Derived from Dante's 'Divine Comedy', Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's 'Inferno',
the Catholic Encyclopaedia, and various web-sites on the subject found using Google.
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For the Medieval faithful, Hell was the place of turmoil, chaos, pain, despair, wretchedness, and a general bad time. The Christians certainly took on these definitions of Hell, and used that fear aspect to its fullest.
This early 'popular' view of Hell is vividly depicted in Dante Alighieri's 'Inferno', which is probably the most recognised non-religious depiction of Hell. Part of a total set of works, known as 'The Divine Comedy', written from 1307 to 1321, it also includes 'Purgatorio' (Purgatory) and 'Paradiso' (Heaven or Paradise). His Rings or Circles of Hell are quite detailed, and he had a spot in them for just about everyone he knew, including the Pope! His work combines the positive values of Christian thought and chivalric idealism. Although it has an affection for classical antiquity, its world is the neatly structured, enclosed world of medieval theology.
The cosmographical idea on which the poem is founded is extremely simple. The Earth is a fixed point in the centre of the Universe. The Northern Hemisphere is inhabited by the race of Adam. Purgatory is an isolated mountain in the seas of the Southern Hemisphere, which was unexplored at the time at which the poem was written. The nine Heavens extend, one beyond the other, above the earth on every side, the ninth being infinite in extent. Hell is a central core of evil in the earth's interior.
The first level of Dante's work is a narrative of a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, the three realms of the dead, as they were conceptualised by the medieval church of his day, which saw Earth as the centre of the solar system, and indeed of the Universe. As described by Anderson and Warnock, "Dante pictured the earth as a sphere floating in space, whose northern hemisphere consisted primarily of land extending from Gibraltar in the west to the Ganges in the east with the holy city of Jerusalem in its centre. Beneath this inhabited hemisphere is Hell, a vast pit in the shape of a funnel or inverted cone, having its apex at the centre of the earth. When Satan and the rebellious angels fell, this pit opened to receive them."
There are nine circles in Hell, each corresponding to the seriousness of the sins of the damned souls, in the lowest of which is Satan himself, here known as Dis, frozen forever in ice. On the other side of the globe of the Earth, in the centre of the Southern Hemisphere and directly opposite Jerusalem, is the Island Mountain of Purgatory. It is a gigantic pyramid structure, with nine ledges on which the souls of the dead may purify themselves for a time. At the apex of the pyramid is the Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise in which human beings originally fell from grace. Above the earthly Eden is the heavenly Paradise consisting of nine concentric circles of heavens revolving about the earth and corresponding to the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars. Surrounding them is the Empyrean, the motionless heaven where God and the Virgin Mary reside. It is the adventure of this trip through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, so often encountered in the literature of the ancients, that comprises the first level of meaning in the poem, with Dante demonstrating the Medieval theological world view.
The objection is made that there is no proportion between the brief moment of sin and an eternal punishment in Hell. But why not? We certainly admit a proportion between a momentary good deed and its eternal reward. Though not, it is true, a proportion of duration, but a proportion between the law and its appropriate sanction.
Again, sin is an offence against the infinite authority of God, and the sinner is in some way aware of this, though but imperfectly. Accordingly there is in sin an approximation to infinite malice that deserves an eternal punishment.
Finally, it must be remembered that, although the act of sinning is brief, the guilt of sin remains forever; for in the next life the sinner never turns away from his sin by a sincere conversion.
It is further objected that the sole object of punishment must be to reform the evil-doer. This is not true. Besides punishments inflicted for correction, there are also punishments for the satisfaction of justice. But justice demands that whoever departs from the right way in his search for happiness shall not find his happiness, but lose it. The eternity of the pains of Hell responds to this demand for justice. And, besides, the fear of Hell really does deter many from sin. And thus, in as far as God threatens it, eternal punishment also serves for the reform of morals. But if God threatens man with the pains of Hell, He must also carry out His threat if man does not heed it by avoiding sin.
We must not consider the eternal punishment of Hell as a series of distinct terms of punishment, as if God were forever again and again pronouncing a new sentence and inflicting new penalties, and as if He could never satisfy His desire of vengeance. Hell is, especially in the eyes of God, one and indivisible in its entirety - it is but one sentence and one penalty. We may represent to ourselves a punishment of indescribable intensity as in a certain sense the equivalent of an eternal punishment - this may help us to see better how God permits the sinner to fall into Hell - how a man who sets at naught all Divine warnings, who fails to profit by all the patient forbearance God has shown him, and who in wanton disobedience is absolutely bent on rushing into eternal punishment, can be finally permitted by God's just indignation to fall into Hell.
The damned are confirmed in evil; every act of their will is evil and inspired by hatred of God. This is the common teaching of theology, which St. Thomas sets forth in many passages.
Dante's layout/vision of Hell as interpreted by Barry Moser from Mandelbaum's translation is as shown below:
Everything vanishes into deep gloom in the distance.
