The beast which has flown up from below symbolizes the deceptive nature of fraud:
"Look at the beast with the pointed tail!
He passes mountains, smashes walls and weapons!
Look at the one that smells up the whole world!"
This way my guide began to talk to me
As he signaled the beast to land on shore
Close to the edge of our stone-paved pathway.
And that repugnant picture of pure fraud
Came on, landing his head and his chest first,
But darting his tail out beyond the bank.
His face was the face of a saintly person,
So placid was the surface of the skin,
But his whole trunk was the shape of a snake.
He had two paws, with hair up to his armpits;
His back and breasts and both of his flanks
Were painted gaudily with knots and loops.
Tartars or Turks never wove a cloth
With more colors in background and design,
Nor did Arachne ever loom such webs.
Just as boats sometimes lie on shore
Half in the water and half still on land,
And just as there among the guzzling Germans
The beaver crouches ready to do battle,
So did that worst of all wild beasts lay there
On the rim of stone bordering the sand.
Out in the void all his tail stretched quivering,
Twisting in the air its poisonous fork
Which had a tip armed like a scorpion’s.
(Inf. XVII, 1-27)
Just as the monster Geryon which bears the poets down into the eighth circle of hell presents a fair face on a monstrous body, the punishments of the souls in the ten malebowges (concentric circular trenches in which are places specific categories of sinner) of fraud are designed to be images of the found reality lurking beneath the deceptive exterior of said sins, and sinners.
Dante describes the layout of this region of hell as follows:
Lodged in hell is a place called Malebolge,
All made of stone the color of iron ore,
As is the cliff wall that encloses it.
Right in the middle of this cankered field
A broad and deep-cut chasm opens up —
In its place I shall describe its structure.
The belt, then, that is left between the chasm
And the steep stony cliff, forms a circle
And its bottom has been sliced into ten valleys.
Just as, where moat on moat encompasses
A castle to defend its central walls,
The ground in which they’re dug shapes a design,
Such a pattern here these ditches formed;
And as such fortresses have footbridges
Out from their gates up to the outer banks
So from the bottom of the cliff ran ridges
Which crossed above the embankments and ditches
Up to the chasm where they end and merge.
In this spot we found ourselves, dismounted
From the back of Geryon; the poet
Kept to the left and I walked on behind him.
(Inf. XVIII, 1-21)
It is perhaps easiest to envision by means of Botticelli's drawing here:
The first of these malebowges is populated by the pimps, panderers and seducers, those who used sexuality as a tool of fraud and gain. The sinners are divided into two files, one moving in each direction along the trench, while demons whip them ever faster. This first of these lines is made up of pimps and panderers.
While I moved on, my eye caught someone else’s,
And immediately I said to myself,
"Surely I have seen this one before."
So I held up my steps to stare at him,
And my kindly guide halted with me
And gave me leave to go a short way back.
That scourged spirit thought that he could hide
By lowering his head, but little it helped him,
For I said, "You who gaze upon the ground,
"Unless the features which you wear are false,
You are Venedico Caccianemico:
But what put you in such a juicy pickle?"
And he replied, "I tell it unwillingly,
But your plain speech forces me to do it
By reminding me of that world of old.
"I was the one who led Ghisolabella
To satisfy the will of the Marquis,
Whatever way the vile tale is reported."
While he was talking a devil lashed at him
With his whip and cried out, "On your way, pimp!
There are no women here for you to con."
(Inf. XVIII, 40-57, 64-66)
Here in the circles of Fraud many of the spirits, as with Venedico above, will prove unwilling to be identified, at least at first. Many of these are sins of stealth and hiding. Venedico, with whom Dante spoke, was rumored to have procured his sister for the Marquis Obizzo II of Este in order to gain political favor.
As Dante and Virgil cross over the malebowge, the can now see the seducers, who are being whipped in the opposite direction from the pimps. Among them Virgil points out Jason from classical mythology:
Even without my asking, my good master
Spoke up, "Look at that mighty one approaching
Who does not seem to shed a tear for pain.
