Canto 33: Anti-Eucharist

By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

Surprisingly, the lowest level of hell is icy cold. Those who have committed the worst sins of all – the treacherous – must suffer in bitter, barren cold for eternity. Who knew that there is something worse than unquenchable fires?

In the midst of this canto Dante and Virgil encounter Ugolin0 della Gherardesca. He pauses from chewing on the head and brains of his archenemy Archbishop Ruggieri  in order to share with the visitors the account of his death and that of his children (and grandchildren, actually). Ironically, Ugolino spends more time describing the horrible circumstances of his death than in owning up to his own treachery and double dealings. Is there anything worse than a victimizer who portrays himself as a victim?

Ugolino relates how he and his younger family members were shut up in a tower and left to starve to death. His children offer their very own flesh and blood to him as a way to sustain his less than meritorious life. At first, he refused to engage in cannibalism of his own children. Eventually, he succumbed to the power of hunger and ate the flesh and blood of his own progeny. Now, in hell he perpetually cannibalizes the brain of his enemy.

When reading about Ugolin0’s ugly end, it is hard not to think of Jesus’ teaching about the Eucharist in John 6. There, Jesus spoke of giving of his very own life to sustain the life and faith of his disciples. He went so far as to say that his followers would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. Jesus Christ, the meritorious one, willingly gave his embodied life for the lives of others. On the very first Maundy Thursday (during the institution of the Eucharist), Jesus connected the broken bread with his broken body and the common cup with his shed blood. The powerful pours himself out for the weak and vulnerable. This feasting on another shows forth and concretely communicates life-giving love born of integrity, uprightness, and commitment to the truth. What a contrast to the circumstances of Ugolino and his horrible tale.

I find it fascinating that Dante entered hell by passing through the waters of a river and at the final destination of his journey he encounters one who eats the flesh of another. It seems fitting, somehow, that the journey to hell ends up being a counter-narrative to Christian initiation through participation in baptism and the Eucharist. Whereas baptism is the entrance into the church and Eucharistic participation is proleptic fulfillment of the eschatological messianic banquet in warm fellowship, hell is the exact inverse of this pattern (passing through water leads to the death of all hope and the end of the journey involves savagely devouring both one’s loved ones and one’s enemies in icy barrenness).

Zooming out a theological level or two, we can see in the Inferno a profound insight first articulated by St. Augustine: evil is the privation or corruption of the good. Far from having independent existence, evil (and hell) are parasitic upon the good, the true, and the beautiful. We can only really conceive of hell in terms of the inverse of the Reign of God. Inasmuch as this is the case, even hell itself points – obliquely, to be sure – to the goodness and mercy of God.

About gmikoski

Associate Professor of Christian Education, Princeton Theological Seminary View all posts by gmikoski

2 responses to “Canto 33: Anti-Eucharist

  • jeffvamos

    Thank you, Gordon, for your sage commentary and theological insight here.

    I think Canto 33 to be among the most powerful pieces of literature that I’ve ever encountered; somehow its imagery has haunted me ever since I first read it, about nine years ago now.

    A few other things over which I’ve reflected about this canto, as complement to what you write about here, Gordon. To your point about how evil is the corruption of the good; and sin is the perversion of the desire to love – it’s been pointed out to me that this canto forms a kind of bookend with some of the others in the poem. For example, Dante’s ploy to get Ugolino to speak is to appeal to his sense of hatred of the Ruggieri: “But if my words are seeds, with fruit / of infamy for this traitor I gnaw, / I will both speak and weep within your sight.” In a very similar turn of phrase in Canto V, Francesca speaks of being fit to tell of her love, as “one who weeps and tells.” For Francesca, it is a misguided desire to love that lands her in hell; for Ugolino, it is the desire to hate. Here, we come full circle.

    But, the irony here is that Ugolino is NOT one who weeps within his sight. He can’t. That was really the problem here in this part of hell: people are unable to weep – their tears cause them pain, instead of redemptive healing. Ugolino was unable to turn his grief into anything but grievance; playing the victim, he justifies his hatred, and is therefore unable to receive the grace he receives from his very own children. He is unable to WEEP. Had he been able to turn his grief toward a redemptive purpose, he may have landed on the other side of Satan’s anus-gate.

    I’ve been thinking all day today – after we (well, many of us) wept at the story of Jesus’ death today during our Good Friday service, I thought of how important it is for us to shed tears; how grief can serve a redemptive purpose, if one is living in the Kingdom that Jesus announced; such grief is productive of compassion, forgiveness. But for those who do not shed tears – their grief becomes hatred; justification to victimize the one who created it.

