Forest of Suicides: 6 Comments on Dante’s Punishment for the Self-Violent

Inferno (Italian for “Hell”) is the first part of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy. It is followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. It is an allegory telling of the journey of Dante through Hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil.

Dante enters the second ring of the seventh circle - the Forest of Suicides.

Listers, for a study of Dante’s Divine Comedy Volume One: The Inferno we turn to the translation and commentary crafted by Mark Musa. Musa’s translation is marked by a clear and understandable translation that allows the story to unfold and escape being bogged down in rhetorical flourishing, cf. Wordsworth’s translation. The commentary that accompanies each canto explains the Inferno’s rich symbolism as a medieval Dante would have intended it. Moreover, those familiar with the Inferno will know it is ripe with historical figures and local Italian politics that have no other significance nowadays than being mentioned in Dante’s magnus opus. Musa’s commentary provides a reliable guide through the esoteric Italian political landscape in order to appreciate the brilliant commentary on humanity and sin within the Inferno.1

Inferno (Italian for “Hell”) is the first part of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy. It is followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. It is an allegory telling of the journey of Dante through Hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil. In the poem, Hell is depicted as nine circles of suffering located within the Earth. Allegorically, the Divine Comedy represents the journey of the soul towards God, with the Inferno describing the recognition and rejection of sin.

The Centaurs patrolling the boiling-blood river of Phlegethon.

1. The Circle of Violence

Ring One: Violence Against Others
The 7th Circle of Hell is Violence. Violence is broken into three distinct rings with corresponding sins: violence against others, violence against the self, and violence against God. Those suffering the just punishment for violence against others wade in a river of boiling blood and fire. Each individual’s body is submerged in the boiling river of blood – the Phlegethon – according to the intensity of their violence sins. The river is patrolled by centaurs that shoot arrows at those who rise in the river above their allotted level.

Ring Three: Violence Against God
The third ring is those who were violent against God and nature. The ring is composed of burning sands with fiery rain and those who justly occupy this desert are blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers. The blasphemers are made to lie down in the hellish sands, the sodomites are in a constant state of running in packs, and the usurers are made to sit.

Between these two rings lies the ring of those who have done violence to themselves.

In order for the shade-tree to speak, Dante must break off a branch.

2. The Fate of Suicides

The moment that the violent soul departs
the body it has torn itself away from
Minos sends it down to the seventh hold

It drops to the wood, not in a place allotted,
but anywhere that fortune tosses it.
there, like a grain of spelt, it germinate.

The primary occupants of the ring of violence to the self are suicides. Since the suicides have “denied the God-given sanctity of their bodies on earth,” they are deemed unfit for human form. At the gates of hell stands King Minos who judges to what level of hell the damned should be condemned. Since they tore themselves away from their body through violence, Minos discards their souls into the Forest of Suicides and the soul grows into an anguished and gnarled tree or bush. Notice the placement of the soul is haphazard and disordered – “anywhere that fortune tosses it” – analogous to how the Suicides treated their bodies.2


3. The Harpies

The souls of the Suicides endure further pain and torment due to the harpies that inhabit the forest. A harpy is a creature with a bloated bird-like body with the head of a woman. These harpies nest in the forest, “rend the branches of the trees,” and feast on their leaves. The pain this causes to the trees and shrubs is immense and it is only when they suffer this pain can the Suicides make a sound and make their suffering known.3


4. Unique Punishment on Judgement Day

Like the rest, we shall return to claim our bodies,
but never again to wear them – wrong it is
for a man to have again what he once cast off.

We shall drag them here and, all along the mournful
forest, our bodies shall hand forever more,
each one on a thorn of its own alien shade.

All the shades of Hell will be called before God for the Final Judgement. At this time the soul will be united back with the body except for those who committed suicide. For those who acted violently against themselves, they will bring their body back to hell with them and have it adorn their branches. As the condemned suicide shade states, “wrong it is for a man to have again what he once cast off.”4 Suffering in an inhuman form, the shade will be forced to contemplate the body in front of him that he violated.

The Profligates – The Violently Prodigal.

