Canto 17 – The Blessed Hell Ride
Geryon, a massive man / lizard / scorpion rises out of the chasm to greet the travelers. His upper torso looks like a man at peace, but he is really a spotted (like a leopard!) reptile with a deadly tail. Geryon is named after a Spanish king who used to invite guests to dinner and then kill them. A beast that “makes the whole world stink,” Geryon is a perfect creature to bring the poets into the 8th Circle, “Malebolgia” (“the evil ditches / pockets”) of Fraud and Malice.
As Dante heads over to Geryon he makes a quick stop at the edge of the burning sands where the Usurers sit staring down at their purses. Usury is the unnatural (remember which circle they are in) act of making money using money. Thus they have tried to take make something meant to be infertile into something fertile (the opposite of the sodomites). When discussing this with a friend he pointed out that someone might argue that without usurers (e.g., banks and money stores) we would not be able to get the loans or credit we need to afford homes or cars or medical care. My reply was that if usury did not exist things could not inflate to the point where we would need them. There are other ways of taking care of needs without trying to make money via interest.
The rest of the canto is taken up with Dante’s terrifying flight down into Maleboge past the great waterfall formed by the sand’s creek above. The flight ends up being without incident, however, and they land safely.
8th Circle, Ditch 1 – the Panderers and Seducers
The poets enter the 8th Circle where they will be for the next 14 cantos. Here are punished sins of simple fraud – that is, fraud without treachery added. The word Malebolge means something like “evil pockets” or “evil ditches”– in either case an apt title for the greedy who lined their pockets in sinful ways and who now suffer in ditches. The 8th Circle is a sort of amphitheater with a series of ten concentrate ditches surrounding an enormous well (the 9th Circle lies at its bottom). Connecting these circles are radii-like bridges that go out from the center. It is these bridges that allow the poets to continue on through the circle and view what is going on in each ditch.
Once the transition is made from the 7th to the 8th Circle an interesting thing occurs with the inhabitants – they suddenly do not wish to be noticed, engaged, or remembered. Perhaps at this level, the sins are so unnatural that no one wishes them to be remembered.
Turning left (as they almost always do), Dante and Virgil come first to the Panderers. These are “go-betweens in sexual intrigues” (Freccero). Pimps, basically – but pimps of different sorts of people, not just prostitutes. Next to the Panderers are the Seducers. Each line travels in opposite directions in the ditch while being beaten and whipped by devils all the while (it has been suggested that he devil’s dual horns represent the twin sins of adultery and cuckoldry). Having goaded others into evil in life, they are not forever goaded on by evil. Dante sees Jason of “and the Argonauts” fame, who was quite the ladie’s man but who treated them horribly.
8th Circle, Ditch 2 – The Flatterers
Climbing over the first ditch via the bridge (note: the text says they turn right here, but this is only to align themselves with the bridge which was on their left), the poets come to ditch number 2 which contains the Flatterers.
Dante’s words are best cited here:
“Exhalations, rising from below, stuck to the banks, encrusting them with mold, and so waged war against both eyes and nose.”
What is Dante smelling in this next ditch?
“People plunged in excrement that seemed as if it had been poured from human privies.”
In other words, people covered in crap. Ciardi, who uses the word “shit” in this canto, is insightful here when he writes that Dante “deliberately coarsens his language when he wishes to describe certain kinds of coarseness. . . . It would be ridiculous prudery to refine Dante’s diction at these points.” Here are the people who sinned with their mouths – pouring out filthy flattery – who are now forced to have filth poured into their mouths.
Interestingly, there is a harlot here who is being punished for her flatteries instead of her sexual sin. Apparently the prostitution of her words exceeded that of her body.