Hieratica: A Repository of Joy and Learning
The poet finds himself in a dark forest.
He has wandered off the path and has lost his way.
As he resumes his journey,
He heads up the desert slope in front of him.
Three times he is impeded from going further --
Confronted -- first by a panther, then by a lion, and then a she-wolf,
All ravenous, malicious, and frightening beasts.
As he rushes back down the mountain to reach safety,
He comes upon the great poet, Virgil,
Who offers to be the guide for the lost poet
To lead him to the eternal place where reside the blessed souls.
He warns that first they must pass through
That most frightening of places,
The deep black chasm ahead,
Echoing with desperate lamentations
From the souls of the disconsolate sinners who reside there.
At the end of the first day of their journey,
The poet is overcome with doubts.
He is unsure that he can undertake such a difficult journey.
His companion, Virgil, chastises him for his cowardice,
And tells him that he, Virgil, has been sent by a gracious spirit
From heaven above,
Beatrice, much beloved of the poet,
Has sent Virgil to care for the poet
And deliver him from danger and fear.
The poet finds succor
In the compassion and caring that are sent his way,
And his heart is made stronger for the journey onward
Down the deep and savage way that lies ahead.
They come to a gate where is inscribed on the lintel
“Abandon hope, all that enter here”.
Virgil cautions Dante that he must not be a coward.
The poet hears terrible sounds of agony and wailing,
Groans, yells, fierce execration, hideous shrieks
And asks his guide what are these wretched sounds.
Virgil replies that these are they whose dreary lives
Were futile and nondescript,
Warranting neither praise nor infamy.
They run naked, with bloody faces,
Stung by bees and hornets,
While worms gather up their blood.
They seek to cross the river Acheron
Where the fiery-eyed Charon
Ferries these sorrowful creatures across the river.
The poet faints at the dreadful sight
Of these scared and woeful creatures,
The best of which they can hope for, a journey into Hell.
A heavy peal of thunder wakes the poet out of stunned slumber.
He rises and stands on the steep brink of a deep pit,
A dark and dolorous chasm.
They descend into the pit’s first circle,
Silent except for the sound of sighing,
Quivering forever through the eternal air.
Here reside those who, though they are not lacking in merit,
Have the fault of not being baptized in spirit.
Only a few pagans escape this circle’s destiny,
Most others, though lofty and honorable souls,
Remain behind forever
In this eternally hollow and echoing circle.
They descend from the first circle to the second,
Which holds still greater woe,
Filled with loud outcry and girning.
Grim Minos sits in ghastly session,
Assigning each ill soul to its proper place in hell.
Sounds of grief fill the ears,
Anguish and shrill lamentation bellow
Like a tempestuous ocean, beating and hurling.
Into this torment are thrust carnal sinners
Whose reason was under the yoke of their lust.
These spirits are thrashed forever by the black wind’s flailing.
The poet swoons in pity for these
Who are condemned to suffer for their sins of lust.
When consciousness returns,
They journey on to new suffering,
Now in the Third Circle, that of rain,
Ceaseless, cold accursed quench,
Whose hailstones sleet and snow,
Turbid drench of water sluice down through the putrid air.
Cerberus, cruel misshapen monster
Bays in his triple gullet, doglike growls,
Eyeballs glare a bloodshot crimson,
Flays and rips and rends the souls that howl here in the rain.
They scoop up fistfuls of the miry ground
And shoot it swiftly into each of the three craving throats
Before they can go forward.
Ahead they see the souls of those who lay groveling on the ground,
Damnable gluttony their souls’ disease.
They pass further downward into the Fourth Circle,
Where there are throngs of sinners yelling with all their might,
Pushing and shoving, back and forth, great and heavy loads,
A futile tournament where the rival crews ceaselessly butt and brawl.
These are those who used no moderation in handling wealth
Now jousting against their opposites,
Those who were covetous of the wealth of others.
The pilgrims cross to the far edge of the precipice,
Down a cleft in the rock where a bubbling spring gurgles
And empties into the foul marsh called Styx.
Here they see mud-stained figures with looks of savage discontent,
Tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.
These are those that yielded to wrath
Together plunged in this vile broth with those that were sullen in spirit,
Those who could feel no joy in the air, the sun, and all that is good.
They are condemned to stew and gurgle in their own sulky smoke,
Gulping and gurgling in the marish foul.
