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Dante’s Inferno and the Nine Circles of Hell

by Ghastly McNasty

Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem The Divine Comedy is considered by literary historians as a masterpiece of world literature. The 14,233 line poem describes the journey of narrator Dante as he passes through the afterlife; 3 realms of the dead divided into Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso (Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven). The story represents the soul’s journey towards God, with the Inferno representing the Christian soul seeing sin for what it really is in Hell.

Dante’s Inferno is a seriously dark and disturbing story filled with twisted horrors, classic mythology and easily recognisable fables still used within culture, art and literature today. It’s an ancient horror story depicting all the horrible things that happen to the sinners of the world shared with us by the author as he travels through the 9 circles of Hell. Upper Hell (the first 5 Circles) is set aside for the self-indulgent sinners; Circles 6 and 7 for the violent sinners; and Circles 8 and 9 for the really evil malicious sinners.

It’s a complex tale but nicely set out in this diagram below. Us comic fans appreciate a picture to go with a story.

Listed in depth below are the Nine Circles of Hell. Which one are you going to?

First circle (Limbo)
In Limbo reside the unbaptized and the virtuous pagans, who, though not sinful, did not accept Christ. They are not punished in an active sense, but rather grieve only because of their separation from God, without hope of reconciliation.

Second circle (Lust)
In the second circle of Hell are those overcome by lust. Dante condemns these ‘carnal malefactors’ for letting their appetites sway their reason. They are the first ones to be truly punished in Hell. These souls are blown about to and fro by the terrible winds of a violent storm, without hope of rest. This symbolizes the power of lust to blow one about needlessly and aimlessly.

Third circle (Gluttony)
The ‘Great Worm’ Cerberus guards the gluttons, forced to lie in a vile slush produced by ceaseless foul, icy rain. The gluttons lie here sightless and heedless of their neighbours, symbolising the cold, selfish, and empty sensuality of their lives. Just as lust has revealed its true nature in the winds of the previous circle, here the slush reveals the true nature of sensuality, which includes not only overindulgence in food and drink, but also other kinds of addiction.

Fourth circle (Greed)
Those whose attitude toward material goods deviated from the appropriate mean are punished in the fourth circle. They include the avaricious or miserly (including many ‘clergymen, and popes and cardinals’), who hoarded possessions, and the prodigal, who squandered them.The condemned souls are tortured by being sheared in money presses, boiled in melted gold and buried in heavy gold coins.

Fifth circle (Wrath/Sullenness)
In the swamp-like water of the river Styx, the wrathful fight each other on the surface, and the sullen lie gurgling beneath the water, withdrawn ‘into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe.

Sixth circle (Heresy)
In the sixth circle, Heretics, such as Epicurians (who say ‘the soul dies with the body’) are trapped in flaming tombs, people who have gone against the teaching of their churches, halls of men and women who forever burn in fire and are forever tortured by various implements.

Seventh circle (Violence)
Outer ring: This ring houses the violent against people and property, who are immersed in Phlegethon, a river of boiling blood and fire, to a level commensurate with their sins.
Middle ring: In this ring are the suicides (the violent against self), who are transformed into gnarled thorny bushes and trees, which are fed on by the Harpies. Unique among the dead, the suicides will not be bodily resurrected after the final judgement, having given their bodies away through suicide. Instead they will maintain their bushy form, with their own corpses hanging from the limbs.
Inner ring: Here the violent against God (blasphemers) and the violent against nature (sodomites and, as explained in the sixth circle, usurers) all reside in a desert of flaming sand with fiery flakes raining from the sky (a similar fate to Sodom and Gomorrah). The blasphemers lie on the sand, the usurers sit, and the sodomites wander about in groups.

