“Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” These famous, frightening first words are inscribed on the gates of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, from The Divine Comedy, written in the early 14th century. In the poem, the author, Dante, travels with his guide Virgil down through the circles of Hell. By Canto 19, he has reached the eighth circle, second to last, which is reserved for the fraudulent. In the third trench of the circle are the simonists, people guilty of buying ecclesiastical offices or trafficking in sacred things. Simony, a word that first entered the language in the 1225 A.D. Ancrene Riwle, a book of instruction for nuns often called the Nun’s Rule, is named for Simon Magus, who attempts, in Acts 8:18–19, to buy the Holy Spirit from Peter. To Dante this was an offense more serious than murder. Murderers are only in the seventh circle of Dante’s Hell. In the Inferno, Simon Magus is joined by Pope Nicholas III, who was guilty of trying to purchase holy offices for his nephews. Their punishment, as depicted in a 14th-century illustrated Inferno: to writhe in pain, upside down, with their torsos shoved in holes up to their calves, flames lapping at the soles of their feet. —K.E.M.

Inferno: Canto XIX

O Simon Magus, O forlorn disciples,

Ye who the things of God, which ought to be

The brides of holiness, rapaciously

For silver and for gold do prostitute,

Now it behooves for you the trumpet sound,

Because in this third Bolgia [trench] ye abide.

We had already on the following tomb

Ascended to that portion of the crag

Which o’er the middle of the moat hangs plumb.

Wisdom supreme, O how great art thou showest

In heaven, in earth, and in the evil world,

And with what justice doth thy power distribute!

I saw upon the sides and on the bottom

The livid stone with perforations filled,

All of one size, and every one was round.

To me less ample seemed they not, nor greater

Than those that in my beautiful Saint John

Are fashioned for the place of the baptisers,

And one of which, not many years ago,

I broke for some one, who was drowning in it;

Be this a seal all men to undeceive.

Out of the mouth of each one there protruded

The feet of a transgressor, and the legs

Up to the calf, the rest within remained.

In all of them the soles were both on fire;

Wherefore the joints so violently quivered,

They would have snapped asunder withes and bands.

(Translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.)