A Wizards' Duel
Hopefully, the translation you are using is one which unpacks the levels of meaning in this potent Canto. So much comes down to the context of Dante the Poet’s time, the place of power held by the Catholic Church and how that power was acquired and transferred. This is the circle for the Sin of Simony, which is buying and selling church office. It originally comes from Acts 8:9–24 where a convert named Simon tried to buy the gift of the Holy Spirit. While Peter chastises him we never find out if in fact, Simon Magus repents. However some earlier patristic writers and even a couple Apocryphal writings bring up Simon Magus. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus both refer to him as in league with Satan, even to the point of referring to him as “the source of all heresies” (Irenaeus - haer. 1.23–27). In the Apocryphal Acts of Peter, we have him showing up and directly challenging the Apostle Peter to a wizard’s duel, unlike Gandalf and Saruman but much more like Disney’s Merlin and the Mad Madam Mim. At one point, Simon Magus begins to fly above the city walls to prove to those watching this duel that they should follow him (the observers apparently are stupid enough to believe that outward signs of power and prestige determine inner integrity and holiness… hmmm, maybe not much has changed at all…). Peter, shocked, begins to pray and mentions, as an aside to God, that Simon Magus is outdoing him in obvious miracles, so God strikes Simon Magus down, whereupon he takes a nosedive and buries himself, head first, into the ground at Peter’s feet. There is Simon Magus, half-buried and feet kicking, defeated at last. I doubt the notes in your translation told you all of THIS! And you may not have needed it, but it is a fascinating story that shows us where Dante the Poet arrived at his concept of punishment for this sin.
This duel makes light, however, of a profound betrayal of authority and trust. The sin of Simony, by selling church offices to the highest bidder or saving them for family members, disrupts the very heart of God’s gift of guidance, direction and discernment for the church by its leaders and authority figures. [Spoiler Alert: please read Canto XIX! Indeed, please read every Canto. The primary material is so much better and wiser than my unpacking these vignettes and spoiling the story.] Indeed, the allegorical interpretations abound here, for this is a perverted representation of the gift of the Holy Spirit. At the coming of the Spirit fire descended and landed on the heads of the Apostles, not the feet. It filled them with direction and power and words to guide rather than filling their pockets with gold. The fire here burns the feet and the naked legs move incessantly, but not to go from town to town spreading the Gospel and laying on hands to fill believers with the Spirit. Rather, standing on their heads, buried head first, they basically run in place, full of pain, going nowhere.
22 From the mouth of each stuck out
23 a sinner's feet and legs up to the thighs
24 while all the rest stayed in the hole.
25 They all had both their soles on fire.
26 It made their knee-joints writhe so hard
27 they would have severed twisted vines or ropes.
28 As flames move only on the surface
29 of oily matter caught on fire,
30 so these flames flickered heel to toe.
What would be scandalous to Dante’s time is that those naked legs belonged to a pope! And there were piles of popes below him. We do not have the respect for office and power any longer that was present during Dante’s time, whether for President of the United States or the Pope of Rome. The office has diminished, perhaps due to the very reasons we find here in The Inferno, because of a series of betrayals of the responsibilities that are inherent in that God-given position. The pope, Nicholas the II, whose waving feet Dante the Pilgrim notices, speaks more of his family than of his flock. Even now, he is all about the Orsini Family [whose figure-head was a bear] and not his God-given charges, the family of God.
67 'If you are so keen to learn my name
68 that you descended from the bank for it,
69 know that I was cloaked in the great mantle.
70 'But in truth I was a son of the she-bear
71 and so avid was I to advance my cubs
72 I filled my purse as now I fill this hole.
73 'Beneath my head are crushed the others
74 who practiced simony before me,
75 now flattened into fissures in the rock.
Whether in the church or in the government or in our own homes, there are levels of expectation and sacrifice that must come from the office we are given by God, and to turn THAT on its head is to betray society and our loved ones and the very heart of this gift called life.
In the Phaedrus and The Republic, Plato proclaims that poetry is a form of divine madness of sorts, must be banished if the legislators are to rule without the interference of poets. Poetry, according to this view, upset the applecart because it deals with imitation and non-reality. Plato felt the legislators needed to rule without wild-eyed poets questioning their actions. In the medieval milieu of Dante’s time, there would be precious little patience for the poet, or anyone else, who questioned the excesses of power publically. What Dante the Poet does here is put his head in the noose by “outing” the betrayal of the papacy in the Sin of Simony. The “non-reality” of authentic holiness is what Dante the Poet says God demands of politicians and popes. This man, Dante Alighieri, who had put so much of his energy and genius into political manipulation and attaining political office, now proclaims that political manipulation without moral and spiritual integrity is to be rejected. Indeed, no one is to be held above the demands of God’s office. He attacks this pope fiercely in a prolonged prophetic proclamation:
88 I do not know if then I was too bold
89 when I answered him in just this strain:
90 'Please tell me, how much treasure
91 'did our Lord insist on from Saint Peter
92 before He gave the keys into his keeping?
93 Surely He asked no more than "Follow me,"
94 'nor did Peter, or the others, take gold or silver
95 from Matthias when he was picked by lot
96 to fill the place lost by the guilty soul.
97 'Stay there then, for you are justly punished…
He speaks to the pope here in The Inferno in such a way that would have had him executed, after being tortured, in the “real world” above. And it is this passage that was used to justify burning some of the copies of The Commedia in the early days of its publication.
Yet, I do believe that Dante the Poet tried to warn the Church and his readers that, in point of fact, he was not destroying the papacy and the church, but trying to save it. At the very beginning of this Canto, before he tells us what he sees, he gives us a prelude which sets the context, declaring that Simon Magus and his followers were and are people who prostitute the things of God.
1 O Simon Magus! O wretches of his band,
2 greedy for gold and silver,
3 who prostitute the things of God
4 that should be brides of goodness!
He then goes on to tell this odd story of himself breaking open a stone baptistry in San Giovanni to save a child from drowning. Some of the commentators mention that this has not been proven that Dante the Poet ever destroyed a church baptistry in this way. I don’t believe that is the point at all. In order to save the Catholic Church of his day, Dante is attacking the structure that has been killing God’s Spirit. Dante wants to save the Church for the innocents that are to be guided by God’s clergy are being lost due to the sin of simony. That is why Dante attacks popes and puts them in hell, one on top of the other: they themselves are not sacrosanct. Indeed, Jesus told Peter that the church was to be built upon the rock that he, Peter, would become. Rather Dante the Poet is saying that as a result of their betrayal of God’s mantle placed on them, these popes are placed IN the rock and the church is dying as a result. It is fascinating to see that Salvador Dali got it right when he illustrating this Canto XIX with a series of legs sticking out from a massive rock.
I will stop here, but I must say that as I have read this classic work over the years, coming back to it time and time again, I am stunned by its relevance and its power to speak truth to the present age.