Danté's Inferno


In Florence in the 1300’s, in his book ‘The Divine Comedy’, Dante Alighieri imagined himself taken led on a tour of hell by the Roman poet Virgil. Hell just wasn’t a hazy religious concept in those days, people believed it to be a real place. Danté pictures himself as lost in a forest, this being a neat allegory for his confused mind. Virgil’s itinerary is aimed at clarifying things for him by pointing out the horrors in store in the afterlife for the impious or sinful.

I thought about writing this post as a riff on ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ but decided against it. What goes on there is thin gruel compared with some of the horrors here. So, don your hazmat suit and let’s follow them on their pootle around hell. 

Trigger warning. This isn’t really a comedy unless you are a sadomasochist. A ‘commedia’ was a story with a happy ending. And the original is not an easy read, even in translation; the phrasing is alien and the tale is obtuse, with lots of allusions to people and places I have never heard of. 

It doesn't help that medieval geography was a bit hit and miss. Dante took most of his ideas about the location of hell from Ptolemy and the topography from the classics; you might have heard of the rivers Acheron and Styx. A sprinkling of Old Testament references tops it off and the entrance was below Jerusalem. Here’s a diagram which you can expand if you want. 

The first port of call was Limbo, which was a dumping ground for people who were virtuous but not baptised as Christians. It is depicted as akin to a country care home garden, a place of shady bowers and waving grass caressed by gentle breezes; a comfortable but boring place to spend eternity. Virgil resides there, together with other classical poets, and has done for over a thousand years. Boris Johnson might have enjoyed the company, others not so much.

 Things get worse as they approach the Gates of Hell, over which is inscribed the famous line ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’. Milling around the Gates ‘vestibule’ are those who are vacillating in their commitment to the path of righteousness. Neither Danté of the Almighty seem to sympathise with their indecision, so the doom of the undecided is to forever run around in a sand storm, naked and pursued by wasps! In short, a bit like the Costa Del Sol in August.  

Outside the Gates of Hell 

A quick terminological digression for fellow atheists and pagans. Limbo and purgatory are both suburbs of heaven. Limbo I have already described. Purgatory is where most of us quotidian sinners go to atone for more minor sins before being allowed into Paradise. Among its denizens were ‘deficient rulers’, so there should be some familiar faces there

It isn’t hell thus and doesn’t appear until the second part of the Divine Comedy, so I am not covering it here, but just in case you are curious…. he depicts it as at the base of an island mountain in the southern ocean. I picture it as a giant NHS waiting room, where the surgeons come to carve you up in situ . As you recover, you shuffle towards the front seats where the treatment is reduced to medication. Horrible medication. Just as you descend into hell, you ascend the terraces on the mountain over time to reach Heaven via the Garden of Eden on the mountaintop. 


I have to talk about the landscape itself because that is the focus of the blog.  Danté doesn’t help much and only talks about it in the vaguest terms, saving his imagination for dreaming up novel tortures, so I have no clear picture in my mind’s eye. But I have to respect his detailed topography, with the ghastly game of snakes and ladders being played up and down the many levels of hell and purgatory.

As you might expect, the weather in hell is inclement and sunshine is non-existent and as you descent it becomes more extreme, fiery and icy. You might want to compare it to the latest descriptions of the surface of Venus or Mars, best explored by robot; or perhaps to a Finnish outdoor sauna in winter. It is based on the world he knew. Italy had it all; alps, marshes and volcanoes. Roast, freeze, drown, windblown; you take your pick. Match adjectives from these sets. The (dolorous, abysmal, malign, loathsome infernal) (rocky crags, ravines, mountains, deserts, bogs, stinking seas, filthy fens, flaming pits, desolate mountains).

Raining Fire

He is a bit clearer about the architecture. There is a large but decrepit iron-walled city whose regeneration, like Teeside's awaits the second coming. One place that he both named and detailed was ‘Malebolge’, I will come back to that later. 

Beyond all that he treats the landscape as merely the setting for his theme park of horrors. But every show needs a stage and the tortured souls are part of the scenery, so I will excuse myself for describing what is going on in their afterlives and revel in this is an entertaining introduction to the pantheon of serious medieval misbehaviour. 

