Dante and Virgil reach the very bottom of Hell. After seeing Lucifer, they make their way out.
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Vexilla regis prodeunt Inferni,” my Virgil said. “He’s closer now. Look out there and see if you can get a glimpse of him.” It was like looking through fog. What I thought I saw was an immense windmill with its great sails turning slowly. The gusty breeze was amazingly cold and I took shelter by walking behind my guide.Dante begins this final canto of his Inferno in an almost blasphemous (but purposeful) way by inserting the word Inferni (Hell) into the first line of an ancient and famous Christian processional … Continue reading
While we were moving on slowly over that clear, deep ice, I … I was taken aback when I saw this – I could see sinners way down there in that ice, buried in every position or contortion you could think of. It was as if little pieces of straw had been mixed somehow into a thick plate of glass.The last group of sinners that Dante sees in Hell are the worst of the traitors, those who betrayed their lords and benefactors. They are literally entombed a second time and look as though they’ve … Continue reading
I was behind Virgil, peering intently into that deep ice, when he stopped. He knew the time had now come for me to see that one who was created the most beautiful of all. I had come up right behind him, so he stepped aside, raised his arm and pointed: “Look there. This is the one. Behold Dis! Now you must summon forth every ounce of your courage.”This is THE climactic moment of the Inferno. At last, Dante comes face to face with Satan. Dis was the classical king of the Underworld and Virgil, the classical poet, calls him by that name in his … Continue reading
At that moment, my nerve failed me – I was so utterly faint and weak. Don’t ask me to describe it; I have no words left to explain how I felt. Listen: I didn’t die, but I was no longer living! Try to imagine, if you can, me standing there, lifeless but not dead either.In spite of Virgil’s urging him to take courage, the Pilgrim is on the verge of collapse. Not only does he lose his nerve, but he loses his words, as well. But even here he is still elegant and … Continue reading The ruler of that world of everlasting desolation and despair stood there before me, frozen up to his mid-chest in the ice. If I were to estimate his size, I’d say that my height was closer to that of the giants than their height was compared…just to the length of those immense arms of his! Can you imagine now how large the whole of him must have been? If it’s true that he was the most beautiful of all his Maker’s creations, and then dared to turn up his nose at Him, is it any wonder that he’s now that foul source of every evil?Recovering from his shock at seeing Lucifer so suddenly, Dante now begins to add details about this awesome creature. Harking back to the first line of this canto, he calls Lucifer the ruler or king … Continue reading
But there’s more. Standing there at the level of his chest, when I looked up, I was aghast to see one head – but it had three faces! One face, the one in the middle, was bright red. Somehow, the other two were joined to this face from mid-shoulder to the top of his head. The face on the right was yellowish in color, and the other one was black, like the skin of those who live along the Nile.Standing in the ice at chest-level, Lucifer calls to mind Farinata in Canto 10 who proudly stood in his great flaming tomb, visible from the waist up. Once again, Dante is taken aback by what is … Continue reading
Now, two immense wings stretched out beneath each face. They were larger than a ship’s sails; and if you can imagine it, those six wings were not feathered but looked like bats’ wings! And he never stopped flapping them, making three cold winds that keep icy Cocytus frozen forever. What’s more, the tears from those six weeping eyes was mixed with blood and flowed down across those hideous faces. Then I saw that there was a sinner in each of his three great mouths. He crunched on them with teeth like those tools that brake hemp and flax. They screamed in constant pain as he chewed. More than that, the one in front was not only chewed on, but his back was skinned as that monster of evil clawed at him.As an angel, Lucifer was the most magnificent member of the highest order of angels, the Seraphim, those closest to God. As noted in several passages in the Bible (e.g., Is.6:2 and Rev.4:8), each of … Continue reading
Virgil then explained: “Do you see that one up there suffering more than the other two? The one with his head inside and his legs out kicking? That one is Judas Iscariot. The other two are reversed. The one hanging out of the black face is Brutus. See how he squirms. The other one, who looks pretty strong, is Cassius.Here, Dante names the three sinners being chewed and mangled in Lucifer’s mouths. The sinner whom he described as getting the worst of the chewing is head-first inside the central mouth. This is … Continue reading
