Dantes Inferno represents a microcosm of society; that is, laymen, clergy, lovers, wagers of war, politicians, and scholars are all collected into one place and punished for their worst and most human attributes. Hell, despite its otherworldly appearance and brutal, ugly nature, is somewhat humanized by the fact that those who are punished come from every country (Dante 3.123) and every walk of life, regardless of age, race, sex, or creed. While Dante Alighieri did not invent the idea of Hell as a place of punishment for the wayward and sinful souls in the afterlife, he did create the most powerful and enduring (Raffa 1) imagining of a concept which has received significant attention in biblical, classical, and medieval works.
Dante’s Divine Comedy was written sometime between 1308 and 1321 and is considered “the supreme work of Italian literature” (Norwich 27). It is an epic poem divided into three separate sections: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, respectively. The personal element of the journey through Hell in Dante’s Inferno literally explores the descent of one man into sin; through the use of poetic justice, both contemporary and historical figures, and mythological figures, Dante crafts an immediate and enthralling work dealing with the nature of sin and its place in society.
The concept of poetic justice is famously explored in Inferno, where it is put to dramatic effect… devising appropriate torments for each particular sin (Raffa 3). From Limbo to Treachery, Dante catalogues and documents the punishment of sinners both infamous and beloved, famous and unknown. In every case, the punishment fits the crime in a twisted and malignant fashion after all, the poem does discuss the realm of Satan, the Christian embodiment of evil. The nine circles of Hell described in Inferno are as follows: Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Avarice and Prodigality, Wrath and Sullenness, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and Treachery. These nine circles are based off of the idea of the Seven Deadly Sins, with some additions such as Limbo created by Dante.
The poem begins with Dante lost in a dark wood, assailed by three beasts he cannot evade, and unable to move straight along (Dante 1.18) the road to salvation, represented by a mountain. A lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf symbolizing pride, envy, and avarice, respectively block Dante’s path to the top of the mountain, forcing him to descend into the depths of Hell with Virgil. The entire journey documented in the Divine Comedy is an allegory for man’s fall into sin before achieving redemption (represented by Purgatorio) and eventually salvation (represented by Paradiso).
Before Dante even enters the gates of Hell, he is introduced to his guide for the first two realms of the afterlife, Inferno and Paradiso. For this role, Dante chose Virgil (70-19 BCE), who lived under the rule of Julius Caesar and later Augustus during Rome’s transition from a republic into an empire, and is most famous for the Aeneid. Two episodes in Virgil’s work were of particular interest to Dante. Book IV tells the tale of Aeneas and Dido, the queen of Carthage, who kills herself when Aeneas abandons her to continue his journey and… [found] a new civilization in Italy (Raffa 8). Book VI recounts Aeneas’ journey into Hades to meet the shade of his father and learn of future events in his journey. Many elements in the Aeneid are present in heavily modified form in Dante’s Inferno. Many of Dante’s mythological elements are based on Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, which recounts Aeneas’ visit to the underworld. Virgil imbued his version of the underworld with a fluid, dreamlike atmosphere (5), while Dante instead strives for greater realism, providing sharply drawn and tangible figures.
After passing through the gateway to hell, marked ominously with the words ABANDON EVERY HOPE, WHO ENTER HERE (Dante 3.9), Dante and Virgil witness a realm of miserable people… who lived without disgrace and without praise (3.17-35) on the periphery of the Inferno. In this realm, the two poets encounter the souls of those who lived such undistinguished and cowardly lives that they have been cast out by Heaven and refused entry by Hell. These souls are forced to race after a banner which never comes to a stop, and are stung repeatedly by flies and wasps, their blood and tears nourishing the sickening worms (3.69) at their feet. The punishment for these cowardly souls is clear; just as in life they refused to be decisive and act, they now are barred from both eternal paradise and eternal damnation, and chase down a waving banner which they will never be able to reach.
Next, Dante and Virgil meet Charon, Hell’s boatman. In the Aeneid, Charon is the pilot of the vessel that transports shades of the dead across the waters into the underworld. In both works, he is an irritable old man with hair white with years (3.83) who objects to taking a living man (Aeneas, Dante) into the realm of the dead. In each case, the protagonist’s guide (the Sybil, Virgil) provides Charon the proper credentials, and their journey continues.
