Dante’s Hell, as illustrated by Botticelli.
Hell. The word conjures forth images of flames and red skinned imps with pitch forks chasing after panicking souls of the damned. At least, it does here in the West. You see, Hell is not a fixed concept; it changes from culture to culture and from myth system to myth system. Even the commonly held image of Hell here in the West bears little resemblance to what the Bible has to say about the place. The Scriptures describes the Bible as a “lake” that burns with “fire and brimstone”. It is the place where “the worm dieth not, and there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”. It is also described as “outer darkness”. No demons or pitch forks in this place–the Hell of the Bible is not a place where Satan reigns, but rather a place where he is bound in torment with all the other damned souls. No mention of Satan being a king in hell, or of demons being responsible for tormenting people is made in the Bible. Point of fact, while hell is mentioned a fair bit in the Bible, descriptions of the place were limited to those I outlined above.
This lack of description gave room for the human imagination to run wild, which brings us to the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. In his epic poem of sin and redemption, Dante took a fearsome place of torment and fire and gave it structure. His Hell is divided into nine concentric levels of punishment. Rather than a place of indiscriminate torment, Dante’s hell metes out specific punishments to specific sinners, according to the sins that predominated in their earthly life. The sins are ranked according to severity, with the worst sinners being punished the most severely in the Ninth Circle, where Satan reigns in his unholy glory.
Now Dante goes into an almost neurotic level of detail about the specific punishments and who suffers them. While this horrific imagery has penetrated the popular consciousness for centuries now, I think the actual point he was trying to make has been lost. Dante’s motivation was less a religious one and more political. He used his poem as both an allegorical way to represent the corrupt politics working in his beloved Florence and as a satire of said politics. No one, from Popes to politicians to kings, was safe from Dante’s pen and his sense of divine justice. However, it seems ole Dante really struck a chord with is vivid depiction of pain and suffering, so without further ado let us take a walk down the paths of anguish into the deepest realms of hell:
“Abandon all Hope, All ye who enter here.”
The first circle of Hell was reserved for the unbaptized and virtuous pagans. These were folks who led good lives, but did not accept Christ. This was not so much a place of suffering as a holding place for those who Dante felt didn’t deserve hellfire but who, at the same time, couldn’t justifiably make it into Heaven. Limbo is depicted as essentially Heaven Lite; a place of green, rolling meadows and a castle where the greatest minds of antiquity (Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle among others) dwelt. Essentially, it’s Heaven without the joy of being close to God, which is really not heaven at all. All in all, it’s a pretty light punishment compared to the next circles, reserved for those who deliberately broke God’s Law. The real suffering begins with…
The Lustful, driven by eternal storm winds.
Lustful folks are those who let their carnal desires overcome their reason. They are also the least punished denizens of hell. To Dante, the most fitting punishment for these folks was to have them blown about by a violent hurricane, buffeted by wind, rain, and hail, for all eternity. This outer weather represented the inner weather that dominated their lives. These were people dominated by the tempests of passions, who allowed said lust to control their lives and lead them to ruin. I don’t know about you, but being blown around by a hurricane for all eternity would suck, but compared to some of these other folks, the lustful got off easy. Notable sufferers include Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and Tristan.
The Gluttons, in eternal slush and rain.
Guarded by the three headed dog, Cerberus, the next circle contains the gluttonous, those who overindulged in sensual things in their earthly lives. While today we tend to think of gluttony as overeating to the point of bursting on Thanksgiving, the ancients had a little different take. It certainly could include food and drink, but it could be other addictions as well. These gluttons are condemned to sit in cold slush under a constant driving rain for all eternity. If that sounds a bit tame, well, they also can’t see or hear one another. So they get to sit cold and alone, forever. Sounds pretty bad to me, if not quite as elaborate as the next circle…
The Greedy, pushing giant money bags forever.
So this one struck me as kind of odd. Pretty sure I don’t have to explain exactly what greed is, especially given that Black Friday was only about a week ago. The greedy were divided into two groups: those who hoarded possessions, and those who squandered them. These two teams of sinners were forced to go head to head in a kind of huge, eternal jousting match, but instead of spears they used massive weights which they pushed with their chests. While the constant exertion and all that sounds unpleasant, this seems to me like an odd punishment. They’re essentially condemned to being living bumper cars for all eternity. Points to Dante for creativity.
Overcome by rage, the wrathful fight forever while the sullen burble and gurgle below.
Now we reach the last of the first five circles where the so called “self indulgent” sins are punished. The sins in the previous circles were not so much motivated by malice as a lack of self control. So it is pretty easy to see how Anger fits into this. Actually both the angry and the sullen are punished here in the River Styx. Those full of wrath ceaselessly fight one another on the water’s surface, while the sullen lie beneath the surface in cold and darkness, constantly drowning in their depression (remember, this was written before we recognized mental illness as, well, an illness. Depression was seen as a moral failing). From here on out, things get a lot worse as Dante and his guide Virgil approach the city of Dis, where folks who actively broke God’s laws are punished. The worst of the worst start to be punished in…
Heretics, burning in their tombs.
Heretics are those who spoke against God’s will (as outlined by the Church, of course). These folks are condemned to burn forever, trapped in flaming tombs. Apparently Dante had a hate-on for the followers of Epicurus, as he condemned many of them to hell-fire. By the by, Epicureans back then weren’t what they are now. Today, Epicurean societies are typically foodies who indulge in expensive and tasty meals. That isn’t quite the case with the real Epicureans, who were materialists who believed that pleasure was the greatest good. But they didn’t mean that in the way we would think now (which would involve a great deal of partying and drinking, more likely than not). Instead, they believed in moderation and learning as much as you can. Doesn’t sound too bad, except they also discounted superstition, divine intervention, and the after-life. So you can see why in a very superstitious age they would be considered heretics. If these guy’s lot was bad, the malicious sinners in circle seven have things much, much worse…
The violent, kept in the boiling blood by centaurs.
The three rings containing the violent are guarded by the minotaur. The outer ring of the seventh circle contains those violent against people and property. The damned here are immersed in a river of boiling fire and blood. Centaurs patrol the banks of the river, shooting arrows into anyone who tries to climb out. Suicides and profligates suffer in the middle circle (profligates being people who destroyed their lives by the misuse of property). Suicides have probably the most unique torment in all of Hell. They have been transformed into gnarled, thorny trees and bushes from which their dead bodies hang. They are continually fed on by Harpies. The profligates are constantly chased by rabid dogs. They are constantly crashing through the living wood around them, bringing even more suffering to the suicides. Not much sympathy for the dead in the 1300′s eh? Moving on to the inner ring, we have those who did violence against God and nature (blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers, or people who charged interest). Bankers beware, for this is your eternal fate! They live in a desert of flaming sand with fire raining from the sky. Some lay in the sand (blasphemers), others sit (usurers), and still others wander in groups (sodomites). Looks like the guys who tanked the economy back in 2008 might get their just desserts at some point, at least if Dante has his way!
The Sowers of Discord and their sword-wielding tormentor.
The eighth circle is divided into ten “bolgia” or pockets. The first contains panderers and seducers, who march in lines in opposite directions, constantly whipped and driven by demons. The second bolgia contains flatterers, who are condemned to sit forever in human excrement. No doubt many a used car salesman and lawyer ends up in this particular pocket. Bolgia 3 is home of people who committed simony, a sin named after Simon Magus, who offered money in exchange for the holy powers Saint Peter wielded in Acts. These folks are stuffed head first into holes in the rock, with flames continually burning the soles of their feet. Next come sorcerers, astrologers, and false prophets, who walk around with their heads twisted around backwards. That really sounds more inconvenient than anything else, especially after the last couple, but whatever. In bolgia 5, corrupt politicians are finally punished by being immersed in a pit of boiling pitch, whose shore is patrolled by devils called Malabranche’s who like to fish out a sinner now and then and “toy” with them. Moving on, next we find the hypocrites, who have a comparatively mild punishment of being forced to walk around in gilded lead cloaks. As if he realized how lame the last one was, Dante devised a particularly gruesome fate for thieves, who are constantly attacked by snakes and lizards. The animal’s venom makes them undergo various transformations; sometimes they merge with other sinners, while others take on aspects of the monsters that bit them. Fraudulent advisers in the next bolgia burn in individual flames, while in bolgia 9 a sword wielding demon hacks the sowers of discord to bits. Their bodies heal, only to have the process begin again. Finally, the falsifiers are beset by disease even as they were diseases on society. Moving on, we reach some of the most famous imagery in the entire Inferno…
Satan, encased in ice.
Circle 9–The Traitors.
The greatest traitors in history lay encased in ice in the earth’s core. Satan himself reigns here. He is encased up to the waist in ice. He weeps constantly in the cold, and struggles in vain to be free from his prison, his great wings blowing cold winds across the icy lake, simultaneously trapping himself worse by accumulating more ice and increasing the torment of those encased with the Fallen One. There are four levels to this particular prison, but there isn’t as much variety here–just people frozen in various positions. Oh and one part where a guy is munching on another guy’s head, zombie style. But anyway, the worst torments in hell lay with Satan himself. The Great Betrayer is portrayed as a monstrous, three faced demon. Each face gnaws continually on history’s greatest traitors–Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Caesar, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ himself. Judas’ torment is the worst in hell, as his head is gnawed on by Satan’s central mouth and his body is continually ripped to shreds by the Devil’s claws.
…still with me? I know, that one was sort of long. I didn’t originally want it to run this long, but with the level of detail involved here, I couldn’t really help it. Future posts in this series will hopefully come in at a bit more reasonable length. Stick around, as we’re going to look at Hell from various cultures and time periods. People are endlessly inventive when it comes to conceiving imaginary punishments for society’s ne’er-do-wells, so be ready for a wild, at times disturbing, ride!