But now it’s time for us to leave this place. You’ve seen everything there is to see here, and soon it will be night.”This point marks the middle of the Inferno’s last canto, and Virgil – rather abruptly – tells Dante that there is nothing more to see here and that it’s time to leave. Though the reader might … Continue reading
So, he told me to hang on to him around his neck as he waited for just the right time when the wings were fully stretched out. Then catching hold of Satan’s shaggy flanks, he lowered us down, tuft by tuft, through the jagged crust of the ice. When we reached the hip joint, right where the curve begins, and straining every muscle he had, he slowly began to turn us around, still grabbing the tufts of those hairy shanks of Dis. For a moment, I thought we were going to climb back into Hell. “Hang on tight,” he groaned, panting. “This is the only way to get out and leave all that evil behind us.”If readers might have thought that Dante and Virgil would simply – and quickly – leave Hell, they would be mistaken. It is not enough for Dante to have traveled all the way down through Hell to … Continue reading
Finally, pushing me out along that jagged icy crust, he carefully raised me to its ledge as he clambered up to join me. Sitting there as he came through the ice, I was looking around, fully expecting to see Lucifer again. But – what an amazing sight greeted me! Instead of Lucifer, there were his two legs stretching far upward into the distance! If I seemed confused at that moment, so will everyone else who doesn’t realize what had happened just moments before.We must remember that what takes a second to happen in time might take quite a bit longer when it is described in words, and that’s the case here. Dante thinks they’ve returned to the surface of … Continue reading Virgil broke into my confusion. “Get up, now. It’s already past seven in the morning and we’ve got a long way to go. The climb ahead of us is going to be difficult.”Just before they began their descent down the side of Lucifer, Virgil told Dante, “Soon it will be night.” It is generally assumed that he meant around 6:00pm in the evening. We don’t know from … Continue reading
Well, the place where we found ourselves was an immense cave, more like a dungeon than a palace – dim and with big rocks strewn everywhere. When I was back on my feet, I asked Virgil: “Master, you need to explain this place to me before we start up again. What happened to the ice? How can he be upside down like that? And how did we move so quickly? One moment it was night and now it’s day?”Note how Dante leads the reader with his questions here. Though they’ve left Lucifer and Hell proper, the Pilgrim has lost his bearings as have we, the readers. Three fascinating and somewhat … Continue reading
He smiled at all my questions. “You think you’re still at the place where I grabbed hold of that vile worm that pierces the earth right down to its core. Well, you were there as long as we were letting ourselves down that hairy ladder. But do you remember the place where I started turning us upside down? That was the very center-point of the earth, where all the world’s weight is drawn down to. Right now, you’re standing just beneath the central point of our side of the world – on the other side of it – directly beneath that place where the Man who was free from sin was sinfully sacrificed. You’re actually standing on the outside of a small circle that Judecca occupies on the other side. So, when it’s morning here – as it is now – it’s evening over there.Here, Virgil, the voice of Reason, re-orients Dante and answers his first and third questions. With reference to the first – “What happened to the ice?” – he tells Dante that, “…yes, … Continue reading
“Understand this, as well: when Lucifer fell down from Heaven, he fell downward on this side of the world. Frightened at his approach, all the land that was on this side of the earth sank itself into the sea and moved to our side of the world. Similarly, all the earth from that great abyss of sin above us flew up behind him as he bored into it, creating a great mountain on this side.Here, Virgil answers Dante’s second question – “How can Lucifer be upside down?” The answer to this question is very clever and makes perfect sense when we see the “big picture” from the … Continue reading
And there’s a place here somewhere that stretches as far from Beelzebub as up to the surface. It can’t be seen, but you can hear it. It’s a stream that trickles all the way down here, gradually making its path through the rocks.”At this point the Inferno is technically finished. Virgil brings his explanations to a close by telling Dante how they’re going to get out. Looking back for a moment, Dante and Virgil are standing … Continue reading
