Classics Summarized: Dante’s Inferno

Classics Summarized: Dante’s Inferno


Heaven and Hell have long fascinated writers, poets, and all us other flaky artistic types with our heads in the clouds, or, as the person varies, several kilometers underground and on fire. But there’s one iconic text that has essentially served as a hitchhiker’s guide to hell for nearly seven hundred years, and it was written by one Dante Alighieri. It’s called “The Divine Comedy”, but most people only ever care about the first third of it, descriptively titled “The Inferno”. Which is actually a rather odd title, because… only part of Hell is actually on fire at any given time, and the worst pits are rather more chilly. But I digress! The thing to be aware about “The Inferno” before we start looking at it, is that it’s basically Dante’s self-insert historical fanfiction. In which he gets to team up with his role model/celebrity boy-crush Virgil, and watch all his enemies burning in Hell forever. The other thing we need to remember is that Dante was Italian, aka: Roman, aka: he really didn’t like the Greeks that much. Especially not the ones responsible for the destruction of Troy. So let’s keep this in mind as we read this historically aclaimed revenge fic: Dante’s Inferno. Our story opens with our dude Dante wandering around this super sketchy forest at the base of a mountain. Specifically, Mount Delectable. Sadly, this is not actually a mountain of infinite candy, but is instead a simbolic representation of Heaven. Which I guess could hypothetically be a mountain of infinite candy, but somehow I feel that my dentist would disagree with my analysis. Having nothing better to do, Dante tries to climb this mountain, only to find that because he is somehow unworthy, his progress is blocked by a ferocious panther, a lion and a she-wolf. And then Virgil shows up! For those who don’t know, Virgil is this ancient Roman poet who, among other things, wrote the Aeneid, and Dante just happens to be his number one fan. So Virgil is like: “Looks like you’re too lame to go to Heaven. Fortunately, your dead girlfriend Beatrice has sent me to help toughen you up–” And Dante is like: “–Ahh!! Virgil senpai, I’m your biggest fan!!!!!” So Virgil leads Dante away from the mountain and down into a one on one guided tour of Hell. First they come to a gate with a long, complicated inscription that ends in the now iconic line: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” So Virgil is like: “Alright, Dante. Welcome to Hell.” And Dante is like: “Hey! Why do I hear so much screaming?” And Virgil is like: “I said ‘Welcome to Hell’, idiot, what part of that was unclear?” So, Hell is (unsurprisingly) pretty intense. There’s dudes getting bit by bugs, stung by hornets. All that good stuff. And we’re not even in the real Hell yet. Dante and Virgil have to be ferried across the river Acheron before they even enter the first circle. So they get to the river Acheron, where grumpy boatman Charon takes them over the river in order to Hell proper in a very awkward ferry ride, where Dante happens to be the only living dude in a boat full of dead folk. On the way over, Dante passes out from the awkwardness and wakes up on the other side of the river, in the first circle of Hell. So, the first circle isn’t really Hell either. It’s more like diet Hell. It’s officially called Limbo, and it’s where all the the souls whose only crime is a distinct lack of christianity end up. Virgil mentions that back in the day, the Big J himself came down and airlifted some worthy souls up into Heaven. Anyway, Dante and Virgil continue on their merry way and run into a welcoming party of four other famous poets: Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. A veritable Dead Poets Society, you could say. Anyway, Dante gets to hang out with all the cool kid poets just like he’s always dreamed. Almost seems like wish fullfilment, huh? Also chilling in Limbo are a bunch of heroes from classic Roman history, including Hector, Aeneas, Caesar, and a few others. So, Dante and Virgil move on from Limbo and arrive at the second circle of Hell. Which is guarded by King Minos, who judges every soul that enters. Luckily, Virgil is Dante’s “Get-Into-Hell-Free” card, so he avoids the judging eyes of Judgy-McJudge face, and gets to enter the second circle freely. Lucky him. So, the second circle is rather windy and dark, and this wind, in fact, is the punishment for those souls in the second circle who are sent there because of their