Study Guide

Inferno Quotes

  • Language and Communication

    Inferno Canto I
    Dante

    When I saw him [Virgil] in that vast wilderness,
    "Have pity on me," were the words I cried,
    "whatever you may be – a shade, a man." (Inf. I, 64-66)

    Dante’s response on spying Virgil’s ghost in the wilderness is one of instinctive fear. His actual plea, "have pity on me," in the original text forms the words "miserere di me." "Miserere" is actually Latin, not Italian, and comes from a famous psalm often sung on Ash Wednesday. In speaking Latin, Dante the pilgrim identifies himself as a steadfast Christian and, appropriately, sets himself up for recognition by Virgil, a Roman poet who was, of course, fluent in Latin. It is interesting that Dante the writer would use a liturgical Latin phrase to address a speaker of pagan Latin.

    …when I faced that restless beast,
    which, even as she stalked me, step by step
    had thrust me back to where the sun is speechless. (Inf. I, 58-60)

    One of Dante’s more famous literary devices is "synaesthesia," in which he describes something by confusing two of our five senses together for a unique effect. Here, Dante confuses sight and sound, when he describes the sun as "speechless." Because the sun cannot speak to begin with, readers may interpret this as "dark," so that the beast makes Dante retreat into a dark area, both physically and metaphorically. Or one could read this as Dante being rendered "speechless" with fear.

    [Dante]: "And are you then that Virgil, you the fountain
    that freely pours so rich a stream of speech?"
    I answered him with shame upon my brow.
    "O light and honor of all other poets,
    may my long study and the intense love
    that made me search your volume serve me now.
    You are my master and my author, you –
    the only one from whom my writing drew
    the noble style for which I have been honored." (Inf. I, 79-87)

    Dante recognizes Virgil as his artistic idol, "the only one from whom my writing drew [a] noble style." Thus, Dante acknowledges that all the epic similes, epithets, and larger-than-life characters stem from the epic tradition -- one that Virgil solidified in his epic poem, the Aeneid. Note that Dante calls Virgil "my author," as though Virgil’s poetry, or his writing style, directly informed Dante’s. Indeed, Dante acknowledges this creative debt by making constant allusions to the Aeneid.

    Inferno Canto II
    Virgil

    [Virgil quoting Beatrice]: "‘I trusted in your [Virgil’s] honest utterance,
    which honors you and those who’ve listened to you.’"(Inf. II, 113-114)

    This is the first explicit reference to language’s unique ability to affect large numbers of people. Beatrice acknowledges Virgil’s "honest utterance" as a benefit to all "those who’ve listened to [it]" – namely, the Romans. Virgil has done for the Latin language what Dante will do for the Italian one: standardize it and give his fellow countrymen a sense of national pride.

    [Virgil quoting Beatrice]: "’Go now; with your persuasive word, with all
    that is required to see that he [Dante] escapes,
    bring help to him, that I may be consoled.’"(Inf. II, 67-69)

    In this key passage, Beatrice anoints Virgil as one possessing the "persuasive word." This is Virgil’s most important attribute because he uses language to impart lessons to Dante, engage sinners in conversation, condemn sin, and basically to keep Dante out of trouble. Virgil is the embodiment of ornate and eloquent language in the Inferno, and for the most part, he uses it wisely.

    Dante

    O Muses, o high genius, help me now;
    o memory that set down what I saw,
    here shall your excellence reveal itself! (Inf. II, 7-9)

    In a nod to the Virgilian epic, Dante invokes the muses to lend credence to his words. This invocation, along with frequent apostrophes to God, reveals that Dante draws as much from the Classical tradition as from the Christian one.

    Inferno Canto III
    Dante

    Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries
    were echoing across the starless air,
    so that, as soon as I set out, I wept.
    Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements,
    accents of anger, words of suffering,
    and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands –
    all went to make a tumult that will whirl… (Inf. III, 22-28)

    With this passage, Dante demonstrates that Hell is a realm in which language breaks down. All the human sounds that greet Dante on entering Hell are unintelligible expressions of pain and anger. This depicts Hell as a place of irrationality, where reason cannot be adequately expressed and where articulate words are hard to come by.

    Inferno Canto VIII (the river Styx, the gates of Dis)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: …"Forget your fear, no one can hinder
    our passage; One so great has granted it.
    But you wait here for me, and feed and comfort
    your tired spirit with good hope, for I
    will not abandon you in this low world."
    So he goes on his way; that gentle father
    has left me there to wait and hesitate,
    for yes and no contend within my head.
    I could not hear what he was telling them;
    but he had not been long with them when each
    ran back into the city, scrambling fast.
    And these, our adversaries, slammed the gates
    in my lord’s face; and he remained outside,
    then, with slow steps, turned back again to me. (Inf. VIII, 104-117)

    Both our heroes engage in linguistic struggles here. Dante is conflicted about whether to trust Virgil or not, symbolized by the contention between "yes and no" in his head. Meanwhile, Virgil approaches the citizens of Dis, hoping to use his renowned "persuasive word" to wheedle them into opening the city gates for him. But, whatever he says, he fails in his mission. This is the first time readers have reason to doubt Virgil’s linguistic skills and suspect that perhaps the "persuasive word" isn’t the best kind of language, at least in God’s eyes. Unaccustomed to defeat, the shamed Virgil must turn and walk back to Dante "with slow steps" to explain his failure.

    Inferno Canto IX (the gate of Dis)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "We have to win this battle," he began,
    "if not…But one so great had offered help.
    How slow that someone’s coming seems to me!"
    But I saw well enough how he had covered
    his first words with the words that followed after –
    so different from what he had said before,
    nevertheless, his speech made me afraid,
    because I drew out from his broken phrase
    a meaning worse – perhaps – than he’d intended.(Inf. IX, 7-15)

    As Virgil, stuttering, tries to reassure Dante that things will work themselves out, his protégé notices the uncharacteristic hesitation in his speech. His "broken phrase" – shown in the text with an ellipsis – inspires fear in Dante, who "drew out…a meaning worse…than he’d intended." Because Dante is so unaccustomed to see Virgil daunted, he assumes that it spells the end of their journey together.

    [The Heavenly messenger]: "O you cast out of Heaven, hated crowd,"
    were his first words upon that horrid threshold,
    "why do you harbor this presumptuousness?
    Why are you so reluctant to endure
    that Will whose aim can never be cut short,
    and which so often added to your hurts?
    What good is it to thrust against the fates?"...
    After that he turned and took the filthy road,
    and did not speak to us, but had the look
    of one who is obsessed by other cares
    than those that press and gnaw at those before him;
    and we moved forward, on into the city,
    in safety, having heard his holy words. (Inf. IX, 91-105)

    The heavenly messenger offers an alternative to Virgil’s "persuasive word," offering instead "holy words." And unlike Virgil’s speeches, the heavenly messenger’s is very short and direct. Readers begin to suspect that the "holy word" surpasses Virgil’s style in its effectiveness.

    Inferno Canto X (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)

    [Farinata]: "O Tuscan, you who pass alive across
    the fiery city with such seemly words,
    be kind enough to stay your journey here.
    Your accent makes it clear that you belong
    among the natives of the noble city
    I may have dealt with too vindictively." (Inf. X, 22-27)

    One’s speech becomes an important factor of one’s identity. Dante, as a Florentine, apparently speaks with a Florentine (or Tuscan) accent. When someone recognizes him as a Florentine, this immediately conjures up in his mind a number of stereotypes linked to Florence, both good and bad.

    Inferno Canto XVI (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: The Violent against God)
    Dante

    Faced with that truth which seems a lie, a man
    should always close his lips as long as he can –
    to tell it shames him, even though he’s blameless;
    But here I can’t be still; and by the lines
    of this my Comedy, reader, I swear –
    and may my verse find favor for long years –
    that through the dense and darkened air I saw
    a figure swimming, rising up, enough
    to bring amazement to the firmest heart,
    like one returning from the waves where he
    went down to loose an anchor snagged upon
    a reef or something else hid in the sea,
    who stretches upward and draws in his feet. (Inf. XVI, 124-136)

    Dante points out a number of inadequacies in language. At the first sight of Geryon, Dante is struck dumb. For one of the first times in the Inferno, his vocabulary lacks words to describe what he beholds. In trying to describe Geryon, Dante says his best option is to "close his lips as long as he can." Later, in comparing Geryon to a diver, Dante commits a linguistic sin. He tries to affirm the veracity of his statement by swearing on his own work. As a process, swearing or taking an oath cannot function properly if one swears on one’s own words; this demonstrates circular reasoning. By doing this, Dante shows either his arrogance or a breakdown of reasoning at beholding a sight as wondrous as Geryon.

    Inferno Canto XVIII (the Eighth Circle, First Pouch: Panderers and Seducers; the Second Pouch: Flatterers)

    And he [Venedico Caccianemico] to me: "I speak unwillingly;
    but your plain speech, that brings the memory
    of the old world to me, is what compels me;
    For it was I who led Ghisolabella
    to do as the Marquis would have her do –
    however they retell that filthy tale."(Inf. XVIII, 52-57)

    Caccianemico’s description of Dante’s words as "plain speech" contrasts sharply with Virgil’s style, an elevated "persuasive word." However, Dante’s "plain speech" seems to have as powerful (if not more so) an effect on sinners as Virgil’s words; indeed, it even compels Caccianemico to confess to his sin. Such a response suggests that a "plain," minimal, and direct speech might yield better results than Virgil’s lofty tone and fancy metaphors.

    Inferno Canto XXI (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators)

    [A demon]: "Shove this one under – I’ll go back for more –
    his city is well furnished with such stores;
    there, everyone’s a grafter but Bonturo;
    and there – for cash – they’ll change a no to yes."(Inf. XXI, 39-42)

    The ease with which grafters "change a no to a yes" reveals the vulnerability of language to insincerity. Unlike physical matter, one’s words can be changed instantaneously. This mutability of language suggests that both Virgil and Dante may be wrong in putting so much stock in the way they speak and write.

    Inferno Canto XXIII (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators; Sixth Pouch: the Hypocrites)
    Dante

    [Fra Alberigo]: … "O souls who are so cruel
    that this last place has been assigned to you,
    take off the hard veils from my face so that
    I can release the suffering that fills
    my heart before lament freezes again."
    To which I answered: "If you’d have me help you,
    then tell me who you are, if I don’t free you,
    may I go to the bottom of the ice." (Inf. XXXIII, 110-117)

    In response to Fra Alberigo’s plea, Dante makes a promise to relieve his suffering in exchange for a favor. This is a serious promise, for Dante damns himself to Hell if he does not follow through.

    Inferno Canto XXV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)

    When he [Vanni Fucci] had finished with his words, the thief
    raised high his fists with both figs cocked and cried:
    "Take that, o God; I square them off for you!"
    From that time on, those serpents were my friends,
    for one of them coiled then around his neck,
    as if to say, "I’ll have you speak no more"… (Inf. XXV, 1-6)

    Vanni Fucci’s words are so offensive to God in this passage that his punishers, the serpents, take on more human characteristics than he does. The snakes are suddenly gifted with language and reasoning power, reprimanding Fucci for his crime against God. This is similar to the role that the Centaurs play in the Seventh Circle of the violent, where the sinners are depicted as speechless. They howl like beasts, while the more animalistic creatures – Centaurs – can speak articulately, reason, and even show mercy.

    Inferno Canto XXVI (the Eighth Circle, Eighth Pouch: the Fraudulent Counselors)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "I only ask you this: refrain from talking.
    Let me address them – I have understood
    what you desire of them. Since they were Greek,
    perhaps they’d be disdainful of your speech." (Inf. XXVI, 72-75)

    Here, one’s speech gives away his nationality. Virgil can tell by the language of Ulysses and Diomedes that they are Greek. However, he makes an assumption about them based on their language, supposing that they hold a grudge against the Trojans (and hence their descendants, the Italians) for their bitter enmity in the Trojan War, and thus forbids Dante from speaking to them. Language therefore becomes grounds for politics and racism.

    Inferno Canto XXVII (the Eighth Circle, Eighth Pouch: the Fraudulent Counselors)
    Virgil

    I still was bent, attentive, over him [Guido da Montefeltro],
    when my guide nudged me lightly at the side
    and said: "You speak; he is Italian." (Inf. XXVII, 31-33)

    Contrary to its role in the previous canto, language here becomes a tool for solidarity and unification under the same nation. Whereas Dante is not allowed to speak to Ulysses because he is Greek, here Virgil urges him to speak to Montefeltro because they use the same language. Thus, language can form a basis of nationalism.

    Inferno Canto XXVIII (the Eighth Circle, Ninth Pouch: the Sowers of Scandal and Schism)
    Dante

    Who, even with untrammeled words and many
    attempts at telling, ever could recount
    in full the blood and wounds that I now saw?
    Each tongue that tried would certainly fall short
    because the shallowness of both our speech
    and intellect cannot contain so much. (Inf. XXVIII, 1-6)

    In witnessing the horrendous pain of the Sowers of Schism, Dante laments the inability of words to do justice to their suffering. There is a suggestion here that words simply do not have the capacity to capture such agony: "untrammeled," "tongue[s]…fall[ing] short," and "shallowness of…our speech" convey the message that physical and moral pain sometimes penetrate to a deeper depth than language can reach, and that at that point language becomes ineffective.

    Inferno Canto XXIX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers of Metals)

    [Capocchio to Dante]: "…see that I’m the shade of that Capocchio
    whose alchemy could counterfeit fine metals
    And you, if I correctly take your measure,
    recall how apt I was at aping nature." (Inf. XXIX, 136-139)

    Capocchio’s attempt to equate his false art, alchemy, with Dante’ s art, writing, brings into question the relationship that both occupations have with nature. If Capocchio is correct, that writing is only an attempt to make an unnatural transformation out of natural materials, then writing has no more moral worth than alchemy. Worse, there is an implication that if Dante continues writing – and sinning – he could end up just like Capocchio, in Hell.

    Inferno Canto XXXI (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers)

    "Raphel mai amecche zabi almi,"
    began to bellow that brute mouth, for which
    no sweeter psalms would be appropriate.
    And my guide turned to him: "O stupid soul,
    keep to your horn and use that as an outlet
    when rage or other passion touches you!
    Look at your neck, and you will find the strap
    that holds it fast; and see, bewildered spirit,
    how it lies straight across your massive chest."
    And then to me: "He is his own accuser;
    for this is Nimrod, through whose wicked thought
    one single language cannot serve the world.
    Leave him alone – let’s not waste time in talk;
    for every language is to him the same
    as his to others – no one knows his tongue." (Inf. XXXI, 67-81)

    For his crime of attempting to reach the Heavens with his Tower of Babel (which parallel’s Lucifer’s arrogance in challenging God), Nimrod is punished by a confusion of tongues, just as he was in life. Where the Tower of Babel ended with God striking down the Tower and transforming man’s single language into thousands of different, mutually unintelligible ones, Nimrod suffers a personal Babel. He babbles incoherently, his speech (as in this first line) incomprehensible to everyone. To emphasize his linguistic loss, Virgil calls him "stupid" (meaning "dumb" or "deaf") and "bewildered," emphasizing that intellect and reason are measured by one’s use of language.

    Inferno Canto XXXII (the Ninth Circle, First Ring Caina: Traitors to their Kin, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to their Homeland or Party)
    Dante

    Had I the crude and scrannel rhymes to suit
    the melancholy hole upon which all
    the other circling crags converge and rest,
    the juice of my conception would be pressed
    more fully; but because I feel their lack,
    I bring myself to speak, yet speak in fear;
    for it is not a task to take in jest,
    to show the base of all the universe –
    nor for a tongue that cries out, "mama," "papa."(Inf. XXXII, 1-9)

    In the final circle of Hell, Dante finds words inadequate to express the terror located there. By describing language as a "tongue that cries out ‘mama’ [and] ‘papa,’ Dante suggests that language in general is too infantile to accurately describe the happenings in Hell. To describe language as infantile is to portray humanity in the same way because – in Dante’s eyes – language is what makes a creature human.

