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.