Tale of two Satans
Satan is both a key religious and literary symbol for Western culture, and he is a predominant figure in two classic works, Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. As a symbol, Satan has a mix of some characteristics that are immutable and some characteristics that are fluid. By comparing Dante’s version of Satan to Milton’s, it becomes possible to examine which characteristics are core to identifying Satan and which change in service to the context and themes of the work.
Dante’s Inferno and the portrayal of Satan
Dante’s Inferno features Satan in the last Canto, when Dante and his guide, Virgil, have finally reached the last round of the ninth circle.
Satan is first described as enormous, and Dante observes that “I in stature am more like / A giant than the giants are his arms” (lines 29–30).
Satan is so large, that as Virgil and Dante descend from his top to bottom, they arrive “Under the hemisphere opposed to that,” which is to say they journey through the diameter of Earth (line 107).
Dante describes Satan’s physical appearance as “hideous” and Satan has three faces—red, yellow, and black (lines 36, 38–40). Satan is described as having “Two mighty wings, enormous” that were “in texture like a bat” (lines 43, 46). Dante notices that Satan is weeping and also chewing on sinners, creating a “bloody foam” (line 50). The sinners are Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, all of whom are known as betrayers, similar to one of Satan’s notable symbolic features—betrayer of God.
Virgil refers to this portion of Hell as “Judecca,” in a possible reference to Judas, and it is here that Dante’s Inferno has reached the heart of Hell, which seems to be about betrayal. They leave, Virgil and Dante must climb down Satan’s body, crossing “Between the thick fell and the jagged ice” (line 69). This means that Satan is hairy and also frozen in ice, just as the other sinners in this portion of Hell are frozen.
Overall, Dante’s depiction of Satan is a grotesque reversal of angels and the Trinity. He is in a cold, hopeless place, frozen and turned into a bat-winged hairy beast, tormented as a betrayer and forced to torment others who are considered history’s worst betrayers.
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Milton’s description of Satan in Paradise Lost
Milton’s version of Satan is found in his classic, Paradise Lost.
In this work, Satan is also characterized as a betrayer, “with ambitious aim / Against the throne and monarchy of God, / Raised impious war in Heaven” (Milton, lines 41–43).
Similarly, too, does Milton use the allegory of Satan being literally cast from Heaven, “Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky” (line 45). However, Milton’s Satan is not mute and frozen and instead begins to speak of his own motivations for his actions, giving him more complexity as a character than the Satan in Inferno. Whereas Dante’s Satan is mostly visually symbolic, the Satan in Milton is a realized character within the work.
As Fowley notes, Dante “avoids any attempt to dramatize the story of Lucifer or to make him into a character as Milton does in Paradise Lost” (211).
Instead of weeping, as Dante’s Satan does, Milton’s Satan is still boastful, refusing to ever “bow and sue for grace / With suppliant knee” and delivers his famous phrase, “Better to rein in Hell than serve in Heaven” (Milton, lines 111–112, 264).
This shows he has no repentance for his actions, whereas Dante depicts Satan as suffering. As with Dante’s Satan, this Satan is also “of monstrous size” and also is winged (lines 197, 225). But Satan comes across as far more human than Dante’s Satan, who is described as a monster.
Both Dante and Milton’s view follows the history of the Bible and symbolizes Satan as a betrayer, and they both share the detail that this Satan was physically hurled from Heaven. They are most different in how each writer depicts the conscience of Satan. With Dante, it is implied but not dramatized. However, Milton’s Satan is far more dynamic and complex, having a voice and motivation for his actions. Whatever a person’s personal beliefs, it would be difficult to deny that Satan is one of the more dynamic personalities to appear repeatedly throughout literature.
Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy, translated by Henry F. Cary. Vol. XX. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. Web. 25 Nov. 2013.
Fowlie, Wallace. A Reading of Dante’s Inferno. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. Print.
Milton, John. Complete Poems. Vol. IV. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. Web. 25 Nov. 2013