THE PROBLEM OF HELL
Hell is nothing new; it’s a hole with a long history, and it appears in various forms across the expanse of human culture as a place in the afterlife where those who gave themselves over to evil and wickedness in life without repenting are punished eternally. In the west, over the last 2500 years, it has appeared in various cultures and religions under different forms and names: the Underworld, Tartarus, Hades, Shoel, Gehenna, Jahannam and, of course, the basic Christian term: Hell.
As simply as we might define it, the concept of Hell is a broad and complex topic that encompasses a host of other considerations: sin and evil, faith and disbelief, virtue and goodness, eternity and afterlife, Satan and devils, justice and mercy, free will and forgiveness. And hell in general is not without its problems. Does it actually exist? Are there people there? To what extent does the notion of hell run counter to a merciful and loving God? Is it a kind of culturally inherited boogeyman designed to frighten us into being good?
On the other hand, these problems seem to fade when we consider how the popular imagination over the last 2500 years has filled in the blanks of hell with a vast body of visual art accompanied by plentiful offerings in literature and poetry. And what the sacred and doctrinal writings of Jews, Christians, and Muslims have left purposely lean, art in so many forms has been ready, not to invade with, but to propose alternate perspectives. Visual artists over the centuries have produced images of hell, populated by an extensive group of Satans and Lucifers of all kinds. Demons, devils, and other infernal monsters comprise the “workforce” of hell, and among their resources are fire, ice, vicious beasts and creatures of all kinds, and hideous instruments of torture. Sinners are punished and tortured variously as individuals and as groups or according to classifications of sins. And while not as extensive as the visual arts, literature and poetry have also contributed to the imaginative fabric of hell.
In the Christian west, Dante was not the first to create with words his vision of hell, nor would he be the last. But he was the greatest! Living in Roman Catholic, pre-Reformation Europe, he would have been accustomed to occasional church sermons on hell. Highly educated and widely read, hell would also have come to him in theological treatises, philosophical disputations, and the spiritual/mystical writings of Saints, nuns, monks, and others. Undoubtedly, he was among the audiences of traveling mystery plays and other tableaux that brought hell and devils to the masses. And he may well have seen frescoes and paintings of hellish scenes in his travels. Furthermore, seeing the real effects of sin and evil all around him, particularly in the realm of politics – both state and church, not to mention that he was unjustly exiled, the goal of his Comedy makes sense: to bring souls from a state of misery to blessedness. Little did he know that in the centuries after him, his great poem itself would inspire a veritable “ocean” of art.
If we recall that the Comedy is a journey – a pilgrimage – that starts in Hell, passes through Purgatory, and ends in Heaven, we can already see the goal of the poem laid out in this three-part structure. Add to this the fact that Dante was an exile and we have the journey of one man – but also everyone – to find his way home – his true home. But, as Virgil instructs him at the beginning of the Inferno, he must pass through the realm where the effects of sin and evil are on full display in order that he can have a greater understanding and appreciation of God’s infinite mercy in Purgatory. Only then will he himself be cleansed and ready to rise into the heavens to be with God forever.
SHAPE AND STRUCTURE OF DANTE’S HELL
Dante’s Hell is shaped like an immense multi-leveled funnel or cone under the surface of the earth, widest at the top and gradually narrowing to its bottom at the center of the earth. Straight up from the bottom of Hell sits the city of Jerusalem in the northern hemisphere, and at the southern end of that axis is the Mountain of Purgatory (Part 2 of the Comedy). Lucifer stands up to his chest in the center of a frozen lake at the bottom of Hell, as far from Heaven as one could possibly get, having been flung down with the rest of the fallen angels (now devils) after a great rebellion and battle in Heaven.
This subterranean kingdom of eternal woe is a dim place where time is told by the position of the moon, not the sun (which always represents the light of God). Dante, in the middle of his life, enters it through a terrifying forest on the evening before Good Friday in the Spring of 1300, and spends three days traveling downward with his mentor Virgil. They emerge into the realm of Purgatory on the morning of Easter Sunday.