lustfulness. So, unsurprisingly, it’s filled to the brim with some of history’s sexiest ladys, along with Paris and Achilles for some reason. Yeah, I’m not gonna lie. Of all the potential eternal punishment someone could suffer; I’d say rooming with Cleopatra and Helen of Troy forever is hands down the one I’d pick. So, Dante faints again because, as previously stated, the dude’s a total wimp. Although, he wakes shortly thereafter and they head off to the third circle, where it rains all the time as a sort of environmental punishment for gluttony. I-I don’t really get this punishment honestly. I mean, rain is uncomfortable, but I don’t get how it symbolically connects. Ah, whatever! So they move on to the fourth circle, which is guarded by Plutus. Who’s generally considered to be the Greek god of wealth, but has here downgraded to the less impressive status of prison warden of the fourth circle of Hell, where greed is punished. And the fourth circle is pretty weird, even by Hell standards. The souls that end up here are forced to roll huge rocks at each other in some weird, inefficient parody of jousting, and this sounds less like a hellish punishment, and more like an activity from my middle school gym class. Wait, bad example. The weirdness seems to get to Dante and Virgil too, who zip off to the river Styx, which is apparently between the fourth and sixth circles of Hell, rather than around the borders of Hades. Who knew?! So, the Styx, aka: the fifth circle of Hell, is home to a continuous underwater fistfight between all the souls whose sin was wrath. While those suffering from wrath’s emo cousin sullenness just kind of sink to the bottom and wait for someone to notice how grumpy and tormented they are. So Dante and Virgil get ferried across the Styx by this grumpy devil named Phlegyas, and after a brief interruption where Dante is accosted by this one dude he sort of knows- -and, uh, side note: This happens a lot by the way. I’m skipping over most of that. So they arrive at the far shores of the Styx and start approaching the city of Dis, where the bottom four circles are located. The primary defining feature of Dis is that it’s almost entirely on fire, and that it’s guarded by some extremely grumpy fallen angels, who really don’t feel like letting Dante and Virgil all up in their city. Virgil tries to talk them down and ends up getting set upon by the Furies for his trouble, and in my experience, this is how most bureaucratic processes end up. So the Furies threaten to sic the Medusa on our dynamic duo, and Virgil covers Dante’s eyes to protect him, when a literal Deus ex machina appears in the form of a friendly angel sent from the Big Man himself; who opens the gates of Dis for them, then lays a sick verbal smackdown on the various demons that were menacing our heroes, then vanishes back from whence he came. So our heroes finally enter the Hell city of Dis. Lucky them. Anyway, the first thing they see in Dis is the sixth circle of Hell. Which is full of heretics in flaming coffins. Charming place, really! So, Dante chats with a couple of flaming coffin residents, who aren’t super stoked to see him. Ha! Stoked, get it? ‘Cause they’re on fire. I’ll see myself out. So, in this point they’re nearing the bottom levels of Hell, so the circles are getting a lot smaller and closer together And Virgil warns Dante that they’ve also entered the bad neighborhood part of Hell, and from this point forward … he shouldn’t make eye contact or talk to any of the souls he sees. Virgil also explains that the seventh circle is reserved for the violent, which is a staggeringly broad category, as it includes people who defy God by blasphemy or defiling nature. And yes, I chose to interpret defiling nature as a broad category including, but not limited to: Littering. Anyway, Virgil and Dante run into the Minotaur, who inexplicably guards the seventh circle, and is even more inexplicably suporting about letting them pass, and it’s not just the Minotaur, the seventh circle is overall, actually pretty cheerful from the get go. Full of friendly centaurs who aren’t even being punished for anything. They’re holding down stable jobs now, and all they have to do to get that monthly paycheck is to shoot arrows at any unfortunate souls that manage to escape the boiling river of blood. Oh, yeah. I forgot about that. This is Hell after all. So, yeah! The aforementioned river of blood is full of the violent conquerors of the past, including Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, and some bloke