Cocytus (Cantos XXXI - XXXIV)

This section works through cantos XXXI to XXXIV of Inferno, which present CocytusCocytus is a frozen lake in which are punished those who betrayed people with whom they had a special bond of trust (treacherous fraud). It is divided into four parts:

  • Caina, in which are punished those who betrayed their relatives, and named after Cain who killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4).
  • Antenora, in which those who betrayed their side or country are punished; named after Antenor, a Trojan thought to have been responsible for letting the Greeks out of the wooden horse and into the city of Troy.
  • Tolomea, in which those who betrayed their guests are punished, and named after Ptolemy, governor of Jericho who had Simon Maccabaeus and his sons killed at a banquet he had invited them to (1 Maccabees 16).
  • Giudecca, in which are punished those who betrayed their benefactors, and named after Judas who betrayed Jesus.

Inferno XXXI

In Canto XXXI Dante and Virgil move from Malebolge to Cocytus, the last circle of Hell. Between Malebolge and Cocytus are the giants, stuck in the ground up to their hips. So massive and imposing is their physical presence that, from a distance, Dantemistakes the giants for towers. Most of the giants named by Dante are taken from Classical mythology: Ephialtes, Briareos, Antaeus. According to Classical mythology the giants attempted to climb Mount Olympus and fight the gods – but were defeated by them. They may thus be seen to be used in the Commedia as a symbol of man’s presumption against God. The first giant Dante and Virgil meet, however, is Nimrod, a figure taken not from Classical myth but from Scripture. Nimrod was thought in the Middle Ages to have been responsible for the construction of the tower of Babel, and is thus presented in the canto as another example of human arrogance against God. 

Canto XXXI can be divided into four sections:

  • Dante’s and Virgil’s approach to the giants (1–45)
  • Nimrod (46–81)
  • Ephialtes and Briareos (82–111)
  • Antaeus and the descent to Cocytus (112–145).

Canto XXXI introduces and prepares us for some of the themes that will be prominent in the cantos of Cocytus. Three times in the canto the appearance of the giants is related to that of towers – lines 19–33, 40–45 and 136–141 – an image which strongly seems to associate the giants with stone objects rather than living beings. Keep this image in mind as you read through the final cantos of the Inferno. As we shall see, the sinners of Cocytus are punished by being frozen, a state of being close to that of inanimate object. An important theme of the final cantos of Inferno is, indeed, the ‘petrification’ (turning to stone) of the soul through sin: in committing the greatest of sins, human beings renounce their humanity to the point that nothing human may be said to be living within them. 

Inferno XXXII

Canto XXXII opens with Dante-poeta declaring the limits of his poetic language in describing the bottom of Hell. The first sinners Dante meets are those of the Caina region of Cocytus. They are punished by having their body frozen in Cocytus with only their heads sticking out. Their face is bent downward towards the ice, so that it receives some protection from the cold. Dante sees two sinners stuck in the ice very close to each other. As they raise their face to speak to Dante their tears freeze, sealing their eyes and causing the fury of the two men. They are the brothers Alessandro and Napoleone, counts of Mangona, who killed each other for the possession of their family’s castles. They are named by Alberto, ‘Camicione’, of the Pazzi family, also guilty of killing a relative so as to gain possession of family castles. Camicione names a number of other sinners inhabiting the last circle of Hell. Dantethen sees the sinners of Antenora, who unlike those of Caina have their faces raised all the time, and reduced to a pale blue colour from the cold. Dante accidentally kicks a sinner’s head, and there follows an extremely violent exchange between the two. The sinner is Bocca degli Abati who betrayed Florence in the Battle of Montaperti. After being identified, Bocca names a number of other sinners of Antenora. After this Dante sees two sinners frozen in the same hole in the ice, one gnawing at the back of the other’s skull. These are count Ugolino and archbishop Ruggieri – their episode continues in the next canto.