THE “TRAGEDY” OF HELL
Though Dante presents us with some seemingly likeable characters in Hell, and we might be tempted to think that others don’t belong there, we must not be fooled by them (as Dante will be). In Canto 3:18, just inside the gate of Hell, Virgil makes an important observation. He tells Dante that throughout Hell he will see the souls of those who “lost the good of the intellect.” He’s not talking about madness, insanity, or plain stupidity, though ironically these might fit. Who chooses to go to Hell? But that’s exactly the point. What he’s really saying is that the souls in Hell misused their free will (intellect) to such an extent that their choice of sin(s) over good damaged them so that they literally chose to be there. This is a great tragedy, but it’s part of Dante’s education (and ours) along his journey. In Canto 5:39 among the lustful sinners, Virgil will make a similar remark, telling Dante that these have made their reason a slave to their appetites. Later, in Canto 5 of the Paradiso (19-25) Beatrice will expand on this lesson. She tells Dante that as God created us, and out of the immensity of his bounty, He endowed us with the gift of free will. This is the gift that He prizes the most, this is the gift that is most like Himself. Only those creatures who have intellect receive this gift, no others.
NOT DANTE’S PRISON
The reader will discover soon on and throughout the Inferno that there are people in Hell who were enemies of Dante, people who ruined his career and his life. However, it would be a mistake to think that Dante includes these people as characters in this part of his poem in order to punish them or to take his revenge on them. This would cheapen the poem and cause it to lose much of its integrity. No, Dante carefully places his characters where he does to highlight each particular sin. And if the sinner is famous and well-known, so much the better because readers will pay more attention.
After a kind of Prologue in Cantos 1-2, Dante divides his Hell into nine descending concentric sections or circles and populates them according to the gravity of the sins. The further down one goes in Hell, the worse the sin. And so he arranges the sins in three major categories with several sub-categories: sins of the flesh (the least grave), sins of violence, and sins of fraud (the most grave). Cleverly, in what is known as the contrapasso, souls in each particular category are punished in a way that matches or mirrors their sins. For example, the lustful are blown about in great storms that exemplify their unbridled passion; murderers and others who committed violent crimes are immersed in a river of boiling blood; sorcerers and others who sought to see into the future walk around with their heads twisted backwards; and flatterers are smeared with shit. Each of the circles is also generally guarded by a figure from classical mythology. (And following this pattern, angels will guard the circles of Purgatory, and the Saints themselves in the Paradise.)
Circle “0″: At Canto 3 and after Dante and Virgil leave the dark forest, we see the two enter this “Circle” through the Gate of Hell topped with its famous inscription. Inside is a place of chaos. The sinners here never took a stand in life, choosing to remain neutral and for themselves only. For this, they are technically placed outside of Hell proper because neither Heaven nor Hell will receive them. Contrary to their constant neutrality in life, they follow a banner here and there in a frenzy as they are chased by swarms of bees who sting them. Soon the travelers come to the first river of Hell, the Acheron, where Charon, the mythical boatman, ferries the souls of the damned into Hell proper. This section ends with a great earthquake and a flash of light. Dante collapses.
Circle 1: Upon waking, Dante finds himself in a place of quiet and calm. This is Limbo (Canto 4), a place for virtuous pagans and those unbaptized into the Christian faith. The souls here do not suffer, but they sigh quietly. Dante and Virgil are met by four famous classical poets who welcome Virgil back and make Dante one of their group. Continuing to walk along, they pass through the gates of a great gleaming castle where they see many famed figures from the classical past.
Circle 2: Here we enter the first of the three major sections of Hell where the sins of the flesh (or incontinence) are punished. In Canto 5, Minos, the classical king of Crete, acts as the judge of the souls and assigns each to their place. Virgil points out famous lovers from the past, here blown about by powerful winds matching the tempests of their passions. Dante sees the lovers Paolo and Francesca in the winds and asks to speak with them. At the end of the conversation Dante faints again.
