Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto 33, Circle 9 – From Satan to the Stars

Canto 33: Circle 9 – Judecca

 “Now see the face of Dis! This is the place where you must arm your soul against all dread.”

Here is the bottom, the last circle of the last circle of Hell: Judecca. Not to be confused with any personal or national terms referring to Judaism, Judecca is named after Judas Iscariot – the worst of human sinners, who betrayed the ultimate benefactor, Jesus Christ. Thus, this region punishes Treachery against Benefactors, where sinners here are completely sealed under the ice in various postures – some seated, others upside down, some twisted in upon themselves. Because of their state, Dante cannot converse with, or name, any of them. The real interest here is Satan himself.

Virgil announces their arrival with a distorted hymn originally written to celebrate the coming of the True Cross which is sung on Good Friday at the uncovering of the cross in liturgical worship. Virgil adds “of Hell” to the opening line, “On march the banners of the king.” His sarcasm points out the fact that the king of Hell is, in actuality, going nowhere – for Satan himself is frozen in the center of the lake of ice.

Satan is not completely underneath the ice, however. Frozen to his waist, the beast is free to move his limbs and wings. In fact, it is the beating of his six bat-like wings that causes the wind which freezes the waters. Even in Hell, Satan continually seeks to fly up to God’s rightful throne, thus imprisoning himself in the frozen remains of all the world’s tears and pain.

So far Dante has been walking behind Virgil to avoid these gale force winds, but now Virgil steps aside. Dante’s reaction to seeing Satan firsthand is “a terror that cannot be told.” Indeed, Dante will say nothing during this canto (nor, interestingly, will Satan. Unlike Milton, Dante is not interested in what the Devil has to say).

Dante describes “The Emperor of the Universe of Pain” as enormous – with arms alone that are larger in comparison to the giants that surround Cocytus than these giants are larger than Dante himself (probably making Satan tower above Dante as high as the Empire State Building). Satan is also hideous: a  beast with three faces that merge into one head in a disgusting parody of the Trinity. The middle face is red, while the right face is “something between white and bile,” and the third is “the color of those who live along the banks of the Nile” (black). Each of his six eyes weep.

If all this was not horrific enough, each of Satan’s three mouths chew forever upon a sinner. The black face chews Brutus and the whitish face chews Cassius (both traitors to Julius Caesar – the greatest king of the greatest world empire). The red face, which tears more than chews, tortures Judas Iscariot – traitor to the King of All Creation. Judas, who left the last supper to betray Jesus Christ with his mouth, is chewed in Satan’s mouth forever at his paradoxical last meal.

At this sight, Virgil announces that Dante has seen all there is to see, and it is time to depart. Virgil’s words of encouragement, quoted above, are appropriate – for the only way out of Hell is to climb down Satan himself (“there is no way to rise above such evil”). Once again, Virgil takes on the responsibility for their transition and, grasping Dante, proceeds to lower them down Satan’s shaggy coat. Reaching the point where Satan’s thigh and haunch meet (apparently past some fissure in the ice and rock), Virgil turns them around, and continues climbing upside down (which at first makes Dante think they are climbing back up into Hell). On the other side of an opening in the rock, Virgil sets Dante on the rim and leaps up. Dante’s disorientation is compounded when he sees Satan’s feet dangling upwards below him.

Dante is told to begin a long and arduous climb, for time is running short. It is also daylight again, although diffused in this small underground passage (formed, as we are about to find out, by the erosion of a little stream from the mountain – this is Lethe, the river of forgetfulness which washes away memory of sin from those undergoing purification – sweeping sin into Hell). Along the way, Virgil explains what has happened. When they passed Satan’s mid-point, the two travellers had reached the center of the earth where gravity reverses. They are now, therefore, climbing up – up to the other side of the world. Above them is a sea which nearly covers the other hemisphere of the earth (and thus it is daytime here).

Virgil explains how this topography came into being. When Satan fell from Heaven, he smashed into the Earth directly opposite Jerusalem (the place of salvation) – forming the cavern of the Inferno itself, and pushing out a corresponding mountain rising from the sea above it. It is to this mountain that Dante and Virgil will now travel. Dante and Virgil climb without rest for another full day, thus (subtracting 12 hours for the hemisphere switch), emerging from the place of the dead early Easter morning.

It is pre-dawn, and Dante once again sees the stars.