In Limbo, the guiltless damned, noble non-Christian souls, and those who lived before the time of Christianity are punished. The idea of a place for souls who did not sin; and yet… lacked baptism (4.34-35) existed in Christian theology prior to Dante, but his vision is more generous than most. Dante includes unbaptized babies, as well as notable non-Christian adults in his version of Limbo, which bears a resemblance to the Asphodel Meadows, a section of the Greek underworld where indifferent and ordinary souls were sent to live after death. Dante suggests that those in Limbo are being punished for their ignorance of God by being forced to spend the afterlife in a deficient form of Heaven; while certainly not as hellish as the other circles, Limbo is by no means a paradise.
Dante encounters the classical poets Homer (eighth or ninth century BCE), Horace (65-8 BCE), Ovid (43 BCE -17 CE), and Lucan (39-65 CE), who welcome back their comrade Virgil and honour Dante and one of their own (Dante 4.79-102). Philosophers Socrates and Aristotle also make appearances in Limbo as the shades of men renowned for their outstanding intellectual achievements. Socrates (born ca. 470 BCE in Athens) was a legendary teacher known for the rigorous method of questioning that characterizes the dialogues of Plato (ca. 428-ca. 347 BCE), who also appears. In addition, one notable non-Christian soul finds himself in Limbo, separated from the rest: Saladin, the distinguished military leader and Egyptian sultan who fought against the crusading armies of Europe yet was admired even by his enemies for his chivalry and magnanimity. Dante’s implication is that all virtuous non-Christians find themselves in Limbo.
The Lustful are punished in the second circle by being blown about by a hellish hurricane, which never rests… wheeling and pounding (5.31-33). Lust, for many of the inhabitants of this circle, led to the sin of adultery and in the cases of Dido, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, and others a violent death. The violent winds are symbolic of lust, and represent the power it holds in affairs of blind passion and physical love.
Lust contains the shades of many famous lovers: Semiramis, Dido, Paris, Achilles, and Tristan, among others. Semiramis was a powerful Assyrian queen alleged to ave been so perverse that she even made incest a legal practice (Raffa 27); Dido, queen of Carthage and widow of Sychaeus, committed suicide after her lover Aeneas abandoned her (Virgil IV); Paris later died during the Trojan war; Achilles was the most formidable (Raffa 27) Greek hero in the war against the Trojans, who was killed by Paris (according to medieval accounts); finally, Tristan was the nephew of king Mark of Cornwall who fell in love in Iseult (Mark’s fiancee) and was killed by Mark’s poisoned arrow.
Minos, the one who judges and assigns (Dante 5.6) the souls during their descent into Hell, is an amalgam of figures from classical sources, completed with several personal touches from Dante. He is a combination of two figures of the same name, one the grandfather of the other, both rulers of Crete. The elder Minos was admired for his wisdom and the laws of his kingdom. The second Minos imposed a harsh penalty on the Athenians (who had killed his son Androgeos), demanding an annual tribute of fourteen youths (seven boys and seven girls), who were sacrificed to the Minotaur, which appears later in Inferno. Minos’ long tail which he wraps… around himself, that marks the sinner’s level (Dante 5.11-12) is Dante’s invention.
Gluttony is punished in the third circle. The souls of the damned lie in a vile, grimy slush brought about by cold, unending, heavy, and accursed rain (6.7-8). These former gluttons lie sightless and heedless of their neighbours, symbolizing their cold, selfish, and empty pursuit of hedonism and empty sensuality. The slush, representative of overindulgence and sensuality, serves to cut one off from both the outside world and from God’s deliverance.
Gluttonous individuals of note include a Florentine contemporary of Dante’s, identified as Ciacco ( pig in Italian). Ciacco speaks to Dante regarding the political conflict in the city of Florence between two rival parties, the “White” and “Black” Guelphs, and predicts the defeat of the White Guelphs, Dante’s party. This event did indeed occur, and would lead to Dante’s own exile in 1302. As the poem is set in the year 1300, before Dante’s exile, he uses the events of his own life to illustrate the unique ability of shades in Inferno to predict the future, a theme which is returned to later in the poem.