And so my dear guide and I made our way along that secret path, climbing back up to the lighted world. Virgil first and me right behind him, we didn’t stop to rest until we emerged through a small opening and feasted our eyes on those glories of the heavens – the stars.Cleverly, and with great economy, Dante and Virgil make the long journey back to the surface. Emerging from the darkness of Hell is like a rebirth for the Poet, who is focused only on what is above … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Dante begins this final canto of his Inferno in an almost blasphemous (but purposeful) way by inserting the word Inferni (Hell) into the first line of an ancient and famous Christian processional hymn, Vexila regis prodeunt (“The banners of the King come forth”). It was written in 569 by St. Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Potiers, France to celebrate the arrival in that city of a relic of the True Cross of Jesus sent by the Byzantine Emperor Justin II from Constantinople. After its first use as a processional hymn honoring the arrival of the sacred relic, it became embedded in the Christian liturgical rituals of Holy Week (the week before Easter), particularly on Good Friday well into the 20th century. Bear in mind that the journey through the Inferno began on the night before Good Friday (the evening of Holy Thursday when the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples is commemorated), and the two travelers will emerge onto the Mountain of Purgatory at dawn on Easter Sunday morning. It should also be noted that the Vexilla regis is sung during the Church’s evening prayer, Vespers, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated every year on September 14 – coincidentally the date of Dante’s death in 1321.
We have now crossed into Judecca, the innermost ring of Cocytus, and Virgil, making a parody of the Christian hymn that Dante would have known, uses it in reference to Lucifer and his great wings instead of Christ and the banners of his victory over death. Virgil’s version would proclaim: “The banners of the King of Hell come forth.” This is the first of a series of parodies Dante will present in this canto. Not only are the banners parodied, but so is the coming forth of the King, as we shall soon see. Notice how in the first three words (Vexilla regis prodeuni) the reader is reminded of Christ’s victory over death, but the fourth word (inferni) brings us back to the reality of Hell where, soon, we will come face to face with the very source of death itself. Here, as at other places in Hell, Dante has difficulty at first making out what Virgil is pointing at – in this case Lucifer and his wings. Their flapping is the source of the cold wind here, the same wind he felt after his encounter with Count Ugolino in the previous canto. In the Italian, Dante uses the word for windmill (molin) at first, and in the next line calls it a dificio, that is, an engine or machine, like a siege tower. Both words clearly give a sense of the “structure’s” great size. Perhaps a much less elegant, but fitting word here, would be “contraption,” which gives the sense of some questionable or useless piece of machinery. Singleton cleverly notes here: “We may pause to reflect that this is a curious windmill indeed if it ‘blows’ – gives forth a wind – instead of being turned by the wind: a grotesque reversal in itself.” This reversal is an excellent image of the impotence of Lucifer – whose “mill” produces absolutely nothing! When Dante takes “shelter” from this cold wind (of hate) behind Virgil, the Poet uses the word grotta which, among other things, is a wall against which one grows plants to protect them from the wind. Symbolically, we can see Lucifer as the source of all Evil and Virgil as the wall of Reason behind which Dante takes shelter. One wonders, as some modern commentators do, whether Cervantes – some 300 years later – read Dante, which he surely must have done, and whether there is even the smallest connection between this scene in the Inferno and Don Quixote’s famous encounter with the windmills (giants).
|↑2||The last group of sinners that Dante sees in Hell are the worst of the traitors, those who betrayed their lords and benefactors. They are literally entombed a second time and look as though they’ve been frozen helter-skelter into whatever position they were when they arrived, and the sight of them momentarily surprises Dante. Very few commentators offer interpretations of the various positions of the sinners, and those that do are tenuous and unsatisfying. There is silence here, and the Poet himself offers us just the bare minimum of words to describe what he sees. No one is identified, and the reader might recall Virgil’s remark to Dante when they encountered the neutral souls in Canto 3: “Let’s not talk about them; just look and pass on.”|
|↑3||This is THE climactic moment of the Inferno. At last, Dante comes face to face with Satan. Dis was the classical king of the Underworld and Virgil, the classical poet, calls him by that name in his Aeneid. He also called him by this name in Canto 8:68 when they caught sight of the City of Dis, and in Canto 11:65 when he was explaining for Dante the structure of lower Hell. Virgil will name him four different ways in this canto: Dis, Lucifer, Satan, and Beelzebub. In a series of short, blunt sentences, as though not to waste words on the evil creature, he dramatically steps aside and introduces Dante to Lucifer.
