Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


Cantos XXI and XXII are sometimes called “The Gargoyle Cantos” because of the grotesqueries we encounter. If the total Commedia is to be thought of as a cathedral, here are the gargoyles.

Circle Eight: Bolgia Five — Grafters

In this bolgia “a sticky tar was boiling in the ditch / that smeared the banks with viscous residue” (XXI.17-18). In the original Italian, Dante uses “p” alliterations to convey the bubbling effect of the boiling tar in which the grafters, those with “sticky fingers” in life, suffer. They are poked by demons with pitchforks. This time the demons have goofy names: Malebranche (Evil Claws), Malacoda (Evil Tail), Scarmiglione (Snatcher), Calabrina, Cagnazzo (Big Dog), Draghignazzo (Dragon Smirk), Graffiacane (Cat Claw), etc. While these may often be family names in Lucca, there’s a carnival effect too, as they sound cominc but fearful. A squadron is selected to escort Dante and Virgil to the next arch, and Dante, unlike Virgil, is suspicious.

Before they turned left-face along the bank
each one gave their good captain a salute
with farting tongue pressed tightly to his teeth,
and he blew back with his bugle of an ass-hole.


I have seen troops of horsemen breaking camp,
opening the attack, or passing in review,
I have even seen them fleeing for their lives;

I have seen scouts ride, exploring your terrain,
O Aretines, and I have seen raiding-parties
and the clash of tournaments, the run of jousts–

to the tune of trumpets, to the ring of clanging bells,
to the roll of drums, to the flash of flares on ramparts,
to the accompaniment of every known device;

but I never saw cavalry or infantry
or ships that sail by landmarks or by stars
signaled to set off by such strange bugling!”

Dante observes the grafters trying to dodge pitchfork harassments by ducking beneath the muck like frogs when a demon comes by. One sinner gets hooked nevertheless and the demons can rip chunks of flesh out of these grafters! Virgil interviews this sinner during his torture. The sinner promises to persuade some of the other sinners to surface so that the demons can torment them too, but he instead dives away. Two demons pursue, struggle, and fall into the tar, “deep-fried within their crusts” (XXII.150). Virgil and Dante take the opportunity to leave.


Prompted by events in the last canto, Dante recalls one of Aesop’s fables about a frog and a mouse. He realizes that the demons will be enraged by their escape and suggests they make tracks. Virgil had read his mind, grabs him, and rushes to the next bolgia.

Circle Eight: Bolgia Six — Hypocrites

Trudging wearily along, weeping, and wearing lovely cloaks lined with lead are the hypocrites. Dante sees two Jovial Friars and then Caiaphas, the Jewish leader who told Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus, who is himself crucified to the ground. All other hypocrites step on him in their circlings.

Virgil finds out that the bridge is broken over this bolgia and he is miffed that Malacoda the demon lied about it. This suggests that Reason cannot recognize Fraud disguised in reasonable phrasing. It’s ridiculous: he’s pissed because a demon lied?


An epic simile ultimately describes Virgil regaining his composure, but in terms of white frost disappearing and change, the theme of the next level. Climbing up the rock slide is arduous and Dante takes a moment to catch his breath. Virgil chews him out for this “sloth” (XXIII.46). Virgil indicates that rest is irresponsible and demands that Dante “control his breath,” or overcome his panting: “Dominate this weariness of yours” (52). Dante complies.

Circle Eight: Bolgia Seven — Thieves

One edition of Inferno tries to explain the level by noting that “Thievery is reptilian in its secrecy” — reptilian meaning contemptible and treacherous. Herpephobia! Dante says that what he sees outdoes Libya in horror, even with its chelydri (amphibious serpents with tails that smoke and burn), jaculi (serpents that fly through the air and pierce whatever they hit, like your neck), phareans (who plow the ground with their tails), cenchres (who waver from side to side), and amphisbenes (which have a head at each end).

The panicked thieves in this level undergo perpetual metamorphosis, a circular process of rebirth. They are attacked by reptiles who merge with them physically in “this fierce gullet” (XXIV.123), falling to ash and re-forming. Dante hears from Vanni Fucci (d. 1300), a Pistoiese man who stole the treasure from the sacristy of the church of San Zeno, who maliciously tells Dante of future misery in Florence.


We learn first how to make an obscene hand gesture in Italian, which Vanni Fucci directs at God. [Here’s what you do: make a fist and stick your thumb between your first and second fingers. There! Italian obscenity!] Snakes attack Vanni Fucci and bind him. We witness other werelizard transformations throughout the canto.