The air smells foetid, with an acrid tinge; of decay with sickly sweet perfume over it to cover the smells of death; orange blossoms mixed with hospital smells. All of these are sufficiently subtle to not be too noticeable, but are sickening all the same. The stench of Hell has too much in the blend and changes too often for anyone to become used to it and stop noticing it.
The sky over Hell is a uniform grey, perhaps made up of clouds, but with no details whatsoever so it is hard to tell from the ground. Close up it is in fact a hideous grey fog. Inside this fog it stinks of excrement, oil, smog, sickness, slaughter-houses and everything hideous.
The damned in Hell have a continual miraculous healing effect upon them, so that they may be tortured for eternity, eternally recovering so that they may be tormented again. The damned do not breathe, nor do they cast shadows. Most, but not all, of them wear a loose white gown, partly open down the front, not unlike a hospital gown.
The rivers of Hell, whose source is the island of Crete, unite in the frozen pool of Cocytus at the bottom of Hell.
Dante's poem starts with the introduction of Dante the Pilgrim halfway through his life (in his thirties) finding himself on the edge of some dark woods. He does not understand how he arrived there, but feels he may have got there by wandering from the 'straight path', or 'the path of truth'. Nonetheless, he raises his head from the dark valley to see a hilltop "shawled in morning rays of light sent from the planet that leads men straight-ahead on every road". As he climbs the hill, three beasts block his path; a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. It can be argued that these beasts represent sins that are blocking Dante's path to righteousness, fraud, violence, and incontinence respectively.
Fear of the beasts forces Dante to retreat back to the edge of the dark woods. "This last beast brought my spirit down so... I lost all hope of going up the hill". He is, however, stopped by a figure that first appears unrecognisable to him. The person soon presents himself to Virgil, the famous pagan Roman poet. Dante asks Virgil for assistance to help rid of the beasts so he can pass on to the hilltop of Divine Light. Yet, Virgil indicates that Dante is to go down another road. Virgil goes on further to explain that he will help Dante on his path, but that he will have to leave him once he gets to Purgatory because he was born before Christ and therefore cannot know of true salvation. [The light and dark imagery that is often repeated and becomes more abundant in later cantos of Dante's poem. The light represents reason, truth, righteousness, and goodness. This is seen in the fact that the hill to 'Divine Light' is cloaked in rays of the sun. On the other hand, the dark is often depicted in times of torment, blindness, and evil. This imagery is seen in the fact that the path through Hell that Dante must take is dark and the sun does not shine there.]
The path through the dark woods leads to an archway, which is the true entrance into Hell. On its high arch are inscribed in dim colours the words:
Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric mov'd:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon ye who enter here.
Passing under the arch one enters Ante-Hell.
The inscribed arch into Hell cannot be seen behind one once one has passed through it.
The beginning of Upper Hell, Ante-Hell (also described as "Nowhere") lies outside the River Acheron, a fast-moving river of ink-black water. The shore of the river is a shiny mud flat that shades into a flat field of dirt that appears to stretch inland for about two miles to some low brown hills. The hills run up against a high wall that stretches off in both directions to the limit of visibility; it is just about possible to see this wall curving inwards at the limits of visibility. It is hard to tell how large or far away the wall is, and it is impossible to reach anyway. Invisible biting insects sting irritatingly. Underfoot, worms write in the soil in an unknown script.
Anyone who has any contact whatsoever with the River Acheron will be trapped forever in the river, very cold and very uncomfortable, aware and unable to move.
It is the place where those who would make no choices in life, "who lived a life but lived it with no blame and no praise", are condemned to spend their eternity. This includes those too self-absorbed to make choices, those who were neither warm nor cold on important matters, those who were neither believers nor blasphemers. They run about the hills of Ante-Hell forever having no hope of truly dying, chasing banners they will never catch, and being stung repeatedly by hornets and wasps. An example of such a person who refused to make decisions in his life would be Pontius Pilate, who refused to pass sentence of Christ.
Some people, such as self-absorbed agnostics, end up trapped in a bronze jar in the Vestibule. These jars, of varying sizes, are scattered about the field of dirt; the voices of those trapped inside can be faintly heard through the walls of the jars.
A wooden jetty protrudes out into the River Acheron, from which Charon, a tall, wiry old man with a long white beard and eyes like glowing coals, poles a ferry across the Acheron to the First Circle of Hell. He will carry everyone who wishes to cross, but will chastise those who displease him with the pole with which he propels the ferry (that is, beat them senseless). The ferry is a low punt-like boat that can hold many more people than it seems it should be able to.
Note that Circles One to Five of Hell are termed 'Incontinence' and include all wrong action due to the inadequate control of natural appetites or desires.
The First Circle of Hell consists of green fields and white Mediterranean-style villas arranged in walled complexes with a squat classical look to them, some quite large. They are not arranged in any order but the overall effect is pleasing. In the First Circle the ground is firm, grassy and pleasant. The air is clean and fresh, as at the top of a mountain (that is, entirely unlike that in the rest of Hell). The First Circle is encompassed by a "hemisphere of light", representing Reason. As one travels into the depths of Hell, less and less light is seen.