    Inferno Canto XXXIII (the Ninth Circle, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to the Homeland or Party, Third Ring Ptolomea: Traitors against their Guests)

    [Ugolino]: "…I heard them nailing up the door
    of that appalling tower; without a word,
    I looked into the faces of my sons.
    I did not weep; within, I turned to stone.
    They wept; and my poor little Anselm said:
    ‘Father, you look so…What is wrong with you?’
    At that I shed no tears and – all day long
    and through the night that followed – did not answer
    until another sun had touched the world.
    As soon as a thin ray had made its way
    into that sorry prison, and I saw,
    reflected in four faces, my own gaze,
    out of my grief, I bit at both my hands;
    and they, who thought I’d done that out of hunger,
    immediately rose and told me: ‘Father,
    it would be far less painful for us if
    you ate of us; for you clothed us in this
    sad flesh – it is for you to strip it off.’
    Then I grew calm, to keep them from more sadness;
    through that day and the next, we all were silent;
    O hard earth, why did you not open up?
    But after we had reached the fourth day, Gaddo,
    throwing himself, outstretched, down at my feet
    implored me: ‘Father, why do you not help me?’
    And there he died; and just as you see me,
    I saw the other three fall one by one
    between the fifth day and the sixth; at which,
    now blind, I started groping over each;
    and after they were dead, I called them for
    two days; then fasting had more force than grief."(Inf. XXXIII, 46-75)

    If silence was good for Guido da Montefeltro, it is the opposite for Ugolino. In remaining silent and refusing to offer verbal comfort to his dying children, Ugolino just as surely kills them as Archbishop Ruggieri. Here, language is compared to food and Ugolino withholds it from his children, just as Ruggieri denies them food. Ugolino’s son, Anselm, in offering his body for his father’s consumption, perverts the idea of the Eucharist, the ritual in which believers consume the body of Christ to become pure.

    [Fra Alberigo to Dante]: "But now reach out your hand; open my eyes."
    And yet I did not open them for him;
    and it was courtesy to show him rudeness. (Inf. XXXIII, 148-150)

    After Fra Alberigo has fulfilled his part of the bargain, Dante breaks his promise, committing a linguistic sin and -- compounding his crime -- insincerely transfiguring his words by calling the "rudeness" of lying a "courtesy." That Virgil does not reprimand Dante for this suggests that perhaps sinning against a sinner is justified in God’s eyes, but doubts about Dante’s character are planted in readers’ minds.

    Inferno Canto XXXIV (the Ninth Circle, Fourth Ring Judecca: Traitors against their Benefactors)
    Dante

    O reader, do not ask of me how I
    grew faint and frozen then – I cannot write it:
    all words would fall far short of what it was.
    I did not die, and I was not alive;
    think for yourself, if you have any wit,
    what I became, deprived of life and death.
    The emperor of the despondent kingdom
    so towered from the ice, up from midchest,
    that I match better with a giant’s breadth
    than giants match the measure of his arms…(Inf. XXXIV, 22-31)

    Language fails Dante in the last circle of Hell; the experience of witnessing Lucifer suffering is so indescribable that Dante simply cannot articulate it. Indeed, his words illustrate their inadequacy by losing their coherence and by becoming contradictory: "I did not die, and I was not alive." All of this incoherence works to create an aura of alienation and the impression that Lucifer is something so far beyond human comprehension that language cannot hope to capture his condition. He is utterly alien.

  • Love

    Inferno Canto I
    Dante

    The time was the beginning of the morning;
    the sun was rising now in fellowship
    with the same stars that had escorted it
    when Divine Love first moved those things of beauty;
    so that the hour and the gentle season
    gave me good cause for hopefulness on seeing
    that beast before me with his speckled skin; (Inf. I, 37-43)

    Appropriately, Dante’s description of the coming dawn coincides with his reference to Creation. The "Divine Love" alludes to God’s supreme tenderness and devotion in fashioning all the creatures of the earth. And the "things of beauty" refer to the celestial bodies – the sun and stars – that bring light to the universe. With the Genesis comes the dawn of mankind. To further illustrate the birth metaphor, Dante begins his story in the "gentle season," the springtime. Of course, with the sunlight, crafted from God’s all-encompassing love, Dante feels a resurgence of hope, even before the fearsome maw of the lion.

    Inferno Canto II
    Virgil

    [Virgil quoting Beatrice]: "‘For I am Beatrice who send you on;
    I come from where I most long to return;
    Love prompted me, that Love which makes me speak." (Inf. II, 70-72)

    Here, love is like an actual person – given the privilege of capitalized letters and occupying the space of an agent which can urge Beatrice to act in certain ways. This reinforces the concept of love as a moving force, introduced with the concept of God creating the entire universe out of the sheer force of love.

    Inferno Canto III
    Dante

    THROUGH ME THE WAY INTO THE SUFFERING CITY,
    THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE ETERNAL PAIN,
    THROUGH ME THE WAY THAT RUNS AMONG THE LOST.
    JUSTICE URGED ON MY HIGH ARTIFICER;
    MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY,
    THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND THE PRIMAL LOVE.
    BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS
    ABANDON EVERY HOPE, WHO ENTER HERE.
    These words – their aspect was obscure – I read
    inscribed above a gateway… (Inf. III, 1-11)

    Although it seems counterintuitive, Hell is created out of "the primal love" (or, in other words, God). That a place of such suffering, a realm which urges all souls to "abandon every hope" upon entering, can have a function that stems from love seems absurd. Indeed, Dante’s depiction of the sinners often challenges this assumption. He does not easily accept that an all-loving God would create such excruciating punishments for his favored children.

    Inferno Canto V (the Second Circle: the Lustful)

    [Francesca]: "One day, to pass the time away, we read
    of Lancelot – how love had overcome him.
    We were alone, and we suspected nothing.
    And time and time again that reading led
    our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale,
    and yet one point alone defeated us.
    When we had read how the desired smile
    was kissed by one who was so true a lover,
    this one, who never shall be parted from me,
    while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth.
    A Gallehault indeed, that book and he
    who wrote it, too; that day we read no more." (Inf. V, 127-138)

    In attempting to describe their love, Francesca reveals that her and Paolo’s feelings are nothing more than carnal lust. Their shared activity of reading, which should be a purely intellectual pursuit, becomes an increasingly physical one. First the words lead their gazes to one another, then they imitate the characters’ actions, and finally – in the most blatantly physical representation – Francesca describes the book as a flesh-and-blood person, Gallehault, the man who urged Lancelot to carry on an illicit affair with the queen. All of this results in Francesca and Paolo forgetting their reading in favor of giving in to their lust.

    [Francesca]: "Love, that can quickly seize the gentle heart,
    took hold of him because of the fair body
    taken from me – how that was done still wounds me.
    Love, that releases no beloved from loving,
    took hold of me so strongly through his beauty
    that, as you see, it has not left me yet.
    Love led the two of us unto one death.
    Caina waits for him who took our life." (Inf. V, 100-107)

    Francesca, in speaking the language of courtly love, not only personifies love but also exonerates herself and her lover of all guilt. She represents herself as a passive body upon which Love acts, like a god. Here, Love "[takes] hold" of both lovers and "[leads] the two of us unto one death." Francesca repeatedly renders Love as the guilty, sinning force and represents herself as innocent.

    Inferno Canto XI (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "Now fraud, that eats away at every conscience,
    is practice by a man against another
    who trust in him, or one who has no trust.
    This latter way seems only to cut off
    the bond of love that nature forges; thus,
    nestled within the second circle are:
    hypocrisy and flattery, sorcerers,
    and falsifiers, simony, and theft,
    and barrators and panders and like trash.
    But in the former way of fraud, not only
    the love that nature forges is forgotten,
    but added love that builds a special trust;
    thus, in the tightest circle, where there is
    the universe’s center, seat of Dis,
    all traitors are consumed eternally." (Inf. XI, 52-66)

    Because God with his infinite love created the universe, his love permeates everything, creating bonds of love between men and the world around them. Fraud, the most heinous type of sin, "cut[s] off / the bond of love that nature forges" because it falsifies man’s (supposedly loving) relationship to the material world around him. Whereas sinners of ordinary fraud like hypocrites, flatterers, and sorcerers generally betray the world around them, sinners of treacherous fraud first establish a particular bond of love with another person and then betray them, making the "special trust" between them "forgotten." Thus, fraud in a very real way is a negation of natural love.

    Inferno Canto XV (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: the Violent against God)
    Dante

    [Dante]: "Within my memory is fixed – and now
    moves me – your dear, your kind paternal image
    when, in the world above, from time to time
    you taught me how man makes himself eternal;
    and while I live, my gratitude for that
    must always be apparent in my words.
    What you have told me of my course, I write;
    I keep it with another text, for comment
    by one who’ll understand, if I may reach her." (Inf. XV, 82-90)

    In the circle of sodomy, Dante indirectly addresses this type of sin by showing the inappropriate love that exists between himself and Brunetto Latini, his former teacher. In an unnecessarily intimate manner, Dante considers Latini a "kind, paternal image." But because Dante already has a father figure – namely Virgil – this is inappropriate. Some scholars have also suggested that in writing together or greeting each other, Dante and Latini come into physical contact, which means that Dante puts his hands on his teacher’s aging, naked body.

    Inferno Canto XXIII (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators; Sixth Pouch: the Hypocrites)
    Virgil

    My guide snatched me up instantly, just as
    the mother who is wakened by a roar
    and catches sight of blazing flames beside her,
    will lift her son and run without a stop –
    she cares more for the child than for herself –
    not pausing even to throw on a shift;
    and down the hard embankment’s edge – his back
    lay flat along the sloping rock that closes
    one side of the adjacent moat – he slid.
    No water ever ran so fast along
    a sluice to turn the wheels of a land mill,
    not even when its flow approached the paddles,
    as did my master race down that embankment
    while bearing me with him upon his chest,
    just like a son, and not like a companion. (Inf. XXIII, 37-51)

    To complement his stern, lecturing father-figure role, Virgil suddenly shows a spurt of motherly love when he and Dante are pursued by demons. In the comparison of Virgil to a mother bearing her child away from a fire, Virgil grows overprotective of his protégé Dante and "lift[s] her son and run[s] without a stop," instinctively treating his adult charge like a child. In the last line, where Dante describes himself as a "son, and not like a companion," one can hear the hint of pride and love in his voice.

    Inferno Canto XXVI (the Eighth Circle, Eighth Pouch: the Fraudulent Counselors)

    [Ulysses]: "…I sailed away from Circe, who’d beguiled me
    to stay more than a year there, near Gaeta –
    before Aeneas gave that place a name –
    neither my fondness for my son nor pity
    for my old father nor the love I owed
    Penelope, which would have gladdened her,
    was able to defeat in me the longing
    I had to gain experience of the world
    and of the vices and worth of men." (Inf. XXVI, 91-99)

    Ulysses’ abandonment of his family is perhaps the most explicit illustration that fraud severs human bonds of love. Despite having braved twenty years of hardship on the open sea to get home, Ulysses quickly forgets his wife Penelope’s devotion, his son’s admiration, and his aging father’s dependence on him. In denying these intimate and tangible ties to life, Ulysses turns to a cold abstract concept of glory. His punishment for forfeiting his family’s love is death and eternal damnation.

  • Primitivity

    Inferno Canto I
    Dante

    And almost where the hillside starts to rise –
    look there! – a leopard, very quick and lithe,
    a leopard covered with a spotted hide.
    He did not disappear from sight, but stayed;
    indeed, he so impeded my ascent
    that I had often to turn back again…
    …and the gentle season
    gave me good cause for hopefulness on seeing
    that beast before me with his speckled skin;
    but hope was hardly able to prevent
    the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.
    His head held high and ravenous with hunger –
    even the air around him seemed to shudder –
    this lion seemed to make his way against me.
    And then a she-wolf showed herself; she seemed
    to carry every craving in her leanness;
    she had already brought despair to many. (Inf. I, 31-51)

    The very fact that these three beasts – all predators – block Dante’s path towards the light of morning (allegory for the road the God) suggests their evilness and implies the inhuman nature of sin. In traditional interpretations, the leopard represents lust, the lion pride, and the she-wolf avarice; all of these sins illustrate the concept of incontinence or the inability to restrain one’s baser emotions with reason.

    Inferno Canto III
    Dante

    Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries
    were echoing across the starless air,
    so that, as soon as I set out, I wept.
    Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements,
    accents of anger, words of suffering,
    and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands –
    all went to make a tumult that will whirl… (Inf. III, 22-28)

    The bestiality of the damned comes across in Dante’s very first impressions of Hell. Right after he crosses the Hellgate, he is assaulted by a cacophony of meaningless sounds, all made by the sinners, but not spoken in words or articulated in any comprehensible way. This suggests the sinners have, to some extent, lost their capacity for language – the defining quality of humans – and are thus no longer human, but animal.

    Inferno Canto V (the Second Circle: the Lustful)
    Dante

    And as, in the cold season, starlings’ wings
    bear them along in broad and crowded ranks,
    so does that blast bear on the guilty spirits:
    now here, now there, now down, now up, it drives them.
    There is no hope that ever comforts them –
    no hope for rest and none for lesser pain.
    And just as cranes in flight will chant their lays,
    arraying their long file across the air,
    so did the shades I saw approaching, borne
    by that assailing wind, lament and moan; (Inf. V, 40-49)

    Not only are the lustful souls described with bird imagery, but they are powerless to their feelings of love and lust – as symbolized by their helplessness against the wind. This indicates a lack of control over their emotions, a lack of rationality to stem impulses like sexual lust, and thus an inherent lack of humanity. Because of this inability to control their emotions, they are considered animal, not human.

    Inferno Canto VIII (the river Styx, the gates of Dis)
    Dante

    They were all shouting: "At Filippo Argenti!"
    At this, the Florentine, gone wild with spleen,
    began to turn his teeth against himself. (Inf. VIII, 61-63)

    After being violently rejected by Dante and called a "dog" by Virgil, Filippo Argenti goes mad and, unable to contain his rage, turns his wrath upon himself. His behavior seems distinctly bestial because only animals turn to as visceral a punishment as biting when enraged; for the most part, humans do not.

    Inferno Canto XII (the Seventh Circle, First Ring: the Violent against their Neighbors)
    Dante

    And at the edge above the cracked abyss,
    there lay outstretched the infamy of Crete,
    conceived within the counterfeited cow;
    and, catching sight of us, he bit himself
    like one whom fury devastates within.
    Turning to him, my sage cried out:…
    "Be off, you beast; this man who comes has not
    been tutored by your sister; all he wants
    in coming here is to observe your torments."
    Just as the bull that breaks loose from its halter
    the moment it receives the fatal stroke,
    and cannot run but plunges back and forth,
    so did I see the Minotaur respond; (Inf. XII, 11-25)

    Not only is the Minotaur the unnatural spawn of man and animal, a "counterfeited cow," but it acts on animal impulses, biting itself, rearing in rage, and charging its offenders. It is no coincidence that Dante describes its movements as those of a haltered bull.

