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The Beginnig of a Great Journey

Summary of Dante Alighieri's INFERNO, Part 1 of the Divine Comedy.


By B. John Zavrel


"Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark forest." So begins 'The Divine Comedy' of the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri.

It is a Christian allegory, with which the Western civilization has tried to unlock the mystery of its identity. In INFERNO, the first part of the trilogy, Dante is conducted by the spirit of the ancient poet Virgil through the nine circles of Hell on the first stage of his long journey toward God.

Dante travels the universe from end to end, from his personal contact with the hairy sides of Satan to his final ecstatic vision of God. He maps the physical and moral geography of that universe. He evaluates everything in the universe within a single system of values. For him, the universe was a sphere of which Satan was the center and God the circumference.

From this concept, a thing is good as it occurs closer to God, and evil as it occurs closer to Satan. This way, Dante also classifies the good and evil of every form of human behavior.



(1) Dante himself was born in 1265. He started writing the poem at the age of 35, in the year 1300. The poem opens with the words 'Midway in our life's journey", and he means it literally. It is half of the biblically allotted life span of seventy years. And the journey begins at dawn on Good Friday.

The knowledge that one is lost is the beginning of finding one's way. In that knowledge, Dante looks up, and sees the first rays of dawn on the shoulders of a small hill. Sun is the symbol of God as Divine Illumination, and Dante yearns for that light. He races up the hill toward it. But God cannot be reached so easily… Dante's way is blocked by three beasts of worldliness, who symbolize the three divisions of Hell:

a She-Wolf, the Upper Hell (sins of incontinence),

a Lion, Middle Hell (sins of violence and ambition), and

a Leopard, the Lower Hell (the sins of malice and fraud).


Forced back into the darkness by these three beasts, Dante discovers the figure of Virgil, a symbol of human reason. His task is to show Dante the foolishness of his behavior. Dante must go a more difficult way. He must make the perilous descent to the bottom of Hell, to the recognition of the true nature of sin. He must then make the difficult climb of the Mount of Purgatory, to the total renunciation of sin. Only then, after a great effort, can the soul be ready to approach God.

Virgil offers to guide Dante, but only as far as human reason can go. Another guide, Beatrice--symbol of divine love--must take over for the final ascent. Dante agrees, and they start the long journey.


(2) It is the evening of the first day, Good Friday. Dante is following Virgil and finds himself tired and despairing. To comfort him, Virgil explains how Beatrice came to him to send him to help Dante on his journey. Now Dante understands that with the help of heavenly powers he cannot fail, and his spirit rises with anticipation.


(3) The poets Dante and Vergil pass the Gate of Hell and are immediately overwhelmed by cries of anguish. Dante sees the first souls in torment. They are the OPPORTUNISTS, those souls who in life were neither for good nor evil, but only for themselves.

The law of Dante's Hell is the law of symbolic retribution. As they sinned, so they are punished. They took no sides, therefore they are given no place. As their sin was darkness, they now move in darkness. As their own guilty consciousness pursued them, so they are now pursued by swarms of wasps and hornets.

They move on to Acheron, the first of several rivers of Hell. Here, the newly arrived souls of the damned gather and wait for the monstrous Charon to ferry them over to punishment. Charon recognizes Dante as a living man and refuses him passage, but Virgil forces him to serve them. Dante faints with terror, and does not reawaken until they reach the other side.


(4) Dante wakes to find himself across Acheron. They are now on the brink of Hell itself, which Dante conceives as a great, funnel-shaped cave lying below the northern hemisphere, with its bottom at the earth's center. Around this great circular depression runs a series of ledges, each of which Dante calls a Circle. Each circle is assigned to the punishment of one category of sin.

The poets begins to cross the First Circle. Here they find the VIRTUOUS PAGANS. They were born without the light of Christ's revelation. Their only pain is that they have no hope. This is also Virgil's eternal place in Hell. Here are also the great poets of all time--Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. Together with these poets, they all enter the Citadel of Human Reason. Dante sees the Master Souls of pagan antiquity all gathered on grass, illuminated by the radiance of Human Reason. This is the highest state that man can achieve without God, and the glory of it dazzles Dante. But he knows that it is nothing compared to the glory of God.


