So, we guess you wouldn’t mind having a walk with us through it, would you?
Who Should Read “The Divine Comedy”? And Why?
For years now, whenever there has been a debate on who the greatest basketball player in history is, two names tend to appear and reappear: Michael and Kobe.
In soccer, it’s between Maradona and Pele, or, more recently, between Messi and Ronaldo.
In football – between Jim Brown and Jerry Rice, or, lately, between Payton and Brady.
Our point is – it always boils down to a couple of guys.
Well, in literature, those guys are Billy “The-I’m-Gonna-Kill-All-My-Characters-Bard” Shakespeare and Dante “The-Afterlife-Tourist” Alighieri.
T. S. Eliot states this explicitly: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.”
So, there’s no LeBron in this debate.
Do we need to say anything more?
By analogy, not reading “The Divine Comedy” is the same as never having seen a layup by Jordan or a touchdown pass by Brady.
Is that the life you want to live?
Dante Alighieri Biography
Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet, widely considered the greatest in the Italian language, the foremost of the Middle Ages, and the most influential of the last millennium.
He was the first one who decided to use the Italian language to write poetry, and he did that so well that he singlehandedly founded the Italian literature.
He also invented the three-line rhyme scheme (terza rima) which he used to write “The Divine Comedy,” one of the greatest works in the history of literature, a feat so great that it’s basically unimaginable that someone will ever repeat it.
In Italy, Dante is known as The Supreme Poet.
Or, even simply, as The Poet.
The basic plot of “The Divine Comedy” is very simple.
On the night before Good Friday, the 35-year-old Dante loses himself in a dark wood, inhabited by vicious beasts (a lion, leopard, and a she-wolf), incapable of finding the right way or seeing the rays of the sun behind a mountain.
Just like for most of the book – not that covert symbolism, is it?
Translated into everyday terms: Dante is lost in a world of sins and can’t find the way out of it to salvation.
Enter Virgil, one of Rome’s greatest poets and – at least according to T. S. Eliot – the guy who wrote the emblematic book of the Western civilization (“Aeneid”).
Also, a pagan – so a strange choice for a leader by a Christian.
But, we’ll get to that later.
Anyway, Virgil takes Dante by the hand and walks him through the majesty of Hell.
Inferno, aka Hell
And Hell, should we bother saying, is not a nice place to be in.
But from Dante, we first learned that there are different levels to the unpleasantness of the experience.
More precisely – 9.
Before we move on to see who’s in each of them, we’ll leave you with the inscription above the Gates of Hell:
Through me the way is to the city dolent;
Through me the way is to eternal dole;
Through me the way among the people lost.
Justice incited my sublime Creator;
Created me divine Omnipotence,
The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.
Before me there were no created things,
Only eternal, and I eternal last.
All hope abandon, ye who enter in!
Apparently, in Hell, you need to understand well archaic iambic pentameters – or, in the original, hendecasyllabic terza rima verses – aka your worst nightmare in Literature class.
But isn’t that the point?
First Circle: Limbo
This was Dante’s way to justify before himself the fact that he liked to read the books of many guys who couldn’t have been Christian – you know, on account of being born before Jesus.
So, there’s one place in the Afterworld for all those virtuous and unbaptized pagans who didn’t even have a chance to become Christians in life.
Unfortunately, that place is the first circle of Hell.
Now, isn’t that great Plato, Homer, Cicero, Socrates and the rest of you?
Second Circle: Lust
If someone was overcome by lust in the upper world, he or she ends up here, in the second circle of hell.
And just like that person had once been swayed from the right path on earth by the strong winds of passion, he or she endures the exact same destiny after death.
Only, in this case, in a much more literal fashion.
Third Circle: Gluttony
The third circle is reserved for the gluttonous, i.e., the overeaters. Fittingly, watched over by Cerberus, they wallow in a putrid slush produced by everlasting icy rain, howling like dogs. So, it’s kind of like lying in your own fat, as primitive and animalistic as possible.
Fourth Circle: Greed
The greedy are divided into two groups – the hoarders and the squanderers. The first, miserly hoarded their possessions, the latter threw them away. These people joust with great weights (symbolizing their selfish greed) and are guarded by the ancient Greek god of wealth, Pluto.
Unsurprisingly, here Dante finds many familiar faces, cardinals, and popes mostly.
Fifth Circle: Anger
Nothing to see here: the angry are angry in Hell as well.
Those who were actively angry (the wrathful) are now fighting each other on Styx, and those who were passively angry on earth (the sullen) gurgle below the waters of the hellish river.
