Going to Hell
Some Notes on Dante’s Hell / Inferno
Perhaps the figure that best typifies the transition of the Middle Ages to the European Renaissance is the Italian poet, and all round man of letters Dante Alighieri (1265?-1321)1. Dante’s life even covers the period in which the high Middle Ages in Europe gave way to the Italian Renaissance Dante’s great work The Divine Comedy, captures that transition almost perfectly for it is a work that is suffused with the other worldly spirit of the Middle Ages, in other words it is thoroughly Christian yet the “new” learning is beginning to affect the perceptions of men and their relationships with each other and the world.
This essay is a brief exploration of aspects of the Dante’s great work.
Dante was a Florentine, born, obviously, in the city of Florence Italy around the year 1265. He was heavily involved in the politics of his city and ended up living in exile where he died; also in exile he composed his great work.
Politically Dante was a Guelph which had been struggling for years with another political party called the Ghibellines. Eventually the Guelphs defeated the Ghibellines in Florence. Wherein they did so the Guelphs promptly divided into two parties the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs and Dante belonged to the losing White Guelph faction. He was exiled permanently from Florence and died in exile.2
Now knowledge of these long ago struggles is of importance in understanding Dante’s writings because they coloured strongly what he wrote. Since the late 10th century most of Italy along with Germany had been torn apart by a struggle for supremacy between the Emperor, (Of the Holy Roman Empire), and the Pope. Generally speaking the Guelph faction supported the primacy of the Emperor and the Ghibelline fact the Pope. The struggle was long and hard and ended in a decisive defeat of the Emperors and the collapse of central authority in the Empire in the mid-13th century. However the factions and ideologies of that struggle also survived.3
Dante had the idea that the Holy Roman Empire was the successor to the defunct Roman Empire and that the Emperors were entitled to rule by divine sanction. The Papacy in his view was given authority over the spiritual welfare of humanity but had no real share in secular or temporal power. The result is that Dante rejected the idea of the Popes having temporal authority over princes.
Dante’s political inclinations were in many respects rather old fashioned for his time. For by the time he was an adult the authority of the Emperor had collapsed and much of the Empire had devolved into bickering, feuding petty principalities. Dante’s vision of political order was already archaic and out of date.
The irony for the Papacy was that despite its great victory over the Emperors it did not achieve its goal of exercising temporal / secular authority over the princes of Christendom. Instead, the compromises and deals that it made to secure victory over the Emperors fatally undermined its authority and damaged its prestige. The result was that the Pope’s authority declined during this era. In fact it declined to such an extent that agents of the French King Philip IV were able to, briefly, kidnap the Pope in 1303. Finally in 1309 Phillip IV was able to arrange for the Pope to move his residence to Avignon next to the French kingdom, were it would be for most of the next 70 years. This act seemed to symbolize the subordination of the Pope to the secular authority of the French King.4
Boniface VIII had made the most extreme claims to Papal authority over temporal / secular rulers in his Bull Unam Sanctam in 1302.
Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.5
To people like those in Dante’s party to say nothing of the royalty of the era this went too far. It played a powerful role in getting the French king and his agents to try to kidnap the Pontiff. The kidnapping was so traumatic that the Pope died shortly after he was freed.
Dante apparently viewed the whole episode with a certain schadenfreude viewing it has nothing more than what this particular Pope deserved for violating the separation between spiritual and temporal / secular matters and therefore corrupting the church.
Now regarding Dante’s personal motives for writing the Divine Comedy there is of course the motive of a sense of sin and the fear that he would be denied personal salvation and consigned to the realm of Hell. Also there can be little doubt that despite some nay saying Dante got a certain pleasure in consigning his enemies to Hell and his friends to Paradise.6
Dante’s Comedy is also one of the first truly great works in the vernacular. Dante instead of writing it in the standard literary language of the day Latin wrote it in Tuscan, or as we would refer to it the ancestor of modern Italian. It is without a doubt the first great work in that language and in that respect heralds the beginning of the Renaissance.7
The dual nature of Dante’s Hell is revealed by the fact that his Hell combines elements of the Christian and Pagan heritage of Europe. In the same way it also shows how the rediscovery of Classical antiquity would affect Europe in the Renaissance. Further this rediscovery like Dante’s great work would start and achieve its greatest results in Italy.
So just how did Dante’s work show the dual heritage of Christian Europe? Well for one thing Dante’s guide through Hell and purgatory is the great Roman poet Virgil. Now Virgil was regarded during the later Middle Ages and into the Renaissance has one of the very greatest of poets. He was also a pagan who died before the birth of Christ. So how does he end up guiding Dante?
In the poem Dante is lost in a dark wood, obviously symbolizing his sinful state and original sin and in order to get beyond the dark wood he must take a detour through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise and thus get through the dark wood. Virgil shows up to show Dante through the first two. Now Virgil was not selected simply because Dante found him an admirable poet, albeit a pagan, but for one other reason. The reason is that later Christians latched on to a poem of Virgil has a prophecy of the coming of Christ and viewed Virgil thereby as some sort of prophet.8 The Prophecy is from The Eclogues, Fourth Ecologue. A portion of it goes as follows:
Only do thou, at the boy's birth in whom The iron shall cease, the golden race arise, Befriend him, chaste Lucina; 'tis thine own Apollo reigns. And in thy consulate, This glorious age, O Pollio, shall begin, And the months enter on their mighty march. Under thy guidance, what so tracks remain Of our old wickedness, once done away, Shall free the earth from never-ceasing fear.9
Thus Dante selected Virgil as his guide for being a prophet of Christianity. Dante’s guide through Paradise was the love of his life Beatrice. A woman who inspired his great short work The New Life10 and was considered by him the sum of human perfection.
Dante fell in love with her when he was young and through his entire life had little contact with her. Beatrice married someone else, which is hardly surprising given that she was barely aware of Dante’s existence. Now given that she was both unattainable and unknown to him has a person Dante was free to obsess over her and cast her as the great love.
But of course he was never in love with Beatrice merely his created image of her. There can be little doubt that her being unattainable, unknowable helped to ensure that he could “love” her forever. Also in the Christian world Dante lived in the idea existed that carnal love was somehow inferior to courtly love, i.e., nonphysical love. This of course was useful for people like Dante who lusted after unattainable, unknowable women and thus could turn their thwarted lusts into a “higher” form of love. Of course all it really was Dante’s disappointment that he couldn’t sleep with Beatrice, so he dressed up his continuing thwarted lust as a “higher” “purer” form of love. And of course Dante’s lust being un-satiated it persisted for decades. There can be little doubt that one of the reasons why Dante never got to exchange more than a few words with Beatrice is because Dante feared that the real woman would shatter the hallucinatory woman he had created in his mind that he truly loved. Also it is likely too much contact with Beatrice would likely have powerfully awakened the carnal lustful basis for his passion for her which he could not face. Also I suspect contact with Beatrice for real would have likely ended his love for her because what human being could possibly equal the fantasy in his mind.
Beatrice eventually died before Dante wrote the Divine Comedy and his image of her became the Beatrice of the Divine Comedy. Her death also inspired his short work The New Life. So that Dante’s fantasy woman became one of the most important inspirations ever in western literature.11
Dante’s Divine Comedy is divided into three parts Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Of those three easily the most famous / well-known is Hell also called Inferno. It is also likely the section that is the best written as literature; certainly the parade of fallible, damned souls are far more easy to relate too than the one dimensional, ethereal and frankly often boring figures in Dante’s Paradise. Rather revealingly the flawed but to be made perfect souls of Dante’s Purgatory sort of get lost in the discussion.
Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise take place over Holy week that occurs around Easter. In Dante’s case it appears to be Easter 1300 C.E.
Since we are discussing Dante’s Hell a few geographical details of Dante’s Hell are in order. First Dante divides his Hell into 9 circles each one named after a particular category of sins. In the centre of the 9th circle stands Lucifer himself punishing the sin that Dante considered the worst, so-called Sins of the Wolf – various types of treason. The ultimate in treason according to Dante is treason to one’s Lord. This is a rather interesting reflection of the fact that the society that Dante lived in was a Feudal society in which oaths of fealty bound vassals to their lords. To break such oaths was considered the height of wickedness. Why? Because such oath breaking threatened the entire foundation of the social system for it was considered that if such oaths could not be relied on than the basis of the system was in jeopardy.
The ultimate betrayer of his Lord is Judas Iscariot who will in Dante’s mind for eternity be chewed head first by one of Lucifer’s three heads. Dante’s bringing in of the pagan inheritance is shown that by his placing of two of Caesar’s chief assassins, Brutus and Cassius in Lucifer’s other two mouths to be chewed feet first for eternity. In Dante’s mind by slaying their Lord Caesar both of them broke their oaths and so of course are subject to eternal severe punishment.12
Dante shows his affinity for the pagan Greco-Roman past in more than just selecting Virgil as his guide through Hell and Purgatory, (Beatrice is his guide through Paradise.), he peoples his Hell with creatures from Greek Mythology and makes repeated reference to events in that mythology.
