The poets find themselves at the brink of Circle VIII with its ten "Malebolges" (meaning evil ditches or pockets or chasms), a cavern of stone with ten concentric Bowges (chasms or moats or trenches) dug into the rock in which the sinners of different natures reside.
In the first chasm (or valley), the poets approach the first of what can also be thought of as chasms or valleys, filled with tormented sinners walking in both directions. Demons with horns flog them continuously to keep them moving.
Dante notices a sinner on the side on which he is standing and calls to him. The sinner tries to hide his face, but is compelled to speak. He is Venedico Caccianemico of Bologna, who admits that he brought his own sister "the fair Ghisolabella 'round to serve the will and lust of the Marquis." He says that there are more souls from Bologna in the ditch with him than there are living in Bologna at present. A demon strikes him with a whip and orders him off.
The poets approach a narrow bridge spanning the pit, and Virgil tells Dante to observe the sinners walking around the other way. There Dante sees the proud Jason, seeming strong in spite of the pain he receives in the pit. Other seducers are with him.
Moving to the second chasm or moat, Dante observes groups of sinners writhing in sewage and excrement, and he again recognizes a sinner, Alessio Interminelli da Lucca, who suffers in this pit because of false flattery. Virgil points out a woman in the chasm, Thaïs the whore, who also resides in the chasm because of false flattery. The poets turn away from these sinners. They have seen enough.
The poets have entered the circle of "Malebolge." As noted in the summary above, there is a certain amount of confusion over the terminology, which can lead to a confusion of images. The word "Bolgia" in Italian means both "pit" and "pouch," but neither term seems to be the best translation for the idea Dante wanted to convey. The words "chasm" or "ravine" seem to carry the connotation of depth and ruggedness that Dante would wish, but "moat" would probably be equally acceptable, as Dante implies in an early stanza. The word "well" might be replaced with "crater" or "abyss" in matters of clarity. The prefix of "Male" means variously "sickness" or "evil."
Malebolge is a terrible place, in the true meaning of the word. Dante has devoted thirteen cantos to this one circle of Hell. These are the heart of the Inferno and they contain some of the most dramatic scenes, both in content and in poetic richness. The opening of this canto, with a long descriptive passage, is some of Dante's best poetry.
The first sinners that Dante confronts in the first ditch of Malebolge are the Panderers (those who used others to serve their own purposes). Due to the nature of retribution, Panderers will spend eternity prodded by malicious demons. The souls walking in the other direction are Seducers who are similar to the Panderers, because they also used others for their own needs.
Venedico Caccianemico of Bologna admits to Dante that he brought Ghisolabella, his own sister, around to suit the sexual desires of the Marquis Obbizo da Este of Ferrara. One of the demons prodding the damned soul calls Venedico a pimp.
The figure of Jason is startling in this canto, because he is quite deep in the bowels of Hell, and he is a famous mythological figure. Dante, as the poet of courtly love, clearly dislikes Jason's behavior toward women — seduce them, get them with child, and desert them.
The souls in the next ditch are the Flatterers, and again, in the theme of retribution, they wallow in filth and sewage, much like they did in life, with their false flattery. To illustrate the grossness of false flattery, Dante picks two sinners. The first, Alessio Interminelli da Lucca, was from a noble family, though not much is known about him. The second, Thaïs, is said to have received the gift of a slave from her lover, and when asked if she thanked him much, she replied with so much flattery that her gratitude was beyond believing.
Jason Greek Mythology. a prince who leads the Argonauts and with Medea's help, gets the Golden Fleece. He then deserts Meda and their two childen.
Colchian Ram the Golden Fleece.
Lemnos Greek island in the North Aegean Sea.
Venus' curse made the women of Lemnos smell bad so that their men would not come near them; the women eventually killed their men for refusing to come near them.
Hypsipyle daughter of the king of Lemnos; seduced and deserted by Jason; saved her father when all the men of Lemnos were being killed.
Medea Greek Mythology. a sorceress who helps Jason get the Golden Fleece and later, when deserted by him, kills their children and his new lover.