Warning: Contains some images with artistic nudity.

The Hell depicted in The Divine Comedy is very complex and structured. Each circle contains a certain type of perceived sinners, and the lowest circles have multiple rings, for different manifestations of those sins. Canto III of Inferno famously opens:

Through me is the way to the City of Woe:
Through me the way into the eternal pain;
Through me the way among the lost below.
Righteousness did my maker on high constrain.
Me did divine Authority uprear;
Me supreme Wisdom and primal Love sustain.
Before I was, no things created were
Save the eternal, and I eternal abide.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Outside the gates of Hell are the souls of people who took no sides in life, only caring about themselves and their own interests instead of taking a moral stand, or even supporting evil and coming up with their own reasons for why they took such a stance.

Dante and Virgil then encounter a ferry across the river Acheron, piloted by Charon. Since Dante is a living person, Charon doesn’t want to let him aboard. Virgil forcefully tells Charon he has to let this mortal on the ferry, since Dante is on a Divinely-ordered journey.

This preview of Hell is so horrific, Dante faints and doesn’t come to till he’s crossed Acheron.

Charon’s Boat, Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1808

The First Circle, Limbo, is for righteous non-Christians and babies who died unbaptised (which is no longer part of mainstream Catholic doctrine). Here reside all the lights of Antiquity and a few from the Golden Age of Islam—Julius Caesar, Cicero, Sultan Saladin, Plato, Socrates, Ptolemy, Euclid, Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna, and many more. Given how many schools no longer teach classical history, the average modern reader will need to read all the explanatory footnotes to know who most of these people are.

The Second Circle is for the lustful, constantly blown around by an eternal windstorm. Dante judges them the least offensive of all sinners, since they didn’t really hurt anyone by their mutually consensual relationships. Their punishment is also the lightest.

Here Dante encounters the famous Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo Malatesta, who were murdered by Francesca’s husband and Paolo’s brother Giovanni when he discovered their affair. Other occupants include Dido, Cleopatra, Achilles, and Helen of Troy.

The Third Circle is for gluttons. Three-headed dog Cerberus guards these souls, who are stuck in freezing muck and mire kept fresh by endless icy, foul rain. To get past Cerberus, Virgil stuffs his mouths with mud.

Dante talks with Ciacco, a glutton who also appears in The Decameron, and has his exile from Florence foretold.

Cerberus, by William Blake

In the Fourth Circle are misers, hoarders, spendthrifts, and the greedy. Plutus, Greek god of wealth, guards this circle. The meaning of his lines at the start of Canto VII, Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!,” has always been uncertain. Many theories have been proposed, but there’s no consensus.

These sinners are punished with huge weights strapped to their chests.

The Fifth Circle is for the wrathful. Actively wrathful souls fight in the slimy River Styx, and passively wrathful souls are beneath the water. Phlegyas (mythological King of the Lapiths) reluctantly agrees to ferry Dante and Virgil across the river. During their journey, the soul of Filippo Argenti arises from the waters, quarrels with Dante, and tries to upturn the boat.

Filippo is set upon by other souls, and the boat continues on to the marsh-encircled City of Dis, the Sixth Circle. The three Furies violently threaten Dante outside the gates until an angel comes to the rescue.

Heretics are in flaming tombs in the Sixth Circle. This is the final region of Upper Hell. As Dante and Virgil descend into Lower Hell, it’s about 4:00 AM on Holy Saturday 1300.

The Seventh Circle contains the violent in three rings, for those who were violent against neighbours, self, and God, Nature, and art. Given the attitudes of the era, these rings unfortunately include suicides and gay men. So-called blasphemers are also here.

A waterfall cascades over a cliff leading down to the Eighth Circle. Dante and Virgil are transported on the back of Geryon, a giant monster with mostly human features.

Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1808

Malebolge (Evil Ditches), the Eighth Circle, contains ten circular trenches for, in order, seducers and panderers, flatterers, simoniacs (i.e., selling Church positions and indulgences), sorcerers, barrators (i.e., corrupt politicians), hypocrites, thieves, counsellors of fraud, sowers of discord (i.e., schismatics), and falsifiers.

Due to a Medieval misunderstanding of history and theology, Prophet Mohammad is included among the schismatics.

The Ninth Circle is for betrayers. Ring One, Caïna, punishes betrayers of kin; Ring Two, Antenora, punishes treason; Ring Three, Ptolomaea, punishes betrayers of guests; and Ring Four, Giudecca, punishes those who betrayed their masters. Giudecca, named for Judas, is eerily silent, as all the souls are trapped in ice.