Circle 3: In Canto 6 we encounter more incontinent sinners – this time gluttons. They are guarded by Cerberus the ravenous three-headed dog, which Virgil subdues with handfuls of muck. Among the gluttons who lie in the filthy slush of an eternal storm, Dante meets Ciacco (a nickname which means “hog”), a man he knew in Florence. Ciacco makes a prophecy about the fate of Florence after Dante asks him about the future of that wicked city.
Circle 4: In Canto 7 Dante and Virgil leave the gluttons and view sinners who were avaricious or prodigal, guarded by Plutus, the mythical god of wealth. These sinners engage in an eternal joust, rolling great stones (symbolizing sacks of money, perhaps) against each other as they shout out the others’ sins: “Why do you hoard?” one group calls out. “Why do you spend?” cries out the other group. Dante recognizes that many of these sinners were clerics and high churchmen, but Virgil tells him their sins have rendered them otherwise unrecognizable.
Circle 5: In Canto 8 we are still among the incontinent sinners but down yet another level – in the swamp-like river Styx, the second of the four great rivers of Hell. Fire signals between two towers on either side of the swamp indicate the arrival of a boat that will take Dante and Virgil across. When it arrives, the oarsman is Phlegyas, the mythical king of the Lapiths. He rants until Virgil silences him and they begin the crossing. But not before Dante notes that the boat sinks into the water somewhat because of his weight – a subtle note to remind us that he is alive. The sinners in this circle are the angry, the wrathful, and the sullen. They either brawl and tear at each other on the surface or sullenly gurgle beneath it. During the crossing one of the wrathful sinners, Filippo Argenti, attempts to climb into the boat, but Virgil pushes him off.
Soon they arrive within sight of the walls of infernal City of Dis. It glows reddish with flames in the dark. As they disembark and reach the gates, Dante and Virgil are met by the raging screams of thousands of fallen angels atop the walls and battlements who refuse to let them in. Virgil is taken aback by this, and signals that he wishes to talk with them. They agree, but Dante is told to go back the way he came – alone! Frightened out of his wits, Dante pleads with Virgil not to abandon him. Virgil calms him by assuring him that they will be able to proceed and that he will not leave him. But when he reaches the gates the evil spirits slam them closed in his face. Virgil returns dejected but tells Dante that an angel is on the way to help them.
In Canto 9, Virgil tells Dante that he has been to the bottom of Hell before and that he knows the way. But while they are talking the three Furies suddenly appear above the gate and threaten to bring out Medusa who will turn Dante to stone. At this, Virgil turns Dante around, tells him to cover his eyes, and covers them with his own hands as well. Soon, a great angel appears floating over the swampy Styx. He doesn’t speak to the travelers, but approaches the gates of Dis and rebukes the evil spirits. When he touches the gates with a wand they open. Then he departs, leaving the travelers pass through the gates unmolested. Once inside, Dante is curious about the open fiery tombs scattered across the landscape. Virgil tells him that they are filled with arch-heretics and their followers.
Circle 6: The great wall around the City of Dis marks the division between upper and lower Hell. Now inside and seeing the fiery tombs everywhere, Dante the Guelf spends time (Canto 10) talking with the famous Ghibelline warrior, Farinata, who proudly stands upright in his fiery tomb. In the middle of their sharp conversation about family backgrounds, political battles, and how Farinata saved Florence from destruction, old Cavalcante peers over the edge of the tomb asking why his son, Guido (a friend of Dante’s), is not with him. Misunderstanding Dante’s reply, the old man sinks back into the tomb and Farinata continues. Dante learns that the souls in Hell have the power to see the future, but the present is unclear to them unless someone tells them.
Virgil tells Dante it’s time to move on, but as they approach the edge of the cemetery they are overcome by the terrible stench rising up from the lower parts of Hell. In Canto 11, they stop near a great tomb until they can get accustomed to the smell, and Virgil uses the time to explain the structure of Lower Hell. Immediately below them the sins of violence are punished, and beyond that the rest of Hell is reserved for the sins of fraud and treachery which offend God the most because they are unique to humans.
