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The Divine Comedy: Inferno

Dante Alighieri

About The Divine Comedy: Inferno

Background of The Divine Comedy: Inferno

Throughout the Middle Ages, politics was dominated by the struggle between the two greatest powers of that age: the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire (HRE). Each claimed to be of divine origin and to be indispensable to the welfare of mankind. The cause of this struggle was the papal claim that it also had authority over temporal matters, that is, the ruling of the government and other secular matters. In contrast, the HRE maintained that the papacy had claim only to religious matters, not to temporal matters.

In Dante's time, there were two major political factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Originally, the Ghibellines represented the medieval aristocracy, which wished to retain the power of the Holy Roman Emperor in Italy, as well as in other parts of Europe. The Ghibellines fought hard in this struggle for the nobility to retain its feudal powers over the land and the peopleIn contrast, the Guelphs, of which Dante was a member, were mainly supported by the rising middle class, represented by rich merchants, bankers, and new landowners.0 They supported the cause of the papacy in opposition to the Holy Roman Emperor.

The rivalry between the two parties not only set one city against another, but also divided individual cities and families into factions. In time, the original alliances and allegiances became confused in strange ways. Dante, as a Guelph, was a supporter of the imperial authority because he passionately wanted Italy united into one central state. In his time, the fighting between the two groups became fierce. Farinata, the proud Ghibelline leader of Florence, was admired by Dante, the Guelph, but Dante placed him in the circle of Hell reserved for Heretics. Dante's philosophical view was also a political view. The enemy was politically, philosophically, and theologically wrong — and thus a Heretic.

Virgil was considered the most moral of all the poets of ancient Rome. Virgil's Aeneid was one of the models for Dante's Inferno. It is said that Dante had memorized the entire Aeneid and that he had long revered Virgil as the poet of the Roman Empire, especially since the Aeneid tells the story of the founding of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, in Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, he writes symbolically about the coming of a Wonder Child who will bring the Golden Age to the world, and in the Middle Ages, this was interpreted as being prophetic of the coming of Christ. Thus in the figure of Virgil, Dante found a symbol who represented the two key institutions: the papacy and the empire, destined by God to save mankind.

Introduction The Divine Comedy: Inferno


Reading Dante for the first time, the reader faces monumental problems: another society, another religion (medieval Catholicism is not the same as modern Catholicism), a different culture, and a different political system, where politics controlled the papacy, and the papacy was manipulating the politics of the times — and often the pope was a political appointment.

The physical aspect of Hell is a gigantic funnel that leads to the very center of the Earth. (See the diagram later in this section.) According to the legend used by Dante, this huge, gigantic hole in the Earth was made when God threw Satan (Lucifer) and his band of rebels out of Heaven with such force that they created a giant hole in the Earth. Satan was cast all the way to the very center of the Earth, has remained there since, and will remain there through all of eternity.

he sinners who are the least repugnant, or those whose sins were the least offensive, are in the upper circles. In each circle, Dante chose a well-known figure of the time or from history or legend to illustrate the sin. As Dante descends from circle to circle, he encounters sinners whose sins become increasingly hateful, spiteful, offensive, murderous, and traitorous. He ends with Satan, eating the three greatest traitors in the world, each in one of his three mouths, at the center of the Earth.


Dante's scheme of punishment is one of the marvels of the imaginative mind; at times, however, it involves a rather complex and difficult idea for the modern reader.

Each sinner is subjected to a punishment that is synonymous with his or her sin — or else the antithesis of that sin. For example, the Misers and the Spendthrifts are in Circle IV. Their sins were that they worshipped money so much that they hoarded it, or the opposite, had so little regard for money that they spent it wildly. Nothing is so antagonistic to a miser as a spendthrift. Thus, their punishment is to bombard each other continually with huge stones expressing the antagonism between excessive hoarding and excessive squandering.

Another example is the Adulterous Lovers. In this world, they were buffeted about by their passions; in Hell, they are buffeted about by the winds of passion, as they eternally clasp each other. Those who deliberately committed adultery are in a much lower circle. The punishment of the Thieves is simple. Their hands, which they used to steal, are cut off, and their bodies are entwined with snakes or serpents, as were encountered in Eden.

Allegory and Symbols

We follow the guide and Dante through adventures so amazing that only the wildest imagination can conceive of the predicament. Is this allegory or symbols? Most readers are anxious to have a one-to-one correlation between a thing and its symbolic equivalent: That is, a red rose equals love, and a white rose equals chastity. Thus, what do the beasts symbolize? There are so many different interpretations of their symbolic significance that each reader can assign a specific meaning, but basically suffice it to say that together they represent obstacles to Dante's discovering the true light on the mountain.

As an allegory, it is both simpler and more complicated than the symbolic meanings. This is a man's spirit on a journey through life and all of the pitfalls that could prevent him from attaining ultimate salvation and a union with the Godhead, the source of all light. Those who failed during life are seen, in the Inferno, suffering from their sins in life, and Dante is thusly warned to avoid each and every sin to achieve salvation.

A Comedy?

Dante called his poem a comedy. In classic terminology, a comedy is a work that begins in misery or deep confusion and ends in elation or happiness. In Shakespearean comedy, the play often begins in confusion — couples breaking up or separating, but ends with everyone finding the right partner. In other words, a comedy is not something one would laugh about, but an ascension from a low state of confusion to one where all people are combined for the greatest happiness.

The adjective "Divine" was added by a sixteenth-century editor and publisher and has been retained ever since.

The Structure of The Divine Comedy: Inferno

Dante, like most people of his time, believed that some numbers had mystical meanings and associations. He designed the structure of his poem using a series of mystical numbers:

THREE: The number of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; The number of parts of the Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso; The number of lines in each verse of each canto; The number of divisions of Hell; The number of days required for Dante's journey through Hell.

NINE: A multiple of three; the number of circles in Hell.

TEN: The perfect number is the nine circles of Hell plus the vestibule.

THIRTY-THREE: A multiple of three; the number of cantos in each part.

NINETY-NINE: The total number of cantos plus Canto I, The Introduction.

ONE HUNDRED: A multiple of ten; considered by Dante to be the perfect number.