Virgil and Dante make their way past Plutus and encounter the souls of hoarders and spendthrifts. Virgil gives Dante a lesson on Fortune. They make their way toward the Styx, where angry and sullen spirits are submerged in the marshy slime.
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Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!”Apart from the fact that these words are not Italian, that “pape” looks like the word “pope,” and “Satàn” looks like the word “Satan,” – draw your own conclusions – these … Continue reading What on earth was that! My kind wise man, who knew everything, calmed me: “Don’t be frightened at him. He can scream at us all he likes, but he can’t stop our journey downward.” Then he stopped and hollered back at that raging windbag: “Shut up, you cursed Hell-wolf! Feed yourself on the evil bile that rots away your guts! We travel with a purpose – willed on high, where great Michael won the battle against those angels who thought to assault the Eternal King!”Twice already, once to Charon in Canto 3 and once to Minos in Canto 5, Virgil has used a similar formula to secure their safe passage, though the inclusion of the Archangel Michael here is new.
Crrrack!!! As when a ship’s tallest mast breaks in a great wind, and the sails collapse into a huge tangled heap, so that bloated Plutus crashed to the ground!Even among the ancients there was some confusion between Pluto the god and guardian of the Underworld, and Plutus the god of wealth. This is all we’ll see of him in the poem, but it seems fairly … Continue reading And with that, we started our descent into the fourth circle of Hell, walking along the edge of that dismal pit where all the world’s evil is dumped.
Oh, the vengeance of God’s justice here! I’ve never seen the like of such suffering and pain. How on earth could anyone let themselves come to an end like this? Just as those mythical sea monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, would crash against each other, so the souls here must do the same.The mention of Scylla and Charybdis is a reference to the Strait of Messina that separates the “toe” of Italy from Sicily. It is 20 miles long, at its northern end it is about 2 miles across, and … Continue reading
First of all, let me note that there were more souls here than anywhere above.Note how Dante stops his narrative momentarily to tell us how many sinners there were in this place. In the previous cantos, he saw damned souls beyond counting. In this circle, he sees even more. If … Continue reading They would form two groups and, screaming their heads off, they’d run rolling enormous boulders at each other. This was no game! When they’d clash together, they’d scream out at each other. One group: “Why do you hoard?” and the other: “Why do you waste?” Then they’d go back to the opposite sides, turn around, and crash and scream at each other again. They’ll clash back and forth like this forever.Here we encounter more sins of intemperance, in this instance the misuse of money. And after his classical allusion to Scylla and Charybdis Dante presents the contrapasso for the misers and … Continue reading
It hurt my heart to see such a sight, and I said to Virgil: “Master, who are these souls? Those over on the left look like they’re priests because they all have the tonsure.”By the tonsure here, Dante is referring to the clerical and monastic practice of shaving the crown of the head as part of the induction ritual into the clerical or monastic state.
He answered: “When these souls here were alive, they had such narrow minds that they had no sense about money, as you can figure out from their shouting at each other when they clash. And you’re right: those over there on the left were, in fact, priests, cardinals, and even popes, too – in whom avarice is a powerful temptation.”The various mentions of opposites – Scylla and Charybdis, misers and spenders, those on the right and those on the left – all point to the ever-present possibility of destruction and death when … Continue reading
“I bet I’ll be able to recognize some of them,” I said.
But Virgil replied: “Forget that! Their sin left them undistinguished when they were alive, and it’s worse here.This is the only place in Hell where Dante recognizes no one. Again, this is part of the conrapasso: in life they recognized nothing but their money and in Hell, as Virgil will tell Dante, their sin … Continue reading For all eternity they’ll be smashing into each other and reminding each other of their sins: these tight-fisted ones here, and those spendthrifts without hair over there. Squandering and hoarding robbed them of their humanity when they were alive. And it got them into this madness you see here.In a clever irony, those who squandered and hoarded were “robbed” by their sin – it stole their humanity and brought them to where they vocalize to each other what they would never have dared … Continue reading I don’t want to waste too much time on them except to say that you see here how Fortune makes a great mockery of people’s wealth. They constantly fight over it, but, you know? Not all the gold in the world would buy a moment’s rest for these souls now.”
