Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


Virgil and Dante leave the malebolge and move toward the pit, the ninth and final circle of Hell, reserved for “when the faculty of intellect / is joined with brute force and with evil will” (XXXI.55-56). The giant Nimrod blows a horn. Other giants are chained at this rim of the circle, serving as embodiments of elemental forces. The giant Antaeus obeys Virgil by lifting the two travellers and lowering them on Cocytus, a frozen lake.


Circle Nine: Round One (Ca├»na) — Treacherous to Kin

Traitors are frozen at various depths in the lake. Mordred and various Italians are found frozen up to their necks for their acts of treahery to members of their own families.

Circle Nine: Round Two (Antenora) — Treacherous to Country

Dante accidentally kicks a face sticking out of the ice. Those treacherous to their countries are frozen to a point that they cannot move their necks at all. Dante sees two heads emerging from one hole, one chewing on the brains of the other. These are Archbishop Ruggieri, and Count Ugolino who gnaws on him. The story is told in the next canto.


Ugolino stops chewing to tell the story of being imprisoned with his children. The implication is that they turned to cannibalism. Dante wonders about the icy wind, but he’ll see its origin soon.

Circle Nine: Round Three (Ptolomaea) — Treacherous to Guests and Hosts

Those who betrayed their own guests or hosts are frozen halfway up their faces. Their tears freeze their eyes solid. Friar Alberigo tells Dante that his soul is damned now even though his body lives on earth. This is the odd case with Branca d’Oria too. Although he had promised to, Dante does not remove the ice from the friar’s eyes: “To be mean to him was a generous reward” (XXXIII.150).


Circle Nine: Round Four (Judecca) — Treacherous to Masters

Aside from apparently the three worst sinners of all time, the worst sin you can commit is to be treacherous to your own teacher. These sinners, the treacherous to their masters, are completely frozen underneath the ice, sealed up in twisted poses. So there’s not much to say here.


Generating the icy wind by flapping his gigantic wings, Satan is also frozen in the ice. Satan’s head has three faces — one red, one light yellow, and one black. In his mouths he chews perpetually on Judas, betrayer of Jesus; on Brutus, betrayer of Julius Caesar; and on Cassius, uh, another betrayer of Julius Caesar.

Satan is at the center of the earth. Virgil and Dante grab “on to the shaggy sides of Satan” (XXXIV.73) and climb downwards, “tuft by tuft” (74).

When we had reached the point exactly where
the thigh begins, right at the haunch’s curve,
my guide, with strain and force of every muscle,
turned his head toward the shaggy shanks of Dis
and grabbed the hair as if about to climb–
I thought that we were heading back to Hell.
. . .
I raised my eyes, expecting I would see
the half of Lucifer I saw before.
Instead I saw his two legs stretching upward.
If at that sight I found myself confused,
so will those simple-minded folk who still
don’t see what point it was I must have passed.

Virgil explains that they passed through the center of gravity and they are now emerged from Hell and at the hemisphere where lies the Mount of Purgatory. Dante sees the stars.

If the anatomical model for the journey is viable and we started out with references to eyes, then mouths, then bloodstreams, then intestines (the Malbolge), then Dante’s enigmatic passage about “what point it was [he] must have passed” becomes disgustingly, but appropriately, clear.