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The Divine Comedy

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Image from a medieval manuscript of The Divine Comedy which shows a goat centaur patrolling the river of boiling blood.
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Late 14th century depiction of centaurs patrolling the river of boiling blood.

The Divine Comedy is an Italian epic poem written by Dante Alighieri over the course of 12 years (1308-1320 CE). It deeply affected the medieval worldview of the afterlife, effects which that can still be seen today. The poem details Dante being escorted through hell and purgatory by the Roman poet Virgil, and through paradise by an old love, Beatrice, after being lost in the dark forest of sin. It has been said that it represents allegorically the soul's journey towards God. Throughout, it beats the reader about the head with representative (often brutal) imagery.

With the comprehensive list of actions and even thoughts you could be tortured for it would be more likely to get hit by lightning while being eaten by a bear than to get into paradise without some form of horrible punishment from a loving god. It displays an example of the link many medieval Christians had between suffering and conversion or redemption.

The Catholic Church has had a history of many popes that spoke fondly of the poem. One of them, pope Benedict XV, even wrote a whole book about Dante's life and faith, In Praeclara Summorum.


The poem starts on the Thursday before Good Friday with Dante becoming lost in a dark forest often seen as a representation of sin in comparison to the straight way. Dante states he is halfway through the journey of life; Biblically this is supposed to be 70, so the readers can infer he is 35 at the time.[1] After getting lost Dante attempts to climb a mountain to find his way but is chased by a leopard, lion, and she-wolf. These represent allegories as well:

  • The lion — Violence and bestial nature
  • The leopard — Fraud and malice
  • The she-wolf — Incontinence: It meant lack of self control at the time.

Dante is then chased into a cave where he meets Virgil and the story rightly begins.

The Inferno[edit]

The most well known part of Dante's epic poem due to its intense and imaginative imagery. There are 9 circles of hell, often grouped into three perversions of love.[2] Violence is split to an additional 3 and fraud has an additional 10. Dante obviously had a very special place in hell for fraud. Interestingly Dante often includes Roman mythological creatures, contemporary Italian figures, and biblical figures throughout hell.

