Book Three: The Divine Comedy

The third book I read was The Divine Comedies by Dante Alighieri translated by Melville Best Anderson. The first third of the poem, Infierno is probably the most famous of the three and was my favorite. The poem was a very difficult read and I needed a reading aid to go back and reinforce what I read. The poetic style of Terza Rima is practiced throughout the Comedies, which is a rhyming sequence of A-B-A/ B-C-B/ C-D-C/ etc. It is a recycling rhyming sequence so in theory it can continue forever. It is popular in Italian and other Latin based languages (as opposed to English which descended from medieval French, Anglo-Saxon, and Latin) because so many nouns and verbs rhyme and have the same structure.

The Divine Comedies begins with Dante (yes the author is also the main character) walking along a path in a wood. It is estimated through different clues in the text that the story begins on Good Friday in 1300, making Dante 35 years old. Dante gets lost and soon finds himself upon a hill with the sun shining down upon it representing the glory of God. As he begins to climb to the top a leopard, lion, and she-wolf block his path and he flees to the bottom of the hill. As Dante enters the wood again the ghost of Virgil, the Roman poet who famously penned the Aeneid appears. I first wondered why Virgil was chosen and not another poet like Homer, but after reading it made perfect sense with Dante’s pride of being Italian and Virgil wrote about the birth of Rome while Homer wrote about the sacking of Troy, the first Romans.

Virgil explains to Dante to get to the top of the hill where his true love Beatrice is and all the splendor of God’s grace he must first pass through the bowels of Hell, ascend through Purgatory, then complete the journey through Paradise. This makes Dante very fearful as he recounts that only two men have ever entered the afterlife and lived to tell the story were The Apostle Paul who ascended to the third circle of Heaven and Aeneas who travels through Hell in Virgil’s Aeneid. Virgil mocks Dante’s cowardice and assures him he will be his guide to Heaven. Beatrice, a Blessed in Heaven traveled to Hell to ask Virgil to be Dante’s guide through the afterlife to her.

Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here. Dante reads this on the gates to Hell and nearly faints. He then hears miserable moaning and wailing coming from inside and becomes even more fearful. This, Virgil explains is the Ante-Infierno where people who were rejected by both Heaven and Hell reside. People who couldn’t morally make a decision in life and lived in complete indifference are found here. Also the neutral angels are found here, those who took no side in the war between Heaven and Hell. The souls here are constantly bitten and stung by flies and wasps prodding them into action they couldn’t take in life and worms eat the tears and blood that is shed. Then Charon appears and refuses to take Dante to Hell because he is a living soul. Virgil tells Charon that, to steal a line from Elwood “Are on a mission from God.” Charon agrees and on their journey across the river there is an earthquake and Dante faints due to fear.

When Dante awakes he peers into a deep chasm that is the First Circle of Hell. This is called Limbo where souls who lead virtuous lives but were either born before the advent of Christianity and therefore could not honor the glory of God or who were not baptized reside. Dante feels pity for those in Limbo, a stance that will melt as he travels deeper into the city of Hell. This level of Hell has seen some people ascend to Heaven, such as Noah when Christ descended to Hell before his resurrection in a miracle known as the Harrowing of Hell. This is also the place in Hell that Virgil resides. It is interesting that the poet Dante most admires has been put into Hell but it also demonstrates Dante’s commitment to a strict Divine Justice.

As Dante approaches the Second Circle of Hell the monster Minos blocks his way. Minos is the beast who assigns all sinners their fate by listening to their sins then wrapping his tail around himself indicating what level they will be damned to. Minos is convinced by Virgil to allow Dante to pass and they travel into the Second Circle. The Second Circle is saved for the Lustful, those who committed sins of the flesh. The damned swirl in the ceaseless rain and wind. Some notable dwellers of the Second Circle are Helen of Troy and Cleopatra. Dante calls to the souls and is told a scandalous story of love and lust which makes him so distraught he faints again.When Dante awakens he is in the Third Circle of Hell. Here the three headed dog Cerberus stands in the duo’s way. Virgil throws a chink of earth distracting him and they slip by. Here the Gluttonous are damned and are forced to sit in the never ceasing rain filth and excrement that are mixed together.

