From Styx to Malebolge (Cantos VIII - XVII)

This section works through cantos VIII to XVII of Inferno. Use the links at the bottom of the page to move from canto to canto.

Inferno VIII

Dante and Virgil arrive at a tower, with two small flames, which seem to be signalling to a third, distant flame. In answer to a question from Dante, Virgil explains that a boat is crossing the river; and in an instant Phlegyas arrives, shouting that he has caught Dante. But Virgil says to Phlegyas that he will only be able to accompany them across the bog in his boat. Whilst they are crossing the bog, a figure rises up, who asks who Dante is; Dante does not answer the question, but instead demands to know who the soul is. The soul refuses to identify himself, but Dante recognises him. Virgil praises Dante, and Dante says that he would love to see him ducked in the bog; as they move on, they see him being attacked by the other souls, who cry out his name: Filippo Argenti. They then approach the city of Dis, which glows red because of the fire burning within it. Its walls seemed impenetrable, and eventually a gatekeeper cries out, and threatens not to let Dante in. Dante fears that he will be left behind, and begs Virgil not to leave him. Virgil assures him that he will not abandon him, and that someone is on his way who will open the gate of Dis.

This canto can be divided into three sections:

  • The encounter with Phlegyas (1-27)
  • Filippo Argenti (28-66)
  • the wait outside Dis (67-130).

Discussion point: Virgil's uncertainty

The wait outside Dis provides one of the first examples of Virgil's limited capacity as a guide: Dante and Virgil need towait for a heavenly force to show them the way. This is a reminder that for Dante God's grace is necessary to provide salvation (and access to the whole of the underworld).

Inferno IX

Virgil is listening out for someone who will enable him and Dante to enter the city of Dis; he is about to speculate as to what will happen if such a person does not appear, before he interrupts himself and changes tack, which causes Dante still more fear. Virgil describes the previous time he has been so far into Hell. Three Furies appear, bloody, and with female limbs. They call for Medusa to appear, and Dante turned his face away for fear of being turned to stone by the sight of Medusa. A figure appears, walking on the water of the River Styx, scattering the souls before him; he addresses the guard sternly, and Virgil and Dante are able to enter without difficulty. The place is full of tombs, with flames surrounding them, and shrieks and groans coming out of them. This, Virgil says, are the heretics. 

This canto can be divided into four sections:

  • Dante and Virgil's discussion; Virgil's description of his previous visit deep into Hell (1–33)
  • the appearance of the Furies (33–60)
  • the appearance of the messenger from Heaven (61–105)
  • the entry into Dis (106–133).

Discussion point: Dante's address to the reader

Dante's address to the reader (61–64) seems to be demanding that the readers interpret the poetry, finding the ‘dottrina’ (teaching) within it. What interpretations might Dante expect at this moment? In some ways, it is quite unexpected that Dante should point us towards deriving some sort of allegorical meaning at this point. The physical reality of the heavenly messenger is emphasised, with the vivid image of the souls scattering like frogs running from a snake. But the figure is Christ-like, walking on water like Christ on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 14. 24–32).

This canto is a strong example of Dante's narrative art; Dante creates what modern readers would describe as‘suspense’.

Inferno X

Dante and Virgil continue through the city of Dis, and Virgil explains that buried in this part of Hell are the Epicureans, who did not believe in the survival of the soul after death. As they are walking along, suddenly a voice calls out, identifying himself as a Tuscan. The figure stands tall in his tomb: Farinata, who asks Dante to say who his ancestors were. When Dante tells him, Farinata says that he had scattered them in the past; Dante replied defiantly. As they speak, another figure appears from the same tomb, probably kneeling, and asks why his son is not with Dante. Dante quickly works out that this is Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti, father of his friend Guido Cavalcanti. Dante replies, referring to Guido in the past tense, and Cavalcante, taking this to mean that he is dead, falls to the ground in grief. Farinata, in the meantime, picks up where he had been interrupted, and continues to ask Dante for news of Florence. Dante and Virgil continue on their way.

This canto can be divided into five sections:

  • the walk through Dis; Virgil's description of the Epicureans (1-21)
  • Farinata and Dante talk (22-51)
  • Cavalcante interrupts and speaks with Dante (52-72)
  • Farinata and Dante resume their conversation (73-120)
  • Virgil and Dante continue (121-136).

Erich Auerbach, in his important essay 'Farinata and Cavalcante', highlights the ways in which the various elements of the canto are put together: 'when the scenes are juxtaposed... without transition, the confrontation between them is managed by means of artistically varied devices of expression.'

Discussion point: Epicureanism in Canto X

At first sight, this canto might appear to have little to do with the sin which is being punished. The sinners in Canto X are the Epicureans - those who believe that the soul does not survive after death. In what ways might the canto make subtle comments on the sin?