Through the turbid waves at the foot of a tall tower
Comes skimming towards them a swift craft bearing a sole mariner,
The wicket spirit, Phleygas.
They enlist Phleygas to ferry them over the grimy slough,
Which he does only grudgingly.
In the midst of the slimy channel,
Outstretched hands clutch at their boat.
The poet holds these fierce and arrogant brutes in sheer contempt,
For these are those who, though on earth they strutted like kings,
Here only wallow hog-like in the mud.
He watches in satisfaction
While a muddy gang pulls and mauls at one foul villain.
They soon see drawing nigh the city named Dis,
Its mosques arising out of glowing furnaces,
Flames unquenchable, marking their arrival in nether Hell.
A crowd of fallen spirits attempts to thwart their further progress
But Virgil leads the Poet still further down the steep abyss
Now to enter the gates of the city of Dis.
When he sees his guide grow fearful,
The poet is further filled with doubt.
He asks him whether he has been here before.
Virgil tells of long ago, when he took a journey here
Into the furthest depths of Hell.
But the poet is distracted
When he sees how fiercely burn the fires in the towers above.
Suddenly arise before them three hellish Furies,
Bolstered with blood, girt with green hydras,
Their tresses a brood of asps and adders.
These three fierce Erinyes,
The Furies Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone,
Threaten to turn the travelers to stone.
Until they hear a shattering sound and out of the harsh mists
Appears one sent from Heaven, who casts out the vengeful Erinyes.
The travelers can now pass unopposed through the gates into Hell’s city.
As they pass through the gate, around them stretches a vast plain,
Dotted with countless sepulchres,
Grave slabs all thrown back and upturned,
Fearful crying from the tortured spirits of the doomed heretics
Emanating from within.
They proceed amongst the fiery graves
Where lie buried those heretical souls who followed Epicurus,
Who held that the body dies with the soul,
Those obdurate of mind who clung to things finite
And denied things eternal.
One spirit rises and stands erect in his grave,
Grabbing and challenging the poet.
This is a prideful and clannish man, Farinata,
Long ago a political enemy of the family of the poet.
Still another desperate spirit rises from the grave
To inquire whether the poet knows if his son is still alive.
When Dante muses that these souls know the future
But nothing of the present,
Virgil explains that souls are dim of sight
Their intellect void,
A stark death of knowledge the punishment for their sins.
The travelers now descend further into a fume-filled vale.
They peer over the brink of a sheer cliff ringed with huge jagged rocks
Into a deep stinking Abyss below.
The Poet’s guide points below to three narrowing circles.
The deepest circles are reserved for those most despicable souls
Who committed sins of force or fraud.
The first circle holds violent men,
Those who have used force against their neighbors,
Murderers, robbers, and plunderers;
Those who used violence against themselves,
Joyless or profligate souls;
And those who do violence to God,
Who defame his bounty and the natural universe.
Deeper down still, in the second circle below,
Are the souls of those who have committed Fraud of the first sort,
Hypocrites, flatterers, sorcerers,
Panderers, simoniacs, and barrators.
The deepest circle is reserved for those that God hates the most,
Who defrauded their own kind, traitors to their own kin.
He learns that there are sins of lesser and greater degree,
That sins of incontinence and vice
In circles which now lie behind them,
Are less blameworthy than those of Malice and Fraud
That lie on the road ahead.
They clamber down a steep crevasse of tumbled rock
To confront a wild and angry Minotaur,
Body of a man, head of a bull.
They run past him as he rages,
Approaching the river of blood, Phlegethon,
Where all those wretches boil
Whose violence filled the world with pain and fear.
Racing towards them come three centaurs,
Body of a horse, head of a man,
Threatening them with bows and quivers.
The great centaur, Chiron, explains that their task
Is to shoot at every soul that tries to lift
Higher out of the blood than doom demands.
In the bubbling crimson flood
The shrieks of the boiled, bloody and ravenous tyrants
Rise shrill and desperate.
The centaurs carry them across the bloody river
Depositing them safely on the other side.
They push into a dark pathless forest,
Filled with writhen, gnarled, and withered scrub.
They have now arrived at the second ring of the seventh Circle,
The abominable sand,
Where sit the cruel and malicious Harpies,
Lady-faced birds with feathered belly and claws of steel.
They hear a mournful wailing
But see nobody around to cause such wailing.
