As I’ve mentioned many times, there were many important details, nuances, and themes about The Divine Comedy which completely sailed over my head the first time around at age 24 because of the speed at which I read, the trying task of mentally translating the anachronistic, annoying Elizabethan English into modern English, and the fact that my cognitive development wasn’t quite complete. One of those things I didn’t notice at all was contrapasso.
Contrapasso, which means “suffer the opposite” in Latin (formed from the roots contra and patior), is a punishment contrasting with or reminding souls in Hell and Purgatory of their sins. As great of an imagination as he had, Dante didn’t create all these tortures and penances willy-nily. They all directly relate to the sins committed. Everything else is just literary enhancement.
The very first contrapasso is in Ante-Inferno, outside the gates of Hell. Here are punished the souls of people who took no sides in life, either for good or evil. They just passively drifted whichever way the wind took them, only caring about their own self-interests. Thus, they’re condemned to forever run after a banner to nowhere, and they’re continually stung by horseflies and wasps.
Hell proper begins in the Second Circle, for the lustful. These souls are constantly blown about by a whirlwind, symbolic of how they let themselves be carried away by their passions. Of everyone in Hell, their punishment is by far the lightest.
Gluttons are in the Third Circle, stuck in freezing muck and mire kept fresh by endless icy, foul rain, hail, and snow. They wallow in this disgusting slop which is indirectly compared to feces. In life, they couldn’t gorge themselves enough on food and drink. Now they have to feast on the exact opposite of fine cuisine for eternity.
The Fourth Circle is for misers, hoarders, spendthrifts, and the greedy. They have huge weights strapped to their chests and constantly crash into one another. Though wasting and hoarding are opposites, they’re punished together because these sins are mirrors of one another. Hence the regular collisions from which these souls never learn.
In the Fifth Circle are the wrathful. Actively wrathful souls fight in the slimy River Styx, while passively wrathful souls are beneath the water. Some scholars translate the word “slothful” (accidiosi in Italian) as “sullen,” and thus believe the unifying category of the Fifth Circle is tristitia (grief, sorrow), since its effects can include envy, pride, wrath, and sloth.
The Sixth Circle punishes heretics in flaming tombs, which some scholars believe was based on the Latin Vulgate translation of a line in Psalm 49, “Their sepulchres shall be their houses forever.” In the original Hebrew, however, it’s clear that this isn’t talking specifically about religious heresy, but people who boast of their wealth, glory, and houses lasting forever and think they’ll never see the grave.
The first ring of the Seventh Circle punishes violence against others. Because anger and greed were traditionally seen as the primary motives for violence, here we find metaphors for cooking and horses in the form of fire, heat, and spurs. Punishments in the first ring are a boiling river of blood and centaurs shooting arrows.
The second ring punishes violence against oneself (i.e., suicide). This is the only place in Hell with vegetation, a forest haunted by Harpies (half-human, half-bird creatures) who eat the leaves of oak trees in which suicides are entombed. These souls can only speak and mourn when their trees are damaged or broken. Because they destroyed the unity of body and soul, the soul’s complex powers are reduced and dispersed in this very painful, distorted way.
The third ring punishes violence against God, Nature, and art with flaming rain upon a burning, sterile plain. This parallels the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Blasphemers, usurers, and gay men are found here. (I’m obligated to point out that the traditional Jewish view is that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of lack of hospitality, not sexual behaviour.)
Malebolge (Evil Ditches), the Eighth Circle, contains ten circular trenches for various types of fraud. It’s compared to an inverted, perverted castle; the cliff surrounding it is a castle keep (a fortified tower of refuge within a castle); and the central pit is the world outside. Its ambiguous futility is emphasized by the pit gathering in and truncating the ridges.
The first bolgia punishes seducers, pimps, and panderers with whipping, perhaps a reminder of how their associates urged them on to keep sinning. In the second bolgia are flatterers immersed in feces, a substitution of lower for upper products of the body.
Simony (selling Church positions and indulgences) is punished in the third bolgia by head-down burial. Many of these people were clergy, even popes. They inverted Church values in life, and now invert baptismal iconography in death.
Sorcerers and fortunetellers are in the fourth bolgia. Because their faces are twisted around, they’re forced to walk backwards. They tried to see into the future without a Divine gift of prophecy, and now can only see in reverse.
Barrators (i.e., corrupt politicians) are in the fifth bolgia, thrown into a river of boiling pitch by devils. If the sinners emerge, they’re poked with pitchforks. The devils taunt them by saying if they must grab something, grab the pitch, which refers to the secret grabbing they did in life. There’s also a parallel between the ship of state and the pitch used to seal Noach’s Ark (seen as a symbol of the Church), which signified the bond of love holding it together.
Hypocrites are in the sixth bolgia, wearing heavy leaden robes. Though the word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek hypokrites, which officially means “to judge” and was used in the context of theatre to mean “interpreter, actor, one who gives an answer, simulator,” Dante followed a notoriously fanciful 13th century etymology book by Uguccione of Pisa, Magnae Derivationes. This book claimed the word either derived from roots hyper (above) and chrysos (gold) (i.e., “gilt over”) or hypo (below) and chrysos (having something else beneath gold).
Thieves are in the seventh bolgia, tormented by snakes. Besides having obvious symbolism with the Bible, Satan is also seen as the archetypal thief. Counsellors of fraud are in the eighth bolgia, hidden in flames representing the fire of intellect, the malice that motivated their counsels, and the power of their rhetoric.
Sowers of discord (i.e., schismatics) are in the ninth bolgia, their bodies gruesomely mutilated to symbolize how they rent the Church asunder. Unfortunately, due to a widespread Medieval misunderstanding of history, Prophet Mohammad was believed to have originally been a Nestorian Christian and is therefore depicted here.
Alchemists are in the tenth bolgia, tormented by scaly, itchy, foul-smelling scabs they keep pulling off of themselves. In the Middle Ages, base metals were seen as diseases of gold, and lead as the leprosy of gold. Also in this bolgia are falsifiers, impersonators, and counterfeiters, who suffer from rabies and a form of dropsy which causes intense thirst.
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 betrayers of masters and benefactors. Giudecca, named for Judas, is eerily silent, as all the souls are trapped in ice. The ice represents the coldness of grief, and the sinners’ downturned faces symbolize shame