Eighth circle (Fraud)
The last two circles of Hell punish sins that involve conscious fraud or treachery.The fraudulent, “those guilty of deliberate, knowing evil, are located in a circle named Malebolge (‘Evil Pockets’), divided into ten Bolgie, or ditches of stone, with bridges spanning the ditches:

  • Bolgia 1: Panderers (pimps) and seducers march in separate lines in opposite directions, whipped by demons
  • Bolgia 2: Flatterers also exploited other people, this time using language. They are steeped in human excrement, which represents the words they produced.
  • Bolgia 3:those who committed simony. These are placed head-first in holes in the rock (resembling baptismal fonts), with flames burning on the soles of their feet.
  • Bolgia 4: Sorcerers, astrologers, and false prophets here have their heads twisted around on their bodies backward, so that they ‘found it necessary to walk backward, / because they could not see ahead of them.’
  • Bolgia 5: Corrupt politicians (barrators) are immersed in a lake of boiling pitch, which represents the sticky fingers and dark secrets of their corrupt deals
  • Bolgia 6: the hypocrites listlessly walking along wearing gilded lead cloaks, which represent the falsity behind the surface appearance of their actions falsity that weighs them down and makes spiritual progress impossible for them.
  • Bolgia 7: Two cantos are devoted to the thieves, who are guarded by the centaur Cacus, who has a fire-breathing dragon on his shouldersThe thieves are pursued and bitten by snakes and lizards. The full horror of the thieves’ punishment is revealed gradually: just as they stole other people’s substance in life, their very identity becomes subject to theft here,and the snake bites make them undergo various transformations.
  • Bolgia 8: the fraudulent advisers or evil councillors, who are concealed within individual flames. These are not people who gave false advice, but people who used their position to advise others to engage in fraud.
  • Bolgia 9: In the ninth Bolgia, a sword-wielding demon hacks at the sowers of discord, dividing parts of their bodies as in life they divided others.[49] As they make their rounds the wounds heal, only to have the demon tear apart their bodies again.
  • Bolgia 10: In the final Bolgia, various sorts of falsifiers (alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and impersonators), who are a ‘disease’ on society, are themselves afflicted with different types of diseases.

Ninth circle (Treachery)
The traitors are distinguished from the ‘merely’ fraudulent in that their acts involve betraying a special relationship of some kind. There are four concentric zones (or ’rounds’) of traitors, corresponding, in order of seriousness, to betrayal of family ties, betrayal of community ties, betrayal of guests, and betrayal of liege lords. In contrast to the popular image of Hell as fiery, the traitors are frozen in a lake of ice known as Cocytus, with each group encased in ice to progressively greater depths.

  • Round 1 is named Cana, after Cain, who killed his brother. Traitors to kindred are here immersed in the ice up to their faces ‘the place / where shame can show itself’
  • Round 2 is named Antenora, after Antenor of Troy, who according to medieval tradition, betrayed his city to the Greeks. Traitors to political entities, such as party, city, or country, are located here.
  • Round 3 is named Ptolomaea, probably after Ptolemy, son of Abubus, who invited Simon Maccabaeus and his sons to a banquet and then killed them. Traitors to their guests are punished here, lying supine in the ice, which covers them, except for their faces. They are punished more severely than the previous traitors, since the relationship to guests is an entirely voluntary one.
  • Round 4 is named Judecca, after Judas Iscariot, Biblical betrayer of Christ. Here are the traitors to their lords and benefactors. All of the sinners punished within are completely encapsulated in ice, distorted in all conceivable positions. With no one to talk to here

In the very centre of Hell, condemned for committing the ultimate sin (personal treachery against God), is Satan. Satan is described as a giant, terrifying beast with three faces, one red, one black, and one a pale yellow. Satan is waist deep in ice, weeping tears from his six eyes, and beating his six wings as if trying to escape, although the icy wind that emanates only further ensures his imprisonment (as well as that of the others in the ring). Each face has a mouth that chews on a prominent traitor, with Brutus and Cassius feet-first in the left and right mouths respectively.

In the central, most vicious mouth is Judas Iscariot, the namesake of Judecca and the betrayer of Jesus. Judas is being administered the most horrifying torture of the three traitors, his head gnawed by Satan’s mouth, and his back being forever skinned by Satan’s claws. What is seen here is a perverted trinity: Satan is impotent, ignorant, and full of hate, in contrast to the all-powerful, all-knowing, and loving nature of God.

Lucifer in Hell by Gustave Doré

by Ghastly McNasty

Theatre of Terror

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