Although there seem to be similarities between Dante’s vision of Satan and his vision of God, Satan is actually an inversion of the Trinity and God. There are also significant differences between the two visions, which are essential to understanding this inversion.
The most obvious instance of inversion is Dante’s construction of the world of his Divine Comedy. A simplified version of this world looks like this:
From this depiction, it is obvious that God and Satan are at opposite ends of the world. However, similarities between the two are equally obvious. How can this be?
A closer examination reveals that only the language is similar. Dante uses emotions and images to describe his experiences with these two divinities. The language actually highlights the differences between them, as will be seen later.
The most significant pseudo-similarities and inversions are within the individual texts. The first instance is the climactic difference between God’s realm of the Empyrean and Satan’s realm of Lake Cocytus. Cocytus is a cold, frozen place. (Dante, Hell, XXXIV, 12) Contrasted with this in Paradise is God’s realm of light and warmth. (Dante, Paradise, XXXIII, 27) The realms and the deities themselves are opposites; Cocytus and Satan are material (Dante, Hell, XXXIV, 29), where God and the Empyrean are not. (Dante, Paradise, XXXIII, 114)
Emotions play a strong role in both realms. The basic emotions that Dante feels in each realm are opposite. He describes the pit of Hell as “sorrowful,” (Dante, Hell, XXXIV, 25) but experiences “bliss” in the Empyrean. (Dante, Paradise, XXXIII, 10) Both emotions have an extreme effect on Dante. In Hell he is “powerless to express” his fear. (Dante, Hell, XXXIV, 24) His experience in Paradise is more pleasant; he is “fixed in wonder” rather than paralyzed with fear. (Dante, Paradise, XXXIII, 98)
Satan himself is an embodiment of the disunion in Hell. Like him, his realm is divided in sin. This is seen most clearly by the description of Satan’s cannibalism. (Dante, Hell, XXXIV, 55) The body of Satan is a grotesque malformation, nature perverted. (Dante, Hell, XXXIV, 37-60) The line, “This was not life and yet it was not death,” (Dante, Hell, XXXIV, 25) creates an image of a punishment that keeps the sinner in limbo.
God’s realm, on the other hand, is the ultimate union. Dante sees the entire universe within God. (Dante, Paradise, XXXIII, 85-7) Therefore, God himself is perfection and love embodied. The Empyrean is a world of “timeless peace.” (Dante, Paradise, XXXIII, 8)
The appearance of each realm and its characters is telling as well. The “topsy-turvy” voyage up Satan’s body represents the disorder within Satan and his kingdom. (Dorothy L. Sayers, commentary of Hell, p. 290, note 19) The description of Satan’s body as immense gives the impression of something overpowering. (Dorothy L. Sayers, commentary of Hell, p. 290, note 74) God’s universe is a more approachable, pleasant place, seen most clearly by the image of man in Christ. (Dante, Paradise, XXXIII, 131)
We now come to the most significant difference: the inversion of the Trinity as seen in Satan. Why is this inversion present?
The answer is twofold; it lies in Christian theology and in Paradise. Christian doctrine (which was used heavily in the writing of the Comedy) states that, “evil can only mimic and distort, not create.” Therefore, evil (and consequently Hell) cannot have distinct attributes, but must mimic and distort those naturally created by God.
Dorothy Sayers mentions this in her introduction to Canto XXXIII of Paradise:
“. . . the True Light of which all other is the radiance or reflection.” The True Light referred to is, of course, God.
Dante describes Satan as having “Three faces in his head.” (Dante, Hell, XXXIV, 38). Conversely, God is described as, “Three spheres, which bare three hues distinct, and occupied one space.” (Dante, Paradise, XXXIII, 116-7) The significance of the hues will be discussed later; it is the three spheres that are relevant to the three faces of Satan.
Satan’s three faces are extremely symbolic. The image of a face represents the human nature of Satan. The separate faces represent the disunion that results from sin. Dorothy Sayers says that the three faces represent “hatred, ignorance, and impotence” –the opposite of the three theological virtues. (Dorothy L. Sayers, Commentary on Hell, Page 290, Note 38)
Dante sees God as three spheres. (Dante, Paradise, XXXIII, 116) The image of the sphere is one of eternity, as it has no beginning and no end but simply continues. The three are as one; the first two mirror each other and the third is born from the two. (Dante, Paradise, XXXIII, 118-20) Each sphere has three meanings. The first sphere is Love, Faith, and God. The second is Wisdom, Hope, and the Son. The third is Power, Charity, and the Holy Ghost. (Dorothy L. Sayers, Commentary on Hell, Page 290, Note 38)
Each sphere melds into the next, so that all contain the characteristics of each other. Dante sees the image of man in the sum of the three spheres. (Dante, Paradise, XXXIII, 127-30)
The three colors are also significant to the inversion. Satan is composed of three separate colors: red, black, and yellow. (Dante, Hell, XXXIV, 37-45) This is another representation of the separation that sin incurs, as discussed above. The spheres of God are distinct but share the same color, differing only in hue. (Dante, Paradise, XXXIII, 116-7) This is another representation of God’s unity.
Although the language that Dante uses to describe God and Satan lends to some similarities, a close examination of the text reveals that the two are actually opposites of each other. Most significantly, Satan is a grotesque inversion of the sacred Trinity seen in God.
Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy: Hell. Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers. 1949; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978.
Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy: Paradise. Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds. (1962; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978.
Gardner, Patrick. “Dante’s Inferno” online resource. Accessed November 15, 1999. Available at http://www.sparknotes.com/guides/inferno/
Sayers, Dorothy L., trans. The Divine Comedy: Hell. By Dante Alighieri. 1949; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978.
Sayers, Dorothy L. and Barbara Reynolds, trans. The Divine Comedy: Paradise. By Dante Alighieri. 1962; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978.