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The Nine Circles of Hell

By Virginia Carraway Stark

The Nine Circles of Hell seem to come exclusively from Dante’s Inferno. If there is an earlier source or references and legends they seem to be largely lost in the mists of time.

dante hell

Hell doesn’t start with circles, it starts with a dark forest. Being lost is one of the most terrifying things that we can experience. From the first time we have been lost as children we have all at some point experienced that heart-sinking moment when we realize that we aren’t just ‘a little turned around’, that we are in fact lost. That’s how hell starts, being endlessly lost in a dark forest, running and pursued by wild animals. The man has been traveling for some time, that much is clear and he is pursued by a jaguar, a she-wolf and a lion. All he animals look a little wrong and they are clearly hemming him in and guiding him into more danger.

forest hell

The Cantos clearly are started as an allegory as from the very start Dante refers to this as being something that happened ‘towards the middle of my life’. Virgil, who is a prophet and emissary of God comes to aid the man but the news isn’t good. The beasts that he’s facing will never let him pass, they will force him into the lowlands where more danger lies and ultimately the only way to escape the voracious beasts is to go through each of the circles of hell until he can get to the other side to be with his love once more.

Much of Inferno reads like the Revelations of John of Patmos. A lot of high language and metaphor are used to establish some sort of order to what was at the time, still a relatively new religion (especially in John of Patmos’ case). Before Christianity there wasn’t a real equivalent to the modern idea of Hell. Inferno seeks to establish an order to Hell and to put down Pagan figures every chance he gets.

Before we were taught that hell was a place of ever-burning lakes of fire that any non-christian would obviously be subjected to, the idea of an ‘underworld’ was a much more universal concept. It was a place of many things, sometimes of punishment, often of riddles and always of introspection and change. The land of the dead wasn’t heaven, but it wasn’t a place of everlasting torment either.

The idea of ever-lasting torment isn’t one that’s easy for human beings to understand. As living organisms there comes a point where pain ceases to matter. We become numb, enured, pass out, lapse into a coma or die. Pain doesn’t last forever for mortals. Even the most talented Inquisitor was soon frustrated as the body’s natural defenses to pain kicked in and it was for this reason that the Spanish Inquisition become so terrifyingly creative. It is also for this reason that humans found it hard to understand how they could be tormented forever without any rest or recourse. The Inferno seeks to lock that down and make it something that can be explained in a rational, if allegorical way.

Virgil warns the protagonist of all he will see and it is here described how the pain of the fires of hell can lead a soul to transcend that pain. He describes spirits that are standing in the flames and are content. They have accepted their punishment and will one day ascend out of the fires. This is how Dante seeks to explain the unexplainable concept of how torture and pain can last forever.

What follows is a classic jouney/adventure that is seeped in religious admonitions and warnings. To say it is preachy is an understatement, it would be far more apt to say that it defined ‘preachy’. If the concepts of Hell had adhered to Dante’s teachings of it I think it would be a lot more credible. The concept of ‘eternity’ is hard enough for someone who is trapped within the mortal coil to grasp. Adding eternal pain and damnation to that is enough to drive people into insanity as they try to both contemplate and avoid such a scenario.

The resulting concepts of Puritan Hell have lead to more fear and oppression than one can comprehend, it has a similarity to ‘eternal hell and damnation’ of its own. Its own fears manifest as hell on earth. We all try to bend our brains around the idea that a loving God could send his own children into eternal pain for misbehaving in ways that are contrary to all concepts of love and the result, if managed, is insanity. Humans struggled for over a thousand years to perfect the concept of ‘goodness’ into something so constrictive that it would either deform the human nature or force the spirit of freedom to burst forth from its constraints.

praying hands

I think it was to prevent this ever-widening definition of Hell that Dante wrote Inferno. Both to try to cap off how bad hell could get and to specify that it wasn’t necessarily eternal. He wrote it to be more of an alchemical purification process than anything else. A formula that could be followed to move through Hell even if beasts chased you there.

The first ring of Hell is Limbo. This is similar to the Underworld that was familiar to the people of the time. Unbaptized babies and the souls of good people who were simply not christian were sent here. It was a gray place. Quiet and a place to be educated and learn so that they could ascend sooner. The souls in limbo had done no wrong, they were simply ignorant. This cleverly lines up with the Judaic idea of an Underworld as well. It explains why the concept of hell wasn’t meted out in the Torah or Old Testament books. It was much like Christ’s death polarized humanity, forcing it to be actively seeking to learn and accept Christ’s death and ask for forgiveness. It was a clever way to blend the ways of the past with the new ways of suffering and pain.