  • Deficient Love
    • First Circle: Limbo, or the abyss. The place for the unbaptized and virtuous pagans, for those who could not choose God but choose human virtue.[3] It is the abode of some Old Testament figures, like Noah and Moses, who sort of got screwed for not being born during New Testament times in spite of following God. There are also famous Roman figures, Greek figures and Greek mythological heroes there. The Muslim general Saladin is there for having shown mercy in combat.
Dante stated Without baptism they lacked the hope for something greater than rational minds can conceive.[4] An odd comment, given that Limbo is home to good reasonable people who couldn't have been baptized and the next circle is the abode of the baptized who let desire overwhelm their reason.
  • Excessive Love — The circles of Incontinence
    • Second Circle: Lust — Where hell properly begins. It is called a part where no thing gleams.[5] Here the serpent Minos judges souls and assigns them to the corresponding by winding itself around their bodies. The sinners that let their appetites overwhelm their reason[6] are condemned to be constantly buffeted by raging storms in this circle.
    • Third Circle: Gluttony — For allowing their voracious appetite to supersede their reason the gluttonous wallow in a vile, putrid slush produced by a ceaseless, foul, icy rain in nearly pure putrefaction.[7]
    • Fourth Circle: Greed — Pluto, otherwise known as Hades, guards the realm of those whose attitude towards material goods was outside the appropriate mean.[8] In the Inferno, this generally gets explained as to hoard or to squander wealth. In hell the greedy joust with weapons of great weights, often depicted as bags of money in art.
  • Malicious Love
    • Fifth Circle: Wrath — Located on the filthy stinking shore of the river Styx. The actively wrathful fight about the shore. Dante explains that there is also a group of passively wrathful that lie directly beneath the water and are "sunk into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe."[9] No antidepressants back in Dante's time so you get sent to hell instead.
    • Sixth Circle: Heresy — Heretics get sealed in burning tombs for their sins.[10]
    • Seventh Circle: Violence
      • Ring 1: Against neighbors — Here murderers, war-makers, plunderers and tyrants will be immersed in the Phlegethon, a burning river of boiling blood.[11] This river is patrolled by centaur sentries that shoot arrows into any sinner that attempts to escape.
      • Ring 2: Against self — Suicides are turned into thorny trees that are fed upon by harpies. They are only allowed to speak when damaged.
      • Ring 3: Against God, art, and nature — Here blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers are tortured in different fashions by the plain of burning sand burned by flakes of fire falling from the sky. Blasphemers are tied directly to the sand, sodomites are forced to run in circles, and usurers weep huddled on the sand.[12]
    • Eighth Circle: Fraud
      • Ring 1: Panderers and seducers — In this ring each sinner is placed in a line to be scourged by horned demons for eternity. They "deliberately exploited the passions of others and so drove them to serve their own interests, are themselves driven and scourged."[13]
      • Ring 2: Flatterers — For exploiting others, these sinners get to fight in a pile of shit for eternity.
      • Ring 3: Simoniacs — An older way to say indulgences. Dante spends a good bit of time going over how unjust this is, and portrays sinners as head down in a tube of rock while flames scorch their feet.
      • Ring 4: Sorcerers — Including fortune tellers, diviners, astrologers, and other false prophets that usurp God's prerogative by looking into the future using twisted means. They have their heads turned backwards as many cry about their fate.[14]
      • Ring 5: Barrators — Corrupt politicians that make money off their political offices. In hell they are immersed in a burning lake of pitch guarded by the demon Malacoda if they surface.[15] This section of the Canto also relates a several century old fart joke as a demon uses his ass as a trumpet.[16]
      • Ring 6: Hypocrites — Sinners in this ring are forced to walk in circles in leaded and gilded monks' habits representing the terrible weight of their deceit.[17]
      • Ring 7: Thieves — These sinners are tortured by climbing over a ruined bridge across of chasm of monstrous reptiles. If any make it, there are many more bridges according to Dante.[18]
      • Ring 8: Counselors of Fraud — People who counseled others to commit fraud who are burned in a continuous flame. Here Dante makes note of Greek heroes that stormed Troy, including Odysseus.
      • Ring 9: Sowers of Discord — Even complaining can send you to hell where people are hacked and mutilated for all eternity by a large demon wielding a bloody sword. Since sinners are supposedly torn apart as they tried to tear apart God's works in religion, the civil, and family spheres. Seems fairly petty for an omnipotent and omniscient deity to punish people for using their free will to want something different. This ring seems to include any split, as it includes Muhammad, for creating a schism in Christianity, and his son-in-law Ali, for splitting Islam into Shiite and Sunni groups.
      • Ring 10: Falsifiers — Including alchemists, evil impersonators, counterfeiters, and perjurers that are beset by horrible diseases, stench, thirst, filth, darkness, and screaming.
The Devil from a 14th century manuscript of The Divine Comedy.
  • Central Well of Malebolge — Before the ninth circle. Classical and biblical giants guard the central well while buried waist deep in the ground with their upper bodies free.[19] All are chained save Antaeus, who did not join the rebellion against the Olympian gods and is not bound (but still buried in the ground). It is very odd how many pagan mythical figures reside in hell.
    • Ninth Circle: Treachery — Here Dante sees the frozen lake where those who committed treachery against those they had special relationships with are sent.
      • Ring 1: Caïna — Named after Cain as they are traitors to their own kin. They are buried in the ice with just their heads free to bow in order to give some relief from the howling wind in the bottom of the pit.
      • Ring 2: Antenora — Named after Antenor, a Trojan who betrayed his city to the Greeks, as they are traitors to their country. They are buried up to their necks without the ability to bow their heads.
      • Ring 3: Ptolomaea — Named after Ptolemy, who invited his father-in-law Simon Maccabaeus and his sons to a banquet and then killed them, as sinners are traitors to their guests. These sinners are sealed laying down, face up, with their faces free but their tears have frozen to their faces.
      • Ring 4: Judecca — Named after Judas as they are traitors to their lords. They are sealed completely in the ice in contorted positions.
  • Center of Hell: Condemned for committing the ultimate sin, by his personal treachery against God, the Devil is frozen waist deep in ice, suffering for eternity. Strangely, he has three faces, one red, one yellow, and one black, often seen as a representation of the perversion of the Trinity of God.[20] Judas Iscariot is in one of his three mouths. Brutus and Cassius, who killed Julius Caesar, are in the others.


William Blake's illustration of Dante and Virgil before the Angelic Guardian of the Gate of Purgatory.

Virgil then escorts Dante through purgatory, presented vaguely to be a mountain located somewhere in the Southern hemisphere. There he must pass through the 7 terraces of suffering and spiritual growth. There souls cast off their sins terrace by terrace and assume the virtue that is the opposite.