Circle 7: This circle encompasses Cantos 12-17 and is divided into three rings where different sins of violence are punished: against a neighbor, against oneself, and against God. As Dante and Virgil enter this ring (Canto 12), they encounter the savage Minotaur from Greek mythology from whom they narrowly escape. As they near the Acheron, the third river of Hell – actually boiling blood – they are stopped by a group of centaurs. Virgil negotiates with them for one to carry Dante across this first ring of Circle 7. The violent sinners here are murderers, war-mongers, and plunderers. They are immersed in the boiling blood from their faces down to their feet, depending on the gravity of their sins.
Once across the Acheron, they enter the second ring, called the Wood of the Suicides (Canto 13). Those who did violence to themselves by suicide are transformed into gnarled, thorny bushes and trees which are fed upon by the Harpies – owl-like birds with women’s faces. Virgil knows that Dante would not believe that souls inhabit these trees, so he has him break off a branch and, to Dante’s horror, it begins to bleed, and the tree cries out in pain. This is the soul of Pier delle Vigne, the chancellor of emperor Frederick II who fell out of favor and later took his life. After he explains how the souls become trees, he also tells Dante that those who threw away their bodies by suicide will not get them back at the resurrection. Instead, their bodies will be draped over the trees and bushes inhabited by their souls. Finally, two noted profligates rush madly through the forest chased by wild dogs which soon catch them and tear them to pieces – a horrifying, but fitting, contrapasso.
The third ring of violence is actually composed of three more areas which the pilgrims cross on their way down. They first encounter those who did violence to God: the blasphemers (Canto 14). These sinners must lie face-up on burning sand as fire rains down upon them in the form of small flamelets. Here they encounter the unrepentant blasphemer Capaneus from Greek mythology. Moving on, they come to those who sinned against Nature, the sodomites (Canto 15). Here Dante is surprised to encounter his famous teacher, Brunetto Latini. After speaking with him for a while, the travelers move on where they encounter three more sodomites who were also famous and admired Florentines (Canto 16). Leaving them, Dante and Virgil come to a great waterfall. Here, Virgil tells Dante to remove the cord from around his waist and throws it down into the abyss before them. Dante wonders about this strange signal, but soon enough the monster of fraud, Geryon, rises up out of the dark abyss.
In Canto 17, Dante describes Geryon as a serpentine creature with a human face, lion-like paws, and a scorpion’s tail. Virgil tells Dante that they will descend into the abyss on Geryon and sends him off to view the last group of sinners by himself as he negotiates with the strange creature. Dante wanders among the usurers, those sinners who did violence to Nature by misusing its bounty for the purpose of profit and who lent money at exorbitant interest. These sinners are unrecognizable but Dante identifies them by the family crests on the bags of money they have tied around their necks (again, note the clever contrapasso). Returning to the waterfall, Dante sees that Virgil is already mounted on Geryon and has him sit in front of him. Like a ship, the monster glides away from the shore and in great circles spirals down to the next level.
