Dante’s Inferno: Canto 21 Retelling — The Grafters

Chapter 21: The Grafters

Arriving at the fifth pocket, Dante noticed a strange darkness. A dark pitch or tar was boiling in the pocket the way that dark pitch boiled when the Venetians repaired their ships during the winter when they could not sail. Here boiling bubbles popped in the pitch.

Always on the lookout, Virgil said to Dante, “Watch out!” He stood by Dante, who looked up and saw a frightening black devil coming along the ridge. The devil had wings and moved quickly, and he was carrying the soul of a sinner.

The devil shouted, “Hey, Malebranche, here’s another sinner, one of the elders of Santa Zita. Plenty more grafters are coming to be punished here. Stick him under the boiling pitch. These are the people who accept bribes to change decisions.”

Graft is a bribe, Dante thought. When I was exiled from Florence, I was unjustly accused of being a grafter. A politician who takes money to pass legislation favorable to a certain corporation is guilty of graft. A judge who takes money to rule a person innocent instead of guilty is guilty of graft. What simony is to the religious world, graft is to the secular world.

And Virgil thought, Malebranche is a good name for these black devils. Malebranche means Evil Claws.

The black devil flung the sinner into the boiling pitch, and the sinner rose to the surface and floated on his back, with his hands outstretched as if he were being crucified. The black devil took off quickly to bring another sinner to be punished here.

The other devils saw the floating sinner and instantly jabbed him with a hundred pitchfork prongs, saying, “No floating here. Don’t imitate a person on a cross. All you sinners stay below the surface of the sticky pitch so you can bake. We have grappling hooks, and if we catch you raising yourself out of the hot pitch, we will torment you.”

This is another contrapasso, Virgil thought. The grafters were sticky fingered, and so now they are sticky from the pitch in this part of the Inferno. The grafters used their political and judicial offices to take bribes and make money. As these people manipulated and tormented other people during their lives, so the demons manipulate and torment the grafters.

Virgil also thought, These black devils can be dangerous. I have been here before, so I know that I must be careful to protect Dante.

As the black devils used their pitchforks to push the sinner down into the boiling tar like a cook’s assistant uses a fork to push the meat down into the boiling broth so it will cook better, Virgil said to Dante, “It’s best if the black devils don’t yet see you. Hide yourself behind a rock. The black devils will see me, but whatever they say to me, don’t worry. I have been here before, and I know how to act and what to say.”

Virgil crossed the bridge, and he looked as bold and as brave as he could. The black devils saw him, and they came out from under the bridge to accost him.

Virgil shouted at them, “Behave yourselves! Let me talk to your leader before you start jabbing me with your pitchforks. After I talk to your leader, you can decide whether you still want to jab me.”

The black devils all cried out, “Let Malacoda talk to him.”

The black devil known as Malacoda stepped forward and said, “What good will talking to me do you?”

Virgil replied, “Do you think that I would have come so far in my journey through the Inferno if it were not the will of God? I am on a mission from God, and I have God’s protection. Now that you know that, you must let me and a companion pass.”

Malacoda’s face fell, and he allowed his pitchfork to fall, too. He told the other black devils, “Don’t harm this man.”

Virgil then said to Dante, “You can come out of hiding now. We will be OK.”

Dante came forward, making sure to stay close to Virgil, but to him the black devils looked threatening. He could hear them muttering to each other, saying things like, “Should I stick this pitchfork in the living person’s rump?” Most of the other black devils answered, “Go ahead!”

But Malacoda, the black devil in charge of the fifth pocket, said, “Keep your hands and pitchforks off these people!”

Then he said to Virgil, “The bridge across the sixth pocket is broken here, but just ahead you will find a bridge that is still sound and that you can use to cross the next pocket. The bridge was destroyed 1,066 years and one day and five hours ago.”

Virgil thought, The bridge was destroyed by the earthquake that occurred during the Harrowing of Hell. I remember when the Mighty Warrior rescued the deserving souls and took them out of Limbo.

Malacoda continued, “I am sending some devils that way to make sure that the sinners stay deep in the boiling pitch and do not raise their backs out of the boiling bubbles to find relief from pain. You may travel with them.”

Then Malacoda said to the devils, “Step forward, Alichino, Calcabrina, Cagnazzo, Libicocco, Draghignazzo, Farfarello, and Rubicante. Barbariccia will be the leader of all of you. Walk along the pocket and make sure that the sinners stay deep in the boiling pitch. Take these two to the unbroken bridge that crosses the sixth bolgia.”

Dante was worried about having a pack of devils as an escort. He said to Virgil, “I don’t like this. Let’s travel by ourselves with no escort. Look at the devils. They mean us harm! They grind their teeth and wink at each other. We are in danger here!”

But Virgil replied, “We are safe. It is the sinners who are in danger of being tormented by the devils.”

Like a military troop, the black devils saluted their leader, Malacoda, but they saluted by putting their tongue between their lips and making a farting sound.

Malacoda returned the salute by using the hole in his butt as a bugle and farting.

