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.

Writing a pre-Vatican II or traditionalist Catholic character


If you’re writing historical fiction set before the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65, your characters will pretty much be old-school Catholics by default. My Laura (whom I initially based on a very religious Catholic friend of mine), whose dream is to be the first female Pope and who gets bounced from her church for her radical ideas, is the exception, not the norm.

Contemporary Catholics who don’t accept the liberalizing changes of Vatican II prefer to call themselves simply Catholics, but the term “traditionalist Catholic” is used to distinguish them from Catholics with a more modern outlook.

So what would be going on in such a character’s world?

Latin Mass! This is probably one of the best-known changes of Vatican II. The sermon would’ve been delivered in the vernacular, but the Mass itself was all in Latin.

The priest didn’t face his congregation. Again, he would’ve faced them for the sermon, but during the actual Mass, he faced towards the altar.

Nuns and monks wore full habits. The particulars differed by order, but you wouldn’t have found them going about in street clothes or abbreviated habits. I’ve always loved and admired nuns, and feel kind of sad most no longer wear any sort of habit.

There were junior seminaries for teenagers who wanted to join religious life, and many teens went right from their parents’ homes to the convent or monastery upon high school graduation. As compared to today, it wasn’t uncommon for many nun and priest novices to be all of 18 years old.

Going to Catholic school was much more common. My character Laura and her four siblings are so liberal for their era in large part because their family is too poor to afford Catholic school. In public school, they absorb all kinds of ideas and interact with different types of people, instead of only seeing the world through a very Catholic lens. Some schools didn’t charge tuition for church members, but others did.

The Eucharist was taken with closed eyes, kneeling, and not chewed. The priest would put it in the person’s open mouth, and it would be dissolved. Today, it’s not uncommon for people to stand up, keep their eyes open, take it with their hands, and chew it.

Much larger families! I don’t think I need to explain the traditional Catholic prohibition against any sort of birth control. Unless there were fertility issues, or a priest approved a hysterectomy for something like very aggressive cancer or pelvic TB, a family would have a lot of kids.

Limbo of Infants, while never official Catholic doctrine, was more widely-believed. Some people (both theologians and laypeople) speculated unbaptized babies went to Limbo.

More of an us against them feeling, both in regards to other faiths and the world at large. Obviously, this sentiment wasn’t unique to Catholics, as interfaith relations 50+ years ago weren’t exactly what they are today.

Not eating meat on Fridays, except for feast days like Christmas and Easter. Today, it’s more common to only abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent.

Women and girls covered their heads in church, with either hats or beautiful lace veils.

Going to Confession more frequently.

Fasting for at least three hours before taking Communion.

As for the Greek Catholic churches, there’s been much less resistance to the Vatican II changes. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has had the most problems with the changes.

Taking everything in the Bible literally.

Ascribing much more to Papal infallibility, with much less personal dissent on issues like birth control, abortion, euthanasia, premarital sex, and divorce.

Mass took place on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Since Vatican II, many churches have begun holding Mass on Saturday evenings and the evening before a Holy Day of Obligation. However, Mass still isn’t celebrated on Good Friday (though pre-blessed Communion is available).

Let me know if I missed anything important! If you’re Catholic, are you a traditionalist or more liberal? Have you ever written any Catholic characters?

Priesthood’s End


This is my first week taking part in Flash Fiction Friday, which I discovered a few weeks ago. This week’s prompt involves getting the Death card in a Tarot reading, and how Death symbolizes endings and new beginnings. Stories are due by 10 October, 10:00 CST, with a maximum of 1,500 words, and should be on some type of ending (job, relationship, etc.)

This 1,391-word story features something that happens in my Atlantic City books, but which I never depicted yet. Aimee is one of the sisters of my liberal but devout Catholic character Laura, and her taboo relationship with a young priest is about to be discovered by the rigid reactionary who previously booted Laura out of her church on her 13th birthday.

Originally Aimee was 18 when she landed her Father What a Waste, but I decided to up her age to 21 so it wouldn’t seem as squicky, given the 12-year age difference.


The shrieks and horrified gasps told Aimee and Father Michael that they had company.  They abruptly stopped what they’d been doing and lay very still, but the horrified congregants and Father Augustine remained exactly where they were.

“What in the name of God are you doing?” Father Augustine thundered. “I can understand why Aimee might do something like this, given who her older siblings are, but you, Father Michael!  I thought you were morally upstanding!  The rules of the Church mean something serious to you!”

Aimee pressed her hands over her eyes.

“I’ll give you sinners a minute to get dressed and compose yourselves, and then you’re going into my office to discuss punishments.” Father Augustine turned around and stormed out with the other interlopers.

As they were dressing, Father Michael rehearsed the speech he’d practiced in his head ever since he’d broken his vow of chastity for Aimee.  Aimee silently pulled on her own clothes, knowing this was worse than her older sisters publicly expressing so-called anti-Church sentiments or her brother marrying a Protestant.  This was the sin of all sins, in the eyes of people like Father Augustine.

Father Augustine glared at them as they entered his office, looking him right in the eyes instead of looking at the floor or off to the side.  They were even holding hands, which they continued doing after they were seated.

“I always knew this would happen because your parents were too poor to afford Catholic school,” he began his lecture. “So far, four out of five out you have turned out to be bad seeds.  I should’ve known there was sin lurking when your parents christened your oldest sister Starlight and not a real saint’s name.  It’s a blessing in disguise that your grandmother, may God rest her soul, is in the other world now and didn’t live to see such disgrace overtaking your family.”

