Simony is the practice of buying and selling God's favor. The sinners in this bolgia are planted head down in what look like baptismal fonts, their feet exposed and flaming. As an aside, Danté also tells the story of how he saved someone stuck in a baptismal font from drowning by breaking it with a sledge hammer.
The punishment for those who commit simony is reminiscent of St. Peter's upside-down crucifixion and the way that assassins were treated by planting them upside in a hole, leaving them to suffocate. Their punishment is appropriate because simoners are assassinating the reputation of the church.
Danté speaks to one whose feet burns brighter than the rest and commands he confess. The shade replies, "Is that you already, Boniface?" referring to Pope Boniface VIII who has lined his own purse with money from "the beautiful Lady" (the church).
But this shade is Pope Nicholas III, who not only lined his pockets with cash, but also gave church offices to his family. He is not alone in his hole, he is just the latest. "Beneath my head are crushed the others who practice simony before me."
Danté goes off on the Pope. "Please tell me, how much treasure did our Lord insist on from Saint Peter before he gave the keys [of heaven] into his keeping? Surely He asked no more than 'Follow Me.'" He goes further saying you deserve your fate for those "gains, ill-gotten."
He compares these gold-worshiping popes to idol worshipers then blames Constantine for starting the trend of the church towards money. Constantine, a Roman Emperor, supposedly granted the pope and his successors secular sovereignty over Italy and the rest of the western empire. The document known as the Donation of Constantine, was found to be a forgery in 15th century, a hundred years after Danté. Danté believes the granting of secular power led popes to abuse the wealth of the church.
Virgil is so happy with Danté's invective against simony and these sinners, that he picks him up, and carries him across to bolgia four.
Canto XX - Circle Eight, Bolgia Four - Diviners
Diviners in this bolgia walk with broken necks "their faces reversed upon their shoulders." A punishment representative of their having looked into the future with wicked intent, intent that could bend wise men backward. They cannot speak, but only weep, ending their ability to speak false predictions.
This is so pitiable to Danté that he starts weeping - AGAIN! Why? Perhaps because it seems everyone is at least a little guilty of having done so, possibly even Danté.
Virgil is disgusted. "Are you still as witless as the rest?"
And so begins Virgil's longest speech in the poem as he starts to catalog the worst "diviners," from classical to medieval times, a list that includes common women who "gave up the needle, spool, and spindle to take up fortune telling." Hmmm . . . have you ever played with a Ouija board?
Virgil also gives an account of the founding of his hometown, Mantua, a description that completely contradicts the one found in the Aeneid--another bit of metafiction.
Canto XXI - Circle Eight, Bolgia Five - Barrators
Crossing the next bridge we enter the space reserved for barrators or corrupt politicians, who are like simoners except that they buy and sell political favor. We also immediately see that these sinners are guarded by devils, Malebranche (Evil Claws), devils that were familiar in medieval popular culture - like our current day zombies and vampires.
These offenders are punished by stewing in a river of boiling pitch. If they stick their heads out or try to escape devils push them down with their billhooks "in just the same way cooks command their scullions to take their skewers and prod the meat down in the cauldron, lest it float back up." The pitch represents the sticky slime that covers grafters engaging in this kind of fraud.
Something to keep in mind, Danté was exiled from Florence on the charge of political corruption and bribery although this was a political move on the part of his enemies.
Virgil advises Danté squat down and hide so he can go ahead and secure passage to the next bolgia. The devils rush to attack Virgil thinking him a sinner. Virgil asks how he could get this far "unstopped by all your hindering without the will of God and favoring fate?" Malacoda drops his hook saying, "Enough, let no one touch him."
Virgil instructs Danté to come out of hiding and the devils rush him. Danté recalls how the troops under siege in Caprona must have felt after coming out after a promise of safe conduct, especially since he was one of those troops.
Danté is not convinced that these devils are on the up-and-up. One wants to "nick him on the rump." The lead devil advises the travelers that the bridge is out, so they have to make their way "along this rocky ledge" to a crag for passage. The bridge has been out since 'Yesterday, at a time five hours from now, it was a thousand two hundred sixty-six years since the road was broken." This is the clearest reference to when The Divine Comedy takes place 7:00 a.m., Saturday, during Easter week 1300.
The Malebanche are going to send an escort along with Virgil and Danté including devils named Graffiacane (Scratchdog), Ciriatto (Swineface), and Draghignazzo (Vile Dragon)--a bit of dark humor. Again Danté objects, "Oh, master . . . I don't like what I see." And again, Virgil, blows off his concern. "Let them grind to their hearts' content--they do it for the stewing wretches."
As they leave the devils "blow a signal to their leader, and he made a trumpet of his asshole." Signal? For what purpose? Ah, keep reading across the next bolgia.
Here we see a continuing change in the relationship of Virgil and Danté. Virgil was wrong once before about devils when they approached the city of Dis and the devils wouldn't let them in. Can he be wrong again? Danté is becoming suspicious of the motives of those in Hell. I mean would you trust everything a devil told you?
What about the worship of gold? Do you think too much emphasis is placed on being wealthy in our era? What do you think of evangelist preachers that tell their flock God said he or she needs a new jet?
When thinking about diviners one is tempted to look beyond the common fortune teller to those that make whopping predictions about our future, especially if we don't do what they recommend (and I'm not just talking about your parents). Can you think of people in our society who make dire predictions about our future? Would you consider them guilty of fortune telling in Danté's view?
What about political corruption? It's hard to turn on the news these days and not see something about bribery or influence peddling. On the other hand, our system of campaign contributions through lobbying and PACS seems to reinforce this kind of graft. Do you think this is a sin worthy of hell? Or is this just Danté being a medieval conservative? Do we need to change with the times?