Barque of Dante, Eugène Delacroix, 1821. Wikipedia.
Barque of Dante, Eugène Delacroix, 1821. Wikipedia.

Listers, the Inferno is an invitation to examine your soul. In addition to the basic journey of Dante the Pilgrim, the notes below examine the Inferno as a story of the soul with a particular emphasis on virtue, vice, and the rationale behind each contrapasso. The contrapasso, as explained below, is the punishment Dante the Poet tailored for each sin, which, when understood, displays haunting insights into how the human will and intellect can fall into sin. While the academic benefits of reading the Inferno are notable, the spiritual treasury of the work is its true beauty. For those seeking to be intentional disciples of Jesus Christ, the Inferno has a poignant message: either you master your passions or your passions will master you.

1. The Dark Woods (Canto I)

"Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path." With this famous tercet, Dante Aligheri, Dante the Poet, opens his Divine Comedy. As Dante the Pilgrim, the character, attempts to leave the darks woods via a sun lit hill, his path is blocked by three beasts: a leopard, a lion, and then a she-wolf. The beasts are thought to represent the "three major divisions of hell."1 The leopard represents the fraud of the Eighth and Ninth Circles of Hell, the lion represents the violence punished in the Seventh Circle of Hell, and the she-wolf "represents the different types of concupiscence or incontinence, which are punished in Circles Two through Five."2 At this point, Virgil appears to Dante the Pilgrim. Virgil, a Roman poet who most famously authored the Aeneid, will serve as the allegory for "reason or human wisdom (the best that man can achieve in his own without the special grace of God)."3 In turn, Dante the Pilgrim, as distinct from Dante the Poet, will represent humanity.4 Virgil agrees to be Dante's guide throughout Hell and Purgatory.5

Upper Hell

2. The Vestibule of Hell (II-III)

The narrative of the Dark Woods in Canto I is arguably the introduction to the entire Divine Comedy, and as such, Canto II serves as the introduction to Volume One: The Inferno.6 Note that Dante begins the Canto by invoking the Muses, which was common in the "classic epic tradition."7 The Canto explains that the Virgin Mary took pity on Dante, and she told Saint Lucia to help him. St. Lucia then asked Beatrice, a soul in heaven who knows Dante, to help Dante; Beatrice then went into hell and asked Virgil to be Dante's guide.8 Whereas the three beasts of Canto I represent sin, the three ladies of Canto II represent grace.9 His heart emboldened, Dante and Virgil enter the "deep and rugged road" and arrive at the gate of hell.10 The inscription of the gate reads:




Upon passing through the gates, the Pilgrim hears the "sighs and cries and shrieks of lamentations echo[ing] throughout the starless air of Hell."12 Virgil and the Pilgrim enter into the Vestibule of Hell, which is populated by souls who lived a lukewarm life with "no blame and no praise," and by the angels who at Lucifer's great rebellion remained undecided.13 Here, Dante the Poet introduces the concept of contrapasso, i.e., "the just punishment of sin, effected by a process either resembling or contrasting with the sin itself."14 In the Vestibule, the contrapasso for the souls and angels who lived undecided is to eternally march after a banner.15 Amongst "great a number," the Pilgrim sees the shade of the "coward who had made the great refusal."16 While there are many interpretations, "perhaps it is most likely that this shade is Pontius Pilate, who refused to pass sentence on Christ."17 Virgil and the Pilgrim come to the river Acheron where they are ferried across by the demon Charon—"the boatman of classical mythology who transports the souls of the dead across the Acheron into Hades."18 As they cross the Acheron, a mighty wind blows against the Pilgrim and he swoons—a literary device that serves to close a narrative and introduce another.19