Cerberus, guardian of Gluttony, is similar to the beast of Greek mythology. In the Aeneid, Virgil describes Cerberus the three-headed dog which guards the entrance to the classical underworld as loud, huge, and terrifying. Dante’s Cerberus displays similar canine qualities: his three throats produce a deafening bark, and he eagerly devours the fistful of dirt Virgil throws into his mouths like a dog intent on its meal. Cerberus’ bloodred (6.16) eyes, greasy, black (6.16) beard, and large gut link him to the gluttonous spirits whom he tears, flays, and rends (6.18) with his clawed hands.
The Avaricious and the Prodigal are punished together in the fourth circle. Avarice, or greed, is one of the inequities that most incurs Dante’s scorn and wrath (Raffa 37). Prodigality is defined as the opposite of Avarice; that is, the trait of excessive spending. Both groups are forced to eternally joust with one another, using cumbersome stone weights as weapons. They call out to each other: ‘Why do you hoard?’ ‘Why do you squander?’ (Dante 7.30). Here Dante describes the punishment of both extremes, criticizing excessive desire for and against the possession of material goods using the classical principle of moderation.
In the fifth circle, the Wrathful and the Sullen are punished. The wrathful fight each other eternally on the surface of the river Styx, which runs darker than deep purple (7.103), while the sullen lie gurgling beneath the water. Dante describes how the Wrathful combat one another: [They] struck each other not with hands alone, but with their heads and chests and with their feet, and tore each other piecemeal with their teeth (7.112-114). The wrathful are damned to eternally struggle and fight without direction or purpose, while the sullen have withdrawn into a black sulkiness from which they can find joy in neither God nor life.
In the fifth circle, Filippo Argenti, a prominent Florentine and a Black Guelph, calls to Dante. A hotheaded character (Raffa 40), little is known regarding Filippo except what transpires in Inferno. He quarrels with Dante, lays his hands upon the boat the poets travel on, and is eventually torn apart by his wrathful cohorts. The two men were political opponents, but Dante’s behaviour towards Filippo indicates a more personal grievance. Perhaps he had humiliated Dante in life, or had taken some part of Dante’s property after his exile from the city.
Phlegyas is the solitary boatman (Dante 8.17) who transports Dante and Virgil in his boat across the Styx, the circle of the wrathful and sullen. He was known in Greek mythology for his impetuous behaviour; in a fit of rage, Phlegyas set fire to the temple of Apollo because the god had raped his daughter Apollo promptly slew him in response. Phlegyas appears in Virgil’s underworld as an admonition against showing contempt for the gods (Virgil 6.618-620), a role which he reprises in Inferno.
Between the fifth and sixth circles lie the walls of Dis, the fortressed city of Lower Hell (Raffa 39). The fallen angels who guard the gates of Dis refuse entry to the two poets, requiring the arrival of a messenger from Heaven to open the gate for them. Dante designates all of Lower Hell circles six through nine, where the most serious of sins are punished as the walled city of Dis, with its grave citizens, its great battalions (Dante 8.69). The first five circles, which exist outside of Dis, are collectively known as Upper Hell, as they are where the lesser sins are punished.
With the appearance of the three infernal (9.38) Furies, who threaten to call on Medusa, Virgil’s credibility and Dante’s survival appear to be at risk. Furies were often invoked in Virgil’s classical world to exact revenge on behalf of offended mortal and gods. Medusa’s hair was turned into snakes by an angry Minerva after Medusa made love with Neptune in the goddess’s temple, and became too horrifying to look at without being turned to stone. Dante describes Medusa as the Queen of never-ending lamentation (9.44). The Furies’ names evil thought (Allecto), evil words (Tisiphone), and evil deeds (Magaera) (9.45-48) describe the three manifestations of sin, which can turn people to stone by making them obstinate cultivators of earthly things (Raffa 41).
