Dante called his poem ‘The Divine Comedy’ a comedy because it has a happy ending. Not because it is a laugh a minute. Simply because Gustav Dore’s work is so damn gorgeous, I thought it worthwhile to post a little more about it.
The Divine Comedy is divided into 3 books; one each dealing with Hell (Inferno), Purgatory and Heaven. Of course the only bit anyone is really ever interested in is Hell. Nobody’s bothered about purgatory, nor even heaven – probably because most us of don’t believe we have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting there. So, if this is all about giving the public what it wants, let’s explore the Inferno. And please, take heed. You never know, it might come in handy if you ever find yourself looking for accommodation. As they say, forewarned is forearmed.
Before we start…
Did you know that when missionaries began to teach the Iniut peoples (formally known as Eskimos) about Christianity, they had to change hell from a fiery furnace into a cold and desolate wasteland? Try as they might, after living their whole lives in the Artic, the Inuit peoples could not see anything wrong with being nice and toasty for all of eternity.
And back to Dante….
The first circle of Hell is limbo where all the unbaptised reside including those who died before Jesus came to redeem mankind. When Dante asks if anyone has ever got out of limbo, Virgil replied that Jesus visited after the crucifixion and took Moses, Abraham, Noah and King David up to heaven. But left everyone else behind… Hmmm, thanks a bunch!
The remaining circles of hell are reserved for the correspondingly more serious sins of the Leopard, the Lion, and the Wolf.
Sins of the leopard such as lust, gluttony and greed are basically sins of appetite.
Sins of the lion are sins of pride; including wrath, violence and disregarding God’s natural order i.e. putting yourself above your designated place. Heresy is included here because you wilfully presume to know more than God’s Church.
Sins of the wolf are the worst. They are sins of treachery. This is because the medieval mind saw dogs and wolves differently to us. We know dogs are domesticated wolves; to them wolves were dogs gone bad. Choosing to go against their master (man) they literally bit the hand that fed them.
Because Dante’s home city of Florence was a basically a small town where everyone knew everyone else, and invariably hated each other, Dante took great delight in placing his enemies, his family’s enemies and the enemies of all his mates in the appropriate circles of hell for their heinous crimes against, him, his family and all his mates. To be fair I would probably do the same.
And so, on with the whistle stop tour of the damned…
Second Circle of Hell is reserved for the sin of Lust. Here the lustful are constantly blown about by terrible violent winds. Probably symbolising the way you threw caution to the wind in those days, as your wilful lust tore you from family and social position. It was a time when most marriages were arranged and romantic love was seen as weakness or worse, selfish indulgence.
Circle three: Gluttony – here the damned wallow like hogs in frozen slushy mud under continual icy rain. ‘Nuff said!
Circle four: Greed – where the miserly and spendthrifts constantly push huge heavy money bags back and forth at each other. As symbolism goes, I think Dante is struggling a bit. Perhaps he was saving the really dastardly punishments for the lower circles.
Anger is the fifth circle, and the first sin of the Lion. Crossing the murky waters of the river Styx, Dante and Virgil see the angry (against God and their place in the world) constantly pushing others under as they struggle to reach the top, only to sink back into the inky morass of their own resentment. The big message is – be content with your lot in life!
Heresy is the sixth circle. Heresy is pride. As the Church speaks for God, a heretic puts his own opinion above that of God. For this they are condemned to reside in flaming tombs.….. I think we are beginning to see a pattern emerge here!
Circle seven, Violence, is divided into 3 areas:
Murderers (violence against others): eternally drowning in a river of boiling blood and fire, they are shot with Centaur’s arrows if they try to escape.
The forest of suicides (violence against self): suicides are turned into living trees, while their corpse, hung in their own branches, is pecked by harpies.
Blasphemers and sodomites (violence against God): the poor sods are trapped in a desert of burning sand –emphasizing the emptiness and sterility of their choices. (Not my opinion… in fact none of it is my opinion)
The eighth circle, Fraud, is also divided into quite a lot of areas. At this point Dante was probably running out of circles… if not enemies, or indeed venom. My favourites are:
- Seducers & Troublemakers – whipped and hacked at by demons
- Corrupt politicians – immersed in a lake of boiling pitch. Yeah go for it!
- Flatterers – literally up to their necks in their own shit.
The ninth circle, reserved for Traitors, goes on and on, and on and on as Dante takes incredible pleasure in making anyone who ever ‘dun-im-wrong’ squirm.
Here we find Cain who killed his brother Able, and Mordred who killed King Arthur. In the very centre is Satan, who betrayed God. Described as a terrible giant waist deep in ice, he has 3 faces. Continually weeping from his six eyes, each of his three mouths chews a prominent traitor. Probably the poor chap is just comfort eating because he’s feeling a little depressed. In the right and left mouth are Brutus and Cassius who assassinated Caesar, while the centre mouth is reserved for Judas Iscariot who betrayed Christ.
And finally, in the worst place of all, wedged right up in Satan’s hairy, smelly old bum crack is…. Go one treat yourself…. fill in the blank with one from your list of most hated.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I for one am certainly not going to sleep tonight! All I will think about is how I am going to be traipsing up and down stairs from one circle of hell to the next for ever, and ever, and ever, as I atone individually for each and every sin! Yes, I’ve lived a little… so shoot me! On second thoughts, better not!
In conclusion, maybe I was wrong when I started off saying ‘The Divine Comedy’ is not a laugh a minute. Right now I can think of plenty of people pissing themselves laughing at the thought of how I’m going to spend eternity!