Dante’s Satan: inactive and active



At the beginning of our discussion of the Golden Legend (chap. 10.2), I raised the question of the uneasy line between allegedly historical and fictionalized accounts of religious events and themes.  I am chiefly interested, as I said at the beginning, not in overtly imaginary creations but in accounts that are meant to be “real,” that is, which were taken to be real.  Nevertheless, I will pause briefly here to look at a few of the more familiar literary presentations of the Devil to see what we can learn from them.

I have already cited a few Anglo-Saxon poetic imaginings of Satan (chap. 10.3), some of them showing Satan as bound in Hell but not mentally and sometimes not even physically incapacitated.  We can take up our discourse here by looking at Dante, but we needn’t stay long with him.  In his most famous representation of Satan, Dante calls him the Emperor of the Woeful Realm (Inferno 34.28), but in fact he is Emperor of Nothing.  Rather he is a witless, weeping, and slobbering torture-machine, constantly chewing on the three worst sinners in Hell.  This concept of Satan as straitly confined and feeding on damned souls can be traced to an earlier tour of the nether world, the Vision of Tnugdal, produced in the twelfth century.

We get the impression here in the Inferno that Satan has been in this pickle ever since “he lifted up his brows against his Maker” (v. 35).  But there are occasional suggestions elsewhere in the Comedy that Satan actually leads an active life:  for instance as the Father of Lies (Inf. 23.143-44).  In the paraphrase of the Our Father in Purgatorio, the petition, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” is stated thus:



Nostra virtù, che di legger s’adona,

Non spermentar con l’Antico Avversario,

Ma libera da lui, che sì la sprona  (Purg. 11.19-21)

(Our strength, which is easily overcome,

Put not to testing with the Old Adversary,

But deliver it from him, who so prods against it.)

“Our Adversary” still appears in serpent form, as he did when deceiving Eve (Purg. 8.95-102).

The other Demons of Hell, with their attributes often taken from classical mythology, seem to be similarly mindless tormenters.  However, there is the “black devil” that collects sinners from Lucca who appears to be fairly sharp, but there is no indication that he helps to make the Luccans sinners in the first place by tempting them (Inferno 21.29-42).