The Divine Comedy

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The poet Dante shown holding a copy of the Divine Comedy, next to the entrance to Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory and the city of Florence, with the spheres of Heaven above, in Michelino's fresco

The Divine Comedy is an epic poem (a poem that is very long, like a story) written by Dante Alighieri. It is about a trip through the afterlife. The poem has three cantos(parts): Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise, or Heaven).

Inferno ,by now is the most famous section of the poem. The poem, on the surface, is about the travels of Dante's personal journey through Christian hell, purgatory, and heaven, but it also is an allegory (a fictitious tale with moral values) of the soul's journey to God. The title was orginally called simply Commedia (Comedy),and the word "Divine" was added to it much later. The last word in each canto is stellus which means star.

Do note that "comedy" does not mean the poem is funny, but more like ending with a happy ending.

Inferno[change | edit source]

Gustave Doré's engravings illustrated the Divine Comedy (1861–1868); here, Dante is lost in Canto 1 of the Inferno.

The poem begins on Maundy Thursday, when Dante, at 35 years old (half the biblical age limit of 70), is lost in a forest surrounding a mountain called Mount Delectable, which symbolises sin.

Aware that the sun is setting, and he would soon lose his way, Dante tries to leave the forest, but is assaulted by a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf.

William Blake: Inferno, Canto I, 1-90. Virgil saving Dante from the three beasts.

Fortunately, the ghost of Virgil the Roman poet saves him, and he claims that he is sent by Dante's sweetheart Beatrice to help him. He also explains that while Dante cannot escape the three beasts, he would have to take another path, which is via Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven itself (called "St Peter's Portal"). Unfortunately, Virgil cannot enter Heaven as he is a pagan, so he has to hand the duty of guiding Dante via Heaven to Beatrice.

Finally convinced, Dante follows his guide into the forest.

Overview and Vestibule of Hell[change | edit source]

William Blake: Inferno, Canto III, 1-21. The inscription over Hell's gate

"Through me the way is to the city dolent;
Through me the way is to eternal dole;
Through me the way among the people lost.
Justice incited my sublime Creator;
Created me divine Omnipotence, The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.
Before me there were no created things,
Only eterne, and I eternal last.
All hope abandon, ye who enter in!"
These words in sombre colour I beheld
Written upon the summit of a gate;
Whence I: "Their sense is, Master, hard to me!"
 -Inferno, Canto III, the Gate of Hell.

Gustave Doré's engravings illustrated the Divine Comedy (1861–1868); here Charon comes to ferry souls across the river Acheron to Hell.

"All hope abandon, ye who enter in!" is the ninth and the most infamous phrase engraved on the entrance of Hell. Dante freaks out upon seeing these words, but Virgil leads him on. To enter Hell, they had to cross the river Acheron, where the Uncommited (neutral people) sit on its banks, stung by wasps and hornets, and also infected by maggots, who drink their blood and tears. These include the angels who didn't help the holy angels, or fallen angels. The souls are ferried across the river by Charon, the ferryman who rejects Dante(as he is still alive) on his boat, but is forced to do so by Virgil, who uses another famous line: Vuolsi così colà dove si puote, which translates to "So it is wanted there where the power lies," referring to the fact that Dante is on his journey on divine grounds.

Allegorically, the Inferno represents the Christian soul seeing sin for what it really is. What the three beasts may represent has been the subject of much controversy over the centuries, but one suggestion is that they represent three types of sin: the self-indulgent, the violent, and the malicious. These three types of sin also provide the three main divisions of Dante's Hell: Upper Hell (the first 5 Circles) for the self-indulgent sins, Circles 6 and 7 for the violent sins, and Circles 8 and 9 for the malicious(intending to hurt)sins.

First circle (Limbo)[change | edit source]

The souls that did not accept Christ are here, and they live in a large castle with lawns. This includes atheists, pagans(like Virgil), and the unbaptized. They did not actively sin, but they could not enter Heaven because of their lack of faith/ignorance.

The punishment for the souls is not physical, but that they have no hope of seeing Christ, so they are mentally punished, which is as terrible as physical punishment.

Between the first and second circles, souls are assigned their place by the serpentine Minos, who wraps his tail around his legs a corresponding number of times, and forces them to descend to their appropriate circle.

Second circle (Lust)[change | edit source]

William Blake: Inferno, Canto V, 37-138, The Whirlwind of Lovers; Francesca da Rimini.

