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Introduction to Dante’s Inferno. “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here”. Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265. Italy was divided between the partisans of the Emperor, the Ghibellines, and the partisans of the Pope, the Guelfs. This caused chaos.

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Introduction to Dante’s Inferno

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Introduction to dante s inferno

Introduction to Dante’s Inferno

“Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here”

Background the political life of dante

  • Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265.

  • Italy was divided between the partisans of the Emperor, the Ghibellines, and the partisans of the Pope, the Guelfs. This caused chaos.

  • The Guelfs gained control of Florence in 1266. Dante's family had been associated with the Guelf party for a considerable time.

    • In later years two sub parties of the Guelfs were created:  the Whites and Blacks. Both claimed they were Guelf, but the pope, Boniface VIII sided with the Blacks.

  • Dante was a member of the Whites and a member of the government council of the city. Dante soon found himself at odds with the Pope.

  • In 1300 Dante was exiled and forced to spend the rest of his life away from his beloved hometown of Florence. The Pope's sentence carried a harsh penalty: should Dante ever return to Florence, he would be burned at the stake.

  • Dante never returned home-- but, through the power of his pen he was to gain sweet revenge! He lived with his friends and admirers and spent his time in exile writing The Divine Comedy.

Background: The Political Life of Dante

The love lives of dante

  • At the time of his exile Dante was a married man with four children. He had been married some time between 1284 and 1292 to a woman named Gemma di Donati. It is thought that their marriage was arranged. Gemma never joined her husband after his exile, although Dante's two sons eventually did.

  • To understand Dante and his work, it is necessary to examine the influence of another woman -- Beatrice Polinari. Like Romeo and Juliet, the names of Dante and Beatrice will forever be linked. Dante probably saw Beatrice only twice in his life, the first time when he was a boy of only eight years old. He glimpsed her again, several years later and was delighted that she smiled at him!

  • In 1290, Beatrice died. She was only 24 years old. Her death brought Dante into great despair, for Beatrice had become a wonderful symbol for Dante.

  • Dante used Beatrice as a symbol through out his works. Beatrice -- a real woman -- became the allegorical symbol of God's love, divine revelation, Christ, salvation or a number of other interpretations. Dante only saw Beatrice a few times in his life, but she became for him a symbol of all that is good.

The Love Lives of Dante

The structure of the divine comedy

  • The Divine Comedy is made up of 100 Cantos -- 33 in each section plus one extra in The Inferno. It was written in the vernacular Italian, not Latin, in a verse form having three rhymes called terza rima. The allegorical journey employing Dante and characters from mythology, ancient Rome (Virgil-classical reasoning), Christian theology and "real life" Florence (Beatrice-faith). The sinners in the Inferno are punished according to an elaborate scheme of divine retribution--you reap what you sow!

The Structure of the Divine Comedy

Important definitions

  • allegory- An expression, by means of symbolic fictional characters and actions, of truths about human conduct and experience.  

  • terza rima- An Italian form iambic poetry having sets of three lines, the middle line of each set rhyming with the first and last of the succeeding: ababcbcdc. It was invented by Dante.  

  • epic poem-A long narrative poem with an exalted style, theme, and hero.

Important definitions!

An important symbol the number 3


  • 3 divisions of the Divine Comedy

  • 3 types of sins:

    • incontinence- lack of control over our passions and desires

    • violence- vicious and fierce behavior

    • fraud- deception, trickery or deceit

An Important symbol: The number 3

Important characters

1. Dante- the author and the main character

2. Virgil- Dante's guide through the Inferno and the Purgatorio. The real historical Virgil was long-dead even in Dante's time. Dante, himself a poet, had admired Virgil's poetry greatly and so "reincarnates" him to be his guide on the journey. Virgil represents reason.

3. Beatrice- while not actually a character in the Inferno ( she does not appear until the Paradisio) her influence is felt throughout the whole of the Divine Comedy. She represents divine love or faith.

Important characters!

The vestibule

Canto I

Location: The Dark Wood   Dante, in mid-life, finds himself lost in a dark and treacherous wood. It is Easter time -- Good Friday. In the distance he glimpses what he thinks is a way out, but immediately he is confronted with three wild beasts -- a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf. These creatures symbolize three types of error or sin: the leopard symbolizes mean-spiritedness and fraud, the lion represents violence, and the she-wolf represents unrestrained passions. Dante stands frozen in fear when suddenly the figure of Virgil appears. Virgil explains that he has been "hired" to guide Dante through the terrors of both the Inferno and the Purgatorio.

