Hi and welcome back! The last time we talked about Hell, we saw how various medieval Christians were refining and adding to the overall package of Christians’ Hell-beliefs. Now, we stand at the very edge of a revolution in the doctrine. You see, Dante Alighieri put a spin on that package that would prove irresistible to Christians — and would survive largely intact to the present day. So today, let’s journey into Hell again to see what Dante did to it.
(Previous Journeys Into Hell: Medieval Christians Changed Hell Again; How Augustine Changed the Hell Game; Hell in the 4th Century; 2nd-4th Century Thoughts on Hell; Hell in Early Christian Writings; The Night My Fear of Hell Died; But WHICH Hell Shall We Fear; Why Hell Fails as a Christian Threat; We’re Made Out of Meat; Why Hell Succeeds as a Threat; Dealing With Hell Disbelievers; A Brief Prehistory of Hell. Instead of BC and AD, many historians now prefer BCE and CE — “before the Common Era” and “Common Era,” respectively.)
Everyone, Meet Dante Alighieri.
Dante Alighieri, usually just called Dante, lived from 1265-1321. That’s an exciting period in Italian history, by the way. At the time, Italian noble families had this incredible feud going on that far outshone anything we think we know about the Hatfields and McCoys.
One side called itself the Guelphs; they supported the Pope’s various policies. The other called itself the Ghibellines, and they supported the Imperial interests of the Holy Roman Emperor (HRE). The Pope and the HRE were involved in a huge squabble for land and power back then in Germany, and the squabble soon affected and absorbed Italian nobles and cities.
At least, that’s how people thought about the feud. As one might expect, the people involved eventually kinda forgot what they’d originally hated about each other. And if you bet on the wrong political horse back then, it could have repercussions on your family for generations. (I once read about a 15th-century noblewoman whose initial marriage prospects imploded because her family had allied itself generations ago to the wrong group at the wrong time.)
Dante counted himself a Guelph, roughly speaking, though he may have been only a fairly low-level player in this conflict.
But just know that this is the backdrop against which Dante wrote his grand poem, The Divine Comedy. The Italy he knew was in constant turmoil, and he himself faced combat alongside his faction at least once. (They’d win a decisive victory, too.)
Aside from warring against his faction’s enemies and writing about Hell, Dante is also well-regarded for a genre of love poetry called dolce stil novo (the “sweet new style”).
Dante and the Divine Comedy.
Around 1320, Dante finished his greatest work, The Divine Comedy.
Initially, he just called it Comedia (in more modern Italian, Commedia). This term indicated that — unlike a tragedy, which always ended badly for everyone involved — this work ended happily for at least some of its characters. The “Divine” may have gotten tacked on because people thought it was really good, or to distinguish it from some other Comedia popular at the time, or maybe even because Dante used his native Tuscan dialect to write about these grand sweeping themes so it wasn’t a typical comedia. (Usually, comedies were done in vernacular and dealt, as you might expect, with more earthly themes in more earthy styles.)
The story follows the character of Dante himself as he travels through the underworld. He passes through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise (Heaven) as his soul journeys toward reconciliation with Yahweh. Along the way, Dante (as his character) learns about all kinds of theology and philosophy.
Three guides help Dante during his pilgrimage: Virgil, representing our ability to reason, an original character called Beatrice who represented theology, faith, and grace, and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, representing mysticism.
Dante begins with Inferno, or Hell. In this part, Dante describes who goes to Hell, why, and where exactly they live for eternity.
The Nine Circles of Hell.
It was an incredible new way to see Hell. Previous Christians (notably Hildegard of Bingen) had written about the physical layout of the afterlife, but I can’t think of anybody before Dante who spent this much time and effort to clearly describe it all.
- Limbo: Virtuous pagans who’d never heard of Jesus or Christianity and other such unbaptized people. It didn’t seem too bad. Mostly, they were just sad that Yahweh wasn’t around. Limbo basically resembled an inferior form of Heaven.
- Lust: Sinners with lives defined by self-indulgent sexytimes. They faced constant high winds.