3. The First Circle of Hell – Limbo (IV)

The Pilgrim awakes, and Virgil leads him into the First Circle of Hell. The Pilgrim hears "the sounds of sighs of untormented grief" of "men and women and of infants."20 The circle is known as Limbo and is populated by naturally virtuous non-Christians and by unbaptized infants. As Virgil states, "But their great worth alone was not enough, for they did not know Baptism, which is the gateway to the faith you follow."21 The contrapasso of Limbo is that the virtuous souls live out eternity in a paradise devoid of the Beatific Vision. Like themselves, it is naturally good but lacks the grace of God. Dante the Poet equates Limbo with Sheol or Abraham's Bosom in the Old Testament; thus, Virgil tells him of "a mighty lord" who entered Limbo—Christ's Harrowing of Hell—and liberated Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, Abram, David, Israel, Rachel, and "many more he chose for blessedness."22 Dante sees many famous Greek and Roman poets in Limbo, which in turn greet Dante as a fellow poet.23 The Pilgrim approaches a castle in Limbo and "the inhabitants of the great castle are important pagan philosophers and poets, as well as famous warriors."24 Most notably, the Pilgrim sees Aristotle, the "master sage," to whom "all pay their homage."25 He is sitting with his "philosophy family" with Socrates on one side and Plato on the other.26 For Dante the Poet, "Aristotle represented the summit of human reason, that point that man could reach on his own without the benefit of Christian revelation."27 In fact, "with the exception of the Bible, Dante draws most often from Aristotle."28 Virgil and the Pilgrim leave the great castle and approach the "place where no light is."29

The Sins of the She-Wolf: The Sins of Incontinence

4. The Second Circle of Hell – Lust (V)

Virgil and the Pilgrim come upon King Minos, the judge of Hell. In classical literature, King Minos "was the son of Zeus and Europa" and "as the king of Crete he was revered for his wisdom and judicial gifts."30 In Virgil's Aeneid, King Minos serves as the "chief magistrate of the underworld," and Dante the Poet retains this classic notion; however, in the Inferno, King Minos has certain bestial qualities, most notably a tail, which, after the "evil soul appears before him, it confesses all," wraps around the shade and throws them in the corresponding circle of hell.31 For example, King Minos would wrap his tail twice around a shade condemned to the second circle of hell. Virgil and the Pilgrim continue and come upon an "infernal storm, eternal in its rage" blowing thousands of souls around in the wind.32 The contrapasso of the lustful souls who "make reason slave to appetite" is to be blown around and battered by a great wind—just as they allowed their reason to be blown around by their passions.33 Here, the Pilgrim sees Cleopatra, Helen, Achilles, Paris, Tristan, and others.34 The Pilgrim speaks to two souls buffeted by the winds: Francesca da Rimini and Paolo. It is in the Second Circle of Hell that Dante the Pilgrim fails his first test and introduces a major motif in the Inferno: pity.35 As Francesca tells the story of her life that led her to the Second Circle of Hell, the Pilgrim is moved toward pity – "Francesca, the torment that you suffer brings painful tears of pity to my eyes."36 The Pilgrim is seduced by Francesca's story, which places his pity against the wisdom of divine punishment that placed her among the lustful in hell. The Pilgrim's journey through hell will have several such encounters in which the Pilgrim will need to discern the true nature of sin and comprehend the divine justice that placed the shade there.

5. The Third Circle of Hell – Gluttony (VI)

Musa, the translator of the recommended translation footnoted below, explains the third circle and the contrapasso, "the shades in this circle are the gluttons, and their punishment fits their sin. Gluttony, like all the sins of incontinence, subjects reason to desire; in this case desire is a voracious appetite. Thus the shades howl like dogs—in desire, without reason; they are sunk in slime, the image of their excess. The warm comfort their gluttony brought them in life here has become cold, dirty rain and hail."37 The beast Cerberus—a "three-headed doglike beast"—dwells in the third circle.38 The beast both represents the sin of gluttony through its own immense appetite and further punishes those shades in the third circle as he "flays and mangles" the shades of that circle.39 Musa also notes "with his three heads, he appears to be a prefiguration of Lucifer and thus another infernal distortion of the Trinity."40 On their way toward the fourth circle, Dante the Pilgrim asks Virgil whether the punishment of the souls in hell will be increased or lessened on the Final Judgment.41 Virgil explains that the pain of those in hell will be "more perfect" after the Final Judgment, as the souls in hell will be reunited with their bodies after the bodily resurrection.42