"What a kingly look he still retains!
That is Jason, who with heart and brains
Robbed Colchis of the gold fleece of their ram.
"He voyaged to the island of Lemnos
After the brash and merciless women
Had put all of their menfolk to the sword.
"There with his love tokens and stylish words
He beguiled the young Hypsipyle
Who had first beguiled the other women.
"There he left her, pregnant and forsaken:
Such sin condemns him to such punishment,
And for Medea, too, is vengeance wreaked.
‘With him go all the beguilers of others —
Let this now be enough for you to know
Of the first valley and sinners in its jaws."
(Inf. XVIII, 82-99)
As in the previous instances we have seen of punishment for carnal sins, ceaseless motion is used as a metaphor for the sins of the flesh. However, while the lustful and the sodomites were driven about by natural forces of a sort (wind, fire) in image of how their natural appetites drew them into sin, these shades are driven along their path of suffering by demons with whips, in reflection of how they drove or drew others into sin. The compellers have become the compelled.
Leaving the pimps and seducers behind, the poets approach the second malebowge, which contains flatters. Those who once spewed flattering falsehoods from their mouths are now sunk in that which spews less prettily from the other end of the body.
The banks were coated with a slimy mold
From exhalations below; it stuck to them,
Attacking eyes and nose with stinging must.
The bottom was so deep we could not see it
Anywhere, except by climbing up the spine
Of the arch where the ridge rises highest.
Here we arrived, and down there in the ditch
I saw a people plunged in excrement
As if it had been dumped from men’s latrines.
And as I searched below there with my eyes
I saw one with his head so smeared with shit
You could not tell if he were lay or cleric.
He yelled up at me, "Why are you more greedy
To stare at me than at the other scum?"
And I: "Because, if I remember rightly,
"I have seen you before with your hair dry:
And so I eye you more than all the rest.
You are Alessio Interminei of Lucca."
And he, smacking his squash, replied to me,
"Down here I am sunk by the flatteries
That my tongue never tired of repeating."
(Inf. XVIII, 106-126)
The reek of the malebowge of flattery soon drives the poets onward. In the third pit, a strange sight meets their eyes. Here the Simoniacs are stuffed headfirst, up to their waists, in holes in the ground. Their feet at licked by flames, and their legs kick constantly.
Simony (named after Simon Magus who, in Acts of the Apostles, attemps to buy the miraculous powers of the apostles) is the sin of selling holy things and sacraments. In Dante's time, near the height of the financial and political power of the late medieval Church, simony was a major problem addressed be numerous Church reformers, as ambitious men entered the Church in hopes of gaining temporal goods and power rather than doing the work of God.
Virgil guides Dante down into the malebowge itself so that Dante can interview one of the damned souls being punished there. What follows is one of Dante's most famous meetings in the Commedia.
"O whatever you are, sorrowful soul,
Planted like a stake with your top downward,"
I started out, "say something, if you can."
I stood there like a friar hearing confession
From a foul assassin who, once fixed in place,
To delay execution calls him back again.
And he cried, "Are you already standing there,
Are you already standing there, Boniface?
By several years the record lied to me!
"Are you so quickly glutted with the wealth
Which did not make you fear to take by guile
The lovely lady and then lay her waste?"
I acted like a person who’s left standing —
Not comprehending what’s been said to him —
Half-mocked and at a loss to make an answer.
Then Virgil spoke up, "Tell him right away,
‘I am not he, I’m not the one you think!’ "
And I replied as I had been instructed.
At this the spirit twisted both feet wildly;
Then, sighing deeply, with a voice in tears,
He asked, "What, then, do you demand of me?
"If to know who I am has so compelled you
That you continued down this bank, then know
Once I was vested in the papal mantle,
"And truly I was a son of the she-bear,
So avid to advance my cubs that up there
I pocketed the money and here, myself.
"Under my head have been dragged the others
Who went, by way of simony, before me,
Squashed flat in the fissures of the stone.