I thought I’d take the opportunity to find out more, so I asked: “Now that you mention it, what, exactly, is Fortune? What’s she like, who holds all the world’s wealth in her hands?”
“Oh, foolish humans: you’re really ignorant! Let me tell you about Fortune. The Infinite Creator who made the great spheres in the heavens gave each one a guide. As those spheres shine they also shed light on each other equally. And here’s where it gets interesting. The Creator also put all the wealth of the world into the hands of a guide who, whenever she feels like it, shifts that wealth every which way you can think of – from nation to nation, person to person. And no one can interfere with the way she works – one nation rises, another falls.
“She’s as silent as a snake in the grass. Nothing and no one can influence her; she just rules her realm as the other gods rule theirs. Change is always in motion with her as people come and go, trying their luck with her. As you can imagine, she’s cursed and condemned for all this – even by people who are (for the time being) on her good side. But she’s above it all and hears nothing. She is blessed, and like all the first creatures of the Creator, she turns her sphere with perfect joy.The goddess of Fortune, a popular figure in the Middle Ages, is often depicted sitting next to a great turning wheel or holding a smaller one. This is the Wheel of Fortune or Chance. On the wheel are … Continue reading So, now, let’s start moving down to where we’ll find even greater misery. The stars that were rising when I came for you in the forest above are now setting and we can’t stay here much longer.”What Virgil is alluding to here in astronomical terms is that it’s now past midnight. In Hell, he usually tells time by the stars or the moon, but never by the sun.
We moved to the other bank of this circle and passed a boiling spring that pours out into a channel it made.So where are they now? Our travelers been walking across the fourth circle observing the misers and the spenders play their miserable game, rolling great boulders at each other and shouting epithets … Continue reading That water was darker than purple, and we followed it down a rugged path until, at the bottom of the slope, it became a foul swamp called Styx. Of course I was curious to see who all the naked souls were, sludging around there in that mire, their faces contorted in rage. They wrestled with each other violently: hands, heads, chests, feet, teeth – they were tearing each other from limb to limb!This is the last circle where sins of appetite or passion are punished. Note how the violence at each level of Hell has gotten progressively stronger. The neutral sinners were stung by swarms of … Continue reading
Virgil said: “My son, look now at souls who were overcome with anger.One might suggest a tenuous connection between the purplish water and that faces of those overcome by violent anger – they turn reddish purple. And believe me when I tell you, that under the surface of that swamp are also souls – they make the water bubble with their sighing under there. Just watch. Stuck down there they mutter: ‘In the happy sunshine above we were sullen and sour while our hearts were filled with sloth. Now we lie here “singing” in this black muck!’ They don’t actually sing this ‘song,’ they just gurgle it in the slime there.”These are the last souls Dante will see in the first major section of Hell. As with each section, so here: the farther down one goes, the worse the sin and sinners. If the word Styx means … Continue reading
As we made a wide turn around the dry bank and that reeking pond, we kept our eyes on those sad souls who feasted on mud!This would have been an appropriate remark for the gluttons as well. And soon, we came to the foot of a high tower.This high tower connects the narrative at the end of this canto with the next, and because nothing else is said about it, our curiosity is aroused. Of course, it will soon be satisfied.
