The kindly master said: "My son, the city
that bears the name of Dis is drawing near,
with its grave citizens, its great battalions."
I said: "I can already see distinctly-
master-the mosques that gleam within the valley,
as crimson as if they had just been drawn
out of the fire." He told me: "The eternal
flame burning there appears to make them red,
as you can see, within this lower Hell."
So we arrived inside the deep-cut trenches
that are the moats of this despondent land:
the ramparts seemed to me to be of iron.
But not before we'd ranged in a wide circuit
did we approach a place where that shrill pilot
shouted: "Get out; the entrance way is here."
About the gates I saw more than a thousand-
who once had rained from Heaven-and they cried
in anger: "Who is this who, without death,
can journey through the kingdom of the dead?"
And my wise master made a sign that said
he wanted to speak secretly to them.
(Inf. VIII, 67-87)
While the poets wait for heaven's messenger to arrive and open the gates to Dis for them, they are accosted by the Furies, who threaten to summon down Medusa so that Dante, looking on her, will be turned to stone. The diversion into classical symbolism at first seems merely a brief excursion into territory familiar to the reader from Virgil's own epic poem, the Aeneid. Yet, these classical creatures may also be taken to have an allegorical message about Christian morality, one needed by Dante as he descends into the circles of the graver sins below. The Furies, tearing endlessly at themselves and at their victims, may be taken as the image of that form of self-blame and which is not true remorse with resolution to do better, but rather a dark feeding upon self. Medusa, who can turn all who look on her to stone, stands for despair, which hardens the heart and causes a sort of moral paralysis, where the knowledge of sin causes one to sink deeper into it, rather than seek God's forgiveness through repentance.
However, before the Furies can call Medusa forth, a sound like the onslaught of a windstorm is heard, and Dante looks up to see an angel striding through the murky fogs of hell to open the gates for them.
Just as the frogs before their enemy
The snake all disappear into the water
Until each one squats down upon the bottom,
I saw more than a thousand wasted souls
Fleeing from the path of one who strode
Dry-shod above the waters of the Styx.
Often he brushed the foul air from his face,
Rhythmically moving his left hand out in front,
And only with that bother appeared weary.
Easily I knew that he was sent from heaven,
And I turned to my master, but he signaled
That I stay still and bow down there to him.
Ah how full of deep disdain he seemed to me!
He then approached the gate, and with a wand
He opened it without the least resistance.
"O outcasts from heaven, detested race,"
He now began upon the horrid threshold,
"Why is this insolence so settled in you?
"Why are you opponents to that Will
Which cannot be dissevered from its end
And which has often swelled your sufferings?
"What good is it to butt against the Fates?
Your Cerberus, as you should well recall,
For just that had his chin and gullet peeled!"
(Inf. IX, 76-99)
(The incident to which the angel refers is another one from classical mythology, when Hercules descends into Hades, and wrestles with the guard dog Cerberus, injuring the creature's three necks.)
Dante and Virgil enter the city, and find no trace of the horde of fallen angels who had slammed the gates before them. For all their brave talk, the rebels are now in hiding. Inside the walls, the poets find a veritable city of death. Tombs are scatted all about on the uneven ground, and all their lids lie open. From inside lick forth flames.
Just as at Arles, where the Rhone is stagnant,
Just as at Pola, near Quarnero’s gulf
That closes Italy and bathes her borders,
The sarcophagi make all the ground uneven,
So did they here, lying every whichway,
Except that their condition was far worse.
For there among the tombs were scattered flames
That made them glow all over with more heat
Than any craftsman requires for his iron.
All of their open lids were lifted up,
And from inside such harsh laments escaped
As would come from the wretched and the injured.
And I: "Master, who are these people that,
Entombed within these chests of solid stone,
Make themselves felt by their distressful sighs?"
And he told me, "Here lie the arch-heretics
With their disciples, from all sects, and more
Than you’ll believe are loaded in these tombs.
"Like soul lies buried here encased with like;
Some monuments are hotter and some less."
And then he made a turn to the right hand:
We passed between the torments and high walls.
(Inf. IX, 112-133)
As in other circles, the punishment of the heretics is meant to represent the sin itself. Like the rebel angels trying to keep God and his messengers out of their infernal city, the tombs of the heretics represent the barrier of denial that the heretics have built against the truth. (Recall that the conscious sin of heresy implies knowledge that the Church is indeed the true church founded by Christ, yet refusal to accept it anyway because of pride, gain or some other motive.) Yet inside these walls, the heretic himself is a prisoner of his own rebellion, and consumed by the fires of his sin.
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.