Dante’s Inferno: Canto 8 Retelling— The Boatman Phlegyas and Filippo Argenti

Chapter 8: The Boatman Phlegyas and Filippo Argenti

Before Dante and Virgil reached the foot of the high tower, they saw some lights. Two small lights appeared at the top of the tower, and then another light appeared far in the distance. They seemed to be signal lights. The presence of Dante and Virgil had been noticed, and someone or something had been alerted.

Dante asked Virgil, “What is happening here? What do the signal lights mean?”

Virgil replied, “The one who has been summoned is already approaching us across the swamp of the Styx. You should be able to see him approaching us now.”

Dante looked and saw a boat crossing the swamp. Only one being was on the boat, and he shouted at Dante and Virgil, “You belong to me, now.”

“Phlegyas, you are wrong,” Virgil replied. “You will have our company only as long as it takes you to ferry us across the swamp.”

Phlegyas was angry. He had thought that Dante was a new soul who would be tormented in the lower Circles of Hell, but he was mistaken.

You are still angry, Phlegyas, Virgil thought. You have been angry for a long time. You became angry when the god Apollo raped your daughter. You were so angry that you set fire to Apollo’s temple at Delphi. Because of that, Apollo killed you. You are a fitting guardian for Circle 5 of Hell, the Circle that punishes the wrathful.

Phlegyas may have been angry at Dante and Virgil, but nevertheless he knew that he had to ferry them across the Styx. Virgil boarded the boat first. Because souls have no weight, the boat did not sink lower into the water. Dante then boarded the boat, which sank lower into the water, revealing that a living human being was on board.

As the boat crossed the Styx, a sinner in the water saw how heavily loaded the boat was. Knowing that a living human being was on board, and curious, and perhaps wanting to do violence to a living human being, the muddy sinner rose out of the muddy water and asked, “Who are you, still-living human? Why do you come here before you are dead?”

Dante replied, “I may have come here, but I will not stay here. Who are you, ugly and muddy sinner?”

The sinner replied. “I am one who cries.”

“I recognize you,” Dante said. “And may you cry and mourn here forever, damn you.”

The muddy sinner reached toward the boat, but the ever-vigilant Virgil, Dante’s guardian, shoved the soul away from the boat, shouting, “Stay away! Stay with the other sinners!”

Virgil then hugged Dante and said, “You have acted rightly. Blessed are you and the womb that bore you. This sinner was arrogant and no good memories of him exist in the living world. And here he is angry forever. Many living men are like this sinner. They think that they are VIPs in the living world, but after they die they will wallow in the mud of the Styx like pigs in a pigsty.”

Yes, you have acted correctly, Virgil thought. Previously, you felt pity for the sinners. You pitied Francesca da Rimini, charming bitch that she was. You also pitied Ciacco. None of these sinners deserves any pity whatsoever. All of them are exactly where they deserve to be. God does not make mistakes. You are learning, Dante. You are at least beginning to feel righteous indignation, which is the mean between the extremes of irrational anger and sullenness. Sullenness, of course, is bottled-up anger.

Dante said to Virgil, “I would like to see this sinner punished even more.”

“You will see just that,” Virgil replied. “A wish such as that deserves to be fulfilled.”

Almost immediately, a group of sinners saw the sinner whom Dante hated. They shouted, “Get Filippo Argenti,” and they mangled him, making Dante happy.

Dante then began to hear the noise of wailing, and he looked at the tower, which was growing nearer.

“The tower is part of the city of Dis — the city of Lucifer,” Virgil said. “Its walls are high, and its residents are fierce.”

“I can see part of the city now,” Dante said. “I see mosques burning with flames.”

“The burning of the mosques provides a reddish light for the lower Circles of Hell,” Virgil said.

The boat arrived at the city of Dis. Wanting to get rid of his passengers quickly, Phlegyas shouted, “Get out of my boat now! This is the entrance you seek!”

Dante and Virgil disembarked, and they saw more than a thousand fallen angels — those who had rebelled with Lucifer against God — on the walls of the city. The fallen angels realized that Dante was still alive, and they shouted at him, “Who are you? What living person dares to come into the Land of the Dead? You, dead soul, may approach the city, but the living being may not. You, dead soul, will stay here with us — we will force you to. Let the living being try to retrace, alone, his steps to the living world — if he dares!”

Hearing this, Dante felt great fear. Virgil had been his guide and guardian throughout the Land of the Dead. He did not want to go anywhere in the Inferno without him. He cried to Virgil, “Please don’t leave me. You have been my protector, and I need you. If we cannot go forward, let us retrace our steps together.”

Virgil replied, “Fear not. No one can prevent us from continuing our journey. Think of the Supreme Emperor and the three Heavenly ladies who want us to take this journey. I will talk to the fallen angels alone. Stay here. Don’t worry — I won’t leave you alone in the Land of the Dead.”

Dante stayed where he was, and Virgil walked off. He did not go out of Dante’s sight, but Dante was unable to hear what Virgil and the fallen angels said to each other. Then the fallen angels raced back to the city of Dis.

Virgil was upset when he returned to Dante. Virgil’s eyes were downcast, and he murmured, “Who are such beings to forbid me to visit the lower Circles of Hell?”

Then Virgil said to Dante, “Don’t worry. This is a minor, temporary setback. These fallen angels cannot keep us from our journey. These fallen angels cause trouble, although they are always conquered. Once they tried to bar the gate into Hell to keep the Mighty Warrior from breaking into Hell and carrying away from Limbo the souls who belong in Paradise. The Mighty Warrior defeated the angels, and now the gate into Hell is always open, forever and forever. Earlier, you saw the words that were written above that gate.

“Already, Heavenly help is on its way. I understand much that concerns reason, but I cannot do everything. This time I need help from Heaven, and that help is already on its way. The Heavenly help will open the gate of Dis so that we may continue on 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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