“MIDWAY upon the journey of our life|I found myself within a forest dark,|For the straightforward pathway had been lost.|Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say|What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,|Which in the very thought renews the fear.|So bitter is it, death is little more;|But of the good to treat, which there I found,|Speak will I of the other things I saw there.|I cannot well repeat how there I entered,|So full was I of slumber at the moment|In which I had abandoned the true way.”
Thus begins one of the most impactful works in not just the Western canon, but in all of literature. Referenced in art and discourse since its publication in the medieval era, Dante’s Inferno serves as the accepted blueprint for how we perceive the underworld; one which Dante described as a netherworld that lurks in the shadows of our subconscious, manifesting our greatest fears while poetically punishing the sins of humankind. But what is it about Hell does Dante capture that captivates our imaginations? Is it fear? Or is it the notion of poetic justice where every wrong is made right?
“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.
I was just starting my journey into the classics, so I was familiar with a few Greek epics and mythologies. But there were many more layers to the Inferno. I was fascinated by the way Dante melded the worlds of all these great past works within his own reality. There were names from biblical texts, others were long-deceased politicians and members of the corrupt papacy, and even more that I’d never heard of until that point, but all the same, each was as fascinating as the next.
What surprised me the most was how Dante used portraits of his contemporaries to describe the damned; as if it were he who played God and had the power to condemn their literary souls to an eternity of torture. And even more, his work was translated into countless languages so their names would forever be associated with their sins.
What intrigued me the most about Inferno, however, was how it seemed forbidden, even cursed. Like a Weegee board. I was immersed by Dante’s plight and the imagery he used to describe each level of Hell. And as I read on, his depiction of Hell, a place I once associated with fire and brimstone, like some old Merrie Melodies cartoon, articulated something much more eternal. A realm that was as ancient and enduring as the collective human consciousness.
And then I came to the realization: Inferno is not just a blueprint of chaos, it’s a map for how to escape it. And Dante revealed to us that we are capable of pulling ourselves out of Hell, but we must first be willing to accept our own past transgressions and focus our efforts on love. And as anyone knows who had previously confronted their inner demons and enacted real change, you must first successfully navigate Hell in order to get out.
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.
The Divine Comedy was published in 1314 and is regarded as one of the greatest works in Italian literature. Altogether, it’s comprised of the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Dante’s narrative poem is written in Medieval Italian vernacular, instead of Latin which would have only been legible to the educated elites of the time. His journey spans from the evening of Good Friday and through the morning of Good Sunday in the year 1300. Using setting to strike tone, Dante uses a dark forest to begin his descent into Hell to symbolize chaos and the morning of Easter when he emerges from Paradise to signify rebirth. Dante explores themes such as the concept of evil and how it contradicts the will of God, the perfection of God’s justice, and the immortality of storytelling.
So, why is it that many readers start and finish their journey with Inferno? Although Dante himself would prefer you to enjoy his literary journey in its entirety, readers are interested more in sin than perfection. It would seem that humanity is hopelessly drawn to the horrors of Hell. Perhaps, it has something to do with our relation to morality and our impossible standards of perfection.
This is where we branch more into the philosophical realm. Is reading Inferno the same as watching a horror movie? Or is it more like visiting Las Vegas with the intention to participate in debauchery? Are we simply entertained by what frightens us? Or, like public executions of old, is there something more primal in witnessing the fate of those wretched beings? One thing is for certain, whatever the reasoning, it says much about humanity and its relationship to virtue.
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.
A guiding light for Dante is Beatrice, modeled after a girl he had once known in his youth and who became the muse for his Divine Comedy. She was also his inspiration for his earlier work Vita Nuova. Beatrice is the force that leads Dante to Paradise and therefore the grace of God. And so ultimately, to Dante, Beatrice represents spiritual love.
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.
The souls which exist in Inferno are neither alive nor dead, as they are defined by their wrongdoings which ultimately define them. Their suffering is perpetual and neverending. In this way, Dante the author has become God, his writings are the strings that tie the universe together, and their destinies have been decided by his will.