(5) The poets Virgil and Dante leave Limbo and enter the Second Circle. Here begin the torments of Hell proper. Here, blocking the way, sits Minos, the semi-bestial judge of the damned. He assigns to each soul its eternal torment. He orders the poets back, but Virgil silences him, and the poets move on.

They find themselves on a dark ledge swept by a great whirlwind, which spins within it the souls of the CARNAL, those who betrayed reason to their appetites. Their sin was to abandon themselves to the tempest of their passions. Here Dante sees Cleopatra, Helen, Achilles, Paris, Tristan, as well as Paolo and Francesca. The couple tells Dante their story, and he is so stricken by compassion that he faints once again.


(6) Dante regains consciousness, and finds himself in the Third Circle. A great storm, continuously dropping stinking snow and freezing rain forms slush on the ground. The souls of the damned lie here in the icy paste, like in a garbage dump. Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hell, stands guard over them, ripping and tearing them with his claws and teeth.

These are the GLUTTONS. In life they misused God's gifts and only wallowed in food and drink, and produced only garbage and waste. Now they will lie here through eternity, just like garbage, with Cerberus as their tormentor.


(7) The poets enter the Fourth Circle, and find a big fight in progress. The sinners are divided into two raging mobs, each soul straining madly at a great boulder-like weight. The two mobs meet, and continuously clash their weights against one another.

One mob is made up of the HOARDERS, and the other of the WASTERS. In life, they lacked all moderation and thought of nothing but money.

The poets continue their journey, and reach the Black Spring. It bubbles murkily over the rocks to form the Marsh of Styx, which is the Fifth Circle.

Across the marsh they see countless souls attacking one another in foul slime. These are the WRATHFUL and the SULLEN.


(8) The poets stand at the edge of the swamp, and a mysterious flame signals from a great tower. Soon enough, Phlegyas, the Boatman of Styx, races toward them across the water. As they are crossing the marsh with him, a muddy soul rises before them. It is one of the WRATHFUL.

The boat moves on, and now they see the flaming red towers of Dis, the Capital of Hell. Phlegyas deposits them at a great Iron Gate, which is guarded by the REBELLIOUS ANGELS. These evil creatures refuse to let them enter. Only with Divine Aid could they possible continue their journey. Virgil sends up a prayer for assistance, and anxiously waits for a Heavenly Messenger to appear.


(9) While waiting at the Gate of Dis, Virgil tries to hide his own anxiety from Dante. To add to their terror, Three Infernal Furies appear on a near-by tower, from which they threaten the poets, and call on Medusa to come and change them to stone.

At this moment of greatest anxiety, a storm shakes the air of Hell--the Heavenly Messenger is majestically approaching, looking neither to right nor to left. With a touch he opens the Gate of Dis, and then returns as he came.

The poets enter the gate, and find themselves in the Sixth Circle. The landscape is like a cemetery. All kinds of tombs surround them, each with its lid lying beside it, and each wrapped in flames. Cries of anguish sound endlessly from the entombed dead.

They are the HERETICS of every cult: the ones who offended God by denying immortality.


(10) As the poets pass, one of the dead hears Dante speaking, and recognizes him as a fellow Tuscan. He calls to him from one of the fiery tombs, and asks Dante who were his ancestors. He recognizes him as an enemy, and they start talking politics.


