The Divine Comedy: Inferno, by Dante Alighieri
This was an excellent story! I’m excited to read about Purgatory and Paradise. If they are as well-written as the Inferno, then this will undoubtedly become one of my favorite books. There are many graphics available online that outline the topography of Hell, but I particularly like this one:
Since this is an epic poem written in old English, most of my efforts were dedicated towards understanding the big themes of the cantos and the various references therein. Unfortunately, many of the objects and figures in Dante’s poem were Italian and consequently unfamiliar to me; I am not familiar with Italian history or geography.
Dante goes on this journey midway through his life. He tries to ascend a mountain but is barred by three separate creatures: a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Then, he meets the poet, Virgil, who instructs Dante to follow him through Hell.
Dante cries out to the Muses for help accurately remembering his tale. This is a common action in epic poems dealing with the gods. Expressing his concern and hesitation about entering Hell, Dante says that he is comparable to neither Aeneas nor Paul, two characters who explored Hell in “The Aeneid” and the Bible, respectively. In response, Virgil explains how Beatrice instructed him to guide Dante, and hence Dante can be comforted that he is protected by God in heaven. Dante agrees to follow Virgil through Hell.
At the entrance to Hell, Dante first notices the sign placed by the Creator, and second he notices the weeping, tumultuous noises of the souls who live on the shore of Acheron. These are the souls who lived a life that was neither committed to Heaven nor Hell, neither “infamy nor praise.” These souls “never were alive” because they did not take action during their lives. Therefore, they are not permitted to cross the river Acheron into Hell, and they are condemned to be stung by gadflies and hornets and to stand in mounds of worms. The theme here is to take some form of action with your life. The souls stuck at the entrance to Hell are being stung to action. Because they were unwilling to commit and shed blood for any cause during life, their faces are continually shedding blood, which is fed to the worms on the ground. The entrance to Hell is a call against being uncommitted. Dante also meets Charon, who is responsible for ferrying souls across Acheron into Hell.
Enter the first circle of Hell. This circle contains souls who are virtuous but preceded Christianity, thus they did not have the opportunity to get baptized and be saved through Jesus Christ. This circle is commonly known as “Limbo.” Virgil, Dante’s guide, is among these. Included in this circle are Abel, Noah, Moses, Abraham, and David. Dante and Virgil are approached by 4 famous poets, who also occupy this level of Hell: Homer, Horace (Roman poet whose lived around 25 B.C. and whose most famous works are the “Odes”), Ovid (Roman poet who was contemporary to Virgil and Horace, and who wrote “Metamorphoses”), and Lucan. Next, Dante sees several Greek figures: King Latinus, Lavinia, Socrates, Plato, Euclid, Ptolemy, and many more that he cannot name.
Enter the second circle of Hell. Here, Dante meets Minos, the judge of Hell. The residents of the second circle have succumbed to the sin of carnal lust, i.e., love. Residents include Helen of Troy, Achilles, Paris, Semiramis (debatably the wife of Nimrod, founder of Babylon), Dido (queen and founder of Carthage, who in “The Aeneid” kills herself after Aeneas leaves her), and Cleopatra.
Enter the third circle of Hell, which is marked by rain and hail, and is guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog. Ciacco, one of the souls trapped in this level, explains that this is the circle for gluttons. Virgil explains that the sights and smells will become more repellent as they circle farther down into Hell.
Enter circle four of Hell. This circle is guarded by Plutus, a god of wealth, and in this circle live the hoarders and wasters, who are constantly hurling weights at one another and arguing. Descending farther into Hell, Dante sees the marsh, Styx, which is filled with naked bodies and reeking water.
Dante and Virgil are about to enter the city of Dis, which contains the inner circles of Hell. They meet the boatman, Phlegyas, who takes them across the marsh, Styx. Along the way, a soul rises from the mire and accosts Dante. Phlegyas delivers the poets to the gates of Dis. Dante is frightened when he is temporarily separated from Virgil. Virgil tries to convince the guards to open the gates to Dis, but he is unsuccessful.
Enter into Dis. Dante and Virgil are admitted by a messenger from Heaven, who does not speak any words. Prior to entering Dis, Dante sees three Furies – Megaera, Alecto, and Tisiphone.
They enter the sixth circle of Hell. Circle six is the residing place of the heretics. Here, Dante has a conversation with his political rival, Ferinata.
Virgil explains the structure of the next three circles. Each of these circles is for violent people. The outer most circle contains sinners who committed sins of violence against their neighbor. The second circle is for those who commit acts of violence against themselves, and the inner most circle, which is the foundation of Dis, contains those who have committed acts of violence against God, which includes violence against Nature, hypocrisy, flattery, theft, and simony.
Centaurs and a Minotaur guard the entrance to the seventh circle of Hell. These are appropriate guardians, since these creatures are typically known for their violent natures. Dante speaks with one of the Centaurs, Chiron. Chiron and a second centaur, Nessus, guide the poets across the “river of blood” which contains the souls that commit acts of violence against others.