Dante then progresses further into the city of Hell and enters the Fourth Circle. He gasps as he see it is a ring with several pits, and peering into the first he sees groups of souls pushing weights in a circle. As they collide with one group they turn and push the weight in the opposite direction only to collide again. Virgil explains this is where the Avaricious and Prodigal reside, those who hoarded and squandered money. Most of the Avaricious are corrupt clergymen and priests. While Dante continues to ponder the Fourth Circle he and Virgil come across the Fifth Circle along the banks of the mirky River Styx. Here the Wrathful reside in the mud of the river biting and lashing out at each other. Also here are the Sullen who reside beneath the muck of the Styx unseen by Dante. The irony of their punishment, which displays Dante’s skill is while the Sullen skulked in the light given by God in their natural lifet they choke and gurgle under the dark mud of Satan’s river. Virgil then has Phlegyas boat them across the river to Dis the entrance to Lower Hell. Here fallen angels demand to know why a living soul wishes to descend into Dis, Virgil tries his best Elwood but for the first time he is unsuccessful and the gates are slammed shut in his face. While they try to regroup three Furies appear (half woman half serpent) and call upon Medusa to turn Dante to stone. Virgil covers his eyes and then a messenger from Heaven appears scattering the fallen angels and demons demanding them to give Dante and Virgil entrance which is quickly obliged. The duo descend into the Sixth Circle kept for the Heretics, these souls are kept in a tomb scolding hot by flames.

The Seventh Circle of Hell is divided into three smaller Circles, the first of which is saved for those violent towards their neighbors and are boiling in a river of blood. A herd of centaurs armed with bows and arrows guard the shores shooting any soul who rises out of the boiling blood river to a level that does not coincide with the level of their punishment. Punished here are the likes of Alexander the Great, Dionysius, and Atilla the Hun. As the team travels into the Second Circle they come upon a forrest. The souls of those violent towards themselves have been turned to trees where harpies (half women half birds) peck away at the bark until their branches fall off giving the same pain as dismemberment. After leaving the forest Virgil and Dante come upon a desert of scalding hot sand with burning embers relentlessly raining down. So begins the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell permanent home to those violent against God. The first group are the Blasphemers who lie prone against the sand while the embers fall so they are burned on both sides. Also are the Sodomites, those who are are violent against nature who must continuously walk back and forth under the rain of fire. Next are those violent against art, the Usuerers, these sinners must sit under the rain of fire. Virgil and Dante then ride on Greyon’s (a serpent with lion’s paws and a human face) down to the Eighth Circle.

The Eighth Circle of Hell there are ten pouches which hold sinners who were Ponderers and  Seducers (Pouch One), Flatterers (Pouch Two), Simoniacs or those who bought or sold ecclesiastical pardons (Pouch Three), Magicians, Diviners, and Astrologers (Pouch Four), Barterers (Pouch Five), Hypocrites (Pouch Six), Thieves (Pouch Seven), False Councilors (Pouch Eight), Schismatics, these are the sowers of scandal and schism  (Pouch Nine), and the Falsifiers (Pouch Ten). Some notable souls here are Jason of the Argonauts (1) Odysseus (8) and the prophet Muhammad (9). While in the Eighth Circle Dante explains how we got “the confusion” of many different languages on Earth so we meet the giant Nimrod who build the tower of Babel. The giant stands with his navel at the level of Circle Eight and stands in the Ninth Circle. Virgil and Dante climb down the giant’s body into the Ninth Circle.