In the centre of Hell resides Satan, a three-faced monster eternally chewing on Brutus, Cassius, and Judas. Dante and Virgil have to climb down his fearsome body to exit Hell.


Empyrean, the highest part of Paradise, which Dante ascends to at the very end of The Divine Comedy, has been written and speculated about since Antiquity. Its name derives from the Ancient Greek word empyrios (burning, fiery). In Medieval Catholic theology, it was believed to be the place where God’s physical presence and angels dwell.

Given the Medieval conception of the world, Empyrean was part of the geocentric universe model which was overwhelmingly accepted as factual throughout the world. Since the time of Aristotle, people had believed the Earth, not the Sun, was the centre of the Universe. In turn, Earth was surrounded by eight concentric spheres (i.e., the heavens).

The first sphere contained the Moon, and the next six contained Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. The stars were in the last sphere. Obviously, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto hadn’t yet been discovered in the Middle Ages (and I will regard Pluto as a planet till my final breath).

In the second century CE, Ptolemy proposed a ninth sphere, Primum Mobile, the outermost corner of the Universe. Primum Mobile was conceived of as an engine providing movement to all the other spheres, powered by God. This astronomical model was believed until the Renaissance, when Copernicus proved the Universe is heliocentric.

Giusto de ‘Menabuoi fresco in the Baptistery of Padua Cathedral, featuring the nine spheres, Copyright Custeped at WikiCommons

Empyrean, then, was above all the other spheres but not a ninth sphere. Since God resided there, its size wasn’t limited, and it wasn’t even made of true physical matter. Empyrean is a place beyond time and space, similar to the Akashic Records. You can journey there in dreams, visions, meditation, and self-hypnosis, but it doesn’t exist in this dimension.

Empyrean was also believed to be motionless, though it set the eight spheres below it in motion.

Dante and Beatrice arrive in Empyrean in Canto XXX of Paradiso. The experience is so intense, Dante can no longer find words to describe Beatrice’s beauty. He’s wrapped in intense light which temporarily blinds him, followed by his sight returning stronger than ever.

A river of light flows between two banks full of flowers, and a swelling of sparks are exchanged between the flowers and river. Beatrice tells Dante to keep his eyes upon the river, which soon transmogrifies into a huge lake of light. The flowers reveal themselves as souls in petals, and the sparks are angels.

Engraving by Gustave Doré, 1868

After Dante surveys Empyrean to his great delight, he turns to ask Beatrice a question, and finds her replaced by an old man. The stranger says Beatrice asked him to lead Dante to his final goal, and points to Beatrice on the highest tier of the heavenly rose they’re in the middle of. Dante gives thanks to Beatrice for everything she’s done for him, and prays that he’ll one day return to her as pure as he is now.

The old man reveals himself as St. Bernard, and tells Dante to look at the Virgin Mary. Angel Gabriel hails her, and all the souls burst into song. St. Bernard then shows Dante all the great souls in the rose, and tells him to look at God and pray that Mary provides the necessary Grace to finish this amazing otherworldly journey.

Illustration by Giovanni di Paolo, 1440s

Dante sees the physical world bound together as one through the power of Love, followed by three rings, each a different colour, representing the Trinity. Dante’s mortal sight, even in such a heightened spiritual state, can only perceive so much, but he does see Divine light.

With his inner eyes, in a brilliant flash, Dante suddenly perceives the perfect union of all realities and the understanding of everything in this world and the next. In his final moments in Empyrean, he understands Love is the mechanism behind God, the Universe, life, and everything else in existence.

“To the high force imagination now failed,
“But like to a wheel whose circling nothing jars,
“Already on my desire and will prevailed
“The Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”

WeWriWa—Discussing religion


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing snippets from the book formerly known as The Very Next, now entitled Movements in the Symphony of 1939. It was released in e-book format on March second, with a paperback edition to follow within a few months. The paperback edition will have a different cover.

Best friends Cinnimin and Sparky (real name Katherine) have been forced to take new houseguest Samantha to their friend Quintina’s birthday party, despite Sam’s out of place clothes and lack of a present. During their short walk there, Sam revealed a fear of her mother and mentioned her parents have different religions. Now Sam starts revealing her commitment to fundamentalism.

“Your parents are different religions? What is your dad, Catholic or something? I don’t think he’s Jewish, given how upset you and your mom got when you found out Sparky’s family’s Jewish.”

“We’re all Methodists, but my dad is a regular Methodist who only had one baptism. My mother and I are fundamentalist Methodists with three baptisms. We go to a regular Methodist church, but we have our own beliefs and practices to set us apart. Maybe someday my father will see the light and join us in the one true church.”