They enter the second round of the seventh circle of Hell, which contains people who took their own lives. Since these people took the life of their own bodies, they are trapped inside trees, and will never regain their bodies. Harpies, which are creatures that originated from Virgil’s “Aeneid,” torture the trees and cause great pain. After breaking off one of the tree branches and causing the tree to bleed, Dante learns this information from the tree, who was Roman Emperor Frederick’s advisor and killed himself in a moment of poor judgement.
Dante and Virgil stand at the edge of the second and third rounds of the seventh circle. The third circle is reserved for those who committed acts of violence against God himself. The geography of this circle is characterized by arid sand and raindrops of fire. It is excruciatingly hot. Dante notices that one of the souls appears to being punished more than the others. Capaneus identifies himself, and makes accusations against Jove (God). In Greek mythology, Zeus punished Capaneus for his pride. Capaneus was filled with so much pride that he thought he was better than God. Clearly, punishment in Hell did no remove this soul’s attitude and sin. I like the idea that pride and arrogance are the most severe sins, because they elevate the individual above God. To me, this stresses the importance of humility and selflessness.
This canto concludes with a description of the rivers of Hell. There is a statue located in Crete that has a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, thighs of brass, legs and feet of iron, and a foot of clay. This is exactly the same description of the statue in King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the Biblical book of Daniel. What is the significance of this? It cannot be coincidental. From the statue flow the rivers of hell into Cocytus, the central circle in Hell. The rivers of Hell include: Acheron, Styx, Phlegethon (river of blood that they just passed), and Lethe.
Dante meets his mentor, Sir Brunetto.
Dante meets 3 contemporary political figures: Guidoguerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, and Jacopo Rusticucci. Then, Virgil tosses Dante’s cord into the abyss in order to summon their guide to the next circle.
Geryon, their guide, arises from the abyss. Geryon is a humanoid creature that according to mythology was slain by Hercules. Dante and Virgil mount Geryon and fly to the eighth circle of Hell.
Enter the eighth circle, Malebolge. This circle is divided into 10 “bolgia,” or chasms. Within the first chasm, Dante sees sinners who are naked, marching, and being beat by demons. Virgil points out Jason, who seduced women and left them pregnant. The first bolgia of circle 8 contains seducers and panderers (a person who caters to the vices of others – particularly related to pimps and prostitutes). The second bolgia is also introduced, which contains flatterers.
Enter the third pit of the eighth circle, which contains sinners condemned for simony. Simonists are named after Simon the Magus (aka Simon the Magician aka Simon the Sorcerer), who is a Biblical character that practiced sorcery and used his clerical office for personal gain. Sinners in this circle of Hell are upside-down in holes. Only their calves and feet are exposed, their soles are on fire, and they quiver violently. Dante also recites some lyrics relating to the “beast with seven heads and ten horns” (Revelation 13:1) and Matthias’s appointment to Jesus’s disciples (Acts 1:12-26). The beast will use its position to manipulate people and for its own gain, whereas Matthias did not request any gold or silver when he was appointed to be one of Jesus’s apostles. I love reading about and understanding the various Biblical references in this poem!
When Dante sees the sinners in the fourth chasm of circle eight, he weeps and has pity on them. These inhabitants – soothsayers, fortune tellers, seers, diviners - have their heads on backwards and are consequently forced to walk backwards. Besides Tiresias, I did not recognize any of the names in this circle. Since the sinners in this chasm tried to predict the future by looking forward, it seems appropriate that their eternal punishment is to look backward.
Dante and Virgil enter the fifth bolgia. Demons occupy this circle, ensuring that the sinners stay in the boiling tar pits. Unfortunately, the passage to the sixth bolgia is broken, so Virgil must approach the demons and ask for passage. The demons are so terrible looking that Dante begs Virgil for an alternative path to chasm six.
There is an argument among the ten demons. Grappling, two of them tumble into the boiling tar and do not return. In the midst of the argument, Dante and Virgil move onward.
Enter the sixth bolgia, which is characterized by the high priest Caiaphas, who orchestrated Jesus’s death. Sinners in this chasm were hypocrites; they maintained a flashy outward appearance of piety, but inwardly they were heavy and selfish. Reading through Dante’s cantos encourages me to learn more about the Bible. I’m amazed by the number of historical references in this work, including the Biblical and Grecian references. Dante was obviously very intelligent and learned. He found value in the Bible and in Greek mythology. Over and over, I see that the greatest authors studied God’s word, and I confirm that reading the Bible is never a wasted exercise.
Dante struggles to climb to the top of the sixth bolgia. When he reaches the top, he looks down into bolgia number seven, which contains a mass of serpents and naked people. This chasm contains thieves and is characterized by Vanni Fucci, a political figure in Italy who was accused of stealing.
The main action of this canto is the melding of one of the serpents with one of the bolgia’s denizens. Dante describes in great detail how the figures merge. Since the sinners in this chasm were thieves, they are punished by continually shifting forms and losing their bodies to the serpents.