Sixth Circle: Heresy
Obviously, for God, the heretics are bigger sinners than the angry and the greedy because they don’t believe in him.
Trapped in flaming tombs.
Seventh Circle: Violence
This circle is subdivided into three rings.
The first ring houses those who were violent against their neighbors, so a fitting place for Alexander the Great. These guys bathe in a Phlegethon, a river of fire and boiling blood.
The second ring is reserved for those who were violent against themselves, aka those who attempted to or successfully committed suicide. Here they are transformed into trees and eaten by harpies. And they thought that they would find salvation after death!
The final third ring is for those who were violent against God, Nature, and Art.
(Ha – you didn’t expect that, did you? Yes, by implication that means that destroying a painting of Picasso is worse than killing Picasso.
Not really – Dante is actually talking about usurers!)
It also means that God doesn’t like homosexuals because that’s what being violent against nature means in Dante’s eyes.
As for the blasphemers (violent against God) – may God have mercy on their soul!
Oh, wait a minute – we already know that:
He has absolutely none of it.
Eighth Circle: Fraud
This circle – called Malebolge – is divided into ten bolgias (picture it as a stony amphitheater).
And there are all kinds of bad people in each of them.
Bolgia 1: panderers and seducers.
Bolgia 2: flatterers.
Bolgia 3: Simoniacs.
Bolgia 4: Sorcerers and false prophets (so, presumably, this is where Gandalf is).
Bolgia 5: corrupt politicians, aka politicians.
Bolgia 6: hypocrites.
Bolgia 7: thieves.
Bolgia 8: counselors of fraud.
Bolgia 9: sowers of discord.
Bolgia 10: falsifiers (alchemists, imposters, perjurers, and counterfeits).
Ninth Circle: Treachery
Needless to point out, the ninth circle of Hell is the worst you can do in life. It’s basically a frozen lake, Cocytus, divided into four concentric rings (rounds):
Round 1: Caïna. Here you’ll find the traitors to their kindred, not the least among them the original brother traitor, Cain, after who this round is named.
Round 2: Antenora. The traitors to their country are in this round, which is named after Antenor who betrayed Troy to the Greeks.
Round 3: Ptolomaea. Traitors to their Guests – a big no-no in all written history. Ptolemy, according to the Bible, invited Simon Maccabaeus, his father-in-law, and his sons to a banquet and then killed them. So, he should also be in Circle 7, Round 1. And really how do they solve these things down under? Dante gives no explanation, so we’ll never know.
Round 4: Judecca. Traitors to their Lord. Judas Iscariot has that peculiar honor to have the deepest part of Hell named after him. Congratulations, Judas – you’ve been humiliated yet again!
Center of Hell
They are not done just yet, Dante and Virgil.
Because there’s someone who’s betrayed someone even bigger than Jesus and the center of Hell is reserved for that guy.
And the only one bigger than Jesus is His Father: God himself.
So, yeah: we’re talking about Lucifer.
This is his description:
O, what a marvel it appeared to me,
When I beheld three faces on his head!
The one in front, and that vermilion was;
Two were the others, that were joined with this
Above the middle part of either shoulder,
And they were joined together at the crest;
And the right—hand one seemed ‘twixt white and yellow
The left was such to look upon as those
Who come from where the Nile falls valley-ward.
So, Dante’s Satan looks nothing like Milton’s Satan.
We kinda liked the second one better.
Purgatorio, aka Purgatory
We have to warn you – in “Inferno” Dante sets up the bar so high, that, no matter how beautiful the rest of “The Divine Comedy” is, it’s all downhill from there.
Even though, of course, it’s quite literally uphill: Virgil and Dante actually climb on a Mount located on the only island in the Southern Hemisphere.
Nowadays, we’d call it Antartica, but hey – it looked way more mythological back when hemispheres weren’t a thing.
And you know the drill: 7 terraces of Purgatorio – here we come!
But weren’t here 9 of them?
Well, not exactly, because the first two are located in the Ante-Purgatory.
Ante-Purgatory 1: The Excommunicate
This is the base of the Purgatory mountain, reserved for those who delayed the time before they turned Christian.
They have to wait here 30 times the period of the delay before they are redirected to heaven.
So, an eye for an eye.
Or, more like, 30 eyes for an eye.
Ante-Purgatory 2: The Late Repentant
The Late Repentant are those who did repent but not exactly on time (i.e., they waited more than necessary) and those who repented at the last moment without receiving last rites.
Their waiting periods?
As many years as they lived.
It is at this moment that Dante falls asleep – just before the dawn of Easter Monday – and he wakes up in front of the door of Purgatory.
