Inferno Canto XXXIV (the Ninth Circle, Fourth Ring Judecca: Traitors against their Benefactors)
"Vexilla Regis prodeunt inferni" opens the final canto. It's Latin and means "the banners of the King of Hell draw closer."
Appropriately, these words are spoken by Virgil, who—as you know—is Roman and speaks Latin.
He tells Dante to keep his eyes peeled for the big cahuna, Lucifer himself.
So our hero strains his eyes through the darkness to glimpse something like a whirling windmill in the distance. It’s whirling because of that infernal wind. Remember that? Now, it’s so strong that Dante has to use Virgil as a windbreaker.
In this final region of Hell, all the sinners are completely submerged in ice. Dante can see them frozen in all their funny positions beneath him.
Virgil, deciding to milk Dante’s awe for all it’s worth, stops to announce that this is Dis. And Dante will have to be brave.
Dante now turns to his reader and tells us how he froze with fear, to the point where he almost couldn’t write.
He tries to convey what it feels like to be there: "I did not die, and I was not alive."
He now witnesses Lucifer in all his glory. "Glory" meaning size. Lucifer is BIG. So big that Dante claims he himself is closer in size to a giant than a giant is to Lucifer. Big beyond imagination.
Dante wonders how Lucifer could possibly have been beautiful once… because he’s nauseatingly ugly now.
Observe: Lucifer has three heads—one blood red, one yellow, one black. Underneath each head flap, a pair of enormous bat-like wings. Bingo! This is the source of the freezing wind.
Out of his six eyes, Lucifer is crying. His tears fall into his three mouths which are chewing a bloody pulp.
Lucifer’s favorite snack? Sinners. Namely traitors to their benefactors. In the central mouth is a man clawing at the air in his agony because his back is completely stripped of skin.
Virgil interjects that this is Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Jesus.
Virgil continues: the man in the black mouth is Brutus, who betrayed Julius Caesar.
Brutus writhes in pain but keeps silent.
The last sinner being eaten is Cassius, who also betrayed Caesar.
It’s time to go. That’s it, folks, says Virgil. He seems in quite a hurry to leave.
But it’s not easy to leave Hell. It requires Dante to jump on Virgil’s back and hold on for dear life as Virgil times his jump, leaps onto Lucifer, and rappels down using the devil’s hairy hide as ropes.
When they reach Lucifer’s unmentionables, Virgil switches it up. Instead of climbing down, he turns around and begins to climb up Lucifer’s legs.
Dante freaks out because he thinks Virgil’s lost his mind and is taking them back to Hell.
But Virgil, panting, reassures him. They are indeed leaving the Inferno.
Because Virgil isn’t in great shape, he drops Dante off on a rocky crevice for a moment. As he’s catching his breath.
Dante leans out to look back up toward Lucifer’s torso, but the world has turned upside down; instead of Lucifer’s chest, he sees Lucifer’s legs.
Virgil irritably snaps at Dante to get up and get going because they’ve got a long way to go and it’s getting late. They start walking.
As they go, Dante finally asks the question that’s on all of our minds. What just happened? Why are we suddenly upside-down but actually right-side up? And what time is it?
Virgil, rolling his eyes at Dante’s questions, explains that they’re no longer in the northern hemisphere. When they passed Lucifer’s privates, gravity reversed itself (so Virgil had to turn around to keep going the same direction), and now they are right under Jerusalem, where Christ died.
(Note: medieval thinkers thought that Lucifer’s body spanned the diameter of the earth.)
Virgil goes on to explain the time of day, which also was switched around. When in the northern hemisphere it’s morning, it’s evening in the southern hemisphere. So it’s now dawn here.
Virgil just gives us information we might need later: here, in the southern hemisphere, there’s nothing but ocean. You know why, Dante? Because when Lucifer fell from Heaven, he fell into the southern hemisphere before lodging inside the earth. All the land there got so scared of him that they all picked up their landy legs and ran to the northern hemisphere, leaving only water behind.
Dante has stopped listening in favor of exploring his surroundings.
He finds that he and Virgil are in a cave with a burbling stream in it (the Lethe). To his delight, the slope is nice and easy.
So our dynamic duo heroically follows this stream back to the surface of the world, not stopping to rest.
They emerge under God’s great sky to see the stars.
Having literally gone to Hell and back, Inferno ends.