Summary: Canto XXXIV

Still journeying toward the center of the Ninth Circle of Hell, Dante becomes aware of a great shape in the distance, hidden by the fog. Right under his feet, however, he notices sinners completely covered in ice, sometimes several feet deep, contorted into various positions. These souls constitute the most evil of all sinners—the Traitors to their Benefactors. Their part of Hell, the Fourth Ring of the Ninth Circle, is called Judecca.

Dante and Virgil advance toward the giant, mist-shrouded shape. As they approach through the fog, they behold its true form. The sight unnerves Dante to such an extent that he knows not whether he is alive or dead. The figure is Lucifer, Dis, Satan—no one name does justice to his terrible nature. The size of his arms alone exceeds all of the giants of the Eighth Circle of Hell put together. He stands in the icy lake, his torso rising above the surface. Gazing upward, Dante sees that Lucifer has three horrible faces, one looking straight ahead and the others looking back over his shoulders. Beneath each head rises a set of wings, which wave back and forth, creating the icy winds that keep Cocytus frozen.

Each of Lucifer’s mouths holds a sinner—the three greatest sinners of human history, all Traitors to a Benefactor. In the center mouth dangles Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ. In the left and right mouths hang Brutus and Cassius, who murdered Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate. Brutus and Cassius appear with their heads out, but Judas is lodged headfirst; only his twitching legs protrude. The mouths chew their victims, constantly tearing the traitors to pieces but never killing them. Virgil tells Dante that they have now seen all of Hell and must leave at once.

Putting Dante on his back, Virgil performs a startling feat. He avoids the flapping wings and climbs onto Lucifer’s body, gripping the Devil’s frozen tufts of hair and lowering himself and his companion down. Underneath Cocytus, they reach Lucifer’s waist, and here Virgil slowly turns himself around, climbing back upward. However, Dante notes with amazement that Lucifer’s legs now rise above them, his head below. Virgil explains that they have just passed the center of the Earth: when Lucifer fell from Heaven, he plunged headfirst into the planet; his body stuck here in the center.

According to Virgil, the impact caused the lands of the Southern Hemisphere to retreat to the North, leaving only the Mountain of Purgatory in the water of the South. Dante and Virgil climb a long path through this hemisphere, until they finally emerge to see the stars again on the opposite end of the Earth from where they began.

Analysis: Canto XXXIV

Here in the Fourth Ring of the Ninth Circle of Hell, at the utter bottom, Dante comes to the end of his hierarchy of sins and thus completes the catalogue of evil that dominates and defines Inferno. Although Inferno explores most explicitly the theme of divine retribution and justice, the poem’s unrelenting descriptions, categorizations, and analysis of sin makes human evil its fundamental subject. The positioning of fraud as the worst of sins helps us to define evil: fraud, more than any other crime, acts contrary to God’s greatest gift to mankind—love.

A deed’s degree of wickedness thus depends on the degree to which it opposes love. So-called ordinary fraud only breaks the natural bonds of trust and love that form between men; other categories of fraud reach an even greater depth of evil because they break an additional bond of love. Of these, frauds against kin, country, and guests constitute the lighter end of the scale, for they violate only socially obligated bonds—our culture expects us to love our family and our homeland and to be a good host. But fraud against a benefactor constitutes the worst fraud of all, according to Dante, for it violates a love that is purely voluntary, a love that most resembles God’s love for us. Correspondingly, one who betrays one’s benefactor comes closest to betraying God directly. Thus, the ultimate sinner, Judas Iscariot, was a man who betrayed both simultaneously, for his benefactor was Jesus Christ.

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The justice of Brutus and Cassius’s placement in the lowest depths of Hell is more problematic. History tells us that these men did betray and murder Julius Caesar, but Caesar’s status as a great benefactor remains disputed. The explanation for their presence lies in Dante’s often-implied belief that Rome is the sovereign city, destined to rule the world both physically and spiritually. Just as Christ, whose church is centered in Rome, was the perfect manifestation of religion, Dante feels that Caesar was the perfect manifestation of secular government, as the emperor of Rome at the height of its power.

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Since spiritual concerns must, in the end, outweigh temporal ones, Judas has committed the greater sin, and his head, rather than his legs, feels the constant chewing of Lucifer’s teeth. However, the fact that Brutus and Cassius suffer a punishment only slightly less harsh demonstrates Dante’s belief that church and state play equally important roles, each in its own sphere. Throughout Inferno, Dante has expressed the view that church and state should remain separate but equal. Now, Dante finds an arrangement for the final circle of Hell that both completes his vision of the moral hierarchy and makes one last, vivid assertion of his politics.

Dante’s portrait of Lucifer makes him a grotesque mimicry of God in Heaven, much in the same way that the sinners’ punishments in Hell grotesquely mimic their sins on Earth. We recall that the poem refers earlier to Hell as a city—a perversion of the city of God. In the same way, Lucifer, with his three heads in one body, constitutes a perversion of the Trinity, the three aspects of the single God. Medieval Christian theology held that evil can only mimic or distort, not create; Lucifer is Dante’s embodiment of this premise.

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Dante displays a surprisingly astute grasp of physics in describing Virgil and Dante’s transition between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Using Virgil as a mouthpiece, he describes the center of the Earth as the point to which all weight falls. This depiction, and Virgil and Dante’s turnabout at the center, forms a fairly accurate account of gravity; such an understanding eluded many of Dante’s contemporaries. The fanciful explanation of how Lucifer ended up at the center of the Earth demonstrates a somewhat less keen comprehension of the world, however: Dante, along with most fourteenth-century thinkers, believed that the Southern Hemisphere contained no continents.

Read more about of the final lines of Inferno.