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Dante’s Divine Comedy: An Overview

I am not religious.

However, I am quite a big fan of religious-themed writings that deal primarily with sin, repenting, and the afterlife. The seven deadly sins and the seven holy virtues are of great interest to me. But I must say, I do not find them quite as interesting as the great 14th-century allegory Divine Comedy by Dante, specifically, the first part of the poem: Inferno. To be even more specific, hell and its nine (9) circles are of greatest interest to me (Purgatorio and Paradiso are not as interesting to me.)


For those not familiar with the specifics of hell and its nine circle, allow me to enlighten you:

According to the Italian poet Dante, when one dies (and did not repent their sins before dying), he or she is sent to hell and distributed among nine different circles, with the 9th being reserved for the most serious offenders. I must note that the gate to the ninth circle of hell is adorned with one of the most badass inscriptions ever penned:

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate“, or “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Ouch. Enjoy your systematic torture for the rest of eternity, fellas.

I should note that those who repented their sins before death are sent to purgatory to work off their sin(s).

Anyway, let’s begin:

First Circle (Limbo):

Here reside the unbaptized and the virtuous pagans, who, though not sinful, did not accept Christ. They are not punished in an active sense, but rather grieve only their separation from God, without hope of reconciliation.

Second Circle (Lust):

Those overcome by lust are punished in this circle. Dante condemns these “carnal malefactors” for letting their appetites sway their reason. They are the first ones to be truly punished in Hell. These souls are blown about to and fro by a violent storm, without hope of rest. This symbolizes the power of lust to blow one about needlessly and aimlessly. In this circle, Dante sees Semiramis, Dido, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Achilles and many others who were overcome by sensual love during their life.

Third Circle (Gluttony):

Cerberus guards the gluttons, forced to lie in a vile slush made by freezing rain, black snow, and hail. This symbolizes the garbage that the gluttons made of their lives on earth, slavering over food.

Fourth Circle (Avarice):

[Notice a theme developing here?]

Those whose attitude toward material goods deviated from the desired mean are punished in this circle. They include the avaracious or miserly, who hoarded possessions, and the prodigal, who squandered them. Guarded by Plutus, the two groups joust, using as weapons great weights which they push with their chests.

Fifth Circle (Wrath and Sloth):

In the swamp-like water of the river Styx, the wrathful fight each other on the surface, and the sullen or slothful lie gurgling beneath the water, withdrawn “into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe.” The lower parts of hell are contained within the walls of the city of Dis, which is itself surrounded by the Stygian marsh. Punished within Dis are active (rather than passive) sins. The walls of Dis are guarded by fallen angels.

Sixth Circle (Heresy):

Heretics are trapped in flaming tombs, symbols of their doubting a life after death.

Seventh Circle (Violence):

[This is where shit starts to get rough]

This circle houses the violent. Its entry is guarded by the Minotaur, and it is divided into three rings:

  • Outer ring, housing the violent against people and property, who are immersed in Phlegethon, a river of boiling blood, to a level commensurate with their sins. The Centaurs, commanded by Chiron, patrol the ring, firing arrows into those trying to escape. The centaur Nessus guides the poets along Phlegethon and across a ford in the river.
  • Middle ring: In this ring are the suicides, who are transformed into gnarled thorny bushes and trees. They are torn at by the Harpies. Unique among the dead, the suicides will not be bodily resurrected after the final judgment, having given their bodies away through suicide. Instead they will maintain their bushy form, with their own corpses hanging from the limbs. The other residents of this ring are the profligates (one who inherits money and does not earn it, and then spends it in a reckless and wanton fashion, usually in excess – see: Paris Hilton) who destroyed their lives by destroying the means by which life is sustained (i.e. money and property). They are perpetually chased by ferocious dogs through the thorny undergrowth. The trees are a metaphor; in life the only way of the relief of suffering was through pain (i.e. suicide) and in Hell, the only form of relief of the suffering is through pain (breaking of the limbs to bleed).
  • Inner ring: The violent against God (blasphemers), the violent against nature (sodomites), and the violent against order (usurers – see: loan sharks; your credit card company’s board of governers, et al.), all reside in a desert of flaming sand with fiery flakes raining from the sky. The blasphemers lie on the sand, the usurers sit, and the sodomites wander about in groups.

Eighth Circle (Fraud):

The last two circles of Hell punish sins that involve conscious fraud or treachery. The circles can be reached only by descending a vast cliff, which Dante and Virgil do on the back of Geryon, a winged monster represented by Dante as having the face of an honest man and a body that ends in a scorpion-like stinger.

The fraudulent—those guilty of deliberate, knowing evil—are located in a circle named Malebolge (“Evil Pockets”), divided into ten bolgie, or ditches of stone, with bridges spanning the ditches:

