The 13th Floor

How Dante’s INFERNO Shaped the Modern Image of Hell

A recent article encountered in the Washington Post, studying adult reading habits from 1982 to 2015, found that there has been a steady decline of literative reading in the United States. That’s not to say that people aren’t reading, but it does say that American adults, when looking for a book to read, are less and less actively reaching for the books in the Western Canon. Pop lit is where it’s at these days, and many stay on top of the hot new novels with something approaching a fervency. Personally, I know many people who are active and alert when it comes to brand new fantasy novels. But, as the Post pointed out, those same people also frequently and actively eschew ancient lit — the literature that influenced the things they love — in favor of novelty.

Horror fans, however, seem to be less prejudiced when it comes to old or ancient literature. Sure, we all like to stay abreast of Stephen King, Clive Barker, or any number of great living horror authors, but I know of no horror fan who hasn’t read Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, Milton’s PARADISE LOST, Henry James’ THE TURN OF THE SCREW, or Robert Louis Stevenson’s THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. And, yes, no horror fan alive isn’t intimately familiar with the various mythic works of H.P. Lovecraft, or the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe.

And the more ambitious of us has certainly brewed up a cup of string, musky black tea, hunkered down in a gigantic chair, and lost ourselves to Dante Alighieri’s INFERNO, the first part of his DIVINE COMEDY, first completed way back in A.D. 1320. easily — and without hyperbole — one of the best pieces of literature in human history. It’s also where we, to this very day, got the popular image of Hell. If you’ve seen a cartoon show that depicted a visual representation of Hell, it’s likely drawing on what Dante put forth.

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The origins of what we modern audiences call “horror literature” got its start relatively recently. FRANKENSTEIN wasn’t published until 1818, and there are a few more obscure pieces of 18th-century Gothic lit that can certainly be described as horror (Hugh Walpole’s THE CASTLE OF ORANTO anyone?), but the modern horror novel is a new creation that didn’t experience a proper explosion in popularity until the late 19th century. Before the 18th century, horror stories usually perpetuated as folk tales and ghost stories and were rarely presented in novel form. Going even further back — and I mean several hundred more years, before the novel form was popularized — stories of death and horror were usually the purview of Christian morality plays. True horror, way back in the 14th century, was more or less entirely under the yoke of The Devil.

The medieval world saw a much different literary landscape. To remind you, the printing press wouldn’t be invented until 1440, so the wild proliferation of literature either had to tap into folk tale traditions (a la THE CANTURBURY TALES or THE DECAMERON), epic poetry (BEOWULF was still being circulated) or come directly from religious traditions. From the two latter traditions the COMMEDIA arrived.

If you are unfamiliar with the COMMEDIA (late called THE DIVINE COMEDY) is a trilogy of canticas that describe the 35-year-old author traversing — with aid of the Roman poet Virgil — the three levels of the afterlife. INFERNO describes their trip through Hell, PURGATORIO describes the great purgatorial mountain that must be climbed as a way of ascending to the angels, and PARADISO describes an impossibly bright Heaven.

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Of these three, INFERNO is the most commonly read in the modern age, mostly because it’s the most salacious and descriptive, and also because modern horror fans find that a journey through Hell is going to be a lot more fun to read about than redemption and losing one’s self in God’s light. And yes, some of the images Dante evokes are truly terrifying, wicked, and downright evil. This is a vivid and terrible Hell full of torture, sin, and, yes, a towering Satan living at the center.

Dante was, if you haven’t read him, a very structured author. The COMMEDIA is constructed very rigidly, with each cantica divided into 33 cantos (making the grand total 99, plus one bonus canto) Each canto, meanwhile, has the same number of lines and verses. Indeed, those who study the structure of poetry will be happy to tell you about the repeating structures, syllabic games, and circular repetition of Dante. The man was clearly obsessed with taxonomy and literary architecture, and was a master in constructing structures within structures.

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So it’s no wonder that Hell is a rigidly structured place in INFERNO. First of all, Dante conceived of Hell as being a subterranean place. Modern artists still, to this day, typically show that Hell is underground, usually in a hot cave. Why is Hell underground, and Heaven in the skies? This all comes from a medieval notion that things with dirt, sin, and impurities were drawn down, while virtue and angelic qualities were light and without weight. As such, all Earthly problems were drawn down, leaving the worst of mankind at the very center of the Earth.

