Maps of Sin and Anxiety
“The Divine Comedy” is one of the greatest works of world literature. Through the imaginative vision of the Christian afterlife, Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece culminates the medieval world-view as developed in the Western Church. (Durling 10).
Alighieri narrates in the first person point of view. He is the main character. He travels through the three realms of the dead – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso in the spring of 1300. The Roman poet Virgil serves as his guide in Inferno and Purgatorio. Beatrice, his childhood crush, is his guide through Paradiso.
Alighieri’s political background at that time is reflected in “The Divine Comedy.” He was part of the Guelphs. This was a group who favored the Papacy than the Roman Emperor. Specifically, he was part of the White Guelphs. This group opposed Pop Boniface VIII’s secular rule. They intended to retain the independence of Florence. Their counterpart, the Black Guelphs, supported the Pope’s control of Florence. Dante was exiled along with the other White Guelphs in 1302. He was threatened by the pope, claiming that he would be pope if he returned. Thus explains the damnation of his opponents in “The Divine Comedy.”
Thousands of years later, “The Divine Comedy” continues to inspire books and movies on the perception of the afterlife. This paper will discuss the allusions of human anxiety when set alongside the divine punishment of the individuals who were banished in the cantos of inferno. Alighieri strives for moral objectivity in his work but when set alongside Italian theology, are typical views. Punishments, in the literal aspect, are defined as “poetic justice.” This paper will elaborate the prejudices, fears and obsessions of Italians during that time as seen through Alighieri’s work and set in Inferno.
The entrance to Inferno is through The Dark Wood. Dante was contemplating on committing suicide. He was attacked by a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf. Dante was about to go mad but Virgil rescued him. They passed through an inscription which stated “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Before they completely entered Hell, Dante and Virgil saw the Opportunists. These were the people who did nothing when they were alive. They were neither good nor evil in the theological sense. Throughout the passages in “The Divine Comedy,” Dante recognized people. Here, he saw Pope Celestine V, who could also be Pontius Pilate. Until now, there is ongoing debate on who exactly he was pertaining to. Along the Opportunists were the Outcasts. These were the angels who didn’t take side in the Rebellion. They could not go to Hell, neither could they be out of Hell so these souls stayed in Acheron. They were punished to chase a banner while being pursued by hornets and wasps. If that weren’t enough, maggots and insects drunk their tears. This represented the people who didn’t have a fixed believe on Catechism. Therefore, they were punished to chase over something insignificant while they are pursued by their conscience.
There are nine circles in Inferno. These are concentric and as one goes deeper, there is a gradual increase in terms of wickedness. The very core is where Satan is imprisoned. Dante asked Virgil the difference between the people who were ordered to stay for all eternity in Inferno and those in Purgatorio. Virgil replied that those who died in the grade of God but were still impure are in the latter whereas the sinners who were unrepentant of the sins they committed were in the former.
During Dante’s time, the sins were ranked depending on their groups. Incontinence was less punished than the sins of violence and fraud. In “The Divine Comedy”, these were represented by the leopard, lion and she-wolf. (Wright).
The First Circle was for the Limbo. This was where the unbaptized and the virtuous pagans stayed. Those who didn’t accept the sanctity of Christ were “punished.” It is quotation marks because the first circle had green fields and even a castle. Inside were poets Horace, Ovid, Homer and Lucan as the philosophers Plato and Socrates. It was as if they were punished by giving them a different kind of heaven. This is a theological contradiction because these poets and philosophers were deemed to be “atheists.” Some scholars believe that since Dante was a philosopher and poet himself, his representation of the punishment in Limbo were not as strict as in the other circles.
The Second Circle was for the Lustful. They were blown everywhere by a violent storm and this went on an on. Those who embraced their lust when they were alive continued to blow aimlessly in the afterlife. The Third Circle was for the Gluttons. They were punished by lying down on the mud despite the hail and the rain. Because of their laziness, they were asked to be the same in Inferno.
The theological contradiction is that the Lustful was also considered to be a crime of theft when it concerned adultery. However, in “The Divine Comedy,” Francesca da Ramini was in the second circle. Some theologians believed that the sin committed by da Ramini was adultery and the punishment must be grave. Also, theologians believed that Lust was more of a sin than Gluttony.