(11) Continuing the journey, the poets reach the inner edge of the Sixth Circle and find a great jumble of rocks--result of the great earthquake that shook Hell when Christ died. Below them lies the Seventh Circle. The air is so foul that the poets seek shelter behind a great tomb, until their breaths can grow accustomed to the stench. Virgil now outlines in detail the division of the Lower Hell:


Circle 6:

a) Sins against Neighbors (Murderers and war-makers)


Circle 7:

b) Sins against Self (Suicides)

c) Sins against God, Art, and Nature (and Usury is one of them)


Circle 8:

1) Seducers

2) Flatterers

3) Simoniacs

4) Fortune tellers

5) Grafters

6) Hypocrites

7) Thieves

8) Evil counselors

9) Sowers of discord

10) Counterfiters and alchemists


Circle 9:

1) Treachery against relatives

2) Treachery against country

3) Treachery against guests and hosts

4) Treachery against lords and benefactors


As Virgil concludes his explanation, he rises and urges Dante on.


(12) The poets beging their descent of the fallen rock wall and meet the Minotaur. Virgil tricks him, and they hurry past him.

Below them they see the River of Blood. Here are punished the VIOLENT AGAINST THEIR NEIGHBORS--the great war-makers and cruel tyrants. They all shed blood of their fellowmen. And now they are immersed in the boiling blood forever, according to the degree of their guilt.

Next, the poets are challenged by the Centaurs, but Virgil manages to win safe conduct from Chiron, their chief, who assigns Nessus to guide them and help them across the river.


(13) Nessus carries them across the river of boiling blood, and leaves them in the next circle, THE WOOD OF THE SUICIDES. Here are punished those who destroyed their own lives.

These souls are encased in thorny trees, whose leaves are eaten by the odious Harpies. When the Harpies feed upon them, the wounds bleed. The are permitted to speak only as long as the blood flows. Thus, those who destroyed their bodies are denied a 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.


(14) The poets move on to the next round, a great Plain of Burning Sand, upon which descends an eternal slow Rain of Fire. Here, scorched from above and below, are three classes of sinners: THE BLASPHEMERS (The Violent against God) are stretched supine upon the sand. THE SODOMITES (The Violent against Nature) run in endless circles. THE USURERS (The Violent against Art, which is the Grandchild of God) huddle on the sands.

They continue along the edge of the Wood of the Suicides, and come to a blood-red rill which flows boiling from the Wood and crosses the burning plain. Virgil explains the miraculous power of its waters and the origin of all the rivers of Hell.


(15) Protected by the marvelous powers of the boiling rill, the poets walk along its banks across the burning plain. The Great Cliff, at whose foot lies the Eighth Circle, is before them.

They pass one of the roving bands of SODOMITES. One of them stops Dante, and he recognizes him. He was a dear friend of his and a writer who had considerably influenced Dante's own development. Dante addresses him with great and sorrowful affection, paying him the highest tribute offered to any sinner in the Inferno.


(16) The poets arrive within hearing of the waterfall that plunges over the Great Cliff into the Eighth Circle. Three wraiths, recognizing Dante's Florentine dress, come running toward him to ask news of Florence. Dante replies, and they return to their bands. The Poets continue to the top of the falls. Here, Dante is instructed to remove a cord from around his waist, and Virgil drops it over the edge of the abyss. Immediately, a great, distorted shape comes swimming up through the dirty air of the pit.


(17) The monstrous shape lands along the brink, and Virgil salutes it. It is Geryon, the Monster of Fraud. Virgil announces that they must fly down from the cliff on the back of this monster. While Virgil negotiates for their passage, Dante is sent to examine the USURERS (The Violent against Art).

These sinners sit in a crouch along the edge of the burning plain. Each of them has a leather purse around his neck. Their eyes, gushing with tears, are forever fixed on these purses.

Then Dante re-joins Virgil, and mounted on the back of Geryon, they fly down from the great cliff. Their flight carries them from the Hell of the Violent and the Bestial down into the Hell of the Fraudulent and Malicious.


(18) Having dismounted from Geryon, the poets find themselves in the Eighth Circle. It is the upper half of the Hell of the Fraudulent and Malicious. It is a great circle of stone, which slopes down like an amphitheater. The slopes are divided into ten concentric ditches. And within these ditches, each with his own kind, are punished those guilty of Simple Fraud.

