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Dante Alighieri

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Canto 8

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Canto 8 of Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno.

Inferno | Canto 8 | Summary



Virgil and Dante are still in the fifth circle. They look up at the top of the tower and see flickering flames signaling to another flickering light in the distance. When Dante asks what the signal means, he directs Dante's attention to a solitary boat coming toward them. The boatman, Phlegyas, howls at them, saying, "Now you are caught," but Virgil explains that they are to be ferried across the Styx but will not be staying. Resentful, Phlegyas allows them in his boat. As they cross the water, they are confronted by a muddy figure, whom Dante recognizes as Filippo Argenti, a Florentine who was Dante's political enemy in real life and who, according to Virgil, had no good qualities by which he is remembered, which makes him angry and resentful. As they continue on, Argenti is torn to pieces by the other spirits.

Virgil explains that now they are nearing the city of Dis, which is "lower Hell." At the entrance to the city, Phlegyas hastens them out of the boat, and Dante sees a crowd of fallen angels. The fallen angels try to convince Virgil to leave Dante without a guide, but Virgil refuses to abandon Dante. Virgil then speaks privately with the angels, who run inside the city and slam the gates in his face, leaving Dante and Virgil without a way in. Virgil reassures Dante, saying that someone is coming to unlock the gates.


In the fifth circle, the poets are confronted by Phlegyas, a character again based on Greek mythology. Phlegyas was a son of Ares, the Greek god of war, who was thrown into Hades by Apollo after he burned down Apollo's temple. This makes him, in Dante's mind, a good choice to guard the wrathful in Hell.

Dante reminds us of the physical nature of the human condition by emphasizing that he causes the boat to sink lower in the water. Because Dante has brought his body with him into Hell (unlike most who go there), he has mass and weight. The poet uses images throughout the poem to remind readers that he is an outsider, still living in the realm of the dead. Note: this is not to say that the dead will remain without their bodies. According to Church doctrine, the bodies of all the dead will be resurrected when all are judged by God on Judgment Day. However, this seems somewhat contradictory because Hell itself seems to have a physical geography, such as the river and the city they are about to enter, and Dante is in mortal danger in Hell. The dead may not have bodies, but their suffering is clearly physical rather than mental.

Both Ciacco and Filippo Argenti, whom Dante knew in real life, make Inferno seem not just abstractly theological, but directly connected to the political events of Dante's Florence. The people being punished in Hell are not just fictional mythological figures. Many of them are real people whom Dante's readers might have known or known by reputation. The message is clear: Hell is not something mythical and far away, but something that threatens everyone.

This canto marks the first time Virgil has been unable to force the guardians of the circles of Hell to allow the poets entry and passage. The fallen angels who reside here are unwilling to allow them passage, and Virgil is unable to talk them out of it. Up until now, Virgil has been able to talk their way through, but now his words fail him; he talks to the angels but it does not change their minds. Dante has reached the end of where the power of language and reason can assure his safety. Fortunately, Virgil says a divine helper is coming to assist them.

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