Dante's Satan

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In Dante’s Inferno, Satan is portrayed as a giant demon, frozen mid-breast in ice at the center of Hell. Satan has three faces and affixed under each chin are pairs of bat-like wings. As Satan beats his wings, he creates a cold wind which continues to freeze the ice surrounding him, and the other sinners in the Ninth Circle. The winds he creates are felt throughout the other circles of Hell. Each of his three mouths chews on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Scholars consider Satan to be “a once splendid being (indeed the most perfect of God’s creatures) from whom all personality has now drained away.” [1] Satan, also known as Lucifer, was formerly the Angel of Light and once tried to usurp the power of God. As punishment, God banishes Satan out of Heaven to an eternity in Hell as the ultimate sinner. Dante illustrates a less powerful Satan than most standard depictions; he is slobbering, wordless, and receives the same punishments in Hell as the rest of the sinners. In the text, Dante vividly illustrates Satan’s grotesque physical attributes.

Satan is trapped in the frozen central zone in the Ninth Circle of Hell, Inferno, Canto 34.
The Emperor of the kingdom dolorous / From his mid-breast forth issued from the ice; /And better with a giant I compare / Than do the giants with those arms of his; / Consider now how great must be that whole, / Which unto such a part conforms itself. / Were he as fair once, as he now is foul, / And lifted up his brow against his Maker, / Well may proceed from him all tribulation. / O, what a marvel it appeared to me, / When I beheld three faces on his head! / The one in front, and that vermilion was;[2]

Description of the Ninth Circle[edit]

Dante’s Hell is divided into nine circles, the ninth circle being divided further into four rings, their boundaries only marked by the depth of their sinners' immersion in the ice; Satan sits in the last ring, Judecca. It is in the ninth circle where the worst sinners, the betrayers to their benefactors, are punished. Here, these condemned souls, frozen into the ice, are completely unable to move or speak and contorted into all sorts of fantastical shapes as a part of their punishment.

Unlike many other circles of Dante’s Hell, these sinners remain unnamed. Even Dante is afraid to enter this last circle, as he nervously proclaimed, "I drew behind my leader’s back again.”

Uncharacteristically of Dante, he remains silent in Satan’s presence. Dante examines the sinners who are “covered wholly by ice, / showing like straw in glass- some lying prone, / and some erect, some with the head towards us, / the others with the bottoms of the feet; another like a bow bent feet to face.” This circle of Hell is a complete separation from any life and for Dante, “the deepest isolation is to suffer separation from the source of all light and life and warmth.” [1]

Contrapasso: The Poetic Justice of Satan[edit]

The reason for Satan’s eternal punishment was his desire to be as powerful as the Divine. When Satan was cast out of Heaven, he “excavated the underworld cosmos in which the damned are held."[3] Satan's punishment is the opposite of what he was trying to achieve, power and a voice over God. Satan also is in many ways, “the antithesis of Virgil; for he conveys at its sharpest the ultimate and universal pain of Hell; isolation."[1] It is Virgil, Dante's guide through Hell, who tells Dante “that the inhabitants of the infernal region are those who have lost the good of intellect; the substance of evil, the loss of humanity, intelligence, good will, and the capacity to love."[4] Satan stands at the center because he is the epitome of Dante’s Hell.

“He wept with all six eyes, and the tears fell over his three chins mingled with bloody foam. The teeth of each mouth held a sinner, kept as by a flax rake: thus he held three of them in agony."

Religious Significance[edit]

Dante’s Satan remains a common image in popular portrayals. The answer to the question of how Satan wound up in the bottom of the pit in Dante’s Inferno lies in Christian theological history. Some interpretations of the Book of Isaiah, combined with apocryphal texts, explain that Satan was cast from Heaven, and fell to earth.[5] Satan, the angel, was caught up in his own beauty, power, and pride, and attempted to usurp God’s divine throne:

“I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.”[6]

This immediately backfired on Satan. God sentenced him as a betrayer and banished him from Heaven. Dante uses this idea to create a physical place Satan created after his impact with the earth. According to Dante, the pit the Pilgrim climbs down to reach the center of Hell is literally the hole that Satan made when he fell to earth. The extra earth formed Mount Purgatory on the other side of the Earth.

