Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno: Cantos 31-32, Circle 9 – The Lake of Ice

Canto 31 – Elemental Spirits

 “Where the instrument of intelligence is added to brute power and evil will, mankind is powerless in its own defense.”

As he and Virgil ascend the containing ridge of Malebolge, Dante thinks he sees the towers of a city before him, and then hears a tremendous trumpet blast. In order to save Dante some shock when he learns the truth, Virgil explains what they really are: Giants who guard the Ninth Circle – Cocytus, the final hole of ice. Around its perimeter is a wall of stone approximately 75 feet high around which stand the giant guardians of biblical and classical lore. These giants are both natural and supranatural – elemental brutes whose intelligence and strength only compounds their potential evil– to the point that they can threaten the gods themselves. Thus, they are kept here guarding the final pit of Hell.

The first of these giants is Nimrod – the biblical first king of Babylon who attempted to build a tower to heaven. God’s punishment for such an undertaking was to confuse the languages of the people (also affecting the obedience of the people whose original mandate was to spread out over the earth). As the poets approach, Nimrod babbles (the word itself reminiscent of Babylon) at them incoherently, to which Virgil responds with a series of insults which also reveal that it was Nimrod whose trumpet was sounding when they topped the rise.

Next come giants from classical mythology. Ephialtes and Briareus, who warred against the gods of Olympus (a pagan version of Nimrod’s activity), are mentioned (though Briareus remains unseen) and then Antaeus, the son of Neptune and Tellus (the earth) who Hercules killed. Because Antaeus did not take part in any rebellion against the gods, he is unchained and is able to aid the poets on in their journey. After Virgil explains that Dante could help Antaeus remain memorable in the world above, the giant willingly lowers the poets onto the frozen lake of Cocytus.

Canto 32 – Caina and Antenora

“It is no easy undertaking, I say, to describe the bottom of the Universe.”

At the bottom of Hell we find a lake of ice, not fire. This may seem out of place, but there are both biblical and metaphysical reasons for this. Biblically, we need to remember that “Hell” here is not the final state of the damned. This is the holding place of sinful shades until the resurrection and final perdition. The throwing of Satan and Hell (“the grave” or “Hades”) itself into the Lake of Fire referenced in Revelation 20 is still future. Metaphysically, the ice is approprite – for it is the closest physical representation of nothingness. Cold, like silence, has no substance. Cold is merely the absence of heat, just as silence is merely the absence of sound. At the bottom of Hell the poets are at the farthest point from God, and therefore farthest from being itself.

The single icy sheet of Lake Cocytus is divided up into four concentric areas (discernible only by the positions of the sinners kept in the ice), each punishing the sins of treachery against those whom one is bound by special ties. The well of Hell bears the weight of the entire inverted cone above it – although all sin is treachery (denial of love) in some sense, these special forms of treachery are the final, lowest forms of sin. Devoid of human warmth, these sinners will suffer forever in cold. Turning from God (who is ultimate love), they will spend eternity frozen in the coldest darkness with the most treacherous of all beings, Satan himself.

The first area is Caina – named after Cain, the first murderer who was also a killer of an innocent family member. Thus, here are punished those who were treacherous to their family. These shades freeze forever up to “the part at which they blushed for shame –  frozen in the ice up to their necks, where “bowed toward the ice, each of them testifies to the cold with his chattering mouth, to his heart’s grief, with tears that flood forever from his eyes. ” Dante calls this “the place of pain,” and says that those in it would have been better off being born sheep or goats (literalizing the metaphor Jesus uses to describe saints and sinners at the judgment in Matthew 25).

The next region is Antenora – named after Antenor who betrayed his city to the Greeks. Here are the Treacherous Against Country. These have only their heads above the ice, and therefore cannot move at all. Dante inadvertently kicks one ion the head and then treats its owner to a savagery unseen in him toward anyone prior when the shade will not reveal his identity. After tearing out fistfuls of the man’s hair Dante discovers his identity from another, and then is given a quick census of several others in the same predicament. He also comes upon two shades who are trapped in the same hole, one of whom is being bitten by the other.  Dante asks for the reason for this activity, and the Canto ends.

Canto 33 – Ptolomea

In answer to Dante’s inquiry in Canto 32, he is told the story of Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri. Ugolino was himself a co-conspirator and traitor with Ruggieri, but Ruggieri himself betrayed Ugolino and imprisoned him, along with his innocent sons and grandsons. A year alter the prison was sealed up and Ugolino was forced to watch his offspring die of starvation. Then, overcome by his own famine, Ugolino died (some interpret his words to mean that he ate their dead bodies). Ugolino can barely finish his horrific tale, so great is his grief, before he resumes gnawing through the neck of Ruggieri. Once again we see the law of retribution at work – the one who caused starvation to starve is now serving as food.

Dante and Virgil then enter Ptolomea, named after Ptolomaeus of Maccabees who murdered his father-in-law at a banquet (cf. 1 Macc. 16:11-17). Here, then, are where the Treacherous against Hospitality are punished. These lie supine in the ice, their faces are nearly covered with ice and their tears freeze over their eyes causing them to lose even the ability to weep. Dante, though numb from the cold, feels a wind blowing across the ice. Dante inquires as to where this wind could be coming from, given that there is no heat here. Virgil declines to explain the wind, as Dante will find its source soon enough.

Dante speaks with a soul trapped in the ice, swearing (it seems) against his own soul’s consignment to the last rim of the ice that he will free the sinner’s eyes for temporary relief. In response Dante is told that this region is so “privileged” that souls may fall into it before the death of their bodies (which are then animated by demons). Dante then betrays his promise (but not his oath, as he will indeed be descending to Hell’s last rim in mere moments), deciding that “to be rude to him was a courtesy” (the treacherous deserve treachery) and moves on, leaving the sinner “bathing his filthy soul in the eternal glacier of Cocytus for his foul crime.”

While treachery of any kind is sinful, we see here that there remains in Dante’s mind some degrees of its vileness. While family and nationality are to some extent non-chosen, and therefore the expectations of fidelity concerning them are to some extent non-chosen, to act treacherously toward guests is a completely free violation of an obligatory (if only implied) promise to do good. What comes next deserves its own section, for it is treachery of the worst kind. At the bottom of the frozen well, completely covered in ice, are punished those who did evil toward those who not only did good to them, but did so without obligation of any kind.

It is the absolute bottom – the frozen, silent realm of Satan himself.