Indeed, the ancient notion of Earth being at the center of the galaxy is not based in self-importance (i.e. “Look how important we are! Everything revolves around us!”), but in self-deprecation. All the heavy and gross things are drawn to the center. All the great things can fly up and away into the heavens. Hell is down, Heaven is up. These geographical ideas were part of the Christian discourse (“ascended to Heaven” is commonly seen in Bible translations), but were codified with Dante.

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Dante’s Hell is a funnel-shaped cave with various concentric-circle steps on the way down. Each step is a different circle of Hell, and each step down is a more horrible place reserved for the committers of more and more horrible sins. Satan resides at the center.

There are nine Circles of Hell. The first circle is reserved for what Dante called “virtuous pagans,” that is: People who do good works, but who aren’t Christian. The first circle is essentially a vestibule and isn’t quite in Hell yet. These people aren’t being tortured, but they are, in Dante’s estimation, wither being denied Heaven, or will eventually be granted a chance to get into Purgatory. It’s not really a place of punishment.

The circles typically describe various Deadly Sins. The incontinent have a circle, the glutinous have a circle, the seventh circle is reserved for violent people. The eighth circle is for active liars, thieves, panderers, seducers, flatterers, corrupt politicians, and “Simoniacs” — an old word for people who use the church’s words to earn themselves money. When modern Christians refer to “sin” as a generality, it’s this list of offenses that they refer to. Sorcerers are also collected in the eighth circle, although modern diviners (fortune tellers and the like) are no longer seen to be as harmful as they were in 1300. Many still, however, consider them to be frauds and liars.

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And oh the tortures Dante cooked up for these people in the eighth circle. Some of the liars are eternally forced to fight among themselves, punching and kicking and biting for as long as they are lost in their own interests. People have their heads forced down into rock tubes where they are blind and eternally bent. Others are blinded, and also forced to walk backwards eternally. Evil clawed demons called Malabranche tear apart corrupt politicians. Hypocrites wear lead robes and are forced to march. Thieves are eaten alive by serpents. Most notably, some lost souls are in a state of eternal immolation, invisible because of the flames. The notion of Hell being a fiery place likely comes from this very punishment. Yes, demons rend people with swords, and people are forced to live with the symptoms of all the worst diseases. Hey, it’s Hell. Things aren’t supposed to be rosy.

At the very center of Hell — the tenth and final level, and the one that is at the very center of the Earth — is a vast frozen lake. Frozen waist-deep in the middle of the lake is the Devil — referred to as Dis — who hold the greatest sinners of all history in either hand, and in his mouths (he has three faces). The greatest sinners are the betrayers, so it’s no surprise that Judas Iscariot is collected in there.

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A few things from Dante don’t quite jibe with a lot of modern images of Hell. We rarely see Hell, for instance, as a frozen lake. But most of the images we have in our heads of Hell — even the ones preached by many churches — come straight out of Dante. The fiery punishments, the litany of sins, the demons committing specialized tortures. The subterranean locale. These things were recorded by Dante, invaded Christian discourse, and have now become the most popular rendition of what the Underworld will be like.

There are a few notable details, however, that we would do well to remember when thinking about Hell. First of all, you don’t necessarily have to be dead to go to Hell. In Dante’s visions, he sees people he knows to be alive already languishing in certain Hell circles. Their bad habits on Earth are already torturing their souls. This means that, even though they are in Hell, they are still perhaps poised for redemption.

Indeed, that leads to an important vision of Hell that modern people don’t often think of: Hell is simply the first stop on the road to redemption. Not everyone in Hell is damned for all eternity. Indeed, many find their way out of Hell, work their way up the mountain of Purgatory (a place where you essentially meditate on your earthly experiences) and eventually pass into Paradise. There are few who are completely beyond redemption in Dante’s vision.

Dante’s influence on the image of the Christian afterlife has become so pervasive, there are few powerful imaginings of it that have come to challenge their popularity in 700 years. One may say that Clive Barker’s image of Hell — a place of sexual and intellectual obsession being the single most damning human characteristic — might be the first original vision of Hell since Dante.

But, otherwise, if Hell appears in a movie, book, TV show, or cartoon, it’s going to drawn from Dante. If you haven’t read THE DIVINE COMEDY yet, then you must. Whether or not you are Christian, you will find some of the most indelible images in the history of literature, as well as a book of redemptive philosophy the likes of which are rarely matched. Also, it’s just great poetry. Seek it out.