Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Heart of the Inferno

Shivering violently in the chill wind, Dante and Virgil ventured onward, closer and closer to very centre of the Inferno. Leaving the deranged shouting of Count Ugolino far behind (for the previous episode in the story of the Inferno, please click here), our poet could not veil his fear, try though he might, for he was grimly aware that somewhere down here, the greatest of all traitors must lie - Lucifer himself...

Dante and Virgil upon Cocytus
Painting by Gustave Doré
After a precarious march further along the frozen lake of Cocytus, Dante noticed that the souls appeared to be fixed deeper into the ice, with all but their tortured faces swallowed by Cocytus. The souls were in agony, for in their plight they wept, but the sheer cold had frozen their tears, as though each bore a visor of crystal over their faces. One such soul gave a muffled cry, and begged our pilgrims to break the ice from his stricken face. Dante, hearing his voice, called back, "If this is what you want, tell me your name; and if I do not help you, may I be forced to drop beneath this ice!" The sinner replied that he was Friar Alberigo, and that he paid the price in Hell even whilst his body still lived on, far above. Years before, at a banquet, he had ordered the deaths of his own brother and nephew. The Friar had called for some figs, and at this prearranged signal, his guards had rushed in and slain his kin. For his heinous betrayal of his guests and family, his immortal soul had been cast by Fate into Hell, as a demon took possession of his mortal form. This penultimate area of Cocytus was Tolomea, Round Three of the Ninth Circle of Hell, to which are condemned those who violate the holy bond between a host and his guest. Unlike all other regions of Hell, the sinners here can well still be alive on Earth, yet bound too, in unholy Cocytus. The Friar speaks too of Branca D'Oria, a fellow sinner bound in the ice, a man whom Dante knew in life. Stunned at this news, and appalled at his crimes, Dante ignored the Friar's plea to clear the ice from his eyes, and sternly walked on.

Photograph taken by the author in the Baptistery
of St. John, Florence
At last, after braving all the perils of the Inferno, Dante had now arrived at the final lair of evil, Judecca, the Fourth Round of the Ninth Circle of Hell. To here are banished the very gravest of sinners, those who have betrayed their own benefactors. In the distant fog, a gargantuan outline began to take form, just as a mountain emerges from a thick mist. The deathly cold gale was so intense that Dante held his head down, as his eyes fell upon a morbid sight. For here, the souls of the damned were frozen deep within Cocytus, their condemned bodies held in suspended animation, in cruelly contorted positions, for as far as the eye could see into the depths of the lake. Completely submerged in ice, no sound came from their lips, but for frantic whimpering destined never to be heard. Dante shuddered at the eerie silence, but Virgil took his arm and led him on. The time had come. Bracing him, Virgil consoled his fellow poet:

                            " This is he, this is Dis; this is the place
                               that calls for all the courage you have in you.

                               How chilled and nerveless, Reader, I felt then;
                               do not ask me - I cannot write about it -
                               there are no words to tell you how I felt.

                               I did not die - I was not living either!
                               Try to imagine, if you can imagine,
                               me there, deprived of life and death at once... "
                                           - DANTE LOOKS UPON THE FACE OF SATAN

Satan Bound
Engraving by Gustave Doré
The mist lifted, and there, in all his infernal glory, lay Lucifer himself, bound to the waist by the icy clutches of Cocytus. Once the most beautiful of all the angels of Heaven, Lucifer, the Morning Star, was perfect in all things but for the most terrible of things, his pride. Refusing to bow to the Son of God, he dared to openly challenge God for the throne of Heaven, and open war thundered across the vaults of Heaven (for more about this, please click here). Defeated, he, along with the one third of the angelic host that had sided with him, were cast out of Heaven, and hurled to ruinous perdition in Hell. Taking the new name of Satan, as one of only two beings to have committed open treachery against God, he now endured an eternity of retribution for his crimes, at the very Pit of Hell. Dante stood transfixed, overcome with awe at the sight of him. Nothing could have prepared him for the colossal being now bound before him. "My height is closer to the height of giants than theirs is to the length of his great arms", Dante remarks. The former archangel towered high above Cocytus, even though his body from the waist down stretched far below the surface. From his titanic head, three faces burst angrily forth, each holding a sinner tight in its jaws. A pair of vast, bat like wings lay fixed below each, the pure white plumage that once adorned them having been burned away after his treachery against the Most High. Tears flowed from his blazing eyes, tears of rage mingled with grief at his lost Paradise. Six streams of tears flowed down his body, mixing with the blood dripping from his mouth. Still he sought to escape his infernal prison, as he violently flapped his enormous wings, desperate to break free of Cocytus. But in his pride, he was blind to the reality that the icy winds generated by his wings merely prolonged his suffering, constantly freezing the waters of the lake.