But fear not, Hell in Dante’s narrative is not one place, but multi-layered, becoming smaller like a funnel the deeper you travel, and unlike popular belief, it grows darker and more complicated the further it draws away from the warmth of Paradise.
Inferno is comprised of 34 cantos which are sections that poets like Dante and Ludovico used to divide their narratives into sections or stanzas for thematic understanding. Each canto ranges from 136 to 151 lines and uses the terza rima rhyme scheme. (ABA, BCB, CDC, etc.)
Altogether there are nine circles of Hell. Each Circle focuses on a specific sin and its punishment. Starting with the virtuous non-Christians and unbaptized pagan souls of Limbo, each circle descends further into the icy depths of oblivion.
The second circle is Lust where souls are battered by endless violent winds as reflected by the turmoil of their passion in life. Circle Three is Gluttony. Patrolled by a worm-like monster Cerberus, the souls of this realm live in rot enduring an icy rain. Circle Four punishes Greed. Those fated souls are forever attached to large boulders and weights for all eternity. Circle Five is for Wrath and those souls who fight in a never-ending royal rumble upon the river Styx. Circle Six is Heresy. All heretics who rejected the Christian doctrine are forced to lie in burning tombs.
Circle Seven is a bit more complicated. Its theme is violence but it’s divided into three separate rings of varying degrees of punishment. The outer ring is reserved for murderers submerged in boiling blood. The middle layer of the ring is for suicides who are transformed into bleeding trees. And the innermost ring is a desert of burning sand where blasphemers and sodomites reside.
Circle Eight is Fraud. This layer is divided into ten Bolgias of various forms of fraud separated by bridges. Punishments vary but they range from being whipped by demons to being steeped in excrement. (I know, gross…)
Circle Nine is Treachery which contains those who have betrayed. They are stuck within a lake of ice. There are four rings within the lake and at the final ring is the giant embodiment of Lucifer, who in Dante’s depiction is punished just like every other soul of the damned, his wings ironically generating the freezing cold that binds him. The Ninth Circle is purposefully anticlimactic. Lucifer is not some grand being that rules over Hell; because in Dante’s Hell, God still governs. And Lucifer faces his wrath just like all of his other creations.
There are three classical characters that are lodged within the jaws of Lucifer. Brutus and Cassius, the betrayers of Julius Caesar. And, of course, Judas. And all four together represent the greatest betrayers and enemies of mankind.
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.
According to Britannica: “The exile of an individual becomes a microcosm of the problems of a country, and it also becomes representative of the fall of humankind. Dante’s story is thus historically specific as well as paradigmatic.”
As noted earlier, Dante’s Divine Comedy transcends biblical text. Hell is populated with monsters and creatures ranging from centaurs to the boatman Charon, not to mention the mythological river Styx itself. There are also Greek heroes and villains like Achilles, King Minos, and Ulysses. Together with Filipo Argenti, Farinata degli Uberti, Piero delle Vigne, the simoniacal popes, the virtuous pagans, and so many more figures, Dante blurs the reader’s imagination between fiction and reality.
Paul Cantor argues against viewing Dante’s Divine Comedy as a strictly Western canonical work. Cantor highlights Dante’s use of classical characters and non-Western associations as examples that allow Divine Comedy to transcend the canon altogether.
In his article The Uncanonical Dante: The Divine Comedy and Islamic Philosophy, Cantor states:
“To today’s opponents of the canon, I would thus say: ‘Instead of rejecting the Western canon, study it carefully, and you will find that it is not exclusively Western after all. The situation is in fact far more complex than you realize, and studying classics like the Divine Comedy or Don Quixote may well introduce you to issues that have been quite central in what you yourselves think of as non-Western cultures, issues to the understanding of which non-Westerners have made major contributions….’ It is only by reading Dante non-canonically that we become aware of the full richness and complexity of his thought, especially the way he is open to countercurrents of ideas within the supposedly rigid orthodoxy of the Middle Ages. We do no service to the Western tradition when we present its canonical authors as one monument to orthodoxy after another…. And we will also find that the Western canon already incorporates non-Western components — to the point where an Islamic philosopher can find an honored place among the sages of ancient Greece and Rome in that most canonical and yet uncanonical of all works, Dante’s Divine Comedy.”