Danté aims for a contrapasso i.e. he wants the punishments to fit the crimes. There are ten levels in this sadomasochist's garden of delights. The first is limbo, as already described. Beyond that, the lower the level, the worse the sin in his eyes. For instance, the consequences of u
ncontrolled passion appear at the top, fraud is lower down, counted worse than violence because in Dante's view both men and animals are violent, but the latter never stoop to fraud. In between gluttony and lust are more than just threats of STD’s and a compromised immune system

Things aren't too bad in the early circles. The lustful are merely blown about by violent winds. If you get involved in falsification of any sort, you get to scratch itches forever and the gluttons are bombarded with hail and black snow. These days, people pay for holidays in places like that. Thereafter his imagination takes a dip. The wrathful fight each other on the surface of the River Styx and the sullen are sunk to the bottom of it while hoarders and fiscally incontinent push boulders back and forth between themselves. Is that so bad? In Camus' 'Myth of Sisyphus' , the protagonist reconciles himself happily to his fate shoving a boulder up and down a mountain like this.   


Descending further, sodomites and usurers are condemned to a desert of blazing sand where it rains fire. This augers badly for London’s merchant bankers. The violent are swimming in a stream of boiling blood, flatterers are immersed in shit and hypocrites wear cloaks of lead.

Raining Fire on Blazing Sand 

Thieves have it quite easy, they are chased around and sometimes caught by hungry reptiles, while pimps and seducers are whipped by demons. Apparently, simony is the selling or buying of religious privileges, for instance a reduction in time in purgatory. Try this, and you will be placed head-down in a hole head and your legs burned. Corrupt politicians are placed the right way up, but in a pool of boiling pitch (quite right too!)  while bad or dishonest advisors are wrapped in individual columns of flame.

The Simoniacs

I particularly like the idea that seers, fortune tellers and others who claimed to be able to see into the future, are condemned to an eternity with their heads on back to front! One victim was the only person in the book with a British name – Michael Scot was a medieval sorcerer who travelled in Italy. If you have ever visited Long Meg and Her Daughters, a stone circle in Cumbria, they were said to be witches turned to stone by Scot.

The ghastly fun really starts when you start offending God rather than your fellow man. Notice that the people who stitched up Christ are name-checked here and get a bad rap. Your life is His to take, not yours, so suicides are transformed into thorny trees and ripped apart by harpies while blasphemers are packed off to join the usurers and heretics that are locked in burning stone coffins.

Thorn Trees & Harpies


Burning Coffins

I conclude that Dante had a shrewd idea on which side his bread was buttered and took the view that such progressive views as he had, might not be popular in medieval Italy, let alone pass muster in the eyes of the Almighty. So it was wise not to be an insurrectionist of any stripe, no matter what the justification, and that schismatics are condemned to being sliced from chin to foot. So much for divine mercy.

The Malebolge is the next stop, the 8th Circle of Hell, and getting there isn't straightforward. Danté and Virgil hitch a lift from Geryon, the personification of fraud, who has an honest and cheerful face but a tail with a sting.  

At this stage if I was Danté I might well have cried 'I'm a Medieval Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here', for Malebolge turns out to be a cave enclosing circular ditches each of which represents a different flavour of fraud and guarded by a demon. Some of these I have already referred to but if you are a keen demonologist or interested in fraud as a hobby, Wikipedia provides a good guide here: Link. Malebranche

As far as I can make sense of this, there were causeways bridging the ditches to link the circumference to the centre where you find Satan. I think the word just means ‘nasty ditch’ but I love the ugly sound of it! 

Demons & The Malebolge

The ninth circle is the pit and here his cry of intolerance for those not wedded to the current spiritual and temporal order reaches its pitch. Betray your King and you get your head encased in a block of ice. Double-crossing your benefactors is even worse, you end up as the gooey centre in a giant ice lolly. Those who have betrayed their country (he is presumably thinking about Florence here) are forced to eat each other. Beyond that, there is no reference to the catering arrangements anywhere. 

At the end of the ghost train you find Brutus, Cassius and Judas who are doomed to spend eternity as Lucifer’s lunch. Now, I don’t get this. For one thing, he is trapped in a frozen lake, so how does and in no position to enjoy a bit of fine dining let alone get to reappear in US elections as….you choose? Secondly, was Cassius in particular so bad? By all accounts, he was a decent enough fellow and Julius was a bit of a brute. I don’t understand Dante’s prejudice here, but he was fiercely political.

At this point, Danté sets off for Purgatory and Heaven and I will leave you to have fun inventing your own tortures and potential. By my reckoning, the world today is awash with candidates. There should be a 'place in hell' for influencers, scammers, dictators, ideologues, some EFL referees and many of those on recent Honours Lists. But if you are struggling for ideas, Penguin Random House provide some here: See: Matt Staggs   

To make space for them, there is surely no need to dam the sullen, who are just bad company, or the lustful, the suicides and the sodomites. The north London liberal in me would just leave them to do what they want to do.


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