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Botticelli's Map of Dante's inferno

A Pilgrimage of Thought, Pt 3: Dante Treks through the Inferno of Satan

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At the beginning of Inferno, the first section of the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri is thirty-five years old in the year 1300—representing both the new millennium and the believed midway point of a man's life. The Dante of the text finds himself lost in a dark forest, surrounded by three beasts symbolically representing the obstacles he is not yet able to overcome in the "real" world. From the darkness, Dante is found by the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Roman epic The Aeneid, who himself is saved from living within the deepest strata of Hell because he lived before God and Christ were known. With Virgil, Dante is given permission and temporary access to the nine circles of Hell.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."  Intended to stir up the darkest forms of fear within souls of those visiting the underworld, this foreboding warning that greets Dante and Virgil does not sway them on their pilgrimage through Hell. Though foolhardy, Dante follows Virgil faithfully under the dark omen and immediately finds himself on the shores of the Acheron River, used in the Greek mythos to take the dead to their afterlife. 

Before attending the boat awaiting them, however, Dante is first met with the souls who did nothing of virtue and nothing criminal in their lives. Those who refused to take sides in the Rebellion of Angels dwell here as well, all unable to be given a fate as no offence was committed other than negligence.

Dante and Virgil on the boat in hell (1822), Eugene Delacroix

Dante and Virgil on the boat in hell (1822), Eugene Delacroix (Wikimedia Commons)

The First Circle: Limbo

The first circle that Dante and his guide pass into is that of Limbo, the land from which Virgil and his contemporaries and predecessors hail, as well as those who died unbaptized and the pagans who lived as good people though they did not accept the Christian faith.

The belief was that one cannot be punished in the darkest corners of the underworld for blasphemy when Christianity was not yet known. Within the circle remained some of the greatest men and women of the ancient world—Homer, the early physician Hippocrates, Queen Penthesilea of the Amazons, Caesar, and so on, as well as mythologized characters such as the players in the Trojan War.

Dante is accepted as an equal by the great Greek and Roman poets (1857) Gustave Doré

Dante is accepted as an equal by the great Greek and Roman poets (1857) Gustave Doré (Wikimedia Commons)

The Punishments for Lust, Gluttony, Greed, and Anger

The next circle of Hell holds those inflicted with the sin of lust and are the first beings Dante witnesses as truly punishable. The souls lost here—such as Paris of Troy, Tristan lover of Isolde from the court of King Arthur, and Cleopatra—must endure being constantly blown back and forth by a violent wind, as constant and waning as the flickering light of a burning candle.

The Lovers' Whirlwind (1824/1827), William Blake

The Lovers' Whirlwind (1824/1827), William Blake (Wikimedia Commons)

Following the first sinners are the gluttonous who are forced to lie in a disgusting combination of mud, sleet, and other unknown substances representing the despicableness of their overindulgence.

The greedy are punished next, an amalgamation of clergymen and bankers who are forever weighed down by the weight of their massive amounts of money while being perpetually rained on by filth and feces.

Dante's Inferno, Canto 6 (1587), Stradanus

Dante's Inferno, Canto 6 (1587), Stradanus (Wikimedia Commons)

In Dante's interpretation of gluttons, he widens the parameters of the greedy to encompass not only those with insatiable biological appetites but also those who desire wealth to an unattainable degree.

The angry must forever fight amongst themselves in a stone jousting match within the river Styx, another river borrowed from Greek mythology that is known as the place upon which the gods swear unbreakable oaths. 

The Heretics, Violent, and Frauds

The last four circles of Hell are contained within a city called Dis, called such for the Roman god of the underworld—the same as Pluto, but referred to as such in The Aeneid. Fallen angels and the Furies guard this internal city, preventing all from leaving and any from entering.

It is only with the help of the angels that Dante is allowed entrance at all. Upon entering the sixth circle, the heretics are the first Dante sees, locked within fiery tombs holding those who were both convicted for their crimes in life as in death. 