“What did you need three baptisms for? I didn’t think you needed to get rebaptized if you joined a different church. The original baptism counts for all Christian churches, so long as it’s a real church.”

The ten lines end here. A few more to complete the scene follow.

“That’s a long story. Our minister in D.C. explained how our first baptism was invalid, since it wasn’t in a fundamentalist church. He had to baptize us twice more each.”

Cinni shifted her weight to her other foot. “So you both used to be normal, and weren’t always super-religious?”

“We used to be more like other people, yes. You probably guessed my mother was really young when I was born. She wasn’t married either, but at least she eventually was able to marry my father. Their parents disapproved of their relationship. I think my mother became so overly religious to try to atone for how sinful she was before. Now it’s hard to imagine living any other way, though our salvation only happened a few years ago.”

WeWriWa—Surprise houseguests


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now starting snippets from the book formerly known as The Very Next, the chronological second of my Atlantic City books, set from March 1939 to the dawn of 1940. It underwent a radical rewrite in 2015, and I recently completed the fourth and final version. I plan on a late February  or early March release.

The book opens when best friends Cinnimin and Sparky (real name Katherine) are baking hamentaschen, three-cornered cookies stuffed with various fillings and traditionally eaten on the holiday of Purim. They’re quite surprised to see two strangers coming into the kitchen.

Cinni grabbed a dollop of chocolate chip cookie dough and snuck it into her mouth, then helped herself to some apricot jam. Sparky saw what her best friend was doing and shook her head as she continued to roll out cookie dough.

“You’re so lucky you ain’t bat mitzvah age yet,” Cinni said. “I can’t imagine fasting mosta the day. My stomach would be rumbling after the first missed meal. It really stinks that Gary has to fast on his birthday of all days. That should earn him a get out of fasting privilege.”

“It’s a holy obligation; Queen Esther fasted before she approached her husband to plead for the lives of her people, so we’re supposed to do it too. When I’m old enough, I’ll have to do all these fasts, both minor and major. You’re just not used to the idea ’cause your religion doesn’t do fasts.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish this scene.

The girls stopped talking when a strange blonde girl, who looked about Cinni and Sparky’s age, and a brunette woman, who looked to be in her twenties, came into the kitchen through the open back door. The older one bore a surly expression and crossed her arms as soon as she dropped her heavy suitcases with a big thud, while the girl looked around in silence. Both wore wool dresses almost down to their ankles, with wrist-length sleeves and the highest collarbones possible. The brunette’s dress was a sickly, dour shade of green, and the blonde was in blue the color of dirty, stagnant dishwater.

“Are you lost?” Cinni asked. “Maybe I can help you find the address you’re looking for. I know a lot of people in this neighborhood, since I’m Most Popular Girl, and my family’s lived here for centuries. My name’s Cinnimin Filliard.”

WeWriWa—Jakob’s jackfruit chanukiyah


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

My second Chanukah snippet this year comes from And the Lark Arose from Sullen Earth, the sequel to And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away. It’s now December 1946, and 20-year-old Jakob DeJonghe and Rachel Roggenfelder are enjoying winter vacation at the Cape Cod cottage they honeymooned at in summer.

Jakob and Rachel civilly married in The Netherlands in May 1945, but almost immediately had to separate due to Jakob’s continuing military commitment and Rachel’s expedited immigration to America. They were finally reunited in June 1946 and had their long-awaited religious wedding that month. Rachel is now 24 weeks pregnant.

All this time later, I can’t remember if I deliberately gave them the names of a famous couple, or if it were a romantic coincidence.

Chanukah 1943 in the Westerbork detention camp

Rachel watched her husband going into their bedroom and coming back with a strange-looking chanukiyah. She couldn’t figure out what in the world it was made out of, and why he’d bought such a thing. It looked like a child’s school art project.

“I made it in the Indies last year. It’s made of hollowed-out jackfruit. It meant more to me than an expensive thing from a fancy store. Would you like to use it for our first Chanukah together?”

She reached out for it and turned it over in her hands. “I can’t believe you kept this makeshift thing. It must’ve meant a lot to you if you kept it all this time.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow.

“Isn’t it beautiful? I made it all by myself, and took care so all the fruit was gone. I didn’t want it to rot or mold and get me a reprimand from my commanding officer.”

“Very creative and original. The two Chanukahs I spent at Westerbork, the inmates made them from hollowed-out potatoes and turnips. I don’t think anyone came there with a real one, at least not one they were willing to display openly. I’ll never understand that camp, so many contradictions and hypocrisies.”

“The only thing I understand about that place was that I found my dream girl there after I thought I’d never see you again.” He slipped his hand under her blouse and traced his fingertips along her ever-increasing breasts.