    Then Chrion wheeled about and right and said
    to Nessus: "Then return and be their guide;
    If other troops disturb you, fend them off."
    Now with our faithful escort, we advanced
    along the bloodred, boiling ditch’s banks,
    beside the piercing cries of those who boiled.
    I saw some who were sunk up to their brows,
    and that huge Centaur said: "These are the tyrants
    who plunged their hands in blood and plundering.
    Here they lament their ruthless crimes; here are
    both Alexander and the fierce Dionysius,
    who brought such years of grief to Sicily." (Inf. XII, 97-108)

    Here in the circle of the violent, the beastly figures (Centaurs – half man, half horse) prove to be more human than the human sinners. While the Centaurs speak coherently, the sinners only give out "piercing cries." Surprisingly, the Centaurs – despite their reputation of senseless violence – show mercy to Dante and Virgil, even providing them with a guide to protect them.

    Inferno Canto XXI (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators)
    Dante

    He threw the sinner down, then wheeled along
    the stony cliff: no mastiff’s ever been
    unleashed with so much haste to chase a thief. (Inf. XXI, 43-45)

    Already inhuman by nature, this demon confirms bestiality when his savagery towards the struggling sinner spurs Dante to compare him to a fierce guard dog, a mastiff. His "unleashed" behavior suggests that, like the incontinent sinners, the demon is unable to contain his baser instincts.

    Inferno Canto XXIV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)

    "Mule that I was, the bestial life pleased me
    and not the human; I am Vanni Fucci,
    beast; and the den that suited me – Pistoia." (Inf. XXIV, 124-126)

    The thief Vanni Fucci admits to his subhuman existence by describing himself as a "beast" living in a horrid "den" of a city. Although he has much to be ashamed of ("mule" here, Mandelbaum suggests, means "bastard" or "illegitimate child," as Fucci was), Vanni Fucci later lashes out at Dante in wrath, cursing him with an ominous prophecy simply out of spite. It seems that he takes a measure of perverted pride in his actions.

    Inferno Canto XXV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)
    Dante

    …his tongue, which had before been whole and fit

    for speech, now cleaves; the other’s tongue, which had

    been forked, now closes up; and the smoke stops.

    The soul that had become an animal,

    now hissing, hurried off along the valley;

    the other one, behind him, speaks and spits…
    …"I’d have Buoso run
    on all fours down this road, as I have done." (Inf. XXV, 133-141)

    This passage illustrates, in a very visceral way, Dante’s idea that language is a purely human phenomenon. The thief that mutates into a snake has his tongue split in two so that it is no longer "fit / for speech" and can only hiss as he slithers away. The sinner who has exchanged his serpent form for a human one, however, now possesses a whole tongue and commences to speak articulately.

    As I kept my eyes fixed upon those sinners,
    a serpent with six feet springs out against
    one of the three, and clutches him completely.
    It gripped his belly with its middle feet,
    and with its forefeet grappled his two arms;
    and then it sank its teeth in both his cheeks;
    it stretched its rear feet out along his thighs
    and ran its tail along between the two,
    then straightened it again behind his loins.
    No ivy ever gripped a tree so fast
    as when that horrifying monster clasped
    and intertwined the other’s limbs with its.
    Then just as if their substance were warm wax,
    they stuck together and they mixed their colors,
    so neither seemed what he had been before; (Inf. XXV, 49-63)

    The thieves’ punishment of being transformed into hideous beasts (like "a serpent with six feet") reflects their lack of respect for boundaries. Because in life, they did not recognize other people’s property as off limits, they are punished with a violation of their own physical boundaries; they must become one another, sticking together and "mix[ing] their colors" like "warm wax." Dante considers the ability to distinguish between one’s property and another’s a purely human one, not recognized by beasts; thus, by failing to respect boundaries, the thieves forfeit their humanity and become beasts, both physically and spiritually.

    Inferno Canto XXX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Counterfeiters of Persons, Counterfeiters of Coins, Falsifiers of Words)
    Dante

    When Juno was incensed with Semele
    and thus, against the Theban family
    had shown her fury time and time again,
    then Athamas was driven so insane
    that, seeing both his wife and their two sons,
    as she bore one upon each arm, he cried:
    "Let’s spread the nets, to take the lioness
    together with her cubs along the pass";
    and he stretched out his talons, pitiless,
    and snatched the son who bore the name Learchus,
    whirled him around and dashed him on a rock;
    she, with her other burden, drowned herself.
    And after fortune, turned against the pride
    of Troy, which had dared all, so that the king
    together with his kingdom, was destroyed,

    then Hecuba was wretched, sad, a captive;
    and after she had seen Polyxena
    dead and, in misery, had recognized
    her Polydorus lying on the shore,
    she barked, out of her senses, like a dog –
    her agony had so deformed her mind.
    But neither fury – Theban, Trojan – ever
    was seen to be so cruel against another,
    in rending beasts and even human limbs,
    as were two shades I saw, both pale and naked,
    who, biting, ran berserk in just the way
    a hog does when it’s let loose from its sty.
    The one came at Capocchio and sank
    his tusks into his neck so that, by dragging,
    he made the hard ground scrape against his belly.
    And he who stayed behind, the Arentine,
    trembled and said: "That phantom’s Gianni Schicchi
    and he goes raging, rending others so." (Inf. XXX, 1-33)

    In the first two mythological anecdotes, Dante suggests that certain uncontrollable emotions – while rendering one bestial – are appropriate in context and may even be worthy of pity from an onlooker. Athamas, driven to madness by the gods, and Hecuba, howling like a dog for her murdered children, inspire compassion in readers, and rightly so. However, Gianni Schicchi – attacking others in the midst of his maniacal rage – does little to move readers to see him in a favorable light. Indeed, his animalistic attributes (his tusks), unlike Hecuba’s pathetic howl of grief, are menacing and even make his fellow shades "tremble" in fear.

    Inferno Canto XXXII (the Ninth Circle, First Ring Caina: Traitors to their Kin, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to their Homeland or Party)
    Dante

    No clamp has ever fastened plank to plank
    so tightly; and because of this, they butted
    each other like two rams, such was their fury.
    And one from whom the cold had taken both
    his ears, who kept his face bent low, then said:
    "Why do you keep on staring so at us?
    If you would like to know who these two are:
    that valley where Bisenzio descends,
    belonged to them and to their father Alberto.
    They came out of one body; and you can
    search all Caina, you will never find
    a shade more fit to sit within this ice – (Inf. XXXII, 49-60)

    These two brothers, whose fury against each other rages so intensely that they "butted each other like two rams," have lost themselves so much in their anger that someone else must speak for them, in order to identify them. Both have given in so much to their animal natures that they have forsaken the human gift of language.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Inferno Canto I
    Dante

    When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
    I found myself within a shadowed forest,
    for I had lost the path that does not stray.
    Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
    that savage forest, dense and difficult,
    which even in recall renews my fear:
    so bitter – death is hardly more severe!
    But to retell the good discovered there,
    I’ll also tell the other things I saw.
    I cannot clearly say how I had entered
    the wood; I was so full of sleep just at
    the point where I abandoned the true path. (Inf. I. 1-12)

    From this opening passage, one can see that the nature of sin (or "abandon[ing God’s] true path") is inherently treacherous because its path is "shadowed," "savage," "dense and difficult." As a road overcast with darkness, it limits Dante’s sight, both literally and metaphorically, making it difficult for him to ‘see’ the boundary between good and evil. Dante has already been tricked into his present predicament because he "cannot clearly say how [he] entered / the wood." Sin – deceptively innocuous at this point – has only made Dante "full of sleep," so that he cannot remember when he strayed off the straight road to God.

    Inferno Canto X (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)
    Dante

    Then, as if penitent for my omission,
    I said, "Will you now tell that fallen man
    his son is still among the living ones;
    and if, a while ago, I held my tongue
    before his question, let him know it was
    because I had in mind the doubt you’ve answered." (Inf. X, 109-114)

    Dante, unlike the sinners, repents of his lie and contritely reveals the truth. His sense of shame, readers feel, is well-deserved because he has fallen to the spiteful level of the sinners. And it takes a conversation with a so-called "noble sinner, Farinata, to bring Dante to his senses.

    [Cavalcanti]: … "If it is your high intellect
    that lets you journey here, through this blind prison,
    where is my son? Why is he not with you?"
    I answered: "My own powers have not brought me;
    he who awaits me there, leads me through here
    perhaps to one your Guido did disdain."
    His words, the nature of his punishment –
    these had already let me read his name;
    therefore, my answer was so fully made.
    Then suddenly erect, he cried: "What’s that:
    He ‘did disdain’? He is not still alive?
    The sweet light does not strike against his eyes?"
    And when he noticed how I hesitated
    a moment in my answer, he fell back –
    supine – and did not show himself again. (Inf. X, 58-72)

    For the first time, we see Dante infected by the deceit that runs rampant in Hell. He lies to Cavalcanti about his son. Whether this is a deliberate attempt to spite the sinner or a mere slip of the tongue is ambiguous. However, he does mislead Cavalcanti by "hesitat[ing] a moment" in revealing the truth. And it is significant that Dante’s lie comes in the circle of the heretics, those who deceive themselves about God’s existence and supremacy. By denying the existence of God, they deny man’s immortal soul; if a loved one dies, the heretic does not expect her to have the privilege of an afterlife. Thus, if Guido is dead and Cavalcanti does not know about it, he is either utterly gone (as the Epicureans believed) or, possibly worse, in Heaven – as far from his sinning father as possible.

    Inferno Canto XI (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "Of every malice that earns hate in Heaven,
    injustice is the end; and each such end
    by force or fraud brings harm to other men.
    However, fraud is man’s peculiar vice;
    God finds it more displeasing – and therefore,
    the fraudulent are lower, suffering more." (Inf. XI, 22-27)

    Here, Virgil declares fraud – the deceptive use of language or action – the worst of the three types of sin (incontinence, violence, and fraud). Sadly, it is also the sin man is most susceptible to by virtue of his capacity for language. With their false or insincere words, fraudulent men "bring harm to other men." This particular quality of fraud, with its ability to spread (as rumor or truth), can effectively mislead whole communities of otherwise moral people into sin. To Dante, condemning innocent others to sin through one’s deceitful words is the worst possible act.

    Inferno Canto XVI (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: The Violent against God)
    Dante

    Faced with that truth which seems a lie, a man
    should always close his lips as long as he can –
    to tell it shames him, even though he’s blameless;
    But here I can’t be still; and by the lines
    of this my Comedy, reader, I swear –
    and may my verse find favor for long years –
    that through the dense and darkened air I saw
    a figure swimming, rising up, enough
    to bring amazement to the firmest heart,
    like one returning from the waves where he
    went down to loose an anchor snagged upon
    a reef or something else hid in the sea,
    who stretches upward and draws in his feet. (Inf. XVI, 124-136)

    Right as Dante is about to enter the circles of fraud, reality begins to blur, playing with his sense of truth. This monster which arises from the depths is so unbelievable that it is a "truth which seems a lie." Dante struggles with the idea of not discussing it, for that would be akin to lying; but in the end, he gives in. Interestingly, to justify his description, he "swear[s]" on the truth of his words by "the lines / of this my Comedy." In other words, he’s swearing on himself, which is not only circular but also invalid. So, Dante is either showing signs of excessive pride or is buying into the deception of the fraudulent realms. To compound his deceit, Dante uses a simile (a way of describing something by comparing it to something it’s NOT) of a diver to describe the rising monster.

    Inferno Canto XVII (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: the Violent against Nature and Art)
    Dante

    And he came on, that filthy effigy
    of fraud, and landed with his head and torso
    but did not draw his tail onto the bank.
    The face he wore was that of a just man,
    so gracious was his features’ outer semblance;
    and all his trunk, the body of a serpent;
    He had two paws, with hair up to the armpits;
    his back and chest as well as both his flanks
    had been adorned with twining knots and circlets.
    No Turks or Tartars ever fashioned fabrics
    more colorful in the background and relief,
    nor had Arachne ever loomed such webs.
    As boats will sometimes lie along the shore,
    with part of them on land and part in water,
    and just as there, among the guzzling Germans,
    the beaver sets himself when he means war,
    so did that squalid beast lie on the margin
    of stone that serves as border for the sand.
    And all his tail was quivering in the void
    while twisting upward its envenomed fork,
    which had a tip just like a scorpion’s. (Inf. XVII, 7-24)

    Geryon, as Dante so poetically claims, is a "filthy effigy / of fraud." Not only does his form combine the features of a man, a snake, a scorpion, and a random animal – as if he cannot choose what he wants to be – but his entire hide is gaudily adorned with "twining knots and circlets" of many colors and patterns. Ostentatiously beautiful on the surface, Geryon is a monster within. And just as he crosses the line between truth and fiction, he lies "along the shore, / with part of [him] on land and part in water," not truly a fish nor a beast of the land. The final simile comparing Geryon to a beaver cements readers’ impressions of him as devious. He hangs his tail seductively over the void, just as a beaver uses its tail as a lure to tempt fish into approaching and then kills them for food.

    Inferno Canto XVIII (the Eighth Circle, First Pouch: Panderers and Seducers; the Second Pouch: Flatterers)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: … "Look at that mighty one who comes
    and does not seem to shed a tear of pain:
    how he still keeps the image of a king!
    That shade is Jason, who with heart and head
    deprived the men of Colchis of their ram…
    With polished words and love signs he took in
    Hypsipyle, the girl whose own deception
    had earlier deceived the other women.
    And he abandoned her, alone and pregnant;
    such guilt condemns him to such punishment;
    and for Medea, too, revenge is taken." (Inf. XVIII, 83-96)

    Jason, the mythical leader of the Argonauts, shows that Virgil’s "persuasive word" can be turned to evil uses. Although the Italian phrase used to describe Virgil’s speech, "parole ornate," remains the same, Mandelbaum chooses to translate Jason’s speech as "polished words" instead of "persuasive." This highlights Jason’s flashy image and professed gallantry, which woo women to him, while allowing his vile nature to lurk underneath. Here, in the first ring of fraud, readers begin to doubt the goodness of the "persuasive word," or elaborate language, when they see that it can persuade people with false hopes and lead to tragic consequences.

    Inferno Canto XIX (the Eighth Circle, Third Pouch: Simonists)
    Dante

    I stood as does the friar who confesses
    the foul assassin who, fixed fast, head down,
    calls back the friar, and so delays his death;
    and he cried out: "Are you already standing,
    already standing there, o Boniface?
    The book has lied to me by several years.
    Are you so quickly sated with the riches
    for which you did not fear to take by guile
    the Lovely Lady, then to violate her?"
    And I became like those who stand as if
    they have been mocked, who cannot understand
    what has been said to them and can’t respond. (Inf. XIX, 49-60)

    When mistaken by Pope Nicholas III for his successor Pope Boniface VIII come to replace him in Hell, Dante is tempted to play along and to trick Nicholas into believing he will bring him some relief. This is evidenced by his hesitation to refute Nicholas’ words and it is not until Virgil scolds Dante into telling the truth that he reveals his true identity. Thus, Virgil’s claim that fraud is the worst and most human sin gains legitimacy here because even the moral Dante is swayed for a moment to succumb to deceit. The scene receives an even greater flavor of dishonesty when Dante describes himself (in a simile) as a friar with the authority to confess a sinner – something which he definitely is not. That Dante even dares to suggest such a dishonest image implies that he is feeling the effects of the fraud all around him.