Heretics are punished inside the walls of Dis, in a spreading plain of lamentation and atrocious pain (Dante 9.110-111) resembling a cemetery. The sixth circle contains souls trapped and enclosed in fiery tombs for failing to believe in God and the afterlife. Since they did not believe in Hell, the Heretics are punished by being sealed away from it in the most unpleasant possible way inside a flaming sepulchre.
Among the tombstones of the sixth circle, Dante encounters more Italian contemporaries. A pair of Epicurian Florentines are disocvered sharing a tomb: Farinata degli Uberti, a Ghibelline; and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, a fellow Guelph and the father of Guido Cavalcanti, Dante’s fellow poet and closest friend. Farinata is an imposing figure, rising out of his inflamed sepulchre from the waist up and seeming to have great contempt for Hell (10.31-36). As the leader of the Ghibellines, Farinata was an enemy to the Guelphs, the party of Dante’s ancestors. Farinata declares that his colleagues would have annihilated Florence (10.92), had he not interceded forcefully, an act which has earned him Dante’s respect. Cavalcante was an enemy to the Ghibellines, like Dante, and married his son Guido to Farinata’s daughter in order to foster peace between the two parties. Dante’s best friend, Guido Cavalcanti, was a poet who held the philosophical belief that love is a dark force which leads only to misery and death. Therefore, Cavalcante’s appearance in Hell might be more a matter of guilt by association to his son’s worldview than any kind of reflection on himself.
The Minotaur is the guardian and mythological symbol for the seventh circle, Violence. At the sight of Dante and Virgil, the minotaur reacts like one whom fury devastates within (12.15), and his frenzied bucking allows the travellers to proceed unharmed. The Minotaur is a physical manifestation of violence in Inferno: almost every part of the Minotaur’s story, from its creation to its demise, contains some form of violence (Raffa 55).
The sinners in the seventh circle are divided into three groups: the violent against people and property, the violent against themselves, and the violent against God and nature (Dante 11.28-33). The first group comprised of assassins and murderers, among others are immersed in Phlegethon, a bloodred, boiling (12.101) river of blood and fire, up to a level commensurate with their sins (12.73-75). Because they committed such acts of bloodshed and destruction in their lives, they are punished by being immersed in a river of that which they have spilt. The second group the suicides are transformed into knotted, gnarled (13.5) thorny bushes and trees, which are fed upon by Harpies. These souls have given away their physical bodies through suicide, and are forced to maintain treelike forms. These suffering trees cannot speak until Dante accidentally injures one and causes it to bleed. Dante uses the soul-trees as a metaphor for the state of mind which leads to self-harm and suicide. Finally, the third group blasphemers and sodomites reside in a desert of sand, fire and brimstone falling from the sky. The blasphemers lie down upon the sand, the usurers recline, and the sodomites wander seemingly aimlessly in huddling groups, all while being burned by distended flakes of fire (14.28-29). This symbolizes how those who act violently against God and that which God has provided are perpetually unable to find peace and comfort in their lives.
Among those immersed in Phlegethon is Alexander the Great, submerged up to his eyebrows in blood. He suffers for his reputation as a cruel, bloodthirsty man who inflicted great harm upon the world and its peoples. In the forest of suicides, Dante hears the tale of Pier delle Vigne, who killed himself after falling out of favour with Emperor Frederick II (Dante 13.64-69). Dante encounters his mentor, Brunetto Latini, among the sodomites. Surprised and touched by this encounter, Dante shows Brunetto great respect and admiration, thus refuting suggestions that the poet Dante placed only his enemies in Hell (15.43-45).
The Centaurs are men from the waist up with the lower bodies of horses (Raffa 55) who guard the river Phlegethon. Thousands of centaurs patrol the bank of the river, using bows and arrows to keep damned souls submerged. In classical mythology, Centaurs are best known for their uncouth, violent behaviour. Chiron, leader of the Centaurs, enjoyed a favourable reputation as the sage tutor of both Hercules and Achilles. Pholus and Nessus the Centaurs assigned to escort Dante and Virgil have fully earned their negative reputations, however: Pholus who Virgil describes as full of rage (Dante 12.72) had been killed when a fight broke out during a wedding after he and his fellow centaurs attempted to carry off the bride and several other girls, and Nessus was killed by Hercules with a poison arrow for attempting to rape the hero’s wife, Deinira, after Hercules entrusted him with carrying her across a river (12.67-69).