"I shall plunge down there, in my turn, when
The one I took you for — while thrusting at you
That question so abruptly — will arrive here.
"But a longer time now have I baked my feet
And stood like this upside-down than he
Will stay planted with his red-hot feet up!
"For after him will come one fouler in deeds,
A lawless shepherd from the westward land,
One fit to cover up both him and me.
"He’ll be a new Jason, like him we read of
In Maccabees; just as Jason’s king was kind,
So shall the king of France be kind to him."
(Inf. XIX, 46-87)
The soul that Dante addressed is Pope Nicholas III, a member of the Orsini family (thus the "she bear" reference is a pun on the Latin "ursus", bear) gave a number of key church positions to his family members. Dante here accuses him of simony as well, though the Catholic Encyclopedia begs to differ. Dante's accusations may stem as much from his political differences with Nicholas and the pope's political objectives within Italy as from any real crimes on Nicholas's part.
Nonetheless, the Nicholas of Dante's story is planted headfirst in the malebowge of simoniacs (perhaps partly in image of their trying to grow money in an inappropriate soil, church offices, and also in image of how they have reversed the true hierarchy of values by seeking holy things for their monetary rather than spiritual value) and at first mistakes Dante for Boniface VIII (who will not in fact die until 1303, three years after the story takes place).
The "lovely lady" the Nicholas refers to is the Church, the Bride of Christ, whom Nicholas and Boniface are accused of having despoiled for money. Nicholas then goes on to foretell that Clement V will outstrip both him and Boniface in wickedness, beginning the Avignon papacy. Nicholas's speech also reveals that there is but one slot in the circle of the simoniacs for popes, and as each new one is dropped in, he pushes the others down further into fissures in the rock. Nicholas is, thus, the current top of the stack of simoniac popes, destined to be pushed down by Boniface when he dies.
Dante then chastises Nicholas, and through him clerical corruption in general.
I do not know if now I grew too brash,
But I replied to him in the same measure,
"Well, then, tell me: how costly was the treasure
"That our Lord demanded of Saint Peter
Before he gave the keys into his keeping?
Surely he said only ‘Follow me.’
"Nor did Peter or the rest take gold
Or silver from Matthias when they chose him
By lot to take the place the traitor lost.
"Stay put, therefore, since you are justly punished,
And guard with care the ill-acquired money
That made you so high-handed against Charles.
"And were it not that I as yet feel bound
By my deep reverence for the mighty keys
Which you once held in the lighthearted life,
"I would here utter words still far more bitter,
Because your avarice afflicts the world,
Trampling good men and vaulting evildoers.
"You are the shepherds the evangelist meant
When he saw ‘she who sits upon the waters’
Fornicating with the kings of earth.
"She is the one born with the seven heads
Who from her ten horns begot all her strength
So long as virtue was her bridegroom’s pleasure.
"A god of gold and silver you have fashioned!
How do you differ from idolators
Except they worship one god — you a hundred?
"Ah, Constantine, how much foul harm was fostered,
Not by your conversion but by the dowry
Which the first wealthy father took from you?"
And while I chanted him these notes — whether
Bitten by his anger or his conscience —
He gave a vicious kick with his two feet.
(Inf. XIX, 88-120)
Dante's conversation with Nicholas III is one of the longest single character interactions in the Commedia, and some have suggested that his tirade against corruption among the clergy suggests he was some sort of precursor to the later break-up of the Church during the reformation.
This seems much misplaced, however, in regards to the author of a work so steeped in Catholic theology and symbolism that the Commedia. Dante's rant against the corruption of the papacy should be seen for what it is: a faithful (though highly political) Catholic's reaction to the often corrupt marriage of Church and politics in the late medieval and early renaissance periods. This same horror would lead to numerous reform movements within the Church (as well as those that famously ended up abandoning the Church entirely) and should temper any nostalgia that people have for the "age of faith". The marriage of ecclesiastical and temporal power was usually an unhappy one.
The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter
The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum
And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.