Malacoda is indeed a suitable name for this black devil, Virgil thought. Malacoda means Evil Tail.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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Dante’s Inferno: Canto 20 Retelling — The Soothsayers and Fortune Tellers

Chapter 20: The Soothsayers and Fortune Tellers

Dante and Virgil now were on the bridge above the fourth bolgia. Looking down, Dante saw that the sinners were crying as they walked around the Circle; the floor of the Circle was wet with tears. Dante also saw that the sinners were twisted in a grotesque way; their heads were twisted so that the face was above the back, not above the chest. As the sinners cried, their tears ran down their backs and into the cleft of their buttocks.

Dante cried, too — something that Virgil did not like.

Dante is a backslider, Virgil thought. He realized that simony is a great sin indeed, but now he pities how the sinners are being punished in the fourth bolgia.

“Dante, you are a fool,” Virgil said. “The Inferno is not a place for pity. Every soul here deserves to be here, and every soul here is punished in a very appropriate way.

“The sinners in this fourth bolgia are the soothsayers and the fortune tellers. They tried to look too far ahead in the future, and now they are punished by not being able to look ahead at all. Now they travel by walking backward because they can see only backward, not forward.

“Look around you. Here is a sinner who was one of the Seven Against Thebes. The two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices, decided to share the rule of Thebes after their father abdicated the throne. Each brother was supposed to rule for a year and then allow the other brother to take the throne for a year; however, after ruling for a year, Eteocles refused to step down from the throne and allow Polynices to rule for a year. Therefore, Polynices raised an army and marched against Thebes and his brother.

“Amphiaraus was one of the seven generals of the army marching against Thebes and Eteocles. He foresaw that he would die if he fought against Thebes, so he attempted to hide himself so that he would not have to fight. However, his wife revealed his hiding place, so he had to go on the military expedition. During the attack on Thebes, the Earth opened up and he fell into the chasm, dying as he had foreseen. He appeared before Minos, who never errs. Minos judged him and sent him here.

“Now look at Tiresias, the most famous prophet of Thebes. You have read about him in Ovid. Tiresias was famous enough to be consulted by Odysseus in the Underworld in Homer’s Odyssey.

“Tiresias lived life as both a man and a woman. He once saw two snakes having sex, and he hit them with his staff. As his punishment, Hera turned him into a woman. Tiresias married and gave birth to Manto, his daughter, who was also a prophet. After seven years as a woman, he again saw two snakes having sex, and he again hit them with his staff and changed sexes, this time turning back into a man. Because Tiresias had lived life as both a man and a woman, when Zeus and Hera quarreled over who enjoyed sex more — the man or the woman — they turned to Tiresias to settle the argument. Tiresias said that women enjoyed sex more, and Hera struck him blind.

“Because Tiresias tried to see too far into the future, he is punished here.

“Now look at Tiresias’ daughter, Manto, whose long hair now covers her breasts instead of her back, while her hairy parts are now in back and not in front. Manto was a soothsayer at Thebes. After Tiresias died, she went to Italy and founded Mantua, the city where I, Virgil, was born.

“Listen carefully, and I will you the true story of how my city, Mantua, was founded. Truth is important, and I don’t want you to believe any inaccurate stories of how Mantua was founded.

“Manto saw land lying surrounded mostly by a marsh. She moved there and died there. After she died, men arrived and build a town there because it was well protected by the marsh. They named their town after Manto.”

Learn from this story, Virgil thought. The theme of my story is truth. The story of the founding of Mantua is controversial, with more than one version. I am here telling the true story. Truth, of course, is something that people engaging in fraud wish to hide.

You, Dante, must say the truth in your writing. If you tell the true story of the founding of Mantua in your Divine Comedy, you will be letting your readers know that you care about truth. You will be establishing your credibility. Because your readers will know that you care about the truth of the founding of Mantua, they will know that you are careful to report the truth about the afterlife.

“Virgil,” Dante said, “you always tell me the truth. Now can you tell me about some other sinners here?”

Virgil replied, “Eurypylus is punished here in this part of the Inferno. You know about him from reading my Aeneid — my epic poem that you know almost by heart. Eurypylus was a Greek warrior who was sent to the Oracle of Delphi in order to inquire why the gods were angry at the Greeks.

“Also punished here is Michael Scot, a mathematician and scholar who was born in Scotland. He was a magician who was able to serve his guests food magically brought from France and Spain and other countries.

“But we have seen enough. Let us continue our journey.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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Dante’s Inferno Canto 19 Retelling — The Simonists

Chapter 19: The Simonists

Simon Magus, you are among the worst sinners who have ever existed, as are your followers, Dante thought. You were the first to try to engage in the sin of simony, the buying and selling of church offices and spiritual benefits for money. I have read about you in Acts 8. Peter and John were using one of the gifts of God: the laying on of hands to convey the Holy Spirit. You, Simon Magus, were impressed by this and wanted to pay Peter and John money to teach you how to do that. Of course, Peter and John were insulted because the laying on of hands to convey the Holy Spirit is a free gift of God and is not for sale. They asked you to repent your sin.

