Week 8: Dante's Inferno

Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Canto 34: Satan and the Stars

Reading time: 6 minutes. Word count: 1100 words.

The region called "Judecca" in the ninth circle is where those who betrayed their masters and lords are found. Hence, Satan (Lucifer, Beelzebub, Dis) is found here, because he was originally an angel who had rebelled against God. The opening phrase proclaims the presence of Satan in Latin: "The banners of the King of the Inferno advance." There are other traitors here as well: Judas, who betrayed Jesus, and Brutus and Cassius, who assassinated Julius Caesar. They have now seen all of hell, and must climb along Satan's body in order to get out. The place where Satan is plunged into the earth is the center of things, which means that everything is mysterious reversed as they pass along his body and they are able to begin their upward climb out of hell. As they began their descent into hell it was the dawn of Good Friday, and it is Easter Sunday morning when they emerge.

The Judecca: Satan

'Vexilla Regis prodeunt inferni, the banners of the King of Hell advance towards us: so look in front of you to see if you discern him,' said my Master.

I seemed to see a tall structure, as a mill, that the wind turns, seems from a distance, when a dense mist breathes, or when night falls in our hemisphere, and I shrank back behind my guide, because of the wind, since there was no other shelter.

I had already come, and with fear I put it into words, where the souls were completely enclosed, and shone through like straw in glass. Some are lying down, some stand upright, one on its head, another on the soles of its feet, another bent head to foot, like a bow.

When we had gone on far enough, that my guide was able to show me Lucifer, the monster who was once so fair, he removed himself from me, and made me stop, saying: 'Behold Dis, and behold the place where you must arm yourself with courage.'

Reader, do not ask how chilled and hoarse I became, then, since I do not write it, since all words would fail to tell it. I did not die, yet I was not alive. Think, yourself, now, if you have any grain of imagination, what I became, deprived of either state.

The emperor of the sorrowful kingdom stood, waist upwards, from the ice, and I am nearer to a giant in size than the giants are to one of his arms: think how great the whole is that corresponds to such a part. If he was once as fair, as he is now ugly, and lifted up his forehead against his Maker, well may all evil flow from him.

O how great a wonder it seemed to me, when I saw three faces on his head! The one in front was fiery red: the other two were joined to it, above the centre of each shoulder, and linked at the top, and the right hand one seemed whitish-yellow: the left was black to look at, like those who come from where the Nile rises. Under each face sprang two vast wings, of a size fit for such a bird: I never saw ship's sails as wide. They had no feathers, but were like a bat's in form and texture, and he was flapping them, so that three winds blew out away from him, by which all Cocytus was frozen. He wept from six eyes, and tears and bloody spume gushed down three chins.

Judas - Brutus - Cassius

He chewed a sinner between his teeth, with every mouth, like a grinder, so, in that way, he kept three of them in torment. To the one in front, the biting was nothing compared to the tearing, since, at times, his back was left completely stripped of skin.

The Master said: 'That soul up there that suffers the greatest punishment, he who has his head inside, and flails his legs outside, is Judas Iscariot. Of the other two who have their heads hanging downwards, the one who hangs from the face that is black is Brutus: see how he writhes and does not utter a word: and the other is Cassius, who seems so long in limb. But night is ascending, and now we must go, since we have seen it all.'

The Poets leave Hell

I clasped his neck, as he wished, and he seized the time and place, and when the wings were wide open, grasped Satan's shaggy sides, and then from tuft to tuft, climbed down, between the matted hair and frozen crust.

When we had come to where the thigh joint turns, just at the swelling of the haunch, my guide, with effort and difficulty, reversed his head to where his feet had been, and grabbed the hair like a climber, so that I thought we were dropping back to Hell. 'Hold tight,' said my guide, panting like a man exhausted, 'since by these stairs, we must depart from all this evil.'

Then he clambered into an opening in the rock, and set me down to sit on its edge, then turned his cautious step towards me. I raised my eyes, thinking to see Lucifer as I had left him, but saw him with his legs projecting upwards, and let those denser people, who do not see what point I had passed, judge if I was confused then, or not.

My Master said: 'Get up, on your feet: the way is long, and difficult the road, and the sun already returns to mid-tierce.' Where we stood was no palace hall, but a natural cell with a rough floor, and short of light.

When I had risen, I said: 'My Master, before I leave the abyss, speak to me a while, and lead me out of error. Where is the ice? And why is this monster fixed upside down? And how has the sun moved from evening to dawn in so short a time?'

And he to me: 'You imagine you are still on the other side of the earth's centre, where I caught hold of the Evil Worm's hair, he who pierces the world. You were on that side of it, as long as I climbed down, but when I reversed myself, you passed the point to which weight is drawn, from everywhere: and are now below the hemisphere opposite that which covers the wide dry land, and opposite that under whose zenith the Man was crucified, who was born, and lived, without sin. You have your feet on a little sphere that forms the other side of the Judecca. Here it is morning, when it is evening there: and he who made a ladder for us of his hair is still as he was before. He fell from Heaven on this side of the earth, and the land that projected here before, veiled itself with the ocean for fear of him, and entered our hemisphere: and that which now projects on this side, left an empty space here, and shot outwards, maybe in order to escape from him.'

Down there, is a space, as far from Beelzebub as his cave extends, not known by sight, but by the sound of a stream falling through it, along the bed of rock it has hollowed out, into a winding course, and a slow incline. The guide and I entered by that hidden path, to return to the clear world: and, not caring to rest, we climbed up, he first, and I second, until, through a round opening, I saw the beautiful things that the sky holds: and we issued out, from there, to see, again, the stars.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what is Satan imprisoned in? what does he look like?
  • what other traitors does Dante see in the Judecca?
  • what does Dante see in the sky when they finally emerge from hell?

Source: Dante's Inferno, translated by A.S. Kline (2000). Website: Dante and Others.

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 10, 2006 5:28 PM