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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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CANTO XXXIV

How do you picture Satan? Is he an active tempter as in
Milton's Paradise Lost, Goethe's Faust, or Marlowe's Dr.
Faustus? Here Satan appears as the end of Dante's image of
sin frozen in the wastes of the world.

Dante looks up from the ice that holds completely submerged
sinners (this is Judecca, home of the Traitors against God and
Leader, named after the Bible's Judas) to see a huge, shadowy
form. A blast of wind is so severe that Dante has to hide
behind Virgil to escape it. When Dante looks again, he sees
what he won't even try to explain: Satan.

Satan is huge. Some critics who have calculated the
mathematical clues in the Inferno measure him somewhere
between 1000 and 1500 feet long. Satan is frozen to his chest
in the ice but his three sets of wings are free to beat.
Ironically, Satan beats these wings in a furious eternal attempt
to escape, but it is these wings that keep him frozen in the one
place in the universe farthest from God. Satan has three faces
(red, yellow, and black) and each chews on a sinner. The
sinner in the middle, head first in Satan's mouth, is continually
stripped of his flesh by Satan's clawing hands. This is Judas,
the apostle who betrayed Christ and set in motion the
crucifixion. In the other two mouths are Julius Caesar's
assassins, Brutus and Cassius.



NOTE: Readers of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar are probably
protesting heavily at this point. Our interpretation of Cassius
and Brutus is colored heavily by the play and our own
democratic principles. Dante probably had no special
affection for Julius Caesar as a person, but looked at him as
the founder of the Roman Empire which, in Dante's eyes,
made possible the spread of Christianity. Cassius and Brutus
are punished like this for treason against the Roman Empire
and for breaking a sworn oath of allegiance to Caesar.

Satan himself is the image of a perverse or an inverted Trinity.
The Trinity has three separate beings, Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit, which are united in one being (the major mystery of the
Trinity); Satan is one being divided into three-three faces,
three sets of wings, three colors, etc. Whereas the power of the
Trinity can elevate and draw all things toward Itself, Satan's
futile beatings only freeze him more solidly where he is. Satan
is frozen into the scum of the universe (see Canto XXXII for
the description) while God is the source of all light, warmth,
love, and so on.

After Dante takes this all in, Virgil reminds Dante that they
still have to get past Satan. This could be a problem. They
time their move and, while the wings are unfurled and lifted,
rush in, grab the fur of Satan, and begin the descent. At least
Virgil does; Dante is clinging to his back. At the hip joint,
Virgil turns and starts to climb up. Panting with the effort,
Virgil reaches a place where the rock forms a small ledge. He
puts Dante on the ledge and crawls out himself. Dante looks
up, expecting to see Satan's head and Hell, but sees instead his
legs and, at a distance, the morning sky.

You science majors should have this all figured out. Dante
needs Virgil to explain how they seemed to turn around, but
didn't, and how they could leave Hell in the evening, travel no
more than half an hour, and arrive in the morning. The answer
is that they have passed the center of gravity. Virgil had to
turn and climb up the legs because Satan's hip joint was at that
center of gravity. As regards the time, Virgil explains that the
morning sun Dante sees is the sun of the southern hemisphere,
which is twelve hours behind the sun of the northern
hemisphere they have left on the other side of Hell. It is now
Holy Saturday morning again.

Virgil gives Dante one more instruction: "Up on thy legs."
The two start to follow a small stream, the Lethe, which drains
from Mount Purgatory, where they are headed. Although your
journey through the Inferno is completed, Dante has Purgatory
and Heaven yet to travel.

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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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