Limbo is not the horrible place usually associated with the fiery pits of Hell, but instead the punishment for its residents is the loss of Hope; they must exist in desire for the glory of God (often a God who they do not believe in), without ever being able to attain it. The First Circle of Hell is made up of all those shades that were good people, but lacked the ideology of God's saviour and so must reside there for eternity. That is, all of the people in Limbo are virtuous and sinless, but who for the lack of a single ceremony cannot be admitted into Paradise; this includes everyone who had the misfortune to live before the time of Christ, all non-Christians, the un-baptised, and even infants 'stained' by Original Sin (there is an abundance of these). Virgil himself is from this circle of Hell, as he was born before the crucifixion. Dante saw some of the most famous of all Historical shades to be remembered by our modern society such as Homer, Horace, Ovid, Caesar, Brutus, Lucretia, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Thales, Heraclitus, Euclid, Hector, Aeneas, Epictatus, Ptolemy, and Hippocrates. Great thinkers, classic poets, great men, and murderers alike are placed in the same 'punishment' simply because they do not worship the Christian God. In some interpretations, those in Limbo are excluded from the beatific vision until Christ's triumphant ascension into Heaven (the "limbus patrum").
Those who come across from the Vestibule on Charon's ferry do not go into Limbo as a whole; instead they are let off at one end of a road which twists between high walls to the Palace of Minos.
The walls hemming in the road can just be climbed, and there are also gates in the walls, though these are kept locked from the inside. However, anyone who does gain entry to Limbo from outside is obvious to the inhabitants of Limbo, as they carry the stench of the rest of Hell with them. On the inner edge of Limbo is erected the Palace of Minos. This is circled by seven walls and contains seven gates (according to theologians, seven is the number of perfection, based on the seven days of creation).
The Palace of Minos is an enormous marble structure, without furniture, lit by torches in bronze holders. The walls are covered in Minoan-style frescos of bulls, dolphins and people. The Palace winds on and on, chamber after chamber, with huge staircases and great pillars inscribed in unreadable languages.
People easily become separated from one another in the Palace, so that, in general, everyone eventually comes alone to an enormous room open at the far end. This room gives, through the pillars, a vista down over the depths of Hell - an enormous, world-sized bowl, with fire and smoke visible far below. On a throne at the far end, backing onto the view over Hell, sits a Minotaur, Minos, Judge of the Dead, son of Zeus and Europa, King of Crete, and known for his wisdom and judicial skills. His purpose is to assign all those that enter Hell to that level of Hell to which their sins best suit them.
Minos talks to those who come to the Palace, and once he has determined the best place for them, sends them to the appropriate part of Hell, wrapping them up in his tail, which extends off and carries the sinner away. The number of times Minos winds his tail around a person indicates the Circle of Hell they have been relegated to. Those who come to the Palace from the Vestibule of their own accord do not have to be judged by Minos (though they may not know that). However, Minos is unlikely to let them return higher into Hell, but only to let them descend. There is a set of steps behind his throne which leads down to the Second Circle; once one starts down these stairs one cannot return upwards - no matter how long one climbs, one never gets closer to the top.
The steps down from Limbo peter out into a rocky forty-five degree slope, which is also where the wind begins to rise. The slope ends in the broad ledge of the Second Circle, where it is pitch dark.
In the second circle are punished those who sinned by excess of sexual passion, those souls who in life made pleasure their hope, with reason and love of God second. Since this is the most natural sin and the sin most nearly associated with love, its punishment is the lightest of all to be found in Hell proper. "The Carnal are whirled... endlessly through the murky air... by a great gale (symbolic of their lust)." The punishment for the Lustful is an infernal storm that lashes at them in darkness with rage and punishment, spinning through the air. The Lustful are mostly blown about in pairs, but this is not always so. They cry out lamentations and insults to God as they go. All the great lovers are here - Semiramis, Cleopatra, Helen, Achilles, Paris, Tristan.
Standing on the ground in the Second Circle are unsuccessful lovers attempting to be caught up by the winds of passion.
A great storm of putrefaction falls incessantly in this circle, a mixture of stinking snow and freezing rain, which forms into a vile slush underfoot. Everything about the Circle suggests a gigantic garbage dump. The souls of the Damned Lie in the icy paste, swollen and obscene, and Cerberus, the ravenous three-headed dog of Hell, stands guard over them, ripping and tearing them with his claws and teeth.
Those condemned here are the Gluttons. "In life they made no higher use of the gifts of God than to wallow in food and drink, producers of nothing but garbage and offal. Here they lie through all eternity, themselves like garbage, half-buried in the foetid slush, while Cerberus, the guardian, slavers over them as they in life slavered over their food."
A winding, dangerous trail leads down the precipice to the Fourth Circle.
As one descends the trail into the Fourth Circle, one may meet Plutus, the god of Wealth. Entering the Fourth Circle, it seems there are "more shades were here than anywhere else".
