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The Inferno: This is a Terror That Cannot Be Told (Compound Fraud/Betrayal). Feraco Myth to Science Fiction 11 December 2012. Circle Nine.

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the inferno this is a terror that cannot be told compound fraud betrayal

The Inferno: This is a Terror That Cannot Be Told (Compound Fraud/Betrayal)


Myth to Science Fiction

11 December 2012

circle nine
Circle Nine

In The Inferno, Dante separates simple fraud from compound fraud by defining the latter as violations of individuals with whom the sinner shares special bonds – love, or even “unbreakable” trust.

Those who commit compound fraud are sent to Cocytus, the Ninth Circle of Hell; Dante describes it as a gigantic frozen lake, divided into four concentric circles, with Satan (Dis) at its center.

The four regions – Caïna, Antenora, Ptolomea, and Judecca – are separated less by the gravity of the crime than by the nature of the bond that’s been broken.


This is the last of the four rivers of sin that pour forth from the Old Man of Crete.

In The Aeneid, Virgil describes Cocytus very differently: it’s a nearly-black pool of water that encircles a forest, with sand pouring into it from a whirlpool.

This is where Dante drew his inspiration for the Second and Third Rounds of the Seventh Circle, with the Wood of the Suicides and the Burning Plain of Sand; the image’s last element turns up here.

In the Vulgate (the Latin Bible), Cocytus is the Valley of Death for the Wicked, although it’s alternately described as a giant torrent; Dante’s frozen lake is his own creation.

ca na

Caïna, named after Cain, a Biblical figure who slew his own brother out of jealousy, houses the souls of those who betrayed their kinsmen.

This is where Gianciotto, Paolo’s brother and Francesca’s husband, was sent; notice that neither of them ended up here.

The souls are punished by being frozen in place within the lake; only their heads and neck are exposed, and the only movement they can make is to bow their heads.

This is actually a bit of a blessing; the ice is frozen by a tremendous wind, and the souls who can bow their heads not only get to hide (a little bit) from it, but can allow their tears to fall to the ice without freezing their eyes shut.


Antenora is named after Antenor, a Trojan prince who had tried to return Helen to the Greeks in order to save his city.

His reputation had been so badly twisted by medieval pro-Trojan Romans that he was essentially seen as a Judas figure – someone who had set out to betray those he’d sworn to follow and protect.

Antenora houses the souls who have betrayed their political party or nation.

The souls are also frozen within the lake; they’re sunk in the ice a bit lower, so while they still have the ability to speak, they cannot bend their necks – with the exception of Ugolino and Ruggieri, whose punishment is unique.


Ptolomea is named after one of two figures (or both) named Ptolomy.

One was the captain of Jericho, who presented his father-in-law and his two sons with a feast before murdering them; the other was Cleopatra’s brother, who arranged for Pompey’s murder as soon as he arrived seeking refuge following his defeat at Pharsalia.

Ptolomea houses the souls who betrayed their friends or guests; they’re so deep in the ice that only half of their head rises out of the ice; their faces are forever looking upwards, and their tears freeze their eyes shut.

Moreover, these souls were ripped out of their bodies before they reached the end of their natural lives; demons currently inhabit their bodies, controlling them like marionettes until they finally expire.


Judecca is named after Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus; interestingly, Judas himself isn’t punished here.

(It’s also another piece of evidence that commentators cite when debating Dante’s anti-Semitism; “Judecca” recalls the names of the ghettos (areas of cities like Venice) where Jews were forced to live, segregated from the medieval Christian population: Iudeca, Judaica, etc.)

Judecca houses the souls who not only betrayed their masters or benefactors, but whose sins had important historical or societal ramifications.

The souls are completely locked in ice, trapped forever in various poses with no ability to move or speak.

the center
The Center

At the center, the poets find Satan trapped within the ice, flapping his gigantic wings, struggling to escape; this is the source of the wind that freezes the ice.

Since Satan himself is trapped within the ice, he’s the source of his own punishment – just as he brought his horrible fall from grace on himself by rising up against God, he now freezes himself by trying to rise again.

With three faces – Dante’s ironic perversion of the Holy Trinity – Satan uses his three mouths to chew three sinners: Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ, and Brutus & Cassius, the murderers of Caesar.

the contrapasso
The Contrapasso

Since the Treacherous refused God’s love and light in the worst possible way, they are farthest removed from both in death.

Since they turned human warmth into a weapon, freezing ice punishes them.

As they destroyed all ties in life, they are now bound by ice that cannot break.

camicon bocca
Camicon / Bocca

Alberto Camicon de Pazzi simply murdered his kinsman.

Camicon’s function resembles Pier de Medicina’s from the previous circle; he’s a minor figure who’s mainly here to fill an expository need (i.e., tell Dante about how things work in that particular region of Hell, who’s in there, and why they’re there).

Pier della Vigne’s a more important example (from the Second Round of the Seventh Circle) of the same character usage.

camicon bocca1
Camicon / Bocca

Bocca degli Abati, whom Dante’s really cruel towards (not only does he accidentally kick him in the head, but he starts pulling out chunks of his hair in an attempt to torment Bocca into revealing his name), fought in the Battle of Montaperti with the Guelfs against forces under the command of Farinata degli Uberti.

He was a member of a prominent Ghibelline family, and he was only pretending to side with the Guelfs; at a key moment, he sliced off the hand of the Guelf flag-bearer.

The loss of their flag – and the realization that a traitor had infiltrated their ranks – caused the Guelfs to panic, and the well-organized forces under Uberti’s command annihilated them.

ugolino ruggieri
Ugolino / Ruggieri

This is the single longest speech any of the shades in Hell give; it’s Dante’s ultimate depiction of the depths of human depravity, which is why the souls involved are punished so gruesomely.

Count Ugolino della Gherardesca lived in a city called Pisa, one of Florence’s rivals, and he betrayed Pisa in a series of different moves.

He was born into an important Pisan Ghibelline family, but switched sides once the Guelfs started gaining power; Ugolino was exiled after failing to install a Pisan Guelf government, but he would return and, years later, be elected as podesta (political head) of Pisa.

His nephew, Nino Visconti, served as “captain of the people” – nearly the same in rank.

ugolino ruggieri1
Ugolino / Ruggieri

At this point, Ugolino capitulated to political expedience and gave away Pisan castles to Florence and Lucca; this led to a split between him and Nino, as well as between their followers.

At the same time, Ghibellines led by Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini were gaining power in nearby Tuscany; Ugolino conspired with them to have Nino driven from the city, and was intentionally absent from Pisa when their forces arrived.

When he returned, Ruggieri betrayed him, inciting the public against him by bringing up his “betrayal of the castles”; with popular pressure against him, Ugolino, two sons, and two grandsons were arrested and locked away.

ugolino ruggieri2
Ugolino / Ruggieri

Dante changes the conditions of Ugolino’s imprisonment; he makes the sons much younger and pretends the grandsons don’t exist, then really lengthens the duration of their stay (years instead of months).

However, fact and fiction end the same way, albeit for different reasons (change in Ghibelline leadership vs. Ruggieri’s cruelty): the key to Ugolino’s cell is thrown away, and food delivery ceases.

Ugolino must watch helplessly as his sons, begging for food, starve to death over the course of a week, and expires a couple of days later.

Ugolino doesn’t even pretend that he hasn’t earned his punishment in Cocytus; instead, he wants Dante to understand the monstrosity of Ruggieri’s crime.

friar alberigo
Friar Alberigo

Friar Alberigo (Fra Alberigo for short) also suffers at Dante’s hands, although for different reasons than Bocca; Dante says he will peel the frozen tears from his eyes if he reluctantly reveals his name, but the poet does not keep his promise (for “to be rude to him was courtesy”).

Chillingly, Dante realizes that “Alberigo” isn’t dead yet – or, at least, his body isn’t; his soul has been ripped from his body in the wake of his sin.

In life, Alberigo was a Jovial Friar, the religious order from the Hypocrites bolgia whose reputation for peace-keeping was soon replaced by one of corruption.

His relative, Manfred, plotted Alberigo’s ruin for politically-motivated reasons, and eventually hit him.

Alberigo pretended to forgive him, and invited his attacker (and his son) to join him for a feast at his home; when they finished eating, Alberigo’s servants slaughtered them both as the master watched gleefully.

judas brutus cassius
Judas, Brutus, & Cassius

While contemporary audiences tend to think of Shakespeare’s play when asked to recall the particulars of Julius Caesar’s life and death, Dante had a much different view.

Brutus and Cassius fought under Pompey’s command during the civil war and, following Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalia, receive high public offices after Caesar (in Dante’s eyes, one of Rome’s greatest rulers, and a critical component of God’s plan for human happiness) pardons them.

Cassius never stops resenting Caesar’s dictatorship, and he conspired with Brutus to assassinate Caesar in order to restore the Republic; they succeed in killing their ruler, but their own ambitions met with ruin, and both eventually committed suicide.

In Shakespeare’s telling, Caesar has become a decadent, corrupt, and blind ruler; Brutus and Cassius betray him, but reluctantly so, particularly in Brutus’s case.

judas brutus cassius1
Judas, Brutus, & Cassius

Finally, Judas Iscariot served as one of Jesus Christ’s twelve apostles, but agreed to betray his master for thirty pieces of silver.

He, too, paid for the consequences of his betrayal by killing himself.

The three souls’ punishments – being chewed, ripped, and flayed by Satan’s teeth for all eternity – are the worst Dante can imagine.

satan dis
Satan (Dis)

Satan, also called Dis or Lucifer (“light-bearer,” a reference to the angel’s originally beautiful appearance), earned his place at the heart of the Inferno by rebelling against God.

Just as we see with the other Rebellious Angels, Satan is now as hideous as he was once gorgeous, and his tri-faced heads represent a wicked perversion of the Christian Holy Trinity.

Following his rebellion, he became what Raffa calls “the source of evil and sorrow in the world” – although one could argue that Dante’s text seems to blame human failures as well.

Dante and Virgil must literally climb over him, sliding down his flank through the center of the world; when they pass through it, their perspective flips to the point where Satan’s legs now appear to jut straight into the sky.

Ultimately, he’s powerless to do anything to Dante, despite the poet’s gut-wrenching tower at the mere sight of him.

In Hell, even Satan weeps.

beneath the stars
Beneath the Stars

Once Dante and Virgil pass through the center, they follow the trickling of the Lethe toward the surface.

In classical mythology, the Lethe was the River of Forgetfulness; souls drink from the River before entering the world.

When they emerge, they walk out “beneath the stars” – the source of our blog’s name (or half of it, anyway).

Dante concludes all three parts of his Divine Comedy in similar fashion, with references to the stars.

The stars are the physical realm of Paradise, which Dante explores later during his quest for redemption; here, it’s just enough that he stands under them, the “shining symbols of hope and virtue.”

beneath the stars1
Beneath the Stars

So we come to the end ourselves.

At the book’s conclusion, Dante remains an exile, a man without friends, family, or home, a man without a future.

We know that his life never really gets better, and we see that he doesn’t drink from the Lethe to forget what he’s suffered.

Yet for now, the sky’s opened up above him, human misery lies far behind him…and as he stands, like Gilgamesh looking up at Uruk, for one fragile, shining moment, Dante dares to dream of salvation.