Your followers also try to buy things that are not for sale. Someone who wants to become a bishop can do so by paying money to dishonest and corrupt people with power. Such people ought not to become bishops.

Why would someone want to buy a church office? They would look at it as an investment. They would be paying money to gain power and perhaps to gain more money. However, are these the people who should be in church offices? Do we want a Pope who has bought his way into that position? The answer is no. We prefer someone who deserves the position through his own merit. We prefer a meritocracy to a plutocracy.

The trouble with simony is that the people who deserve church offices because of their merit don’t get them. Either they don’t have the money to buy the church office, or they do have the money but won’t buy the church office because they know that simony is wrong.

Dante and Virgil had reached the third pocket, where the simonists are punished. Dante would rejoice when he found out how the simonists are punished in the third pocket of Circle 8.

Standing on the bridge above the third pocket, Dante looked down and saw a number of holes in the rock. The holes resembled the holes where priests would stand in a baptistery as they baptized people.

Dante remembered, I once smashed a baptistery, not as an action against the Church, but because a child was drowning in it. Rumors arose, however, that I was being sacrilegious.

Of course, Virgil knew what Dante was thinking — he had that power. Virgil thought, Anyone seeing Dante smash the baptistery would of course think that he was being sacrilegious, but of course he was saving a life, an action that his religion definitely approves of. Similarly, when a prophet criticizes some immoral practices of his religion, he may be seen as being sacrilegious, but of course he is not. The prophet is trying to make the practices of his religion better by criticizing immoral practices such as simony. If Dante tells the truth when he writes The Divine Comedy, he will criticize the bad practices of the Church as a way to make the Church reform itself and become better.

Dante saw legs sticking out of the holes in the rock. Flames were dancing on the sinners’ feet; some of the flames were redder and hotter than other flames. The sinners in those holes were worse than the other sinners.

Dante asked Virgil, “Which sinner is that whose feet are burned by a hotter flame than the feet of the other sinners?”

Virgil replied, “The way down is steep, but I am strong and surefooted, so if you wish, I will carry you down there so that you may ask the sinner who he is and why he is here.”

Dante was agreeable, and when they had reached the sinner, Dante asked, “Wretched soul, what are you? If you can speak, speak, if you are able.”

The soul mistook Dante for the soul of a sinner who would die three years later and be punished here: “Are you here already, Pope Boniface VIII? According to the Book of Fate, you are not supposed to die until 1303. Have you grown tired of engaging in simony and of tearing apart the Church?”

Dante was surprised by what the sinner had said, so he remained quiet, but Virgil advised him, “Tell the sinner that he is mistaken, that you are not who he thinks you are.”

Dante did as Virgil advised, and the sinner said, “What do you want? If you want to know my name, I am the son of the she-bear; that is, I am a member of the Orsini family. When I became Pope, I did not truly take a new name and leave my family behind to serve a new, greater family, even though people called me Pope Nicholas III. Instead, I kept the name of Orsini, and I used my position to advance the interests of my Orsini relatives. When I was alive, I was greedy to pocket wealth, and now that I am dead, I myself am pocketed.

“Under me are many other simonists. Soon, Pope Boniface VIII will arrive here and he will push me deeper in this hole just as my arrival here pushed other simonists deeper in this hole. Later, another simonist, Pope Clement V, will arrive and push Pope Boniface VIII and me and the other simonists here in this hole deeper.”

Dante was angry. He knew how bad is the sin of simony. He said sarcastically to Pope Nicholas III, “Exactly how much money did Peter have to pay to Jesus to get the keys to the gates of Heaven? I believe that he had to pay no money, but simply follow Jesus. How much money did Matthias have to pay to Peter and the other apostles to take Judas’ place? I believe that he had to pay no money, but simply to do God’s will.

“You deserve your punishment, for your sin is so great. You supported the side that paid the most money, so enjoy the reward you gained.

“Your sin of simony brings grief to the Church and to the world. It hurts the good, and it makes the bad happy.

“Your god is made of gold and silver coins. You are like an idolater, except that an idolater worships one idol, while you worship hundreds of idols.”

Then to himself, but loud enough for others to hear, Dante said, “Constantine, you meant well, but your gift of money and wealth to the Church helped make it corrupt!”

Constantine was the first Christian Roman emperor, Virgil thought. When he moved from Rome to the city of Constantinople, he supposedly gave much power and material possessions to the Pope. The medieval belief was that Constantine deliberately moved East in order to reward Pope Sylvester with power and possessions because Pope Sylvester had cured him of leprosy. Dante believes that this Donation of Constantinople corrupted many Popes and the Church.

As a soul in the Inferno, I know the future. Actually, the so-called Donation of Constantine is a forgery, but this will be proved long after Dante’s day; not until the 15th century will the so-called Donation of Constantine be proved to be a forgery.

Pope Nicholas III’s feet kicked harder than ever, perhaps out of anger or perhaps because he knew that Dante’s criticism was justified.

