Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno: Cantos 20-22, Circle 8, Ditches 4-5 – Diviners, Grafters , and Demons

Canto 20

“Now I must sing of new griefs . . .”

Dante and Virgil now cross over the 4th ditch which contains the fortune tellers and diviners of the future. They walk backwards for all eternity with their heads twisted around to their back. Because  they spent their life trying to look forward into things they should speak of, now they are silent and can only look backward. Nor is much sight even possible, for in this state they weep continuously – their tears streaming into their . . . crevice.

Dante feels so horrible at these sinner’s fate that he cries himself, earning for the first time a strong rebuke from Virgil:

“Still? Like the other fools? There is no place for pity here. Who is more arrogant within his soul, who is more impious than one who dares to sorrow at God’s judgment?”

Dante apparently should have learned his lesson by now.

Other than identifying a few of the tormented souls (and the last of any non-mythical women noted as being placed in the Inferno), little else needed be said. It is interesting that astrology was not at that time considered nearly as bad as Dante makes it out to be. He and Aquinas agreed on this point.

Dismissing the description of this ditch rather quickly, Virgil recounts the history of Mantua (correcting his earlier, magical, account in the Aeneid) which takes up the majority of the canto.

Cantos 21-22

“Awesomely dark and desolate it was . . .”

The fifth ditch gets more description than any other place in the Inferno. Some have said that Dante structures his Comedy like a cathedral, and here we find the gargoyles – the Malebranche (“evil claws”) demons. And, appropriately, it is in these two cantos that Dante employs his coarsest language. here Dante earns his title of the Master of the Grotesque.

This is the place of punishment for Graft – giving advantage to others illicit gain, like taking bribes for political reasons.  These “sticky fingers” are kept in sticky goo – boiling pitch. Should they attempt to come up for relief, demons with sharp claws, teeth, and grappling hooks tear them to pieces.

Dante himself was falsely accused of graft, and it is interesting that only in this ditch is he warned of danger to himself. This feature was highlighted very well in Thigpen’s novel “Gehenna”. Dante hides behind some rocks while Virgil speaks with the demons. Although the demons are terrible to behold, Virgil tells them he is on a mission from God “it is willed in heaven.” They all back off after that and even offer to guide the two travellers to the next ditch, for the bridge here was destroyed during the great earthquake mentioned earlier.

The demons are called things like Bad Tail, Hellkin, Dragontooth, Grafter, Grizzly, and Deaddog. Dante is fearful that they are merely lying in wait to go back on their word and get him, but Virgil tells him to cease. They’re all talk once heaven is invoked!

The mood lightens a bit when the demons all stick their tongues out in salute to the leader and his response is making “a trumpet of his ass” producing a “low toot” that Dante will speak of in the next canto.

As Dante and Virgil walk along the ditch, they notice sinners rising to the top of the pitch to get some reflief, but who disappear quickly when they sense the demons are close. One is too slow and gets hooked and dragged up on to shore.

Dante and Virgil try to speak with him, and he tells them a few things about others in the pitch, but all the while the other demons are ripping pieces of flesh off of him and so he remains distracted. Finally, he makes a deal with the demons to fool his friends (fellow grafters) into rising to the surface so that the demons could have several sinners to “play with” in exchange for him. They let him go and he dives under the pitch too fast for them to catch him.

This ruse results in a fight between two demons who end up falling into the burning in the pitch themselves. It is worth note here that the demons are affceted by the pitch – hell was made for them and can affect them too.

As the demons go to retrieve them, Dante and Virgil sneak away.