“My siblings and I haven’t sinned,” Aimee said. “Not in the way you think.  Having a difference of opinion on theological matters is hardly a sin.  As for what I’ve done, it wouldn’t have been considered a sin if you realized that even priests have sexual feelings.”

Father Augustine turned purple. “I don’t want to hear such dirty words from you again.” He pointed at Father Michael. “Your sin is even worse.  You’ve lured a former student into corruption and taken the sacred gift of her virginity away from any man who might be Christian enough to marry spoilt goods.”

“I am that man,” Father Michael said, squeezing Aimee’s hand. “I was brought up properly.  I know decent people never do that with someone outside of marriage unless they damn well intend to marry that person.”

“You can’t get married and you know it!  Priests can’t marry unless they’ve converted from one of the slightly less heathenish Protestant sects and were already married.  If you thought your vow of celibacy was a joke or just a suggestion, you never should’ve entered the priesthood and taken your final vows.  I’ve never known a woman in all my decades of earthly existence.  I never even kissed one girl before I headed off to the junior seminary at age fourteen.”

“Priests used to be allowed to marry, in the earliest days of the Church,” Aimee said.

“It’s 1955.  Does it look like we’re living in the first centuries of Christendom?”

“Those laws were made by men who didn’t live in the real world,” Father Michael said. “It’s easy to be celibate your entire life or to make laws forbidding sexual expression with anyone, even yourself, when you’ve never experienced that.  I lived a life of celibacy for so many years because I didn’t know what the opposite was.  Now that I’ve experienced the beauty of a real adult relationship, I can’t go back to depriving myself.”

“You can and you will.  At the soonest possible time, there will be a hearing so we can decide what to do with you.  You seem to forget that I run this church and that the rules are handed down by Rome.  You’re just some insignificant nobody.”

“There won’t be any hearing, because I’m deciding for myself what my future will be.  If priests cannot be allowed to marry under any circumstances, I have no choice but to resign from the priesthood.”

“So you can continue to carry on your sin in broad daylight?  What moral priest would perform a Catholic marriage between a defrocked priest and the young girl he dishonored?”

Father Michael returned Father Augustine’s glare. “Christ said there’s nothing higher than love, so how could love be a sin?  People like you have made the most beautiful thing in the world a sin by criminalizing it and making it into something unnatural to be repressed.”

“How long has this even been going on?  You’ve been teaching at my church for twelve years.  Have you been attracted to Aimee since she was a young girl?  I wouldn’t put such perverted inclinations past you after today.”

“I liked Michael since I met him, when I was nine and he was twenty-one,” Aimee said. “He didn’t know about my schoolgirl crush on him till I was an adult.  I’m twenty-one now myself, so I’m more than old enough to be with someone so much older.  Michael never acted inappropriately towards me or any other students in all the years he was teaching.  This relationship was something we pursued on our own, as consenting adults who fell in love.”

“Aimee’s nickname for me was Father What a Waste,” Father Michael smiled. “I’m flattered she had a crush on me for so many years.  Now that she’s grown into a beautiful woman, the feelings are mutual.”

Father Augustine slammed his fist on the table. “There should be no feelings of that nature!  This is an unnatural sin!  Why were you even doing that in my church?”

“It was the only place available, since I don’t live alone, and my office is too small.  I wasn’t going to subject Aimee to the shame of going to a hotel or sneaking into her dormitory.  And we thought the church was empty.”

“If you think all sex is a sin, why do you think it’s suddenly less sinful if it’s done with a wedding ring?” Aimee asked. “It’s the exact same act, with the same mechanics and motions, only in a marriage bed.  I think it’s a sin to make love a sin.  As Michael told you, Christ said there’s nothing higher than love.”

Father Augustine glared even harder. “Apparently there’s no concept of shame or decency in your family.  From what I hear, your sister Laura still thinks she stands a snowball’s chance in Hell of becoming a priest someday.”

“And in spite of people like you, she refuses to let her dream die.  Don’t try to make me enter a nunnery or go through some public trial or confession.  Michael’s priesthood is over, and you can’t force him to stay and pretend he never loved me.”

“Maybe Laura’s underground church will hire me to teach,” Father Michael said. “They’ll have no problem with my moral character.”

“Of course they won’t,” Father Augustine scowled. “They’re a bunch of heretics.  They espouse all sorts of vile anti-Catholic doctrine, like denying Papal infallibility and supporting contraceptive use.”

“They live in the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages.  They understand what the real world is like.  People like you live in a fantasy where no one has any sexual feelings or a mind of his own.  You cannot dictate celibacy to me when you’ve never known anything else.  It would be like offering parenting advice to someone when you’ve never had a child.”

“So that’s what you’re choosing?  Public scandal, ruined reputations, and reveling in sin?”

“No, we’re choosing to get married, and under your restrictive rules, that means I have to resign my priesthood.  I love Aimee more than I want to be a priest, if being a priest means I have to be celibate.”

Aimee stood up, pulling Father Michael up with her. “I’m sure Father Timothy from Laura’s church would love to marry us.  I wouldn’t want a reactionary like you performing my marriage to anyone anyway.”

Father Michael pulled off his collar and threw it in the trash on their way out.