court astrologers and Asdente was a shoemaker who prophecied in Parma at the end of the 13th century.