    Inferno Canto XXIII (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators; Sixth Pouch: the Hypocrites)
    Dante

    He [the Friar] answered: "Closer than you hope, you’ll find
    a rocky ridge that stretches from the great
    round wall and crosses all the savage valleys,
    except that here it’s broken – not a bridge.
    But where its ruins slope along the bank
    and heap up at the bottom, you can climb."
    My leader stood a while with his head bent,
    then said: "He who hooks sinners over there
    gave us a false account of this affair."
    At which the Friar: "In Bologna, I
    once heard about the devil’s many vices –
    they said he was a liar and father of lies." (Inf. XXIII, 133-144)

    Malacoda, who was supposedly trying to help Virgil, deliberately gave him false information to torture him. Ironically, the truth comes from the hypocrites, who also rebuke Virgil for so naively trusting a demon, a known "liar." So even the seemingly infallible Virgil, master and guide for Dante, can be deceived.

    Below that point we found a painted people,
    who moved about with lagging steps, in circles,
    weeping, with features tired and defeated.
    And they were dressed in cloaks with cowls so low
    they fell before their eyes, of that same cut
    that’s used to make the clothes for Cluny’s monks
    Outside, these cloaks were gilded and they dazzled;
    but inside they were all of lead, so heavy
    that Frederick’s capes were straw compared to them.
    A tiring mantle for eternity! (Inf. XXIII, 58-67)

    The hypocrites or Jovial Friars have all the hallmarks of a deceitful people. They are "painted" and their "cloaks were gilded" so that "they dazzled." On the surface, these sinners are brilliantly attractive, drawing the eye with their golden robes, but on the inside the mantles are lined with "lead," "so heavy" that their wearers must walk "tired and defeated." What initially promises to be beautiful suddenly turns out to be ugly and restrictive. This comments on the Friars’ actions in life: they promised to keep the peace in their provinces but instead founded their own orders, bringing strife and violence to the land.

    Inferno Canto XXVI (the Eighth Circle, Eighth Pouch: the Fraudulent Counselors)
    Dante

    [Guido da Montefeltro]: He [Boniface VIII] asked me to give counsel. I was silent –
    his words had seemed to me delirious.
    And then he said: ‘Your heart must not mistrust:
    I now absolve you in advance – teach me
    to batter Penestrino to the ground.
    You surely know that I possess the power
    to lock and unlock Heaven; for the keys
    my predecessor did not prize are two.’
    Then his grave arguments compelled me so,
    my silence seemed a worse offense than speech,
    and I said: ‘Since you cleanse me of the sin
    that I must now fall into, Father, know:
    long promises and very brief fulfillments
    will bring a victory to your high throne." (Inf. XXVII, 97-111)

    Dante sees lying as a disease. To illustrate the point, he shows Guido da Montefeltro considering Pope Boniface’s words "delirious" or, as the Italian reads, "feverish." Pope Boniface VIII exchanges a promise he cannot fulfill – absolution – for advice to raze a rival family’s estate to the ground. In a telling statement, Guido reflects the pope’s moral corruption because he advises "long promises and very brief fulfillments." Here, Dante seems to comment that language – for all its eloquence – can just be a sham. Silence here would have been a better response for Guido than saying anything at all.

    [Virgil]: … "Within that flame, Ulysses
    and Diomedes suffer; they, who went
    as one to rage, now share one punishment.
    And there, together in their flame, they grieve
    over the horse’s fraud that caused a breach –
    the gate that let Rome’s noble seed escape.
    There they regret the guile that makes the dead
    Deidamia still lament Achilles:
    and there, for the Palladium, they pay." (Inf. XXVI, 55-63)

    In this passage, Dante shows how the fraud practiced by individual men can come to torture a whole community of people. The "horse’s fraud" here is the trickery used to bring the Trojan horse within the walls of Troy so that the Greek soldiers, hidden inside the wooden statue, could emerge to ransack the city from within. This, of course, got many good Trojans killed. In addition, Ulysses persuaded Achilles to leave his lover Deidamia and their unborn son to fight in the Trojan War, leaving the pregnant woman distraught and vulnerable. To compound their guile, Ulysses and Diomedes lied their way into the Palladium (Athena’s sacred temple) and desecrated it, forcing countless Trojans to question their faith in the goddess.

    Inferno Canto XXIX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers of Metals)

    [Capocchio to Dante]: "…see that I’m the shade of that Capocchio
    whose alchemy could counterfeit fine metals
    And you, if I correctly take your measure,
    recall how apt I was at aping nature." (Inf. XXIX, 136-139)

    Capocchio’s "counterfeit[ing of] fine metals" is comparable to Dante’s "aping nature." Here, Capocchio contends that writing is just as false and damnable an enterprise as alchemy. To "ape" implies an imitation or mimicry that is but a distant reflection and degradation of the original. This calls into question the truth of Dante’s words. It plants doubts into readers’ minds about whether or not a mortal pen can accurately and objectively capture the happenings in Hell.

    Inferno Canto XXX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Counterfeiters of Persons, Counterfeiters of Coins, Falsifiers of Words)

    "If I spoke false, you falsified the coin,"
    said Sinon: "I am here for just one crime –
    but you’ve committed more than any demon." (Inf. XXX, 115-117)

    In attacking Master Adam’s counterfeiting practice, Sinon unwittingly conveys Dante’s lesson to readers. Sinon makes the point that every coin Master Adam counterfeits counts as a sin. To Dante, money is one of the basic links between individuals – much like language. If one cannot trust a coin’s value, doubt falls on the whole economy, thus throwing everyone in a society into hysteria. Again, fraud may start with a dishonest individual but its consequences are widespread.

    Inferno Canto XXXI (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers)
    Dante

    I’d only turned my head there briefly when
    I seemed to make out many high towers; then
    I asked him: "Master, tell me, what’s this city?"
    And he to me: "It is because you try
    to penetrate from far into these shadows
    that you have formed such faulty images.
    When you have reached that place, you shall see clearly
    how much the distance has deceived your sense;
    and, therefore, let this spur you on your way." (Inf. XXXI, 19-27)

    On the verge of entering the last and most treacherous circle of Hell, Dante becomes a victim of fraud. He mistakes the unmoving torsos of giants for a city of towers. It is not, as Virgil claims, only the distance that "deceive[s Dante’s] sense," but the sheer amount of deceit surrounding them that darkens their path and warps Dante’s vision so he can see only "faulty images."

    Inferno Canto XXXIV (the Ninth Circle, Fourth Ring Judecca: Traitors against their Benefactors)
    Dante

    O reader, do not ask of me how I
    grew faint and frozen then – I cannot write it:
    all words would fall far short of what it was.
    I did not die, and I was not alive;
    think for yourself, if you have any wit,
    what I became, deprived of life and death.
    The emperor of the despondent kingdom
    so towered from the ice, up from midchest,
    that I match better with a giant’s breadth
    than giants match the measure of his arms…(Inf. XXXIV, 22-31)

    In Dante’s ostentatious attempt to show humility, he misrepresents his talent and deceives readers. First he claims that he "cannot write it," that he cannot possibly render Hell’s description with justice, but he then proceeds to do exactly what he professes he cannot: he describes Lucifer in great detail.

  • Time

    Inferno Canto II
    Dante

    And just as he who unwills what he wills
    and shifts what he intends to seek new ends
    so that he’s drawn from what he had begun,
    so was I in the midst of that dark land,
    because, with all my thinking, I annulled
    the task I had so quickly undertaken. (Inf. II, 37-42)

    When Dante has a moment to reflect on his hasty decision to take a tour of Hell with Virgil, his anxiety paralyzes him so that he is unable to move forward. This immobilization is shown linguistically in the oscillating back and forth between "unwills" and "wills" and his mental tangents that "draw [him] from what he had begun." Dante is rendered wholly indecisive.

    Inferno Canto III
    Dante

    And after this was said, the darkened plain
    quaked so tremendously – the memory
    of terror then, bathes me in sweat again.
    A whirlwind burst out of the tear-drenched earth,
    a wind that crackled with a bloodred light,
    a light that overcame all of my senses;
    and like a man whom sleep has seized, I fell. (Inf. III, 130-136)

    In ending a canto with the protagonist fainting away "like a man whom sleep has seized," the author Dante effectively stops the action and freezes time from the reader’s perspective. From the moment the character Dante passes out right up until his awakening, readers are left unaware about whatever action takes place.

    Inferno Canto V (the Second Circle: the Lustful)

    And while one spirit [Francesca] said these words to me,
    the other [Paolo] wept, so that – because of pity –
    I fainted, as if I had met my death.
    And then I fell as a dead body falls. (Inf. V, 139-142)

    Again, Dante’s tendency to faint with pity inserts a gap into the plot. When Dante wakes up at the beginning of the sixth canto in the third circle, readers are left to conjecture how he got there. Because our narrator Dante is unconscious in that transit period, time seems to stop for readers as well.

    Inferno Canto X (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "Within this region is the cemetery
    of Epicurus and his followers,
    all those who say the soul dies with the body." (Inf. X, 13-15)

    By denying man’s immortal soul, the Epicureans condemn themselves to living purely in the present. Because they do not believe in the afterlife, they have no inhibitions to restrain them from indulging their basest pleasures at any time they please. They are trapped in the present time, just as after they die their souls are subjected to the eternal present of torment in Hell.

    Dante

    [Dante]: "It seems, if I hear right, that you can see
    beforehand that which time is carrying,
    but you’re denied the sight of present things."
    [Farinata]: "We see, even as men who are farsighted,
    those things," he said, "that are remote from us;
    the Highest Lord allots us that much light.
    But when events draw near or are, our minds
    are useless; were we not informed by others,
    we should know nothing of your human state." (Inf. X, 97-105)

    Heretics, for denying the immortality of the soul, are denied a linear, straightforward understanding of time. Having lived their lives only in the present moment (like the Epicureans), heretics are punished by being imprisoned in the future. They can see only in front of them, but not around them; they remain ignorant of their present state and must spend eternity without knowledge of their own time.

    Inferno Canto XI (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)

    [Furies]: "Just let Medusa come; then we shall turn
    him into stone," they all cried, looking down;
    "we should have punished Theseus’ assault."
    "Turn round and keep your eyes shut fast, for should
    the Gorgon show herself and you behold her,
    never again would you return above,"
    my master said; and he himself turned me
    around and, not content with just my hands,
    used his as well to cover up my eyes. (Inf. IX, 52-60)

    The pilgrims’ wait at the gates of Dis and the subsequent menace of Medusa are all threats of immobilization. The very act of waiting in the eternal space of Hell seems to stop time. In addition, Medusa endangers Dante by threatening to turn him to stone or, in other words, to paralyze him so that his body is frozen forever. The inability to move forward because of either the locked gates or the rigidity of a stone body renders time meaningless to Dante.

    Inferno Canto XIV (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: The Violent against God)

    [Capaneus]: "That which I was in life, I am in death.
    Though Jove wear out the smith from whom he took
    in wrath, the keen-edged thunderbolt with which
    on my last day I was to be transfixed;
    or if he tire the others, one by one,
    in Mongibello, at the sooty forge,
    while bellowing: ‘O help, good Vulcan, help!’ –
    just as he did when there was war at Phlegra –
    and casts his shafts at me with all his force,
    not even then would he have happy vengeance."
    Then did my guide speak with such vehemence
    as I had never heard him use before:
    "O Capaneus, for your arrogance
    that is not quenched, you’re punished all the more:
    no torture other than your own madness
    could offer pain enough to match your wrath."
    But then, with gentler face he turned to me
    and said: "That man was one of seven kings
    besieging Thebes; he held – and still, it seems,
    holds – God in great disdain, disprizing Him…" (Inf. XIV, 51-70)

    Capaneus’ sin lies primarily in his inability to change. What "I was in life, I am in death," he announces and, in so doing, damns himself for eternity. As long as he remains eternally unrepentant, nothing can change for him. Neither can time move forward for him, nor can his punishment be alleviated.

    Inferno Canto XX (the Eighth Circle, Fourth Pouch: Diviners, Astrologers, and Magicians)

    As I inclined my head still more, I saw
    that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
    between the chin and where the chest begins;
    they had their faces twisted towards their haunches
    and found it necessary to walk backward,
    because they could not see ahead of them. (Inf. XX, 10-15)

    The magicians, for their crime of claiming power over the future, must live forever in the past, with their heads turned backwards on their shoulders. Like the heretics, they cannot experience time in the forward-moving manner most souls do, but are stuck in a single time period for all eternity.

    Inferno Canto XXIV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)

    No o or i has ever been transcribed
    so quickly as that soul caught fire and burned
    and, as he fell, completely turned to ashes;
    and when he lay, undone, upon the ground,
    the dust of him collected by itself
    and instantly returned to what it was:
    just so, it is asserted by great sages,
    that, when it reaches its five-hundredth year,
    the phoenix dies and then is born again;
    lifelong it never feeds on grass or grain,
    only on drops of incense and amomum;
    its final winding sheets are nard and myrrh. (Inf. XXIV, 100-111)

    The sheer endlessness of the thieves’ eternal punishment is conveyed by comparison to the phoenix, who dies only to be born again.

    Inferno Canto XXXII (the Ninth Circle, First Ring Caina: Traitors to their Kin, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to their Homeland or Party)

    At this I turned and saw in front of me,
    beneath my feet, a lake that, frozen fast,
    had lost the look of water and seemed glass.
    The Danube where it flows in Austria,
    the Don beneath its frozen sky, have never
    made for their course so thick a veil in winter
    as there was here; for had Mount Tambernic
    or Pietrapana’s mountain crashed upon it,
    not even at the edge would it have creaked. (Inf. XXXII, 22-30)

    Ice, as an immobilizing agent, literally freezes time for the sinners submerged in it. Because they cannot move and cannot relieve their constant suffering, the ice literally represents eternity for them – cold, unmoving, and unforgiving.

    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "Here it is morning when it’s evening there;
    and he whose hair has served us as a ladder
    is still fixed, even as he was before." (Inf. XXXIV, 118-120)

    According to translator Mandelbaum’s notes, the journey through Hell takes a full day. When the sun sets in the northern hemisphere (as the pilgrims cross the earth’s axis), it rises in the southern hemisphere, where Dante and Virgil emerge. So just as Dante begins his journey at dawn, so he ends it in the light of another dawn on the other side of the world. In a dreamlike manner, it seems as though no time at all has passed.

  • Respect and Reputation

    Inferno Canto II
    Virgil

    [Virgil quoting Beatrice]: "‘O spirit of the courteous Mantuan,
    whose fame is still a presence in the world
    and shall endure as long as the world lasts,
    my friend who has not been the friend of fortune,
    is hindered in his path along that lonely
    hillside; he has been turned aside by terror.
    From all that I have heard of him in Heaven,
    he is, I fear, already so astray
    that I have come to help him much too late.
    Go now; with your persuasive word, with all
    that is required to see that he escapes,
    bring help to him, that I may be consoled.’" (Inf. II, 58-69)

    Virgil’s renown as the consummate poet gifted with the "persuasive word" makes him the prime candidate to appeal to for Dante’s sake. It is to Virgil’s "courteous spirit," which has endured countless ages with an unblemished name, that Beatrice entrusts her beloved Dante, not to any real knowledge or experience with the poet.

    Inferno Canto III
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "Those who are here can place no hope in death,
    and their blind life is so abject that they
    are envious of every other fate.
    The world will let no fame of theirs endure;
    both justice and compassion must disdain them;
    let us not talk of them, but look and pass." (Inf. III, 46-51)

    Because cowardice has kept the neutrals from making any indelible mark on the world, they have no claim to fame. Thus, "the world will let no fame of theirs endure," and even Virgil has no patience to spend time identifying any of these sinners. They simply have no reputation to speak of.