The penultimate circle as well as the most detailed is Fraud, which Dante describes as a place in Hell… made all of stone the colour of crude iron (18.1-2). This circle is divided up into ten smaller pockets: panderers and seducers, flatterers, simonists, sorcerers, barrators, hypocrites, thieves, fraudulent advisers and evil councillors, sowers of discord, and falsifiers. Panderers (pimps) and seducers march eternally in opposite directions, lashed… cruelly (18.36) by demons. Just as they used passion and seduction to bend others to their will, they are now themselves driven by hellish demons. Flatterers exploited other people using language, therefore, they are plunged in excrement (18.113), representing the false words they produced. Simonists payed for positions of power within the Catholic Church, and are placed upside-down into holes in the floor, with both soles [of their feet]… on fire (9.25). The holes into which their heads are planted resemble baptismal fonts, used in several religious rituals a constant reminder of the corrupt nature of their former positions in the church. Sorcerers, astrologers, and false prophets have had their heads twisted toward their haunches (20.13) so that they can not see what is ahead of them. This symbolizes the twisted nature of magic in general specifically, it refers to the use of forbidden means to see into the future. Dante felt particularly unforgiving towards politicians after his exile from Florence, thus, corrupt politicians (barrators) are immersed in a stew of sticky pitch (21.8). Their punishment represents the sticky fingers, corrupt deals, and dark secrets inherent in positions of political power. The hypocrites listlessly walk with lagging steps, in circles, with features tired and defeated (23.59-60), wearing leaden cloaks, representing the falsity behind the appearance of their actions. This falsity literally weighs these souls down and renders any sort of progress impossible. The thieves are pursued and attacked by lizards and snakes, their bites causing them to undergo various transformations (24-25). Just as they stole in life, their very human identity becomes subject to theft in Hell. Fraudulent advisers and evil councillors are encased within individual pyres. These individuals did not give false advice out of ignorance; rather, Dante refers to rhetoric [used]… by talented people for insidious ends (Raffa 99). In life, they caused those whom they advised to do ill without dirtying their own hands now they are punished alone in their fires. The sowers of discord are hacked apart, their bodies dividing as in life they caused division among others. Their wounds are quickly healed, only to have themselves hacked apart again (Dante 28.139-142). Dante considers falsifiers (alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and impersonators) a disease upon society, and their corrupting influence is reflected in their diseased bodies and minds (Raffa 99) in the tenth pouch.
In the eighth circle, Dante meets a number of notably fraudulent individuals. Venedico Caccianemico, who sold his own sister to the Marchese d’Este, is recognized among the pimps in the first pouch, despite his attempts to avoid detection (Dante 18.40-60). In the fifth ditch, the thief Vanni Fucci is burnt to ashes before being reincarnated; Agnel blends together with a reptilian Cianfa; and Buoso exchanges forms with Francesco. Vanni Fucci was a black Guelph from Pistoia, a town not far from rival Florence; Dante says he knew Vanni as a man of blood and anger (Dante 24.129). Agnel is thought to be Agnello Dei Brunelleschi, a man who joined the white Guelphs Dante s party but then switched to the black faction when they came to power. Both he and Cianfa are renowned for their thievery. Buoso stole while serving in public office, then arranged for Francesco de’ Cavalcanti to take over and steal on his behalf. In the eighth pit, Ulysses and Diomedes are condemned for the deception of the Trojan Horse, luring Achilles into the war effort, and stealing a statue of Athena from Troy (26.58-63). Dante encounters the schismatic prophet Muhammad; the poet views Islam as an off-shoot from Christianity, and similarly condemns Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, for the schism between Sunni and Shiite Muslims (28.22-33).
The Malebranche ( Evil claws in Italian) are the devils of the fifth pocket of circle eight who bring to Hell the shades of corrupt political officials and employees. They are agile, smart, and fierce (Raffa 77), they are armed with long hooks, which they use to keep the shades under the surface of the black pitch (Dante 21.55-57). It is likely that the names Dante coined for individual demons ( Bad Dog, Sneering Dragon, Curly Beard, etc.) are based on actual family names of civic leaders in Florence and the surrounding towns.
