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Dante's Inferno Canto 18: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

Canto 18 of Dante's 'Inferno' looks at the eighth circle of hell and some of its inhabitants. In this lesson we will summarize Canto 18 and analyze the section's key quotes.

What Happens in Canto 18?

In Canto 18 of Dante's Inferno, Dante and Virgil enter Malebolge (which translates to something like ''evil ditches''), or the eighth circle of hell. They enter Malebolge on the back of Geryon, a monster who represents Fraud, but soon get off his back to continue on foot. First, the two poets look at the spirits in the first ditch, who are punished by demons for their sins of pimping. Next they look at the souls in the second trench, who are experiencing a particularly foul punishment for their sins of flattery.

Layout of Malebolge

It is somewhat difficult to describe Malebolge. To start, this circle of hell is shaped like a funnel that descends deeper and deeper. Along the way down, it is divided into ten concentric ditches, in which the various types of sins are punished. Spanning across these ditches are bridges that run from the outside circle to the innermost one; these are sometimes described as looking like spokes on a wheel. As one moves deeper and deeper through the various ditches, the punishments get worse to match the more serious sins that are being punished.

The First Trench: Pimps and Seducers

As Dante and Virgil walk past the spirits who are being punished, Dante notices one who looks familiar. The spirit tries to conceal his face by looking down, but Dante recognizes him anyway. It is a man named Venedico, who describes his sin in this way:

''Know then 'twas I who led fair Ghisola

To do the Marquis' will, however fame

The shameful tale have bruited.''

In other words, Venedico is being punished for arranging the sale of his sister, Ghisola, to a nobleman. We learn that this part of Malebolge is where pimps--either in the formal sense, or simply those who profit from offering a woman to another man--are punished.

Demons Whip Them

Demons punish the pimps in Malebolge
Demons in Canto 18

The punishment for the pimps suits their sin. We read:

''Each divers way along the grisly rock,

Horn'd demons I beheld, with lashes huge,

That on their back unmercifully smote.

Ah! how they made them bound at the first stripe!

None for the second waited nor the third.''

At first, it might appear that demons whipping them is unusually violent, given that the sin in question was pimping. But if we imagine that these demons are driving the men back and forth like slaves, it makes more sense: Just as the men treated women as commodities, the men are treated like slaves at the hands of violent slave-traders.

Jason of the Argo

After talking with Venedico, Virgil points out another spirit, describing him as ''too woe-begone to drop a tear. // How yet the regal aspect he retains!'' It turns out that this is Jason, the hero from Greek mythology who sailed the Argo. Jason is being punished for his behavior, first with Hypsipyle and then with Medea:

''There he with tokens and fair witching words

Hypsipyle beguil'd, a virgin young,

Who first had all the rest herself beguil'd.

Impregnated he left her there forlorn.

Such is the guilt condemns him to this pain.''

This reference to Jason is interesting given that we often hear of Medea as being the more serious ''sinner'' of this couple. After all, to get back at Jason, Medea murdered the children she'd had with him. Dante, however, stresses Jason's original sin against Medea, and shows us that he is suffering in hell as punishment for it.

The Second Trench: The Flatterers

After seeing Jason, Virgil and Dante continue to the second trench of Malebolge. We learn that this trench is much deeper than the first (which makes sense, since each is lower than the previous), and that Dante has a difficult time discerning anything from up above. What he is able to make out, though, is somewhat horrifying:

''And thence I saw, within the loss below,

A crowd immers'd in ordure, that appear'd

Draff of the human body.''

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