6. The Fourth Circle of Hell – the Prodigal & Miserly (VII)

As Virgil and the Pilgrim enter into the fourth circle of hell, they are greeted by Plutus, the Roman god of wealth, who speaks incoherently and whom Virgil dismisses by calling him "cursed Wolf of hell."43 The reference to "wolf" recalls the she-wolf at the beginning and reminds the reader the Pilgrim is still journeying through the circles of sins related to incontinence. Here the Pilgrim sees shades "to the sound of their own screams, straining their chests, they rolled enormous weights, and when they met and clashed against each other… screaming 'Why hoard?,' the other side, 'why waste?'"44 The Pilgrim sees the contrapasso of the miserly and the prodigal, who, forming two semi-circles, shove their heavy weights (symbolizing their material wealth) and shove against each other (as their disordered uses of wealth were opposite).45 Virgil teaches the Pilgrim about Lady Fortune, who serves as an angel of God determining the fortunes of men and nations.46 Note that Lady Fortune is often depicted with a wheel, and that this circle of hell resembles a giant broken wheel of the shades that mismanaged their fortune.47

7. The Fifth Circle of Hell – the Wrathful & Slothful (VII-VIII)

Virgil and the Pilgrim leave the broken wheel of the fourth circle and come upon "a swamp that has the name of Styx."48 The river Styx, the sordid marsh-like second river of hell, serves as the fifth circle. Here, the Pilgrim sees "muddy people moving in that marsh, all naked, with their faces scarred by rage," who "fought each other, not with hands alone, but struck with head and chest and feet as well, with teeth they tore each other limb from limb."49 These are the wrathful souls, "the souls of those that anger overcame," who are punished alongside another group of souls who lay face up under the murky surface.50 The identity of these souls is debated. Musa notes that both Aristotle and Aquinas held there are three species of wrath: "the acuti are the actively wrathful; the amari, those who are sullen because they keep their wrath locked within themselves; the difficles, the vindictive."51 As Musa observes, the acuti are those fighting each other in the river Styx, but other commentators have seen those lying below the surface to be the amari and the difficles.52 The souls beneath the surface, "who make the waters bubble at the surface," say to the Pilgrim "sluggish we were in the sweet air made happy by the sun, and the some of sloth was smoldering in our hearts; now we lie sluggish here in this black muck."53 As with the fourth circle, Musa proposes the fifth circle serves two related types of sin: the wrathful above the surface of Styx, and the slothful below the surface of Styx.54 Virgil and the Pilgrim cross the river Styx with the help of the boatman, Phlegyas, a wrathful son of Mars from Roman mythology.55 As they cross the river, a wrathful soul rises up and is rebuked by Dante the Pilgrim in stanch contrast to the pity he showed the sinners in the second and third circles.56

The Pilgrim’s journey continues: Inferno: The 8 Steps of Dante’s Journey through Lower Hell.

Other Lists from the Divine Comedy:

  1. Ante-Purgatory: The 3 Ways Those Who Repent Late in Life are Punished in Dante’s Purgatorio

  2. The 13 Examples of Pride Carved into the Floor of Purgatory

  1. The paraphase of the narrative and most of the direct quotes are taken from The Divine Comedy: The Inferno translated by Mark Musa. Given the ease in which Musa’s text can be read and the insights of his commentary, Musa’s work is an often recommended translation. Musa, 73, commenting on lines 32-60. ↩︎

  2. Id., earlier critics, as Musa states, see the beasts as "lust, pride, and avarice," respectively. ↩︎

  3. Id., 74, commenting on ln. 62. ↩︎

  4. Id., 73. ↩︎

  5. Note that Virgil, as a soul punished in the first Circle of Hell, Limbo, cannot enter Heaven and thus cannot serve as Dante's guide through paradise. ↩︎

  6. Id., 77-9; notice Canto I has the dark woods with beasts (hell), a barren slope (purgatory), and a blissful mountain (heaven); there is also a gradiation of light moving from dark woods to a sunbathed mountain. ↩︎

