Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


Circle Three — Gluttons

Dante wakes up at the third circle, reporting in present tense for the effect of pounding immediacy, and facing Cerberus, the three-headed hell-hound. Normally one wants to throw “sops” to Cerberus — chunks of bread dipped in wine or honey. That keeps him busy as you proceed. Virgil, however, throws clumps of mud. In the circle of gluttony, irrational appetite is thus symbolized, and attention is given to the “three throats” (VI.14). Cerberus is called “il gran vermo” (“the great worm”), and another translation mentions “his dragon-jaws yawed wide.”

This batch wallows in slush and in the rain for their sin. One glutton named Ciacco recognizes Dante and prophesies about Florence, hopes Dante will remember him to his friends, and sinks back down in the muck. (Sinners lower in Hell will prove less desirous of being remembered above.) Dante asks Virgil about the impact of Judgment Day on the sufferings in Hell. Virgil indicates that the pain will approach “perfection.” I guess regular eternal Hell isn’t enough.


Plautus, the god of wealth, babbles, “Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!” (VII.1). Whether this is some deformed worship of Pope Satan the First (aleph) or simply gibberish, Virgil escorts Dante past this monster and into the fourth circle.

Circle Four — Hoarders and Wasters

Two groups of shouting souls roll great weights against each other. This is the slamdance of the hoarders (or the miserly) and the wasters (or spendthrifts, or prodigal). Their material concerns have become great weights (á la the ghost of Jacob Marley) and, as their attitudes about it conflicted in life, so are they in opposition here, one batch “screaming, ‘Why hoard?'” and the other “Why waste?” (VII.30) . Except for the tonsures identifying “priests and popes and cardinals” (VII.47), these fouled souls are unrecognizable (obviously of little interest).

Virgil pontificates about the Wheel of Fortune, a favorite medieval concept that Dante the Poet here aligns with divine order.

Circle Five — The Wrathful and Slothful (?)

The river Styx is a mire here and serves as the fifth circle in which rage-aholics tear at each other. From beneath the slime come bubbles from a subclass of sinners, sometimes identified by the critics with the slothful (but is sloth related to anger?) and other times with the sullen (which would be anger kept inside). Mention is made of gurgling “in their throats” (VII.125), and Dante reports that he and Virgil arrived at the foot of a tower.


It is well noted that Hell should be done in about five more cantos if Dante kept up the current pace. Whether a hiatus in composing is responsible or not, the plan does seem to change here (even with a revisionist moment of backtracking in the first lines), and we will soon be seeing subdivisions of subdivisions in the remaining few circles as the structure of the work expands immensely.

Phlegyas, boatman of the Styx, transports Dante and Virgil to the next major division of Hell, the gate of the city of Dis, Hell’s Metropolis. On the way, Dante avails himself of the opportunity to be curt with a sinner in the muck. Virgil praises him for it. When they arrive at the gate, Virgil is denied entry by insolent adversaries.


Virgil explains why he knows the way through Hell — a previous mission after his death. Dante sees the Furies, and Medusa’s head makes a cameo appearance before an angel arrives and opens the way for the two.

Circle Six — Heretics

Flames glow from opened sepulchres, or tombs, in which suffer the heretics — mostly those who did not believe in the soul or its immortality. Dante and Virgil move ahead by turning to the right, which puzzles scholars since only one other time (XVII.31) do they move in this direction.


Here in the sixth circle are Epicureans who believed that temporal happiness and the absence of pain were the goals of humans. Many Florentines were Epicureans, and these heretics include Farinata, an arrogant political enemy of Dante, who offers some political prophecies — primarily Dante’s own coming exile from Florence in 1302. Farinata confirms that the sinners in Hell have the capacity to see far ahead but not events that are more immediate. Dante and Virgil turn left and head toward a stench.

Cantos XI-XV