Dante and Virgil proceed along their course but are soon pursued by the demons that were tricked into falling into the 5th ditch. Virgil holds Dante to himself like a mother holds a child, and slides down into the 6th ditch. The demons follow up to the rim, but are not allowed to give chase for Divine Providence has placed the demons in their proper places in the Inferno and has “taken from their souls the power to leave it.”
The 6th ditch is filled with the Hypocrites. They march at an agonizingly slow pace around the circle wearing leaden cloaks like a monk’s habit covered in gold. Dante has once again made a fitting punishment for the sin of appearing holy on the outside but bearing the heavy weight of deceit on the inside.
Virgil gets a bit of a surprise when he discovers a soul in the ditch of the hypocrites who bears a far different punishment than the rest (for this soul had not been there the last time Virgil came through). It is Caiaphus is the high priest who condemned Jesus Christ (Jn. 11:51). He, along with His father-in-law, Annas, and the rest of the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ day, lies naked and crucified on the ground with three great stakes. The hypocrites of this ditch march slowly and painfully over the top of these bodies forever because, for their ultimate hypocrisy, they will bear the weight of all hypocrites.
An interesting note here: given his cultural context, it has been said that Dante is remarkably free from anti-semitism. There are no specifically Jewish insults in the Comedy (even here, where many would have seen fit to make them).
At the end of the previous canto Virgil is told, contra Malacoda – the head demon from ditch 6, that all of the bridges over this ditch have been destroyed. Angered, he heads out with Dante to climb the rubble from one bridge. It does not get them to the top of the ditch (indicating how large these “pockets” are!). So after an arduous climb they still must scale the side of the ditch and reach the rim (it is easier to fall into sin than to climb out!). Virgil gives Dante a pep talk about the fame that awaits him and they head off.
Coming to the 7th ditch they hear murmuring but the ditch is so dark they cannot see into it. At Dante’s suggestion they climb down the side (amazing idea after the climb out of ditch 6!). When they do, they come upon one of the most bizarre scenes in the Inferno.
O Power of God! How dreadful is Thy will which in its vengeance rains such fearful blows.
Dante sees great coils of serpents binding the hands of sinners and coiling around them coming out the front, some serpents bite the souls and at that time the sinners explode in fire and are reduced to ash – only to reform moments later for more. In addition, the serpents and men sometimes exchange bodies through several bizarre means such that, as it turns out, the serpents are not just there for punishing the souls – but are themselves souls being punished. In order to recover their human form the serpents must steal bodies from other sinners. Among thieves nothing is permanent, nothing is sure.
As these men stole the substance from others they are now punished by having their very substance stolen from them, and replaced with the form corresponding to their actions in life. Their sinning hands are bound by this reptilian nature. As they chose a bestial life over human, now they will exchange the two bodies forever.
Dante finds one soul to answer for his crimes (here we discover that they are forced to answer truthfully when questioned), but gets a dark political prophecy for his trouble.
The soul Dante speaks to them utters the strongest blasphemy heard in hell so far and adds in obscene gestures toward God (the “fig” is a symbol of the feminine sexual organ, making a fist to mimic this and then sticking the thumb out imitates intercourse – this is something like giving God the middle finger). No sooner has the sinner uttered this then he is chased down by Cacus (here a centaur) who was killed by Hercules for stealing his oxen (and thus why he is here, for the greater crime of thievery, rather than with than his violent brothers above in circle 7).
Dante then watches and records in detail the grotesque transformation of a serpent into a man and vice versa as the man’s nature is stolen from him through a vaporous smoke. Dante holds nothing back here – even devoting a verse to how the man’s sexual organ split in two as he became the serpent. The sinner reports that it is someone else’s turn to crawl through the ditch and goes looking for him next.