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The Devil in Dante

By Auguste Valensin, S.J.

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  In spite of the title the Divine Comedy - a title Dante himself did not give his poem - the characters he portrayed were not divine but human beings. To all intents and purposes his epic is a human comedy, even though its scene is the other world. That did not prevent Dante from giving a part to angels in heaven and demons in hell, as befitted his chosen scenario.

What was his conception of these demons, and in particular, how did he portray Lucifer, the prince of demons?

  Dante's ideas on demons follow those supplied by the traditional Christian interpretation of the Apocalypse. The demons, according to him, are "intelligences exiled from their celestial home country," "outcasts of heaven" who fell from it like falling rain. As soon as they were created, they had to go through a test to ensure their free entry into the friendship of God. In the theology lesson Beatrice gives Dante in Canto 29 of the Paradiso she tells him that the test only lasted a few seconds. The fall of Lucifer and the other angels who joined in his revolt was the result of pride. These fallen angels -"black" angels - are the demons properly so-called.
  The guardians of hell are not demons in the sense in which the word is interchangeable with devil. Dante uses the word devil six times in the Divine Comedy and each time applies it to fallen angels. The term demon is more general and less exact. Socrates used it for the kind spirit that, he thought, used to warn him of evil. In the Middle Ages they called the pagan gods demons. One of the bad popes was accused of invoking - when throwing dice - the help of Jupiter, Venus, "and other demons." In classical mythology the word demon was applied to the beings halfway between gods and men. In the chansons de geste people such as Nero and Pilate are included among the demons. In Giacomo da Verona's De Babilonia civitate infernali Muhammad is a demon.
[Next] Dante, who normally applies the word demon to devils, uses it on one occasion for a damned soul (Inf. 30. l17). Twice he gives it to guardians of hell, once to Charon and once to Cerberus (ibid. 3. 109 and 6. 32), but this does not mean that we are to regard these guardians as genuine devils. Besides, if Dante had meant to conceal devils under the appearance of these mythical characters, he would not, as he did, have recalled the deeds of their past lives-precisely such deeds as put them in a different category from fallen angels.