Let’s Go to (Dante Alighieri’s) Hell

Touring an elaborately-designed fictional hell and Dante Alighieri’s vivid imagination

Source: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

When you think of hell, do you think of a literal place full of fire and eternal torment that bad people go to after they die? You can thank Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy for that image of hell. The Divine Comedy is split into three parts aptly named Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso and contains pagan, Christian, and classical characters that Dante meets during a tour through his personal conception of hell.

Dante’s hell consists of different levels and different punishments for different sins, but what exactly did those eternally tormented souls go through? With that in mind, what were they punished for and how much of today’s idea of hell is influenced by Dante?

The vestibule of hell is not technically hell, but it comes pretty close.

The vestibule of hell isn’t even technically part of hell, but, as far as This place is reserved for people who had no purpose as they were called “the worthless crew” in a translation of Dante’s poem. Not only were the purposeless stung by wasps and hornets constantly, but they stayed in hell’s waiting room because neither heaven nor hell wanted them. Why? They spent their lives only thinking of themselves, not doing anything that was necessarily good or evil.

The “worthless crew” was “displeasing to God and to his enemies” (p. 50) and they spent their afterlife envying those who stayed elsewhere whether it was heaven, purgatory, or hell. However, despite their envy, they had nothing to hope for, not even condemnation. Due to their purposeless existence, they were even said to never have been alive in the first place.

The first level of hell (limbo) doesn’t have a harsh punishment… not that it needs one. The setup of the first level of hell allows people to punish themselves in an “open, luminous”, and oddly peaceful place (p. 51). Virtuous non-Christians and those who have not been baptized inhabit the first level of hell as well as famous poets, ancient heroes, and philosophers. However, the lingering sense of regret is palpable as these souls wonder why they could not enter heaven or wish they became Christians while they had the chance.

The punishment of eternal regret, confusion, and longing was deemed enough as these people lead good lives during their time on earth despite not being Christians. Though the vestibule of hell is arguable more hellish than limbo, these souls have nothing to do but contemplate one’s life on earth and long for heaven even though they know they will never get there.

The second level of hell is the smallest. Reserved for hypocrites, flatterers, thieves, and the lustful Minos stands at the entrance to the second level of hell as a judge. A woman named “Francesca” and her lover “Paolo” drift aimlessly in the wind after Francesca’s husband killed them both. However, despite being in a place of eternal misery, they still try to stay together.

Francesca and Paolo are not alone in the actual whirlwind that is the second level of hell. Those who were doomed to this level of hell were those who had committed the sin of lust or adultery. They have no hope of comfort or even of reduced pain. Even worse, these souls are left to remember the happy times they had with their lovers and may even see them on occasion, but will not be able to meet them.

The third level of hell is where gluttons receive an “appropriate punishment” (p. 52). The first things that come to mind are force-feeding and starvation, but, rather than that, heavy rain, hail, and snow simultaneously fall on the souls of people who overindulged in food. In addition to the rain, the ground emits a putrid smell. Cerberus, a three-throated, dog-like monster, oversees these souls as they are bombarded with all forms of precipitation.

There’s nothing these souls can do in the torrential downpour besides turn on their sides to protect that side. Moreover, that option also means putting one’s face closer to the putrid ground. Not only that, but they also get continually torn to shreds by Cerberus.

The fourth level of hell involves rolling weights across an empty plain. Or at least, that’s what half of the occupants do before they all try to kill each other with the weights. The second half of the occupants get their hair cut like monks and wither away to the point that “it would be vain to think of recognizing any of them” (p. 123). The greedy occupy this level of hell on this large circular field divided in half.

The fifth level of hell has a dark ravine at its border, but all the punishing takes place in the Stygian marsh. Judging by the description of this place as “putrid mud” (p.52), the Stygian marsh didn’t exactly smell pleasant. The compulsively angry, moody, depressed, lazy, and vain receive their appropriate punishment in the mud. The fifth level of hell is also home to the City of Dis (or Satan), which is identifiable by its red mosques.

The sixth level of hell is in the City of Dis. Being on an equal plane with the fifth level of hell, the sixth level of hell marks the transition between ordinary sinners who simply lacked self-restraint in their earthly lives and those whose sins involved malice or outright rebellion against God. In the City of Dis, the souls of people who deny the immortality of the soul and their followers are burned in sepulchers (stone tombs) which will be completely closed after Judgment Day.

The seventh level of hell is guarded by a Minotaur. Simply getting there isn’t any less of a punishment. This level of hell is surrounded by rocks so steep and slippery that one can barely walk on them, making it not the best place to go on a hike. The River of Blood flows along the bottom of the precarious rock pile as troops of centaurs keep murderers, tyrants, and others who committed acts of violence immersed up to their throat or eyes depending on the extent of their sin.

Those who die by suicide occupy the seventh level of hell as well. However, they turn into sickly trees that produce poison rather than fruit. Harpies devour the trees that sprout from these souls again and again as they suffer for eternity. Dubbed “self-murderers”, these souls are also subject to torture from female hellhounds (p. 197). In other words, they suffer eternally for acting on their desire to end their suffering.

The eighth level of hell is divided into ten different rings and each contains a different class of sinners. Basically, the eighth level of hell is a condensed version of Dante’s hell reserved for the fraudulent. In the first ring, stinging demons torment panderers and seducers while flatterers dwell in filth. Popes Boniface the Eighth and Nicholas the Third live in the third ring along with others who have confused the concepts of good and evil along with the other fraudulent people who inhabit this hell within a hell.

Further into this level are people who sold religious positions for money (simony). These souls are placed headfirst into holes while their feet are set on fire. Sorcerers, astrologers, and false prophets also live in the eighth level of hell where their heads are attached to their bodies backward while their faces are “painfully twisted” (p. 285).

The ninth level of hell is where Satan himself is frozen up to his nipples in ice. As with all of the other places in Dante Alighieri’s hell, this is not a place where you’d want to spend your day, let alone an eternity. However, it’s not exactly fire and brimstone down here. The air is thick and gloomy and it’s actually quite cold, especially at the lowest level. This ninth and lowest level of hell is subdivided into four rings, the first two of which are called Caïna and Antenora.

Giants, fallen Nephilim, and people who openly declared war against Heaven inhabit the lowest, coldest part of hell. Giants are kept on the verge of drowning while Nimrod of Babel, one of the human inhabitants of this place, screams in gibberish while others are unable to understand his cries for help, let alone do anything to ease his pain.

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Valentine Wiggin

Valentine Wiggin

Death-positive, sex-positive, and LGBTQ-affirming Christian. Gen Z. I hate onions. She/her