The poets go toward the first ditch, and come to the first group of sinners, the PANDERERS and SEDUCERS. They make two files, one on each side of the ditch, and are driven at an endless fast walk by horned demons, who hurry them along with great lashes. In life, they goaded others on to serve their own foul purposes; so in Hell they are driven in their turn.


(19) Dante comes upon the SIMONIACS (sellers of church favors and offices), and his heart overflows with wrath against those who corrupt the things of God. This ditch is lined with round, tube-like holes and the sinners are placed in them upside down, with the soles of their feet ablaze.

As always with Dante, the punishment is a symbolic retribution. Just as they made a mock of the holy office, so they are now turned upside down and punished with fire. They meet one of the chief sinners in this place, Pope Nicholas III, and Dante makes another stirring denunciation of those who have corrupted church office. Then, Virgil carries him toward the next ditch.


(20) Dante now stands in the middle of the bridge over the fourth ditch, and looks down at the souls of the FORTUNE TELLERS and DIVINERS. Here are the souls who attempted by forbidden arts to look into the future.

Their sin is reversed upon them: their punishment is to have their heads turned backwards on their bodies, and to be compelled to walk backward through eternity, their eyes blinded with tears. Thus, those who sought to penetrate the future now cannot even see in front of themselves and must go backwards through all eternity.


(21) The poets move on, and arrive at the fifth ditch. Here the GRAFTERS are sunk in boiling pitch and guarded by demons, who tear them to pieces with claws and hooks if they catch them above the surface of the pitch.

The sticky pitch is symbolic of the sticky fingers of the Grafters. It serves also to hide them from sight, as their sinful dealings on earth were hidden from men's eyes.

The poets watch a demon arrive with a grafting senator and fling him into the pitch where the demons set upon him.

To protect Dante from their wrath, Virgil hides him behind some jagged rocks and goes ahead alone to negotiate with the demons. Their leader, Malacoda gives them a safe conduct and sends a band of demons to escort them. Their adventures with the demons continue through the next canto.


(22) The poets set off with their escort of demons. Dante sees the Grafters lying in the pitch like frogs in water, with only their muzzles out. They disapper as soon as they sight the demons and only a ripple on the surface betrays their presence.

One of the Grafters ducks too late and is seized by the demons who are about to claw him, but their leader holds them back while Virgil questions him. The wretch speaks of his fellow sinners, while the uncontrollable demons rake him from time to time with their hooks.

He offers to lure some of his fellow sufferers into the hands of the demons, and when his plan is accepted he plunges into the pitch and escapes. Two of the demons fly after him, to too late. They start a brawl in the air, fall in the ditch and the other demons have to rescue them. The poets, fearing the bad temper of the frustrated demons, take advantage of the confusion and slip away.


(23) The poets are pursued by the Fiends and escape them by sliding down the sloping bank of the next pit. They are now in the sixth ditch. Here the HYPOCRITES, weighed down by great leaden robes, walk eternally round and round a narrow track. The robes are brilliantly gilded on the outside and are shaped like a monk's habit, since 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 for all eternity.

The poets come upon Caiaphas, the chief sinner in that place. He was the Hight Priest of the Jews who counseled the Pharisees to crucify Jesus in the name of public expedience. He is punished by being himself crucified to the floor of Hell by three great stakes, and in such a position that every passing sinner must walk upon him. Thus he must suffer upon his body the weight of all the world's hypocrisy, as Christ suffered upon his body the pain of all the world's sins.


(24) The poets move on and cross the bridge of the Seventh Ditch and descend the far bank to observe the THIEVES. They find the pit full of monstrous reptiles who curl themselves about the sinners like living coils of rope, binding each sinner's hands behind his back, and knotting themselves through the loins. Other reptiles dart about the place, and the poets see one of them fly through the air and pierce the jugular vein of one sinner who immediately bursts into flames until only the ashes remain. From the ashes the sinner re-forms painfully.