Assassins are punished by being buried alive, Dante thought. I have seen assassins try to put off dying a few more moments by calling to a priest to come back so that they can confess one more sin. Anyone seeing us here could think that I am a priest and this sinner is an assassin. And this sinner really is an assassin. By engaging in simony, this sinner is an assassin of the Church.

This punishment is a parody of a number of things. It is a parody of baptism. Baptism is done with water, not with fire. And it is a parody of the Pentecost, in which fire came down from above and sat on the heads of the followers of Jesus and they were able to speak in tongues.

In addition, the way the sinners are stuck headfirst in the hole is a reminder of how Simon Magus died. In the Acts of Peter, I have read about Simon Magus’ death. Simon became a magician, and he learned to fly. Magus, of course, means magician. Simon was flying and criticizing the one true God, so Saint Peter prayed for Simon to fall, and he fell. The way these sinners are stuck headfirst in the hole resembles an image of Simon Magus falling and hitting the ground headfirst.

I can certainly understand why you sinners are upside down here. You sinners are upside down because you placed things upside down in the living world — you placed material things before spiritual things, thus upsetting their proper order.

Dante noticed that Virgil was smiling.

Dante, this is a job well done, Virgil thought. Your opinion of the sin of simony is exactly right. You started this journey naïve, but you are wising up.

Virgil picked Dante up and carried him up out of the pocket. When he had carried Dante down into the ditch, he had carried Dante at his side. Now, because he was pleased with Dante, he hugged him to his chest.

Dante and Virgil walked to the next pocket.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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Dante’s Inferno: Chapter 18 Retelling — Panders and Seducers; Flatterers

Chapter 18: Panders and Seducers; Flatterers

At this point, Dante had seen seven of the nine Circles of the Inferno, as well as the Vestibule of Hell, where the uncommitted were punished. He had seen the first Circle of Hell: Limbo, the residence of the virtuous pagans and the unbaptized. He had seen the four Circles (2-5) devoted to punishing the sinners who were guilty of incontinence in lust, gluttony, hoarding money and wasting money, and anger. He had seen Circle 6, which is devoted to punishing the sinners who are guilty of heresy. And he had seen Circle 7, which punishes the violent in three different areas: 1) The river of boiling blood punishes the physically violent, 2) The grubby wood punishes the suicides, and it punishes those who had violently wasted their wealth and then courted death, and 3) The burning desert punishes those who were directly violent against God through blasphemy, those who were indirectly violent against God by doing violence to Nature, which had been created by God, through sodomy, and those who were indirectly violent against God by doing violence through rejecting God’s laws regarding lending money at interest.

Now only two Circles remained. Circle 8 punishes those sinners who are guilty of simple fraud. Fraud involves the willful use of misrepresentation to deprive another person of his or her rights. For example, someone can claim to be able to foretell the future and charge people money to be told the future. Simple fraud is fraud, but it is not committed against those to whom one has a special obligation of trust.

Circle 9 punishes the worst sinners of all: those who are guilty of complex fraud. Complex fraud is fraud committed against those to whom one has a special obligation of trust. Sinners who commit complex fraud are traitors of various kinds: e.g., traitors to kin/family, traitors to government, traitors to guests, or traitors to God.

As Dante and Virgil descended from Circle 7 to Circle 8 on the back of Geryon, Dante had an aerial view of Circle 8. He saw that it was divided into 10 ditches or valleys or pockets that are known as the Malebolge, a plural word that means “evil pockets” or “evil pouches.” They may be called that because the sinners here regard everything as being for sale. They wish to pocket money.

Each Malebolgia punishes a different kind of sinner who committed simple fraud, and some Malebolge punish two kinds of sinners whose sins are related.

Dante remembered what Virgil had told him earlier about Circle 8: “Ten kinds of sinners engage in simple fraud:

“One, Seducers and Panders,

“Two, Flatterers,

“Three, Simonists,

“Four, Fortune-Tellers and Sorcerers,

“Five, Grafters — those who give or accept bribes,

“Six, Hypocrites,

“Seven, Thieves,

“Eight, Evil Deceivers/Those Who Misuse Great Gifts,

“Nine, Schismatics: Those who caused divisions (in families and in religion), and

“Ten, Falsifiers, including Counterfeiters.”

As Dante looked around as Geryon descended in Circles, he noticed that bridges crossed over the Malebolge like the spokes of a wheel; however, he could see that at least one bridge over the sixth evil pocket was broken — he did not have time to look at all of the bridges.

After Dante and Virgil had gotten off Geryon’s back and Geryon had sped away, they walked to see the sinners in the first evil pocket. Here Dante saw his first horned devils of the Inferno. They were cruelly whipping the naked sinners as they walked, and they rejoiced in their work.

Dante saw a face that seemed familiar, so he looked closely at him. The sinner saw him and lowered his face in an attempt to keep from being recognized, but Dante recognized him anyway.

Virgil thought, The sinners deep in the Inferno have committed worse sins than those who are high in the Inferno. For this reason, many of them don’t want to be remembered on Earth. And, of course, misrepresentation is a part of fraud. These sinners may be trying to keep whatever good reputation they have on Earth.