Canto XXXII can be divided into five sections:

  • initial description of Cocytus (1–30)(31–69)
  • Caina
  • description of the punishment of Antenora (70–78)
  • violent exchange with Bocca degli Abati (79–123)
  • Count Ugolino and archbishop Ruggieri (124–39).

Discussion point: physical and linguistic harshness

Canto XXXII is, in both content and language, one of the harshest cantos of the Inferno. Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi has referred to Canto XXXII as ‘il canto disumano’ (‘the inhuman canto’). The bestial images (e.g. lines 14, 31–36, 49–51, 107–08, 127–34), the harsh language (note, for example, the effect in the context of Canto XXXII of the rhymes in ‘-accia’, ‘-ecca’, ‘-ecchi’, ‘-eschi’, ‘-icchi’, ‘-ogna’, ‘-uca’ , and of the string of ‘-azzi’ and ‘-ezzo’ rhymes in lines 68–75), the violence of the exchange between Dante and Bocca, and the icy setting combine to give an overall impression of the loss of human feeling and warmth. The sinners punished in Cocytus are guilty of abusing reason – the characteristic which, for Dante, makes human beings human to such an extent as to break even the strongest bonds of trust and love that can bind human beings together. As such, for Dante, the sinners of Cocytus are worse than beasts (see line 14) and akin to the nature of inanimate objects. Indeed, it is to inanimate frozen bodies that the sinners Giudecca are reduced. One of the elements which contribute to the overall harshness of the canto is the physical and verbal violence of Dante himself. This is a theme to which we shall return when looking at the next canto.

Inferno XXXIII

The first part of the canto is dedicated to Ugolino’s story. He tells Dante that he was betrayed by archbishop Ruggieri and, on Ruggieri’s orders, was locked up in a tower with his children. One night he had a dream, in which he saw himself and his children as wolves being chased by a group of hunting dogs representing the archbishop and his men. When the dogs caught the wolves they started piercing the wolves’ flesh with their fangs. Ugolino tells Dante that this dream revealed the future to him. The morning after having the dream, at the time in which the prisoners were brought food, Ugolino heard the door of the tower being securely locked. He realized that they would no longer receive any food, and would slowly die of hunger. He fell silent, not responding to his children’s questions and cries, ‘so as not to make them any sadder’. When he bit his hands out of distress, his children thought he did so because of hunger and offered their own flesh to their father as food. After all his children had died of hunger, Ugolino desperately crawled over their bodies calling their names for two days, after which he himself died. Ugolino’s story prompts Dante-poeta’s invective against Pisa, guilty of having condemned innocent children to a horrible death.

Dante then moves to Tolomea where the sinners are punished in the same way as in the two previous regions, but have their neck bent backwards and their head facing upwards, so that their tears freeze over their eyes, thus preventing the sinners from giving vent to their grief. Amongst the sinners of Tolomea Dante meets friar Alberigo, of the Manfredi family. Friar Alberigo asks Dante to break the icy seal over his eyes, and Dante promises to do so after Alberigo has identified himself. Alberigo tells Dantewho he is, and explains that the souls of those guilty of betraying their guests descend straight to Hell after having sinned, and the body of the guilty person is controlled by a demon until its death. Friar Alberigo points out to Dante the Genoese Branca Doria, and this prompts Dante-poeta’s invective against Genoa, which closes the canto. Before the invective against Genoa, we are told of how Dante did not keep his promise to Alberigo, leaving the icy seals on his eyes, as ‘it was courteous to be a villain towards him’.

Canto XXXIII can be divided into five sections: 

  • Ugolino’s story (1–78)
  • invective against Pisa (79–90)
  • description of Tolomea (91–108)
  • encounter with Friar Alberigo (109–150)
  • invective against Genoa (151–157).

However, the bestiality of the scene, as set in lines 1–3, seems to contrast with the elevated and sophisticated tone of Ugolino’s rhetoric. The opening words of his speech seem to reveal profound human grief relating to the story that is about to be told, and display a similar emotional tension as, for example, those of Francesca in Canto V (compare especially XXXIII, 9 and V, 126).14 The same sense of grief seems, moreover, to pervade Ugolino’s speech as a whole – see, for example, lines 40–42. Yet, as soon as he has finished speaking, and without even waiting for Dante’s reaction to his words, Ugolino returns to the bestial gnawing of Ruggieri’s skull (lines 76–78).

