We have a tendency to diminish our sin. We use words like “messy” to describe our spiritual condition when we really mean “flawed” or “broken.” If we are merely messy, we can clean ourselves up, that way we don’t have to look at our own filth. This filth, however, is not just a collection of minor character flaws. It is the deep, unyielding horror of sin. Sometimes, it is difficult to see that sin within ourselves, so we need art to show us the truth. Dante’s Divine Comedy, particularly part one, The Inferno, is a work of art that helps us recognize the gravity of our sin. As we travel with the character Dante and the poet Virgil through the circles of hell, we meet characters who experience suffering that parallels their sin. This suffering is graphic, and it urges readers to look closely at the horrors of sin without averting their eyes. Though hell is filled with characters who burn, swim through boiling blood, are physically mutilated, and a multitude of other horrors, Dante’s depiction of the ninth circle of hell is particularly grotesque, especially his depiction of Satan. Through this grotesque depiction, Dante helps readers recognize the gravity of their own sin and its self-destructive consequences.

Dante’s depiction of sin as grotesque culminates in his depiction of Satan. In the final canto of Inferno, Dante depicts a terrifying yet unique version of Satan, who dwells in the center of the ninth circle of hell, Cocytus. As Dante and Virgil progress through the circles of hell, they witness increasing levels of depravity. Cocytus is of no exception. This circle is encased in ice and is filled with sinners who have committed treachery, which includes Satan – the first traitor. The sinners here are stuck in the ice, some entirely, while they gnaw on the flesh of other people.[1] Being massive in size, only Satan’s upper body is free from hell’s ice, and his body boasts horrifying features including a terrifying three-faced head, three mouths chewing up traitors, tears of bloody froth and pus, and gigantic bat-like wings.[2] Readers take their emotional cues from Dante, who can barely express his terror at the sight of Satan, “Do not ask, Reader, how my blood ran cold / and my voice choked up with fear. I cannot write it: / this is a terror that cannot be told. / I did not die, and yet I lost life’s breath: / imagine for yourself what I became, / deprived at once of both my life and death.”[3] Here, Dante gives evil a face – or three. Satan is not merely a malevolent force that works through demons or possession; rather, he is a real, tangible presence within the created order.

Many contemporary representations of Satan only depict his horrors through other human or animal vessels, and the ones that do physically depict Satan himself are often far less terrifying. Many modern versions of Satan, as in the immensely popular television shows Lucifer and Supernatural, take after Milton’s devil-as-gentleman in Paradise Lost. These depictions of Satan are attractive, charming, and sometimes funny, rarely scaring off readers or viewers. In fact, these versions of Satan are even often admired or desired. They may also be humanized, resulting in sympathy for readers and viewers. Unlike these contemporary versions, Dante’s version of Satan – the ultimate expression of sin – is intended to shock and disgust the reader, not induce sympathy or compassion. Dante calls him “The Emperor of the Universe of Pain,” and he quite literally feeds on the flesh of departed humans.[4] Readers ought not be inclined to admire this kind of devil.

Dante intentionally avoided depicting sin in any kind of attractive manner. Inferno is, after all, intended to call readers to repentance. This approach is refreshingly distinct from modern attitudes toward sin, which are far from fearsome. Surely we all have heard or seen a recipe for desserts that are called “sinful” or “decadent” because they are sweet or filled with chocolate. These foods are called “sinful” or “decadent” because they are often extremely unhealthy, but they are also tempting because they are extremely delicious. In that way, it does make sense to compare these kinds of foods to sin. Still, when people use these words to describe food, they perpetuate the notion that sin is enjoyable and worth any consequences that come with it. Clearly, people who call these foods “sinful” aren’t encouraging people to stay away from such foods to avoid gluttony. They want others to try the recipes and enjoy them. This use of language diminishes the gravity of sin, reducing it to generally inconsequential dietary choices. It does not call people to repentance – it calls people to indulgence. Manipulating language in this way encourages us to gloss over sin and equate it with satisfying an appetite. We soon think we are harmlessly devouring the pleasures of sin, but sin is viciously devouring us. That’s exactly what Dante depicts in Inferno when he describes the fate of Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, “In every mouth he [Satan] worked a broken sinner / between his rake-like teeth. Thus he kept three / in eternal pain at his eternal dinner.”[5] We are grossly mistaken if we think sin is fun or appetizing. In the end, it rips us to shreds.

Yet, we are not without hope. Though the entrance to hell is guarded by a gate famously inscribed with the words, “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE,” Dante is not without hope at Inferno’s conclusion.[6] Having seen all the horrors of hell, Dante and Virgil travel through its center and emerge upward on the shores of Purgatory. After emerging, Dante concludes Inferno by stating, “And we walked out once more beneath the Stars.”[7] This reference to the stars, which also appears at the end of Purgatorio and Paradiso, points to heaven, the destination of Dante’s travels which rests among the stars. Concluding with mention of the stars directs readers’ eyes to the hope of heaven and away from the horrors of hell. To see this hope, however, the journey through hell was necessary.

Only after realizing one’s sin can a person repent and embrace the hope of heaven. When we are blind to sin, we cannot see the need for salvation. Embarking on a reflective spiritual journey is sometimes necessary for repentance. Dante takes the reader on this journey toward repentance. He spares no horror, and he shows us how sin devours us through the suffering of every gruesome and sickening character we meet along the away, especially in the ninth circle. He brought us through the depths of hell to its center – the center of the earth and of gravity – to help us realize the gravity of our sin. Yet, he did not leave us at hell’s edge. He brought us out to continue our journey upward into the stars.

Citation Information

Karise Gililland, “The Quest of the Golden Queen,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 3. (Fall 2020), 79-86.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///the-gravity-of-sin-truth-in-the-grotesque-in-dantes-inferno/

[1] Dante Aligheri, The Inferno, Trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 2003), 33.1-3.

[2] Ibid. 24.28-60.

[3] Ibid. 34.22-47.

[4] Ibid. 34.28, 54-56

[5] Ibid. 34.55-57.

[6] Ibid. 3.9.

[7] Ibid. 34.143.