“Lucifer,” in Latin the one who “bears the light,” is said to have been the highest and most brilliant of the Seraphim – the highest of the nine orders of angels. Reputed to be the most beautiful of God’s angelic creatures, in his pride he led a rebellion among the angels in Heaven that was quashed by the Archangel Michael, and the lot of them were thrown down from Heaven. In his commentary here, Musa offers us some additional sources for the story. In his Compendium, St. Bonaventure writes that: “he was called Lucifer, because he shined above the rest, and the contemplation of his own beauty blinded him.” And he suggests that the story of Lucifer’s fall is a Medieval misreading of Isaiah 14:12ff which is really directed at the king of Babylon, though it works well in this context, and Dante must have had this in mind:
“How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, who rose up in the morning. … And you said in your heart: I will ascend into heaven. I will exalt my throne above the stars of God. I will sit in the mountain of the covenant, on the heights of the north. I will ascend above the height of the clouds. I will be like the most High. But yet you will be brought down to hell, into the depth of the pit.”
Furthermore, in Luke 10:18, the disciples of Jesus return excitedly from a successful preaching mission and Jesus tells them: “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.”
|↑4||In spite of Virgil’s urging him to take courage, the Pilgrim is on the verge of collapse. Not only does he lose his nerve, but he loses his words, as well. But even here he is still elegant and inventive with what he has left: he’s not dead, but he’s not alive either. He brought us close to something like this with Friar Alberigo in the previous canto, whose soul was dead in Hell, but whose body was alive and possessed by a demon. In a sense, his address to the reader here is a way of literally increasing the reality of the scene by handing his imagination over to us to help him create some image, some words, some feelings to adequately describe what he was experiencing.|
|↑5||Recovering from his shock at seeing Lucifer so suddenly, Dante now begins to add details about this awesome creature. Harking back to the first line of this canto, he calls Lucifer the ruler or king of “everlasting desolation and despair,” not unlike his description of the Furies in Canto 9:44 as the handmaids of the queen of everlasting woe. Langdon calls him the “king of eternal failure.” Like all the other souls in Cocytus, Lucifer is permanently fixed in the ice – in this case, up to his mid-chest. In Canto 31, the Giants were, in a sense, a prefigurement of their “king” whom Dante now stands before. And as Dante attempts to get a sense of Lucifer’s size, the reader will recall his doing the same thing when he encountered the Giants. This has led to some fascinating estimations. Lucifer’s arms alone are as long as the Giants are tall. And, while there is (purposely) insufficient numerical data to get an exact height, those who have tried have ranged from nearly 1,400 feet to about 4,000! The point here is that Lucifer is an immense creature compared to Dante and Virgil who, we must recall, only see the top third of him because they are standing on the ice which covers him up to his mid-chest.
The fact that Lucifer is now as ugly as he must have been gloriously beautiful is befitting his position in the cosmic sense – being here at the center of the universe as far from God as one can get. And by implication he is the farthest depth of Evil one can get from the highest summit of Good. By the end of his Commedia, Dante will have traveled that entire distance!