Discussion point: Ugolino

The story told by Ugolino is one of the most horrific of the Inferno. And, at first sight, it would appear to be focused on the tragic nature of his and his children’s death, rather than on Ugolino’s sin. Many commentators have in fact suggested that Ugolino’s story supremely reveals the grief and despair of a father at seeing the horrible death of his innocent children; and that, as such, it should not be taken as an indication of the moral failings for which Ugolino is punished in Hell. As Dante says in the invective against Pisa, Ugolino was guilty of having betrayed his city. Yet this was no good reason for murdering his innocent children. (In the invective against Pisa, one could also read Dante’s condemnation of the way in which Florence punished Dante with exile, along with his sons.) According to this particular interpretation of Ugolino’s story, the last line of his speech ought to be read as saying that, in the end, Ugolino’s grief was ended by the hunger which killed him.

Not all commentators agree with this view. Indeed, many read the last line of the canto as saying that, in the end, hunger overcame grief and Ugolino gave himself to eating his children’s flesh after their death; just as he is now gnawing at the archbishop’s skull. This would, in fact, be in line with a number of stories which circulated through Tuscany after Ugolino’s death, and which Dante would surely have known. Note forexample how, apart from lofty rhetoric, Ugolino’s words in lines 4–9 are characterized by a strong concentration of ‘r’ sounds, as if to suggest that his story too should be read in the light of, and in line with, the bestiality of his infernal punishment. On this view, the fact that Ugolino seems to want to hide his own bestiality may be seen as an indication of the fact Ugolino is trying, with his speech, to draw Dante-personaggio’s attention to the unjust death of his children, and away from his own bestial and sinful character; whereas, in fact, it was his own betrayal of his city which ultimately was the cause of his children’s death.

Most commentators make their interpretation of the canto hinge around the interpretation of line 75, which may suggest that Ugolino actually ate his children’s dead bodies. One could also argue, however, that if Dante left the line ambiguous, this might be because one may also look elsewhere in Ugolino’s speech for evidence of Ugolino’s own sinfulness. Consider his silence, for example. He says he fell silent so as not to cause more grief to his children. Yet, in falling silent he is not able to give his children any kind of emotional comfort. Ugolino thinks any comfort would be pointless because they are all going to die anyway. In so doing he reveals that, for him, human language, communication and relationships, are valuable not in themselves but only if they can be instrumental to achieving a material end – in this case physical survival. As such, his decision to be silent could be seen as morally in line with the inhumanity of his treachery. Both through his treachery and through his silence Ugolino reveals he does not consider the bonds of love and trust that can exist between two human beings as valuable in themselves.

Most commentators agree that Ugolino’s sons recall the figure of Christ. Gaddo’s cry in line 69, for example, could be seen as a paraphrase of Christ’s cry on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And, in his invective against Pisa, Dante says that Pisa should not have put Ugolino’s sons ‘on such a cross’.

Inferno XXXIV

The canto opens with Virgil directing Dante’s attention to Lucifer, the ‘king’ of Hell. From a distance Lucifer appears to Dante to have the form of a windmill. Dante and Virgil are now in Giudecca, the very last region of Hell. Here the sinners are punished by being completely frozen in the lake of Cocytus. Some sinners are frozen in a horizontal position; others are frozen in a vertical position, head-up; yet others are frozen in a vertical position, feet-up; finally some sinners are frozen in an ‘arched’ position, their backs bent backwards so that their faces are close to their feet. Lucifer is described as being of enormous height. He only emerges out of the ice from the waist up, and Dante tells us that the difference in size between himself and a giant is smaller than the difference between a giant and one of Lucifer’s arms. Lucifer has one head but three faces, one facing forward, each of the other two facing over one of his shoulders. The one facing forward is red, the one facing right is in a colour in between white and yellow, the one facing left is black. The red face is thus seen as symbolising impotence, as opposed to the Power associated with the Father; the black as symbolising ignorance, as opposed to the Wisdom associated with the Son; the yellowish face as symbolising hate or envy, as opposed to the Love associated with the Holy Spirit. Below each face are two gigantic wings, similar in nature to those of a bat. It is the cold wind produced by these wings which freezes Cocytus (and which Dante had felt in Inferno, XXXIII, 100–108).

