Today, then, I offer my overview of the brilliant Dante Alighieri’s vision of Hell with its nine progressively more horrific circles. You can follow along with Mihu’s astoundingly detailed masterwork, if you like.
Forest or Hell’s Antechamber: Here Dante finds himself rather suddenly, without much knowledge of how he got there:
Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Dante encounters wild beasts and finally meets Virgil, the Roman poet, who offers to lead him on his quest. The two bards converse briefly with the shade of Dante’s great platonic love, Beatrice, “who did bid you here.” Then they move onward to the now famous gate of Hell: “All hope abandon, ye who enter in!”
First Circle: Either fearless or reckless, the two poets pass through the portal to behold the river Acheron and the ancient boatman Charon “the demon, with the eyes of glede.” They are ferried across with the moaning souls of the damned to Limbo, where the “innocent souls” of those who accomplished nothing, including evil, in life live hopelessly. Also here, in a more pleasant glade, are the shades of pre-Christian heroes and poets; these are righteous souls who are denied Heaven only by an accident of birth.
Second Circle: At the lip of a great chasm, Dante and Virgil witness the punishment of the lustful: “The infernal hurricane that never rests.” Here, Dante recognizes Cleopatra and Helen of Troy buffeted by the unending winds. He also converses with the shades of Paolo and Francesca, whose story of star crossed love and murder at the hand of her husband causes Dante to “swoon away as if I had been dying.”
Third Circle: The poets descend and meet Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hell whom Virgil seems to know. The great dog guards the gates of the realm of the gluttons, where those who were avaricious in life are forever pelted by painful, freezing rain as they wallow in mud. Here Virgil meets Pluto and reprimands him: “Be silent, thou accursed wolf.”
Fourth Circle: Here those who horded their wealth and longed only for money are doomed to Sisyphus fate: they must push enormous bags of coin uphill, only to repeat the process over and over for eternity.
Fifth Circle: Dante and Virgil come to the river Styx where the irascible, “those whom anger overcame,” are condemned to flail in the filthy water. While being taken across the river by a second boatman, Phlegyas, Dante is confronted by the shade of Philippo Argenti who struggles to climb into the boat. Virgil handles this situation: “Whereat my wary Master thrust him back.”
Sixth Circle: On the far bank of the Styx, Dante and Virgil are confronted by the grim City of The ancient Furies of Greek mythos live here and heretics are tortured beneath them. These sad souls “make themselves audible by doleful sighs” from where they are walled away in sulphur spewing tombs. Dis.
The Seventh Circle: The poets descend past the City of
and enter the wood of the suicides. Those who took their own lives have become living trees condemned to feel every branch that snaps off their bodies, which bleed when inflicted with this torture. Beyond, blasphemers are pelted with fiery rain in an endless desert. Nearby, the violent are perpetually sunk in a bloody lake. Dis
The Eighth Circle: Descending on Geryon, the monstrous symbol of deceit, Dante and Virgil achieve the Maleboge, Hell’s sewer. Here flatterers “smother in filth,” pimps and seducers are whipped by demons and those who sold the favors of the Church are buried in fiery holes with only their feet protruding forth. Hypocrites march grimly by burdened forever under lead cloaks. Dante and Virgil narrowly escape a tumult of demons and then move on to the place where thieves are eaten by enormous snakes. Schismatics and alchemists are disfigured and dismembered. It is here that Dante meets Mohammed who opens his chest with his hands saying “See now how I rend me.” Finally, forgers are condemned to a burning leprosy which causes them to itch themselves until they tear their skin away.
The Ninth Circle: Dante and Virgil are handed down into the freezing abyss by the giant, Antaeus. They maneuver across a frozen lake where traitors are trapped beneath the ice. Here, the sad story of Ugolino who in life was locked away and starved to death with his four sons by the Archbishop Ruggieri plays out. Trapped next to each other, Ugolino eternally gnaws on the head of the Archbishop. Then Virgil warns Dante that he will see Lucifer, “Where thou with fortitude must arm thyself.” They encounter the massive, bewinged Devil, chewing perpetually on Judas, Brutus and Cassius – the ultimate traitors.
With all this under his belt, Dante says:
The Guide and I into that hidden road / Now entered, to return to the bright world.
And thus they begin their journey through Purgatory to Heaven, where the saintly Beatrice awaits the pious pilgrim. Vendredi heureux ~
Header: Dante and Virgil in Limbo; Lego art by Mihai Mihu