In the Middle Ages ingratitude was considered a serious sin and connected with pride. Having been created the most beautiful of the angels, Lucifer’s foulness here is nothing else but the result of his ingratitude which led to his pride and then led to his fall. We know the saying from Proverbs (16:18): “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
|↑6||Standing in the ice at chest-level, Lucifer calls to mind Farinata in Canto 10 who proudly stood in his great flaming tomb, visible from the waist up. Once again, Dante is taken aback by what is nothing less than a grotesque parody of the Holy Trinity: Lucifer has one head, but he has three faces – each one a different color. Over the centuries, commentators have suggested various interpretations for the colors. Some suggest that they stand for skin colors and therefore represent how sin and evil can be found among all the peoples of the world. Sayers and several others see the colors symbolically, suggesting that they represent the opposite qualities manifested in the Trinity: black stands for ignorance in the face of highest Wisdom, yellow stands for impotence in the face of divine Power, and red stands for hate in the face of primal Love. (With these terms in mind, recall the writing above the Gate of Hell at the beginning of Canto 3.) There are also political interpretations: Lord Vernon sees red representing Rome as the seat of the Guelphs, black representing Florence as the seat of the Black Guelps, and yellow representing the lilies on the flag of France. Others give us even more contrasts with Lucifer himself: Light vs darkness, Truth vs lies, Life vs death, Joy vs woe, Kindness vs cruelty, Mercy vs wrath. Dante, of course, was surrounded by famous Medieval images of Last Judgments, and scenes of devils and sinners in Hell, and they must have given his imagination much to work on in this canto.
It is important to note, however, that Lucifer does not have three heads. That would be inconsistent with the theology being parodied. Instead, he has three complete anatomical faces attached to each other – a central face colored red, on Lucifer’s right is the yellow face, and on his left is the black face. The side faces appear to grow out of the shoulders, somewhat farther onto the shoulder than the central face – perhaps growing out of the far right and far left sides of the central face. But that head is all of a piece, with the three heads coming together at the crown.
|↑7||As an angel, Lucifer was the most magnificent member of the highest order of angels, the Seraphim, those closest to God. As noted in several passages in the Bible (e.g., Is.6:2 and Rev.4:8), each of the Seraphim has six wings. With the top set of wings they cover their faces, with the bottom set they cover their feet, and with the central set they fly. Given the enormous size of this fallen angel, his wingspan must also have been immense – Dante tells us they are even larger than the sails on a ship. Musa makes an interesting connection here between Ulysses in Canto 26 and Lucifer.
“Satan’s ‘sails’ also link him to Ulysses, a fitting connection since their sins are similar. Just as Ulysses reached greedily beyond the bounds of permitted knowledge and rebelled against God symbolically in his last voyage, Satan’s pride and ingratitude caused his rebellion against God as well. Ulysses fails when his ship sinks ‘as pleased another,’ and Satan when he is cast down from Heaven into the pit of Hell.”
But Dante immediately brings us back to the parody by telling us that those wings – immense as they were – looked like bats’ wings! His wings seem to be the only angelic characteristic Lucifer has left, but even they are made horrid. And worse, he never stops flapping them. He’s like a great bird that is trapped. Stuck in the ice of Cocytus as he is, and trying with all his might to escape, he weeps in a rage of frustration, and his tears trap him all the more as he freezes them with his incessant flapping. Dumb as he now is, he might otherwise realize that if he stood still, the ice that entraps him would melt! E.H. Plumptre catches the symbolism here: “The bat is, perhaps, chosen as the emblem of the will that loves darkness rather than light, because its deeds are evil.” And with his three sets of wings, Lucifer creates three winds. Again, we can see the Trinitarian parody at work even here. In the Bible, wind is often a symbol for the creative activity of God. Here it simply keeps things as they are – forever.
To add to the grossness of the image he creates for us – one might ask what more? – Dante tells us that in each of Lucifer’s three mouths there was a (not-yet-identified) sinner that he chewed on. One thinks back to Ugolino and Ruggieri in the previous canto, but this is even worse. For this “chewing” action, Dante has in mind a wooden tool/machine called a hemp brake (sic). It breaks up or cracks the long stalks of hemp that are slid into it so that the fibers can be separated out more easily. The pain and screaming of the three sinners correspond well with the image he chooses. Recall the windmill image earlier in this canto. Here, it literally does its work on the three sinners. Dante was no stranger to stories of monsters with great teeth that chewed on their victims. Thus the tears and blood slobbering out of Lucifer’s mouths and flowing down his chin. He’s fallen from angelic elegance to slobbering monster. And the Poet probably has in mind here the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” that is repeated seven times in the Gospels as an image for what will happen in the place (Hell?) opposite the Kingdom of God. But there’s more. Dante is careful to note that the sinner in the central mouth gets the worst mangling of the three because his back is lacerated raw by what can only be Lucifer’s talon-like claws scratching at him.