The Giants physically connect circles eight and nine: standing on the floor of circle nine, they tower over the inner ledge of circle eight with the upper halve of their immense bodies. They are archetypal examples of defiant rebels: Nimrod, who attempted to build the Tower of Babel before it was knocked down by God and his people were scattered; Ephialtes, who fought against Jove and the other Olympian gods; and Antaeus, whose relationship with the titans who stormed Mt. Olympus damned him, despite the fact that he was born after his brothers had waged war against the gods. Nimrod has been punished by being forced to speak an incomprehensible language; that is, his language is as strange to others as theirs is to him. Ephialtes, like the rest of the titans who challenged the gods, is immobilized with heavy chains. Antaeus is not given any exceptional punishment, for he is only guilty by association. It is Antaeus who assists Virgil and Dante by lowering them down to the ninth circle, after being enticed by Virgil with the prospect of eternal fame upon Dante’s return to the world (31.115-129).
The final circle is Treachery, a frozen lake at the centre of Hell, which is divided into four Rounds: Ca?na, Antenora, Ptolomaea, and Judecca. In Ca?na, traitors to their kindred are immersed in ice up to their faces. In Antenora, traitors to political entities are located similarly in the ice. In Ptolomaea, traitors to their guests are punished, lying on their backs in the ice, with only their faces uncovered. In Judecca, the traitors to their lords and benefactors are completely encapsulated in ice, distorted in pain.
In the first round of Treachery, Dante encounters Mordred, who attacked his uncle King Arthur and was pierced mortally by Arthur’s lance (Dante 32.61-62). In the second round, Count Ugolino pauses from his ceaseless assault upon the head of his rival, Archbishop Ruggieri, to tell Dante how Ruggieri imprisoned and killed him with his children. This story, the longest single episode related by a damned soul in Inferno, serves as Dante’s final dramatic representation of mankind’s capacity for evil and cruelty. Fra Alberigo, who had his brother killed at a banquet, explains a key conceit of Dante’s Inferno: sometimes, a soul falls into Hell before they have actually died. Their earthly bodies are possessed by demons, so what appears to be a walking, living man is actually beyond the point of repentance (33.134-147).
Finally, Lucifer the emperor of the despondent kingdom (34.28) lies at the centre of the Inferno. As ugly as he once was beautiful (34.34-36), Lucifer is a wretched contrast with his limited autonomy and mobility. Lucifer’s three faces (black, yellow, and red) parody the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) in one divine nature the Divine Power, Highest Wisdom, and Primal Love which also created the gates of Hell, and, by extension, the entire realm of eternal damnation. His flapping wings generate the wind that keeps lake at the centre of Hell frozen, while his three mouths chew on the shade-bodies of the three archtraitors Judas, Brutus, and Cassius the gore mixing with tears gushing out of his three sets of eyes (34.53-57).
Dante’s Inferno heralded a revolution in Christian theology through its innovative use of poetic justice, historical and contemporary figures, and classical mythology. By combining these disparate elements into a single, cohesive poem, Dante effectively changed the way the Western world imagined the afterlife and Hell in particular. By focusing on the details of the scenes and the identities of those whom the fictional Dante converses with, Inferno illustrates a horrifyingly real and immediate vision of Hell, one which has persisted at least in some part to this day. By focusing on the personal journey of one man through the afterlife, the focus of the narrative is shifted onto the reader, who can easily identify with Dante as the first-person narrator. While the circumstances surrounding the creation of the Divine Comedy Dante’s exile from Florence, his fall from political grace, and his eventual death soon after the completion of his magnum opus are rather tragic, they all contribute to Dante’s work in a way which colours the text and gives it a personality and passion which is still felt to this day. For seven hundred years, Inferno has elicited strong responses from its readers from fascination to revulsion and everything in between (Raffa 5). Regardless as to the readership, the response to Inferno has been, and will continue to be, anything but apathetic.