The teacher coaches the traveler to pluck off one of the branches,
And the broken splint cries out
And drips dark blood and gloomy cries.
How do souls get cramped into such writhen and knotty forms?
Because they committed a mad violence against their own selves,
Minos has sent them down to the seventh ditch,
Where, when they fall, they sprout into these agonized saplings.
The horrible Harpies feed upon the leaves,
Giving vent to eternal agony and pain within the branches.
Wild dogs chase two sinners past the withered bushes,
Breaking the branches as they run.
As the branches break, the souls within cry out in mournful regret
For in this grim circle
Their just eternal recompense is equally weighed against
The sins they committed on their own selves while alive.
They arrive at the third ring and see a barren and sere plain.
Great herds of naked spirits lie supine,
Some wandering to and fro,
Their cries filling the doleful plain.
Huge flakes of fire drift slowly down on all,
Flaming fireballs raining everlasting heat,
Kindling the burning sands below.
They see one contorted soul hulking alone,
Casting contemptuous scorn against the flame,
His proud insolence and hot rage tormenting him eternally.
This destiny is a fitting cautery
To the rabid sore that eats at his insolent soul.
They skirt the edge of the burning sand,
Arrive at a horrid brook bubbling forth a jet of red blood
Creating a rivulet of blood meandering over the burning sands.
They have arrived at the confluence
Of Acheron, Styx, and Phlegthon,
Infernal rivers that join here,
Slipping deeper into a pit profound,
Forming the Lake of Cocytus,
And still more indescribable horrors
Waiting for them in the deeps below.
Canto XV – XVII
Walking through a canopy of steam
They are protected from the flaming stream beside them.
Out of a troop of shades,
Skulking and hurrying along the banks of the river,
Comes one, who, with scorched, scarred and shriveled face,
Clasps desperately at their hems.
It is an old acquaintance of the poet,
Desperate to escape from his perverted appetites
And the hell to which these appetites have condemned him.
They reach a place where they hear water
Tumbling and thundering down to the circle below.
At the brink of the chasm they spy a beast with stinging tail unfurled,
Whipping and twisting the venomed fork in the air.
He peers over the edge into the great chasm below.
Following along the outermost brink of the seventh circle,
He sees the grotesque sinners that lie below.
They scuff with snout and paw like dogs eaten by flies and fleas.
His guide now mounts the fearsome Geryon,
And summons the poet to join him.
The fearsome beast hurls himself over the cliff
Into the roaring chasm below.
Through the sweep of their downward flight
They hear the wailing of the tortured sinners who reside below
Until Geryon lands them at the foot of the deep chasm
And then bounds away.
There is in Hell a region that is called Malbowges;
It is all of iron-grey stone, a chasm of huge barrier rock.
At the bottom of this dreadful chasm yawns a well,
The foul pit narrowing in ten great chasms in a narrowing divide
To the central well.
There on the right new tortures and new torturers
Cram the edges of the rock.
Horned fiends with heavy whips
Scourge the backs of the pitiful and dismal sinners
Who are condemned to die there.
They pass by those who sold the flesh of women
Scourged by fiends with cracking lash to the loin.
The travelers climb the craggy steeps;
Coming to a place where they hear sounds of great suffering,
Whimpering, snuffling and spitting.
They see banks ahead crusted with foul scum, fuming and stinking
Till nose and eye were vanquished with sight and reek of noisome stuff,
Peer down in the lake’s foul bottom,
Espy these sinners who bought and sold the flesh,
Now plunged below in a foul lake of dung.
In the Third Bowges
Are those who sold the things of God into adultery
For silver and gold.
They see in the rocky gulley ahead,
Thickset with holes,
The flaming feet of sinners
Whose feet and legs stick out from the holes in the rock.
The sinner’s feet wave and thrash
But the main part of their bodies are hid within the rocky pit.
They are helpless to extinguish the flames lapping at their soles;
They quiver and thrash in eternal shame.
New punishments wait for the sinners who sink in the Abyss below.
They see those whose heads are twisted
Each towards his own backside.
Backwards must they always creep
With power of looking forward being denied.
Each image twisted in a kind of paralytic fit,
So bereft of dignity
That when their eyes are brimming with tears,
Spilling down to bathe their buttocks at the cleft.
These are those who tried to look forward
To usurp god’s high equity
Now condemned to look backwards
And live only in retrograde.