In this circle, a flat plain of hard-baked clay, the sinners are divided into two raging mobs, each soul among them straining madly at a great boulder-like weight, representing their material wealth in life. The two mobs meet clashing their weights against one another, one side screaming 'Why hoard?', the other side 'Why waste?'. After meeting the mobs separate, pushing the great weights apart, and begin all over again. Upon closer examination it can be seen that these weights are actually huge faceted diamonds, their surfaces dulled by time.
The mobs consists of the Hoarders and the Wasters, those who, in life, lacked all moderation in regulating their expenses and so destroyed the light of God within themselves by thinking of nothing but money. Thus in death their souls are encumbered by dead weights (mundanity) and one excess serves to punish the other in a joint effort, one side against the other. The wasters wear the torn and filthy remnants of the finest clothing from all ages. The hoarders simply wear rags. Dante points out specific people in this level, but first generalising by finding "priests, and popes and cardinals, in whom avarice is most likely to prevail."
Destined to be eternally caught between the two groups are people such as Allister Toomey, who fits both categories (a collector of science fiction pulp and novels, he hoarded a great literary and historic wealth, refusing to sell any of his collection; but due to this hoarding, Toomey could not afford to maintain his collection, which was destroyed by rain, rot, and rats; therefore Toomey's hoarding caused his wasting). They are regularly smashed by the weights, but this being Hell, always recover, only to be smashed again...
Working over a chasm in the edge of the Fourth Circle are groups of bridge builders and destroyers. These are those hoarders and wasters who are obsessed with development, either stopping it at all costs, or promoting it at all costs. Pipes in the walls of the chasm gush filth, which ends up in the Styx, below.
This circle consists of a stinking swamp, mostly hidden by thick fog. The swamp is only ankle-deep, but slimy and thoroughly unpleasant. There are low-hanging trees and bushes dotted about. This circle is home to two types of sinner, the wrathful and the sullen.
Most obviously, in this Circle countless souls attack one another in the foul slime. These are "the souls of those that anger overcame". These are the Wrathful and the symbolism of their punishment is obvious. They also have an eternal rage against themselves due to which they attack and bite their own bodies.
Virgil also points out to Dante certain bubbles rising out of the slime and informs him that below that mud lie entombed the souls of the Sullen. In life they refused to welcome the sweet light of the sun (spiritual awakening) and in death they are buried forever below the stinking waters of the Styx, gargling words of an endless chant in a grotesque parody of singing a hymn.
At its inner edge the swamp of the Fifth Circle deepens into the River Styx proper, where the wrathful still fight, under the water, and the sullen too lie there. Large black towers are spaced along the edge of the swamp. These are ferry terminals. Red light signals - like flames or lasers - flash from their upper windows to other towers and the City of Dis, over the river. This signal can summon a ferryman, for example Phlegyas, to carry people across to Dis, though not without argument. Phlegyas is a large bearded man with a low gold crown who stands in the stern of his boat propelling it (much faster than it looks like it should go) with an oar over the stern. He takes passengers to the other ferry terminal, on the Dis side.
The fog begins to clear as one crosses the Styx, and it gets hotter and hotter. The fog is eventually entirely burned away to reveal, on the other side of the Styx, a quarter of a mile of hard stinking mud before the walls of the city of Dis. These walls are like a castle curtain wall, with straight sections and towers, made of hot iron, some merely hot enough to burn, some glowing red-hot. The eternal fire that burns within the city serves as the only light in Hell. In one place is a huge gate through the wall that has been torn off its hinges, where Christ tore the gates down. Demons guard the walls and the opening where the gate was.
This region is the end of Upper Hell and the beginning of Nether, or Lower, Hell.
Between the Fifth and the Sixth Circles, inside the city of Dis, is the human bureaucracy of Hell, a vast organisation that wastes everyone's time doing things that aren't helpful. Bureaucratic minions man posts at small information windows in the wall. They require multiple copies of huge, complex forms (inconsistent between copies, and you only get one small pencil to fill them out) before they will do anything. However, they can be bullied and bluffed... Trying to leap through the windows will fail; the iron turns red-hot if approached with the intention of doing so.
Furies will appear if one loiters too long, flapping down from the sky, and call upon Medusa to turn the loiterers into stone and keep them in Hell forever.
It is possible to get over Dis, by way of gliders or parachutes made in the upper levels, or perhaps even by bluffing one's way through the city.
This Circle is "a countryside of pain and anguish", teeming with tombs. "There lie arch-heretics of every sect, with all their disciples," Virgil tells Dante. Arch-heretics include those who followed the philosophy of the Epicureans, who taught that the highest good was temporal happiness and therefore denied the immortality of the soul and the afterlife.
The circle of the Heretics is divided into two parts:
Inward from the torn-down gate in the wall of Dis is a craggy landslide, which legend has it was the place where Christ descended into Hell. This also leads down to the Seventh Circle.
At the edge of the Sixth Circle a disgusting stench arises from below. This is so strongly offensive that travellers may have to wait to become accustomed to it.
This circle holds those condemned for Brutishness or Bestiality, the morbid states in which what is naturally repulsive becomes attractive. The guardian of this circle is the Minotaur, which normally lets no-one pass easily, but who suffers from fits of rage, during which he can be avoided.
