With great effort, the poets scale the fallen boulders that are all that remain of one of the bridges over the sixth malebolge, and thus escape the region of the hypocrites. Looking down into the next malebolge, Dante sees a mass of snakes.
And there within I saw a repulsive mass
Of serpents in such a horrifying state
That still my blood runs cold when I recall them.
No more need Libya boast about the sands
Where chelydri, jaculi, phareae,
And cenchres with amphisbaena breed:
She could not show — with all Ethiopia
Nor the lands that lie surrounding the Red Sea —
So rampant and pestiferous a plague.
Among this cruel and miserable swarm
Were people running stripped and terrified,
With no hope of hiding-hole or heliotrope.
They had hands tied behind their backs by snakes
That thrust out head and tail through their loins
And that coiled then in knots around the front.
And look! A serpent sprang up at one sinner
Upon our strand and it transfixed him there
Where neck and shoulders knotted at the nape.
No o or i was ever written faster
Than that sinner flared up and burst in flames
And, falling down, completely turned to ashes.
And then, as he lay scattered on the ground,
The ashy dust collected by itself
And suddenly returned to its first shape.
Just so, men of high learning have avowed
That the phoenix dies and is then reborn
When it approaches its five-hundredth year;
(Inf. XXIV, 83-108)
Virgil questions the now re-formed shade, and he reveals that he is Vanni Fucci, notorious for having robbed the cathedral of Pistoia. Angry at having had to confess his identity and his crime, Vanni prophesies Dante's downfall in Florentine politics, and mocks him.
At the end of this harangue of his the thief
Raised high his fists forked into figs and cried,
"Take that, God, I screwed them against you!"
From then on the serpents were my friends
Because one of them coiled around his neck
As though to say, "I’ll not have you say more!"
And another whipped about his arms and tied him,
Wrapping itself so tightly in front of him
That with the knot he couldn’t jerk a muscle.
(Inf. XXV, 1-9)
Giving the fig consists of making a fist with the thumb poking out between first and middle fingers, and carries roughly the obscene connotation which the gesture appears to suggest.
The blaspheming thief is set upon by several snakes, restrained by their coils, and wanders off down the malebolge. This is the malebolge of thieves, and the precise nature of their punishment only becomes clear to Dante a little later, as he watches a strange series of events:
While I was staring down at the three sinners
I saw a serpent with six feet, from in front
Leap up on one and entirely grip him.
It wrapped his stomach with its middle feet
And with its forefeet pinned him by the arms;
Then sank its teeth in one cheek, then the other.
It spread its hind feet down about his thighs
And thrust the tail out between his legs
And at his back pulled it up straight again.
Never did ivy cling to any tree
So tightly as that horrendous beast
Twined its limbs around and through the sinner’s.
Then the two stuck together as if made
Of hot wax and mixed their colors so
Neither one nor other seemed what once they were:
Just as, in front of the flame, a brown color
Advances on the burning paper, so that
It is not yet black but the white dies away.
The other two glared at one another, each
Crying out, "O Agnello, how you change!
Look! already you are neither two nor one."
The two heads by now had become one
When we saw the two features fuse together
Into one face in which they both were lost.
Two arms took shape out of the four remnants;
The thighs with the legs, belly, and chest,
Changed into members never before seen.
Then every former likeness was blotted out:
That perverse image seemed both two and neither,
And, such, at a slow pace, it moved away.
Just as the lizard, that under the giant lash
Of the dog days darts from hedge to hedge,
Looks like a lightning flash as it crosses the path,
So seemed, heading straight out toward the gut
Of the other two, a small blazing serpent,
Black and livid like a peppercorn.
And in one sinner it bit right through that part
From which we first take suck and nourishment;
And down it fell full length in front of him.
The bitten sinner stared but uttered nothing.
Instead, he just stood rooted there and yawned
Exactly as though sleep or fever struck him.
The serpent looked at him, he looked at it:
One through the mouth, the other through his wound
Billowed dense smoke and so the two smokes mingled.
...[T]he snake slit its tail into a fork
While the wounded sinner drew his feet together.
The legs with the thighs locked so firmly,
One to the other, that shortly one could find
No sign whatever where the seam had joined.
The slit tail then assumed the very shape
That had been lost there; and the hide of one
Softened as the skin of the other hardened.
I saw his arms returning to the armpits
And the two feet of the reptile — they were short —
Lengthen out while the two arms shortened.
Afterward, the hind feet, twisted up
Together, became the member that men hide,
While from his member the wretch grew two paws.
While smoke veiled both the one and the other
With new color and made the hair grow matted
On the one skin, and the other it made bald,
The one rose upright and the other fell,
Neither averting the lamps of evil eyes
As, staring, they exchanged a nose and snout.