    That to me points out another so so subtle irony that Dante plays out here, at the bottom-most point of hell. If Ugolino had been able to receive the grace of which his own children were messengers for redemptive purpose, the moment of his damnation could easily have been the very moment of his salvation: his understanding of the eucharistic message, as represented to him by his OWN “flesh and blood”. The savior gave himself – his flesh as bread, and his blood as wine – to bestow on us the grace that enables us to give ourselves to others. But take that literally – and we have perverted that most fundamental and key principle of Christianity, and turned it into cannibalism.

    Ironic isn’t it: the bottom-most pit of hell is a place were literalists reside…one who failed to understand the transformative – allegorical, which is to say, spiritual – meaning of a eucharistic way of life. His sin: to take his children literally.

  • Bob Sinner

    Dear Gordon and Jeff:
    Thank you both for your deep insights. I stand in awe.
    This canto is indeed one of the most powerful ones in the work. One of the most powerful found in literature. It deals with man’s inhumanity to man. Man’s ability to deceive himself, as well as others. Indeed it presents us with an “Anti-Eucharist.”
    However, many many nonbelievers, and even some apologist Christians have claimed that the Eucharist itself is in fact a form of cannibalism.
    Anthropological scholar Dr. Jean-Paul Dumont, who is the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Anthropology at George Mason University, has spent a lifetime studying ritual cannibalism. He recently wrote “cannibalism has always been a part of religious behavior. The principle is the same . . . acquiring through ingestion the powers of something, whether human or divine. The purpose has always been to take on the qualities of the person being eaten. Through the ritual you share in the divinity of the one being eaten. In our Christian traditions we still practice this cannibalistic ritual in taking Communion.” He is not alone in that position, one that has bothered many a clergyman and theologian.
    I was in college when science fiction giant Robert Heinlein first published his best selling work: “Stranger in a Strange Land.” The book quickly went off the charts and became the basis for a cult following among the “love children” of the day. It was hard to go anywhere without encountering the ever present expression “Grok” [loosely meaning intense love], based upon a loose understanding of the book and protagonist Michael Valentine Smith’s supposed support of cannibalism. The book even found its way into on-campus student Christian fellowship discussions.
    I agree with Jeff, however, that literalists create (perhaps that is my position only) their own HELL and then suffer in it. The Eucharist is tangible to me, but it is not entirely literal in usual understanding “of this world.”
    I would like, for a moment, to focus upon Matthew 25:35 & 36: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (The ‘Matthew 25 Team’).
    “Do onto others as Christ has done unto you.”
    Thinking further about frozen, numbed (unfeeling in the emotional sense) Ugolino and his statement to Virgil and the Pilgrim, I am forced to remember this is the realm of the “Father of Lies”. Is Ugolino really telling the truth? What does Ugolino really mean when in the end, he states “hunger proved stronger than grief.“ It is an ambiguous statement, and it may be interpreted in at least two different ways. Ugolino might have meant that he devoured his offspring’s corpses after he became insane with hunger. Or, perhaps he meant that starvation killed him when he failed to die of grief. The first, more ghastly interpretation has become the generally accepted one (as seen, for example in Rodin’s sculpture “The Gates of Hell” and in Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s “Ugolino and his Sons”).
    Is the second interpretation possible? Could Ugolino have simply died of starvation when he failed to die of grief? The inability to feel grief. The inability to shed tears… ? That would be a horrifying and horrible thing.
    Having been in combat myself, and having seen people kill and be killed, and having been told not to feel for “the Other,” I have followed the research done on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I was not at all surprised when (at long last) government researchers finally (this year – 2010) finally came to the conclusion (accepted the obvious?) that killing the enemy and being unable to grieve about what one has done is a major cause in mental anguish and depression. Ask any grunt and he will try to tell you, “War is Hell” and the soldier is forced (like Ugolino) to be “both the torturing demon and the suffering soul.”
    All this brings to mind Jean Paul Sarte’s powerful play [indictment?], “No Exit.” It is often stated that in the play Sartre tells us “Hell is people.” What did Satre mean when he said “HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE”? I believe that Sartre’s metaphor in “No Exit” is often misunderstood. I don’t think he meant to say that other people are hellish, cruel, or bad. I think Sartre believed that when we try to think about ourselves, we use our self-knowledge and knowledge based upon the perceptions of others. We judge ourselves by what we think other people think of us. Thus, if relations with someone else are twisted or destructive, then that other person seems to become our hell.

    An anti-climax for comments on a profound but hellish view of the state of humankind???


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