This Circle is divided into three rings, each of which deals with sinners condemned for different types of violence.
RING I - THE RIVER PHLEGETHON - TYRANTS AND MURDERERS
In the first Ring, which lies directly below the edge of the Sixth Circle, are found those who were violent to their neighbours in life, whether it be from malice, homicide, or plundering. It consists entirely of the River Phlegethon (also known as the River Phlegyas), a river of boiling blood. Its smell is overpowering, fresh blood and clotted blood, copper bright and polluted foul.
As they wallowed in blood during their lives, so in Hell those condemned here are immersed in boiling blood forever, the depth of each according to the degree of his guilt, while fierce centaurs and the damned souls of people who had to be violent as part of their duty, but who enjoyed it, patrol the banks, ready to shoot with their arrows and other weapons any sinner who raises himself out of the boiling blood beyond the limits permitted him. The depth of the blood varies from ankle-deep to over a person's head. The sinners condemned to the banks wear the uniforms they wore in life, from all periods of history; their eyes are dull, expressionless and intent on their task.
The leader of the Centaurs is Chiron, the son of Saturn and Philyra and known for his wisdom. Nessus, another Centaur, was appointed by Chiron to guide Dante and Virgil across the river Phlegethon.
The boiling blood in this Ring also has at least one sunken wooden sailing ship immersed in it. This contains slave traders trapped under the grilles in the deck. There is also an island, entirely made up of officials who knowingly let criminals go free. This island is peopled by those who were 'justified' murderers. Those on the island have to keep the people upon whom they are standing too injured to fight, otherwise the island will dissolve as its foundations rise up and escape or try to get up on the island itself, so although they are out of the blood the inhabitants of the island are not in a happy place.
In one place a stream of the blood leaves the River Phlegethon and flows downwards through the rest of this Circle towards the drop into the Eighth Circle.
RING II - VIOLENCE AGAINST SELF
In the second Ring of the Seventh Circle are found those who raised a hand against themselves, such as in suicide, or those who gamble all their wealth away and weep when they should have rejoiced.
Those who were violent against themselves are eternally destroyed by Harpies in the Wood of the Suicides, a dark, deathly forest of tangled trees with black leaves. The souls of the suicides are encased in thorny trees that are constantly torn at by the odious Harpies, the overseers of these damned. When the Harpies feed upon them, damaging their leaves and limbs, the wounds bleed. Only as long as the blood flows are the souls of the trees able to speak. Thus, they who destroyed their own bodies are denied human form; and just as the supreme expression of their lives was self destruction, so they are permitted to speak only through that which tears and destroys them. Only through their own blood do they find voice.
Running through the wood are the Violent Wasters, people who would prove their wealth in life by destroying their possessions. They are pursued by packs of wild dogs. If the dogs catch those they chase they tear them apart.
Interspersed throughout the Wood of Suicides are areas of modern wasteland, filled with all known examples of human pollution. Here are the modern version of the Violent Wasters, the Polluters. Some are chased by animated bulldozers; some are condemned to work in slime-belching factories just like those they owned and profited from in life; some assemble pointless gadgets while others dissemble the same gadgets and pass the parts back for re-assembly. Parts of these wastelands are riven by gullies with filthy rubbish-strewn water at the bottom. Some lie in pools of oil, pecked incessantly by oil-smeared birds. Noxious gases and pollutants waft across these areas too, up to and including nerve gas. There is a constant sound of wailing, roaring motors and clanking machines.
The stream of boiling blood from the Phlegethon flows down through this Ring.
RING III - VIOLENCE AGAINST GOD AND NATURE
In the third and final Ring of the Seventh Circle are condemned those who were violent against God in life, either by cursing God's name or by despising Nature and God's bounty. Sinners in this Ring include blasphemers, usurers and sodomites. They are stranded forever on the Plain of Burning Sand where it constantly rains great burning flakes of fire which vanish when they hit the ground, but not when they hit the flesh of sinners. This region is also known as The Abominable Sands. "The symbolism of the burning plain is obviously centred in sterility... and wrath."
The different sinners condemned to this Ring behave in different ways:
- Blasphemers, who were violent against God, are stretched supine and naked upon the ground under the burning rain. Many shout and curse God.
- Sodomites, also naked, must wander forever on those hot sands, or squat with their arms about themselves.
- Usurers, who were in life violent against art, must crouch on the hot sand with heavy moneybags around their necks. They are dressed in the finery of all ages, but their identities are concealed. This is a symbol of how they have lost their identity due to their concern with material goods. However, the colours they wear express their family shields. Loan Sharks are the modern Usurers, and are also condemned here.
The stream of boiling blood from the Phlegethon flows through this Ring and over the edge into the Eighth Circle. It is narrow but fast, its roar somehow different from that of water, and it is bright scarlet. It falls with a sound of rushing water into the Abyss.
This Circle holds those sinners condemned for simple Fraud or Malice, that is, those who used fraud on others who put their trust in them, and those who used fraud on those who had no trust invested. These sins (the first class of Fraud) consist of those evil actions that involve the abuse of the specifically human attribute of reason. Those who used fraud on others who put their trust in them include hypocrites, flatters, dabblers in sorcery, falsifiers, thieves and simonists.
