The People You Meet in Hell (Inferno, It's Lit #23)
What does Hell look like? Is it a real station of the afterlife? Is it just a metaphor for the steaming trash dump you find your life in after enough bad decisions? In the Old Testament, it is never mentioned at all. In the New Testament, it is still vague enough to be debated. More than a thousand years after the death of Christ, one of history’s greatest poets finally gives a fictional description to the place, resulting in imagery that would influence the popular view of Hell for hundreds of years to come.
I’m speaking, of course, of Dante Alighieri, the early-14th-century poet responsible for The Divine Comedy, in which Dante himself ventures through Hell, Purgatory, and, finally, Heaven. For the next three weeks, I will be discussing the three books of this epic poem (I thought about doing 100 weeks for each Canto, but quickly decided that idea would do better as a hypothetical aside). In this first essay, I will be discussing Inferno, the most infamous of the three. Though most references to this poem concern the nine rings of Hell, each pertaining to a different brand of sinner, I will be speaking of the actual people Dante comes across in Hell. Though there are plenty of enemies and villains, Dante also meets with various loved ones. Through discussing both sets of people, Dante establishes his credibility as he sets the stage to explore his own brand of theology.
Dante obviously comes across many bad boys in Hell. For instance, in the sixth circle, one reserved for heretics, Dante meets with an old foe, Farinata. As a Ghibelline, Farinata was a direct enemy to Dante, himself a Guelph. Farinata even uses this brief encounter to tell Dante that his ancestors were ‘ferocious enemies/of mine and of my parents and my party,/so that I had to scatter them twice over’ (X.46-8). It’s not surprising that Dante would write someone like this into Hell. There certainly must be a circle for an enemy that displaced your whole family.
Hell also showcases some of the more dastardly characters of history, putting them through graphic misery. For instance, Cianfa, a notable thief, meets the following fate: ‘a serpent with six feet springs out against/one of the three, and clutches him completely…then it sank its teeth in both his cheeks…they stuck together and they mixed their colors’ (XXV.50-1,54,63). The grotesque fate of merging with a snake after it has assaulted you is not difficult to thrust upon such an infamous villain.
Other denizens of Hell, however, are not so obvious. Some are even people Dante loved and respected in his life. For instance, when Dante comes across Brunetto, an old teacher of his, he laments the state his elder is in and tells him, ‘with all my strength, I pray you, stay;/and if you’d have me rest awhile with you, I shall, if that please him with whom I go’ (XV.35-6). Dante is willing to spend extra time in Hell just to be with his teacher. Instead of making him stay, however, Brunetto walks a while with him, as Dante ‘walk[s] with his head bent low/as does a man who goes in reverence’ (44-5). Dante finds his teacher in the seventh circle, one of the more intense regions of Hell, reserved for sodomites. Though there is not evidence of Brunetto’s homosexuality, Dante is apparently confident enough in his teacher’s inadequate grace to place him there. Finding someone whom he respects in Hell reminds Dante that he is not immediately better than those he finds there.
Dante also comes across family in Hell. In the eight circle, Dante meets with his cousin, Geri del Bello, who is described by Dante as ‘a spirit born of my own blood’ (XXIX.20). This cousin was apparently responsible for starting or continuing an ongoing family feud. Though Dante does not necessarily hate del Bello, the act of starting such a negative situation must land his cousin in Hell. To find his own relatives in Hell is another reminder that Dante could find himself in the same situation, should he make such inferior choices.
Lastly, Dante’s guide, Virgil, is himself a denizen of Hell. It is immediately obvious that Dante looks up to Virgil as a poet, consistently referring to him as ‘great-hearted one’ (II.44). Even so, this venerable Roman poet is condemned to Limbo for dying before the news of Christ could reach him. The inhabitants of Limbo are, in fact, populated by many great thinkers of Virgil’s time, from Homer to Demetrius. Dante is empathetic with the fate of these great minds, and does not condemn them as wicked souls. He understands, however, that divine doctrine forbids them from experiencing any respite in the afterlife.
I imagine it must have been difficult for Dante to write his family, friends, and idols into Hell. Unfortunately, this was the nature of the beast. Inferno is not a bedtime fantasy; if it was, Dante could likely lull himself to sleep with thoughts of his enemies burning in nine circles of eternal hell-fire. Instead, Inferno, much like Paradise Lost, is a fictional vehicle for Dante to explore his own brand of theology: What are sins, how can they be ranked, who would be punished, and how? By inserting people he knows and respects, Dante establishes credibility by showing that there is truly a method to his theory of Hell’s madness, and not one that is escapable by those he finds favorable.
If a seven-hundred year track record is sufficient, Dante has certainly proven himself. Inferno is referenced to this day. Bernie Sanders, for instance, recently brought up the eighth circle in reference to payday lenders. Jordan Peterson mentions the ninth circle when speaking of the horrible feeling of betrayal. The potent imagery Dante gives to Hell has profoundly influenced the popular view of Satan’s Trap House, Christian or otherwise. Often neglected, however, are the two following books: Purgatorio and Paradiso. I, however, won’t leave you in Hell—next week, we’ll move on to Purgatory, the great mountain of penance. Talk to you then!
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Notes by Peter Armour, Everyman’s Library, 1995.