Inferno, which is the Italian word for “Hell”, is the initial section of the 14th Century epic poem, Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, following it are Purgatorial, and Paradise. Allegorically speaking, the Divine Comedy would seem to represent the soul’s journey towards God. Taken by itself, Inferno, while describing Dante’s journey through hell with the poet Virgil as his guide, describes man’s recognition, and his rejection, of all sins. While most experts agree on the meanings behind the symbolism in this poem, it is also subject to personal interpretation. This poem, by today’s standards of horror, is very mild, but in the time period that it was written, it was something of a nine day wonder.
The story begins in the year 1300, on the eve of Good Friday. Dante is 35 at the time, which is half of the life expectancy of biblical times, “halfway along our life’s path”. Dante is lost in a dark forest and is trying to make his way toward a sunlit mountain, as he begins his to climb , his way is blocked by three different animals. A leopard blocks his path first, followed by a lion, and a she-wolf. These animals are meant to represent carnal sins in man. The leopard represents fraudulence, the lion violence, and the she-wolf lust and adultery. He is unable the find the “right way” to the mountain (representing salvation).Dante is convinced that he is becoming hopelessly lost in the darkness when he is rescued by the poet Virgil, and the two begin their journey into hell.
As Dante is passing through the gate to Hell, he notices a lengthy inscription consisting of nine lines. The last line of the inscription is “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”. This line translates into the phrase “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”.
Before Dante and Virgil enter Hell proper, they pass through the vestibule of Hell. In this area they see the uncommitted souls. In life, these people did nothing, they did no evil, but also no good. Among these souls, Dante recognizes either Pontius Pilate, or Pope Celestine V. He also sees the souls of outcasts who chose to remain neutral in the Rebellion of Angels. These souls must remain forever, neither in nor out, of Hell. Their eternal punishment is to pursue something that will only benefit themselves, while being harassed by hornets and wasps. These insects sting them constantly, while other kinds of insects and maggots drink their tears and blood. All these things are described very graphically for a work of fiction written in 1300.
When Virgil and Dante reach the river Acheron, Charon, who pilots the ferry, doesn’t want to take them across because Dante is living. Virgil uses another phrase, Vuolsi cose sola dove si puote, meaning, “So it is wanted there where the power lies”, to force Charon to ferry them across. This phrase refers to the fact that Dante is making this journey for divine reasons. The journey across the river is not described because Dante faints from all the scenes ofhorror that he has seen in the vestibule.
Upon reaching the other side, Dante and Virgil begin their tour through the nine circles of Hell. The circles of hell are concentric, and they represent the wickedness of the sins committed by man. They increase gradually, and culminate at the earth’s center, where Satan is being held in eternal bondage. In each circle the sinner is punished by having to spend eternity being afflicted by the same sin he committed. In purgatory, Dante sees all the people who sinned in life, but asked for forgiveness. These souls must spend eternity trying to rid themselves of their sins. In Hell are the souls of those who in life, were unrepentant or tried to justify their sins.
In the first circle of Hell (Limbo) Virgil and Dante encounter the souls of the virtuous pagans, and those who were not baptized. These people committed no sins during their lifetime, yet they must dwell in Limbo because they didn’t embrace Christ. In Limbo is a castle surrounded by seven gates, representing the seven virtues. Some of the wisest people in history reside in Limbo, including Hippocrates, and Virgil himself. After the first circle, those who are condemned for actively and willingly sinning are judged and sentenced to one of the other eight circles by Minos.
In the second circle of Hell are the first to be truly punished, those who are guilty of lust. For letting their carnal appetites override reason, they are blown from one place to another, by violent storms and terrible gusts of wind. This punishment is never ending and represents the power of lust blowing people back and forth aimlessly. Here the two tourists encounter Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, and Tristan along with others who, during their lives, were overcome by sensual love.
The third circle of Hell (gluttony) is guarded by the great three-headed dog, Cerberus. Virgil passes safely by filling the dog’s mouths with mud. Here they look with horror upon the gluttons, who lie in an icy slush produced by the ceaseless rain. These gluttons are sightless, and indifferent to the needs of their neighbors, symbolizing their selfish, cold lives. The slush reveals the true nature of gluttony, which is overindulgence, not only in food and drink, but in other kinds of addiction also.
The fourth circle of Hell is greed. Here there are two groups, the miserly, or avaricious(many of these are Popes, cardinals, and other clergymen), who’s possessions were hoarded, and those who squandered their wealth(prodigal). These two groups are jousting, using great weights as weapons by pushing them with their chests, and guarded by either Pluto(ruler of the underworld), or Plutus(Greek god of wealth).
In the fifth circle (anger), Dante and Virgil are ferried across the river Styx by Phlegyus while wrathful souls fight all around them. Beneath the water are the sullen souls who could find no happiness in life, and sulk even in death.
The sixth circle is filled with heretics such as the Epicureans, who believe that “the soul dies with the body”. Curiously, two such heretics that Dante talked with, were condemned posthumously.
Violence, the seventh circle, is divided into three parts. The outer ring is for those who committed violent acts against another person, or property. To Dante’s horror, he sees that they’re submerged in a river of fire and boiling blood to a level that equals the severity of their sins. He notes that Alexander the Great is immersed past his eyes. The middle ring is for those who committed suicide (violence against self). They are changed into gnarled trees and thorn bushes to be eaten by harpies. Here Dante learns that these souls will not be resurrected after judgment day because, through suicide, they gave their bodies away. The inner ring is reserved for blasphemers, for violence against God, and the sodomites, for violence against nature. The souls here are confined to a desert of flaming sand, and fiery flakes rain down from the sky.
The eighth and ninth circles of Hell punish all the sins involving conscious fraud, and willful treachery. Dante and Virgil descend an enormous cliff with the help of the winged monster Geryon. He is usually described with three heads, and sometimes three conjoined bodies. Dante describes him as possessing three natures. The very image of fraud, Geryon has the face of the most innocent of men, a beautifully colored wyvern’s body, the soft, furry paws of a lion, and a pointy tail with a stinger on the end. Here, the panderers march eternally while being whipped by demons. The flatterers are soaked in human waste, to symbolize the false words they spoke. Those who have committed simony (paying for an appointment to a holy office) are stuck headfirst into rocks similar to baptismal fonts. False prophets such as astrologers and fortunetellers have their heads turned backwards on their bodies. This is in reference to the fact that they tried to see into the future, and to the belief that the nature of magic in general is twisted.
The ninth circle is surrounded by a ring of biblical and classical giants. This may symbolize spiritual flaws, such as pride, that often lay behind treachery. They stand above the circle on a ledge, and are only visible from the waist up. The traitorous souls differ from the fraudulent in that they betrayed a special kind of relationship, such as, family community, guests, or political betrayal.
In the absolute center of Hell is Satan. He has been condemned for committing the ultimate sin, Treachery against God. Satan is frozen in ice waist deep, and he weeps from six eyes and beats six wings trying to escape. The wind from his wings is icy, and only secures his imprisonment. In each of his three mouths, he is chewing on a well- known traitor, Cassius and Brutus in the right and left mouths respectively, while the mouth in the center chews on Judas.
The two adventurers climb down the fur of Satan, and escape through the earth’s center. They emerge just before daylight on Easter morning, in the other hemisphere. Though the poem is a work of fiction, it is considered to be one of the great works of western literature, and most certainly a very graphic work of horror for its time.