This Circle is divided into ten steep-sided Bolgias, Regions, Rings or Ditches, each perhaps twenty-five metres deep and fifty metres wide, in which the different classes of the fraudulent are placed. These Rings run all around the Eighth Circle. Arching bridges, each one about three metres wide, go over each ring, further down into Hell. They drop steeply at the inner end, each Bolge being about seven metres lower then the one immediately outside it.
The guardian of the Eighth Circle is Geryon. Geryon is the personification of Fraud, which can be determined by the fact that the creature has the face of an honest man, but the body of a serpent; his voice is deep, with a queer buzzing quality. Geryon can carry people down to the Eighth Circle, but must be summoned in some manner; throwing a rope down was sufficient for Virgil and Dante. Once he rises out of the depths, Geryon must be bargained with to carry the traveller down to the Eighth Circle.
BOLGE I/THE FIRST EVIL DITCH - PANDERERS AND SEDUCERS
"With... honeyed tongue[s] and... dishonest lover's wiles... [they] left [women] pregnant and forsaken. Such guilt condemns [them] to such punishment..." This Bolge holds those sinners condemned for pandering to and seducing others in life. In addition to the more conventional interpretations of panderer and seducer, this Bolge also contains pimps, movie producers who talked actresses onto their 'casting couch', and emotional rapists.
In life these sinners goaded others on to serve their own foul purposes; so in Hell they are driven in their turn. As such the Panderers and Seducers make two files, one along either bank of the Bolge, and are driven at an endless fast walk by horned demons who hurry them along with great lashes. These demons are black-skinned, at least ten feet tall, very ugly, and mock the sinners as they whip them along. The two files are divided by a wall of rock which has occasional gaps in it. Panderers go in one direction along the Bolge, seducers in the other; those who did both get to swap from one side to the other now and again.
The horned demons that drive them symbolise the vicious natures of the sinners themselves, embodiments of their own guilty consciences. Dante may also have intended the horns of the demons to symbolise cuckoldry and adultery.
BOLGE II/THE SECOND EVIL DITCH - FLATTERERS
In the second ditch are the souls of those who were flatterers in life; this includes advertisers. In Hell they are sunk in excrement, the true equivalent of their false flatteries on earth. They have also been physically altered so that excrement comes out of their mouths whenever they speak.
Steaming from the Bolge comes a foul vapour, which crusts the banks of the Bolge with a slime that sickens the eyes and hammered at the nose. The sinners in the Bolge are sunk in the excrement in long lines of people. The river of excrement in the Bolge seems so large "that [it] seemed to overflow the world's latrines..."
BOLGE III/THE THIRD EVIL DITCH - SIMONIACS
The Simoniacs are "those who corrupt the things of God, by selling Church offices rather than assigning them according to the rules... As always the punishment is a symbolic retribution. Just as the Simoniacs made a mock of holy office, so are they turned upside down in a mockery of the baptismal font; they lay upside down in a hole filled with oil from which only their feet stick out. Flames engulf their feet, which twitch frenziedly. The simoniacs include some Popes (including Nicholas II), as well as the likes of those who run theology diploma mills and New Age gurus selling enlightenment.
We might suppose that those who mock holy matrimony, will spend eternity in real chains.
BOLGE IV/THE FOURTH EVIL DITCH - SORCERERS, SOOTHSAYERS AND FORTUNE TELLERS
Here, the soothsayers, sorcerers and fortune tellers are punished.
All of those condemned to this Bolge have their heads twisted around on their necks so that they face backwards, and they have to move ahead by moving backward. Such famous soothsayers as Amphiarus, Tiresias, Aruns, Manto, Euryplus, Michael Scot, Guido Bonatti and Asdente are condemned to this Bolge, along with all "those wretched hags who traded in needle, spindle, shuttle, for fortune-telling, and cast their spells with image dolls and potions". Another type of fortune teller found in this Bolge is a teacher who would label any slow reader as dyslexic, thereby predicting the child's educational future.
BOLGE V/THE FIFTH EVIL DITCH - BARRATORS AND GRAFTERS
In this Bolge the Grafters, those who stole from people who trusted them, or those who acquired money or gain in unfair and dishonest ways, lie in boiling pitch, hardly daring to bring their heads above the surface, for fear of the "demons, who tear them to pieces with claws, pitchforks and grappling hooks" if they see them. The sticky pitch is symbolic of the sticky fingers of the Grafters. The demons, too, suggest symbolic possibilities, for they are armed with grappling hooks and are forever ready to rend and tear all they can get their hands on. Perhaps he who takes in life, will be forced to give in Hell.
The devils of this Bolge are known as the Malebrache. Their leader is Malacoda. The other devils are Alichino, Calcabrina, Cagnazzo, Barbariccia, Libicocco, Draghignazzo, Ciriatto, Graffiacane, Farfarello, and Rubicante. They cannot leave the fifth Bolge.