Dante and Virgil look upon the eighth chasm, which is filled with flames rising from the abyss. Within the flames are the souls of this chasm. One of the flames holds Ulysses and Diomede, and Dante has the opportunity to speak with them. Ulysses explains his last voyage at sea and how he died. Again, I was pleased with my understanding of Greek mythology and glad that I read the epic Greek poems, although I would like to read them again and increase my comprehension of them. Unfortunately, reading all the time is not practical; a man must work and act properly in society. Reading continuously would make a man similar to Dostoevsky’s “White Nights” character or a “Steppenwolf,” which are characters embittered by the world around them. Isolation in books is a form of seeking knowledge, which is good to some extent, but taken to the extreme, it is also a form of isolation and hence the deprivation of love.
In the previous canto, Virgil speaks with Ulysses and Diomede, because the Greek heroes are unlikely to share openly with an Italian. In this canto, Dante speaks with one of the flames, who is an Italian friar. This flame characterizes himself as a fox, quietly and slyly giving false council to religious leaders.
Enter the ninth chasm of circle eight. This circle is filled with sowers of discord and creators of schisms. These souls, through various means, divided people. The first sinner that Dante meets is Mahomet (aka Muhammad, the founder of Islam). Mahomet is cleaved down the middle of this body, from head to groin. He explains that he and his fellow sinners are forced to walk perpetually around the circle. As they walk, their mutilations are healed, but a devil sits at the end of the circle, who mutilates them again. This process of mutilation, healing, mutilation, repeats for eternity. Dante also meets Bertram de Born, whose head is cleaved off. Like David was separated from his son, Absalom, in the Biblical book of 2 Samuel, Bertram de Born caused the separation of father and son. Consequently, just like the father and son are the head and the body, Bertram de Born’s head is separated from his body. An appropriate punishment.
Enter the tenth – and final – chasm of the eighth circle. The bodies in this bolgia are sick and diseased, it is filthy, and it reeks of a tremendous odor. Dante sees two people who are scraping scabs off one another’s bodies. The last bolgia contains falsifiers, alchemists, and counterfeits - people who have tricked the senses. For example, people who create fake gold or fake coins, because these frauds trick the sense of sight. As punishment, the people in this circle suffer are forced to experience unpleasant senses of smell, taste, and feel.
Dante primarily listens to the bickering between Sinon the Greek (pretended to be a Trojan ally and was responsible for letting the Trojan Horse into the city) and Master Adam (created false coinage). Dante also meets Potiphar’s wife, who falsely accused Joseph of sexual harassment. At the end of this canto, Dante is reprimanded by Virgil for listening to and finding amusement from the bickering between Sinon and Adam.
Begin descent into the ninth circle of Hell, Cocytus – the last circle. Giants guard this most inner circle. Specifically, Dante meets three of them: Nimrod (legendary king of Babylon who built the Tower of Babel who can now only babble incomprehensible words), Ephialtes (Greek mythological giant who opposed Zeus and is consequently chained so that he cannot move), and Antaeus (free to move and speak). Antaeus safely places Dante and Virgil on the bottom of the ninth circle, Cocytus.
The ninth circle is divided into 4 rounds – Caina, Antenora, Ptolomea, and Judecca. In this canto, Dante enters the first round, Caina, which is named after the story of Cain and Abel. Cain murdered his brother, Abel, after God favored Abel’s sacrifice. Hence, traitors to kin reside here. Next, Dante, enters Antenora, which is named after Antenor, a Trojan prince from Homer’s Iliad who favors the idea of returning Helen to Greeks. Consequently, the denizens of Antenora are traitors to their country. The ninth circle is cold and characterized by a lake of ice. The sinners in this circle are frozen in the lake.
Dante sees two denizens of Antenora, one of which is gnawing on the neck of the other. The residents, Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri, share their story. Ruggieri imprisoned Ugolino in a tower with his four sons. Trapped with no food and no water, Ugolino was forced to watch his children starve to death. Overcome by hunger, Ugolion eventually eats his sons. After their story, Dante and Virgil enter the third round, Ptolomea, which is named after Ptolemy, a captain of Jericho who betrayed his guests at a banquet. Hence, the denizens of the third round are traitors to their guests. Dante learns that the sinner’s body can be separated from his soul. For example, Dante notes that Branca d’ Oria is still alive on earth, but he is also a resident of Hell. The earthly body is possessed by a demon, while the soul is being punished in Hell.
The last canto is the climax of the story, and I found it appropriately exciting. Dante meets Lucifer. Lucifer has mighty wings which create a frigid wind and consequently the frozen landscape that characterizes the ninth circle. Dante is impressed by the grotesqueness of Lucifer, and can only imagine that this creature was once as beautiful as he is now hideous. In juxtaposition to the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), Satan his three heads. Suffering the greatest punishments of all – Judas, Brutus, and Cassius – are furiously gnawed by Satan’s teeth. Judas is being punished for betraying Jesus, whereas Brutus and Cassius are being punished for betraying Julius Caesar. This fourth and final round of circle nine is appropriately called Judecca, after Judas Iscariot. Finally, Dante and Virgil climb Satan’s back and exit Hell.
Dolorous: marked by misery or grief
Caitiff: cowardly or despicable
Rapacious: excessively grasping or covetous
Doleful: full of grief
Turbid: heavy with smoke or mist
Simony: buying or selling a church office
Schism: discord, disharmony, separation