    Inferno Canto VI (the Third Circle: the Gluttonous)

    [Ciacco]: "But when you have returned to the sweet world,
    I pray, recall me to men’s memory:
    I say no more to you, answer no more." (Inf. VI, 88-90)

    Ciacco is the first of many sinners who crave fame and a good name in the world above. Relegated to an existence which can hardly be called a life (suffering eternally in Hell), the only life these sinners can pretend to have is in men’s memory. Should they be forgotten, they would truly die, having been lost in body, soul, and memory to the living. Since these sinners have lost everything in their damnation, their only chance at being remembered in any good light is in the mortal world, where the living have no knowledge of Hell’s inhabitants.

    Inferno Canto VIII (the river Styx, the gates of Dis)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "How many up above now count themselves
    great kings, who’ll wallow here like pigs in slime,
    leaving behind foul memories of their crimes!" (Inf. VIII, 49-51)

    In the mud of the Fifth Circle, Virgil points out how different the standards of fame are in the afterlife. His message seems to be that those who garner the most fame and prestige in the mortal world do so by wicked means and thus will have no such stature in Hell, but will be reduced to a position of low bestiality, like "pigs in slime."

    Inferno Canto XIII (the Seventh Circle, Second Ring: The Violent against Themselves)

    [Pier della Vigna]: "I swear to you by the peculiar roots
    of this thornbush, I never broke my faith
    with him who was so worthy – with my lord.
    If one of you returns into the world,
    then let him help my memory, which still
    lies prone beneath the battering of envy." (Inf. XIII, 73-78)

    With his florid style of speech, Pier della Vigna’s bid for a commemoration comes across as desperate and petty.

    Inferno Canto XV (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: the Violent against God)

    [Brunetto Latini]: "Let my Tesoro, in which I still live,
    be precious to you; and I ask no more." (Inf. XV, 119-120)

    In alignment with his denial of the immortal soul, Latini desires immortality in the only way he knows how, through the survival of his literary works. Thus, he asks Dante to value his poem and to bring it to the attention of the living.

    Inferno Canto XVI (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: The Violent against God)

    [Three sodomites]: "Stop, you who by your clothing seem to be
    someone who comes from our indecent country!" (Inf. XVI, 8-9)

    Florence leaves its stamp so indelibly on its natives that Dante is recognized by his garb alone. One finds that Dante is not alone in his denunciation of Florence. Even sinners call it that "indecent country!"

    Inferno Canto XX (the Eighth Circle, Fourth Pouch: Diviners, Astrologers, and Magicians)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: Therefore, I charge you, if you ever hear
    a different tale of my town’s origin,
    do not let any falsehood gull the truth."
    And I: "Oh master, that which you have spoken
    convinces me and so compels my trust
    that others’ words would only be spent coals." (Inf. XX, 97-102)

    In relating the story of Mantua’s true origins, Virgil attempts to cast off his reputation as a deceitful magician and stake his reputation on the truth of his words.

    Inferno Canto XXIV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "Now you must cast aside your laziness,"
    my master said, "for he who rests on down
    or under covers cannot come to fame;
    and he who spends his life without renown
    leaves such a vestige of himself on earth
    as smoke bequeaths to air or foam to water." (Inf. XXIV, 46-51)

    Virgil implies that fame must be won through hard labor. Only through honest work can one leave his mark on the world. Those afflicted with laziness may never gain fame and thus take the risk of being forgotten by the mortal world, just as "smoke on air" or "foam [on] water" remain visible for but a few moments before fading away.

    Inferno Canto XXVII (the Eighth Circle, Eighth Pouch: the Fraudulent Counselors)

    [Guido da Montefeltro]: "If I thought my reply were meant for one
    who ever could return into the world,
    this flame would stir no more; and yet, since none –
    if what I hear is true – ever returned
    alive from this abyss, then without fear
    of facing infamy, I answer you." (Inf. XXVII, 61-66)

    Guido da Montefeltro values his good name; indeed, as a military-man-turned-monk, he seems to have a solid reputation, but he hides a dark secret that only Dante is privy to. Trusting that Dante is a fellow sinning soul condemned eternally to the Inferno, Guido does not hesitate in revealing his damning sin. In actuality, Dante has the power to force Guido to "fac[e] infamy," if he so desires.

    Inferno Canto XXIX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers of Metals)
    Dante

    [Dante to alchemists]: "So that your memory may never fade
    within the first world from the minds of men,
    but still live on – and under many suns –
    do tell me who you are and from what city,
    and do not let your vile and filthy torment
    make you afraid to let me know your names." (Inf. XXIX, 103-108)

    Deep within the circles of fraud, Dante learns to manipulate the sinners’ desire for fame to his advantage. Here, he lures men into telling their stories by promising to bring word of them back to the living world. Whether or not he is sincere in his promises is another matter.

    Inferno Canto XXXII (the Ninth Circle, First Ring Caina: Traitors to their Kin, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to their Homeland or Party)
    Dante

    [Dante to Bocca degli Abati]: "I am alive, and can be precious to you
    if you want fame," was my reply, "for I
    can set your name among my other notes."
    And he to me: "I want the contrary;
    so go away and do not harass me –
    your flattery is useless in this valley."
    At that I grabbed him by the scruff and said:
    "You’ll have to name yourself to me
    or else you won’t have even one hair left up here."
    And he to me: "Though you should strip me bald,
    I shall not tell you who I am or show it,
    not if you pound my head a thousand times."
    His hairs were wound around my hand already,
    and I had plucked from him more than one tuft
    while he was barking and his eyes stared down,
    when someone else cried out: "What is it, Bocca?
    Isn’t the music of your jaws enough
    for you without your bark? What devil’s at you?"
    "And now," I said, "you traitor bent on evil,
    I do not need your talk, for I shall carry
    true news of you, and that will bring you shame."
    "Be off," he answered; "tell them what you like…" (Inf. XXXII, 91-112)

    Bocca is the only sinner unimpressed by Dante’s offer to keep his memory alive in the mortal world. Here is a sinner so corrupt that he cares little what happens to his good name simply because he has none; it has already been irreparably besmirched by his well-known betrayal to his country. However, his indifference brings out a different and frightening side of Dante, proving – to some extent – that our poet has never had any intention of bringing glory to the sinners. Indeed, when provoked by Bocca, Dante threatens to do quite the opposite: to "carry / true news of you, and…bring you shame."

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    Inferno Canto II
    Dante

    O Muses, o high genius, help me now;
    o memory that set down what I saw,
    here shall your excellence reveal itself! (Inf. II, 7-9)

    Dante’s invocation of the muses suggests that he considers his poem a serious intellectual pursuit, much like Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid. Like these ancient poets, he entrusts his memory and resulting words to a higher, divine power – much as his prayers to the Christian God will do later.

    Inferno Canto III
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "For we have reached the place of which I spoke
    where you will see the miserable people,
    those who have lost the good of the intellect." (Inf. III, 16-18)

    Dante considers the mind and reason as purely human faculties and singular gifts from God. Man, then, has a responsibility to use these intellectual gifts for good. Sinners who use their intellects for evil or simply deny that reason is a human tool have "lost the good of the intellect" and have therefore been condemned to Hell.

    Inferno Canto IV (the first Circle: Limbo)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "Look well at him who holds that sword in hand,
    who moves before the other three as lord.
    That shade is Homer, the consummate poet;
    the other one is Horace, satirist;
    the third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.
    Because each of these spirits shares with me
    the name called out before by the lone voice,
    they welcome me – and, doing that, do well."
    And so I saw the splendid school assembled,
    led by the lord of song incomparable,
    who like an eagle soars above the rest.
    Soon after they had talked a while together,
    they turned to me, saluting cordially;
    and having witnessed this, my master smiled;
    and even greater honor then was mine,
    for they invited me to join their ranks –
    I was the sixth among such intellects. (Inf. IV, 86-102)

    In medieval times, more so than today, poets represented the consummate academics. Dante demonstrates this by referring to the most famous Classical poets as a "splendid school." The character Dante, as an aspiring poet, is flattered when Virgil’s peers invite him to converse with them and he finds himself "sixth among such intellects." If one approaches this statement from the perspective of Dante the author, this rank of "sixth among such intellects" could be read as a bit cocky.

    Inferno Canto VII (the Fourth Circle: the Avaricious and Prodigal; the Fifth Circle: the Wrathful and Sullen)
    Dante

    [Dante to Virgil]: "Master," I asked of him, "now tell me too:
    this Fortune whom you’ve touched upon just now –
    what’s she, who clutches so all the world’s goods?"
    And he to me: "O unenlightened creatures,
    how deep – the ignorance that hampers you!
    I want you to digest my word on this.
    Who made the heavens and who gave them guides
    was He whose wisdom transcends everything;
    that every part may shine unto the other,
    He had the light apportioned equally;
    similarly, for worldly splendors, He
    ordained a general minister and guide
    to shift, from time to time, those empty goods
    from nation unto nation, clan to clan,
    in ways that human reason can’t prevent;
    just so, one people rules, one languishes,
    obeying the decision she has given,
    which, like a serpent in the grass, is hidden.
    Your knowledge cannot stand against her force;
    for she foresees and judges and maintains
    her kingdom as the other gods do theirs.
    The changes that she brings are without respite:
    it is necessity that makes her swift;
    and for this reason, men change state so often." (Inf. VII, 67-90)

    For the first time since the Hellgate, Virgil insists that Divine proceedings can exceed the grasp of human intellect. Fortune, or the seemingly random shift of wealth and fame from one nation to another, can "stand against [the] force" of man’s reason because she is God’s minister. His "wisdom," of course, "transcends everything" – even human intellect. Thus, the fact that man cannot understand or predict Fortune’s vicissitudes is natural.

    And I to him: "Master, among this kind
    I certainly might hope to recognize
    some who have been bespattered by these crimes."
    And he to me: "That thought of yours is empty:
    the undiscerning life that made them filthy
    now renders them unrecognizable." (Inf. VII. 49-54)

    Having denied "the good of the intellect" by abusing their relationship to money, the avaricious and prodigal have not only forfeited their places in Heaven, but have also lost their identities, since their faces have been "render[ed]…unrecognizable." An intellectual sin can thus lead to compromising one’s identity, appropriate since – in Dante’s eyes – one’s mind and the way one uses it are the only things that distinguish man from animals.

    Inferno Canto XV (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: the Violent against God)
    Dante

    [Dante]: "Within my memory is fixed – and now
    moves me – your dear, your kind paternal image
    when, in the world above, from time to time
    you taught me how man makes himself eternal;
    and while I live, my gratitude for that
    must always be apparent in my words.
    What you have told me of my course, I write;
    I keep it with another text, for comment
    by one who’ll understand, if I may reach her." (Inf. XV, 82-90)

    Here, Dante shows one of his naïve intellectual fallacies. Brunetto Latini, as Dante’s tutor, "taught [him] how man makes himself eternal"; namely, that man’s name can continue into eternity only through the quality of the works he creates during his lifetime. Thus, as the only way man can gain mortality, this philosophy denies the existence of the immortal soul. It seems that this sin – not sodomy – is the sole reason Latini resides in Hell. Dante, too, by adoring and even continuing to record Latini’s words, runs the peril of falling into the same trap as Latini.

    Inferno Canto XXV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)
    Dante

    Let Lucan now be silent, where he sings
    of sad Sabellus and Nasidius,
    and wait to hear what flies off from my bow.
    Let Ovid now be silent, where he tells
    of Cadmus, Arethusa; if his verse
    has made of one a serpent, one a fountain,
    I do not envy him; he never did
    transmute two natures, face to face, so that
    both forms were ready to exchange their matter. (Inf. XXV, 94-102)

    For the second time, Dante asserts himself as a brilliant poet. In telling Lucan and Ovid – both of whom superbly described attacks by serpents and transformations (like Dante is doing here) – to "be silent," Dante obviously considers himself superior to them. His reasoning is based on the fact that neither Roman poet ever wrote of an instance in which "two natures….were ready to exchange their matter." And nobody, up to Dante’s time, had done it as well as he does…or so he asserts.

    Inferno Canto XXVI (the Eighth Circle, Eighth Pouch: the Fraudulent Counselors)

    [Ulysses to his men]: "‘Brothers,’ I said, ‘o you, who having crossed
    a hundred thousand dangers, reach the west,
    to this brief waking-time that still is left
    unto your senses, you must not deny
    experience of that which lies beyond
    the sun, and of the world that is unpeopled.
    Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
    you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
    but to be followers of worth and knowledge.’" (Inf. XXVI, 112-120)

    It is no coincidence that within the same canto that Dante "curb[s his] talent" to "not abuse [his intellect]," Ulysses urges his men to "be followers of worth and knowledge." In doing this, he sins, though his ideals seem noble. However, his assertion spurs his followers to cross the known geographical boundaries of human knowledge as well as to impinge on the godly body of knowledge. Thus, in his worthy attempt to make his men "not live [their] lives as brute," Ulysses transgresses the boundaries of what God deems proper for men to know. A similar fable in the Christian tradition would be God’s exile of Adam and Eve from Eden after they eat from the Tree of Knowledge.

    Dante

    It grieved me then and now grieves me again
    when I direct my mind to what I saw;
    and more than usual, I curb my talent,
    that it not run where virtue does not guide;
    so that, if my kind star or something better
    has given me that gift, I not abuse it. (Inf. XXVI, 19-24)

    After witnessing the thieves’ punishment, Dante warns his readers not to misuse their intellect as the thieves have. His assertion, "I curb my talent," in describing the thieves’ painful transformations, Dante indirectly points out his superiority to other poets (described in the previous canto). But by "curb[ing his] talent," Dante claims he is adhering to virtue and not trying to surpass his human limits, nor to "run where virtue does not guide." This hails back to Virgil’s description in the third canto of "the good of the intellect."

    Inferno Canto XXXI (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers)
    Dante

    Surely when she gave up the art of making
    such creatures, Nature acted well indeed,
    depriving Mars of instruments like these.
    And if she still produces elephants
    and whales, whoever sees with subtlety
    holds her – for this – to be more just and prudent;
    for where the mind’s acutest reasoning
    is joined to evil will and evil power,
    there human beings can’t defend themselves. (Inf. XXXI, 49-57)

    By implying that "Nature acted well indeed" in refusing to give further birth to giants, Dante implies that the giants are sinners. They fall into the category between the eighth and ninth circles, between the realms of ordinary and treacherous fraud, both considered purely an intellectual sin and a denial of "the good of the intellect." Like Lucifer, the giants challenge God’s supremacy by connecting "the mind’s acutest reasoning" to "evil will and evil power." Thus, it comes as no surprise that their punishment – being immobilized deep in Hell – echoes and anticipates Lucifer’s penalty.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Inferno Canto II
    Dante

    As little flowers, which the chill of night
    has bent and huddled, when the white sun strikes,
    grow straight and open fully on their stems,
    so did I, too, with my exhausted force;
    and such warm daring rushed into my heart
    that I – as one who has been freed – began:
    "O she, compassionate, who has helped me!
    And you who, courteous, obeyed so quickly
    the true words that she had addressed to you!
    You, with your words, have so disposed my heart
    to longing for this journey – I return
    to what I was at first prepared to do." (Inf. II, 127-138)

    Dante’s response to Beatrice’s pity spurs him to bloom "as little flowers…grow straight and open fully on their stems" when "the white sun strikes." Thus, Beatrice’s compassion is related to the light of God. And because he can ‘see’ again with her illumination, Dante feels "warm daring rush into [his] heart" to offset the "exhausted force" of doubts that were plaguing him before. Thus, compassion seems to have a life-giving force that Dante will later use to enliven sinners to recount their stories to him.