The main bridge across this Bolge was knocked down during Christ's descent into Hell; however, there are alternative bridges that may be used to cross.
BOLGE VI/THE SIXTH EVIL DITCH - HYPOCRITES
In this Bolge are the hypocrites, who are "weighted down by great leaden robes like cloaks with hoods pulled low covering the eyes, weary and defeated, in pain they must walk eternally round and round a narrow track. The robes are brilliantly gilded on the outside and are shaped like a monk's habit, for the hypocrite's outward appearance shines brightly and passes for holiness, but under that show lies the terrible weight of his deceit which the soul must bear through all eternity." If the sinner stops walking their cloak becomes hotter and hotter. These sinners include the likes of the (first) millennium priests as well as televangelists.
Like those of the fifth Bolge, the bridges across this Bolge were knocked down during Christ's descent into Hell. The rockslides that remain must be climbed down and then up to cross this Bolge.
BOLGE VII/THE SEVENTH EVIL DITCH - THIEVES
This Bolge is much wider than the others in this Circle.
The naked and terrified sinners within the Bolge are thieves and the buyers of stolen goods. They are constantly attacked by snakes. Sometimes when they are bitten, the shade combusts into flames and then into a heap of ash. Within a few seconds, the ashes came to form the shade again, confused and in torment. At other times the bite of the snakes (actually transformed sinners) steal the human form of the sinner, turning the snake back into a human, while the sinner becomes a snake. At other times yet, the snakes "curl themselves about the sinners like living coils of rope, binding each sinner's hands behind his back, and knotting themselves through his loins. No ivy ever grew about a tree as tightly as that monster wove itself limb by limb about the sinner's body; they fused like hot wax, and their colours ran together until neither wretch nor monster appeared what he had been when he began..."
Cacus the Centaur is the guardian of this Bolge.
BOLGE VIII/THE EIGHTH EVIL DITCH - FRAUDULENT COUNSELLORS/DECEIVERS
The eighth Bolge is brightly marked due to the flames that burn all around. Virgil tells Dante that within each of the flames are souls, the souls of those who gave false counsel, burning eternally. The likes of the man who approved the Dresden fire-bombing and the man who led the mission are found in this Bolge.
BOLGE IX/THE NINTH EVIL DITCH - SOWERS OF DISCORD, SCANDAL AND SCHISM
The floor of this Bolge is bloody mud. In it are held those who sowed discord, scandal and schism in life. "And just as their sin was to rend asunder what God had meant to be united, so are they hacked and torn through all eternity by a great demon with a bloody sword. After each mutilation the souls are compelled to drag their broken bodies around the pit and to return to the demon, for in the course of the circuit their wounds knit in time to be inflicted anew." Sowers of Discord include people such as Mohammed, Ali, Henry VIII, Vlad Tepes, lawyers who goaded people into suits and divorces, people who advocated hatred, and people who started wars or refused to end them. In addition many here are religious schismatics - people who fractured the true church for their own gain.
The demon here is huge, twenty feet tall, and stands under one of (indeed, under all of) the bridges across the Bolge. His 'sword' is the overdeveloped fingernail on his overdeveloped middle finger, which he uses it like a rapier. He will challenge those who attempt to cross the bridge, as well as those within the Bolge itself.
BOLGE X/THE TENTH EVIL DITCH - THE FALSIFIERS
In this Bolge, the last of the ten, are held those who falsified in life, the 'Evil Impersonators', whatever the exact details of that which they falsified. There is a terrible stench about this Bolge. All of the sinners here are plagued with different types of illnesses, including leprosy (which creates the circle's terrible stench), rabies (with the rabid running about biting people), and sexually transmitted diseases. All of the sinners drag themselves on the ground because they are so weak that they are unable to walk.
- Falsifiers of Metals (including alchemists) are punished with scabs covering the body which itch with no relief.
- Falsifiers of persons are changed into hogs that chase others. "In life they seized upon the appearance of others, and in death they must run with never a pause, seizing upon the infernal apparition of these souls, while they in turn are preyed upon by their own furies."
- Falsifiers of coins - counterfeiters - suffer an eternal thirst, cracked tongue and bloated belly. They can hear and see water a few feet ahead of them, but are unable to reach it.
- The Falsifiers of Words (false witnesses) suffer a continual intense fever, so intense that their body continually smokes, as if cooking. These falsifiers include women who would 'roll' unsuspecting, horny men, men who sold quack cures, and psychiatrists who were egotistical frauds. Many of them are rabid. "Hecuba - mourning, wretched, and a slave - having seen Polyxena sacrificed, and Polydorous dead without a grave; lost and alone, beside an alien sea, began to bark and growl like a dog in the mad seizure of her misery. But never in Thebes nor Troy were Furies seen to strike at man or beast in such mad rage as two I saw, pale, naked, and unclean, who suddenly came running toward us the[m], snapping their teeth as they ran, like hungry swine let out to feed after a night in the pen."