It is worth noting that the position of the two souls, rising up from the tomb, recalls an image common in mediaeval art: Christ rising from the tomb, and also the resurrection of the dead. In other words, these are moments in which death is overcome; the sinners, in their poses, ironically disprove the theory that the soul dies with the body, even though they do not acknowledge the fact.

Inferno XI

Dante and Virgil arrive at the edge of some high cliffs, and the terrible smell means that they must hold back a short while, until they become accustomed to it. Virgil gives a long and detailed explanation of the divisions of lower Hell in order to use the time properly. 

While this lengthy explanation can be less than exhilarating after the human drama we have followed in the previous cantos, it is extremely important in terms of setting out Dante's thinking on the nature of sin, and we will discuss the canto in greater detail when we consider Dante's idea of sin in the section of this site dealing with major themes: click here. You might find it useful at this point to turn to that section, if you wish. At the very least, you might note a couple of points. First, when Virgil cites an authority, it is not a Christian authority but Aristotle - he refers to "la tua Etica" ("your Ethics") at line 80, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Secondly, while Virgil's systematic account appears complete and well-ordered, and is undoubtedly fundamental to understanding Dante's Hell, there are some gaps in it: he does not discuss Limbo, nor the circle of Hell dealing with the heretics - both of which seem to require Christian explanations.

Discussion point: ways of describing Hell

Another way of thinking about Virgil's discussion in Inferno XI is that it is Dante's way of presenting an alternative type of description of Hell: one which is systematic and more purely philosophical in its nature. Already we have seen that, while Dante's poem makes room for that kind of discussion, it does much more than that - it is a narrative, and a deeply personal one at that, which includes complex individuals and makes heavy demands of its readers, who find themselves at times disgusted by the sinners, at times in some degree of sympathy with them. It is as though, in including this useful explanation of Hell, Dante is at the same time reminding us of the choices that he made in terms of the type of work the Inferno is - a ground-breaking work of poetic narrative.

Inferno XII

Dante and Virgil enter the seventh circle of Hell, climbing down through a mountainous valley across rocks strewn across the landscape; their path is blocked by the Minotaur, who moves out of the way after Virgil calls him. Virgil explains that the previous time he had passed that way the path had been less rocky; that a large earthquake had occurred shortly before the figure came to rescue the souls from Limbo. They approach a river of blood, patrolled by centaurs. Three centaurs approach Dante and Virgil, and Virgil says to Dante that he will explain their presence to Chiron, the wisest of the centaurs; Chiron entrusts them to Nessus, who points out some of the tyrants who committed violence, and sets them on their way.

This canto can be divided into four sections:

  • the entry into the seventh circle of Hell; the Minotaur (1-27)
  • Virgil's description of the Harrowing of Hell (28-45)
  • the river of blood (46-57)
  • Dante and Virgil are entrusted to Nessus; Nessus points out the tyrants (58-139).

Discussion point: the Harrowing of Hell and Virgil's ignorance

One of the most interesting passages in this section is Virgil's explanation of the presence of the rocks at lines 28-45. Dante's readers would have understood from what Virgil says that the earthquake which occurred shortly before Christ's descent into Hell would have occurred at this time when Christ was crucified (this descent by Christ is known as the Harrowing of Hell). But Virgil himself does not mention this. This seems to suggest that Virgil's understanding is limited: he knows that something happened, and that its linked to the figure coming down to rescue souls from Hell; but he does not emphasise the things which Dante's readers, with their knowledge of Christian history, would have expected.

Inferno XIII

Dante asks Pier how it is that the souls turn into trees, and Pier explains that the souls are sent to the seventh circle, where no specific places are allocated to them, the souls sprout wherever they happen to land, and the Harpies feed on them. After the Last Judgement, Pier explains, the suicides will claim their bodies again, but they will not put them on, unlike the other souls in Hell: each suicide's corpse will hang on its bush. As Dante and Virgil are listening to Pier, they are surprised by the squanderers, being chased through the subcircle. Finally Dante and Virgil encounter another suicide, an unnamed Florentine, who gives an account of his death.

This canto can be divided into four sections:

  • description of the wood (1-27)
  • Pier delle Vigne (28-108)
  • the squanderers (109-129)
  • the unnamed Florentine suicide (130-151).

