Dante’s Inferno: Canto 25 Retelling — the Transformation of Thieves

Chapter 25: The Transformations of Thieves

After Vanni Fucci had made his prophecy, he formed his hands to make obscene gestures, and then he raised them in the air and shouted, “These are for you, God!”

Dante thought, Every snake here is my friend because they punish sinners such as Vanni Fucci.

Good, Virgil thought. Dante is feeling righteous indignation. He realizes that Vanni Fucci ought to be punished severely.

A snake immediately coiled itself around Vanni Fucci’s neck and stopped him from saying anything more. Another snake bound his arms together in front.

Vanni Fucci’s hometown, Pistoia, might as well destroy itself, Dante thought. Its founders were criminals — the remains of Catiline’s army, which tried to end the Roman republic before its time. But its descendants have done more damage than its founders ever did. No sinner I have seen in the Inferno is haughtier than Vanni Fucci — not even Capaneus the blasphemer.

Unable to speak now, Vanni Fucci fled, and a Centaur appeared. On his back were an enormous number of snakes and a fire-breathing dragon.

Virgil said to Dante, “This Centaur is named Cacus. He is not with the other Centaurs who guard the river of boiling blood because he is a thief. 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 galloped off to find and punish Vanni Fucci, and Dante saw three sinners whom he had not noticed before. They had seen Dante and Virgil first, and they asked, “Who are you?”

Before Dante and Virgil could answer, one of the sinners asked, “Where is Cianfa?”

Dante remained silent, and he motioned for Virgil to also remain silent.

Then they saw something incredible. A six-legged reptile jumped onto a sinner, and the reptile bit both of the sinner’s cheeks. The reptile’s front legs grabbed the sinner’s arms, the reptile’s middle legs grabbed the sinner’s stomach, and the reptile’s rear legs grabbed the sinner’s legs. Then the two beings transformed into one being.

The two beings melted and flowed together, and a watching sinner shouted, “Agnèl, you are changing! You are not what you were!”

Transformed into one reptile, the two beings who were now one being walked away.

A small four-legged reptile then bit one of the remaining two thieves. The thief and the four-legged reptile stared at each other, and then they transformed in a way that neither Lucan or Ovid had ever written about. They wrote about single transformations — one thing turning into another — but what Dante and Virgil now saw was a double transformation: The four-legged reptile transformed into a human thief, and the human thief transformed into a four-legged reptile. The four-legged reptile had stolen the human thief’s form.

This is another contrapasso, Virgil thought. In the living world, the thieves stole things that belonged to other people, and in this bolgia the only thing the naked thieves have — their identity — is stolen by other thieves. The snakes and legged reptiles here are thieves, and the only way for a snake or legged reptile to regain a human form is to steal it from another thief.

When a snake or legged reptile bites or wraps itself around a thief, one of three things can happen:

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

Two, the thief and the snake or legged reptile can unite into one body, or

Three, the thief can become a snake or legged reptile, while the snake or legged reptile becomes a thief with a human form.

Thieves create a lot of uncertainty. You may think that you have something, but 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 or legged reptile bites a thief.

In addition, the thieves used their limbs to steal from other people and to run away, and now they often become an armless, legless snake.

After regaining his human form, the thief who had been a four-legged reptile said, “Let Buoso have my old form and run on four legs for a while.”

I recognize two of the thieves, Dante thought. One is Puccio Sciencato. Another is Francesco Cavalcanti, aka Guercio. The citizens of Gaville murdered him, and his relatives avenged his death by decimating — killing every 10th man — the population of Gaville.

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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