|↑8||Here, Dante names the three sinners being chewed and mangled in Lucifer’s mouths. The sinner whom he described as getting the worst of the chewing is head-first inside the central mouth. This is Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus. That he is in this “hole” upside down and kicking reminds us of the Simonists in Canto 19, particularly the papal simonists who betrayed the Church by their lack of fidelity to the Gospel. Furthermore, considering how Judas betrayed Jesus, the head of the Apostles and the Church, with a kiss, it’s greatly ironic to see him in the central mouth of Lucifer. The other two, punished less fiercely than Judas, are feet-first in the left and right mouths – Brutus and Cassius, the betrayers and assassins of Julius Caesar. They appear to be hanging down out of each mouth. The one in the black mouth is Marcus Junius Brutus, and the one in the yellow mouth is Caius Cassius Longinus.
Because the Commedia is a Christian poem, one might well understand why Judas is in Lucifer’s mouth. But why Brutus and Cassius? In Dante’s view, the world was ideally governed by the Church (the heavenly Rome) and the Empire (the earthly Rome), ruled respectively by the Pope and the Emperor. When these two rulers ruled in harmony, there was peace. But, as he will show us throughout the Poem, the two rulers often attempt to supplant one another or to take on the other’s role, resulting in chaos and disorder in both realms. Brutus and Cassius, by their part in the death of Caesar, the head of the empire, created disorder in the empire. Their hanging out of the mouths upside down symbolizes this.
|↑9||This point marks the middle of the Inferno’s last canto, and Virgil – rather abruptly – tells Dante that there is nothing more to see here and that it’s time to leave. Though the reader might receive this announcement with some disappointment, it’s symbolically important. Why spend (waste) any more time on Lucifer? He simply doesn’t deserve it. Again, as noted earlier, Virgil’s words from Canto 3 apply: look and pass on. But Dante’s mentor also knows there is much more to come. As he promised at the end of Canto 1, Dante has seen the realm of eternal death, and with Virgil will soon be on his way to the second realm of forgiveness and purgation. Following that, a soul more worthy than Virgil will lead Dante through Paradise.|
|↑10||If readers might have thought that Dante and Virgil would simply – and quickly – leave Hell, they would be mistaken. It is not enough for Dante to have traveled all the way down through Hell to learn about the nature of sin, nor is it enough that he see the enormity and ugliness of the source of sin. One final lesson is waiting for Dante, and it’s here in the strenuous final effort to escape from Hell, by literally climbing down the very body of sin personified, that Dante completes his infernal education. He cannot leave only having seen the effects of sin, or having seen the source of sin himself. He has to touch sin, grope along it, feel it. Notice also that to accomplish this final gymnastic feat takes vigilance – a virtue not often mentioned in the struggle against temptation and sin. There must have been a small space between the edge of the ice and Lucifer’s body, and Virgil watched for just the right moment when Lucifer’s wings were moving upward and away from his mid-section to step off the cragy ice with Dante on his back.
We weren’t given any details about Lucifer’s upper body, his skin in particular. But here, moving along his lower torso and keeping with so many age-old images, Dante gives him the shaggy appearance of a satyr or a goat – once again, a degradation of his former angelic appearance.
But now comes a fascinating moment. Keep in mind the enormous height of Lucifer’s body and the time it must have taken to descend, as on a ladder, from his mid-chest to his hip. In the Italian, Dante uses the word “stairs.” They had been letting themselves down feet first. Upon reaching Lucifer’s hip, though, Virgil turns around and continues to climb, head first. Knowing Dante’s thoughts, Virgil doesn’t actually tell him what he’s doing yet; only “Hang on!” If the reader is confused, Dante wishes it to be this way. So is the Pilgrim. The hip, you see, is at the center of the earth – and the very center of the universe in the Ptolemaic system of the cosmos that Dante uses. The turn-around is necessary if they’re going to escape, and the pull of gravity makes it difficult. Virgil will soon make all of this clear to Dante. In the mean time, Benvenuto adds a spiritual significance to this difficulty, noting how difficult it is for someone accustomed to living in sin to turn their lives around.