In this circle are souls who succumb to lust. They are the first ones to be truly punished in Hell. These souls are blown around in a giant storm which will last forever. This symbolizes the power of lust to blow one about aimlessly. Famous people like Cleopatra and Mark Anthony are seen there,too.

Third circle (Gluttony)[change | edit source]

The third circle, as illustrated by Stradanus

This circle is guarded by Cerberus the hellhound called "the great worm" by Dante. (Cerebus attacks the duo, but is placated when Virgil feeds him lumps of earth), so the duo can pass through the third circle safely.

The gluttons are punished here, lying in cold mud. While in life they were provided with warmth and comfort from their food, in Hell the souls are punished with cold and heavy rain rained down from the sky, while Cerberus claws at the spirits, rips at their skin, and bites holes.

Fourth circle (Greed/Avarice)[change | edit source]

In life the stingy misers miserly hoarded their money greedily, while the prodigal spendthrifts who spent their money foolishly. Both groups are pushing and pulling great bags of gold as they did in life. The greedy are guarded by Plutus, god of riches and wealth, who briefly threatens Dante by his cryptic Papé Satàn, papé Satàn aleppe, but he collapses after rebuked by Virgil.

Fifth circle (Wrath)[change | edit source]

The fifth circle, illustrated by Stradanus

In the river Styx, the wrathful fight each other on the surface, while the sullen(the grumpy) lie below its surface sighing, causing the river to bubble and boil. Phlegyas, the ferryman, reluctantly allows them in his skiff. Along the way, they are accosted by a fellow Florentine and Black Guelph called Filippo Argenti who had confiscated Dante's property when he was alive, and he prevents Dante from coming further, despite the former's opposition. Fortunately, the souls in the Styx gang up and drag him down into the river, tearing him to ribbons. (By the time this happens, Dante and Virgil have crossed the river).

City of Dis[change | edit source]

The river Styx surrounds the city of Dis in Upper Hell, where active sinners are located, rather than passive sinners, who are in Lower Hell. When Virgil tries to enter, the angels guarding the city slam the door in his face, and Dante is threatened by the Furies (consisting of Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone) and Medusa. An angel comes to their rescue, leading them to the gate where Christ entered Hell, whilst fending the enemies of Dante off. During the Harrowing of Hell Christ broke the door so it could never close again.

Lower Hell, inside the walls of Dis, in an illustration by Stradanus. There is a drop from the flaming sixth circle to the three rings of the seventh circle, then again to the ten rings of the eighth circle, and, at the bottom, to the icy core of the ninth circle.

Sixth circle (Heresy)[change | edit source]

The heretics and their followers are trapped in red-hot iron tombs.(This circle,is too,located in the City of Dis).

Seventh circle (Violence)[change | edit source]

This circle holds those who were violent in their lives.

Outer Ring: The people who were violent to people and property are in the Phlegethon, a river of fire. The depth of their placement in the river corresponds to how much you damaged in life. For example, Alexander the Great is immersed up to his eyebrows. These miserable souls can't escape as the centaurs would shoot them with arrows.

Middle Ring: The violent against self (suiciders) are turned into trees, and are cursed to bleed.

Inner Circle: The violent to God and the violent to nature are also here. They have to walk on flaming sand for eternity.

Between the 7th and 8th circle is a chasm, caused by the Harrowing of Hell. To cross, they have to ride on a monster called Geryon, who is the epitome of fraud, having an "honest man's face", but his body is that of a sly snake.

Eighth circle (Fraud)[change | edit source]

This circle is divided into ten parts called Malebolge, where pimps, seducers, flatterers, simonists, sorcerers, fortune-tellers, false prophets, corrupt politicians, hypocrites, thieves, schismatics, alchemists, and counterfeiters are in. Each punishment is the opposite of what they did in life. Fortune-tellers, who tried to see things ahead of time, are forced to walk backwards.

Ninth circle (Treachery)[change | edit source]

The traitors are trapped in an icy lake called Cocytus, which is divided into four parts:

Caina: Named after Cain, who killed his brother Abel, this is where the traitors to family are immersed in ice up to their chins. The evil knight Mordred, who betrayed is uncle/father King Arthur is seen there.

Antenora:Traitors who betray their city/countries are also here.

Ptolomaea:Traitors to guests lie in the ice, which covers them completely except for their faces.

Judecca:Traitors to their lords and benefactors are completely buried in ice in various positions. Dante is rather terrified upon approaching this part of Hell.