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Apart from the fact that these words are not Italian, that “pape” looks like the word “pope,” and “Satàn” looks like the word “Satan,” – draw your own conclusions – these words are gibberish and have confounded centuries of commentators. Nevertheless, they create a segue between the end of Canto 6 and the beginning of this one. We learned at the end of the previous canto that this was Pluto, and his wild expostulation here may be surprise or anger at seeing his region of Hell invaded by strangers. And we have here yet another mythological guardian of these infernal regions who objects to the presence of Dante and his guide. Recall Charon in Canto 3, Minos in Canto 5, and Cerberus in Canto 6.|
|↑2||Twice already, once to Charon in Canto 3 and once to Minos in Canto 5, Virgil has used a similar formula to secure their safe passage, though the inclusion of the Archangel Michael here is new.|
|↑3||Even among the ancients there was some confusion between Pluto the god and guardian of the Underworld, and Plutus the god of wealth. This is all we’ll see of him in the poem, but it seems fairly clear from the context of this canto that Dante means the latter. So far, we’ve become acquainted with two sins of intemperance – lust and gluttony – and we can expect more of the same in this canto. Dante’s image of Plutus – and what he stands for – as a kind of sail over-bloated with wind is appropriate for the world of money where the rich are often swollen with pride, or when, nowadays, we talk of inflation and deflation – and sometimes a crash, as in the case of our guardian monster! It would be several hundred years before the invention of the balloon, but one could imagine Virgil here with a hatpin!|
|↑4||The mention of Scylla and Charybdis is a reference to the Strait of Messina that separates the “toe” of Italy from Sicily. It is 20 miles long, at its northern end it is about 2 miles across, and at its southern end about 10 miles across. From the time boats started criss-crossing the Mediterranean, it has served as a convenient, but sometimes dangerous, shortcut between Italy and Sicily. Changing tides and currents, winds, whirlpools, and hidden rocks demand careful planning and navigation. In the ancient world, these dangers, which undoubtedly swallowed any number of ships, became personified in two terrifying monsters who lived at the northern and narrowest end of the strait: Charybdis becoming the whirlpool, and Scylla a great rock. Being “between a rock and a hard place” now makes sense. The monsters appear in Homer and in Virgil. Virgil writes this in his Aeneid (Book III:522-550):
“But when the wind carries you, on leaving, to the Sicilian shore, and the barriers of narrow Pelorus open ahead, make for the seas and land to port, in a long circuit: avoid the shore and waters on the starboard side. They say, when the two were one continuous stretch of land, they one day broke apart, torn by the force of a vast upheaval (time’s remote antiquity enables such great changes). The sea flowed between them with force, and severed the Italian from the Sicilian coast, and a narrow tideway washes the cities and fields on separate shores. Scylla holds the right side, implacable Charybdis the left, who, in the depths of the abyss, swallows the vast flood three times into the downward gulf and alternately lifts it to the air, and lashes the heavens with her waves. But a cave surrounds Scylla with dark hiding-places, and she thrusts her mouths out, and drags ships onto the rocks. Above she has human shape, and is a girl, with lovely breasts, a girl, down to her sex, below it she is a sea-monster of huge size, with dolphins’ tails joined to a belly formed of wolves. It is better to round the point of Pachynus, lingering, and circling Sicily on a long course, than to once catch sight of hideous Scylla in her vast cave and the rocks that echo to her sea-dark hounds.”