Dante said to the sinner, “I know you. You are Venedico Caccianemico. Why are you being punished in this evil pocket?”

Venedico Caccianemico knew that he had been recognized and that Dante would soon know his story even if he said nothing, so he answered Dante’s question: “I used my own sister to advance myself. I let the Marquis of Este sleep with my sister, who was named Ghisolabella. As you can now tell, I am a pander.

“I am from the city of Bologna, and many more people from my city are here.”

A devil whipped Venedico Caccianemico’s back and told him, “Keep walking! No women are here for pimps like you to sell.”

Dante and Virgil moved on and saw a second group of sinners walking in the opposite direction that the first group was walking. The first group of sinners consisted of panders or pimps; the second group of sinners consisted of seducers. The two sins are related in that both involve unethical sex, and so both kinds of sinners are punished in the first Malebolge.

Virgil told Dante, “Look at the imposing sinner coming toward us. He suffers pain, but he does not cry. He is Jason, of Jason and the Argonauts fame. He set out in the Argo, the first ship, to find the Golden Fleece, and he achieved his objective. He is a seducer. As a seducer he would sleep with women, then abandon them when he found it convenient to do so. He slept with Hypsipyle, and then he abandoned her when she was pregnant. She had twins. He married and had children with Medea, but then he abandoned her when someone he thought was better came along: Creusa, the daughter of Creon, the King of Corinth. Medea killed their children in response.

“We have seen enough here. These sinners caused pain to others, and now they feel pain. Let us move on.”

On the bridge crossing the second evil pocket, Dante and Virgil looked down at the sinners in the pocket, from which was arising a nauseating stench, and there they saw the flatterers. While they were alive, out of their mouths had come metaphorical crap: flattery. Now that they were dead in Hell, they were covered with literal crap: human excrement.

Dante saw a sinner’s head that was so covered with crap that he was unable to tell if the sinner were a priest or a layman.

The sinner shouted at Dante, “Why do you stare at me more than at these other sinners?”

Dante knew the man then, and he replied, “I know you. You are Alessio Interminei from Lucca, and while you were alive you were known for your flattery.”

Alessio Interminei replied, “Because of my continual flatteries while I was alive, I am stuck in this evil pocket.”

Virgil then said to Dante, “Look at this woman here. She is scratching herself with her shitty fingernails — please forgive my use of this kind of language, for it is quite appropriate in Hell. This woman is Thaïs the whore, who flattered her lover when he asked whether he deserved her thanks after he gave her a gift. She told him, ‘You incredibly deserve my thanks.’

“We have seen enough here. Let us move on.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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Dante’s Infernp: Canto 17 Retelling — Geryon

Chapter 17: Geryon

“Behold the monster that makes the world stink!” Virgil said to Dante as he motioned for the monster to land.

And the monster — the embodiment of fraud — did land.

Dante and Virgil saw the guard of the Circles dedicated to punishing fraud: Geryon, a creature with a face like that of an honest man, a body made of a combination of parts of beasts, and a stinging tail like that of a scorpion.

Geryon has three parts, Virgil noted. Like other triune guards, Geryon is a perversion of the Holy Trinity.

Geryon is an appropriate guard of Circle 8 because he embodies fraud. His honest-looking face encourages people to trust him, while he hides his tail that will sting his victim. Geryon usually stings the sinners who ride on his back, but he won’t do that to Dante and me. When Geryon first gets sinners to trust him and then he stings them with his scorpion’s tail, he commits fraud.

Look at Geryon. He is displaying his honest-looking face, but he is trying to keep his stinging tail out of sight; it is hanging down the cliff leading to the next Circle. He is trying to commit fraud even as I look at him.

Geryon provides transportation to the next Circle. Minos flings sinners down into Hell, but at least some sinners must travel further down to the Circle where they will be punished. Just as Phlegyas the ferryman takes sinners across the Styx, so Geryon flies sinners from Circle 7 to Circle 8.

Dante was surprised by the way the monster looked. His face made you want to trust him, but the rest of him was animalistic. He had clawed paws, not hands. He had hairy legs instead of arms. His back, his belly, and his flanks seemed to be painted with exotic designs like those of some snakes. And he had a stinging tail like that of a scorpion, although he was attempting to keep it out of sight.

“Now we need to go to the evil beast,” Virgil said to Dante. They did, being careful to stay off the burning sand. Dante looked around and saw some sinners close to the edge of the burning sand.

Virgil noticed Dante looking at the sinners and told him, “Go and see them. That will complete your knowledge of the torments in this Circle. But don’t stay long. I will be here convincing the evil beast — whose name is Geryon — to take us down to Circle 8.”

Dante walked toward the sinners, who were in pain because of the flakes of flame falling from the sky onto them and because of the burning sand on which they crouched. Their hands moved constantly, brushing off flames and trying to provide some protection from the burning sand. They resembled dogs trying unsuccessfully to get relief from fleas as they constantly scratched here and scratched there.