An angel comes and draws seven “P”-s on his forehead (P stands for peccatum, i.e., sins): these will be erased as Dante and Virgil progress through the next levels, one for each.
First Terrace: Pride
We kind of feel that those in the ante-purgatory will have a better time than those inside.
For example, the prideful – the good prideful – are cleansed from their sins by carrying huge weights on their back, as opposed to just waiting for time to pass.
Because of their weights, they are unable to see the beautiful sculptures around, all of which are representations of humility.
Hey, shouldn’t it be the other way around?
Second Terrace: Envy
If you desire something which belongs to someone during your lifetime, your eyes will be sewn with iron wire, and you’ll be hearing angelic voices reciting examples of envy and generosity in the Purgatory.
OK, the second part – not that bad.
The first part – we’ll pass!
Third Terrace: Wrath
The wrathful – but penitent – don’t fight each other on Styx.
They just wander around on a cloud of black smoke, which symbolizes the anger they felt on earth.
So good that they were repentant: it saved them a lot of trouble!
Fourth Terrace: Sloth
There is no better way to punish a slothful person than forcing him or her to run.
God knows this full well, so the slothful do nothing else but restlessly run around the fourth terrace of the Purgatory.
Which made us think: not one marathon runner will end up here!
Fifth Terrace: Avarice
The Avaricious and the Prodigal lie on the floor of the fifth terrace hands and feet bound together, face facing the ground.
They wanted too much on earth, and they’ll now learn the value of the absolute nothingness of the floor.
Sixth Terrace: Gluttony
The repentant gluttonous have to purge themselves by constantly experiencing hunger and thirst even though there are many fruit trees around them.
But, God has a good sense of humor throughout all this, so he has put the trees there so that the gluttonous can watch, but not touch.
You know – Tantalus-like.
Seventh Terrace: Lust
The penitent lustful are the ones who are closest to God.
However, they do have a serious problem here, because they need to pass through a wall of flame.
Dante has to do that too – but, since he’s not dead, he’s a bit afraid.
And then Virgil says the magic words: Beatrice is on the other side, waiting for you in Paradise.
Well, if that’s the case, says Dante –
Paradiso, aka Heaven
Because in case you didn’t know, Beatrice Portinari is the Juliet to Dante’s Romeo.
Or, better yet, Romeo and Juliet are the Dante and Beatrice of later days.
Or, at least, they would have been if Romeo had seen Juliet just twice and had fallen madly in love with her, but Juliet had married another man and had borne him few children before dying at the age of 24.
Possibly not even knowing who Dante was, let alone that he had loved her.
That’s romantic love for you, right there!
But, you see, writers have an unfair advantage over everybody: they are capable of changing history. And even getting the girl of their dreams in the fictional land of their imagination.
In Dante’s case, it’s fictional times twenty, since Dante doesn’t get anything but a new guide in Beatrice, and because Beatrice is already dead even in his fantasy, and hence is much more of a chaste Christian soul than a body.
But, you can’t walk around Heaven unless you are a chaste Christian soul, which is, in fact, the reason, why Virgil hands Dante to Beatrice.
Not that he minds.
We’re back to number 9 in Heaven – in Dante, it’s always about 9, because he first met Beatrice when he had as many years, and because he saw her the second and last time nine years later.
Pretty obsessed guy, ha?
First Sphere, The Moon: The Inconstant
The Moon is associated with inconstancy, and it’s the best place for those who were inconstant in their lives, mostly by failing to keep their vows for reasons which were not in their control.
Like forcibly being taken out from a convent by a king.
Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do in life!
Second Sphere, Mercury: The Ambitious
So, you can be ambitious and yet be nice enough to earn yourself a place in Heaven?
We didn’t know that!
But Justinian, the Byzantine Emperor, is here, so that’s nice to know!
Because it means that you can occupy other countries and still be considered good enough for Heaven. If, however, you are an all-around good guy, but depressed enough to want to kill yourself – well, I’m sorry, Werther, but you’re going to Hell.
Third Sphere, Venus: The Lovers
It’s Venus, so it was always going to be the lovers!
Mostly, though, the lovers of God and humanity.
The other types of lovers (the interhuman ones) are actually mostly located in the better circles of Hell.
Fourth Sphere, The Sun: The Wise
Just like the sun, these guys – 24 in number – enlightened the world with their knowledge.
The first 12 of them are who’s who in the world of philosophy: Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Gratian, Peter Lombard, King Solomon, Dionysius the Areopagite, Orosius, Boethius, Isidore of Seville, Bede, Richard of Saint Victor, and Siger of Brabant.