- Gluttony: As one expects, sinners with lives defined by self-indulgent eating. Rain and hail, black snow.
- Greed: Self-indulgent hoarders and spenders. These souls pushed boulders around. They often fought with each other.
- Wrath: These souls fought eternally with each other atop the River Styx.
- Heresy: In life, these sinners had maliciously taught false things to others or committed the sins of sodomy, blasphemy, or usury. They were locked in burning stone coffins and endured a rain of fire.
- Violence: Here, we find those who raised hands to their neighbors, themselves, or against Yahweh, art, or the world itself. Harpies, rivers of blood, centaurs, and more awaited these souls.
- Fraud: Panderers, seducers, flatterers, usurers, sorcerers, corrupt politicians, thieves and hypocrites went here. Demons marched them around constantly through ditches.
- Treachery: A frozen lake containing Satan and frozen sinners. Somehow, someone arranged the sinners in concentric circles according to serious their overriding betrayal had been. In descending order of importance, the rings represented the betrayal of family ties, community ties, hospitality toward guests, and betrayal of one’s superiors.
Dante categorized the circles of Hell and the sins according to three types: self-indulgence (2-5), violence (7), and malice/treachery (8-9).
The Response to Dante’s Poem.
The Divine Comedy seems to have been popular from the get-go. Almost immediately, people recognized this poem as a masterpiece.
As La Wiki tells us, the Dante Society in Italy lists 800 manuscripts hand-copied during the 1400s. That’s not how many got made. It’s just how many survived in some form to the modern day.
Italians adopted the printing press in 1465, right after the Germans did. By 1470, they were printing their own books — and the Comedy was one of the early ones they printed. In 1472, Johann Neumeister and Evangelista Angelini da Trevi (she was heavily involved in popularizing printing in her area) published the first printed copy of Dante’s poem. The pair printed 300 copies of The Divine Comedy. Fourteen of those books still survive.
Over in England, Chaucer’s “Monk’s Tale” in his Canterbury Tales mentions Dante and his Comedy. Chaucer was born about 20 years after Dante died, but as this paper tells us, the poem still held a lot of sway. Not only did people read the poem itself, but they wrote and purchased a great number of commentaries on the poem.
So Dante’s reach extended very far — and would for many years to come.
A New Kind of Hell From Dante.
Dante envisioned a Hell that punished people in markedly different ways, but always according to their overruling sins. He offered readers a taste of contrapasso, or punishments-fitting-the-crime.
Previously, Christians had always insisted that Hell was always flames. At most, these flames tormented sinners to different degrees. But they were always flames. This time around, demons hunted some sinners. Other sinners existed in a frozen state. Flames tormented others. And other souls still shoved big rocks around or fought each other.
Within each circle of Hell, sinners experienced punishments that roughly answered for their crimes in life. For example, Flatterers in the 8th circle howled and fought each other while covered in excrement. The excrement represented their false flatteries in life. However, Sorcerers in this same circle, who’d tried so hard in life to see the future, now walked around with their heads on backward; they would forevermore only see behind themselves, never forward again.
And within these circles, Dante described real people. He described Popes and big-name Italians there as well as classical heroes from Greek and Roman mythology. So he put a very immediate face on the damned.
Dante achieved all of this while working within that Renaissance Florentine love of precise order and delineation in a language nobody had previously thought was suited to lofty poetry and grand themes. It truly is remarkable.
The Hell of Dante: A Rational, Concrete, Physical Realm.
Even more than Dante’s visions of contrapasso and demons, his Hell could be mapped. It could be charted and understood. He presented a Hell that made a lot of sense to people at the time. It still does. From the very start, Renaissance artists often tried to depict Dante’s Inferno. It fascinated people at the time, and it still fascinates people today.
Dante also stressed the Christian belief that nothing people do in their lifetime matters if they don’t make the right choices to believe and obey Yahweh
‘s self-declared representatives on Earth. His first circle of Hell, Limbo, contained “virtuous pagans” who just hadn’t heard the Good News — and people who had had no choice at all about accepting or rejecting it. Their version of Hell wasn’t bad at all, but it wasn’t Heaven.
