Virgil and Dante find themselves outside the Eighth Circle of Hell, known as Malebolge (“Evil Pouches”). Dante describes the relationship between the circle’s structure and its name: the circle has a wall running along the outside and features a great circular pit at its center; ten evenly spaced ridges run between the wall and the pit. These ridges create ten separate pits, or pouches, in which the perpetrators of the various forms of “ordinary fraud” receive their punishments. Virgil leads Dante around the left side of the circle, where they come upon the First Pouch.
Here, Virgil and Dante see a group of souls running constantly from one side of the pouch to the other. On both of the pouch’s containing ridges, demons with great whips scourge the souls as soon as they come within reach, forcing them back to the opposite ridge. Dante recognizes an Italian there and speaks to him; the soul informs Dante that he lived in Bologna and now dwells here because he sold his sister to a noble. This pouch is for the Panders (pimps) and the Seducers—those who deceive women for their own advantage. Moving on, Virgil and Dante also see the famous Jason of mythology, who abandoned Medea after she helped him find the Golden Fleece.
As Virgil and Dante cross the ridge to the Second Pouch, a horrible stench besieges them, and they hear mournful cries. Dante beholds a ditch full of human excrement, into which many sinners have been plunged. From one of these souls, he learns that this pouch contains the Flatterers. After a few seconds, Virgil says that they have seen enough of this foul sight. They progress toward the Third Pouch.
Dante already knows that the Third Pouch punishes the Simoniacs, those who bought or sold ecclesiastical pardons or offices. He decries the evil of simony before he and Virgil even view the pouch. Within, they see the sinners stuck headfirst in pits with only their feet protruding. As these souls writhe and flail in the pits, flames lap endlessly at their feet.
Dante notes one soul burning among flames redder than any others, and he goes to speak with him. The soul, that of Pope Nicholas III, first mistakes Dante for Boniface. After Dante corrects him, the soul tells Dante that he was a pope guilty of simony. He mourns his own position but adds that worse sinners than he still remain on Earth and await an even worse fate. Dante asserts that St. Peter did not pay Christ to receive the Keys of Heaven and Earth (which symbolize the papacy). He shows Nicholas no pity, saying that his punishment befits his grave sin. He then speaks out against all corrupt churchmen, calling them idolaters and an affliction on the world. Virgil approves of Dante’s sentiments and helps Dante up over the ridge to the Fourth Pouch.
In the Fourth Pouch, Dante sees a line of sinners trudging slowly along as if in a church procession. Seeing no apparent punishment other than this endless walking, he looks closer and finds, to his amazement, that each sinner’s head points the wrong way—the souls’ necks have been twisted so that their tears of pain now fall on their buttocks. Dante feels overcome by grief and pity, but Virgil rebukes him for his compassion.