The Ninth Circle of Hell has a frozen lake, clear as glass called Cocytus. Here sinners who are traitors are frozen in the lake up to their necks. The First Ring is named Caina after Cain who slew his brother Able. The Second Ring is called Antenora reserved for those who betrayed their homeland. Again Dante shows his value of loyalty to his father country. The third ring, Ptolomea is reserved for those who betrayed their guests. Here the souls lie on their backs against the ice in a strong icy wind. The Fourth Ring named Judecca is where those who betrayed their benefactors and there they are burried sometimes feet deep in the ice.

Through the fog Dante sees the most horrific sight yet. He spies Satan with three heads facing all directions with wings sprouting from beneath each head. In the mouth of each head is the three greatest sinners in history, who are also traitors to their benefactor. In the left and right mouthes are Brutus and Cassius who conspired and murdered Julius Caesar and in the center mouth and in head first is Judas who betrayed Jesus. Satan continues to chew these sinners tearing their bodies, Judas getting the worst of it as his head is in the mouth. Virgil then grabs Dante and quickly climbs onto Lucifer climbing down his body under Cocytus, but which is really up towards Purgatory since they appear in the southern hemisphere traveling through the center of the earth.

Since I took so much time going through Dante’s Inferno (my favorite third of the Comedy) I will be much quicker with the last parts. Plus you should read the poem yourself anyway! Purgatory is a mountain ascending towards Paradise surrounded by an ocean with ten terraces. On each terrace is a group of souls purging themselves of lesser sins such as sloth, negligence, political intrigue among others. Upon entering Purgatory Virgil and Dante meet Cato who instructs Virgil to wash Dante’s face from the soot and grime of Hell and to wrap a reed around his waist symbolizing humility. Then an angel writes seven P’s on Dante’s forehead (the Italian word for sin is peccato) representing the seven deadly sins. I really thought that the seven deadly sins would each have a Circle in Hell, I was surprised to see them represented in Purgatory. Nonetheless Dante is instructed to “wash away” or purge himself of each “p” as he ascends towards Paradise and away from Hell. During Dante’s journey he sees Beatrice who mocks him for his sins, he confesses and now that he is purified he is allowed to ascend.

Paradise is a group of celestial bodies, planets, stars etc. and represents an earth centered galaxy rather than a sun centered. Even though everyone receives the full glory of God while in Paradise the level of goodness a soul has done while alive is represented in where they are placed in the galaxy. Dante and Beatrice rise to Heaven where there are some people who surprise Dante, Pagans who accepted the good of God before their death. Then St. Bernard appears and prays to Mary. When the prayer is answered Dante sees the light of God and it is so beautiful and he is so overwhelmed he does not remember even what he is seeing but receives ultimate salvation.

I really enjoyed Infierno because of Dante’s creative use of divine justice and his ironic punishment for those who sinned. You can see Dante’s political views throughout the poem. I really enjoyed the challenge in going through Dante’s epic and seeing the change in his view of those who sinned. When we first entered Limbo with Dante he was sympathetic towards the sinners, but by the time we reached the Ninth Circle Dante could be found kicking sinners and enjoying watching them torn to peaces by demons. It was interesting to see how Dante described Hell as a city. Some Circles reside on the outskirts of the city while some reside inside the gates of Dis. The mental image of a city created a very interesting and easy to follow structure for Dante’s Hell. I also enjoyed seeing Dante being able to reunite with the true love that passed on before him, thus making this whole journey worthwhile. There’s something to be said about the power of true love and Dante shows how amazing it is by bringing the two lovers into Heaven.

I highly recommend reading Dante if you’re up for the challenge. I was first inspired after watching the movie Seven and getting what I thought was a general idea what it was about. I can remember Morgan Freedman sitting in the library perusing through the poem, and Brad Pitt in his car with the Cliffnotes version becoming so frustrated he tosses them into the back seat exclaiming “Fucking Dante!” I was completely wrong thinking I had an idea about the poem but am so glad I was able to plow through it. It is certainly the most difficult read I’ve experienced, and I think can be enjoyed regardless of your religious beliefs. So if you’re looking for a challenge and some incredible imagery Dante’s Divine Comedies are definitely worth the read.

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