5. The Other Suffering Souls

Suicides are not the only shades that inhabit the ring of violence against the self. The other group is the Profligates “who did violence to their earthly goods by not valuing them as they should have, just as the Suicides did not value their bodies.” These are those who squandered their property and lives to a violent level. As Dante is speaking with a Suicide – he must break off a branch before it can speak – he sees two shades running through the forest:

Behind these two the wood was overrun
by packs of black bitches ravenous and ready,
like hunting dogs just broken from their chains;

they sank their fangs in that poor wretch who hid,
they ripped him open piece by piece, and then
ran off with mouthfuls of his wretched limbs

The Profligates run through the forest crashing through trees and shrubs whilst they are being chased by a pack of vicious black dogs. The pain here is multifaceted as the Profligates suffer the pain and fear of running through densely packed forest and ultimately being torn apart by hounds, while the chase itself causes excruciated pain for the trees and shrubs that are broken and trampled.5


6. The Black Hounds

Much ink has been spilt trying to explain the significance of the black hounds and they have been labeled as “conscience, poverty, ruin and death, remorse, [and] creditors.” However, it is important to note that violence is the theme of the Seventh Circle and the Profligates are distinguished from the shades of Spendthrifts and Misers due to their waste reaching violent depths. Keeping with the motif of the ring, the hounds “probably represent that violent force which drove the Profligates to their end: they seem to be the dramatization of the act of violence itself.” One of the Profligates is identified by Dante as Giacomo da Sant’Andrea and “is reported to have set on fire several houses on his estate” just for the pleasure of watching them burn.6

  1. Dorothy L. Sayers “Hell” quote via Source []
  2.  Divine Comedy Volume One: The Inferno by Mark Musa, p. 193 []
  3. 193 []
  4. 193 []
  5. 193 []
  6. 194 []
  • Sharon

    I don’t really know what to say about this. I think that we first of all have to remember that this is a work of Dante’s imagination. It can be instructive in reminding us of the seriousness of our sins so that we will avoid them, but it really isn’t helpful for anyone who has a family member who committed suicide. We tragically lost my nephew to suicide last month. I do not believe for a minute that he is suffering in the way described here. Do I think he is suffering? Yes, it is my belief that he is suffering. I have no idea how God weighed my nephew’s sins in the balance with the sufferings he was enduring in his young life. But I know that when someone commits suicide he dies, not because Our Lord called him home, but because he chose to approach God unbidden. I know God will have to deal with that. I wonder if God is allowing my nephew to see the immense suffering the suicide caused his family; I think He is. In addition, I believe that my nephew had many things that needed healing in his life, and I believe he is in the process of being healed in Purgatory. I pray for him constantly that his time in Purgatory will be quick so that he can experience the perfect peace and happiness of heaven.

    But I also know that there was grace working in my nephew’s life. In spite of the violent way he ended his life, he was still alive when he reached the hospital. He lived across the country from his family, but my sister was able to beg for a priest to meet him at the hospital, and he miraculously received last rites before he died. I absolutely attribute that to the fact that my nephew made the Nine First Fridays in his childhood. God is merciful, and gracious, and keeps His promises. Dante is right in indicating that suicide is a horrible, horrible sin, but he doesn’t really know what happens to anyone when they die.

  • Frank

    Fortunately, the Church has a more merciful understanding of those sick souls who take their own lives. It is for God to judge them and not us. Yes, it is objectively a grave sin but God sees into the human heart, we don’t.

  • Mimi Ragsdale

    I need more time to digest all this…meantime, my heart goes out to Sharon and her nephew’s immediate family. I will put him on my prayer list: Sharon’s nephew should do.

  • Joan

    None of us can know what is in a person’s heart when he decides to end his own life. Some may do it as a clear intention of rejecting God or the life God gave them. However, science and medicine now inform us, and the Church fully acknowledges, that most of the time the person is not completely culpable for his act, due to mental or emotional illness, which is usually genetically inherited, or extreme suffering. If the Church did not allow for this possibility of lack of total volition, the priest would not have administered the Last Rites to the young man above. May he rest in peace.

  • Kevin

    I need to let you guys know that we are learning about Dante’s Inferno in my college class. Please don’t be weary of what Dante said SHARON and others, “The Inferno” is not to be interpreted literally. At the time of writing the poem Dante was at a very bad point in his life, he had become banished from his homeland because of his religion. He often even put people he despised in different sections of the hell he wrote about as a way of seeking revenge upon them. Dante’s purpose in writing the inferno was more of a cautionary tale, not only did he want specific people and groups of people to change their ways, but he used his poem to serve as a warning for large categories of individuals. Dante did not likely make the punishment of the suicides so horrible because he hated suicides, but probably because he wanted to scare people off from the idea of suicide and hopefully give them a change of heart. I would like to think that Dante saved many from suicide among other sins and was a judged by God as a person who made the world a better place, even though he did lie and deceive people about hell.