    Virgil

    [Virgil quoting Beatrice]: "‘In Heaven there’s a gentle lady – one
    who weeps for the distress toward which I send you,
    so that stern judgment up above is shattered.
    And it was she who called upon Lucia,
    requesting of her: "Now your faithful one
    has need of you, and I commend him to you."
    Lucia, enemy of every cruelty,
    arose and made her way to where I was,
    sitting beside the venerable Rachel.
    She said: "You, Beatrice, true praise of God,
    why have you not helped him who loves you so
    that – for your sake – he’s left the vulgar crowd?
    Do you not hear the anguish in his cry?
    Do you not see the death he wars against
    upon that river ruthless as the sea?"
    No one within this world has ever been
    so quick to seek his good or flee his harm
    as I…’" (Inf. II, 94-111)

    Virgil’s story of how he has come to guide Dante directly discusses Dante’s status as a chosen one in having the opportunity to experience Hell while still alive. His special status comes purely from the compassion of three divine ladies: the Virgin Mary herself, Saint Lucia, and Beatrice (the mortal love of Dante’s life). Indeed, this reinforces the stereotype of women as gentle emotional creatures, contrasted with the male stereotype of being too rational. These women show the physical manifestation of compassion: tears. Unlike gentle Mary, Lucia chastises Beatrice for ignoring Dante’s straying from God’s path. And, in an interesting paradox, Beatrice, by linking the "persuasive word" to Virgil, herself uses it to convince the Roman poet to help Dante.

    Inferno Canto IV (the first Circle: Limbo)
    Virgil

    But I, who’d seen the change in his [Virgil’s] complexion,
    said: "How shall I go on if you are frightened,
    you who have always helped dispel my doubts?"
    And he to me: "The anguish of the people
    whose place is here below, has touched my face
    with the compassion you mistake for fear." (Inf. IV, 16-22)

    Unbeknownst to Dante, he and Virgil are about to meet a group of Classical poets and Virgil’s dear companions. This foreknowledge causes Virgil to pale dramatically with sympathy for their plight. Interestingly, Dante mistakes his physical reaction for one stemming from fear. Indeed, this concept will later be played on as Dante cries and faints – some typical reactions to intense fear or pain – when moved to pity for the sinners. This reinforces the very root of the word "compassion," which means literally "to feel with." So, one could read Virgil’s and later Dante’s sympathy for the sinners as literally feeling and participating in the pain that the sinners experience.

    "Tell me, my master, tell me, lord," I then
    began because I wanted to be certain
    of that belief which vanquishes all errors,
    "did any ever go – by his own merit
    or others’ – from this place toward blessedness?"
    And he, who understood my covert speech,
    replied: "I was new-entered on this state
    when I beheld a Great Lord enter here:
    the crown he wore, a sign of victory.
    He carried off the shade of our first father,
    of his son Abel, and the shade of Noah,
    of Moses, the obedient legislator,
    of father Abraham, David the king,
    of Israel, his father, and his sons,
    and Rachel, she for whom he worked so long,
    and many others – and He made them blessed;
    and I should have you know that, before them,
    there were no human souls that had been saved." (Inf. IV, 46-63)

    Virgil’s story of the Harrowing of Hell, in which Christ carries off the good men of the Old Testament (born before Christ) to Heaven, shows that God does indeed love the virtuous, making exceptions for the honorable unbaptized, and that the sinners in limbo – like the poets Dante worships – still have an opportunity to enter Heaven. This serves to mitigate, or soften, Dante’s judgment of God’s mercy.

    Dante

    The kindly master said: "Do you not ask
    who are these spirits whom you see before you?
    I’d have you know, before you go ahead,
    they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits,
    that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism,
    the portal of the faith that you embrace.
    And if they lived before Christianity,
    they did not worship God in fitting ways;
    and of such spirits I myself am one.
    For these defects, and for no other evil,
    we now are lost and punished just with this:
    we have no hope and yet we live in longing."
    Great sorrow seized my heart on hearing him,
    for I had seen some estimable men
    among the souls suspended in that limbo. (Inf. IV, 31-45)

    Here, Dante’s soul is too naïve to recognize the crime of these sinners. That he sees "some estimable men" in limbo – poets like himself – biases him in their favor and incites his sympathy. Indeed, the crime of being born before the coming of Christ and being punished for it – something over which the "sinners" have no control – seems cruel and unfair. The implication of seeing fellow poets in Hell is that Dante, too, may end up there. By commiserating with these souls in limbo, Dante questions the validity of God’s judgment and His supposedly infinite love.

    Inferno Canto V (the Second Circle: the Lustful)
    Dante

    And while one spirit [Francesca] said these words to me,
    the other [Paolo] wept, so that – because of pity –
    I fainted, as if I had met my death.
    And then I fell as a dead body falls. (Inf. V, 139-142)

    Dante’s reaction to Francesca’s and Paolo’s pitiable story brings such sympathy to his heart that he has an overwhelming physical reaction: he faints from compassion. Indeed, readers might suspect that his sympathy kills him since Dante is described as a "dead body fall[ing]." Dante has not yet learned to condemn sinners for their crimes, to define exactly what their sin is, or to weigh their seemingly noble qualities against their sins.

    Inferno Canto VI (the Third Circle: the Gluttonous)
    Dante

    I answered him: "Ciacco, your suffering
    so weights on me that I am forced to weep;
    but tell me, if you know, what end awaits
    the citizens of that divided city;
    is any just man there? Tell me the reason
    why it has been assailed by so much schism." (Inf. VI, 58-63)

    Even though Ciacco does not tell a pathetic story or even attempt to gain Dante’s mercy, our poet is "forced to weep" for Ciacco’s horrible punishment. Ciacco – because of his terseness – is not considered a likeable character, so it is strange that Dante feels so deeply for him. On second thought, perhaps Dante does not. Instead of asking Ciacco to tell his story, to elicit greater sympathy, Dante does not ask any personal questions, but instead focuses on the fate of their shared city, Florence.

    Inferno Canto VIII (the river Styx, the gates of Dis)
    Dante

    And I to him [Filippo Argenti]: "I’ve come, but I don’t stay;
    but who are you, who have become so ugly?"
    He answered: "You can see – I’m one who weeps. "
    And I to him: "In weeping and in grieving,
    accursed spirit, may you long remain;
    though you’re disguised by filth, I know your name."
    Then he stretched both his hands out toward the boat,
    at which my master quickly shoved him back,
    saying: "Be off there with the other dogs!"
    That done, he threw his arms around my neck
    and kissed my face and said: "Indignant soul,
    blessed is she who bore you in her womb!" (Inf. VIII, 34-42)

    Finally, in the fifth circle of the wrathful, Dante comes to condemn a sinner, taking pleasure in his pain. However, Dante’s reasoning still does not ring true. Instead of condemning Argenti for his rage, Dante makes it personal by raging at Argenti for refusing to identify himself. However, Virgil sees the slow development of Dante’s judgment and rejoices at his harsh words to the sinner. Dante is learning.

    Inferno Canto XII (the Seventh Circle, First Ring: the Violent against their Neighbors)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "Now I would have you know: the other time
    that I descended into lower Hell,
    this mass of boulders had not yet collapsed;
    but if I reason rightly, it was just
    before the coming of the One who took
    from Dis the highest circle’s splendid spoils
    that, on all sides, the steep and filthy valley
    had trembled so, I thought the universe
    felt love (by which, as some believe, the world
    has often been converted into chaos);
    and at that moment, here as well as elsewhere,
    these ancient boulders toppled, in this way." (Inf. XII, 34-45)

    Virgil brings the etymology of the word "compassion" to new heights with his description of Christ’s love literally moving mountains. If "compassion" means "to move/feel with," Christ’s love for his followers during the Harrowing of Hell proves so intense that it moves not only the worthy members of the Old Testament with him to Heaven, but shakes the very earth itself, causing part of the valley of violence (appropriately) to topple.

    Inferno Canto XIII (the Seventh Circle, Second Ring: The Violent against Themselves)
    Dante

    The poet waited briefly, then said
    to me: "Since he is silent, do not lose
    this chance, but speak and ask what you would know."
    And I: "Do you continue; ask of him
    whatever you believe I should request;
    I cannot, so much pity takes my heart." (Inf. XIII, 79-84)

    In hearing Pier della Vigna’s story, Dante is so moved by pity (indeed, suicide is always pitiable) that he cannot speak. Instead, he requests that Virgil speak for him to the sinner. Instead of channeling his sympathy into words, Dante falls into silence – just as he did by passing out when talking to Francesca. Here is one place where language fails to capture the depth of human experience; Dante’s grief is simply too deep for words.

    Inferno Canto XVIII (the Eighth Circle, First Pouch: Panderers and Seducers; the Second Pouch: Flatterers)
    Dante

    That scourged soul thought that he could hide himself
    by lowering his face; it helped him little,
    for I said: "You, who cast your eyes upon
    the ground, if these your features are not false,
    must be Venedico Caccianemico;
    but what brings you to sauces so piquant?" (Inf. XVIII, 46-51)

    For one of the only times in the Inferno, a sinner shows shame for his behavior. Venedico Caccianemico feels so mortified by his sin (pandering) that he tries to hide his face from Dante, to keep from being recognized. However, Dante – now more mature in his judgment – not only identifies Caccianemico, but mocks him for being submerged in "sauces so piquant," or a pool of excrement. His words demonstrate no sympathy for the sinner.

    Inferno Canto XX (the Eighth Circle, Fourth Pouch: Diviners, Astrologers, and Magicians)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: … "Are you as foolish as the rest?
    Here pity only lives when it is dead;
    for who can be more impious than he
    who links God’s judgment to passivity?" (Inf. XX, 27-30)

    Ironically, the emotion Dante is trying to evoke in readers – pity for the magicians – is rebuked by Virgil. His denunciation of the magicians’ practice as advocating "God’s…passivity" means that the magicians, in prophesying, believe they have power over the future, necessarily rendering God’s will passive. Such an assumption is so mistaken that it should kill the pity of any reasonable person. This is why "pity only lives [here] when it is dead." In other words, there should be no sympathy for these sinners.

    Dante

    May God so let you, reader, gather fruit
    from what you read; and now think for yourself
    how I could ever keep my own face dry
    when I beheld our image so nearby
    and so awry that tears, down from the eyes,
    bathed the buttocks, running down the cleft.
    Of course I wept… (Inf. XX, 19-25)

    Upon witnessing the grotesque punishment of the magicians, Dante is again moved to tears. He clearly values compassion for fellow human beings, but his apparently piteous tone reveals hints of scorn. His description of the sinners’ tears – initially designed to elicit pity – becomes ridiculous when he mentions them "running down the cleft" of the sinners’ buttocks.

    Inferno Canto XXII (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators)
    Dante

    O you who read, hear now of this new sport…
    The Navarrese, in nick of time, had planted
    his feet upon the ground; then in an instant
    he jumped and freed himself from their commander.
    At this each demon felt the prick of guilt,
    and most, he who had led his band to blunder;
    so he took off and shouted: "You are caught!"
    But this could help him little; wing were not
    more fast than fear; the sinner plunged right under;
    the other, flying up, lifted his chest…
    But Calcabrina, raging at the trick,
    flew after Alichino; he was keen
    to see the sinner free and have a brawl;
    and once the Navarrese had disappeared,
    he turned his talons on his fellow demon
    and tangled with him just above the ditch.
    But Alichino clawed him well –
    he was indeed a full-grown kestrel; and both fell
    into the middle of the boiling pond.
    The heat was quick to disentangle them,
    but still there was no way they could get out;
    their wings were stuck,
    enmeshed in glue-like pitch. (Inf. XXII, 118-144)

    Although Dante exhibits the same distaste for all the guardians of Hell, none of them is depicted so comedically as the demons. In this passage, the action concentrates completely on the demons and their pursuit of the escaping sinner, not at all on Dante or his emotional reactions. The action here is almost cartoonish in tone, complete with dastardly villains, a cunning escape, and the scoundrels’ useless fighting amongst themselves when finding their quarry gone. Such slapstick comedy requires an emotional distance, especially when dealing with such serious topics as sin and punishment, and this burlesque suggests that Dante feels no pity for either the demons or their victims, the barrators.

    Inferno Canto XXIX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers of Metals)
    Dante

    [Dante]: … "In that hollow upon which
    just now, I kept my eyes intent, I think
    a spirit born of my own blood laments
    the guilt which, down below, costs one so much."
    At this my master said: "Don’t let your thoughts
    about him interrupt you from here on:
    attend to other things, let him stay there;
    for I saw him below the little bridge,
    his finger pointing at you, threatening,
    and heard him called by name – Geri del Bello…"
    "My guide, it was his death by violence,
    for which he still is not avenged," I said,
    "by anyone who shares his shame, that made
    him so disdainful now; and – I suppose –
    for this he left without a word to me,
    and this has made me pity him the more." (Inf. XXIX, 18-36)

    At the unexpected information that one of his own kin inhabits Hell, Dante predictably reacts with pity. In fact, it’s his relative – Geri del Bello – for whom Dante had wept a few lines ago, not for the sowers of scandal at large. When Virgil tells Dante to ignore del Bello, Dante shows a surprising amount of resolve. Unlike the sycophantically obedient Dante seen in the early cantos, the more mature Dante stands up for his opinions – even against his master. He sides with Geri del Bello, allowing for his obscene gestures and claiming that del Bello wants only a just revenge for his violent death. Although Dante may err against God in showing mercy to his kinsman, he endears himself to readers by defending his family and showing some backbone against his taskmaster Virgil.

    Inferno Canto XXXIII (the Ninth Circle, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to the Homeland or Party, Third Ring Ptolomea: Traitors against their Guests)
    Dante

    For if Count Ugolino was reputed
    to have betrayed your [Pisa’s] fortresses, there was
    no need to have his sons endure such torment.
    O Thebes renewed, their years were innocent
    and young – Brigata, Uguiccione, and
    the other two my song has named above! (Inf. XXXIII, 85-90)

    Although Dante condemns Ugolino for his traitorous crime, he shows pity for Ugolino’s sons and considers them "innocent and young" victims. This could be read as an extension of Dante’s steadfast sympathy for Geri del Bello, because here Dante carries on the theme of well-intentioned family members. Here, however, he seems more in the right than he did with del Bello.

    [Fra Alberigo to Dante]: "But now reach out your hand; open my eyes."
    And yet I did not open them for him;
    and it was courtesy to show him rudeness. (Inf. XXXIII, 148-150)

    In breaking his promise to Fra Alberigo, Dante not only demonstrates his ruthlessness towards the sinner but also commits a traitorous act almost comparable to the crime Alberigo himself perpetrated. By virtue of Virgil’s silence in response to Dante’s peccadillo, one might conjecture that Virgil condones Dante’s behavior and commends his lack of mercy to so black a sinner. Hell’s punishments, Dante is beginning to understand, are the sinners’ just desserts.

    Inferno Canto XXXIV (the Ninth Circle, Fourth Ring Judecca: Traitors against their Benefactors)
    Dante

    He [Lucifer] wept out of six eyes; and down three chins,
    tears gushed together with a bloody froth.
    Within each mouth – he used it like a grinder –
    with gnashing teeth he tore to bits a sinner,
    so that he brought much pain to three at once. (Inf. XXXIV, 34-57)

    Lucifer, the most severely punished sinner and potentially the greatest pity-inducer, instead elicits little heartfelt emotion in Dante. Unlike the vast majority of the sinners interviewed in the Inferno, Lucifer never gets the opportunity to speak to Dante and tell his side of the story. But Dante’s lack of pity stems from an even deeper source. Lucifer, despite his tears, seems like a giant automaton; his teeth gnash mechanically "like a grinder" and his wings flap rhythmically. Lucifer seems to have lost the ability to feel and emote, leaving readers with the sense that he is simply the engine which powers Hell, an enormous generator, and nothing more. To Dante and his readers alike, Lucifer seems soulless, inhuman, and mechanical. Thus is the nature of evil; it is a lack of heart and will, a void, rather than anything actively degenerate.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Inferno Canto III
    Dante

    These wretched ones, who never were alive,
    went naked and were stung again, again
    by horseflies and by wasps that circled them.
    The insects streaked their faces with their blood,
    which, mingled with their tears, fell at their feet,
    where it was gathered up by sickening worms. (Inf. III, 64-69)

    The neutrals are, arguably, the least natural of all the sinners, because they "never were alive" or, in Dante’s definition of living, never made the fundamental human distinction between good and evil. Paralyzed by their fear, they never chose to serve either good or evil, thus missing out on both the joys and misfortunes of life. For their cowardice, Nature itself turns against them and her lowest ranks – insects – punish them.

