Humanness in the Pits of Hell: The Devil in Dante’s Inferno

As readers travel through hell with Dante and Virgil, they witness the wretched writhing in pain like animals. Yet, when Dante faces Lucifer, the devil is surprisingly human.

Sep 4, 2021By Faith Lee, BA Medieval Studies & BA French Literature
lucifer dante inferno

 

Dante’s Inferno continues to ignite curiosity as well as questions for modern readers. As Dante imagines life after death, he also imagines the cruel punishments inflicted on sinners. In Dante’s hell, the most severe sinners are left to languish in the deepest pits. Throughout their journey into hell’s deepest recesses, Dante and Virgil witness the intense suffering of souls. Human bodies are pushed to their mental and physical breaking points.

 

As Dante and Virgil reach the ninth and final circle, they come face to face with Lucifer and the most treacherous sinners. Here, a solemn scene depicts a remarkably human devil.

 

The Devil’s in the Details in Dante’s Inferno 

dante alighieri inferno florence painting
La Divina Commedia di Dante, by Domenico di Michelino, c. 1465, via Columbia College

 

Dante Alighieri, a medieval polymath, authored the three-part Divine Comedy detailing the kingdoms of the afterlife. Caught amidst the turning political tides of his time, Dante was exiled from his native Florence. In exile, he would pen the Divine Comedy. The Comedy’s three works, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, take us through hell, purgatory and heaven. While all sites offer points of interest, Inferno is home to the afterlife’s must-see attractions.

 

The Inferno brings us on a pilgrimage through hell with the medieval Italian poet Dante and the Roman poet Virgil. Dante crafts the world that awaits sinners after death, and his descriptions are both engrossing and disgusting. Lines from the Inferno have inspired shocking paintings, such as the one below by Bouguereau.

 

dante virgil hell painting bouguereau
Dante and Virgil, by Bouguereau, c. 1850, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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Dante’s attention to detail is perhaps what makes his hell-scape so captivating. Similar to his literary role model and in-text guide, Dante drew tremendous inspiration from the Aeneid’s structure. Hell itself has a complex road map, and some mythical creatures also partake in the punishment of sinners. For each sin, Dante has crafted a punishment suited to it. The greedy lug heavy rocks in endless circles, and heretics are enclosed in burning tombs. Murderers are forever coated in boiling blood, and flatterers are buried in feces. Despite the depravity of hell, readers cannot look away. Hell is horrific, yet captivating.

 

The Final Circle of Hell

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Drawing of the giants, by Sandro Botticelli, c.1485, via University of Aix-Marseille

 

After winding their way through the pits of hell, Dante and Virgil finally come to the entrance of the ninth and final circle. Situated at the bottom of the funnel, this last circle is home to the worst sinners of all.

 

Dante immediately takes note of the massive towers before him, and turns to ask Virgil the name of the city (Inferno, 31.20-1). Virgil corrects Dante, stating that they are not towers, but giants, whose limbs stretch all the way down to the bottom of hell (Inferno, 31.31). Botticelli, the acclaimed Renaissance painter, depicts the giants’ human-like faces at the entryway. While Dante perceives man-made towers, Virgil immediately understands that these giants are in fact distortions of man. Hell has other man-made structures throughout its levels, but this circle’s entryway is constructed from sentient beings.

 

The giants are able to speak, and one dares to call out some confused gibberish (Inferno, 31.67); Virgil immediately responds, calling the giant stupid (Inferno, 31.70-1). Virgil, as if he were scolding a child, chides the giant’s attempts to communicate. This giant attempting to communicate is Nimrod, who built the Tower of Babel. When God saw the Tower of Babel attempting to reach the heavens, he punished human civilization with different languages. Hearing the giants attempting to communicate humanizes their pain.  While other confrontations with horrifying beasts leave Dante shocked, this instance is far more pitiful. Doomed to guard hell as distorted quasi-human figures, we feel sad for these giants who cannot communicate.

 

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Manuscript depicting the different giants (Gallery), from Dante’s Inferno, via Columbia University

 

The Sinners of the Ninth Circle

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Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell, by Gustave Doré, c. 1861, via the French National Library, Paris

 

As Dante enters the ninth circle, the temperature becomes cold (Inferno, 34.29). The ninth circle is home to the most irredeemable sinners: the treacherous. Lucifer, originally an angel who betrayed God, is also punished here.

 

Traitors in this circle are punished by being forced to gnaw on the napes of other sinners’ necks, as they were “backstabbers” during their life. Their movements are slow and deliberate, and this torture will carry on for eternity.

