Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto 9 – Immortal Mortality

Canto 9

Once again we see that Reason, even as fine as Virgil, cannot accomplish all that one must in order to overcome evil. Dante’s fear heightened by Virgil’s, who assures him that he has been as low as Judecca – the lowest circle in the Inferno where we will eventually meet the three worst traitors of all time- and back once before. Yet still he trembles. Worse, three demons of extraordinary evil taunt the travellers. They are these Furies – tormentors of the guilty and remorseful (apt guardians of lower hell). Even more dreadful, they call upon Medusa to turn the men to stone and keep them trapped in hell forever! Dante shields his eyes, but Virgil covers even Dante’s hands to keep him safe. There are some evils that are just too tempting to peek at!

But the tables are turned when the Messenger comes. Virgil warns Dante to bow down – for this one The sinning should flee from his presence and he arrives with little more than a distracted annoyance at the dirty air. He scoffs at the evil beings trying to stop the travellers, taunting them for their ridiculous behavior, especially given the wounds Cerebus still suffers for doing much the same thing (with Hercules). He warns that the Throne from Heaven will only add to their suffering for such insolence. He waves open the gate with little effort, then simply returns across the marsh. Dante and Virgil move forward without fear.

Inside the gate of Dis, they come to a vast cemetery with open, burning iron tombs. This is the place of the heretics – deniers of immortality. Like the pagans above Hell proper, these are heretics who were blind to the truth. Denying immortality, they will now suffer eternal mortality in the tombs of the dead (later we learn that the lids will be closed on Judgment Day). Thus upper and lower Hell each begin with the souls suffering from culpable blindness. Turning from the light one is given only leads to worse sins, and the denial of truth for these souls leads to the lower sins mentioned by Paul in Rom. 1:18-32. While the vices above come from unrestrained passions, those that fall below the poets are against nature itself. When one cannot tell the difference between a creature and The Creator, between nature and super-nature, unnatural acts are inevitable (“We become what we worship.”)

This is one of the few sins in the Inferno that is distinctively Christian. Most of the others are basic vices known prior to and apart from special revelation.  This may indicate that for Dante (the author), the natural virtues are necessary as well as the supernatural (faith, hope, and love). In other terms, morality revealed by nature (Rom. 1) is part of our judgment as well as the laws of special revelation (Rom. 2). Hence, God’s grace is necessary (Rom. 3 et al.). Paul warns against this specific heresy in 1 Cor. 15 – probably the most important passage in Scripture- where we discover both that Christianity is founded on Christ’s immortality, it is also evidenced by Christ’s immortality – an immortality that believers will enjoy as their own forever. Thus, it is a special heresy revealed only via special revelation.

The poets bear right for the first of only two times they will do so in the Inferno (each at a major architectural division – the next is at Gerryon’s chasm), and enter the city of Satan.

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2 thoughts on “Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto 9 – Immortal Mortality

  1. The poets actually bear “right” only twice at the two sections you have mentioned. The rest of their journey is progressed by bearing left.

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