Because when they were alive, the greedy moneylenders took something that ought to be infertile and made it fertile, now that they are dead they are in this burning plain with fire raining down on them. Here they are bent over, just like living greedy moneylenders who bend over their tables and count their money. Hanging from the necks of these sinners in Hell are moneybags, which they gaze at greedily just as they did while they were living.

Dante looked carefully at the faces of several sinners, but he recognized no one, although he knew that the sinners were greedy moneylenders because of the moneybags that were hanging from their necks. These sinners’ love of money had kept them from accomplishing something great in the Land of the Living. Because they were undistinguished in the Land of the Living, they cannot be distinguished in the Land of the Dead.

However, although Dante could not recognize any individual greedy moneylenders, he did recognize the families that the greedy moneylenders came from by looking the designs — the coats of arms — on their moneybags. He identified a member of the Gianfigliazzi family of Florence because the sinner had a yellow purse that was decorated with a blue lion. He identified a member of the Ubriachi family of Florence because the sinner had a red purse that was decorated with a goose. And he identified a member of the Scrovegni family of Padua because the sinner had a purse that was decorated with a blue sow.

The sinner who was a member of the Scrovegni family told Dante, “What are you looking at! Get away from me! What are you doing here!

“But since you are alive, I will tell you that soon my neighbor Vitaliano will arrive here in this Circle of Hell and sit on my left. We will then have one more Paduan among all these Florentines.”

The Paduan then stuck his tongue out at Dante, who returned to Virgil lest he anger his guide by staying too long.

Virgil, who was already sitting on the back of Geryon, told Dante, “Now is the time for courage and strength. This is our transportation to the next Circle. Sit in front of me so that I will be between you and this monster’s stinging scorpion’s tail.”

Dante was afraid, but he obeyed Virgil and mounted Geryon’s back. He thought about asking Virgil to hold on to him, and Virgil, reading Dante’s mind, did just that.

Virgil then ordered the monster, “Geryon, take flight, and fly gently. Remember, on your back is a living person.”

Geryon launched himself in flight and descended.

Dante was afraid. He thought, I am more afraid than Phaëthon was when he took flight. Phaëthon was Apollo’s son, but he was born to a mortal woman, and so he was a mortal. One day, he journeyed to see his father, who wanted to give him a gift — a gift consisting of anything he wanted. Phaëthon decided that he wanted to drive his father’s chariot. Apollo was the Sun-god, and he drove the chariot that warmed and lit the Earth. However, Apollo knew that only a god could handle the horses that drove the chariot, and he begged his son to choose another gift. However, Phaëthon was determined to drive the chariot. Since Apollo had sworn an inviolable oath by the River Styx, he had to let Phaëthon drive the chariot.

As Apollo had foreknown, Phaëthon could not control the horses, and the chariot drove wildly over the sky, coming too close to the Earth sometimes and going too far away from the Earth sometimes. Eventually, the chariot came so close to the Earth that the Earth was about to catch fire. Fortunately for the people living on the Earth, Jupiter killed Phaëthon with a thunderbolt and Apollo was able to drive the chariot again, and so everything went back to normal.

I am even more afraid than Icarus, Daedalus’ son, was when he fell out of the sky. Icarus was the son of Daedalus. Daedalus built the wooden cow that Pasiphaë crept into when she fell in love with a bull and wanted the bull to make love to her. After Pasiphaë gave birth to the Minotaur, Daedalus built the labyrinth that housed the Minotaur.

To make sure that no one could ever learn the secret of how to get out of the labyrinth, the King of Crete imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus, his son. Daedalus fashioned wings made out of wax and feathers so that he and his son could fly away from the island where they were imprisoned. Daedalus warned his son not to fly too high, for if he did the Sun would melt the wax, the feathers would fall out of the wings, and he would fall into the sea and drown.

That is exactly what happened. Icarus became excited because he was flying, he flew too high, the wax of his wings melted, and he drowned.

Dante and Virgil could hear the roaring of the waterfall as they descended. Dante looked out at the terrain of Circle 8 as they descended, but leaning outward frightened him so much that he quickly stopped doing it.

Geryon was angry at Dante and Virgil because he had expected to be able to torment some newly arrived sinners when he answered the signal of the cord that had been used by Dante as a belt.

When Geryon descended in spirals from Circle 7 to Circle 8, he was like a falcon that was angry at its master. When Geryon landed, he made sure to land in such a way that Virgil and Dante were almost up against the jagged cliff.

And as soon as Virgil and Dante got off his back, Geryon took off like an arrow shot from a bowstring, getting away from Dante and Virgil as quickly as possible.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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Dante’s Inferno: Canto 16 Retelling —The Violent Against Nature (Continued)

Chapter 16: The Violent Against Nature (Continued)

Now Dante and Virgil could hear a waterfall in the distance, indicating that they were approaching the boundary of this Circle and would have to soon find a way down to the next Circle: Circle 8.