    Inferno Canto XI (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "From these two, art and nature, it is fitting,
    if you recall how Genesis begins,
    for men to make their way, to gain their living;
    and since the usurer prefers another
    pathway, he scorns both nature in herself
    and art, her follower; his hope is elsewhere." (Inf. XI, 106-111)

    Following the train of the thought from the last few lines, Virgil arrives at what is natural or good for men to do with their lives: to "make their way, to gain their living." In other words, it is good for man to work and to gain his living by the sweat of his brow, the depth of his mind, the creation of his hands. Usurers violate this natural order by growing fat off man’s greed for money instead of winning their bread through honest work. Thus, usury is a sin against nature.

    [Virgil]: "Philosophy, for one who understands,
    points out, and not in just one place," he said,
    "how nature follows – as she takes her course –
    the Divine Intellect and Divine Art;
    and if you read your Physics carefully,
    not many pages from the start, you’ll see
    that when it can, you art would follow nature,
    just as a pupil imitates his master;
    so that your art is almost God’s grandchild." (Inf. XI, 97-105)

    Virgil explains a central concept in Dante’s vision of Christianity: the Divine is natural, since "nature follows…the Divine Intellect and Divine Art." Man’s instinct is to follow nature and thus follow God. Consequently, anything made by man’s art is usually natural and thus somewhat like "God’s grandchild" (if man is God’s child). As a rule, then, anything that goes against nature inherently goes against God or, in other words, sins.

    Inferno Canto XII (the Seventh Circle, First Ring: the Violent against their Neighbors)
    Virgil

    [Virgil to Dante]: "But fix your eyes below, upon the valley,
    for now we near the stream of blood, where those
    who injure others violently, boil." (Inf. XII, 46-48)

    Because Dante ultimately sees violence as a distortion of nature, the landscapes of the Seventh Circle feature some twisted aspects of nature. Here, the boiling river that tortures the tyrants does not flow with water, but with blood. Thus, the violent are punished by natural forces which have been fundamentally perverted.

    Inferno Canto XIII (the Seventh Circle, Second Ring: The Violent against Themselves)
    Dante

    No green leaves in that forest, only black;
    no branches straight and smooth, but knotted, gnarled;
    no fruits were there, but briers bearing poison.
    Even those savage beasts that roam between
    Cecina and Corneto, beasts that hate
    tilled lands, do not have holts so harsh and dense. (Inf. XIII, 4-9)

    In the ring where the suicides reside, not even nature’s growing flora can flourish. Here, trees and plants that normally sprout in healthy shades of green rot to black and do not sprout nourishing fruits, but poisoned thorns. The reference to the living "beasts" between "Cecina and Corneto" implies that even these savage creatures could not survive in such a place. Nature decrees that nothing can live and grow in a place where men have taken their own lives.

    Inferno Canto XIV (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: The Violent against God)
    Dante

    Above that plain of sand, distended flakes
    of fire showered down; their fall was slow –
    as snow descends on alps when no wind blows.
    Just like the flames that Alexander saw
    in India’s hot zones, when fires fell,
    intact and to the ground, on his battalions,
    for which – wisely – he had his soldiers tramp
    the soil to see that every fire was spent
    before new flames were added to the old;
    so did the never-ending heat descend;
    with this, the sand was kindled just as tinder
    on meeting flint will flame – doubling the pain. (Inf. XIV, 28-39)

    The environment designed for punishing blasphemers perverts nature by raining fire, instead of snowflakes, to the ground. So instead of bringing relief to the sandy desert and allowing things to grow, the fiery rain increases the heat, making it eternally uncomfortable for the sinners trapped there.

    Inferno Canto XIX (the Eighth Circle, Third Pouch: Simonists)
    Dante

    [Dante to Pope Nicholas III]: "I’d utter words much heavier than these,
    because your avarice afflicts the world:
    it tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked.
    You, shepherds, the Evangelist had noticed
    when he saw her who sits upon the waters
    and realized she fornicates with kings,
    She who was born with seven heads and had
    the power and support of the ten horns,
    as long as virtue was her husband’s pleasure.
    You’ve made yourselves a god of gold and silver;
    how are you different from idolaters,
    save that they worship one and you a hundred?" (Inf. XIX, 103-113)

    In condemning the simonists, Dante paints their practices as highly perverted and unnatural. Here, "she who was born with seven heads" is pagan Rome, blessed by seven heads (representing the seven sacraments) and supported by "ten horns" (the ten commandments). Dante’s message: the Catholic Church (represented by the female Rome) only has power as long as her rich husbands, the "kings" with whom she "fornicates," decide to remain virtuous. When they disagree with the Church, they withdraw their financial support and the Church loses influence. To emphasize the Church’s corruption, Dante pictures her as a hideous monster with a writhing gaggle of seven heads, ten horns, and the rampant lust to "fornicate" with any rich man who comes her way. Not only does this undermine the spiritual purity for which the Church stands, degrading God to a material idol of "gold and silver," but also usurps the natural order of good over evil. As Dante puts it, such simony – the selling of the Divine Word for gold and silver – "tramples on the good" and "lifts up the wicked."

    Inferno Canto XX (the Eighth Circle, Fourth Pouch: Diviners, Astrologers, and Magicians)
    Dante

    As I inclined my head still more, I saw
    that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
    between the chin and where the chest begins;
    they had their faces twisted towards their haunches
    and found it necessary to walk backward,
    because they could not see ahead of them. (Inf. XX, 10-15)

    For claiming the superhuman (and thus unnatural) power of seeing the future, the magicians, diviners, and astrologers are subjected to an inversion of their natural form. Their faces, instead of gazing forward, are reversed on their shoulders so that they must face and walk backwards. Their sight has literally been reversed so that their sense of direction (and, possibly, time) is backwards.

    Inferno Canto XXVI (the Eighth Circle, Eighth Pouch: the Fraudulent Counselors)

    [Ulysses]: "And I and my companions were already
    old and slow, when we approached the narrows
    where Hercules set up his boundary stones
    that men might heed and never reach beyond;
    upon my right, I had gone past Seville,
    and on the left, already passed Ceuta.
    ‘Brothers,’ I said, ‘o you, who having crossed
    a hundred thousand dangers, reach the west,
    to this brief waking-time that still is left
    unto your senses, you must not deny
    experience of that which lies beyond
    the sun, and of the world that is unpeopled.
    Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
    you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
    but to be followers of worth and knowledge.’" (Inf. XXVI, 106-120)

    Ulysses’ words, however inspiring, urge men to reach further and achieve more than mankind, by nature, can accomplish. By bypassing the Pillars of Hercules, Ulysses’ crew transgresses the boundaries of the known world and passes into the unknown realm where mortal realms end. As if this did not exceed man’s natural boundaries and violate God’s will enough, Ulysses spurs his men to "experience…that which lies beyond the sun" in the name of "worth and knowledge." But like Nimrod’s tower of Babel and Icarus’ flight, Ulysses’ pioneering arrogantly assumes that man can reach God’s level and is thus sinful. For exceeding his nature, God punishes Ulysses by killing him and his whole crew.

    Inferno Canto XXIX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers of Metals)

    [Capocchio to Dante]: "…see that I’m the shade of that Capocchio
    whose alchemy could counterfeit fine metals
    And you, if I correctly take your measure,
    recall how apt I was at aping nature." (Inf. XXIX, 136-139)

    Though the concept of alchemy – changing other metals into gold to enhance one’s wealth – seems beneficial to mankind, it violates the stable nature of the material world. By changing one substance into another, man is imposing his art on nature and mutating it to serve his selfish ends. Such is the crime of alchemy. But what is interesting is that Capocchio relates his sinful practice to Dante’s profession, writing. He implies that writing, like alchemy is just as "apt…at aping nature." This is very true since nothing is easier to change than the flow of words and one’s verbal or textual description of something in the material world, thereby rendering language potentially as invalid as alchemy. In one of the most frightening moments of the Inferno, the legitimacy of poetry (and language in general) is called into question. This sets up one of the crucial questions of the Inferno: is writing a legitimate (or natural) art? And, if not, is one justified in using such an art for Divine justice, as Dante is doing?

  • Justice

    Inferno Canto III

    THROUGH ME THE WAY INTO THE SUFFERING CITY,
    THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE ETERNAL PAIN,
    THROUGH ME THE WAY THAT RUNS AMONG THE LOST.
    JUSTICE URGED ON MY HIGH ARTIFICER;
    MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY,
    THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND THE PRIMAL LOVE.
    BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS
    ABANDON EVERY HOPE, WHO ENTER HERE.
    These words – their aspect was obscure – I read
    inscribed above a gateway… (Inf. III, 1-11)

    Here, Hell’s makers are listed as Justice, Divine Authority, Wisdom, and Love. This means that despite the cruel and unusual nature of the sinners’ punishments, they are just and even spring from love.

    Inferno Canto V (the Second Circle: the Lustful)

    I reached a place where every light is muted,
    which bellows like the sea beneath a tempest,
    when it is battered by opposing winds.
    The hellish hurricane, which never rests,
    drives on the spirits with its violence:
    wheeling and pounding, it harasses them.
    When they come up against the ruined slope,
    then there are cries and wailing and lament,
    and there they curse the force of the divine.
    I learned that those who undergo this torment
    are damned because they sinned within the flesh,
    subjecting reason to the rule of lust. (Inf. V, 28-39)

    In life, the lustful lacked the willpower to restrain their sexual desires, and "subject[ed their human] reason to the rule of lust," Like animals. Thus, in the afterlife, they are similarly subjected to a powerful force, the winds of a "hellish hurricane." And again, they cannot focus their human will and reason enough to gain control of their movements.

    Inferno Canto VI (the Third Circle: the Gluttonous)
    Dante

    At which I said: "And after the great sentence –
    o master – will these torments grow, or else
    be less, or will they be just as intense?"
    And he to me: "Remember now your science,
    which says that when a thing has more perfection,
    so much the greater is its pain or pleasure.
    Though these accursed sinners never shall
    attain the true perfection, yet they can
    expect to be more perfect then than now." (Inf. VI, 103-111)

    This is a strange case of Christian logic. The more perfect (or godly) a being is, "so much the greater is its pain of pleasure." According to medieval beliefs, when the Judgment Day comes, sinners’ souls will be reunited with their bodies, rendering them more whole or perfect. Thus, as more perfect beings subjected to Hell’s torment, their pain will only intensify. In Dante’s eyes, this is because the sinners ignored their souls (or minds) and fulfilled their physical desires, just as animals instinctively do, at the price of corrupting their spirits.

    Inferno Canto VII (the Fourth Circle: the Avaricious and Prodigal; the Fifth Circle: the Wrathful and Sullen)

    Here, more than elsewhere, I saw multitudes
    to every side of me; their howls were loud
    while, wheeling weights, they used their chests to push.
    They struck against each other; at that point,
    each turned around and, wheeling back those weights,
    cried out, ‘Why do you hoard?" "Why do you squander?"
    So did they move around the sorry circle
    from left and right to the opposing point;
    again, again they cried their chant of scorn;
    and so, when each of them had changed positions,
    he circled halfway back to his next joust. (Inf. VII, 25-36)

    Because avarice (or greed) and prodigality (or stinginess) are simply extremes on the same spectrum, both types of sinners are punished in the same circle. Since they had faulty relations with the material world, either hoarding or squandering their money, they are abused in Hell by the weights which they must physically haul around. Apparently, they have not learned their lesson, either because the avaricious cannot understand the prodigal or vice versa.

    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "Wedged in the slime, they say: ‘We had been sullen
    in the sweet air that’s gladdened by the sun;
    we bore the mist of sluggishness in us:
    now we are bitter in the blackened mud.’
    This hymn they have to gurgle in their gullets,
    because they cannot speak it in full words." (Inf. VII, 121-126)

    In life, the sullen refused to engage in life’s joys, appreciating neither the "sweet air" nor the light of the sun. Dante also plays on the idea of the sullen resentfully refusing to speak. As punishment, then, they are immersed in "blackened mud" – away from the "sweet air that’s gladdened by the sun" – which inhibits their ability to speak and forces them to gurgle out their words.

    Inferno Canto IX (the gate of Dis)
    Dante

    …the sepulchers make all the plain uneven,
    so they did here on every side, except
    that here the sepulchers were much more harsh;
    for flames were scattered through the tombs, and these
    had kindled all of them to glowing heat;
    no artisan could ask for hotter iron.
    The lid of every tomb was lifted up,
    and from each tomb such sorry cries arose
    as could come only from the sad and hurt.
    And I: "Master, who can these people be
    who, buried in great chests of stone like these,
    must speak by way of sighs in agony?"
    And he to me: "Here are arch-heretics
    and those who followed them, from every sect;
    those tombs are much more crowded than you think." (Inf. IX, 115-129)

    Heresy, which Dante defines as the simple denial of man’s immortal soul, is ironically punished with the obvious presupposition that, yes, the soul is immortal because it writhes in pain for all of eternity. Those who deny that Hell even exists are appropriately punished with burning, the most familiar image in Hell. As a metaphor for life and warmth, fire ironically torments those who reject the idea of life after death. Locked into their tombs, the burning heretics are an ironic reminder that the dead do indeed lead an afterlife.

    Inferno Canto X (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)

    [Farinata]: "We see, even as men who are farsighted,
    those things," he said, "that are remote from us;
    the Highest Lord allots us that much light.
    But when events draw near or are, our minds
    are useless; were we not informed by others,
    we should know nothing of your human state." (Inf. X, 100-105)

    Following the philosophy of the Epicureans, who deny the existence of an afterlife and thus live with a "seize the day" mentality, the heretics make their decisions based purely on the whims of the present, with no regard for the future. In Hell, then, such heretics cannot see the present state of affairs in the mortal world. They can only see into the future, a time period that they ignored while alive.

    Inferno Canto XIII (the Seventh Circle, Second Ring: The Violent against Themselves)

    [Pier della Vigna]: … "When the savage spirit quits
    the body from which it has torn itself,
    then Minos sends it to the seventh maw.
    It falls into the wood, and there’s no place
    to which it is allotted, but wherever
    fortune has flung that soul, that is the space
    where, even as a grain of spelt, it sprouts.
    It rises as a sapling, a wild plant;
    and then the Harpies, feeing on its leaves,
    cause pain and for that pain provide a vent.
    Like other souls, we shall seek out the flesh
    that we have left, but none of us shall wear it;
    it is not right for any man to have
    what he himself has cast aside. We’ll drag
    our bodies here, they’ll hang in this sad wood,
    each on the stump of its vindictive shade." (Inf. XIII, 93-108)

    Suicides (those who have committed violence against themselves), by rejecting the gift of human life, renounce their right to the human body. For such souls, "there’s no place / to which it is allotted, but wherever fortune has flung [it]," because suicides make the presumption of changing God’s plan for them by taking their own lives, thus forfeiting their rightful place in God’s schema. Entrapped in the forms of trees, rooted forever in a single spot, the suicides basically endure a living death, in which they are helpless against their attackers, the Harpies. Even when Judgment Day comes, they will not be allowed to reunite with their human bodies, but must watch as they hang just out of reach.