  • Bolgia 1: Panderers (pimps) and seducers march in separate lines in opposite directions, whipped by demons. Just as they misled others in life, they are driven to march by demons for all eternity.
  • Bolgia 2: Flatterers are steeped in human excrement. This is because their flatteries on earth were nothing but “a load of excrement.”
  • Bolgia 3: Those who committed simony (bribing or paying for a seat in Holy office) are placed head-first in holes in the rock which resemble baptismal fonts, with flames burning on the soles of their feet (resembling an inverted baptism, and symbolic of the Church offices they sold). One of them, Pope Nicholas III, denounces as simonists two of his successors, Pope Boniface VIII and Pope Clement V
  • Bolgia 4:  Sorcerers and false prophets (see: L. Ron Hubbard; any modern day founder of a “Church”) have their heads twisted around on their bodies backward. In addition, they cry so many tears that they cannot see. This is symbolic because these people tried to see into the future by forbidden means (and possibly retribution for the delusions they concocted that probably led their followers to their own perils); thus in Hell they can only see what is behind them and cannot see forward.
  • Bolgia 5: Corrupt politicians (barrators) are immersed in a lake of boiling pitch, which represents the sticky fingers and dark secrets of their corrupt deals. They are guarded by devils called the Malebranche (“Evil Claws”).
  • Bolgia 6: The bridge over this bolgia is broken: the poets climb down into it and find the Hypocrites listlessly walking along wearing gilded lead cloaks. Dante speaks with Catalano and Loderingo. The poets also discover that the guardians of the fraudulent (the malebranche) are hypocrites themselves, as they find that they have lied to them, giving false directions, when at the same time they are punishing liars for similar sins. Caiaphas, the high priest responsible for ordering Jesus crucified, is seen here; he is crucified to the ground, while the others trample over him.
  • Bolgia 7: Thieves, guarded by the centaur (as Dante describes him) Cacus, are pursued and bitten by snakes and lizards. The snake bites make them undergo various transformations, with some resurrected after being turned to ashes, some mutating into new creatures, and still others exchanging natures with the reptiles, becoming lizards themselves that chase the other thieves in turn. Just as the thieves stole other people’s substance in life, and because thievery is reptilian in its secrecy, the thieves’ substance is eaten away by reptiles and their bodies are constantly stolen by other thieves.
  • Bolgia 8: Fraudulent advisors are encased in individual flames. They, like their true thoughts in life, cannot be seen.
  • Bolgia 9: A sword-wielding demon hacks at the sowers of discord, dividing parts of their bodies as in life they divided others. As they make their rounds the wounds heal, only to have the demon tear apart their bodies again. “See how I rend myself! How mutilated, see, is Mahomet; In front of me doth Ali weeping go, Cleft in the face from forelock unto chin; And all the others whom thou here beholdest, Disseminators of scandal and of schism. While living were, and therefore are cleft thus.” Muhammad tells Dante to warn the schismatic and heretic Fra Dolcino. Dante describes Muhammad as a schismatic, apparently viewing Islam as an off-shoot from Christianity (which is interesting because Christianity is actually an off-shoot of Catholicism, which along with Islam, is an off-shoot of Judaism), and similarly Dante seems to condemn Ali for schism between Sunni and Shiite.
  • Bolgia 10: Here various sorts of falsifiers (alchemists, counterfeiters and impersonators), who are a disease on society, are themselves afflicted with different types of diseases. In the notes on her translation, Dorothy L. Sayers remarks that the descent through Malebolge “began with the sale of the sexual relationship, and went on to the sale of Church and State; now, the very money is itself corrupted, every affirmation has become perjury, and every identity a lie;” so that every aspect of social interaction has been progressively destroyed.

[Here we are; the end. The feared Ninth Circle of Hell]

Ninth Circle (Treason):

The Ninth Circle is ringed by classical and Biblical giants. Traitors, distinguished from the “merely” fraudulent in that their acts involve betraying one in a special relationship to the betrayer, are frozen in a lake of ice known as Cocytus. Each group of traitors is encased in ice to a different depth, ranging from only the neck and through to complete immersion. The circle is divided into four concentric zones:

  • Round 1: Caïna, named for Cain, is home to traitors to their kindred. The souls here are immersed in the ice up to their faces – “the place where shame can show itself.”
  • Round 2: Antenora is named for Antenor of Troy, who according to medieval tradition betrayed his city to the Greeks. Traitors to political entities, such as party, city, or country, are located here. Count Ugolino pauses from gnawing on the head of his rival Archbishop Ruggieri to describe how Ruggieri imprisoned him along with his children, condeming them to death by starvation. The souls here are immersed in the ice deep enough that they are unable to bend their necks.
  • Round 3: Ptolomaea is probably named for Ptolemy, the captain of Jericho, who invited Simon Maccabaeus and his sons to a banquet and then killed them. The souls here lay supine on the ice, which covers them except for half of their faces. As they cry, their tears freeze and seal their eyes shut–they are denied even the comfort of tears.
  • Round 4: Judecca, named for Judas Iscariot, Biblical betrayer of Christ, is for traitors to their lords and benefactors. All of the sinners punished within are completely encapsulated in ice, distorted in all conceivable positions.

Condemned to the very center of hell for committing the ultimate sin (treachery against God) is Satan (Lucifer), who has three faces, one red, one black, and one a pale yellow, each having a mouth that chews on a prominent traitor. Satan himself is represented as a giant, terrifying beast, weeping tears from his six eyes, which mix with the traitors’ blood sickeningly. He is waist deep in ice, and beats his six wings as if trying to escape, but the icy wind that emanates only further ensures his imprisonment (as well as that of the others in the ring). The sinners in the mouths of Satan are Brutus and Cassius in the left and right mouths, respectively. They were involved in the assassination of Julius Caesar—an act which, to Dante, represented the destruction of a unified Italy and the killing of the man who was divinely appointed to govern the world. In the central, most vicious mouth is Judas Iscariot—the namesake of this zone and the betrayer of Jesus. Judas is being administered the most horrifying torture of the three traitors, his head in the mouth of Satan, and his back being forever skinned by Satan’s claws.  What is seen here is a perverted trinity: Satan is impotent, ignorant, and evil while God can be attributed as the opposite: all powerful, all knowing, and good.

Inferno is the most badass work of poetry I have ever read. As I mentioned earlier – I am not religious. Will I repent my sins before death anyway? Hell yes.

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