|↑11||We must remember that what takes a second to happen in time might take quite a bit longer when it is described in words, and that’s the case here. Dante thinks they’ve returned to the surface of the ice lake they just left because at the hip Virgil started climbing upward. Sitting there on the ice ledge and thinking he’d see Lucifer again, he must have been amazed to see, instead, his two legs stretching hundreds of feet into the air. He’s confused, and he wants us to be as well. Just what happened will be explained. In the meantime, we’re left with a comic subtlety that Dante seems to miss – Lucifer here has been reduced to the ridiculous – he’s upside down!|
|↑12||Just before they began their descent down the side of Lucifer, Virgil told Dante, “Soon it will be night.” It is generally assumed that he meant around 6:00pm in the evening. We don’t know from the text, however, how long it took them to reach the other side of the ice where they have been sitting since they got themselves off of Lucifer’s hip. But Virgil once again tells Dante the time – around 7:00am in the morning, and about 12 hours since they began their descent on Lucifer. During that 12 hours they’ve gone from night to day. And notice that this time reference is no longer given by references to the night or the moon as they have been all through the Inferno. This sunlit reference indicates that they have crossed from the northern hemisphere to the southern, and from now on in the poem time will be told with reference to the sun (which always represents God and the light of God).
One also wonders whether the Poet had tongue in cheek when he wrote Virgil’s reasons for Dante to “get up.” They are at the center of the earth and must still travel (“climb”) to the other side!
|↑13||Note how Dante leads the reader with his questions here. Though they’ve left Lucifer and Hell proper, the Pilgrim has lost his bearings as have we, the readers. Three fascinating and somewhat complex issues need to be cleared up before they can leave Hell altogether. Far from the parodies of the Trinity we’ve left behind, these three questions reorient us back toward the Trinity – a direction the rest of the Poem will follow. The dim, underground cave cluttered with rocks contrasted with a palace is the last irony connected with the King of Hell. A fitting reception room indeed.|
|↑14||Here, Virgil, the voice of Reason, re-orients Dante and answers his first and third questions. With reference to the first – “What happened to the ice?” – he tells Dante that, “…yes, you’re still at the edge of the hole in the ice that bound Lucifer. However, you’re no longer at the place we started to climb down. You’re actually on the other side of it. Do you recall the place where we started turning around? That was the center of the earth. As we crossed that point, we actually started climbing upward. That center point – the center of gravity of the whole universe – is just beneath us, and our world (the northern hemisphere) is above that. Draw a line straight down through the earth to the other side from the place where Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. We’re right at the middle point of that line. The Mountain of Purgatory, as we shall see, is at the other end of that line – directly opposite Jerusalem on the globe and surrounded by water as is the entire southern hemisphere.”
Lucifer, of course, being at the center of gravity draws all evil toward himself. And like a “vile worm,” lives within the darkness of earth. When Virgil tells Dante he’s standing on the “outside of a small circle” the Italian word Dante uses is spera. This is the word one would use for a small round mirror, reflective on one side and dark on the other. As Virgil notes, this is a reference to Judecca. They were on the icy, reflective side of the spera a while ago. Now they are on the other, dark, side of it. How fitting that Judecca, the final circle of treachery and betrayal should be like a mirror, reflecting back at Lucifer all the evil of Hell.
With reference to the third question – “How did we move so quickly from night to day?” – Virgil instructs Dante that once they crossed over (turned around) the center point of the earth (Lucifer’s hip) and moved from the northern hemisphere to the southern they lost 12 hours. So, instead of being Saturday evening, as it was on the other side of the ice, here in the southern hemisphere it’s now Saturday morning again – the day before Easter.
|↑15||Here, Virgil answers Dante’s second question – “How can Lucifer be upside down?” The answer to this question is very clever and makes perfect sense when we see the “big picture” from the right perspective. Lucifer fell down from Heaven head first. He fell directly through the cosmos to its very center, piercing the southern hemisphere of the earth and stopping here in the ice. Since this is the center of all gravity, he stopped falling at this point. At one time, there was land on the southern hemisphere, but when Lucifer approached, that land sank in horror at what was coming and moved to the northern hemisphere. At the same time, all the earth ahead of Lucifer’s boring down flew up behind him forming the Mountain of Purgatory above the spot where he fell down into the sea. The great “funnel” shape of Hell is thus mirrored by the “cone” shape of the mountain.