Thus appearing is Minos, as a demon who judges the dead in Dante’s Hell, in Greek mythology Minos is also a judge of the dead. In Dante’s case Minos is a fearsome and actually fairly loathsome demon, not the wise all-knowing guardian of Greek mythology.13
Other parts of the Comedy have the Furies, the rebellious Titans and Cerberus among others.14 Dante incorporates all this into his Hell.
|Dante and Virgil aided |
by the Titan Antaeus
Of course the most potent indication of Dante’s incorporation of the spirit of paganism is his creation of circle one – Limbo. Here in Limbo exist the souls of those children who died unbaptized and the virtuous Pagans. In Dante’s time and for quite a number of years, a thousand years or so, a contentious issue had been what about the unbaptized? What about the virtuous who never heard of Christ or died before he was born? Some like St. Augustine had without hesitation consigned them all to Hell and perpetual punishment. No doubt it made them feel better. Dante, greatly admiring, various pagan thinkers and thinking that the innocent unbaptized deserved better than eternal torment, created the first circle. Here the virtuous Pagans and the innocent unbaptized souls exist. Their only punishment is that they are denied, for eternity, communion with God in Paradise. But they are not tortured for eternity for being unlucky enough to be born too early. In fact it is more than that Dante rather daringly places the figure of Saladin, who was born well after the birth of Christ and moreover was a sincere Muslim in Limbo. Why? Because Saladin was in Christian Europe by this time considered to be an excellent example of a chivalrous foe, and a man of honour. It seems that Dante could not accept that such a man even if holding what he considers to be erroneous beliefs to be totally damned. Instead Saladin, rejecter of Christianity and the leader of a holy war against Christians takes his place among the virtuous dead. So does the great Muslim thinkers Avicena and Averrhoes. Given how war against Islam was conceived of as like a war against the devil this is rather remarkable.15
Saladin is described has:
I saw great Saladin, aloof, alone.16
|Dante converses with the virtuous heathens|
Rather interesting Dante puts several Popes in Hell. Thus in the 8th circle of Hell Dante places Pope Nicholas III, (Pope 1277-1280), among the Simoniacs, i.e., those who bought and sold church offices and therefore sullied and defiled the church founded by Christ in Dante’s eyes.
Nicholas rather interestingly mistakes Dante for the Boniface VIII, mentioned earlier in this posting. For Nicholas like all the dead can see the future and he sees Boniface sentenced to be punished for simony. In Dante’s hell it consisted of being plunged head first into a fiery hole in the ground for all eternity. In each hole those guilty of the offence are stuffed into holes and later on other people are stuffed into the holes on top of them pushing them deeper into the holes.17
Dante takes the opportunity to denounce the wealth and power of the then current Papacy in an angry rant of condemnation.
Dante denounces the Papacy:
My tongue from yet more grievous words than these;
Your avarice saddens the world, trampling on worth,
Exalting the workers of inequities.
You deify silver and gold; how are you sundered
In any fashion from the idolater,
Save that he serves one god and you a hundred?
Ah, Constantine! What ills were gendered there –
No, not from thy conversion, but the dower
The first rich Pope received from thee as heir!18
|Dante conversing with Pope Nicholas III|
This illustrates Dante’s position has a believer in a papacy strictly removed from earthly temporal power and hopelessly corrupted by exercising such power.
Perhaps before I end I should quote these lines of Dante:
Justice moved my Great maker: God eternal
Wrought me: the Power, and the Unsearchably
High Wisdom, and the Primal Love Supernal.19
That is part of the inscription on the gates of Hell put there by Dante in his poem. One can understand how eternal punishment might be just and wise but the idea that is the expression of supreme love is difficult for us moderns to fathom. But then this was an age when Inquisitors tortured out of “love” for their victims true good. As such this part of dedication serves to show how different Dante’s age is from our own.
1. Dante, Wikipedia Here.
3. Heer, Friedrich, The Medieval World, Mentor, New york, 1961, pp. 324-326.
4. Boniface VIII, Wikipedia Here, Tuchman, Barbara, A Distant Mirror, Random house, New York, 1978, pp. 27-28.
5. Unam Sanctam, New Advent Here.
6. Despite some nay saying in some works this is obvious; as confirmed by any reading of the text.
7. Footnote 1, Sayers, Dorothy L., Introduction, in Dante, The Divine Comedy, Penguin Books, London, 1949, pp. 9-66, at pp. 55-64. Called herein Dante A.
8. Virgil, Wikipedia Here.
9. Virgil, Ecolgue IV, The Ecolgues, The Internet Classics Archive Here.
10. See Dante, La Vita Nuova, (The New Life), Penguin Books, London, 1969. Called herein Dante B.
11. See Williams, Charles, The Figure of Beatrice, Boydell and Brewer, Rochester NY, 1943.
12. Dante A, Canto 34, pp. 286-287.
13. IBID, Canto 5, p. 97, Judges of the Dead, Theoi Here.
14. Dante A, Canto 6, pp. 104-105, Canto 9, pp. 124-125, Canto 31, pp. 265-269.
15. IBID, Canto 4, pp. 91-95.
16. IBID, p. 94.
17. IBID, Canto 19, pp. 188-191.
18. IBID, p. 191.
19. IBID, Canto 3, p. 85.