In the Malbowges’ next dark ravine boils a thick and gummy pitch
Black tarry bubbles spatter the brink of the bubbling black lake.
They espy a fiend rushing to the shore
Heaving high-hunched on his shoulders a wretched sinner,
Hoisted by haunch and hip,
Soon to be tossed over the flinty cliff
Into the boiling pitch below.
These sinners, whose lives consist of subsurface deals
And secret money grabbing
Now bob in the tarry pitch.
When they rise in attempt to escape their tarry doom,
A grisly fiend jabs them back into the pitch,
With a hundred prongs stabbing and clawing,
Down into the black cauldron
They prod the sinners like forks in a tarry stew.
Their names of the demons are:
Hacklespur and Hellkin,
Libbicock, and Dragonel,
Guttlehog and Grabbersnitch,
Rubicant and Farfarel.
As they turn to travel on,
Their eyes search the horizon for a path.
They see a scalding pitch moat
Swarming with grim souls wallowing in scald and smirch,
Some floating like hump-backed dolphins in the scalding black swamp below,
Miserable wretches skulking at the black stream’s edge.
Barbiger and Grabbersnitch stab their hooks into the pitch
Pulling sinners with tar-clogged hair out of the fiery tar.
Rubicant, clawed demon guardian of the slough,
Guttlehog, savage boar,
Flesh hanging from his jaws,
Fangs and grabbing, leering and tearing,
Libbicock, with threatening tusks, claws, and prongs
Rips off sinewy gobbets of mangled flesh and skin.
The demons start to quarrel,
And they chew and boil and smother,
Grappling in a ditch the clutch of fiends
Floundering and entangled, wrestle in the terrible pitch.
The travelers sneak by the wrestling demons.
They run fearing the demons still chase after them
When suddenly one swoops in as if to seize them,
Careening on wide wings,
The master catches up the poet
Like a mother in a fire snatching a child from a cradle.
They slither and slide down the cleft in the rock
Until finally on the bank below
The master sets him in the fifth moat.
Now they see a people decked with paint
Who trod their circling way with tear and groan,
And slow, slow steps, subdued and faint,
Wear cloaks with deep hoods over their eyes,
Wearing this weary mantle for eternity,
Crushed ‘neath that vast load,
These sad folk ply such slow beat unceasing.
They approach two toiling ever on,
And one in this college of hypocrites replies:
Our orange-gilded dress is leaden and so heavy
That its weight wrings down upon our shoulders
Until we creak with each step.
Over they go in the darkness into the eighth barrier
Where below them is displayed a mass of serpents,
A loathsome welter,
The amphisbenes, pareas and jacules,
A cruel and repulsive crop of monsters.
Among this crop of monsters naked men run terrified,
Their hands tied with snakes,
Whose head and tail writhed in knots
Around the loin of the sinner.
And the snake leaps up and stings the sinner in the neck,
Whereupon the sinner turns to dust
And resumes his former shape.
They are thieves who are tormented here,
Those who stole the treasure of the sacristy.
They come to a place where the shades of insolent wretches
Thieves who could not distinguish what was theirs from what was another’s
Who wrought fraud upon others,
Here there are serpents writhing everywhere,
Serpents crouched on the shoulders of the sinners around them.
Three spirits approach them.
One is pounced upon by a great six legged worm,
Fiery monster, livid with rage,
Leapt up with all its claws, darts at the guts of the spirits,
Clasping the middle with paws and fore-paws
A trail of smoke poured meeting they merged their steam
Clenching its teeth tightly, hind legs to thighs it fastened,
The monstrous obscene beast clings about him
Till like hot wax they stuck
Melting their tints began to mingle and run
Two heads already had become one head
Into two arms the four forequarters swelled
Legs and thighs, breast and belly,
Blend and knit such nightmare limbs as never eye behold.
Thus metamorphosed he thus to a snake
The monster’s tail around him wound
Two natures interchanging substance and form.
The tongue once whole and apt for speech was splayed into a fork
And together the snake and the man changed and re-changed back and forth.
They climb the rocky descent up crags and boulders
Until they see the eighth moat
Twinkling with wandering fires.
Through that gulf moved flaming spires,
Shrouding grim spirits,
Each concealing a pilfering thief,
Covered in the flames of their own torment.
Within one flame go two as one,
All ability to cry out consumed
In the flickering flames at their tongues.
