Dante’s Inferno: What is Hell?

Video essay by Lit Tips

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

It was over a decade ago when I first came across the Inferno; during the spring semester of my freshman year of college. And, at the time, I felt as lost as Dante wandering through that fateful dark forest. Like Dante, I was in my own form of chaos and upon reading the opening Canto of his epic poem, his dilemma not only resonated with me but also opened my imagination to the true horrors of the world. Perhaps even more remarkably, it designed a thoroughly compelling system of justice that surpassed biblical proportions, venturing into wider themes and feeling the presence of characters beyond the Bible.

man in forest of chaos
man in forest of chaos
Merrie Melodies Hell
Merrie Melodies Hell

The Inferno is part of the Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy is a tour of the afterlife. Dante takes us from the pits of Hell to the highest echelons of Paradise using himself as the vessel from which we, too, can experience his fantastical adventure. Because in the end, Dante represents all of humankind. And hence, when you read Inferno, you will find yourself walking the same figurative steps Dante Alighieri once took over 700 years ago.

Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri

Dante’s use of Virgil and his muse Beatrice

Dante is guided through the Inferno by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. The same Virgil who authored the epic Aeneid. There are few poets that could command such language to describe Hell’s horrors to Dante. Not to mention, one who could stand as a pillar alongside Dante himself. Throughout the Inferno, Virgil represents Reason, and like all the other unbaptized poets of antiquity, he’s relegated to Limbo.

Dante and Beatrice
Dante and Beatrice
Painting by Salvatore Postiglione

How Dante depicts Hell

As you may have already realized, Inferno is an allegorical work. Dante’s version of Hell describes humanity as weighted by its own guilt and sin. Every element within this realm symbolizes the sins of the damned. Dante uses language and metaphor to paint a vivid picture of something much less tangible. And in the end, even the conceptual misdeeds of the damned are made into a physical form of discipline.

funnel to Hell
funnel to Hell
Illustrated by Botticelli
Dante accompanied by Virgil in Hell
Dante accompanied by Virgil in Hell
Lucifer in Hell
Lucifer in Hell

Historical Dante Alighieri

To gain a bit more outside perspective on Inferno, we must recognize the world in which Dante had conceived his masterpiece. Fourteenth-century Florence had become a political nightmare. The Guelph — Ghibelline conflict was becoming increasingly bloody. These two factions fought bitterly for power, but when Dante’s Guelphs had won control, the Guelphs split into two more factions. The constant infighting led to treachery and Dante’s eventual banishment from Florence. If he returned to Florence he would have surely faced execution. He was received with honors by many noble households and resided most notably in Ravenna with Guido Novello da Polenta, the nephew of Francesca Da Rimini. It was during Dante’s exile when he wrote his Divine Comedy. The landscape of Dante’s beloved (but corrupt) Florence provides the much-needed context for his narrative. The lust for power corrupts all souls.

Classical Greek heroes
Classical Greek heroes

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