So yes, Dante pushed hard on the idea that separation from Yahweh was what really made Hell so bad. Hell-believing Christians today constantly talk constantly about this whole notion (vehemently denying or affirming the idea), which tells me that the claim still has legs.
In addition, I wonder if Dante’s absolutely savage criticism of various Catholic leaders of his day led to others feeling freer to criticize Catholicism in similar ways. He himself was undoubtedly Catholic, but a lot of Catholic leaders sure showed up in his Inferno — along with extensive accounting of their sins.
I also see a lot of today’s emphasis on “logical Christianity” deriving from the poem. Dante’s first guide, Virgil, represents humans’ ability to reason and use logic. Dante didn’t see any reason why people couldn’t use rationality to arrive at the correct choice (as he saw it). In fact, in his opinion rationality led only to Christianity and its god. It could lead nowhere else.
Dante and the Inferno in the Modern Age.
Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.
Christians today — especially Hell-believing Christians — probably don’t read a lot of Dante. So, they might not realize just how much Dante has influenced their ideas about Hell.
Over on Got Questions, an evangelical site, their writers bravely wade into that question. (Spoiler: They disapprove completely.)
Nonetheless, Christians today do tend to like the idea of contrapasso. Also, Dante’s Satan was 100% and completely gross and evil. Previous demons seem like they contained some measure of sympathetic qualities. I can understand that, since they were, after all, fallen angels. But not Dante’s Satan.
But the power of Dante’s writing goes a lot deeper that that.
I was never quite sure what to think when our classics professors said “Dante invented hell.” After all, Inanna went to the underworld, and so did Gilgamesh. Odysseus went there, and so did Aeneas.
But if you read Homer and Virgil, their underworlds are not like Dante’s hell. Yes, you can see precursors, but demons rending sinners apart, people driven in circles by burning rain, thorn branches spouting blood when broken, and then speaking… Dante invented all that. There were punishments that fit some crimes before, but not on Dante’s level.
Sure, Dante didn’t make “this stuff” up on his own, as that Redditor accurately notes as well. However, Dante’s the one who wrote it down like that. And he did so in a way that mightily resonated with others.
What interests me more is that Dante’s vision of Hell ruthlessly punished treachery against others way more than, say, pride or unapproved sex. Somehow, that part of the Comedy doesn’t seem to have survived into modern Christians’ imaginings of Hell.
And One Last Enduring Question (With a Distinct Answer).
I leave this topic now with an interesting question that has a very distinct answer. Alas, I suspect many Hell-believing Christians would not appreciate that answer.
As this essay from Vision puts it, the imagery of Dante’s poem “has been absorbed to varying degrees by Christians everywhere.” Then, their writer marvels:
Yet on the face of it, it seems strange that the pagan pseudo-philosophical concept of the immortal soul, which is alien to the Hebraic underpinnings of the Bible, should be so broadly accepted.
In response, I offer a gentle correction:
It’s not strange at all.
We’ve traced this exact question throughout our Journey Into Hell series. Really, nothing whatsoever could possibly be more understandable and less strange than the way that Christians have always steadily absorbed all kinds of non-Christian ideas into their overall package of beliefs.
That’s what happens when people believe something that isn’t true. Anything that appeals to the claim’s believers can make it into their head-canon.
Dante Alighieri assembled a whole bunch of those ideas together in a dramatic work that has endured for centuries now. Out of every Christian I can think of (yes, even including John Milton, who’s coming up next), Dante may well represent the biggest influence on Christians’ Hell-beliefs.
NEXT UP: Tomorrow, we swing back around to a Christian with a lot of reasons to be thankful that Hell doesn’t exist: James MacDonald. We’ll check out his ongoing attempts to gatekeep Christianity to specifically exclude his own enemies, and what these constant gatekeeping attempts tell us. See you then!
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PS: If you’re curious about what Dante’s “new sweet style” of love poetry looked like, here’s a little taste and a link to more:
There is a gentle thought that often springs
to life in me, because it speaks of you.
Its reasoning about love’s so sweet and true,
the heart is conquered, and accepts these things.