The Fourth Circle was for individuals whose main priority in their lifetime was to inquire as much materials goods as they could. These were the miserly and the avaricious. These were the people who stocked up on their possession. There were also the prodigals who spent them left and right. These people were punished by pushing a great boulder against other groups. The weights of these boulders eventually crash and they had to do it all over again. It was as if even during their death, they were asked to continue pushing their beloved money bags.
The Fifth Circle was for the Wrathful and the Slothful. The sinners were punished to fight one another on the surface of the swamp. The slothful were then punished to lie underneath. The Sixth Circle was where the Heretics are punished by imprisonment inside flaming tombs.
Another theological contradiction arise in the fourth, fifth and sixth circle. The Church encourages individuals to give to charity. At the same time, they are asked to save. Dante writes to express that sometimes even the Church contradicts what it preaches. Since he protested the movement of the Pope, he believed that those in the religious institutions either squandered the money or kept these. There is also a debate on the difference between the sinners in the Third Circle and the Fourth Circle. Gluttony was also considered to be Slothful and vice versa by Catholicism. In Dante’s work, the definition was vague. There was also a dichotomy on the Sixth Circle. Here, it was clear that the people in the Sixth Circle were Dante’s political enemies. When set alongside his “inspirational” philosophers and poets in The Limbo, the sins of those in the Sixth Circle were more punishable than those in the First Circle. Modern theologians believe that there is a bias. (Sayers)
The Seventh Circle is for The Violent. It is divided in three rings. The outer ring was for those who were violent towards people. They were punished by immerging themselves in a river of boiling blood. In the middle ring, the suicides were punished by being transformed into bushes and trees. They were torn at by the mythological bird Harpies. This was because those who committed suicide would not be resurrected until Judgment Day. Finally, the inner ring was for the blasphemers, who were violent against God, the sodomites, who were violent against nature and the usurers, who were violent against the arts. Their punishment varied. The blasphemers were asked to lie on the sand, the sodomites wandered around and the usurers sat.
The Eight Circle was for the Fraudulent. These were the people who were guilty of knowing evil but still committed the sins. The panderers, seducers walked in opposite directors and were whipped by demons, the flatterers were trapped in human excrement, those who committed simony were trapped head-first in rocks, sorcerers had their heads twisted backwards, corrupt politicians were immersed in a boiling lake, the hypocrites walked aimlessly, the thieves were bitten by snakes, transformed and burned into ashes, fraudulent advisors are burned in flames, those who sowed discord were torn apart by demons, and the falsifiers were punished with various diseases.
The Ninth Circle was for the Traitors. It was divided into Zones. Zone 1 was for those who were traitors to their kindred and were punished by being immersed in the ice. Zone 2 was for the political figures who were gnawed on the head. Zone 3 was for those who were traitors to their guests and were burned and only half of their faces were visible. Finally Zone 3 was for those who were traitors of their lords and their benefactors. Judas Iscariot was here. These individuals were distorted to conceivable positions. Finally, Satan, because he was God’s traitor was in the very middle of Inferno. He was waist deep in ice and he couldn’t escape.
”The Divine Comedy” was attacked by medieval theology because the Church believed that a mere philosopher/poet had no write to rate the “evils” of an individual. It was also taboo because people from the Papacy were included in Inferno. The fact of the matter is that “The Divine Comedy” was an allusion to Dante’s take on the Afterlife. It was not just an attack on his enemies concerning the Papacy. (Masciandaro, 240)
“The Divine Comedy” is a fine example of allegory. There are multiple meanings in each episode. There are tons of alternate meanings. This makes Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” more complicated. The poem was launched to critique the human qualities of men. This paper discussed the sins of the individuals, through Dante’s eyes. He delineated people from literature and also those from his society but his denunciations of the evils were his reaction toward Italian politics as well as his poetic imagination. (Tambling, 142)
“The Divine Comedy” continues to be a classic because it allows the readers to have any form of interpretation in the work. The range is wide and the variety increases as each new discovery concerning the text emerges.
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Masciandaro, Franco, Dante as Dramatist: The Myth of the Earthly Paradise and Tragic
Vision in the Divine Comedy, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991
Tambling, Jeremy, “Thinking Melancholy: Allegory and the ‘Vita Nuova’” The Romantic
Review, Vol 96, 2005
Sayers, William, “Nautical Deixis in Dante’s Comedia” The Romantic Review, Vol 96,
Wright, Michelle R, “Interpreting Codicology: Re-visions of the Divine Comedy in the Codex Althona”, Mosaic (Winnipeg), Vol 28, 1995