In the jaws of the left face, one as black as the night, a sinner convulsed in desperation. Virgil revealed to Dante his identity as Marcus Junius Brutus, the man who drove the blade into Julius Caesar, betraying his ruler, and the united Italy that he brought. In the jaws of the right face, one yellow as sulphur, another sinner jerked in pain. He was Gaius Cassius Longinus, a fellow conspirator of Brutus, and another of the assassins of Caesar. But in the central face, one red with fury, was the only other soul apart from Satan himself who had directly betrayed God, all for thirty pieces of silver - Judas Iscariot. The teeth of Satan crunched down upon his twitching body without end, but he also suffered another brutal torture, as the claws of the devil slashed open his body, tearing the flesh asunder.

Dante gazes upon Mount Purgatory
Painting by Bronzino 
The grisly sight caused a ripple of nausea in Dante, and Virgil saw that the time had come to leave the Inferno at last, though alas there was only one way to leave. Waiting for the opportune moment, Virgil seized Dante's arm and dashed forwards, latching onto the tangled and matted hair that grew on Satan's sides. Dante held on for dear life to Virgil's shoulder, as the great Roman poet descended down and down, past the surface of freezing Cocytus. Then, just as the two pilgrim reached Satan's thigh, the world seemed to Dante to turn on its head. Virgil adjusted his grip, and turned to face the feet of the devil, and began to climb. Puzzled, Dante held on still. At last, they came to a rocky cavern, and the two stopped for a rest. Glancing back, there stood the two towering legs of Satan, bursting forth into the air. For they had passed the very core of the cosmos, and gravity had turned on its head. Virgil explained that Satan had been thrown down to Hell with such force that he had smashed his way through the Earth, and now lay frozen in the same position he had fallen, many millennia ago. The very cavern they sat in now was caused when the land had been forced upward by the Morning Star's fall. Eager to put as much distance between themselves and Satan as possible, the two set off together along the rising road, in darkness. After what seemed an age, Dante spotted something that seemed more glorious than anything he had seen for an age. Stars! They had done it, they had reached the surface at last. But for Dante, the adventure had only just begun. Ahead lay a vast mountain, towering high. The Mountain of Purgatory...

With this, the story of the Inferno comes to an end, but the Divine Comedy has only begun, as Dante slowly makes his way toward the ultimate destination, the light of God in Heaven itself. The Inferno, however, has become legendary in its own right, and immortalised Dante as the greatest of all Italian poets, and a father of Western literature. Written in short and easily read chapters, or cantos as they are called, the Inferno is a remarkable read, as engaging today as it was when Dante wrote it as an exile from his native Florence, in the early years of the fourteenth century. Few things have been written which so emphatically warn of the consequences of evil...

The Inferno is readily, and easily available from Amazon, and is more than worthy of a position on your shelf:

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
Dante: Inferno (Penguin Classics)
(A translation which retains much of the poetic meter, with good illustrations and notes, as well as the original Italian alongside the English)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Divine Comedy (Oxford World's Classics)
(A combined translation of all three parts of the Divine Comedy; the Inferno, the Purgatorio and the Paradisio, all in a highly accessible style)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Divine Comedy: Volume 1: Inferno (Penguin Classics) (Pt. 1)
(A translation which retains much of the poetic meter, with good illustrations and notes, as well as the original Italian alongside the English)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Divine Comedy (Oxford World's Classics)
(A combined translation of all three parts of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno, the Purgatorio and the Paradisio, all in a highly accessible style)


  1. Finally! Have been waiting for your conclusion of the Inferno. I tip my hat to you, good sir. Well played :)

    1. Greetings Marco!

      I am delighted that you enjoyed it! Tip thy hat to Dante good sir, he is the master! Incidentally, I am currently in Dante's home city! Thanks for your kind words!

  2. Lucifer, Ouyar , Chameron, Aliseon, Mandousin, Premy, Oriet,
    Naydru, Esmony, Eparinesoni, Estiot, Dumosson, Danochar, Casmiel,
    Hayras, Fabelleronthou, Sodirno, Peatham, Venite, Venite,
    LUCIFER. Shemhamforash!