The canto opens with Dante wondering how to describe the sinners in the ninth chasm. This is the place of the Sowers of Discord and Scandal, and the Creators of Schism within the papacy. He warns that the punishment in this part of Hell is bloody and grotesque. Indeed, the sinners in the ninth chasm are damned to walk around the chasm until they arrive at a devil who slashes them with a long sword, according to the nature of their sin.
The first one Dante sees is Mahomet, disemboweled, who tells him that his son-in-law, Ali, is in the same condition and that all the others are horribly mangled in some manner. As they circle the chasm, the wounds heal, but when they complete the circle, the wounds are renewed by a devil with a sword.
Mahomet explains that these sinners were responsible for scandal and rift, and therefore, they are torn apart as they tore others apart in life. Mahomet asks Dante to tell Fra Dolcino, who is still alive, to store food for the winter or risk joining him in the chasm. After asking Dante to warn his friend, Mahomet moves on.
Another soul addresses Dante and asks that he warn Guido and Angiolello that they will be thrown from their ships into the sea by the one-eyed traitor (Malatestino). Dante will bear this sinner's name to the upper world, if he shows him a soul he spoke of as having seen the land of the traitor.
Although the soul is standing right beside Dante, he cannot speak because his tongue is chopped out. This soul is Curio, by whose council Caesar crossed the Rubicon, thus starting a war.
A third shade, Mosca dei Lamberti, calls out that he too wishes to be remembered, but Dante wishes death to all his kindred, and he runs off like a madman.
A headless figure approaches Dante, holding his head in front of him as if it were a lantern. The figure holds his head up to the poets, so they can hear him better. The figure says that he is Bertrand de Born, and that he set the young king to mutiny against his own father. Born also states that, because he parted father and son, he spends eternity with his head parted from his body.
In keeping with the theme of Divine Retribution that runs throughout Inferno, the sinners in the ninth chasm, the Sowers of Discord, are brutally split and mutilated, just as they split and mutilated aspects of religion, politics, or kinsmen. Each sinner is punished according to degree of sin, as well as suffering punishment specifically geared toward their particular sin. For example, Curio's tongue is cut out because his sin was false advice, and Bertrand de Born has his head cut off because he caused a rift between father and son.
Dante obviously sees Mahomet as one of the chief sinners responsible for the division between Christianity and Islam. Dante blames Mahomet's successor, Ali, as well. Dante describes these two shades as being split in two, just as he feels they split the church. The next three sinners sowed political discord and are punished appropriately, especially Mosca, who has both of his arms hacked off. Mosca advised the death of a man who had broken an engagement (which was a good as a marriage vow in Dante's time). The death of the man resulted in the beginning of a long feud between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines of Florence, tearing the city asunder. This feud ultimately resulted in a great political schism that resulted in Dante's exile, so it is no wonder that Dante treats this spirit so brutally. Finally, Bertrand de Born, the man whose head was removed, caused a rift between family members.
Ironically, Dante is less brutal and grotesque in his language when describing Bertrand de Born, even though he is in the last category of sinners, closest to the center of Hell. Dante spares the gore that he uses to describe the previous sinners, especially that of Mahomet.
Livy (Latin name Titus Livius) 59 b.c.-17 a.d.; Roman historian.
Mahomet c. 570-632 a.d.; Arab prophet; founder of Islam.
Ali c. 600-661 a.d.; fourth caliph of Islam (656-661), considered the first caliph by the Shiites; son-in-law of Mahomet.
Neptune Roman Mythology. the god of the sea; the same as the Greek Poseidon.
Cyprus country on an island at the east end of the Mediterranean, south of Turkey.
Majorca island of Spain, largest of the Balearic Islands.
Argive of ancient Argos or Argolis.
Rubicon small river in northern Italy that formed the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and the Roman Republic; when Caesar crossed it (49 b.c.) at the head of his army to march on Rome, he began the civil war with Pompey.
Absalom Bible. David's favorite son; killed after rebelling against his father: 2 Samuel 18.
David Bible. the second king of Israel and Judah, succeeding Saul; reputed to be the writer of many psalms.