The second ring of hell is for those who were sent to Hell for the deadly sin Lust. This ring is characterized by an endless wind that buffets the souls around. It’s a metaphor for the wanderings of the lustful. They couldn’t stay true in life and so are forced to be tossed around in the afterlife until they learn their lesson. Anyone who commits adultery is subject to this ring of hell and he sees quite a few famous persons there including Cleopatra and Helen of Troy. It’s interesting to note that it seems most of the souls seen in this ring are female.

The third ring of hell is for gluttons. This one is a little confusing and gets into the politics of the time with that edge of prophecy that is reminiscent once more of the Revelations. At the same time, it dates the work to the 14th century ad is confusing for the modern reader when it talks about factions and uprisings that are ancient and forgotten history except to the die-hard scholars.

I’m not sure why, but gluttons are subjected to lying face down in a gross, icy slush. They are watched over by a very unattractive version of Cerberus who makes sure that they all stay down. The whole point seems to be that they are bound into their own worlds of cold and pain. They aren’t ever allowed to stand up and they aren’t allowed to connect or communicate with the other gluttons they are surrounded by.

This is where my idea of gluttony differs from Dante’s. Dante seems to be saying that gluttony is so inward turning that the best punishment for them is to really rub their noses in it and make them so inward turning that they go mad for companionship. This is an opposite approach to lust but that isn’t the only thing that strikes me as funny about this ring of hell (and not ‘ha-ha’ funny). I’ve met a lot of perfectly social gluttons. In fact, being in a group is as good a way to bring out the glutton in a person as sitting by yourself in the dark and watching late-night TV endlessly can bring out gluttony.

slush hell

The face-down icy-slush punishment goes over my head a bit for gluttony. I think I prefer the machine in ‘The Simpsons’ that punishes Homer by endlessly feeding him donuts. That makes more sense to me. Maybe Cerberus ate all the donuts?

The God Pluto has been demoted in the Christian hell into the watcher of the fourth ring of hell which is populated with ‘men of the cloth’ predominantly, especially those of high rank in the church. Again, to my modern mind, the punishment of the fourth ring which is for Greed. The greedy people are separated into two groups: Those who spent a lot and the hoarders. The two groups are pitted against each other in endless jousting matches that Pluto oversees. I have to ask what happens to people who lavishly spend on their hoarding addictions.

jousting hell

The people in this ring of hell are very busy so they don’t stop to talk but have more of a little aside about the corruptions of the higher levels of the church as Dante firmly shakes his finger at Cardinals and Bishops. The Greedy aren’t given horses for jousting, instead their jousts spring out of their chests and they have weights attached to them to ram at those fecking hoarders.

The fifth ring of hell is the River Styx itself. It’s for the angry people and for the sullen people too which is apparently a sub-category to anger. The sullen people are forced to stay under the water and perpetually drown while the angry people run around on top of the water and fight each other. The second part sounds a little like something Alice in Wonderland would experience and I half expected them to be riding flamingos.

Dante takes a couple of jibes at someone he had a personal falling out with who ended up in this ring of hell and contributes very little to the modern reader.

I don’t know how much of a punishment this would be for the angry people in the world who seem to include pugnacious as part of their characterizations. It seems to me to be more of a reward to most angry people. Think about the guys who stand around behind shop class and pick on anyone who walks by them. Fighting is part and parcel with anger and being able to do it without worrying about actually dying would, to my mind, be the angry-person’s idea of heaven rather than hell.

In the sixth circle we see heretics condemned to flame filled tombs. This part gets pretty historical and unless you’re up on who was condemned for heresy and where, when and why, it gets pretty obscure. There are also some comments that indicate that if Dante had written this as a Wikipedia article that it would come up with one of those disclaimers that say, ‘this article is under review’. He does a lot of name-dropping that means nothing to our modern parlance but I’m sure seemed very profound at the time.

The seventh circle of hell is actually divided into three rings. This is why there is often contention about whether there are nine rings or seven. Technically both arguments are right but I’m pretty sure at this point in my reading that arguing about it is probably a sin. There are still two more circles of fun to come!

Violence is the seventh circle, or seven-A circle. It counts as all sorts of violence (angry people fighting people doesn’t count as violence? Must be a difference in mindset?). Anything from murder to doing violence against someone’s piece of property will get someone put into this ring. This is getting into the hardcore, modern ideas of torture and violent offenders are put into boiling lakes of blood.