Lucifer cries with each of his six eyes and his tears drip from his chin, mixed with the bloody dribble issuing from his mouth. With each of his three mouths Lucifer gnaws a sinner. In the mouths of the black and yellowish face are, respectively, Brutus and Cassius, leaders of the conspiracy to murder the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. They have the lower part of their body inside Lucifer’s mouths. The sinner gnawed in the mouth of the red face is Judas. He has the upper part of his body in Lucifer’s mouth, and is not only gnawed but also has his skin constantly torn by Lucifer’s nails.

Having seen Lucifer, Dante climbs onto Virgil and is led by him down one of Lucifer’s sides. When they reach Lucifer’s hips Virgil makes an about turn, and starts climbing up Lucifer’s hairy body, so that Dante thinks they are returning into Hell. As Virgil explains, however, they are, in fact, proceeding in the same direction in which they were moving as they were climbing down Lucifer. Once past the hip, they had to climb up rather than down because the centre of Lucifer’s body corresponds to the point in the earth to which all weight is attracted. Once they have passed the centre of the earth, Dante and Virgil find themselves in the lower hemisphere of the earth. As Virgil further explains, Lucifer fell to the centre of the earth immediately after having sinned against God; and the land which originally was in the lower hemisphere of the earth moved, out of fear for Lucifer, to the upper hemisphere. At the same time, Virgil says, a cavity was made, and the earth which was in this cavity moved back up to the lower hemisphere to create the mountain of Purgatory. It is towards the mountain of Purgatory that Dante and Virgil move at the end of the canto and of the cantica, through a small passage created by a little river flowing down to Hell from the lower hemisphere. The canto and the cantica end with Dante and Virgil coming out into the open air, able once again to see the stars.

Canto XXXIV can be divided into six sections:

  • description of Giudecca (1–15)
  • Lucifer (16–60)
  • Judas, Brutus and Cassius (61–67)
  • descent and climb out of Hell (68–99)
  • Virgil’s explanations regarding Lucifer’s fall from heaven and how it shaped the earth (100–26)
  • journey towards the open air (127–39).

Discussion point: Lucifer and God

Just as with the giants in Canto XXXI, the appearance of Lucifer is compared, in the first instance, to that of an inanimate structure – lines 4–9. Even when Dante and Virgil move closer to Lucifer, his movements appear to be more like those of a machine than those of a living being. There is something monstrously repetitive and monotonous about the movement of Lucifer’s wings and mouths. They do not in any clear manner appear to be guided by Lucifer’s personal initiative. The ‘king’ of Hell is just as subject to the will of God as the sinners of Giudecca. Lucifer’s impotence may very well strike a first-time reader of the Commedia as an anticlimax. One might expect, on the basis of many other famous literary representations of Satan (e.g. in Milton’s Paradise Lost), to find Dante’s Lucifer as an active personal agent, consciously and constantly engaged in a battle against God. But there is nothing of the sort in Dante’s Lucifer. This is highly significant, for it reveals that, for Dante, to sin is not simply an act of rebellion against God. God was not, for Dante, a being existing objectively over and above individual human beings. Rather God was, for Dante, intimately related, as power (or virtue), wisdom and love to one’s very existence. Human beings and angels, for Dante, were created to partake in the life of God itself through the exercise of power, wisdom and love. To sin is to undermine these, and thus to undermine the possibility for one’s nature properly to flourish.

 © Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame