This is the first part of the review of The Divine Comedy which I wrote on my old Angelfire site sometime in the Spring of 2004. Since writing it, I read a wonderful biography of Dante that really helped me to understand his world and his epic poem on a greater, more in-depth level. I feel having a more updated translation will also help me when I reread this amazing work of literature. Every time I look up at the stars since reading this, I think of Dante, because each of the three sections ends with the beautiful, sweet, hopeful word “stars” (stelle).
[June 2021 note: I’m really embarrassed for my 24-year-old self regarding a lot of this post! Despite my love for this book, I still managed to come away with a rather shallow, surface reading and project my modern sensibilities onto the Middle Ages. I blame the translation I read, my lack of a teacher or supplementary notes (beyond mere footnotes), the speed at which I read, and the uncomfortable fact that my cognitive development wasn’t quite complete at that age. There are quite a lot of important details and deeper meanings I badly misinterpreted or never understood in the first place.]
My April 2021 post on Inferno is here. It’s much more descriptive of what actually happens and who shows up, instead of being little more than a litany of “I don’t think this is a sin or should be punished with Hell! Let me project my modern views onto the Middle Ages!”
It’s Good Friday Eve in the year 1300, and the 35-year-old poet Dante Alighieri suddenly wakes up in the Wood of Error, not knowing how he got there nor how he lost the true way. But he feels heartened by the rising Sun, and so begins to climb up the Delectable Mountain, only to encounter three frightening animals—a leopard, symbolising lust, a lion, symbolising pride, and a female wolf, symbolising avarice. He turns back in terror and comes face-to-face with the spirit of his idol, the great Roman poet Virgil.
Virgil explains to him that he’s going to guide him through Hell to see the souls of those without hope, and then into Purgatory to see those souls who’ll eventually attain redemption for their sufferings. After that’s come to pass, Virgil says, Dante will be led through the beautiful bliss of Paradise by the spirit of the deceased love of his life, the beautiful Beatrice. He also tells him he cannot overtake the fearful wolf, but one beautiful day a saviour will arise to save Italy and chase the terrible animal, symbolic of avarice, down into Hell where it belongs. Thus begins one of the most amazing epic adventures of all time, told in beautiful poetry.
In traditional Medieval Catholic theology (and I’d assume also Eastern Orthodoxy), there are nine circles of Hell. Some of these circles have divisions within them to punish different so-called crimes. Basically the lower you go, the badder you were (though nowadays many people would consider some of these things, like counterfeiting, forbidden love affairs, and suicide, to be possibly wrong, but certainly not worthy of going to Hell over).
Circle One is also known as Limbo; this is where virtuous people who aren’t Christians go. (How arrogant can you get, claiming that anyone who isn’t a member of your own religion and who was even born before it existed is going to Hell?!)
Circle two is for the lovers, whom I don’t think deserved to go to Hell just because they had frowned-upon love affairs, such as Cleopatra, Dido, and Helen of Troy.
Down in Circle Three we find gluttons, who while they certainly may have been pigs in their human lifetimes, didn’t deserve to get eternally damned for it either.
In Circle Four we find the Hoarders and Wasters; while that’s not something to aspire to, I also don’t think they deserved eternal punishment.
Circle Five is where I belong according to a test I took; the Circle of the Wrathful and Gloomy.
Circle Six is for “heretics,” and we all know Mother Church just loved to brand people as heretics back in those bad old days if they dared to think independently, question official doctrine, or even think there were other equally valid ways to practise Christianity.
Circle Seven, now we’re getting somewhere. There are three rings in this Circle; the first is for those who were violent against other people, such as murderers; the second is for suicides (who really thinks people who kill themselves are sinners anymore?), and the third is for “blasphemers,” gay people, and usurers. Again, the Church labelled practically anything that refused to tow their official line as blasphemy. And how hypocritical could you be, refusing to practise usury since it was against their religion yet hiring Jews and Muslims to do it for them?! That’s where the stereotype of Jews loving money and being miserly comes from. And nowadays only narrow-minded bigots still think gay people are going to Hell.
Circle Eight is even bigger. There are ten different rings in here, all punishing different types of crimes with the same level of seriousness nonetheless. We have flatterers, seducers, those who practised simony, fortune tellers and diviners (such as Tiresias and other famous prophets; I don’t think that’s a sin!), grafters, hypocrites (the irony is priceless!), thieves, evil counsellors, sowers of discord, and falsifiers.
In Circle Nine, the final and deadliest circle, the four different rings have the honour of having names. Ring One is called Caïna, so named for Cain. I now hold to the theory put forth in Hesse’s Demian, that Cain was the hero of the story and Abel was this overly pious wosbag who never questioned anything. According to Max Demian, those who bear the Mark of Cain are special people and nonconformists, and other people stay away from us not just because of the mark we’ve got, but because they’re afraid of anything that’s different and against what they believe. “People with courage and character always seem sinister to the rest.” In Caïna, obviously, people were violent against their own kin.
In Ring Antenora, we find people who betrayed their countries; here we find the infamous story of poor Count Ugolino and the Archbishop of Pisa.
Ptolomea is for those who backstabbed either a guest or host.
The lowest and darkest Ring of the Ninth Circle of Hell is called Giudecca, named for Judas in the Christian Bible. Brutus and Cassius are also in this ring, and the three of them are merged into one grotesque-looking monster contained within the teeth of the devil. The people here betrayed their masters (or mistresses). Satan himself also lives here, the fallen Lucifer (a positive name in the Wiccan religion; it means Son of Light). But after meeting Satan, there is nowhere for Dante and Virgil to go but up.