Quick question: Wouldn’t the blood cook? Wouldn’t they be kind of baked into a blood pudding? Must be ‘magic’ blood. It’s like when you’re watching a show about vampires and they’re all drinking blood from a goblet and it takes ages and you’re like, OK, why isn’t that clotting? Was the victim on anti-clotting medication?

Seven-B is for suicides. These circles must be a little disturbing to write about or quite narrow because he pretty much just sees a bunch of people hanging from trees. They are perpetually attacked and eaten by harpies and to me this seems pretty hardcore for someone so miserable they killed themselves. I guess they aren’t kidding when they talk about that being one of the really bad sins.

Seven-C is probably the most important one, being for anyone who has ever had anal sex. Yes, sodomy will get you put into the ninth ring of hell. Sticking stuff up your butt or anyone elses is the equivalent to blasphemy so if you do anything blasphemous you end up in the ninth ring as well and it’s a burning hot desert and burning rains fall on you all the time making it difficult to find time to put anything up anyone’s butt. This teaches us that everyone poops but you better not ever think about it or you’ll never have time to poop again.

desert hell

The Eighth and Ninth circles get even more complex and I think at this point Dante had wished he had plotted out the thirty circles of hell in his original premise because the subsections just keep coming!

Eight is for Fraud. This is fraud in great detail. I’ll simplify, there’s this dragon-type guy named Geryon who drops everyone who does every time of fraud. He drops them into a whole bunch of different ditches and the people who committed fraud just sit in these rocky ditches or canyons while Geryon crawls and/or flies around adding to his collection. I’m not sure what this teaches people who commit fraud except that death’s a ditch. This seems to be a lot easier on people than those who put things in bums. Again, different times, different perspectives (I hope).

There are a total of ten of these that are called ‘Brogias’ and Geryon has one for everyone from false-sorcerers to seducers. Geryon has bridges and a whole system for organizing the fraudsters and it’s a good thing too because it’s quite the mess from the outside looking in.

Nine is for people who are treacherous and it’s divided up once more. This time it’s a lake and each ring gets more frozen and deeper depending on the level of treachery committed. The rings are quaintly named after various treacherous fellows starting with Cain and ending in Judas Iscariot. I think Cain is the least of the rings which seems a little odd. You’d think he’d be in there with the angry or the violent but then, a lot of this whole ‘circles of hell’ business doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

I think that’s why it’s referenced but nobody can ever tell you what each of them does and the subdivisions of circles just makes it more confusing. He seems to have a lot of overlap and hairsplitting and that makes it hard to use in everyday life. He also misses some serious areas of sinning and you just don’t know what happens then. Are you sent to limbo? Do you just get into a ring with a vacancy?

This would have been a more useful text of Dante could have separated his personal life even a little bit from his writing. Including people he was angry with or who had betrayed him adds a vindictiveness to the writing that we’re all tempted to go to from time to time but I think we also try to avoid. Even though there isn’t a ring of hell listed for this sort of petty behavior it seems like there ought to be.

After Treachery they come to the center of hell itself and there they find Lucifer very colorfully depicted and sobbing so that he is waist deep in freezing tears.

he had three faces: one in front blood red;
and then another two that, just above
the midpoint of each shoulder, joined the first;
and at the crown, all three were reattached;
the right looked somewhat yellow, somewhat white;
the left in its appearance was like those
who come from where the Nile, descending, flows.

Weird, huh?

lucifer hell

(stock photo, obviously from the description he’s let himself go a lot since it was sculpted)

The faces on Lucifer are brutally torturing people who Dante felt were the worst criminals in history. Most pointedly and horribly brutalized is Brutus. Dante believed Caesar’s assassination was one of the worst crimes ever. He felt that Julius Caesar had been appointed by God and that Brutus should get it worst of all, probably worse than Lucifer himself.

I’m sure Julius would agree.

At this point the earth has turned and they seem to head back the way that they came causing the protagonist to pretty much freak out. It’s just a trick of how the earth turns and this is another part that doesn’t hold up. If they are rings, then why does it matter which way the earth is turned? Should they have had to hit each ring going out as well as in?

They don’t though. The emerge at dawn on Easter Morning and it’s spiritually uplifting and reminiscent of the resurrection because if there’s one thing that Dante doesn’t get tired of, it’s hammering those metaphors home. Thank goodness those nine rings are actually nine semi-circles or the book would have been much, much longer and there would be more name dropping than a casual reader from the future could ever follow!

Inferno By Dante

http://historylists.org/art/9-circles-of-hell-dantes-inferno.html

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