The second dozen are led by St. Bonaventure, and we learn that these two groups didn’t get along on Earth, but here they praise each other constantly.
Because that’s what Heaven does to you.
Fifth Sphere, Mars: The Warriors of Faith
Mars is reserved for the Warriors… of Fate.
In other words, those who died during the Crusades.
Because no matter which religion you are, your God probably likes nothing more than you killing people from other religions.
So, this is where some of the greatest holy warriors (seriously, Dante, that should be an oxymoron) in history live forever after Joshua, Charlemagne, Roland, Robert Guiscard, Judas Maccabeus, and others.
Sixth Sphere, Jupiter: The Just Rulers
What do David, Hezekiah, Constantine, Trajan, William II of Sicily, and the Trojan Ripheus have in common?
Nothing much, really.
Not if you ask Dante, however: they were all just rulers, he thinks, and they all deserved their place in Heaven.
Also: they were not.
On the contrary: all of them were responsible for the deaths of many.
Seventh Sphere, Saturn: The Contemplatives
Did we mention that Dante had some real–life problems with the Catholic Church?
If not, this is a good place to do that, because, in the seventh sphere of Heaven, Dante encounters upon some contemplatives who mostly contemplate about how corrupted the Church has become.
That’s not something you’d expect people to contemplate about in Heaven, but, on the other hand, that may mean that you’ve seen a glimpse of it at some of your family’s gatherings.
Still want to end up there?
Eighth Sphere, Fixed Stars: Faith, Hope, and Love
We’re entirely in the realm of the mythical here.
Virgin Mary, Peter, John, James, Adam.
And they all seem interested in testing Dante on all matters related to faith, hope, and love.
They also want to speak about how bad the Catholic Church is (a common conversation topic in the Afterlife).
Peter, the original Pope, especially.
As far as he is concerned, the Papal See is empty, and Pope Boniface VIII is the worst Pope there ever was.
An interesting trivia: that’s the guy the real Dante had serious issues with.
Peter concurs: he should be having issues with Boniface VIII.
Which is the number of the circle in Hell he is located in.
Ninth Sphere, Primum Mobile: The Angels
Here are the Angels, all nine orders of them.
You’d think that at this point in Heaven (we’re just whiff away from God himself), all is harmony and acceptance, but think again!
Now, it is Beatrice who wants to say a word or two on current political matters:
Christ did not to his first disciples say,
“Go forth, and to the world preach idle tales,”
But unto them a true foundation gave;
And this so loudly sounded from their lips,
That, in the warfare to enkindle Faith,
They made of the Evangel shields and lances.
Now men go forth with jests and drolleries
To preach, and if but well the people laugh,
The hood puffs out, and nothing more is asked.
But in the cowl there nestles such a bird,
That, if the common people were to see it,
They would perceive what pardons they confide in.
If you have problems following the symbols, the bird is a demon and it perches under the hood of the preachers of Dante’s days.
The Divine Comedy Epilogue
Finally, Dante’s there:
This is the abode of God, a realm beyond physical existence.
Beatrice turns into something Dante says is indescribable in the words of the mortals.
He is not too shabby himself, becoming enveloped in light which enables him to finally meet God.
A meeting which makes Dante bemoan his incapability to write better twice more – on top of a nice description of the three faces of God:
Shorter henceforward will my language fall
Of what I yet remember, than an infant’s
Who still his tongue doth moisten at the breast
Not because more than one unmingled semblance
Was in the living light on which I looked,
For it is always what it was before;
But through the sight, that fortified itself
In me by looking, one appearance only
To me was ever changing as I changed.
Within the deep and luminous subsistence
Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
Of threefold color and of one dimension
And by the second seemed the first reflected
As Iris is by Iris, and the third
Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed.
O how all speech is feeble and falls short
Of my conceit, and this to what I saw
Is such, ’tis not enough to call it little!
And that’s your “Divine Comedy” for you.
It is divine alright.
But it’s hardly a comedy by today’s standards.
For there’s absolutely nothing funny about it.
Like this summary? We’d like to invite you to download our free 12 min app, for more amazing summaries and audiobooks.
“The Divine Comedy PDF Quotes”All hope abandon, ye who enter here. Click To Tweet The more a thing is perfect, the more it feels pleasure and pain. Click To Tweet O human race, born to fly upward, wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall? Click To Tweet Into the eternal darkness, into fire and into ice. Click To Tweet There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Jorge Luis Borges called “The Divine Comedy” “the best book literature has achieved.”
And Borges was a librarian and the librarian – having read practically everything important anyone had written before he left us.
So, we’ll just strongly advise you to believe him.