In the very center of Hell, because he sinned the ultimate sin (treachery against God), lies Satan, who is described as a beast with three faces, six wings, and is eternally weeping from his six eyes. Each of Satan's mouths chews on a prominent traitor from history. Brutus and Cassius are being chewed feet-first. The center mouth is chewing on Judas Iscariot. His head is being chewed on by Satan, and his back is being skinned by Satan's claws.

Dante and Virgil escape by climbing down Satan's fur through the center of the earth, turn the other way round and emerge from the Southern hemisphere on the dawn of Easter Sunday,where they will ascend Mount Purgatory.

Albert Ritter sketched the Comedy's geography from Dante's Cantos: Hell's entrance is near Florence with the circles descending to Earth's centre; sketch 5 reflects Canto 34's inversion as Dante passes down, and thereby up to Mount Purgatory's shores in the southern hemisphere, where he passes to the first sphere of Heaven at the top.

Purgatario[change | edit source]

Dante gazes at Mount Purgatory in an allegorical portrait by Agnolo Bronzino, painted c. 1530

Having survived the depths of Hell (described in the Inferno), Dante and Virgil ascend out of the undergloom, to the Mountain of Purgatory on the far side of the world. The mountain is an island, the only land in the Southern Hemisphere. Dante describes Hell as existing underneath Jerusalem, created by the impact of Satan's fall,which hollowed it out. Mount Purgatory, on exactly the opposite side of the world, was created by the extra rock at the bottom of what was to be called Hell to be displaced (shifted) through the center of the Earth in order to evade Satan, thus appearing in the Southern Hemisphere.

Unlike Charon's ferry across the Acheron in the Inferno, Christian souls here arrive escorted by an angel, singing In exitu Israel de Aegypto (Psalms 114 in Latin). Appropriately, therefore, it is Easter Sunday when Dante and Virgil arrive.

The Purgatorio is notable for showing the medieval knowledge of a spherical(circular) Earth. During the poem, Dante discusses the different stars visible in the southern hemisphere, the altered position of the sun, and the various timezones of the Earth. At this stage it is, Dante says, sunset at Jerusalem, midnight on the River Ganges (with the constellation Libra overhead there), and dawn in Purgatory:

"By now the sun was crossing the horizon of the meridian whose highest point covers Jerusalem; and from the Ganges,

night, circling opposite the sun, was moving together with the Scales that, when the length of dark defeats the day, desert night's hands;

so that, above the shore that I had reached, the fair Aurora [dawn] 's white and scarlet cheeks were, as Aurora aged, becoming orange."

Plan of Mount Purgatory. As with Paradise, the structure is of the form 2+7=9+1=10, with one of the ten regions different in nature from the other nine.

Ante-Purgatory[change | edit source]

At the shores of Purgatory, Dante and Virgil meet Cato, a pagan who has been placed by God as the general guardian of the approach to the mountain (his symbolic significance has been much debated). It is also revealed by Virgil that his wife,Marcia,is in Limbo. On the lower slopes (designated as "Ante-Purgatory" by commentators), they also meet two main categories of souls whose penitent Christian life was delayed or deficient: the excommunicate(those who were chased out by the Church)and the late repentant.

The former are detained here for a period thirty times as long as their period of contumacy. The latter includes those too lazy or too preoccupied to repent, and those who repented at the last minute without formally receiving last rites, as a result of violent deaths. These souls will be admitted to Purgatory thanks to their genuine repentance, but must wait outside for an amount of time equal to their lives on earth.

The excommunicate include Manfred of Sicily (Canto III). The lazy include Belacqua (possibly a deceased friend of Dante), whom Dante is relieved to discover here, rather than in Hell (Canto IV):

".. From this time on, Belacqua, I need not grieve for you; .."

Those not receiving last rites include Pia de' Tolomei of Siena, who was murdered by her husband, Nello della Pietra of the Maremma (Canto V): "May you remember me, who am La Pia; Siena made, Maremma unmade me: he who, when we were wed, gave me his pledge and then, as nuptial ring, his gem, knows that."-Lady Pia to Dante

Also in this category is the troubadour(poet) Sordello who, like Virgil, is from Mantua. When Sordello discovers the great poet's identity, he bows down to him in honour. This helps keep Virgil in the foreground of the poem, since (as a resident of Limbo) Virgil is less qualified as a guide here than he was in Hell.As a resident of Purgatory, Sordello is able to explain the Rule of the Mountain: that after sunset souls are literally incapable of climbing any further. Allegorically, the sun represents God, meaning that progress in the penitent Christian life can only be made through Divine Grace.

Paradiso[change | edit source]