The Inferno
Dante Alighieri
1320

The first and most famous part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Inferno follows the author as he is taken on a guided-journey through Hell by the great Roman poet Virgil. The piece both reflects and builds upon medieval imaginings of Hell, drawing a picture of nine levels of torment which grow increasingly-brutal as they lead deeper into the earth. The book was written in the early part of the 14th century by soldier and poet Dante while in exile from Florence following his participation in a series of political and religious conflicts that wracked the Italian city-states of his day.

The middle-aged Dante finds himself lost in the dark and wild, beset upon by the beasts of the night and unable to find his way to safety and light. He is rescued by Virgil, who leads him down to Hell in order to show him the horrors that await those who are lost to God so that he might take this message back to the world. Together, the trilogy – including Purgatorio and Paradiso – is an allegorical exploration of the path to salvation, from recognition and rejection of the horrors of Hell through spiritual growth to the light of God. It is Hell, though – The Inferno – that is best-known of the books, having contributed extensively to conceptions and representations of suffering even today.

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” announces the sign upon the gates as Dante and Virgil pass throngs of unsaved-yet-not-damned (i.e. those whose lives were characterized by non-commitment above all else  ) to begin their descent. Through Limbo (home to the unbaptized and those who, though virtuous, lived prior to the coming of Jesus and the opening of Heaven to human souls) and eight more and more horrific concentric circles of torment, Dante bears witness to the divine punishment meted out against sinners of various types – the lustful, the gluttonous, the greedy, the angry, the heretical, the violent, the fraudulent and the treacherous. And finally, at the deepest centre of Hell, the great betrayer, Satan, holding in one of his three mouth’s the traitor of Jesus, Judas Iscariot.

It’s quite the journey, and one whose imagery and language continues to shape our conceptions of Hell specifically and torment generally. Moments of humour, moments of political commentary and pot-shots at his contemporaries, moments of philosophic reflection. Mostly, though, image after image of the tortures that await, each devised with specific reference to a particular sin. It ain’t pretty.

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