Reading Inferno, Canto XIX

September 21, 2007

Among the many striking aspects of The Divine Comedy is the manner in which Dante sees the spiritual condition of the souls he encounters imaged in their physical manifestations. Think, for instance, of the thieves in Inferno who continually exchange identities with serpents, a vivid portrayal both of their spiritual state and of their incapacity to distinguish what properly belongs to them from what properly belongs to others. The same principle runs through the whole Comedy: the souls show their insides on their outsides. The special punishments, purgations, and beatitudes of those he meets are frequently peculiar, but always worth pondering for what they reveal about that soul’s state. Today I would like to reflect in some detail on one such soul.

We are in the eighth circle, called Malebolge, getting close to the dark, icy heart of Hell. Malebolge is the special domain of the fraudulent; it is divided into a series of concentric ditches, within each of which a particular kind of sinner is enjoying his eternal reward. Dante and Virgil have passed the seducers and flatterers in the first two ditches, and come now to the third. Dante the poet exclaims:

O Simon Magus, O you wretched crew
of his disciples! The things of God should be
espoused to righteousness and love, and you
Rapacious wolves, you pander them for gold,
foul them for silver! Sound the trumpet now
for you — for this third pocket is your place. (l.1-6)

Simon Magus is that same Simon written of in Acts:

But there was a man named Simon who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the nations of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all gave heed to him, from the least to the greatest, saying “This man is that power of God which is called Great.” And they all gave heed to him, because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. (8:9-11)

From that description, one might think that Simon’s special sin was that of pride — a pride bordering on derangement. But Simon’s sense of entitlement was so highly developed that he actually founded a new sort of sin, that sin which has hereafter been named for him: simony. Acts continues with the story:

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” (8:18-19)

It’s a neat trick if you can manage it. Catch the wind that blows where it will, and bottle it up for later use; turn the gift of the Holy Spirit into an item of trade. Peter sees immediately what is at stake, and rebukes Simon in no uncertain terms. To assimilate the things of the spirit to the logic of the market is futile; to subject spiritual authority, or a spiritual office, to that same logic may not be futile, in worldly terms, but where it succeeds it strikes at the heart of that authority. It is this proximate danger that draws Peter’s sharp rebuke, and Simon responds:

“Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” (8:24)

It could be read as a penitent response. As far as I know, this is the last we hear from Simon Magus in the New Testament, and on the strength of this story it seems to me that Simon could have come down to us as an example of a repentant sinner. But, for whatever reason, that has not happened. Instead we inherit a rich suite of colourful legends about Simon in which he plays the role of arch-villain to the apostles.

Dante knows these stories well, and draws on them for his study of simony. Describing the appearance of this third ditch, he says:

I saw that on both walls and on the ground
the livid iron stone was full of holes,
all of a size, and every one was round. (l.13-15)

The description continues with a seemingly peculiar allusion to an event from Dante’s own life:

No bigger, and no narrower they appeared
than the holes in my lovely baptistery
of San Giovanni, made for holy fonts,
One of which, and not many years ago,
I had to break to save a boy from drowning —
and let men take that for the stamp of truth. (l.16-21)

He is referring to the famous baptistery in Florence, of course. If this seems a strange time to introduce a tale of rescue, note that it ties into the theme of the destruction of sacred things (though in this case for defensible reasons: he had to smash the font to save the child), and also serves to illustrate the scene, at least for those familiar with the barrel-shaped fonts of the San Giovanni baptistery. The familiarity ends there, however, for Dante sees a strange sight:

Out of the mouth of every hole there stuck
a sinner’s feet and legs up to the fat
above the knee; the rest remained inside. (l.22-24)

There is a comical element here, I think. But it is worth digging deeper and thinking about why Dante chose this particular punishment for the simonists. There are at least two reasons. One is related by Dante the pilgrim a few lines later when one of the barrel-dwellers begins to address him:

There I stood like a friar who hears the sins
of a faithless assassin, head in grave,
who calls him back to hold death off awhile (l.49-51)

In Dante’s day, assassins were executed by being buried alive, but upside down. He therefore draws a direct connection between assassins and simonists; the former kill the political authority, the latter the spiritual. But there is more to it. Consider this story, taken from Christian legend, of the death of Simon Magus:

The day arrived and he [Simon Magus] climbed a high tower. . .wearing a crown of laurel. He jumped off and began to fly. Paul said to Peter: “I’m the one to pray now; you’re the one to command!”. . . Peter said to Paul: “Paul, raise your head and look up!” When Paul looked up, he saw Simon flying and said to Peter: “Peter, what are you waiting for? Finish what you’ve started, because the Lord is already calling us!” Then Peter said: “I adjure you, angels of Satan, you who are holding Simon up in the air, I adjure you in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord! Stop holding him up and let him fall!” They released him at once and he crashed to the ground, his skull was fractured, and he expired.” (Legenda Aurea)

In other variations on the story, Simon plummeted with such force that he rested embedded in the ground, his legs protruding. Thus I think it plausible that Dante here intends the very posture of the sinners to mark them as followers of Simon. In fact, he makes this point more clearly a little further on. The soul to whom he speaks, which turns out to be that of Pope Nicholas III (1277-80), says:

Under my head the others are all crammed —
my predecessor popes in simony,
squashed flat into the fissure of the stone. (l.73-75)

They are stacked one upon the other, literal followers of Simon, who, one presumes, is first in line, now deep in the rock. The fact that these are Popes only heightens the wickedness of their actions, for they bore special responsibility for the welfare of the Church, but sold her for a profit. They have turned the spiritual order upside down by subjecting it to worldly concerns, and that inversion too is reflected in their posture. Dante continues his description:

And everywhere the soles were set afire,
making them kick and wrench their joints so hard
they’d have snapped twisted ropes or cords in two.
As flame upon a thing anointed goes
darting and dancing on the peel, so here
flames flickered from their heels up to the toes. (l.22-30)

Here we have a direct allusion to Pentecost as described in Acts:

And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. (2:1-3)

But here, in Hell, the flames rest not on the head, but burn the soles of the feet. It would be hard to imagine a more fitting representation of the perversion of the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I like this Canto because I find it particularly rich in resonances. It makes sense that when dealing with simony Dante should allude to the events related in Acts, for the contrast highlights the way in which simony, especially in high places, prevents the Church being what she is meant to be. He brings in legend, history, Scripture, public and personal life, and ties them all together with a deceptively simple device: by turning his sinners upside down and lighting their feet on fire. Marvellous.


The translation I have used in my quotations from Dante is that of Anthony Esolen.

Inferno, Canto XIX

One Response to “Reading Inferno, Canto XIX”

  1. pilarrivett Says:

    I very much enjoyed reading your post. Would love to have your view on what I wrote about this particular Canto, if you have time.

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