The allegorical retribution is apparent. Thievery is reptilian in its secrecy; therefore it is punished by reptiles. The hands of the thieves are the agents of their crimes; therefore they are bound forever. And as the thief destroys his fellowmen by making their substance disappear, so is he painfully destroyed and made to disappear, not once but over and over again.


(25) Vanni, one of the sinners in this place, is in a great rage and he hurls an ultimate obscenity at God. The serpents immediately swarm over him, driving him off in great pain. The Centaur, Cacus, his back covered with serpents and a fire-eating dragon, also gives chase to punish the wretch.

Dante then meets the souls of five THIEVES of Florence and sees the further retribution visited upon the sinners. Some of the thieves appear first in human form, others as reptiles.

The endless and painful transformation is the final state of thieves. In life they took the substance of others, transforming it into their own. So in Hell their bodies are constantly being taken from them, and they are left to steal back a human form from some other sinner. Thus they waver constantly between man and reptile, and no sinner knows what to call his own.


(26) Dante turns from the Thieves toward the EVIL COUNSELORS of the next ditch. They are a moral symbolism, all men of gift who abused their genius, perverting it to wiles and stratagems. The poets move on, and Dante observes the inhabitants of this eighth ditch in detail. Here the evil counselors move about endlessly, hidden from view inside great flames. Their sin was to abuse the gifts of the Almighty, to steal his virtues for low purposes. And, as they stole from God in their lives and worked in hidden ways, so are they stolen from sight and hidden in the great flames which are their own guilty consciences.


(27) The double flame enveloping a sinner departs at a word from Virgil, and behind it appears another one, which contains the soul of another great sinner. He too wants to hear news of his former war-torn country, and Dante replies with a tragic summary of how things stand in the cities of Romagna. When he is finished, he asks the sinner for his story, and he recounts his life and how one of the Popes persuaded him to sin.


(28) The poets come to the edge of the ninth ditch, and look down at a parade of hideously mutilated souls. These are the SOWERS OF DISCORD, 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 heal in time to be inflicted anew.

Among them, Dante distinguishes three classes: SOWERS OF RELIGIOUS DOSCORD, with Mahomet as the chief among them. Next come the SOWERS OF POLITICAL DISCORD. Last of all are the SOWERS OF DISCORD BETWEEN KINSMEN. These are represented by Bertrand de Born. He separated father from son, and for that offense carries his head separated from his body, holding it with one hand by the hair, and swinging it as if it were a lantern to light his dark and endless way.


(29) Virgil now hurries Dante on to continue the journey. The poets now look into the tenth and last ditch of the Eighth Circle of Hell, and here they see the FALSIFIERS. They are punished by afflictions of every sense by darkness, stench, thirst, filth, loathsome diseases, and a shrieking din. Some of them run ravening through the pit, tearing others to pieces. Just as in life they corrupted society by their falsifications, so in death these sinners are subjected so a sum of all corruption. Dante distinguishes four classes of falsifiers and in this canto we meet the first one, THE ALCHEMISTS, the falsifiers of things.


(30) Dante speaks to two of these souls. Just as the second finishes speaking, two ravenous spirits come racing through the pit. One of them sinks his tusks into Capocchio's neck, and drags him away like prey. His companion identifies the two, who will run ravening through the pit through all eternity, snatching at other souls and tearing them apart. These are the EVIL IMPERSONATORS, falsifiers of persons. 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.

Next appears Master Adam, one of the COUNTERFITORS, falsifiers of money. Like the alchemists, he is punished with a loathsome disease. He cannot move from where he lies, and his disease is compounded by other afflictions, including an eternity of unbearable thirst.


(31) Dante's spirits rise again as the poets approach the central pit, a great well, at the bottom of which lies Cocytus, the Ninth and final circle of Hell. Through the darkness, Dante sees what appears to be a city of great towers. As he draws near, he discovers that the great shapes he has seen are the Giants and Titans, who stand perpetual guard inside the well with the upper halves of their bodies rising above the rim.