Dante and Virgil arrive at Dis

 Dante and Virgil arrive at Dis (Wikimedia Commons)

The seventh circle holds the violent, themselves divided into three sections for those who first, committed crimes against neighbors and comrades; then against those who killed themselves; and finally against those who were violent against the Christian faith and God—sodomites such as Dante's teacher Brunetto Lantini, and blasphemers dwell in this final sector of the seventh realm. Alexander the Great is one of the most notable people who suffer in this place, considered sinful for his crimes of conquering other populations.

Anyone who succeeded in harming his or herself suffer the psychological and physical pain of being transformed into trees, continuously pecked by the vicious half woman/half bird Harpies.

Harpies in the forest of suicides (1857) Gustave Doré

Harpies in the forest of suicides (1857) Gustave Doré (Wikimedia Commons)

At last, upon a desert of burning sand, those who went against God lie prostrate in eternal agony while sodomites are forced to forever walk amid a rainstorm of fire.

The fraudulent are in Circle Eight, made up of many varying types of deceivers—the emotional criminals: seducers, flatterers; the immoral: supposed sorcerers and alchemists, thieves and hypocrites; and of course, the politicians.   

The pit of disease, the falsifiers (1824), William Blake

The pit of disease, the falsifiers (1824), William Blake (Wikimedia Commons)

Here, the damned endure terrible beatings, being buried high in human excrement, contortion, or crucifixion, to name only a few.

Thieves tortured by serpents (1857) Gustave Doré

Thieves tortured by serpents (1857) Gustave Doré (Wikimedia Commons)

The Terrifying Ninth Circle of Hell

And finally, within the ninth circle of Hell are the worst and most terrible villains that can be named. The prideful and the treacherous make their eternal home here, each frozen in an icy lake rather than burning in the typically believed fires of Hell.

Cain, killer of his blood brother Abel, and Mordred, murderer of his father Arthur dwell in the first layer of the ninth circle; betrayers of countries are frozen within the second layer, followed by betrayers of friends and comrades within the third.

Dante and Virgil in the ninth circle of hell (1861), Gustave Doré

Dante and Virgil in the ninth circle of hell (1861), Gustave Doré (Wikimedia Commons)

The fourth layer encases those who turned against their leaders—Judas, traitor of Jesus of Nazareth, is the namesake of this particular ring.

However, this circle is not the end of the road for Dante and his Roman guide. Four more people await them at the center of the final ring. Satan, of the six eyes and six wings, forever trying to escape his own torment within the confines of the ice, remains imprisoned in the heart of the circle—each of his three faces devouring one of three men.

Satan devouring three men (14th century)

Satan devouring three men (14th century) (Wikimedia Commons)

Brutus, friend and traitor to Julius Caesar, and his comrade Cassius are chewed upon for the part they played in the devastating end of Caesar's attempt at unifying Rome. But in Satan's final, central mouth is the worst of all the mortal demons in known history: Judas Iscariot suffers the perpetual gnawing of his head and skinning of his back at the hands of Satan for the crimes he committed against the Son of God.

The End to Inferno and the Journey to Purgatory

Upon seeing this ghastly sight, Dante's trek through Hell comes to a terrifying end. Virgil leaps into action, placing the frightened pilgrim on his back and then dodging the wings of Satan as he climbs onto the demon's back. Dante can do nothing but hold on for dear life as Virgil moves them first down, past the frozen waters, and then back up along Satan's legs toward the surface of the earth. When they emerge, they begin their journey to the next realm of the afterlife, Purgatory.

Satan trapped in the ice (1857), Gustave Doré

Satan trapped in the ice (1857), Gustave Doré (Wikimedia Commons)

Featured Image: Botticelli's Map of Dante's inferno (Wikia)

Coming Next: Dante Ascends Mount Purgatory.

By Riley Winters


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Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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