Canto II

Dante is terrified and reluctant to make the journey. Virgil explains that he has been sent by Beatrice to aid Dante.

Canto III

The poets make their way to the vestibule of hell. They must pass through a gateway with the following message carved into the stone: Abandon all hope ye who enter here. This place is like an anteroom or a foyer -- it is not part of Hell-proper so to speak. Here Dante -- and we, the readers -- see the plan of symbolic retribution that will make up the rest of the story. Dante is horrified at the sight before him. He is viewing the punishment of the uncommitted. Dante sees the souls of those who, in life, took no stand, kept no promises, honored no loyalties. Their punishment is to forever chase after an ever-moving flag, all the while surrounded by horrible fetid air full of stinging bees and wasps. As the insects bite the sinners, maggots emerge to suck the pus that oozes from their sores. Dante now crosses the river Acheron to visit the First Circle of the Inferno.

The Vestibule

Circle one limbo

  • Dante crosses the great river Acheron and views the First Circle -- Limbo.

    • No punishment or torture

    • Inhabited by the "good pagans“ or died unbaptized

    • Their only pain is that they will never see the face of God

    • Poets like Homer, Ovid, and Virgil reside here

Circle One: Limbo

Circle two the lustful

  • In order to pass to Circle Two, Dante and Virgil must pass by Minos the great Judge of theUnderworld.

    • evaluates each sinner and coils his tail to reveal the sinner's assigned circle.

  • Dante views the punishment of the Carnal and Lustful.

    • Sinners who let their passions sweep them away in life, now, in death they are condemned to be "swept away" for all eternity. A dirty, smelly, powerful and tempestuous wind batters and whirls these sinners at a fervid speed.

    • Characters like Dido, Queen of Carthage; Helen, the beauty of Troy; and Cleopatra, the great ruler of Egypt.

    • In honor of Dante's visit, the winds cease for a short spell -- long enough for Dante to hear the sad and famous story of the lovers Paulo and Francesca.  

Circle Two: The Lustful

Circle three the gluttons

  • In Circle Three, they view the punishment of the gluttonous.

    • These sinners "pigged out" in life, so they must live in a heap of swinish garbage as their eternal punishment.

    • To make matters even worse, they are guarded by the violent and powerful three-headed dog Cerberus. If the sinner attempts to move away from the filth, Cerberus appears covers them with three headed dog-slobber.

Circle Three: The Gluttons

Circle four the hoarders and wasters

  • In Circle Four, Dante and Virgil see:

    • Greedy, avaricious hoarders

    • Immoderate and excessive wasters

  • These sinners are condemned to roll great boulders towards each other. When they meet, they divide and begin again.

Circle Four: The Hoarders and Wasters

Circle five the wrathful and the sullen

  • Circle Five -- the Wrathful and the Sullen. The Wrathful, true to their angry nature, are fighting amongst themselves in a pit of disgusting and foul slime. The Sullen, true to their morose and sulky nature, lie mired underneath the swamp of the Styx, muttering and complaining about their fate.

  • As Dante and Virgil cross the swamp, Dante recognizes Argenti, an enemy of Dante’s family.

  • Dante curses him, and is then attacked by the other sinners until they reach an iron gate guarded by the fallen angels.

Circle Five: The Wrathful and The Sullen

Circle six heretics

  • In Circle Six Dante sees many strange and disturbing sights. Dante has a close call with Medusa, most dreaded of the infernal furies. Dante beholds the sufferings of the Heretics, those who did violence against God, as they suffer in fiery tombs.

Circle Six: Heretics

Circle seven the violents

  • In Circle Seven, Dante sees the punishments of the Violent. It is divided into three parts, called rounds. In order to enter the Seventh Circle Dante and Virgil must first pass by the dreaded beast the Minotaur and circle around the Phlegethon River, the river of boiling blood.

    • First Round--the Violent Against Neighbors. The evil-doers thrash around in the boiling swirling liquid. Guarding the banks are centaurs, "well armed with arrows," who shoot at any sinner who dares attempt to escape. In this section of the circle Dante sees the famous violent sinners Attila the Hun and Alexander the Great.  