Circle 8: Cantos 18-31 comprise the eighth circle of Dante’s Hell. Having been let down at the bottom of the great waterfall in Canto 18, Dante and Virgil explore an area called Malebolge or “evil pockets.” This is an immense, circular stadium-like structure composed of ten descending levels or ditches connected across their tops by a series of bridges or arches. In each of these large ditches are different kinds of fraudulent sinners, all punished with appropriate contrapassos. Dante begins with panders and seducers in the first ditch, who circle each other in opposite directions, whipped by great devils. In the second ditch, flatterers flop around in a cesspool and are smeared with shit. In Canto 19, the third ditch is filled with simonists who are stuck upside down in holes with their legs sticking out. Among these, Dante speaks with the soul of Pope Nicholas III who mistakes him for Pope Boniface VIII. In Canto 20, the fourth ditch are sorcerers, fortune-tellers, and astrologers who walk forward but with their heads twisted around backward. In Cantos 21 and 22, also known as the “Gargoyle Cantos,” a group of wild devils torture the souls of grafters and barrators in pools of boiling tar and pitch in the fifth ditch. While Dante talks with one of the sinners, the sinner makes fools of the devils guarding him and sets up a mad scene among them as Dante and Virgil run away and slide down into the sixth ditch. Having done this to avoid the devils who were chasing them, the two travelers encounter the hypocrites in Canto 23 who are dressed in the robes of monks. On the outside their robes glitter like gold, but inside they are lined with lead – so heavy they can hardly walk. Among them Virgil discovers a group he hadn’t seen the first time he passed through here. Caiaphas, the high priest, and his council who condemned Jesus, are all crucified on the ground. All the hypocrites walk on them as they file along their ditch.
Having climbed out of this ditch, Dante and Virgil encounter the thieves in the seventh ditch (Cantos 24 and 25) which is filled with serpents everywhere. These attack the sinners and cause them to burn to ashes and reform again. In an amazing scene of metamorphosis, a serpent attacks a sinner and they slowly merge together and then separate – the sinner now the serpent and the serpent now the sinner! In the eighth ditch (Canto 26) Dante and Virgil encounter those who gave false counsel, now wrapped in tongues of flame. They see Ulysses and Diomed together in one flame and, at Virgil’s bidding, Ulysses tells the story of his last voyage. In Canto 27, the travelers meet Guido da Montefeltro, the famous military strategist turned monk, who accepted absolution from Pope Boniface VIII before committing a treacherous sin. The ninth ditch (Canto 28) is reserved for those sinners who sowed discord and schism. Their punishment is to be hacked up by a demon as they move along the ditch, gradually healing, but only to be hacked again. The most unforgettable sight here is Bertran de Born who comes holding his severed head out like a lantern as it/he speaks to Dante. The tenth and final ditch in Malebolge covers Cantos 29-30, where Dante and Virgil meet a series of counterfeiters, perjurers, and falsifiers – all diseased and rotting. In Canto 31, after leaving Malebolge, the two travelers encounter the giants, visible from the waist up and who stand in the central well of Hell. The giant Antaeus lowers them down to the lake of ice that makes up the bottom of Hell.
Circle 9: The fourth “river” of Hell is actually the lake of ice at the bottom of Hell called Cocytus. It is divided into four separate rings where those guilty of various forms of treachery are punished within the ice. In Canto 32, Dante and Virgil cross the outer ring of the ice called Caina where those who betrayed their kin are punished. Continuing toward the center of the lake, they cross into the next ring called Antenora, where those who betrayed their country are punished. In Canto 33 Count Ugolino tells the famous story of his betrayal and death. Then the travelers cross into Ptolomea where those who betrayed their guests are punished. Finally, in Canto 34, they cross into Judecca where those who betrayed their lords are punished.
Soon, Virgil stops Dante and points out the immense shape of Lucifer. Once the most beautiful of the angels, he is now the ugliest of creatures. He has six bat-like wings that he flaps incessantly, and three faces on his head, and within each mouth he chews a famous traitor. Telling Dante it’s time to go, Virgil, with Dante holding onto his back, begins to climb down the hairy shanks of Lucifer. At the center of the earth (and of the universe), Virgil turns around and begins to climb upward and they emerge on the opposite side of the ice lake in a dark cavern. They see Lucifer’s legs sticking up in the air and Virgil tells Dante that they have crossed the earth’s center and must now make their way upward, where they emerge to see the stars.
And so, let us join Dante that we, too, might travel with him from the moral wilderness of the dark forest, down to the bottom of Hell (and the cosmos), and from there to come out on Easter morning to enjoy the beauty of those same stars.
Michael F. Meister, FSC, PhD
Saint Mary’s College of California
August 15, 2020