  • Terrace 1: The proud purge their sins and become humble. There souls are forced to carry large stones on their back as they look at beautiful statues of the humble.[21]
  • Terrace 2: The envious purge their sins to become generous. The envious are forced to have their eyes sewed shut with iron wire, wear grey cloaks, and listen to voices speak of generosity.
  • Terrace 3: The wrathful purge their sins and become meek. There souls are forced to walk in acrid smoke. Dante and Marco Lombardo also have a discussions about free will as they watch the penitent.
  • Terrace 4: The slothful purge their sins by becoming ceaselessly active with unbridled zeal.
  • Terrace 5: The covetous are forced to lay face down on the ground till they are no longer covetous. It would be hard to find the opposite of wanting too much for a soul that has nothing, cannot acquire anything, and cannot give anything away.
  • Terrace 6: The gluttonous are forced to do without or do with temperance. Like Tantalus, some are starved or are given bland food (honey and locusts).
  • Terrace 7: The lustful are forced to go through a large wall of flame calling out examples of infidelity and chastity.

According to one passage, no one can be allowed into heaven without passing through the flames on the 7th terrace. In the narrative, Dante himself has to endure them in order to be shown heaven. He says of the experience that he wished to be dipped in molten glass, because it would be cooler than those flames. It is not explained how Dante, who is still alive and in corporeal form, survives the ordeal.

At the end, Dante floats up off the top of Mount Purgatory toward heaven. This is in keeping with the Aristotelian model of matter, which contests that Earth sinks down to the lowest level, and water above that, and air above that, because it is "in their nature" to sort themselves in this manner. The prevailing view was that it was a human's nature to float above even the air, but the "weight of sin" drags us down to stand on the Earth.


Vigil ends his escort at purgatory, given that he has not earned the right to visit heaven as he was a pagan. There Dante is met by Beatrice PortinariWikipedia's W.svg, a Florentine woman whom Dante is thought to have been in love with but who married another suitor and died 18 years before the start of this poem. Beatrice guides Dante through the spheres of heaven, represented by the "planets" that were known at the time. (The spheres are arranged in the same order as Aristotle's spheres of crystalline aether.)

15th century painting which depicts Dante meeting Thomas Aquinas and other sages in heaven.
  • Sphere 1 — The Moon: The Inconstant — It is associated with souls of those who were deficient in the virtue of fortitude but strong to their vows.[22] Also representing optics and the scientific method.
  • Sphere 2 — Mercury: The Ambitious — Here is the representation of those who wished to do good out of desire for fame but lacked the virtue of justice.
  • Sphere 3 — Venus: The Lovers — Residing here are those lovers who didn't practice the virtue of temperance.
  • Sphere 4 — The Sun: The Wise — Here Dante meets the examples of prudence. The souls of the wise that helped to illuminate the world intellectually.[23]
  • Sphere 5 — Mars: The Warriors of the Faith — This is the home of the warriors of the Faith that gave their lives for God, displaying the virtue of fortitude. Dante sees Charlemagne and his heroic nephew Roland there.
  • Sphere 6 — Jupiter: The Just Rulers — Home of the rulers who were just. It is one of the few easy to decipher allegories.
  • Sphere 7 — Saturn: The Contemplatives — Home of the virtues of temperance, associated with monks and theology.
  • Sphere 8 — The Fixed Stars: Faith, Hope, and Love — Representing the church triumphant.
  • Sphere 9 — The Primum Mobile: The Angels — The abode of angels who Dante attributes to moving all of the other spheres. Here Beatrice describes the creation of angels and the universe, as well as criticizing contemporary preachers of Dante's time.
  • The Empyrean: The House of God and enthroned souls of the faithful where angels fly distributing peace and love. There St. Bernard also describes predestination to Dante as a divine knowledge of what will pass instead of removal of free will. An idea in the 12th-13th centuries proposed by Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham.

See also[edit]

  • Dan Brown, whose Inferno is kind of a love letter to Dante.

External links[edit]


  1. Psalm 89:10, Vulgate; Psalm 90:10, KJV
  2. John Ciardi, Inferno, notes on Canto XI, pg. 94
  3. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto IV
  4. Inferno, Canto IV, line 36
  5. Inferno, Canto IV, line 151
  6. Inferno, Canto V, line 38
  7. Inferno, Canto VI, pg. 54
  8. Inferno, Canto VII, line 47,
  9. Canto VII
  10. Inferno Canto X, line 15
  11. Inferno, Canto XII
  12. Inferno, Canto XIV
  13. Inferno, Canto XVIII
  14. Inferno, Canto XX, lines 28-30
  15. Canto XXI, lines 112-114
  16. Patterson, Victoria. "Great Farts in Literature". The Nervous Breakdown
  17. Inferno, Canto XXIII
  18. Inferno, Canto XXIV
  19. Inferno, Canto XXXII.
  20. Inferno, Canto XXXIV
  21. Purgatorio, Canto XI
  22. Paradiso, Canto II
  23. Dorothy L. Sayers, Paradise, notes on Canto X.