Brutus, Cassius and Judas

The most infamous men of this circle are Brutus, Cassius and Judas, punished here for their treachery. Brutus and Cassius famously betrayed Caesar, and Judas betrayed Jesus. There are several ways Dante gets even with his enemies in Inferno, but these three men represent a different type of vengeance altogether. To Dante, these three men were the ultimate betrayers of humanity, as they caused the fall of Caesar and the fall of Christ. All three are punished by being continually chewed on by Lucifer himself (Inferno, 34.61-6).

 

It’s interesting to note that Pontius Pilate, who sentenced Jesus to death, is never explicitly named throughout Inferno. While he would have been a great candidate for the ninth circle, he is omitted.

 

Lucifer’s Body

botticelli lucifer drawing dante inferno
Drawing of Lucifer, by Sandro Botticelli, c.1485, via University of Aix-Marseille

 

After a long journey, Dante and Virgil finally come to behold Lucifer in the flesh. Similar to the giants, it is difficult for Dante to make sense of Lucifer’s size (Inferno,  34.13-5).This sparks Dante to reflect on his own existence, writing:

 

“I did not die, and I was not alive;

think for yourself, if you have any wit,

what I became, deprived of life and death.”
(Inferno, 34.25-7)

 

In the ninth circle, the lines between life and death feel blurred. Concrete notions of humanity and being have slipped away as we try to comprehend the suffering of the giants and Lucifer.

 

Dante further notes how Lucifer’s appearance has undergone a complete reversal, again reminding us how his physique has transformed. Once considered to be among the most beautiful angels, he is now the most ugly (Inferno, 34.34-6).

 

Lucifer also has three faces and three mouths, each one slowly gnawing on Brutus, Cassius, and Judas. Similar to the giants, Lucifer is unable to communicate with Dante and Virgil because his mouth is occupied. In earlier cantos, Dante and Virgil speak openly with sinners about their sins and punishments — or, at the very least, sinners are able to cry out in pain and agony. Other interpretations of evil gods in hell and the underworld mirror these scenes of suffering. In so many interpretations of the underworld, hell is like a slaughterhouse.

 

lucifer brutus cassius judas manuscript
Manuscript depicting Lucifer from Dante’s Inferno, via Columbia University

 

Yet Lucifer and the three traitors are silent, and the scene is solemn. We can interpret the silence in many ways. In one regard, silence is reverential and respectful. While other sinners explain their circumstances that led to their crimes, the sins of Lucifer, Brutus, Cassius, and Judas require no explanation. Even to modern readers, these three men are notorious for their treacherous actions. In a way, Dante’s decision to keep these figures silent reinforces that their crimes will never be forgivable or redeemable. They will languish forever, unable to communicate any pain or remorse. Their resignation imbues them with a more composed, civilized appearance against sinners in the earlier pits of hell.

 

While Lucifer cannot speak aloud, his expression speaks for him. The tears of Lucifer, “wept out of six eyes; and down three chins, / tears gushed together with a bloody froth” (Inferno 34.52 – 3). Because Lucifer is so large, it is impossible to ignore the large, bloodied tears pouring from his six eyes. While Lucifer cannot speak out and express his feelings, the tears he sheds convey his pain and suffering. His physical form reminds us how far the devil has fallen. The tears take the place of words, perhaps to convey remorse.

 

Does Dante have Sympathy for Lucifer?

lucifer eating judas dante inferno
Lucifer eating Brutus, Cassius, and Judas, by Gustave Doré, c. 1895, via French National Library, Paris

 

This encounter with the devil is our last impression of hell before entering the second kingdom, Purgatory. Throughout hell, Dante openly condemns people who’ve wronged him with almost no hesitation. He takes bold stances and makes snide remarks against political and religious opponents. At other times, the horrors of hell are so unspeakable that Dante laments that he is unable to fully articulate such atrocities. So, when faced with the devil, does Dante hold back?

 

While we cannot ask Dante his thoughts, we can make a few objective observations. Dante was incredibly well-read, as we can glean from the numerous allusions and allegories to literature throughout the Divine Comedy. If Dante learned the same lessons that we do from stories, he would have been well aware that humans are inherently flawed creatures.

 

While all other sinners are punished with physical pain, Lucifer’s pain is unspoken. Instead of guttural outcries or graphic images, Lucifer just looks upon Dante with tears in his eyes. Dante does not want us to feel sympathy for the devil’s tears, but rather, to learn from them. Lucifer shows us how far man can fall if he is not careful. Even Lucifer, once among the most revered members of the kingdom of heaven, can live out the rest of eternity regretting his actions.



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By Faith LeeBA Medieval Studies & BA French LiteratureFaith is a graduate of Rutgers University, completing a Bachelor’s with dual-majors in French Literature and Medieval Studies and an M.Ed in language education. Seeing language as the key interface through which we understand and make sense of human life, her interests focus on historical and contemporary language attitudes. She is currently based in Singapore, where she enjoys crossing paths with stray cats.