    Inferno Canto XIV (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: The Violent against God)
    Dante

    Above that plain of sand, distended flakes
    of fire showered down; their fall was slow –
    as snow descends on alps when no wind blows.
    Just like the flames that Alexander saw
    in India’s hot zones, when fires fell,
    intact and to the ground, on his battalions,
    for which – wisely – he had his soldiers tramp
    the soil to see that every fire was spent
    before new flames were added to the old;
    so did the never-ending heat descend;
    with this, the sand was kindled just as tinder
    on meeting flint will flame – doubling the pain. (Inf. XIV, 28-39)

    Those violent against God and nature (the blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers) receive not the nourishing and life-giving rain from Heaven, but the opposite – a killing cascade of fire-flakes. The falling flames are not extinguished on contact with the ground, but their heat is absorbed and radiated by the hot sand, "doubling the pain" of those who would offend God.

    Inferno Canto XVIII (the Eighth Circle, First Pouch: Panderers and Seducers; the Second Pouch: Flatterers)
    Dante

    We heard the people whine in the next pouch
    and heard them as they snorted with their snouts;
    we heard them use their palms to beat themselves.
    And exhalations, rising from below,
    stuck to the banks, encrusting them with mold,
    and so waged war against both eyes and nose…
    This was the place we reached; the ditch beneath
    held people plunged in excrement that seemed
    as if it had been poured from human privies. (Inf. XVIII, 103-114)

    In life, the flatterers wheedled others with false praise to achieve their own filthy ends. Their words, spoken insincerely, amount spiritually to rubbish. Thus, they wallow in their own excrement, which is so squalid that their very "exhalations, rising from below….encrust them with mold."

    Along its [Malebolge’s] bottom, naked sinners moved,
    to our side of the middle, facing us;
    beyond that, they moved with us, but more quickly –
    as, in the year of Jubilee, the Romans,
    confronted by great crowds, contrived a plan
    that let the people pass across the bridge,
    for to one side went all who had their eyes
    upon the Castle, heading toward St. Peter’s,
    and to the other, those who faced the Mount.
    Both left and right, along the somber rock,
    I saw horned demons with enormous whips,
    who lashed those spirits cruelly from behind.
    Ah, how their first strokes made those sinners lift
    their heels! Indeed no sinner waited for
    a second stroke to fall – or for a third. (Inf. XVIII, 25-39)

    In the first pouch of the Eighth Circle, the panderers (or pimps) and seducers march in ranks, hustled along by demons whipping their backs. In life, these sinners manipulated others into sinful acts with their words. So in Hell, they are themselves manipulated and moved by fierce demons.

    Inferno Canto XIX (the Eighth Circle, Third Pouch: Simonists)
    Dante

    Along the sides and down along the bottom,
    I saw that livid rock was perforated:
    the openings were all one width and round.
    They did not seem to me less broad or more
    than those that in my handsome San Giovanni
    were made to serve as basins for baptizing…
    Out from the mouth of each hole there emerged
    a sinner’s feet and so much of his legs
    up to the thigh; the rest remained within.
    Both soles of every sinner were on fire;
    their joints were writhing with such violence,
    they would have severed withes and ropes of grass. (Inf. XIX, 13-27)

    The image of the dishonest clergymen buried upside-down in the rock with their protruding feet seared by flames is recognizable to the devout Christian as an inversion of the Pentecost. In this feast of salvation, the Apostles descended with flaming haloes around their heads. That the simonists are physically inverted, with flames at their feet, demonstrates metaphorically that their practices oppose those of the Pentecost. When the Apostles descended, all their followers were filled with the spirit of the Holy Ghost and began speaking and prophesying in other tongues – basically affirming the truth of the Word. (Some scholars have read the Pentecost as a reversal of the Tower of Babel, a reunification of all the different human languages.) Simonists, on the other hand, sell the Word for profit, as absolution from sin, thus putting a price on the Word and denying its sanctity.

    Inferno Canto XX (the Eighth Circle, Fourth Pouch: Diviners, Astrologers, and Magicians)
    Dante

    As I inclined my head still more, I saw
    that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
    between the chin and where the chest begins;
    they had their faces twisted towards their haunches
    and found it necessary to walk backward,
    because they could not see ahead of them. (Inf. XX, 10-15)

    Dante’s issue with diviners, astrologers, and magicians is based more on the idea that they are charlatans – unable to do what they claim – than on the actual concept of seeing into the future. Either way, their punishment fits their crime. Instead of being blessed with the ability to see and move forward in time, they have their heads turned backwards on their shoulders so that they can only see behind them and must therefore walk and look backward, both literally and metaphorically, into the past. This is the punishment for claiming to divine the future.

    Inferno Canto XXI (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators)
    Dante

    …so, not by fire but by the art of God,
    below there boiled a thick and tarry mass
    that covered all the banks with clamminess.
    I saw it, but I could not see within it;
    no thing was visible but boiling bubbles,
    the swelling of the pitch; and then it settled…
    And then in back of us I saw a black
    demon as he came racing up the crags.
    Ah, he was surely barbarous to see!
    And how relentless seemed to me his acts!
    His wings were open and his feet were lithe;
    he had slung a sinner, upward from the thighs;
    in front, the demon gripped him by the ankles…
    He threw the sinner down, then wheeled along
    the stony cliff: no mastiff’s ever been
    unleashed with so much haste to chase a thief.
    The sinner plunged, then surfaced, black with pitch;
    but now the demons, from beneath the bridge,
    shouted: "The Sacred Face has no place here;
    here we swim differently than in the Serchio;
    if you don’t want to feel our grappling hooks,
    don’t try to lift yourself above that ditch." (Inf. XXI, 16-51)

    This passage represents contrapasso on a number of levels. As barrators, these corrupt politicians carried on their crimes in secret; thus, the pitch in which they are immersed is so dark that Dante "[can]not see within it." Tar, as a sticky substance, here represents another link that binds individual human beings to one another (like language, love, and money). By dishonestly buying and selling political offices, the barrators compromise the cohesion of the political system. Also, the barrators’ plight – unlike many other sinners’ – is not depicted in sympathetic terms, but in a comedic, almost slapstick, manner. The demons’ verbal taunting of the sinners illustrates this. The irreverent tone here suggests a personal vendetta against barrators on Dante’s part, which is plausible given his alleged history with grafters.

    Inferno Canto XXIII (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators; Sixth Pouch: the Hypocrites)

    Below that point we found a painted people,
    who moved about with lagging steps, in circles,
    weeping, with features tired and defeated.
    And they were dressed in cloaks with cowls so low
    they fell before their eyes, of that same cut
    that’s used to make the clothes for Cluny’s monks
    Outside, these cloaks were gilded and they dazzled;
    but inside they were all of lead, so heavy
    that Frederick’s capes were straw compared to them.
    A tiring mantle for eternity! (Inf. XXIII, 58-67)

    The hypocrites or Jovial Friars are emblems of deception. Their hellish attire accurately reveals their two-timing natures: their gilded cloaks flash attractively on the outside, but their inner linings are crafted from lead, the heaviest and most worthless metal and the symbolic opposite of gold. Such garb demonstrates that while hypocrites seem noble and worthy at first glance, their true characters prove woefully dissolute, not meriting all the praise they reap.

    Inferno Canto XXV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)
    Dante

    Attacking one of them, it pierced right through
    the part where we first take our nourishment;
    and then it fell before him at full length…
    The serpent stared at him, he at the serpent;
    one through his wound, the other through his mouth
    were smoking violently; their smoke met…
    Let Ovid now be silent…
    I do not envy him; he never did
    transmute two natures, face to face, so that
    both forms were ready to exchange their matter.
    These were the ways they answered to each other:
    the serpent split its tail into a fork;
    the wounded sinner drew his steps together.
    The legs and then the thighs along with them
    so fastened to each other that the juncture
    soon left no sign that was discernible.
    Meanwhile the cleft tail took upon itself
    the form the other gradually lost
    its skin grew soft, the other’s skin grew hard…
    And while the smoke veils each with a new color,
    and now breeds hair upon the skin of one,
    just as it strips the hair from off the other,
    the one rose up, the other fell; and yet
    they never turned aside their impious eyelamps,
    beneath which each of them transformed his snout:…
    his tongue, which had before been whole and fit
    for speech, now cleaves; the other’s tongue, which had
    been forked, now closes up; and the smoke stops.
    The soul that had become an animal,
    now hissing, hurried off along the valley;
    the other one, behind him, speaks and spits. (Inf. XXV, 85-138)

    Thieves fail to recognize the boundaries between their own property and that of others. To Dante, this indicates a basic flaw in their humanity; they lack the human reason to distinguish between what is theirs and what belongs to others. This blatant misuse of their intellects renders them more animal than human. Thus, in the Eighth Circle, they mutate into hideous pseudo-serpentine creatures. And because they did not honor the boundaries of property in life, they "exchange their matter" with each other, merging and morphing into the bodies of other thieves. In this way, they can hardly retain their own identities and have thus come to embody their sin.

    Inferno Canto XXVI (the Eighth Circle, Eighth Pouch: the Fraudulent Counselors)
    Virgil

    [Virgil]: "You two who move as one within the flame,
    if I deserved of you while I still lived,
    if I deserved of you much or a little
    when in the world I wrote my noble lines,
    do not move on; let one of you retell
    where, having gone astray, he found his death."
    The greater horn within that ancient flame
    began to sway and tremble, murmuring
    just like a fire that struggles in the wind;
    and then he waved his flame-tip back and forth
    as if it were a tongue that tried to speak…(Inf. XXVI, 79-89)

    For giving false or malicious advice, the Fraudulent Counselors must struggle torturously to speak even a single word in Hell. The pain they no doubt feel in their shrouds of flame not only indicates their guilty spirits, but makes it difficult for them to speak. Also, because the sinners are ‘twinned’ here – a single flame containing two sinners -- Dante suggests that fraud affects not only the individual who practices it, but also others; it is a rebounding sin.

    Inferno Canto XXVIII (the Eighth Circle, Ninth Pouch: the Sowers of Scandal and Schism)
    Dante

    [Bertran de Born]: "Because I severed those so joined, I carry –
    alas – my brain dissevered from its source,
    which is within my trunk. And thus, in me
    one sees the law of counter-penalty." (Inf. XXVIII, 139-142)

    Dante’s only explicit mention of contrapasso, or "the law of counter-penalty," occurs late in the poem. Perhaps because this canto best illustrates the concept of contrapasso, Dante mentions it here. Indeed, Bertran de Born’s grotesque punishment – having his head separated from his body for pitting a king and his son, the prince, against each other – neatly depicts the way in which contrapasso functions.

    No barrel, even though it’s lost a hoop
    or end-piece, ever gapes as one whom I
    saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart:
    his bowels hung between his legs, one saw
    his vitals and the miserable sack
    that makes of what we swallow excrement.
    While I was all intent on watching him,
    he looked at me, and with his hands he spread
    his chest and said: "See how I split myself!" (Inf. XXVIII, 22-30)

    Dante’s idealistic vision of man living in peace and unity informs his depiction of the ninth pouch. Because these sowers of scandal and schism have caused social discord and divided people into warring factions, their bodies are now sliced in half. Mohammed, featured here, suffers disembowelment from a laceration that runs vertically down his entire chest. Others endure slit throats, dismembered hands or ears, and even decapitation. The dissent they’ve triggered in their lifetimes comes back to haunt them in their afterlives.

    Inferno Canto XXIX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers of Metals)
    Dante

    I do not think that there was greater grief
    in seeing all Aegina’s people sick
    (then, when the air was so infected that
    all animals, down to the little worm,
    collapsed; and afterward, as poets hold
    to be the certain truth, those ancient peoples
    received their health again through seed of ants)
    than I felt when I saw, in that dark valley,
    the spirits languishing in scattered heaps.
    Some lay upon their bellies, some upon
    the shoulders of another spirit, some
    crawled on all fours along that squalid road.
    We journeyed step by step without a word,
    watching the listening to those sick souls,
    who had not strength enough to lift themselves. (Inf. XXIX, 58-72)

    Since all the falsifiers suffer a number of diseases which distort their bodies, Dante implies that blatant lying is as serious a condition as an actual malady. If a healthy soul always speaks the truth, these sinners must indeed lie through their teeth since they are so sick they "[have] not the strength enough to lift themselves." Here more than anywhere else, Dante attacks the infectious, social aspect of fraud. Each of the different types of falsifiers corrupts a particular bond that unites individual human beings. Alchemists compromise the material stability of the world, falsifiers of persons degrade men’s relationships with each other, counterfeiters compromise the integrity of currency, and liars debase language. All these falsifiers corrupt the natural fabric of reality, and thus have their naturalness compromised by the scourge of disease.

    Inferno Canto XXXII (the Ninth Circle, First Ring Caina: Traitors to their Kin, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to their Homeland or Party)

    And as the croaking frog sits with its muzzle
    above the water, in the season when
    the peasant woman often dreams of gleaning,
    so, living in the ice, up to the place
    where shame can show itself, were those sad shades,
    whose teeth were chattering with notes like storks’.
    Each kept his face bent downward steadily;
    their mouths bore witness to the cold they felt,
    just as their eyes proclaimed their sorry hearts. (Inf. XXXII, 31-39)

    Immersion in ice is the perfect punishment for traitors for a number of reasons. The coldness of ice signals the lack of warmth and humanity present in the traitors’ hearts that has allowed them to betray their peers. Also, ice immobilizes the sinners so they cannot move to betray their fellows, as they did in life. The only part of them which can move is their mouths, which they use to bear "witness to the cold they [feel]."

    Inferno Canto XXXIV (the Ninth Circle, Fourth Ring Judecca: Traitors against their Benefactors)
    Dante

    If he [Lucifer] was once as handsome as he now
    is ugly and, despite that, raised his brows
    against his Maker, one can understand
    how every sorrow has its source in him!
    I marveled when I saw that, on his head,
    he had three faces: one – in front – bloodred;
    and then another two that, just above
    the midpoint of each shoulder, joined the first…
    Beneath each face of his, two wings spread out,
    as broad as suited so immense a bird:
    I’ve never seen a ship with sails so wide.
    They had no feathers, but were fashioned like
    a bat’s; and he was agitating them,
    so that three winds made their way out from him –
    and all Cocytus froze before those winds.
    He wept out of six eyes; and down three chins,
    tears gushed together with a bloody froth.
    Within each mouth – he used it like a grinder –
    with gnashing teeth he tore to bits a sinner,
    so that he brought much pain to three at once. (Inf. XXXIV, 34-57)

    Lucifer, once God’s favorite and the most beautiful angel of them all, "now is ugly" because of the benighted sin he committed against God, betraying the one who created him out of pride. Lucifer is the ultimate traitor and, as such, is trapped in the earth as surely as the lesser traitors; there he creates the freezing winds that trap the Ninth Circle sinners in ice. Lucifer’s immobility is more profound than the others’ because he creates it himself: his "agitating" wings beat to help him escape from his prison, but all in vain. His image too – of three grotesque heads – is a parody of the Holy Trinity. The three vilest traitors suffer their punishment by eternally being chewed by Lucifer’s three heads. This act of eating is sinisterly twisted; it’s not used to gain nourishment and sustain oneself, but instead to deliberately cause pain. Finally, the description of Lucifer’s biting teeth as "a grinder" reinforces – along with the rhythmic beating of his wings – the concept of Lucifer as a massive machine: mechanical, soulless, and essentially anticlimactic.