READ STUDY GUIDE: Cantos VII–IX
The City of Dis.—Erichtho.—The Three Furies.—The Heavenly Messenger.—The Sixth Circle, that of the Heresiarchs.
That color which cowardice painted outwardly on me when I saw my Guide turn back, repressed more speedily his own new color. He stopped attentive, like a man that listens, for the eye could not lead him far through the black air, and through the dense fog.
"Yet it must be for us to win the fight," began he, "unless—Such an one offered herself to us. Oh how slow it seems till Some one here arrive! "
 The messenger from Heaven, referred to in the last verses of the last canto.
I saw well how he covered up the beginning with the rest that came after, which were words different from the first. But nevertheless his speech gave me fear, because I drew his broken phrase perchance to a worse meaning than it held.
"Into this depth of the dismal shell does any one ever descend from the first grade who has for penalty only hope cut off? " This question I put, and he answered me, "Seldom it happens that any one of us maketh the journey on which I am going. It is true that another time I was conjured down here by that cruel Erichtho who was wont to call back shades into their bodies. Short while had my flesh been bare of me, when she made me enter within that wall in order to drag out for her a spirit from the circle of Judas. That is the lowest place, and the darkest, and the farthest from the Heaven that encircles all. Well do I know the road: therefore assure thyself. This marsh which breathes out the great stench girds round about the woeful city wherein now we cannot enter without anger."
And more he said, but I hold it not in mind because my eye had wholly attracted me toward the high tower with the ruddy summit, where in an instant were uprisen suddenly three infernal furies, stained with blood, who had the limbs of women and their action, and were girt with greenest hydras. Little serpents and cerastes they had for hair, wherewith their savage brows were bound.
And he, who well knew the handmaids of the queen of the eternal lamentation, said to me, "Behold the fell Erinnyes; this is Megaera on the left side, she who weeps on the right is Alecto, Tisiphone is in the middle," and therewith he was silent.
With her nails each was tearing her breast, they beat themselves with their hands, and cried out so loud that I pressed close to the Poet through dread. "Let Medusa come, so we will make him of stone," they all said, looking down. "Ill was it we avenged not on Theseus his assault."
"Turn thy back, and keep thy sight closed, for if the Gorgon show herself, and thou shouldest see her, no return upward would there ever be." Thus said the Master, and he himself turned me, and did not so trust to my hands that with his own he did not also blindfold me.
O ye who have sound understanding, regard the doctrine that is hidden under the veil of the strange verses.
And already was coming across the turbid waves a tumult of a sound full of terror at which both the shores trembled. Not otherwise it was than of a wind, impetuous through the opposing heats, that strikes the forest, and without any stay shatters the branches, beats down and carries them away; forward, laden with dust, it goes superb, and makes the wild beasts and the shepherds fly.
My eyes he loosed, and said, "Now direct the nerve of sight across the ancient scum, there yonder where that fume is most bitter."
As frogs before the hostile snake all scatter through the water, till each huddles on the ground, I saw more than a thousand destroyed souls flying thus before one, who at the ford was passing over the Styx with dry feet. From his face he removed that thick air, waving his left hand oft before him, and only with that trouble seemed he weary. Well I perceived that he was sent from Heaven, and I turned me to the Master, and he made sign that I should stand quiet and bow down unto him. Ah, how full of disdain he seemed to me! He reached the gate and with a little rod he opened it, for there was no withstanding.
"O outcasts from Heaven, folk despised," began he upon the horrible threshold, "wherefore is this overweening harbored in you? Why do ye kick against that will from which its end can never be cut short, and which many a time hath increased your grief? What avails it to butt against the fates? Your Cerberus, if ye remember well, still bears his chin and his throat peeled for that." Then he turned back upon the filthy road and said no word to us, but wore the semblance of a man whom other care constrains and stings, than that of him who is before him.
And we moved our feet toward the city, confident after his holy words. Within we entered without any strife, and I, who had desire to observe the condition which such a stronghold locks in, when I was within, sent my eyes round about; and I see on every hand a great plain full of woe and of cruel torment.
As at Arles, where the Rhone stagnates, as at Pola, near the Quarnaro that shuts in Italy and bathes its borders, sepulchres make all the place uneven; so did they here on every side, saving that the manner was more bitter here; for among the tombs flames were scattered, by which they were so intensely kindled that no art requires iron more so. All their lids were lifted; and such dire laments were issuing forth from them as truly seemed of wretches and of sufferers.
And I, "Master, who are these folk that, buried within those coffers, make themselves heard with their woeful sighs?" And he to me, "Here are the heresiarchs with their followers of every sect, and the tombs are much more laden than thou thinkest. Like with like is buried here, and the monuments are more and less hot."
And when he to the right hand had turned, we passed between the torments and the high battlements.