Dionysius. Not to be confused with the perpetually drunk/hungover Greek deity Dionysus. Anyway, the friendly centaurs help them across the river and they end up in a terrifying forest full of poison thorns and harpies! Yaaaay! And, to make matters worse, all the trees used to be people. Yes, this is the proverbial suicide forest where everyone who commits violence against themselves ends up. Yep, the seventh circle of hell has been just a barrel of laughs so far. So Dante returns the leaves to one of the trees and they go on their merry way. Things start to heat up when they get to the innermost part of the seventh circle, a giant desert where it continually rains fire. Reserved especially for blasphemers and people who don’t pick up their trash. Dante runs into an old teacher of his, who’s really only in Hell because he’s…
not exactly the straightest crayon in the box. But he’s still a really swell dude, so they have a nice little reunion and then Dante and Virgil continue on to the edge of the eighth circle, which is unfortunately a giant impassable cliff. But luckily for our heroes, Geryon, a friendly neighborhood monster, shows up and kindly drags them down into the depths of Hell. Lucky them. So Dante and Virgil arrive in the eighth circle of Hell, reserved for people who commit fraud of various kinds. This part of Hell is officially called the Malebolge, and is much closer to the classic fire and brimstone Hell than most of what we’ve seen so far. In the outermost ring of the eighth circle, nasty looking demons torment the souls here with scourges. Among several others, Jason, hero of the story of the Argonauts is inexplicably stuck in this circle. Supposedly because he seduced a couple ladies on his way to win the Golden Fleece, but honestly, he’s most likely REALLY there because Dante just really dislikes ALL Greek heroes. Like, ALL of them. More on that later. Farther into the circle is reserved for people who sell religious positions for money. There’s a word for that, but who cares? Where such sinners are unceremoniously dumped head-first into holes, and have their feet set on fire. Here Dante encounters a former Pope, who immediately accuses two other still living Popes of also being guilty of his crimes. One could almost get the impression that Dante didn’t like these Popes all that much, having consigned them all to Hell in his personal self-insert historical crack-fic. Onwards and upwards! -or maybe downwards. To the next part of the eighth circle. The sinners here are all sorcerers, astrologers, and false prophets, and everyone here has been punished by having their heads twisted around backwards. Dante is like: “Noooo, how horrible!”, and Virgil is like: “Boy how dare you pity dead dudes! They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have it coming!” And in this part of Hell we find yet another of our favorite Greek heroes, in this case, the prophet Tiresias. Who, for the crime of being blessed with the gift of prophecy by Apollo himself, has had his head snapped backwards forever in the eighth circle of Hell. Am I the only one who finds this stunningly unfair? Next, Dante and Virgil come to a lake of boiling tar. Reserved exclusively for that special, wicked breed of man: POLITICIANS. This part of Hell is guarded by a nasty breed of demon called the Malebranche, one of whom pops up unexpectedly and drops a politician into the tar lake, scaring Virgil and terrifying poor Dante. Virgil makes Dante hide, and then goes out to try and persuade the demons to let them pass, which they do. And they even offer to guide our intrepid duo across the tar lake. On the way, Dante encounters various politicians he especially dislikes, which the Malebranche are kind enough to pull out of the tar lake so they can talk to ’em. Of course, being demons, the Malebranche take the opportunity to shred the unfortunate politicians with tooth and claw, and unfortunately, one such politician escapes and dives back into the boiling tar. And when the demons try and grab him again, they get stuck themselves. Hilarious, right? It’s classic routines like this that make this text such a classic comedy. So Virgil and Dante try to sneak away from the now pissed off demons, but they don’t get that far before the Malebranche decide that the politician’s escape was somehow Dante’s fault. And start pursuing them. Virgil scoops up Dante, and slides out of danger into the next part of the eighth circle. Where the hypocrites go when they die. Everyone here gets to wear a big, fancy, gilded