Inferno XIV

Dante picks up the leaves and branches that had been knocked off Pier; he and Virgil enter the third sub circle of the seventh circle, which is a plain made of dry sand, surrounded by the wood of suicides. There are crowds of naked souls, weeping; different groups seem to behave according to different rules: some are lying on the ground, others are sitting together in groups, and others are walking continuously. Flakes of fire land on the whole area, setting the sand alight. The souls are brushing away the burning flakes. In the middle of the plain sits Capaneus, seemingly unaffected by the fire. They come to a stream flowing from the wood, which runs red. In the middle of the sea, Virgil explains, is Crete, a ruined island, with a mountain, in which a large old man stands, who is made of gold, silver, brass, and iron. His right foot is made of clay; all of him is cracked, apart from his head, and from that crack tears drop, plunging into the valley, to become Acheron, Styx and Phlegethon, the rivers of Hell, to eventually become Cocytus, which Dante will see.

This canto can be divided into three sections:

  • the plain of sand, and the punished souls (1–42)
  • Capaneus (43–75)
  • the stream, and the old man of Crete (76–142).

Discussion point: the old man of Crete

Dante’s description of the old man of Crete, and its effect on the geography of Hell, draws on a range of sources and once again shows Dante's ability tolink elements from different traditions.

In the Bible, the book of Daniel describes the statue which appears in the dream of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2.31–35); mediaeval interpreters saw the dream as being a prophecy of the coming of Christ. In this dream the statue was destroyed, and carried away by the wind.

The statue seems to represent successive ages in human history: the golden head being the time before the Fall of Man, and the rest of his body representing the time afterwards. But it might also represent the current state of humanity, which is vulnerable to sin, but which is capable of reason (represented by the golden head).

Inferno XV

Dante and Virgil are continuing along the river, and they encounter a group of souls, gazing at them; one of them grabs Dante clothing, and Dante immediately recognises him, in spite of his scorched face, as Brunetto Latini (d. 1296), Dante’s teacher. They walk and talk together, and Brunetto asks him how it is that he is in Hell. Brunetto presents a prophecy of Dante’s exile. Brunetto names some of the other souls in this part of Hell, and runs off.

The canto can be divided into two sections:

  • the literary sodomites (1–21)
  • Brunetto Latini (22–124).

Discussion point: Dante's affection for Brunetto

This is the first time that Dante has met such a close friend in the afterlife. In what ways does Dante evoke his affection for Brunetto? Think about the way Dante responds to him, the adjectives he uses to describe him, and the words he uses to address him.

Inferno XVI

Three souls come running towards Dante and Virgil. When they reach them they are dancing in a circle, like wrestlers. They invoke their own fame, and ask Dante to name himself. The speaker is Iacopo Rusticucci; the others are Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, and Guido Guerra, all of them Florentine noblemen of the thirteenth century. Dantewishes to embrace them, but does not for fear of being burned. They ask for information about Florence, and Dante denounces its current state. They ask Danteto speak of them when he returns to the world. They then run off very quickly. Virgil encourages Dante to move on, and they are deafened by the sound of water falling into the next circle of Hell. Dante removes a cord he has around his waist, and Virgil throws it into the pit. Virgil, immediately understanding Dante thoughts, tells him that something will soon appear; a figure comes swimming up through the thick air.

The canto can be divided into two sections: 

  • the Florentine noblemen (1–90)
  • Virgil and Dante continue on their way; Virgil summons help to transport them to the next circle of Hell (91–136).

Inferno XVII

Geryon appears, and Dante and Virgil approach the beast. While Virgil is asking him to carry them on in their journey, Dante goes to meet the usurers, who are sitting on the hot ground. Dante does not recognise any of their faces, but he does see that they are all carrying a money-bag around their neck, each with an emblem. Dantenotices some of the individual emblems. One of the usurers speaks to Dante: Reginaldo Scrovegni (d. 1290). Dante returns to Virgil, and finds that he has already climbed onto Geryon's back. Dante overcomes his fear and climbs on; Geryon flies down. Dante sees fires and hears the sound of weeping; and he and Virgil are left on the ground in the eighth circle of Hell.

The canto can be divided into three sections:

  • the description of Geryon (1-30)
  • Dante's encounter with the usurers (31-75)
  • the descent on Geryon's back (76-136).

One point which is worth noting here is that the description of Geryon is heavily metaliterary, full of references to other literary figures, including Ovid, Pliny and Brunetto Latini.

Discussion point: Geryon and truth

At the end of Canto XVI, Dante had referred to his own poem, swearing on the pages of the Commedia that he really did see Geryon. This reminds us that Dante is developing his poem in relationship with a tradition of other texts (in other words, it is a heavily intertextual work). But it also opens up the question of truth. For Geryon is a symbol of fraud; to build up his image of Geryon, Dante draws on other texts, not all of which he believed to be true; and yet it is here that he insists most powerfully that he is telling the truth. It is very difficult to understand what Dante is doing here. Do we believe him when he tells us that he is telling the truth? Or is he deliberately undermining his credibility with all those intertextual references? The important point is that Dante does not offer us a simple answer to this question.

 © Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame