Thursday, March 18, 2010

“Two shades frozen in a single hole”

Let me preface this post by admitting I am no expert on Dante — far from it — but Dante’s conception of the lowest circle of Hell as frozen waste rather than a confla-gration seems pretty unique. Off the top of my head, I can’t recall many other literary conceptions of Hell like that of the Inferno.

But apart from the imaginative force of novelty, why a lake of ice (Cocytus) instead of the more familiar lake of fire (Phlegethon)? Wondering where Dante got this idea, I made a very cursory search of the scholarship and didn’t find nearly as much as I expected to on the subject. Perhaps I don’t know where to look. One model (as seem obvious enough) could be Virgil, who hints at both burning and frigid regions of the underworld (cf. frigidus annus, i.e., winter, in Æneid, Book VI, at l. 311). Milton, by the way, picks up the same thread for his geography of Hell in Paradise Lost (cf. “a frozen continent” where “cold performs the effect of fire”, Book II, ll. 587, 595).

I’ve read that some Islamic stories depict a frozen underworld, as do some other Asian mythologies (e.g., Chinese, Tibetan, Hindu). And certainly this is true of the legends of the frozen north, as for example, the Old Norse Niflheim. But I can’t see any of these being a model for Dante. So, apart from Virgil, where else might Dante have gotten this startling image of sinners up to their necks in ice, Satan beating a cold wind from his enormous wings, and the rest? Where is the ice in Christianity? Given the overtly Christian skeleton of Dante’s poem, this seems a pretty orthodox backbone to me.

I was thinking about this recently, as I have from time to time, and a new idea struck me. Could it be a case of simple word-play, from the similarity of the Italian words, inverno “winter” and inferno “hell” [1]? Poetic conceits are often born in just this way; at least, they were for me when I wrote more poetry, once upon a long time ago. In fact, it was while reading another poet [2] that this idea sprang into my head. In Dante’s case, the two words differ by only a single letter — in fact, in both cases the letter is a labiodental fricative consonant, one voiced, the other voiceless. Words don’t get much closer than that. It’s even possible that Renaissance folk-etymologists conceived of a connection between the words (though this is nothing more than a random thought on my part). Does anyone know whether this theory (inferno / inverno) has ever been suggested in Dante circles? (No pun intended! :)

And could it be that simple? It’s certainly the kind of idea that would occur to (and appeal to) the philologically minded. After all, Dante did write one of the earliest serious works on the relationship between languages, De vulgari eloquentia (“Eloquence in the Vernacular”), in which he makes the case for the possibility of eloquent expression in the vernacular [i.e., Italian], as opposed to Latin. This incomplete work is one of the earliest “modern” explorations of grammar, philology, and historical linguistics (albeit at a primitive stage).

Dante clearly seems to have had the requisite appreciation for and facility with words that could have led him to build an extended metaphor on the association of inverno with inferno, whether through (a) serious-minded presumptions of common etymology, (b) playful and poetic legerdemain, or (c) subconscious imagery implanted by near-homophony. It might even be read as a “low philological jest” worthy of Tolkien [3]. Whether right or wrong, whether the whole story or only a small part of it, I think it’s a striking idea. What do you think?

[1] Dante uses both words in the poem: inferno, in addition to the title, occurs throughout; inverno pops up twice, in cantos XXI (“bolle l’inverno la tenace pece”) and XXXII (“d’inverno la Danoia in Osteric”). The first is especially interesting, juxtaposing as it does the senses of winter and boiling (implying extreme heat rather than cold). For other occurrences of both words over the course of the entire Divine Comedy, see Edward Allen Fay’s Concordance of the Divina Commedia, New York: Haskell House, 1969 (a new edition of the original, published by The Dante Society in 1888).

[2] I was reading Neruda’s Los Versos del Capitán in a bilingual edition when, for whatever reason, invierno fairly jumped off the page at me. Perhaps it was Neruda’s alchemical word-magic, particularly of nature and the passage of the seasons, but the similarity of Spanish infierno, invierno struck me, and I thought immediately of the same implied pairing in Dante’s Italian. In French, they aren’t quite so similar, retaining more of the phonetic flavor of the original Latin (hiver, enfer, from hībernus “wintry”, infĕrus “below, underneath”).

[3] My good friend Merlin DeTardo sums up the connections (what few there are) between Tolkien and Dante in an entry for the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, Ed. Michael D.C. Drout, New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 116–7.


  1. ciao Jason come va? perdonami, ma parlo italiano, cercando di farmi capire (se no riscrivo, ma ti chiederei pazienza), il discorso sarebbe lungo ma mi trattengo..

    sicuramente il primo modello di ispirazione per Dante è Virgilio (e in generale la classicità latina e greca)

    da uomo di cultura qual’ era, poi conosceva bene la trattatistica mistica e il romance della sua epoca (penso alla Navigatio Sancti Brendani e al ciclo arturiano)

    quello che conta, nelle intenzioni di Dante, sicuramente è questo: quando arriva tra i traditori, per lui i peccatori più odiosi tanto che li ha messi in fondo all’Inferno, ha bisogno di distinguerli da tutti gli altri, incontinenti, violenti e ingannatori

    il tradimento è cio che di più abietto esiste per Dante, perchè è il rinnegamento di qualsiasi legame che nobilita l’uomo, famiglia, patria e benefattori, che si è portati a fare non per passione, ma per calcolo, per una piccineria di sentimento, una grettezza insomma

    e se la caratteristica di incontinenti e violenti è la passione (il fuoco) i traditori sono caratterizzati da questa sorta di aridità, di freddezza nei confronti di tutto (e quindi il ghiaccio)

    sulla questione del nesso fra inverno e inferno non ti saprei dire, sicuramente è un ipotesi affascinante, di cui Dante sarà stato anche consapevole, ma non so fino a che punto possa considerarsi giusta (ma ripeto non è proprio il mio ambito)

    spero di essere stato chiaro, ho anche il libro che fa per te, in italian of course, si chiama La materia e la forma della Divina Commedia: i mondi oltraterreni nelle letterature classiche e nelle medievali e l’ha scritto Pio Rajna; forse qualche biblioteca americana specializzata in letteratura italiana potrebbe averlo, è un classico..


  2. Ciao Giova. Grazie per la tua risposta. Faccio le mie risposte seguenti anche in italiano (il mio meglio). Spero che suffice. :)

    Hai buoni punti, e credo che hai raggione sul soggetto di Virgilio e la tradizione medievala. Anche hai ragione mettere in contrasto i due tipi di peccati, il frigido e il focoso. (Questo è la sorta di studio accademico a ciò faccio allusione.)

    Siamo in d’accordo che non ci può sapere sicuramente se Dante aveva l’intenzione connetere le due parole, inferno e inverno. Come dici, è soltante un ipotesi. (La parola giusta non è ipoteso?) Ma comunque, penso ch’è possibile — forse probabile. Se non è vero, ciò nonostante, col concetto lettori possono trovare nuove strade attraverso i suoi molti versi poetichi. Non è così?

  3. I thought Giova’s comments were so insightful, I’ve translated them into English to give others an equal opportunity to reflect on what he had to say. Omitting the introductory paragraph:

    “Certainly the first model of inspiration for Dante is Virgil (and in general the classical Latin and Greek [literature]).

    Being the man of culture that he was, [Dante] knew well the mystical [perhaps a slip for mitica “mythical”] literature and the romance of the period (I am thinking of the Navigatio Sancti Brendan [Voyage of Saint Brendan] and the Arthurian Cycle).

    What counts, as far as Dante’s intentions go, surely is this: when it comes to the traitors, for him the most loathsome sinners by far, he put them at the very bottom of Hell, [because] he needs to distinguish them from all others, the unrestrained [lit. “incontinent”], the violent and the deceitful.

    Betrayal is the most despicable [sin that] exists for Dante, because it is the denial of any connection that ennobles man, family, country and benefactors, that makes one prone to do [things] not for passion, but out of stinginess of feeling, out of – in a word – meanness.

    And if passion (fire) is characteristic of the unrestrained and violent, then traitors [on the other hand] are characterized by a kind of barrenness, by a coldness towards all (and therefore, ice).

    On the question of a link between winter [inverno] and hell [inferno] I wouldn’t know what to tell you — certainly it’s a fascinating hypothesis — of which Dante would be conscious, but I do not know to what extent it could be considered correct (but I repeat, this isn’t really my ambit).

    Hoping to have been clear, I have the book that will do for you (in Italian of course), called The Matter and Form of the Divine Comedy: Otherworldly Worlds in Classical and Medieval Literature, written by Pio Rajna. Maybe some American library specializing in Italian literature would have it; it’s a classic.”

    As it happens, the Texas A&M library system has a copy of this book, so I might be able to get it via interlibrary loan. It might be worth the effort, though it would be a challenge getting through the book — in Italian! — before I had to return it. It’s also available on Google Books, and one can even search the text, but the results are limited to nearly useless snippets.

  4. thanks for your patience e your ability in translation; sure you have right when you say “ciò nonostante, col concetto lettori possono trovare nuove strade attraverso i suoi molti versi poetici“ (Dante smile for this!)...just another thing about Dante’s immagination: is big and used everything he see and known in the world for what he consider (?) important to say (you can definy his immagination catholic in cultural sense): the dogma is an experience for a medieval man, is not a philosophical issue, but where it is the dogma’s hush a poet can use anything serve...(maybe you remember another one that do this way?)

    ciao. G.

  5. Well, I can address some of this in short order.

    1) There are many pre-Dantean depictions of Hell in Christianity. Among the more famous and influential are the Vision of St. Paul and Bede's reports of visions in the Historia Ecclesiastica, though those are certainly not all. I think all of them report hell as being a place of extreme heat and extreme cold. Not as detailed as Dante of course, but no philological intrigue necessary on this one.

    2) Why the lower levels are icy: simple. God is the source of heat, life, light. That which is the furthest from God and in many ways the opposite of God is then the cold, darkness--the lack of life, heat, etc. Note that even where hell is hot, it is lifeless and dark.

    Now you might object that parts of hell are warm...but not warm, downright hot, steamy, and uncomfortable. Moreover, the hot areas of hell contain the sinners whose sins are ones of "balance", that is, their sins are those of too much passion in one area or another and so perverted the things of the body. As we move into the cold areas we move from those bodily passions to cold blooded murder etc....including the ultimate sin: Satan's sin was pride, but a pride that caused him to rebel--to be the ultimate, eternal traitor--in contrast to the ever faithful Creator. Those sins in the colder regions of hell are those that begin to approach the traitors in magnitude, until of course we get to the bottom and ultimate traitor, ultimate cold, and darkness--furthest from God.

    So anyway....that's the Dante note of the week.

  6. These are good thoughts, Larry, especially #2. So, it seems pretty clear that inferno / inverno isn’t the key to the conceit, but it does reinforce it very nicely.

  7. One of my favorite works of literature. I wish everyone read the Divine Comedy.

  8. This is a topic that I'm really interested in as the novel I'm currently writing is partly set in an Inferno based on Dante's. I think Dante shows his genius by doing the unexpected. I never thought about the possibility of a play on words as well, but that would explain a lot.

  9. Thanks for the comment, Mark. I agree completely. Dante finds a wonderful balance between appealing to elements of folkloric and mythical traditions and, as you say, diverging from convention at unexpected moments. Much like another author we know and love (as Giova hinted in his second comment, above).