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.
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.
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.
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