“An eye for an eye to all eternity, thus is the law of Hell observed in me.”
Here Dante finds some of the most revolting in all of Hell’s punishments. Observing the law of retribution (as eloquently stated by one of the sufferers, quoted above), these sinners are punished for schism – the rending of two that should be one. This is the only place in the poem that Dante mentions this law, here named “Retribution” (“contrapsso”), a term that is found in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (but without the eye-for-an-eye qualification).
In one of the clearest examples of Dante’s form, these schismatics are themselves divided by a demon with a long sword who cuts them to pieces as they pass by. Each round of the circle brings healing to the sinners, only to have them reach the demon and be cleaved yet again.
Three different types of schismatics are brought out here – the first (and possibly most infamous) is Muhammad, along with his son-in-law, Ali. Interestingly, in the Islamic Koran Muhammadwas said to have been transported through the seven heavens by the angel Gabriel – Dante seems to have reversed the direction of his supernatural trip. The Prophet of Islam is considered by Dante to be a religious schismatic, said to have divided, oddly, Christianity and Islam. Why is he not simply consigned to Circle 6 with other false teachers? Several theories are put forth: In medieval Christian thinking, Islam was viewed as a usurper and sower of religious divisiveness. Islam began as a religion of schism from its own culture. Further, the succession of Muhammad was itself a acuse of division within Islam itself – giving rise to Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Assuming Dante did not see Muhammadas a Christian heretic (along the lines of an “urban legend” going around at the time), he may have placed him with the schismatics for the many conflicts which Muhammad’s religion had already caused in the world (or perhaps prophetically seeing a future where nearly the entire world would be divided by Islam). It could also be that Islamic religion approves of a particular brand of monotheism and other distortions of Christian doctrine and biblical history (probably influenced by heretical Christian and Jewish teachers that Muhammad came into contact with prior to his taking the title Prophet). More on this HERE.
Though shared by many of those consigned to Hell, Dante makes use of this sinner’s prophetic powers by having Muhammad foretell the future of Fra Dolcino, the leader of an early 14th century heretical group that shared all things (including women) between them. Muhammad warns him to “check his groceries” before heading to the hills (where, in reality, his group was besieged and starved out before Fra Dolcino was burned at the stake).
The others are political and familial dividers. The latter has his head cut off and swings it like a lantern to find his way around the circle, and held it aloft to speak with Dante and Virgil. This imagery is among the most riveting and revolting in the Inferno, but there is worse to come.
“There, High Justice, sacred ministress of the first Father, reigns eternally over the falsifiers in their distress.”
Pausing to look for someone he thought he might know in the ninth ditch, Dante is prodded along by Virgil who tells him the man he was looking for was there insulting him, but Dante missed him because of his talk with the beheaded shade. But their time is short (it is now noon on Holy Saturday), and they must move on. (Virgil notes that the ninth ditch is 22 miles around, and Dante will be told that the next is eleven. According to Ciardi this measurement is merely poetic and cannot be coherently mapped.)Their next stop, ditch 10, is the last of this Circle.
Dante devotes two cantos to the final pit of Malebolge – the ditch of the Falsifiers. Here we find afflictions and torments for all of the senses: painful and itching skin diseases, wailing, putrid smells of rotting flesh and infections, violent attacks, and disgusting sights. Those who corrupted the social order with distortions of sensible things are now having all that can be sensed about them corrupted.
In Canto 28 we meet Falsifiers of Things (alchemists), and in Canto 29 Falsifiers of Persons (impersonators), of Money (counterfeiters), and of Words (liars – including Potiphar’s wife, and Sinon, who convinced the Greeks to accept the Trojan Horse). Dante’s description of them begins with some classic tales of madness, to which he – unfavorably – compares the insanity he sees below him. One man he is speaking to is savaged by another shade who runs off dragging his body off. Two others who are lying next to one another, eternally immobile, become irritated with one another and begin beating each other with their lone working arms while berating each other for their sins.
This blame theme has been seen here and there throughout the journey. It is interesting how the various shades have been straightforward in their descriptions of, and admissions of, guilt. Dante seems to have them unable to do otherwise, but to keep a more typically human touch to the scenes, the sinners often point out each other’s sins as well. While we do not see repentant sinners in Hell, they are certainly aware of each other’s faults. This principle is illustrated vividly here, but also in the claim of one “husk of sin” that if he were able to move even an inch per century he would travel the entire circle (said to be eleven miles, and thus about 70,000,000 years) just to watch one of his enemies suffer along with him.
Dante is astonished by the sight of these two fighting, and has to be shamed out of his staring by Virgil who says, “the wish to hear such things is debasing.” Dante, though, is so ashamed of his interest that Virgil immediately consoles him – assuring him that “less shame would wash away a greater fault than yours.” With these and other comforting words, Virgil moves them on to the last of Hell’s circles.