lead cloak forever. Get it? Because it’s symbolic of their worthlessness? Ha. And just about the only interesting guy here is the one who is responsible for getting the Big J crucified, one Caiphus. So they hike over to the next part of the eighth circle, which is so far proving to be largest and most complicated of all the circles we’ve seen so far. Anyway, this particular charming local can be best described as – -a giant pit full of magical snakes. Yeah. Hell, remember? So this particular snake pit is somehow worse than your average, run-of-the-mill snake pit. Because these snakes have a magic bite that transforms you into a random, wacky, and/or horrifying creature, and/or household object. Oh, and this section of Hell is devoted to thieves, see, and it’s symbolic because they’re robbed of their true forms and stuff. Anyway, they go on a little farther into Hell, and get into the part of the eighth circle where people who abuse their positions of power and commit fraud go. Everyone rooming down here is provided with their own personal bubble of fire! Which honestly sounds pretty cozy- -but here’s the thing! As previously mentioned, Dante is Italian, and therefore solidly on the size of the Romans in terms of history. And unfortunately, the Trojan War was won by the distinctly non-Roman, Greek side. While the Trojan survivors went off and founded Rome, or something. So Dante’s got some kind of ancestral hate on for all these legendary Greek heroes, -especially those directly involved in the Trojan War. And that is why my dudes Odysseus and Diomedes are eternally burning in the eighth circle of Hell for that little misadventure with the Trojan Horse. Yeah. I find this incredibly unfair. Especially considering the Odyssey, hasn’t the poor guy suffered enough by now? So Dante and Virgil scoot on past that little misadventure, and into the next part of eighth circle, where sowers of discord are continually chopped into pieces by a giant, multi-limbed demon. And we’re just gonna breeze on past this chapter real quick because Dante did something of a religious no-no, and consigned a certain, well known religious founder to this particular punishment. And all I’m gonna say about that is that I’m not allowed to draw him. So the next portion of Hell is reserved for alchemists, and the souls stuck here get to experience the wonders of every disease known to man simultaneously. The poor sod who let the Trojan Horse into Troy is also in this circle. Wow, it’s almost like Dante holds a grudge or something! Anyway, Dante and Virgil continue their buddy comedy road trip through Hell, and finally come to the edge of the ninth circle. Which is bordered by a sheer cliff, and full of chained up, Biblical giants, along with one free, slightly friendlier giant, who kindly lowers them safely into the absolute depths of Hell. Lucky them. Now the ninth circle is reserved for the absolute worst of humanity. Which by Dante’s standard, means that this is where the traitors get to chillax for all eternity. And I mean that literally. As the ninth circle is a huge, frozen lake named Kokytos, which is actually supposed to be one of the rivers in Hades, but whatever. We never asked for mythical authenticity. The various traitors they encounter are mostly frozen up to their necks Although as they get closer and closer to the center of Hell, the souls are embedded deeper and deeper into the ice. So the conversation kinda dries up as they approach they very lowest point in Hell. And who should they find there but Lucifer. The big guy himself. The head honcho of Hell- -frozen up to his nips in the ice. Wha-? Yeah, he doesn’t really cut a regal figure in this representation, does he? What idiot thought that ruling in Hell would be any fun for anybody? Anyway, this “SHINY 3-D HOLOGRAPHIC SPECIAL EDITION SATAN™” has three heads, each one om nom nomming on a different soul. The middle one is chewing on Judas, while the other two are doing the same to Brutus and Cassius, who you may remember are those two jerks responsible for assassinating Julius Caesar -and I gotta say, that is a pretty hefty punishment for two dudes whose only crime was stabbing an old guy in a fancy hat. And so ends the tour of Hell! Virgil grabs Dante and starts climbing down Satan, Shadow of the Colossus style, and shortly thereafter, the two of them pop through the center of the Earth and emerge in Purgatory, all set to start Dante on the road to redemption. Or… something.

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