|↑5||Note how Dante stops his narrative momentarily to tell us how many sinners there were in this place. In the previous cantos, he saw damned souls beyond counting. In this circle, he sees even more. If the Inferno were simply represented as an immense space filled with condemned souls, we might be satisfied with Dante telling us that they were beyond counting. One has in mind modern stadiums that hold over one hundred thousand spectators. But Dante began counting just the neutral sinners in Canto 3, saying he had no idea so many people had died. Returning to this refrain in subsequent cantos is designed to make us look at those condemned for each specific sin rather than all of Hell. It would be something like a million neutrals, 3 million carnal sinners, 4 million gluttons, and now, say, 6 million misers and prodigals. Obviously, there’s a moral message here, one of which might ask: “Did you ever think so many people could go to Hell for committing this sin?”|
|↑6||Here we encounter more sins of intemperance, in this instance the misuse of money. And after his classical allusion to Scylla and Charybdis Dante presents the contrapasso for the misers and extravagant spenders. Like the mythological monsters these sins are opposites, but both involve the use of money. The boulders these sinners push around and roll against each other are most likely symbolic of great sacks of money. The spenders perpetually raise a question the hoarders would rather not answer, and the hoarders do the same with the spenders. Thus both groups are forever reminded of their sins while they reenact their strange jousts. Both are sins of blind excess and disorder, neither serving any good purpose. Once again, these sinners have made their reason a slave to their appetites. Instead of wise and prudent saving, the misers accumulated wealth with no rational purpose behind it. Instead of good-hearted generosity, particularly to those in need, the spenders simply wasted their fortunes. Their circling around amounts to nothing, just as – ironically – their spending and hoarding amounted to nothing. As a result, we will soon see, these sinners are also unrecognizable. Dante isn’t making a judgment against wealth per se; rather, as with all sin, it’s the misuse of something good. See 1 Tim. 6:10: “For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.”|
|↑7||By the tonsure here, Dante is referring to the clerical and monastic practice of shaving the crown of the head as part of the induction ritual into the clerical or monastic state.|
|↑8||The various mentions of opposites – Scylla and Charybdis, misers and spenders, those on the right and those on the left – all point to the ever-present possibility of destruction and death when ships passed through the Strait of Messina (see note 6) – too far on either side led to doom. Safe passage was straight down the middle, the via media – prudence and generosity. But not here. As Virgil tells Dante, all the souls here had “narrow minds” and “no sense” about money. To add to overall effect of this scene, he verifies Dante’s suspicion that many of the souls condemned in this circle were clerics, even high Church officials, who were overcome by avarice. As will be seen throughout the poem, Dante the poet doesn’t hesitate to sternly rebuke members of the ecclesiastical establishment who scandalize the faithful by their sinful behavior.|
|↑9||This is the only place in Hell where Dante recognizes no one. Again, this is part of the conrapasso: in life they recognized nothing but their money and in Hell, as Virgil will tell Dante, their sin robbed them of their humanity and thus renders them wholly unrecognizable.|
|↑10||In a clever irony, those who squandered and hoarded were “robbed” by their sin – it stole their humanity and brought them to where they vocalize to each other what they would never have dared to say to themselves or others in life: “Why do you spend so much?” “Why do you hoard?”|
|↑11||The goddess of Fortune, a popular figure in the Middle Ages, is often depicted sitting next to a great turning wheel or holding a smaller one. This is the Wheel of Fortune or Chance. On the wheel are human figures who are seated toward the top, but as the wheel turns, they fall off. In Dante’s cosmology (which he borrows from Ptolemy), each of the heavenly spheres or planets has a special angelic guide who moves it. Here he tells us that God also created a guide of wealth, who is blessed and happy, and whose purpose is to move it around constantly and without care. Thus, as Virgil stated earlier, she “makes a great mockery” of people’s wealth.|
|↑12||What Virgil is alluding to here in astronomical terms is that it’s now past midnight. In Hell, he usually tells time by the stars or the moon, but never by the sun.|
|↑13||So where are they now? Our travelers been walking across the fourth circle observing the misers and the spenders play their miserable game, rolling great boulders at each other and shouting epithets when they meet. Now they’ve arrived at the inner edge of this fourth circle and are about to descend into the fifth. Here they come across a boiling stream that pours from the inner edge of the fourth circle, and they follow it down into the fifth. Hell, we must recall, is shaped like an inverted cone, with many concentric levels across which Dante and Virgil will travel. This “boiling spring” pouring out of the bank is from the River Acheron which we saw in Canto 3. All the rivers in Hell flow around the circumference of their respective circles and, as we will learn in a later canto, all the rivers are connected and ultimately have a single source. At some point, after Canto 3, the Acheron has gone underground beneath the first four circles and emerges here. It will form the River Styx, a kind of marshy swamp separating the fifth circle from the sixth, acting as a kind of moat just outside of what will be known as the City of Dis. Appropriately, in Greek the name Styx means “hateful.”|