Their eyes are drawn towards the crest of a new flame
With strange muffled roarings expressed in cries
Pierced with torments unendurable
The shades of the circles of Fraud
Out of the fire the sad words translated
Into fire’s native speech
Each tip vibrated with the same vibration
The flame telling its sad tale of fraudulence and lies.
In the ninth bowges, traitors gather together,
Pierced and maimed,
Limbs unhealed, bleeding.
Those who sowed schism
Now wander eviscerated,
Split down their middles as if by a cleaver,
Spleen and liver protruding from gashed flesh,
Holding bloody stumps over disgraced faces.
Then comes running towards them a headless trunk,
Holding by the hair a severed head,
Swinging like a lantern in his hand.
Because they have sundered that which should be one,
Severed natural ties between father and son,
Now are they doomed to bear their own brains
Cleft from their trunks in their own bloody hands.
The Poet’s vision is drowned by the smitten shades around him,
Coaxed by his Guide to go further before the moon falls,
The travelers come upon the final cloister of the great pit,
Tenth Malbowges, the last moat,
Filled with deafening shrieks of anguish.
Here is where Infallible Justice to their painful fate condigns
Falsifiers, destroyers of Truth,
Enduring here their grim eternal fate.
Sick souls crawl on all fours on the ground in pain,
They cannot lift their sick bodies from the ground.
Two sit back to back, propped against each other,
Blotched from head to foot with scabs and blains,
Maddened by an itch that finds no abating,
Scratching at the scurfy shales of their scaly skin.
They see two brute shades,
Possessed in a cruel frenzy,
Like rutting boars rabid that have made escape,
Biting and savaging all the rest.
Here lingers those who cheated their brothers,
Minted false coins,
Now howling in thirst,
Puffed, parched lips and stiffened skin,
One dry lip curled upward by thirst,
At them are these eternal torments hurled.
They soon turn their backs on the mournful gale
And strain forward in the gloom,
Soon rises before them a plump of tall towers looming.
As they approach, they see that these are not towers,
But proud giants,
Set in a ring and hidden from the navel down in the well below.
They form a circling rampart,
Shoulders and breast and part of the belly,
With half their bodies the horrible Giants
Form a citadel that girds the well’s high rim to the last chamber.
These three Friesan giants are:
Nimrod, Ephialtes, and Antaeus.
Antaeus leans down and sets the two travelers into the last circle,
Deep below where Judas and Lucifer wait.
The rock grinds downward finally to the last sink,
Where the dregs of damnation toss below.
They see stretched before them
A lake so bound with ice,
Not like water but like glass,
Wedged in the ice, chattering like storks,
Dismal shades stand here and there,
Their eyes attest their grief.
Two are pressed so close together
Like butting goats jarred their heads together,
Quivering in the frozen pool,
I saw two frozen together in that icy hole
So that the one head capped the other,
And as starved men tear bread, this tore the poll
Of the one beneath,
Chewing with ravenous jaw
Where brain meets marrow
Just beneath the skull,
These horrible sinners gnaw at each other’s scalps and tissues raw.
They come upon one
Who tells a tale of his treachery and punishment.
But his story is interrupted
As he is pulled towards a more beastly destiny,
Planting his teeth, like a dog’s,
Strong upon the bone,
Back in the wretched head of the suffering sinner
That he is condemned to eternally devour.
They move further through the shadowy ice.
When the master declares, “Behold now Dis”
And steel your soul with great constancy
For the sorrow that awaits you there.
Then before them arose the Emperor of the sorrowful realm,
Standing breast high, they behold three faces in his awful head,
The one in front scarlet like vermilion,
And two, mid-centered on the shoulders.
The right was a hue txist white and yellow;
The left was colored like the men who dwell
Where Nile runs down from source to sandy shallow.
Plumeless like the pinions of a bat,
Two great wings flap and whip about the monstrous bird,
Wept from his six eyes runnels of tears and bloody slaver,
Each mouth of the dreadful beast devours a sinner clenched within.
The beast, preoccupied, unfurls his wings in battle.
And they set upon his shaggy shanks to climb
From shag to shag descended down his haunches,
Twixt matted hair and crusts of frozen rime,
To where a small stream trickles through a hollow,
With a flickering light,
Back to the lit world once again,
They toil upwards,
Coming forth, once more,
To look once more upon the shimmering stars.