In the end, this whole scheme is intended to bring us to understand a kind of “trick” Dante has played since he and Virgil entered the Gate of Hell in Canto 3. By now, we should realize that cosmic “up” in the structure of Dante’s poem actually starts at the Cross in Jerusalem, goes down through the center of the earth, and continues upward through the center of the Mountain of Purgatory and onward through the heavens, ending in the Empyrean, the abode of God. We have actually been going up the whole time. When, in Canto 1:91, Virgil told Dante that he needed to travel down another road (instead of trying to climb the sunlit mountainside), he was telling him that the way up is down.
|↑16||At this point the Inferno is technically finished. Virgil brings his explanations to a close by telling Dante how they’re going to get out. Looking back for a moment, Dante and Virgil are standing in a great dungeon on the other side of Judecca, with Lucifer’s legs pointing upward far above them. Dante refers to this as Lucifer’s tomba, his tomb (which, of course, he dug for himself!). However, beyond this dungeon is a long tunnel which most likely marks the path through which Lucifer bored through the earth from the south. Through this tunnel runs a stream that originates at the Mountain of Purgatory above them. Virgil notes that though its waters can’t be seen, they can hear it flowing. Though Dante does not name this stream, virtually every commentator notes that this is the Lethe – the waters of forgetfulness of sin and evil which flows down from the very top of the Mountain of Purgatory. It flows down to join the Acheron, the Phlegethon, and the Styx to form the ice of Cocytus, carrying with it to Lucifer all the sin and wickedness purged from the souls in Purgatory. This is a wonderful idea. Though Dante does not state this precisely, at the end of Canto 14, he asks Virgil whether they’ll see the river Lethe. Virgil tells him that he won’t see it in Hell but beyond, where souls wash themselves of their sins and guilt (ll 130-138).|
|↑17||Cleverly, and with great economy, Dante and Virgil make the long journey back to the surface. Emerging from the darkness of Hell is like a rebirth for the Poet, who is focused only on what is above as the glorious infinity of the heavens opens before him and he feasts on the sight of the stars – always symbols of his (and our) upward journey. One can only imagine the wonder and relief he experienced at that moment. The mood is exceedingly hopeful here in contrast to Dante’s terror in the dark forest of Canto 1 and his despair at being driven down the mountain by the three beasts. Soon he will begin to climb that mountain again, but he will climb it as a very different man than he was just a few days ago. His experience in Hell and the sight of the stars does for him what Virgil’s words did toward the end of Canto 2: “Like little flowers that close upon themselves in the chill of the night and then unfold in the warmth of the morning sun, so was I. My strength, which had wilted in the darkness, came back to me and brought with it my courage” (ll 127-131).
The last word of the Inferno is stelle, stars, and that same word ends the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. The stars are great symbols of the hope on which he builds this Poem. Dante would be amazed into the laughter of joy to learn what modern science tells us: that we are made from the stars. Only God is older than them. Not only do they form galaxies and nourish planetary systems, but when they die, they explode with such force that they shower the cosmos with the raw materials that make new life. Dante may not have known this from his science as we do, but he knew it as an artist – that a poem like the Commedia is a sun that enlightens and enlivens its readers, its pilgrims. And in the end it, too, explodes with life-giving force. Mark Musa ends his commentary with these words of the prophet Daniel:
“…the stars become important signs of the Pilgrim’s progress toward God. And such a symbol is fitting, especially for Dante, since “they that are learned shall shine as the brightness of the firmament: and they that instruct many to justice, as stars for all eternity” (12:3).