Dante’s Inferno: Canto 23 Retelling — The Hypocrites

Chapter 23: The Hypocrites

As they continued their journey, Dante thought, I remember one of the fables of Aesop: A mouse wishes to cross a pool of water, and he asks a frog to help him across the pool of water. The frog agrees to help the mouse, but halfway across the pool of water the frog attempts to drown the mouse. A hawk sees the frog and mouse, captures both of them, eats the frog, and allows the mouse to go free. Moral: The guilty are punished, and the innocent go free.

The beginning and the moral of this fable apply to what has happened here. The black devils tried to trick us, but we are now free and two of the devils are in the boiling pitch.

But we are not out of danger yet.

Dante said to Virgil, “I fear danger. We need to hide right away. As soon as the devils fish their brothers out of the boiling pitch, they will come after us for revenge. I think I can hear them now.”

Virgil replied, “I can read your thoughts. As fast as a mirror reflects your image, your thoughts are mirrored in my mind. My thoughts are the same as yours. I am looking for a place where we can slide into the next pocket.”

Dante then saw the devils coming after them with their wings spread wide and flapping for more speed. Virgil also knew that the devils were coming toward them fast. He grabbed Dante the way that a mother will grab her son and rescue him from a fire — not even waiting to put something on over her underclothing. The flames are too close, and her son needs to be rescued.

Still holding Dante, Virgil slid down the bank into the next bolgia. They slid down quickly — quicker than water flows down a conduit. All the time Virgil held Dante against his chest, making sure that Dante was not hurt during the slide.

They reached the bottom of the bolgia, then looked up and saw ten black devils, but they had no need to fear the black devils: When God made the black devils the guards of the fifth pocket, He made it impossible for them to leave that pocket.

Now, in the sixth pocket, Dante and Virgil saw, slowly moving, step by step, sinners wearing gaudy clothing — clothing that weighed them down. The sinners were wearing cloaks with the hoods pulled down over their faces. These cloaks resembled the fancy cloaks that the Benedictine monks wear at Cluny. But these cloaks were gold on the outside and iron on the inside — both are heavy metals, although gold is much more valuable than iron. Weighed down by their heavy cloaks, the sinners walk slowly but everlastingly in the sixth pocket.

This is another contrapasso, Virgil thought. These are the hypocrites, who made a show of holding beliefs that they did not actually hold. The hypocrites appeared golden on the outside although on the inside they were made of base metal, so for eternity they appropriately wear heavy cloaks that are gold on the outside but lead on the inside.

Dante asked Virgil, “Look around, please, and see if anyone is here whom I have heard of.”

Overhearing him, a sinner with a Tuscan accent called, “Don’t move so quickly, and perhaps I can fulfill your request.”

Virgil told Dante, “Stop and wait for the sinner, and then walk with him at his pace.”

Two sinners came slowly toward Dante, and then one sinner said to the other, “Look at this man and the way his throat moves — he seems to be alive. But if both of these men here are dead, why aren’t they wearing the cloak of the hypocrites?”

Then the two sinners asked Dante, “Who are you?”
Dante answered, “I was born and raised in Florence, but who are you, who cry with grief?”

“We are hypocrites,” said one of the sinners, “and these cloaks that are gold on the outside and iron on the inside — as we were in life — weigh us down and make our joints creak.

“I am the Guelf Catalano and my companion is the Ghibelline Loderingo. We are the Jovial Friars who were brought into Florence to help keep the peace, but instead we took sides and increased the violence of Florence. You can see that we were hypocrites: We pretended to be peacekeepers but actually we fomented violence.”

Dante was going to say more, but suddenly he stopped because he saw something surprising on the ground: a figure who was crucified with three stakes.

Friar Catalano saw what Dante was looking at, and he explained, “The figure crucified on the ground is Caiaphas, who allowed Jesus to be killed even though he believed Him to be innocent. Now all the hypocrites must step on him as they make the round of this Circle. Also crucified in this way are his father-in-law, Annas, who delivered Jesus to him, and all the other Jews who advised that Jesus die.”

Dante noticed that Virgil was staring, amazed, at Caiaphas. Virgil had never seen this form of punishment in the Inferno before. When he had traveled to the bottom of the Inferno before, Jesus had not yet been crucified.

Virgil then asked one of the Jovial Friars, “Can you tell us, please, how we can leave this pocket without having to call on the black devils who guard the fifth pocket?”

The Jovial Friar replied, “Nearby is a fallen bridge, the ruins of which you may climb up. All of the pockets in this Circle have bridges that cross them, except this one, which has had every bridge smashed.”

Virgil was silent for a moment, and then he said, “The black devil named Malacoda lied to me. He said that a bridge across this bolgia is still intact.”

The Jovial Friar replied, “I have heard of the devil’s many talents, one of which is telling lies.”

Virgil quickly walked away, his face contorted with anger.

Dante followed his cherished guide.

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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