At this point three sodomites saw Dante and broke away from their group and started running toward him, shouting, “By your clothing, you seem to come from our city: polluted Florence! Stop and speak with us for a while.”

Dante looked at them and saw their wounds from the falling flakes of flame. Some wounds were old, and many wounds were new. Clearly, these souls had suffered and were suffering.

Virgil heard the shout and looked at the three sinners coming toward Dante and him. He told Dante, “I recognize these sinners, and they are worthy of your respect. If not for the burning plain, you should be running toward them.”

The three sodomites arrived, and they formed a circle and kept running to avoid the punishment of lying on the sand for 100 years, unable to brush away the flames from their body. In the circle they moved the way that a professional wrestler, oiled and naked, will move as he looks over his opponent to see which grip will be best before the real wrestling action begins. As they ran in the circle, each sinner kept his eyes on Dante.

“If our punishment makes you less willing to speak to us,” one sinner said, “perhaps our great fame on Earth will lead you to speak with us. We would like to know who you are, and how you — a living man — are able to walk through Hell.

“The sinner is front of me is Guido Guerra, a warrior and advisor. In 1260, the Florentine Guelfs attacked Sienna and lost. Guido Guerra advised the Florentine Guelfs not to attack Siena at Montaperti.

“The sinner behind me is Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, who also advised the Florentine Guelfs not to attack Siena at Montaperti. He knew that many mercenaries had joined the Sienese forces and therefore were very likely to be victorious in the battle.

“As all Florentines now know, they should have accepted these men’s advice. The Sienese won the Battle of Montaperti. Farinata, who is punished among the heretics, was one of the generals of the Sienese and their allied forces.

“I am Jacopo Rusticucci, and I was wealthy. My wife was unpleasant, and I sent her home to her father. She was reluctant to do what I wanted her to do, and I blame my sodomy on her.”

Dante knew the biographies of these sinners, and he respected them. Guilty they were of sodomy, but they had been good patriots who loved Florence and wanted the best for her, just like Dante. He would have joined them, but the burning sand prevented him from going to them.

Dante said to the sinners, “I feel grief for the punishment you are suffering. As you think, I am from Florence, your city, and I have heard much about you and about your love for her and about your accomplishments.

“I am on a journey to a better place, but first I must walk through Hell, going down to the very center of the Earth and thus to the bottom of the Inferno.”

“Please tell us about Florence,” Jacopo Rusticucci requested. “Are Florentines filled with courtesy and valor, or are these qualities no longer found in the city?

“We have heard from a newly arrived sinner, Guglielmo Borsiere, that Florence is in bad shape.”

“You have heard truly,” Dante said. “Newly rich people encourage pride and encourage unrestraint and make Florence weep.”

All three sinners said, “Thank you for so clearly answering the question. You are fortunate in being able to speak so clearly and so well. If you are equally fortunate in being able to return to the Land of the Living, keep our memory alive among living men.”

The three sinners then raced to rejoin their group.

Virgil and Dante continued walking, and the sound of the waterfall grew much louder, making it difficult for them to hear what the other spoke. They had reached the pit again and needed to go down to the next Circle.

Dante wore a cord around his waist to serve as a belt, much as the Franciscans did. He had thought earlier to use it to catch the leopard that was keeping him in the dark wood of error and keeping him from ascending to the light — his self-confidence was too abundant and too foolish then.

Virgil requested that cord, and Dante untied it and handed it to him. Virgil then threw it into the abyss.

Dante thought, We will see something strange soon. The cord is a signal.

Virgil has many powers. One power is to always know what time it is by the location of the heavenly bodies such as the Sun and the Moon and the planets even though the Inferno is always dark. Another is great strength. And yet another is to know what Dante is thinking.

Virgil said to Dante, “As you think, soon you will see something strange — something that will respond to my signal.” Almost immediately, Dante saw a figure rising from below through the air. The figure appeared to be swimming in the air.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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Dante’s Inferno: Canto 15 Retelling — Brunetto Latini

Chapter 15: Brunetto Latini

As Dante and Virgil continued walking, Dante observed the burning desert. He saw that the stone bank of the river was like a wall built in a country below sea level to keep sea water out of a field so that it could be used to grow crops. In that case, the walls make the field fertile rather than infertile. Here in the burning desert, of course, the wall is unable to make the burning desert fertile.

Virgil and Dante had left the wood of the suicides far behind, and now one of the groups of running sinners were coming towards them.

These are some of the sodomites, Virgil thought. They are men who sought sex with other men. They took something that ought to be fertile and made it infertile.

The men looked at Dante the way that some men will look at other men at night, and one of the sodomites recognized Dante and touched the hem of his clothing and shouted, “This is a marvel!”

Dante looked closely at the burned features of the sodomite, recognized him as a man he had known and still respected, and said, “Is this really you here, Sir?”

This is Brunetto Latini, Virgil thought. This sodomite was famous for his writings, including the Trésor, which recounted much encyclopedic knowledge of his day. After the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, he was exiled from Florence. In addition to being a scholar, he was a Guelf.