    • Round Two--the Violent Against Themselves. Here the inhabitants are imprisoned in trees. The leaves and branches are fed upon by Harpies, causing the wounds to bleed profusely.

    • Round Three –the Violent against God, Nature and Art. These sinners are tormented on a burning plain. The arid sand represents the fruitless nature of their sins. It is in this circle that Dante sees the hideous monster Geryon, a creature that is emblematic of fraud. This disgusting creature serves a "flying ferry" and carries Dante and Virgil down the cliffs to Circle Eight.

Circle Seven: The Violents

Circle eight malebolge

Circle Eight is divided into ten pockets:

  • Pouch One - demons spur and drive the Panderers and Seducers

  • Pouch Two – the Flatterers are sunk up to their necks in excrement

  • Pouch Three - the Simoniacs (sellers of church favors) are positioned upside down in "bins" that resemble baptismal fonts. The soles of their feet are set ablaze. They stay here until new sinners arrive, then they drop down into the rock crevices for all eternity.

  • Pouch Four - the Fortunetellers have their heads on backwards and must walk "backwards" for all time. Here, Dante seesTiresias, from Greek Mythology.

  • Pouch Five – the Grafters are immersed in sticky tar pitch-- a perfect punishment for their lives of "sticky fingered" crime. These sinners are watched over by demons armed with murderous hooks and claws-- used to ensure that the sinners stay put in the pitch!

Circle Eight: Malebolge

Circle eight continued

  • Pouch Six – the Hypocrites wander through all eternity weighed down by heavy weighted robes that on the outside appear golden and bright, but on the inside lack any sort of luster.

  • Pouch Seven - the Thieves are at first surrounded by monstrous snakes that coil around each sinner’s hands, binding him fast. When immobilized, another reptile darts out to strike the sinner’s throat, causing the sinner to explode into flame. From the flaming ashes, the sinner re-emerges to undergo the torment again and again.

  • Pouch Eight - the Evil Counselors are hidden in great cups of flame that symbolize their guilty consciences. Here Dante sees Ulysses and Diomede, the instigators of the Trojan Horse ploy.

  • Pocket Nine - the sowers of religious, political and family discord in life these people ripped apart peace and placidity, so in death they are ripped apart physically. Dante sees Mahomet, who represents religious schism. His torso is ripped by a sword slice.

  • Pocket Ten - the falsifiers--alchemists, evil impersonators, counterfeiters, and false witnesses. These sinners, who in life, corrupted all, are made to endure every sort of corruption and pain. Darkness, dirt, filth, disease, hunger, thirst and noise surround them. Dante and Virgil now move on past a vast horde of Giants who guard the "Central Pit" of Malebolge.

Circle Eight: Continued

Circle nine cocytus

  • Dante and Virgil arrive at the Ninth and final circle of hell. The landscape here is made of a vast frozen lake. It is described as "a lake so frozen/it seemed to be made of glass."

  • Here are the sinners farthest away from the warm love of God. First Dante views the Treacherous Against their Kin. This particular section of hell -- Cocytus -- is called Caina, named after the Biblical Cain.

  • Next Dante arrives at Antenora and sees the Traitors to Country. Here Dante, along with the reader, is mesmerized by the terrifying story of Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri.

  • The third section of Cocytus is called Ptolomea is the home of the Treacherous to Guests and Hosts. These sinners are pinned in the ice, their eyes shut with frozen tears.

  • Section four, Judecca, named for Judas Iscariot, punishes the Treacherous to their Masters. At the center of this horrid ice-pit we find Satan. Although he is imprisoned in the ice, his great wings are free to beat the frozen air. He is a monster of the most grotesque nature. He has three faces. In each of his mouths Satan chomps on the greatest traitors in Dante’s view -- Judas, the betrayer of Christ, is ripped and guzzled in the center mouth of Satan. The other mouths shred Cassius and Brutus, the betrayers of Caesar.Dante’s reaction to this sight is one of the most awesome fear.

  • After observing the horrible image of Satan, Dante and Virgil must climb down the furry body of Satan, "repelling" off of this torso to arrive at the exit of Hell. They walk along the banks of Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness and emerge at the foot of Mount Purgatory. It is Easter Sunday morning.

Circle Nine : Cocytus

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