One of them is Nimrod, the builder of the Tower of Babel. These are the sons of earth, embodiment of elemental forces unbalanced by love, desire without restraint and without acknowledgment of moral and theological law. They are symbols of the earth-trace that every devout man must clear from his soul, the unchecked passions of the beast. Raised from the earth, they make the very gods tremble. Now they are returned to the darkness of their origins, guardians of earth's last depth.


(32) At the bottom of the well Dante finds himself on a huge frozen lake. This is Cocytus, the Ninth Circle, the fourth and the last great water of Hell. Here, frozen in the ice, are punished sinners guilty of treachery against those to whom they were bound by special ties. The ice is divided into four concentric rings marked only by different positions of the damned within the ice.

This is Dante's symbolic equivalent of the final guilt. The treacheries of these souls were denials of love and of all human warmth. Only the remorseless dead center of the ice will serve to express their natures. As they denied God's love, so are they furthest removed from the light and warmth of His Sun. As they denied all human ties, so are they bound only by the unyielding ice.

The first round is called Caina, named for Cain. Here lie those who were treacherous against their relatives. They have their necks and heads out of the ice and are permitted to bow their heads--a double boon, since it allows them some protection from the freezing gale and allows their tears to fall without freezing their eyes shut.

The second round is Antenore, named for Antenor, the Trojan who was believed to have betrayed his city to the Greeks. Here lie those guilty of Treachery to Country. They, too , have their heads above the ice, but they cannot bend their necks, which are gripped by the ice. The poets move on, and discover two heads frozen together in one hole. One of them is gnawing the nape of the other's neck.


(33) In reply to Dante's exhortation, the sinner who is gnawing his companion's head looks up, wipes his bloody mouth on his victim's hair, and tells his harrowing story. He is Count Ugolino and the wretch he gnaws is Archbishop Ruggieri. Both are here for treason. In life they had once plotter together. Then Ruggieri betrayed his fellow-plotter and caused his death, by starvation, along with his four sons. In the most dramatic passage of the Inferno, Ugolino details how their prison was sealed and how his sons dropped dead before him one by one, weeping for food. And now, the killer-by-starvation becomes the food of his victim.

The poets leave Ugolino and enter Ptolomea, so named after the Ptolomaeus of Maccabees, who murdered his father-in-law at a banquet. Here are punished those who were Treacherous Against the Ties of Hospitality. They lie with only half of their faces above the ice and their tears freeze in their eye sockets, sealing them. Thus, even the comfort of tears is denied them. Here Dante discovers the terrible power of Ptolomea: so great is its sin that the souls of the guilty fall to its torments even before they die, leaving their bodies still on earth, inhabited by Demons.


(34) The poets continue, and there, before them, they see Satan in the distance, his great wings beating like a windmill. It is their beating that is the source of the icy wind of Cocytus, the exhalation of all evil.

All about him in the ice are strewn the sinners of the last round, Judecca, named after Judas Iscariot. These are the Treacherous to Their Masters. They lie completely sealed in the ice, twisted and distorted into every conceivable posture. It is impossible to talk to them, and the poets move on to observe Satan.

He is fixed into the ice at the center of which flow all the rivers of guilt; and as he beats his great wings as if to escape, their icy wind only freezes him more surely into the polluted ice. He has three faces, each a different color, and in each mouth he clamps a sinner whom he rips eternally with his teeth. Judas Iscariot is in the central mouth. Brutus and Cassius are in the mouths on either side.

Having seen all, the poets now climb through the center, grappling hand over hand down the hairy flank of Satan himself. Finally, when they have passed the center of all gravity, they emerge from Hell. A long climb from the earth's center to the Mount of Purgatory awaits them, and they push on without rest, ascending along the sides of the river Lethe, till they emerge, just before dawn on Easter Sunday, once more to see the Heaven's stars.


The END of 'INFERNO', Part I of the DIVINA COMEDIA by Dante Alighieri.



© PROMETHEUS 150/2009

PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 150, December 2009