William O'Grady has pointed out that those frozen in the ice perversely imitate God in the sense of being unmoved movers, but rather than moving by attracting us towards them, they move us by repelling us away from them, as evil was understood to do in scholastic philosophy. Thus since they wanted to be God, Dante makes them godlike but at the farthest distance removed from God.[7]


Effects of Dante’s Satan on the Renaissance[edit]

2. William Blake depicting Dante's Satan

As opposed to the popular conception of the era, which viewed Satan as an all-dominating beast of Hell, Dante gives the portrayal of Satan as simply another victim of Hell's tortures. He places Satan trapped within the ice, stripped of voice and power, and thus sets forth a new conception of who and what Satan is.

The demonstration of this effect can be seen in the comparison of three paintings done during the Renaissance era. The first is the work of Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337), the Last Judgment found in the Arena Chapel in Padua, and the other two are the works of William Blake (1757–1827) and Nardo di Cione (1350–1357). Giotto gives Satan a very dominant role in Hell and portrays him to be most violent and gruesome. His depiction of Satan is representative of the popular conception before Dante and is in great contrast with the other two images of Satan. In both Blake and Cione's work, Satan is given three heads, each of which are consuming a body, just as Dante wrote in the Inferno. The other characteristics that these two artists draw from Dante's Satan is that Satan’s lower body portion is strictly confined and he is given less power than he is in Giotto’s Last Judgment. A clear depiction of Dante's nine circles of Hell is also found in Cione's work, represented in the Cappella Strozzi of the Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Through this art-work and others of the Renaissance period, one can discover how much of an influence Dante had in the understanding of Satan and Christian Mythology.

In popular culture[edit]

  • In "The Satan Pit", a 2006 episode of Doctor Who, The Doctor encounters an enormous, demonic creature known only as The Beast, chained at the core of a planet orbiting a Black Hole. The creature claims to be the original Satan, but is wordless and demented by rage. Nevertheless he is significantly more powerful than Dante's Satan and highly intelligent. He is capable of possessing people to do his bidding and communicating with people telepathically. His mind is in another human, in which form he can survive in a vacuum and break glass from afar. He is also able to possess the telepathic Ood. The Beast also has the power to read minds and play psychological games to break his enemies mentally. His attributes are common with most depictions of the Christian Devil, which is also Satan. He is voiced by Gabriel Woolf.
  • In the CW series Supernatural, the antagonist Lucifer is similar to Dante's Lucifer. Lucifer in Supernatural is represented as originally being the most beautiful and powerful of all the Archangels, and angels generally, as well as being the second angel created by God. Eventually, Lucifer grew jealous of God's power and rebelled against Him. God had Michael chain Lucifer in Hell in a special cage God built for Lucifer.
  • In the 2010 Visceral Games video game adaptation of Dante's Inferno, Lucifer is the main antagonist. He is depicted as a cunning mastermind with a sardonic sense of humour. Depicted as a colossal, shadowy, three-headed beast frozen in Cocytus, he manipulates the events of the game with the intent of freeing himself from Hell and taking revenge on God. Ultimately his true form is revealed to be an emaciated fallen angel with ragged wings who bursts from the stomach of the colossus after Dante mortally injures him.
  • In Demon Lord Dante, Dante's Satan is depicted as the former ruler of Sodom who refused to sacrifice his people. He seals himself in ice and is later freed by Medusa/Saeko Kodai, and assumes the form of a young blonde man with six chiropteran wings. This version of Dante's Satan is depicted as a wise, benevolent leader with a strong sense of freedom and justice.
  • In the manga series Devilman, Ryo Asuka mentions the depiction of Dante's Satan when describing the existence of demons to his childhood friend Akira Fudo. Ironically, Ryo Asuka is soon revealed to be an avatar for the real Satan, who appears as a beautiful 12-winged angel who refused God's order to kill the demon population.
  • The main antagonist of Devil May Cry, known as Mundus, is an homage to Dante's Satan; his three eyes represent the three heads Lucifer was depicted with in the Divine Comedy.
  • David von Schlichten's 2013 self-help book is entitled Dante's Devil: Six Self-Made Prisons and How to Break Free.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Jacoff, pg. 143
  2. ^ Dante Wikisource-logo.svg canto XXXIV in the translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow..
  3. ^ Cunningham, pg. 2
  4. ^ Cunningham, pg 2
  5. ^ Pagels, Elaine. The Origin of Satan. Vintage. 1996.
  6. ^ The Holy Bible Revised Standard Edition, Isaiah 14:13-14
  7. ^ http://www.stjohnscollege.edu/files/6413/9657/8694/sjc_review_vol37_no1_1986.pdf

Works cited[edit]