Dante and Satan’s Hell


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The damned, like Satan, have profoundly mixed desires; they have ambivalent longings. In a sense, they like their punishments and endorse them in some important way. Just as Satan condemns himself to be in Hell by his own actions, they don’t want to leave Hell. Therefore, Hell, as Dante Alighieri observes, is just the extension of the damned’s crimes.

A sculptural group with the image of the devil clutching the face of a sinner.
All the damned have ambivalent longings just like Satan. ( Image: zebra0209/Shutterstock)

Satan in Hell

Satan is the king of the dammed, the mayor of Hell; but also in some important way the first inmate of Hell. Dante sees him half-sunk in the frozen ice lake at the bottom of Hell; his wings are beating furiously as he is trying to escape the ice.

In his three mouths he has the three greatest traitors of human history: Brutus and Cassius, two Roman traitors, and Judas Iscariot. He’s desperately trying to chew them out of his mouths so that he could, perhaps, breathe or talk. But, of course, their bodies are continually being reintegrated by God’s grace in such a way that they are inevitably needing to be chewed more. Satan is kind of being force-fed the greatest traitors of all of reality.

In this situation, Dante and Virgil, his guide, can’t speak to Satan—Satan has these traitors in his mouths—but there’s no attempt to communicate with Satan at all; they only watch, they only see. In some sense, there’s no way to communicate with this epitome of evil; all one can do is observe it.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Satan’s Paradoxical Attempt to Escape

What they observe is that he is trapped in a lake of ice. As the ice is frozen, he’s half-sunk in it. Ironically, it’s frozen because his own wings are beating; that is, his very attempt to escape the ice is what is locking him ever more firmly in it.

Representation of Satan.
Dante and Virgil couldn’t speak to Satan as he had traitors in his mouth. ( Image: Rijksmuseum/Public domain)

Dante ponders as to why Satan is at the bottom of Hell. Why isn’t he in some castle in the center of Hell. Again, he’s really not the ‘mayor of Hell’, he’s really Hell’s first inmate.

Hell itself is a vast crater created by Satan’s plummeting fall from Heaven. At the bottom of that crater, at the dead center of damnation, is where Satan has come to rest. Satan seems desperate to flee. But what is it exactly he’s fleeing?

It turns out its more complicated than that. As Dante and Virgil climb out of Hell, they go over to Satan’s body and then climb down his legs out of Hell. As they climb down, they realise that Hell itself has all been upside down.

Satan Condemning Himself

They get out, crawling off Satan’s feet, and first see the stars. It is Easter morning which is a great allegory. It starts on Good Friday when they enter Hell and they get out of Hell on Easter morning, following Jesus. But the crucial thing here is that Satan is upside down in the ice from the perspective of the rest of reality.

So, from the soles of Satan’s feet, they can look up, and there is the mount of paradise on top of which is God. In other words, Satan is locked in the ice, and he’s not just trying to escape the ice, he’s still trying to get away from God.

Clearly, for Dante, Satan is in some sense condemning himself to be in Hell by his own activity. What Dante concludes is that people are in Hell in some sense because they want to be there. Hell is not essentially an extrinsic punishment for people who have been bad; Hell is in some important way intrinsic to their sins themselves.

Learn more about human evil and malice in Greek philosophy.

Satan’s Conflicted Desire

An empty tomb with cross on sunset background signifying Easter Sunday.
On Good Friday, Dante and Virgil enter Hell and they get out on Easter morning. ( Image: Paul shuang/Shutterstock)

Consider all the damned: They have ambivalent longings just like Satan. On the one hand, Satan wants more than anything else not to serve God, not to work in God’s system, not to be a part of God’s great plan. But everything that is, including Satan in Satan’s very being, is part of God’s system.

Thus, Satan’s real desire is, in some way, not to be at all. Satan’s rebellion, Satan’s sin, is not actually an imposition against God, it is most basically a form of flight; a form of flight that longs to take the ultimate metaphysical form, which is self-annihilation.

Yet, his most essential desire—not to be a part of God’s creation—conflicts with the foundations of Satan’s own essential being; and Satan wants to be and not be at the same time.

Satan’s own captivity is not only imposed by Satan on himself, but is imposed by Satan on himself by God in the background as a way of stopping Satan’s flight. All of this is a tremendous symbol of Satan’s confusion.

Learn more about the nature and origins of evil.

Satan’s Counter-punishment

But what is the contrapasso or the counter-punishment here for Satan? What is the real punishment that Satan is enduring? Is it just being frozen in a lake and being forced to eat bad people? Dante reminds us that every punishment is a cryptogram of the sin that it punishes. So, as Satan’s sin is his desire not to serve God, Satan’s punishment thus is precisely to become one of the greatest servants of God one could be.

A painting showing Dante and Virgil holding each other.
Dante and Virgil get out of Hell by crawling off Satan’s feet. (Image: Sailko/Public domain)

Satan is truly punished precisely because he wants to not serve the good by serving the good. That sounds a bit insane.

Dante concludes that Satan has a desire for self-annihilation, as thoroughly as anyone can genuinely want that end. Then again, that’s not a perfect and whole-hearted desire, because no creature can desire death whole-heartedly; so Satan is, again, most fundamentally confused, ambivalent.

God lets Satan have Satan’s way as far as possible. However, still Satan’s actual desire can’t finally make sense, and Satan can’t get outside of being God’s creature.

Hell, then, according to Dante, is self-made and self-inflicted; it’s chosen in some profound but utterly mysterious way by the damned. Dante concludes that they don’t just get what they deserve, that is, they get what, in some utterly mysterious way, they actually want.

Common Questions about Dante and Satan’s Hell

Q: What did Dante see in Satan’s mouth?

Dante saw that Satan had three mouths in which he had the three greatest traitors of human history: Brutus and Cassius, two Roman traitors, and Judas Iscariot.

Q: What can Dante and Virgil see from the soles of Satan’s feet?

From the soles of Satan’s feet, Dante and Virgil look up and see the mount of paradise on top of which is God.

Q: Where was Satan trapped?

Satan was trapped in a lake of ice in Hell. As the ice is frozen, he got half-sunk in it.

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