Simonists, Racists, and Cannibals
One group of sinners in Dante’s Inferno that most of us would not recognize are the simonists. We just don’t hear about the sin of simony these days, although you could say that many modern churchmen still practice a variant of it. A simonist was a member of the clergy that would accept cash in exchange for ecclesiastical favors. In other words, you gave them money and they did absolutely nothing at all real for you in return. (Perhaps the most obvious modern analogue for the simonists would be televangelists, since they have a similar M.O.)
The punishment for simonists in the Inferno was to be shoved, headfirst, into holes set in the ground, while having their feet set on fire. The holes were meant to represent baptismal fonts, those basins in church filled with holy water. When new arrivals came to this part of hell, no new holes were created; they simply pushed a current resident deeper into his hole and shoved the new one in on top of him.
These images from Dante: the searing heat, the huge vessels, and the relentless forcing down of the condemned, resonated with something I saw in my childhood that fairly traumatized me. And not surprisingly, it informed the corresponding canto in my satire of Dante’s classic, The Infernova.
Growing up in western New York in the 1970s, I’d regularly visit, with my family, an amusement park across the Canadian border called Crystal Beach. That park is gone now. In some ways, it was a place of sheer joy. There was a funhouse called the Magic Palace, the likes of which one doesn’t find anymore. And they had one of the huge slides no longer exist, apparently, where you’d hike up the stairs and then ride down the series of slopes and plateaus atop a burlap bag. But there was an absolute horror at Crystal Beach as well. It was a ride called Jungle Land, a ride that involved some small boats that floated along on a slow moving waterway inside a dark building. The interior contained various crocodile-filled dioramas meant to mildly scare or amuse. However, it was a display just outside the building that was the problem: At the entrance stood several huge animatronic cannibals and a pot set atop a faux fire. In the pot was some unfortunate European explorer they had captured and were slow-cooking. His face was a rictus of unspeakable terror and great pain. The “cook” would turn her head from side to side, with the same slow, regular cadence with which she’d push the head of the missionary down. She had to keep doing that because he was trying to get out of the boiling pot, apparently. Up and down his head went.
Every summer we’d go to Crystal Beach, and every time, I’d stand there and gawk in sick fascination at that inhuman display. I thought about how that poor fellow would be in the boiling water forever. That he was always in the pot, and his expression would always be the same. Even in the winter, I thought, the park would be closed, the electricity would be off, he would not be moving, but he’d still be there. And then the next summer his horrible cannibal captors would be cooking him again.
So in The Infernova, I ended up replacing the simonists with racists (I’d already found another level that was a good fit for the televangelists). Their punishment is to ever morph and take on the outward appearances of all of the people that they hate, and to only interact with one another based on skin color. Every strain of bigot is there: the racists so sure that a jealous God favored their own people more than others; the slave-owners that pointed to holy-book passages to justify their hateful traditions; and every primitive tribe that dehumanized others to the degree that they felt no qualms about killing and eating them.
It also occurred to me while writing my epic atheistic poem, that I was recreating my own kind of Jungle Land. There’s some really scary stuff in there, but it’s all a show, a simulation full of animatronics only. Nobody, not the worst simonist, televangelist, racist, or cannibal, deserves to spend eternity in the boiling pot.