David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 34: The Ultimate Evil”

“Canto 34: The Ultimate Evil”

  • The innermost ring punishes souls who have treacherously betrayed their rightful lords and benefactors, both temporal and spiritual.

The innermost Circle is called Judecca, and it is named after Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ.

Dante sees sinners under the ice; they remain nameless. He does not speak to them, and he is silent when he sees ultimate evil, as he will be at the end of The Divine Comedy, when he sees ultimate goodness.

Dante, of course, is unable to speak to these sinners as they are completely encased in ice, having been frozen in grotesque positions:

Some prone are lying, others stand erect,

This with the head, and that one with the soles;

Another, bow-like, face to feet inverts.

(Longfellow 34.13-15)

Of course, these sinners are the worst of the worst, as they have betrayed their benefactors. However, the worst sinner of all time — Lucifer — and the three worst human sinners of all time Dante has yet to see.

As a review, these are the sinners punished in the final circle of the Inferno:

Traitors to Kin/Family: Ring #1 (Caina)

Traitors to City or Country: Ring #2 (Antenora)

Traitors to Guests and Hosts: Ring #3 (Tolomea)

Traitors to Benefactors: Ring #4 (Judecca)

Center of Hell: Lucifer and the three worst human sinners of all time

  • Who is Lucifer? For what crime is he being punished, and what is his punishment?

Lucifer rebelled against God, his spiritual benefactor. For that reason, he is guilty of the ultimate evil. Another name for Lucifer is Satan. He is frozen in the ice, although his head and wings are free. His wings flap, creating a breeze which Dante has been feeling at the bottom of the Inferno.

Lucifer is the opposite of God. God is a Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Lucifer, therefore, is a perversion of the Holy Trinity. He has three mouths, each of which is chewing on a very evil sinner, so we see cannibalism again at the very bottom of Hell.

  • How is Lucifer described?

Lucifer was once the most beautiful of the angels; now he is the ugliest. In addition to being ugly, Lucifer is huge:

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.

(Longfellow 34.28-33)

One of his notable features is that he has one head with three faces, a perversion of the Holy Trinity. Also we read, “Beneath each face two mighty wings stretched out” (Musa, Inferno34.46). These wings are like those of a bat (Musa, Inferno34.49-50).

From his six eyes flow tears, and in each of his three mouths he chews on a sinner.

  • Who are the three sinners whom Lucifer is chewing on?

These three sinners are the most evil people whom Dante knew of:


Judas is being chewed by Lucifer in the central mouth, thus making him the worst sinner of all time. It is easy to see why Dante would think that, since Judas betrayed Jesus. Judas’ head is in Lucifer’s mouth, and Judas’ feet are sticking out. In contrast, the bottom half of the bodies of Cassius and Brutus are in Lucifer’s mouth.

Cassius and Brutus

For the modern reader, it is probably much more difficult to see why Dante would make Cassius and Brutus the second and third worst sinners of all time. Dante believed that God supported the formation of the Roman Empire and so the Roman Empire was divinely willed. The Roman Empire was known for its rule of law, and for its peace (the Pax Romana, although of course wars were fought along its borders). By opposing the formation of the Roman Empire through their assassination of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius were traitors to God. Thus, Brutus and Cassius were traitors to their benefactors, both spiritual and temporal. Also, by assassinating Julius Caesar, they ensured that more power struggles would come into existence and more people would be killed before the Roman Empire came into existence.

  • Note the similarity of the punishments of Lucifer and Judas to that of the Simonists.

Judas’ head is in Lucifer’s mouth, and Judas’ feet are sticking out. Thus, he looks much like the Simonists, who are stuck in holes in the ground with their feet and legs sticking out.

Virgil and Dante use the hair on Lucifer to climb to a cavern with a winding path that leads upward to the Mountain of Purgatory in the Southern Hemisphere. Virgil and Dante climb down, they pass the center of the Earth, then they start climbing up. Virgil and Dante then see the legs of Lucifer sticking up like the legs of the Simonists. Also, of course, Simon Magus fell to the earth, as did Lucifer.

  • How do Dante and Virgil get out of the Inferno?

Dante and Virgil get out of the Inferno through climbing. They go to a hole in the ice where Lucifer is encased, and they climb along his hairy side and hairy legs.

Suddenly, Dante realizes that they are going up, not down — they have passed the center of the Earth. The last sight that Dante has of Lucifer is of his legs sticking up — thus connecting him with the Simonists in Canto 19, whose legs were sticking out of pockets in the ground.

Virgil and Dante then reach a cavern and climb a winding path until they reach the surface of the Earth.

  • What is the “little stream” (Musa, Inferno34.130) that makes its way into the center of the earth, where Lucifer is entrapped?

The stream is Lethe, from which saved souls drink after they have climbed the Mountain of Purgatory. The saved souls drink from Lethe, which causes them to stop hurting from sin, although they remember that they have sinned and are grateful that God has forgiven them for their sins. The Inferno draws evil and sin and hurt to itself, so the stream — and the hurt of the sin — flows here.

  • Why does Dante end the Inferno, the Purgatory, and the Paradisewith the word “stars”?

The movement of The Divine Comedyis upward, toward God. Even though Dante and Virgil travel downward through the Circles of the Inferno, they are doing that so that Dante can learn things he needs to know to avoid eternal punishment in the Inferno after he dies. In addition, of course, he is moving ever closer to the Mountain of Purgatory, which will lead him closer to God.

Dante uses the word “stars” to end the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Stars are symbols. According to John Ciardi,

As part of his total symbolism Dante ends each of the three divisions of the Commediawith this word [stars]. Every conclusion of the upward soul is toward the stars, God’s shining symbols of hope and virtue. (Divine Comedy270)

The final lines of the Infernoare these:

We mounted up, he first and I the second,

Till I beheld through a round aperture

Some of the beauteous things that Heaven doth bear;

Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.

(Longfellow 34.136-139)

  • How was the Mountain of Purgatory formed?

One important thing to learn here is that ultimate evil is powerless against ultimate goodness. Lucifer was the leader of the angels against God, and he was flung out of Heaven to the Earth.

When Lucifer was flung to the Earth, the land in the Southern Hemisphere recoiled from Lucifer, going under the ocean, thus making the Southern Hemisphere mostly water, except for the Mountain of Purgatory. Some of the earth that Lucifer displaced in the center of the Earth when he fell to Earth has been pushed up on the side of the Earth directly opposite from Jerusalem (we read that this earth “fled” from Lucifer (Musa, Inferno34.125), thus forming the Mountain of Purgatory. Lucifer hit the Earth directly opposite from Jerusalem.

  • Virgil has been a good guide.

His task in the Inferno was to show Dante the Pilgrim all of the Inferno. After he shows Dante Lucifer and the three sinners in Lucifer’s mouths, he says, “Now is the time / to leave this place, for we have seen it all” (Musa, Inferno34.68-69).

Virgil then takes Dante to the Mountain of Purgatory.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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