The one standing drew back the face toward
The temples, and from the surplus stuff massed there
Ears emerged above the once-smooth cheeks;
The surplus not pulled back but still remaining
In front, then formed a nose for the face
And filled the lips out to their proper size.
The one lying down sprouted forth a muzzle
And withdrew the ears back into the head
In the same way a snail pulls in its horns.
And the tongue, once single, whole, and suited
For speech, split, while the other’s forked tongue
Sealed back up, and the smoke also stopped.
The soul that had been turned into a beast,
Hissing, filed off along the gully, fast,
And the other, speaking, spat after its tracks.
He turned his new-made shoulders then and told
The third soul left there, "I want Buoso to run,
The way I did, on all fours down the road!"
(Inf. XXV, 49-94, 103-141)
Think what Dante could have done with CGI. This is medieval special effects par excellence.
In life, the sinners had no respect for the property of others. In death, they no longer own the one thing which in earthy life is inseparable from us: our physical form. Half the thieves are snakes and lizards of various kinds, while half are human in form. And each time one of the reptiles bites a human, the the reptile takes the form of the human and vice versa.
Given this tool, the thieves torment each other endlessly stealing each others forms and stealing them back again, sunk eternally in their vice which denies that others can own anything.
Leaving behind the thieves of the seventh malebolge, the poets descend to the eighth, which at first appears to be inhabited by fireflies or some other source of small dancing flames. As they draw closer, Virgil explains that these moving flames are the souls of the counselors of fraud, enwrapped in flame.
A twin flame approaches, and Virgil identifies it as Odysseus and his friend Diomedes, who together hatched so many trickeries which helped bring victory to the Greeks in the Trojan War. Dante desperately wants to hear about these heroes adventures, and so Virgil commands them to speak. Odysseus tells about his last voyage (after the action of the Odyssey) in which he and his comrades set sail again, and journeyed beyond the ends of the earth. In this telling, Odysseus reveals that they came within sight of the mountain of Purgatory in the antipodes (the opposite side of the globe) and were then sunk by a sudden whirlwind of divine wrath.
Odysseus falls silent and moves on. They next meet an Italian shade, who asks Dante for information about political developments in the region since his death. Dante eagerly brings him up to date, and then asks the shades own story.
After the flame had roared on for some time
In its unique way, the pointed tip swayed
Back and forth and then released this breath:
"If I thought that my answer was to someone
Who might one day return up to the world,
This flame would never cease its flickering.
"However, since no one ever turned back, alive,
From this abyss — should what I hear be true —
Undaunted by infamy, I answer you."
(Inf. XXVII, 58-66)
Thus imagining that he is safe from bringing posthumous shame upon himself, the shade reveals that he was Guido da Montefeltro, a soldier and nobleman, who, as he grew older, retired and joined the Franciscans in hopes of making amends for his earlier life and winning an eternal reward. However, he was sought out by Pope Boniface VIII and asked for advice on how to destroy a rival Italian noble family.
Guido says that Boniface promised him absolution in advance of the sin of plotting this treachery, and Guido thus believed him and went along. However, when he died he found this promise of absolution in advance to be of no avail:
"Francis — the moment that I died — came then
For me, but one of the black cherubim
Called to him, ‘Don’t take him! don’t cheat me!
" ‘He must come down to join my hirelings
Because he offered counsel full of fraud,
And ever since I’ve been after his scalp!
" ‘For you can’t pardon one who won’t repent,
And one cannot repent what one wills also:
The contradiction cannot be allowed.’
"O miserable me! how shaken I was
When he grabbed hold of me and cried, ‘Perhaps
You didn’t realize I was a logician!’
"He carried me off to Minos who twisted
His tail eight times around his hardened back,
Then bit it in gigantic rage and blared,
" ‘This is a sinner for the fire of thieves!’
So I am lost here where you see me go
Walking in this robe and in my rancor."
When he had finished speaking in this fashion,
The lamenting flame went away in sorrow,
Turning and tossing its sharp-pointed horn.
(Inf. XXVII, 112-132)
After Guido has moved on, the poets proceed to the ninth malebolge, in which the sowers of discord are punished.
Who could ever, even in straight prose
And after much retelling, tell in full
The bloodletting and wounds that I now saw?
Each tongue that tried would certainly trip up
Because our speaking and remembering
Cannot comprehend the scope of pain.
Were all those men gathered again together
Who once in the fateful land of Apulia
Mourned the lifeblood spilled by the Trojans,
And those who shed their blood in the long war
In which the spoils were a mound of golden rings,
As Livy has unerringly informed us,
And those also who felt the painful gashes
In the onslaught against Robert Guiscard,
And those others whose bones are still stacked up
At Ceperano where all the Apulians
Turned traitors, and those too from Tagliacozzo
Where old Alardo conquered without weapons,
And those who show their limbs run through and those
With limbs hacked off — they all could not have matched
The ninth pocket’s degraded state of grief.