|↑14||This is the last circle where sins of appetite or passion are punished. Note how the violence at each level of Hell has gotten progressively stronger. The neutral sinners were stung by swarms of hornets and wasps. The lovers were thrown about in wild winds as Francesca told the story of how she and her lover were murdered. The gluttons laid in the slush trying to protect themselves from a violent snow storm and the mangling of Cerberus. The misers and the spenders rolled great stones at each other. And now we have angry sinners savagely beating each other on the surface of the swamp, while underneath, we’ll be told, are sinners so filled with rage that all they can do is gurgle in sullen fury. If the misers and spenders on the outer edge of this circle were unrecognizable, that is probably the case here, where the faces of the sinners are contorted with rage and are either covered with or buried in mud. For those above the swamp, there are no clubs or weapons. Like wild, savage animals, they tear at each other tooth and nail. The moral message is clear: underneath the veneer of pleasure and satisfaction there is a subtle violence to both the body and the soul in the sins of the flesh. Dante isn’t saying that love, pleasure, and satisfaction are evil. What he’s pointing out is that excessive, unreasonable love, pleasure, and satisfaction can numb our reason until we lose our moral balance and fall headlong. Note also that Dante’s contrapassos are not of the retributive type. The neutrals are not perpetually forced to make choices. The sexual sinners are neither forced to have sex forever, nor do they have their organs perpetually mangled or cut off. The gluttons are neither forced to eat until they burst, nor are they starved at tables overflowing with food. And the angry are not eternally committing murder or murdered. Recall that Virgil symbolizes human reason and intelligence to its highest degree, but short of divine grace and revelation. His guidance of Dante (and ourselves) through the levels of Hell is designed to acquaint the Pilgrim not only with sin philosophically or morally, or even theologically. Rather he shows Dante the sinners themselves – as tragic human wrecks and self-ruined souls whose deliberate bad choices landed them here. Dante sees them, talks with them, listens to them, and he learns from them. Dante the poet this popular saying, but it works for his Pilgrim and hopefully ourselves when it comes to what we learn from the experience of Hell: “Give someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Show them how to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime.”|
|↑15||One might suggest a tenuous connection between the purplish water and that faces of those overcome by violent anger – they turn reddish purple.|
|↑16||These are the last souls Dante will see in the first major section of Hell. As with each section, so here: the farther down one goes, the worse the sin and sinners. If the word Styx means “hateful,” it is fitting for the souls here. Whether above the swamp or in the muck below, the anger among these souls rages uncontrollably. What’s worse, the savagery is indiscriminate. We are not told whether any of the souls knew each other in life and carry on their feuding here in the afterlife. In the depths of the muck, as Virgil tells Dante, the souls are literally incapacitated – drowned – by their anger in such sullenness and hatred for everything, including themselves, that all they can do is gurgle. As opposed to anger, sullenness is more inward and stifling, and so these souls are hidden below the surface of the swamp. And interestingly enough, these sullen sinners self-advertise in the “song” they gurgle perpetually. While there are occasions for appropriately sad songs, singing is most often an uplifting expression of joy; in church the praise of God. But not for these souls who confess that their sour souls were filled with sloth. Here one might think immediately of laziness, but that is not the case. Perhaps a better word is brooding. These souls found nothing happy in life and smoldered inwardly until the last possible spark of light within them vanished.
While all the sinners in this place are said to be wrathful or angry, they appear to us in two different places or states: the violently angry are above the water, and the sullenly angry are below. Some commentators clarify this difference by pointing to Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, both of whom Dante was acquainted with. At the risk of oversimplifying, Aquinas, commenting on Aristotle and noting in his own work, actually sees three different forms of wrath: one form is active, outward, or fighting, a second form is sullen because it burns inside, and a third form is vindictive because it looks for revenge. Following Dante, most commentators place the active wrathful above the marsh and the sullen below the surface. The vindictive are most likely below with the sullen because their thoughts are toward revenge, but they haven’t acted on it.
|↑17||This would have been an appropriate remark for the gluttons as well.|
|↑18||This high tower connects the narrative at the end of this canto with the next, and because nothing else is said about it, our curiosity is aroused. Of course, it will soon be satisfied.|