You have something to learn here, Dante. You do not have homosexual feelings, yet you have something to learn from Brunetto Latini. He was a scholar, but he was very concerned with becoming famous through his writing. You, Dante, need to be more concerned with telling the truth in your writing than with becoming famous through your writing.

You, Dante, are in the Inferno to learn things that will keep you out of the Inferno. What you need to learn here is to not take something that should be fertile and make it infertile. This, of course, is what the sodomites do. No amount of homosexual intercourse will result in the birth of a baby from that union.

Souls in the Inferno know the future, and so I know that you will later be engaged in what should be a fertile act: the writing of The Divine Comedy. To make that work fertile, you must tell the truth in it. What could make the act of writing The Divine Comedy infertile? If you write in order to become famous instead of writing in order to say the truth, The Divine Comedy will not be the fertile work of art that it could and should be.

Brunetto said to Dante, “If it is OK with you, I would like to talk to you for a while, while I let the rest of my group run on ahead.”

Dante replied, “I would like that. Please stay a while and talk to me, as long as my companion here does not mind.”

“I will, then,” Brunetto said, “but I must keep on running beside you. Any of my group who stops for even a moment is condemned to lie on the burning sand for a hundred years, and he is unable to brush the burning flakes of fire from his body during that time.”

Dante continued walking, but he kept his head low to show respect to his friend. Of course, he did not dare to step onto the burning sand.

“You are still alive, so why are you here?” Brunetto asked. “You obviously have an impressive destiny. Who is your guide?”

“In the living world, I lost my way,” Dante said. “I have been trying to find my way to the right path, and yesterday this soul appeared to serve as my guide. This path through Hell is actually the right path to lead me to the path I ought to be on.”

Way to go, Dante, Virgil thought. You no longer think that your great genius is responsible for your being here, although Brunetto seems to think that. Instead, you realize that you so messed up your life that this journey is necessary to save your soul.

“Dante, you are gifted,” Brunetto said. “You are going to be famous. Your name will be in lights. I saw that clearly when I was alive, and if I had not died when I did, I would have continued to encourage you.

“But not everyone feels about you the way that I do. Some people are your enemies. You will do good deeds, but those people will not recognize them. They will make your life hard. Do not allow them to keep you from your destiny and from the fame that ought to be yours.”

“I wish that you were still alive,” Dante replied. “When you were alive, you taught me how people can make themselves eternal.”

Be careful, Dante, Virgil thought. You say that Brunetto taught you how people can make themselves eternal. That is a reference to becoming famous on Earth through writing.

Yet Brunetto is in Hell for all eternity. Brunetto did not teach you about the right kind of “eternal.” Brunetto was all about gaining eternal fame on Earth, not eternal life in Heaven.

If you, Dante, were to concentrate on becoming famous rather than telling the truth in The Divine Comedy, you may end up like Brunetto, with fame that is not long lasting on Earth and with punishment that is eternal in the Inferno.

If you, Dante, were to concentrate on becoming famous rather than telling the truth in The Divine Comedy, you might not put Popes in Hell, but instead flatter them so that you could be their guests and drop their names to other people.

If you, Dante, were to concentrate on becoming famous rather than telling the truth in The Divine Comedy, you might not put any of your friends in your Inferno, but instead you might put only your enemies in your Inferno.

Dante continued talking to Brunetto, “I will write down your prophecy about the enemies who will want to hurt me. A Heavenly lady will be able to make clearer to me all that you have said. I have heard other prophecies that she can also interpret.”

Virgil, pleased that Dante had listened carefully to what had been said to him, repeated a proverb to Dante, “He listens well who notes well what he hears.”

Dante then asked Brunetto about some of the other sinners with him.

Brunetto replied that many clerics and many men of letters were in his group. By name he mentioned Francesco d’Accorso, a lawyer from Florence who also had taught law at the University of Bologna, and Andrea de’ Mozzi, who from 1287 to 1295 had been the Bishop of Florence.

Then Brunetto said, “I would like to stay and talk with you longer, but I cannot. The dust rising from the desert over there shows that a new group of sinners is arriving, and I must not mingle with them.

“I do ask of you one thing: Remember my Trésor. On it my fame rests.”

Then Brunetto, a naked sinner, raced away the way a naked runner at Verona would compete in a race. He ran quickly, as if he would take the first prize.

I hope that you, Dante, have learned what you ought to have learned, Virgil thought. Brunetto truly has a keen interest in fame. However, compromising your artistic vision for fame is a sin. If you don’t tell the truth in your art, your art will not live on and it will not positively affect other people.

Ironically, if you do tell the truth in your art, it can live on and positively affect other people, and your fame will be greater than if you had compromised your artistic vision. You, Dante, may be remembered as one of the greatest poets who ever lived. At best, Brunetto will be a footnote in future scholarly volumes. If you achieve your destiny, Dante, and if you resist writing simply in order to be famous, anyone who reads the Trésor hundreds of years from now will read it only in the hope that he or she will learn more about you, Dante.

Books should be fertile; books written only to make the writer famous are infertile.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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