Even a cask with bottom or sides knocked out
Never cracked so wide as one soul I saw
Burst open from the chin to where one farts.
His guts were hanging out between his legs;
His pluck gaped forth and that disgusting sack
Which turns to shit what throats have gobbled down.
While I was all agog with gazing at him,
He stared at me and, as his two hands pulled
His chest apart, cried, "Look how I rip myself!
"Look at how mangled is Mohammed here!
In front of me, Ali treks onward, weeping,
His face cleft from his chin to his forelock.
"And all the others whom you see down here
Were sowers of scandal and schism while
They lived, and for this they are rent in two.
"A devil goes in back here who dresses us
So cruelly by trimming each one of the pack
With the fine cutting edge of his sharp sword
"Whenever we come round this forlorn road:
Because by then our old wounds have closed up
Before we pass once more for the next blow.
"But who are you, moping upon that ridge
Perhaps to put off facing the penalty
Pronounced on you by your own accusations?"
(Inf. XXVIII, 1-45)
The shades who, in life, divided the body politic by starting and fostering conflict are now themselves dismembered. (Note that the first sinner named in this circle is Mohammad. Dante saw Islam as at root a heresy, and Mohammad as someone who had created the greatest division and source of conflict in the known world at the time.)
A procession of famous instigators of conflict process by in Mohammad's wake, mainly contemporaries of Dante's, but also several ancient figures, including Curio who urged Julius Caesar to start the civil wars that brought down the Republican and began the empire with the claim that "one who is well prepared can only suffer loss by hesitation." The man whose words started one of Italy's bloodiest wars has had his tongue cut out.
Last seen is Bertran de Born, who was believed to have instigated the rebellion of prince Henry against his father Henry II of England.
I saw for sure — and still I seem to see it —
A body without a head that walked along
Just as the others in that sad herd were walking,
But it held the severed head by the hair,
Swinging it like a lantern in its hand,
And the head stared at us and said, "Ah me!"
Itself had made a lamp of its own self,
And they were two in one and one in two:
How can that be? He knows who so ordains it.
(Inf. XXVIII, 118-126)
Bertran, speaking through the head he carries like a lantern, has become one of the justly famous nightmare images from Inferno. But like all nightmares it must pass, for the poets have darker and deeper sights yet before them. Dante is hesitating to leave the ninth malebolge, waiting to see an ancestor of his whom he believes may be suffering there, but Virgil tells him that he has already passed, unseen among the press of bleeding souls. So Dante turns his back on the sowers of discord and approaches the last malebolge of fraud.
What the suffering would be if all the sick
In hospitals at Valdichiana, Maremma,
And Sardinia, from July to September,
Were thrown down altogether in one ditch,
Such was it there and such a stench surged up
As usually comes from putrefying limbs.
We climbed on downward to the final bank
Of the long ridge by always keeping left,
And then my eyes descried a clearer vista
Toward the bottom, where the emissary
Of the high Lord, unerring justice, chastens
The falsifiers registered on earth.
I do not think the grief could have been greater
To see the people in Aegina all diseased —
When the air was so infested with the plague
That every animal, down to the smallest worm,
Sickened and died, and later the ancient peoples
(Poets record it as a certainty)
Were born again from the progeny of ants —
Than was my grief to see, through that dark valley,
The spirits languishing in scattered stacks.
Some lay on their stomachs, some on the shoulders
Of another sinner, some hauled themselves
On hands and knees along the careworn roadway.
Step by step we tread on without talking,
Watching and listening to the infirm souls
Too weak to raise their bodies from the ground.
(Inf. XXIX, 46-72)
These are the falsifiers, those who performed fraud itself. First Dante meets an alchemist, now afflicted with sores, who tried to pass off base metals as precious ones. This shade points out to him several other practitioners of fraud. One who took on the identity of a dead man in order to re-write his will now runs rabid, biting other sinners.
Another, now bloated with dropsy confesses to having been a counterfeiter. Unable to move, his greatest wish is to be able to creep around the malebolge until he finds the nobleman who employed him to debase the currency, in order to take his revenge on him. The counterfeiter points out several other sinners, including the Egyptian wife who falsely accused Joseph in the Old Testament. One of the souls he names takes offense at being named, and the souls (though so stricken with illness they can barely move) fall to hitting each other and hurling insults and accusations back and forth.
The poets leave them to their bickering and abandon this last of the malebolges and move toward the cliff that leads down to the pit of Cocytus, the deepest part of hell in which the traitors lie.
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.