In many places in Dante’s hell, the condemned souls are still able to secrete organic ‘humors’ just as their body had done during their life on earth. With the exception of blood, these are essentially ‘vile,’ putrid humors that are part of the final phase of human digestion, that is to say the humores known as excrementivi which have no nutritive value and are therefore expelled from the body. According to ancient medicine, which Dante had studied in the “schools of the religious”, the production of chyle (i.e., the nourishment that has passed from the stomach to the liver) generated three types of ‘humors,’ those useful in a primary sense like blood and bile, those useful in a secondary sense like menstruation and mother’s milk, and finally, those that had no use, like sweat, mucous, saliva, urine, tears, and the putrescent ooze from wounds and disease.
The secretion of some of these ‘humors’ is found in well-known passages of the first canticle of the Divine Comedy. In Inferno III, 67, horseflies and wasps torment the slothful, making their faces bleed, and also in Inferno XIII, 37, even though the scene recalls Virgil’s Aeneid, the soul of Pier delle Vigne which has become a ‘stump’ bleeds. The ninth pit, where sowers of discord are ripped and cut to pieces by a devil’s sword, is soaked in blood, just as the face of Mosca dei Lamberti described in Inferno XXVIII, 105, is blood-soaked. In the eighth circle of the tenth hell-pit Dante describes the ‘humors’ produced by illnesses which affect the souls dwelling there, like the “rotten water” that swells the belly of Master Adamo and stagnates because of the dropsy which afflicts him. But above all, hell is the realm of tears; real tears, actual and so copious that the rivers running through it are formed by this liquid humor secreted by the damned. If for the theologian Thomas Aquinas it is impossible for a soul to weep, in that it is devoid of the digestive organs capable of forming the ‘humor’ of tears, for Dante this organic function can easily be reproduced because in the afterlife the ‘active force’ that in the maternal womb had given shape to the entire human body recreates the same organism by using the air around it.
Dante’s souls, in short, have recreated all the organs which their bodies possessed before death separated them, organs able, thanks to the inscrutable divine will, to carry out their organic functions also in the world beyond. Organs that can generate blood, tears, and unhealthy ‘humors’, that is to say the organs assigned to digestion, which are put on display by the soul of Mohammed in Inferno XXVIII, 25-27:
his bowels hung between his legs, one saw
his vitals and the miserable sack
that makes of what we swallow excrement
Now, if the souls are equipped with the digestive system that serves to form both the primary and the secondary utiles humores and the excrementivi humores, what reason is there not to believe that the damned still have the organic ability to defecate?
That said, the torture described by Dante in the eighth circle of the second pit comes immediately to mind; there the souls of those who in life were flatterers are immersed in excrement that, the poet says, seems to come from human latrines (l. 114: “poured from human privies”).
The “shit”, to use Dante’s term (merda), in which these souls are immersed is produced by themselves in the same way that the rivers of hell, whether flowing with blood or tears, are produced by the secretion of humors by other damned souls. Manfredi Porena realized this, even though he was not followed by other Dante scholars, peremptorily maintaining in his commentary on line 114 of Canto XVIII that he believed “firmly that Dante crudely imagined that the sinners themselves produce the excrement.” We agree with Porena, but to our mind the poet does not ‘imagine’, properly speaking: the souls that he describes are really capable of carrying out what in life was a physiological need like the expulsion of their own excrement. The fact is that in hell this function has become an actual punishment!
It is Dante himself who provides the evidence of all this, evidence that the Dante commentators have not accepted as such because they have not stopped to consider the idea that the souls in the Divine Comedy could be capable of all this. Let’s examine the evidence: in line 103 of the canto, before he sees with his own eyes the souls of the flatterers in the pit filled with their own excrement, Dante says he heard “the people whine” (“gente che si nicchia”), and as Chiavacci Leonardi notes, the verb “nicchiarsi” has to refer to a whimpering sound emitted by the damned and not, as other commentators state, to the (inaudible) gesture of ‘bending’ (“rannicchiarsi,” meaning to crouch) made by the proud in Purgatorio X, 116 (“their heavy torment bends them to the ground”).
In our opinion both are right, in the sense that the souls of the flatterers “crouch down whimpering”. With the word “nicchiare” Dante recalls (as Porena also notes) the Latin verb niti, which means ‘whimper with pain’. But there is more: given that its past participle nexus sum serves as the base for the verb nexare which means ‘give birth in pain’, the idea that we think Dante wants to convey is that of the damned who assume the natural position of a woman giving birth, in a standing crouch in order to take full advantage of the muscles to push the baby out, practically the same position taken when evacuating the bowels in a latrine. This image is evoked also in the way Virgil describes in line 132 the position of the flatterer Thais: “now she crouches, now she stands upright” (“or s’accoscia e ora è in piedi stante”). We believe that the line is not meant to depict her, as for example Chiavacci Leonardi affirms, in the act of sitting down and standing up in a disheveled manner while she “scratches at herself with shit-filled nails”, but rather that the verb accosciarsi is Dante’s adaptation of the French verb accoucher which also means ‘to give birth.’ Thais, like the other damned souls who are with her in that pit, bends over, or to put it better, “squats” constantly to defecate.
If our suppositions are right, the punishment to which the souls of flatterers are subjected in hell does not consist just in being immersed in excrement, as much as being afflicted by a constant, unending dysentery, excreting for all eternity the filthiest organic ‘humor’. Certainly this is one of the most sordid, foul and scurrilous places described by Dante, but the contrappasso is clear: just as in life persuasive, agreeable words had poured from the mouths of flatterers so as to ingratiate others, now in counter-retaliation shit pours from their rear ends.