Of all the sins one can commit, deception is the worst for it involves the deliberate use of human reason to dupe another leading to the breakdown of the divine bonds humans are blessed with. Dante’s Inferno is a commentary on a world where Misery lurks in every corner and Punishment is waiting to claim the soul. One integral part that makes up this world is Malebolge, the home of the fraudster. Sin makes up a large part of Hesiod’s Theogony which is a narrative on the creation of the world. The Theogony, for the most part, is dictated by acts of deception and is rooted in the deceitful nature of its characters.
Though the theme of deception binds the two books together, a more careful analysis of how they choose to deal with it reveals the many contradictions this essay tries to unravel. Travelling through the darkest depths of hell, Dante and Virgil find themselves in Malebolge. Malebolge, unlike the rest of hell, has ten ditches-each housing a specific kind of fraud. Seducers and Flatterers are the occupants of the first ditch. Here Dante meets Jason of Argonauts, whose accomplishments are often praised but misdeed never criticised , for whom Virgil says, “Look at that great man there…” (Dante, Canto XVIII) which is a clear indication of the power Jason wielded.
Moving on, the two encounter Thais, “the disgusting and dishevelled wench” (Dante, XVIII) who was bestowed with power by virtue of being a pretty prostitute and the lover of one of Alexander’s generals. Their journey soon leads them to the third kind of sinners, the Hypocrites. These are the people who bring to life Shakespeare’s saying of “What a goodly outside falsehood hath.” Catalan and Loderingo, are the two Jovial Friars who were “chosen by thy(Dante’s) town together” (Dante, XXIII) to govern it. This leads us to believe that the two Jovial Friars were held in high esteem by the people of Gardingo. The one thing that ties together the inhabitants of Malebolge is that all of them, when they were alive, were in a position of power and were held in great esteem.All sinners have a sin so grave that condemns them to Hell simply by virtue of its existence. Jason, the Casanova of many tales, finds himself in Hell for not only deceiving Hysipyle and leaving her alone and pregnant with their child, but also jilting his wife Medea in favour of Creusa, king Creon’s daughter.
Courteous speech is usually beyond the expertise of a harlot like Thais which is why her answer “marvelously great” (Dante, XVIII) to her lover’s question of “Have I great thanks from thee?” (Dante, XVIII) is a form of linguistic deceit. The two Friars call hell a home for laying out a beautiful trap for the people of Gardingo, only to turn their backs on them which not only led to the destruction of the city Dante called his own, but also shattered the hope of its residents. The Inferno, at the end of the day, reiterates the fact that people, even those who are held in reverence and occupy positions of power, do not get to walk away from their sins scot free.
Sin and punishment are two sides of the same coin for one cannot exist without the other. The punishment meted out to each sinner in Malebolge is closely linked to the sin committed by them. Jason has the ill fortune of being flogged for all of eternity-symbolic of all the pain his victims must have endured in wake of all the hearts he broke.
The beautiful Thais is eternally condemned to clawing herself with her filthy nails to experience the pain the receivers of her lies would have undergone. As for the two Jovial Friars, they spend their time in hell donning cloaks of lead coated with dazzling gold that are as pretty from the outside as they are ugly from the inside, just like their lies. Hesiod’s Theogony is a tale of creation where deception makes a regular appearance. These little acts of deception go on to form the narrative, thereby dictating the course of creation. The first act of deception comes to light when Gaia incites her children to take action against their evil father, Heaven by saying, “Children of mine…We could get redress for your father’s cruelty.” (Hesiod, 8) The art of deception passes from one generation to another and we find Rhea, Gaia’s daughter, indulging in it. To drive this point home, Hesiod says of her, “She begged her dear parents… to devise a plan,” (Hesiod, 17) which is a testimony to Rhea’s deceptive intention vis-a-vis her brother/husband.
The third act of deception we come across is when Prometheus tricks Zeus into accepting the bones of an ox that were artfully decorated with fat at a feast at Mekone. Zeus accuses him of deceit and says, “Son of Iapetos…you are still intent on deceit.” (Hesiod, 20) These three quotations attest to the crafty nature of the people they are being used for. Acts, whether good or evil, generally serve a purpose. The acts of deception committed by Hesiod’s Gods are strung together by the fact that they were all committed for the greater good. Gaia’s act of deception was born out of the need for self-preservation. The hellish acts of Heaven, who by way of penetration stopped the birth of several of his children causing Gaia immense emotional and physical pain, force Gaia to take a stand for herself and deceive her husband/brother.
A recurring theme running through the Theogony is that of protecting patriarchal power. Just like his father before him, Kronos prevents his children from seeing the world for he lives in the fear of losing power. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Rhea deceives her husband/brother to give birth to Zeus.
With great power comes an even greater ego. Zeus, punishes Prometheus for tricking him into accepting an inferior offering completely disregarding the fact that this act of betrayal was put into motion so that Mankind may benefit.The Theogony is witness to many acts of deception that go unpunished, but at the same time, has instances of deception that are punished. Of the three acts of deception dealt with in this essay, only one gets punished. Gaia’s act of betrayal does not spell punishment for her, but has long-lasting repercussions for her children, who were an innocent party to the entire act of betrayal. The famous war between the Titans and the Olympians was a result of this act of betrayal. Rhea keeps alive this tradition of betrayal started by her mother, and like her, gets away with it.
This brings us to third act of betrayal that actually gets punished. Zeus’ pride takes a beating when Prometheus tricks him. As punishment for his folly, Zeus decides to withhold the gift of fire from Man, which Prometheus manages to steal. Unable to forgive this, Zeus ties Prometheus to a strong fetter and creates Woman, the bane of Man. The three acts comment on the nature of deception the Theogony views as worthy of punishment.A careful analysis of the Inferno and the Theogony reveals that Dante’s sinners are always punished, but the concept of punishment in Hesiod’s Theogony is much more nuanced. The Inferno and the Theogony differ with respect to how they deal with punishing deception as a sin.
All those who deceive, regardless of the magnitude of their sin, are punished in the Inferno. This observation does not hold true for the Theogony where Rhea and Gaia’s acts of deception go unpunished. Punishment in the Inferno is organised. It is closely linked to the sin committed, but punishment in the Theogony, wherever present, is unorganised and is not always be justified. Another interesting point which makes the two books starkly different is that punishment, in the Theogony, is gendered. While people of all genders get their due in the Inferno, punishment in the Theogony is very subjective. Rhea and Gaia’s acts of deception are overlooked, but Prometheus’ act of betrayal receives the harshest punishment possible.
Deceivers in the Inferno are self-serving and deceive for their own benefit, but those in the Theogony are the product of a situation they have no control over.