THE WELL OF GIANTS
After the Bolgias, but still within the Eighth Circle, there is an empty, rocky land which leads on down into the gloom of Hell. Perhaps it is reserved for brand news sins, those yet to be invented.
On the far side of this land enormous giants are buried from the navel down in the ground. They are bound in chains so tightly they can do little more than move their eyes and snap their teeth (which are the size of medieval shields). The giants are buried just outside a wall, which is chin-high to them. Its top is flat and the inner side slopes sufficiently that one can climb up the giants and then slide down from the wall into the ninth circle. The only problem with this is that it is so cold there that any exposed flesh will stick to the ice...
The giant Antaeus can be persuaded to carry travellers to the Ninth Circle, known as the Cocytus. Another of the other giants is Nimrod, the supposed builder of Babylon, who is forced to blather nonsense for eternity. A third is named Ephialtes, a giant son of Poseidon from Greek mythology.
This Circle includes the second class of frauds, those who are traitors by means of complex or treacherous fraud or malice. The landscape here is the frozen Pool of Cocytus, and is "more like a sheet of glass than frozen water". The slightest breeze leeches all the warmth from one, and nothing will help one to shelter from the cold. The wind whips up to sweep those unworthy back to where they belong in Hell, leaving the worthy behind.
This Circle is divided into four Regions, based on different kinds of treachery, and are listed in the order in which one would encounter them when going down into the very depths of Hell.
CAINA - TRAITORS TO KINDRED
The outermost region of the icy lake of Cocytus is the first division of the circle, and is named Caina, after Cain, whom performed the first sin of treachery by killing his brother Abel. Here, the traitors to kin are punished. Their punishment consists of being frozen in the ice with only their faces above the ice to express their pain. Sinners held here include Mordred, the nephew of King Arthur who also attempted to kill him.
ANTENORA - TRAITORS TO THEIR COUNTRY
This region is named Antenora after the Trojan warrior who betrayed his city to the Greeks. As symbolised by the region's name, this area contains those who were traitors to their country, city, or political party. Only the heads of the those imprisoned here project above the ice.
PTOLOMEA - TRAITORS TO THEIR GUESTS OR HOST
Ptolemea is where those who are traitors to guests, hosts or associates are found. The region was named after the captain of Jericho, Ptolemy, who had Simon, his father-in-law and two of his sons killed while they dined. Here, the punishment is more severe due to the fact that the sinners, while being frozen flat on their backs in the ice, also have their heads facing up with their eyes frozen with their tears. Shades will tell travellers about the region if they break off the veils of ice over their eyes.
The sinners in this region actually have bodies that remain in the living world and continue to live. However, they are possessed by demons. As soon as one commits a sin against a guest, their shade is sent to this region. An example of such a sinner is Ser Branca D'Origa, who murdered his father-in-law after serving him dinner.
JUDECCA - TRAITORS TO THEIR BENEFACTORS
In this region those who betrayed their Lords and Masters or their benefactors are punished by being entirely frozen in the ice, with no part of themselves exposed.
As one moves across this region of the Circle, across the ice a faint object becomes visible. It is the King of Dis, Lucifer. The Dark Angel is as foul as he once was fair. He too is frozen in the ice in the centre of Judecca, but with half his chest above the ice; even the part projecting above the ice is more than a mile tall. He has bat-like wings.
Lucifer has three faces from which he weeps tears mixed with bloody slaver, a mockery of the Trinity. The forward-facing face is red, mocking Primal Love with hatred; one is yellow, parodying Diving Omnipotence with impotence; and one is black, perverting Highest Wisdom with ignorance. Each of the faces has a mouth that is stuffed with one of the worst traitors of the world, those who are treacherous against their benefactors. The first is Judas Iscariot, who was a traitor to Christ for thirty pieces of silver. He endures the worst punishment by being chewed on by the red face and being clawed by his bat-like wings. The second is Marcus Brutus, traitor to Caesar. The black face is chewing him. The third sinner is Caius Cassius Longinus, who was another member of the conspiracy against Caesar.
To exit Hell, one must climb down the body of Lucifer, which is covered in shaggy hair; the ice stops a yard or so from Lucifer himself. If one climbs down for long enough, one eventually feels as if one is climbing up again. This marks that one is crossing the centre of the earth, or "the point to which all weight from every part is drawn". One then makes their way up to a type of hollow tomb, a echoing grotto of dimly lit grey rock, from the floor of which the hooves of Lucifer project upwards, upside-down from this perspective. A stream of clear, sweet water runs through this grotto.
This place serves as the exit of Hell and entrance to Purgatory. Its roof goes up thousands of miles, tapering gradually until the opening into Purgatory is reached. This distance must be climbed, and when it is the travellers finally make their way to the surface, where they come "out to see once more the stars" on the shore at the base of Mount Purgatory...
Go Back to the Top, or go to Dante's Purgatory or Dante's Heaven.
More on Hell or go to Gustav Doré's Illustrations of the Divine Comedy.
An interactive map of the topography of Dante's Hell.
Go to the 'Now These Her Princes Are Come Home Again' Page.
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Copyright © Tony Jones, 2005.
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.
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