  7. Id., 84, noting that similar invocations will be made at the beginning of the Purgatory and the Paradise↩︎

  8. The Blessed Mother taking "pity" on Dante begins a "major motif of the Inferno," which plays an important part in the "education of the Pilgrim." Musa, 83, ln. 5. ↩︎

  9. Id., 85-6. ↩︎

  10. Canto II, ln. 142. ↩︎

  11. Canto III, lns. 1-9. Note also Dante's reaction, "these words are cruel." The response to the gate inscription could be seen as one of the first accounts of the Pilgrim's misguided pity, especially since Virgil admonishes him for his statement; also, note the inscription above the gate mentions omnipotence, wisdom, and love—a triad formula that has been interpreted as "the gate of Hell was created by the Trinity moved by Justice." Musa, 93, ln. 5-6. ↩︎

  12. Canto III, ln. 22-3. ↩︎

  13. Canto III, ln. 36, see also 40-42 on angels. ↩︎

  14. Musa, 94, ln. 52-69. ↩︎

  15. Id., Canto III, lns. 52-57. ↩︎

  16. Canto III, ln. 60. ↩︎

  17. Musa, 95, ln. 60. ↩︎

  18. Canto III, lns. 78, 94; Musa, 95. ↩︎

  19. Musa, 96, ln. 136. ↩︎

  20. Canto IV, lns. 28, 30. ↩︎

  21. Canto IV, lns. 34-6. ↩︎

  22. Canto IV, lns. 52-63. ↩︎

  23. Musa, 103, lns 91-93. ↩︎

  24. Musa, 204; lns. 112-44; along with virtuous Greek and Romans, Dante includes three virtuous medieval Muslims, i.e., the warrior Saladin, and two Islamic commentators on Aristotle: Avicenna and Averroes. See Musa, 106-108. ↩︎

  25. Canto IV, lns. 130-35. ↩︎

  26. Canto IV, lns. 132, 134. ↩︎

  27. Musa, 106; ln. 131. ↩︎

  28. Id. ↩︎

  29. Canto IV, ln. 150. ↩︎

  30. Musa, 114-15, ln. 4. ↩︎

  31. Canto V, lns. 4-12. ↩︎

  32. Canto V, lns. 31-33. ↩︎

  33. Canto V, lns. 31-39. ↩︎

  34. Canto V, lns. 55-69. ↩︎

  35. Musa, 114. ↩︎

  36. Canto V, lns. 116-17; in the fourth circle, see Dante's pity for Ciacco (Musa, 126, ln. 59); Francesca is in hell for lust, for seduction, and in telling her tale, she seduces Dante the Pilgrim. She is still practicing the sin for which she was condemned. ↩︎

  37. Musa, 125; lns. 7-21. ↩︎

  38. Musa, 121; lns. 13-15. ↩︎

  39. Musa, 125; lns. 13-22. ↩︎

  40. Id. ↩︎

  41. Canto VI, lns. 103-5. ↩︎

  42. Id., see Musa, 127-8. ↩︎

  43. Musa, 129; lns. 1-12. ↩︎

  44. Canto VII, lns. 25-30. ↩︎

  45. Musa, 134-35, lns. 22-66. ↩︎

  46. Musa, 136; lns. 73-96; the role of fortune is a major theme among the ancients and moderns dialogue, as fortune for the ancients was something to be observed, while in the Christian sense it is placed under the providence of God, while for the moderns, most notably Machiavelli, fortune is something to be conquered. ↩︎

  47. Musa, 135; lns. 22-66. ↩︎

  48. Canto VII, ln. 108. ↩︎

  49. Canto VII, lns. 109-114. ↩︎

  50. Canto VII, lns. 116, see also 118-20. ↩︎

  51. Musa, 136-7; lns. 116-26. ↩︎

  52. Id. ↩︎

  53. Canto VII, lns. 121-24. ↩︎

  54. Musa, 137. ↩︎

  55. Musa, 143; ln. 18. ↩︎

  56. Canto VIII, lns. 37-51. ↩︎