Why do you think Dante has chosen to encase Satan in ice instead of a lake of lava? What is the symbolism in that?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of the most impressive elements about Dante's Inferno is his configuration of the inner- most regions of Hell.  Dante clearly recognizes that there are two types of anger.  The first type is the traditional depiction of the Satanic domain.  This anger is fiery, involving demoniac laughter and yelling.  One can imagine that the searing heat from the underworld is almost an emotional expression.  It is within this that the critical element of this depiction lies for there is emotion and personal articulation.  Dante's configuration of the hell of Satan as ice reflects another and different conception of anger.  This vision is one precisely where there is no emotional contact.  This anger is one of silence, frigidity, and emotional separation.  When parents yell at kids, at least one knows that there is caring evident.  When parents go silent and effectively say, "I don't want to talk to you," the child knows that a major transgression has been committed.  It is in this light where Dante's conception of the coldness and frigidity of hell acquires a great deal of emotional meaning.

Dante's depiction of ice throughout the ninth level of hell reflects how the people in it have severed bonds and connections to others.  Dante depicts characters who have betrayed one another in the emotional realm, individuals who have betrayed nations and political allegiances, and traitors to the divine.  Placing each of these regions in ice helps to enhance the frigidity with which they appropriated their time as a human being. Dante wishes to depict Satan immersed in ice, what is called, "straw in glass," to reflect the transgression of denying human connection.  Dante believes that the sinners in the ninth circle have committed the greatest of offenses.  They forsake the larger bonds that existed between themselves and something larger.  Depicting Satan as the crown prince of this world helps to develop the idea that the true sin of the devil in its repudiation of something larger than himself.  "The banners of the King of Hell go forth" in a block of ice, frozen in self- indulgence, cut off from absolution and from all others because they, themselves, have cut themselves off from others with their acts of betrayal.  It is for this reason that Dante wishes for a force "To shield me from the wind," reflecting how he does not wish to succumb to the emotional frigidity of the region.

The symbolic use of ice to encase Satan reflects the true level of sin from which humans must flee. Dante uses ice as something devoid of human emotion and connection.  The "heavy substance" used to encase Satan is reflective of the transgressions of the entire circle.  For Dante, betrayal of bond and the sin of being a traitor is calculated, premeditated, and precise.  Unlike some of the other transgressions seen, it is not something that "just happens."  The people in this circle planned out their deceptions of others, similar to Cain, embodied in the name of the first region, "Caina."  Judas, whose name is seen in "Judecca," is someone that Dante sees as deliberately betraying the son of God.  Such a level of betrayal, complete with Satan at its center represents a domain of severed bonds and forgoing human connection.  For Dante, the symbolic representation of ice in this world reflects the cold and detached nature of the transgressions committed.  The icy frigidity of hell is contrasted with the warmth of redemption present in Beatrice and paradiso.

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