Literature: The Divine Comedy
aka: Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia
) is a three-part epic
by Florentine poet Durante degli Alighieri (Dante), written some time between 1308 and 1321. It describes one man's journey into the depths of Hell
, up the staircase-like mountain of Purgatory, and into the spheres of Heaven
. The first part, the Inferno
, is the best known and most often retold and alluded to in modern media. Essentially, every portrayal of Hell comes either from Dante
, its English Protestant Spiritual Successor Paradise Lost
, or a combination of the two.
It isn't a comedy
by modern definition, as it's not very funny. It's called the Comedy
because it's written in a vernacular style and has a happy ending, which is the original meaning of the word as opposed to a tragedy (which was considered a bit more high-brow
). The adjective "Divine" does not refer to the work's religious setting, but was added later by people—specifically Giovanni Boccaccionote
—who thought the poem was awesome. So high was the reputation of the Divine Comedy
that it made the Tuscan dialect in which Dante wrote the basis for Standard Italian, and is still
considered the gold standard of Italian literary writing.Gustave Doré
famously illustrated the story in the 19th century.Inferno
was a modern retelling and deconstruction
from 1977 by Larry Niven
and Jerry Pournelle.Dantes Inferno
leads to the page for the Video Game
based off this work, with a few liberties taken.
It should probably be pointed out that the Divine Comedy
Catholic doctrine; not everything that it says to be true is canon. That's why the Word of Dante
trope has that title.
Not to be confused with the band The Divine Comedy
, a rather fine Northern Irish band responsible for, among other things, the Father Ted
This poem provides examples of the following:
- Alien Geometries: While Hell and Purgatory have clearly defined geography, that of Paradise is more complicated. The spheres of Heaven correspond to the celestial spheres of a geocentric universe, but can equally well be seen as orbiting around God in the Empyrean, or as all existing in the same space. To enter Paradise or cross between the spheres, one must Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence, rather than doing any physical climbing. The structure of Heaven has been interpreted as an early description of the fourth-dimensional hypersphere.
- All Just a Dream: Well, obviously. Unless it wasn't. Or perhaps it was. Dante scholars still argue about whether we are supposed to consider the whole thing one big, complicated dream; or if Dante wanted us to "believe" that he actually went to Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven and then came back (suspending our disbelief, of course—we're obviously not supposed to believe that he actually did those things, just to approach the text like he physically went rather than went there in a dream); or if he intended us to interpret the whole thing as a prophetic dream (i.e. a dream, but one that is in some way true or a representation of the truth, like a lot of dreams in The Bible—and indeed, there are a number of dreams like this in-story, particularly in the Purgatorio); or any number of variations on this.
- And I Must Scream: The Inferno is made of these.
- In particular, suicides are turned into trees. They can scream, but only when someone (or something, as Dante sees later) breaks off a branch.
- The souls of traitors are frozen in the icy lake of Cocytus, at depths corresponding to the depth of their betrayal. Those at the very bottom are completely encased and in grotesque positions.
- There's also the penance for the sin of Pride in the Purgatorio: the sinners are made to carry boulders, the weight of which is proportional to the sin's weight. Dante even remarks that the punishment is the simplest, and yet quite terrible.
- We should note that Dante considered himself to be guilty of pride. Read that how you will.
- And That's Terrible: Dante really hated corrupt priests.
- The Annotated Edition: Most good editions of The Divine Comedy are heavily annotated: at the remove of 700 years or so, and given that Dante went on Author Tracts and Author Filibusters in long stretches of the work about now-forgotten Florentine politicians or abstruse theological issues, it's often very difficult to tell who's who or what Dante is on about now without extensive footnotes.
- Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: The last and deepest pit of Hell is guarded by a series of Giants embedded in the cliff. One of them provides a passage to the lake of ice.
- Author Avatar: Purgatory has seven levels corresponding to the Seven Deadly Sins. Dante experiences the penances for only three: Pride, Anger, and Lust. Translator Dorothy L Sayers commented that these were precisely the three faults people tend to accuse Dante of, so sharing these penances was probably a deliberate confession on the poet's part.
- Author Filibuster:
- At the very entrance of Hell, there is a special place of punishment for people who never took a stand for anything during their lives, and were neither good enough to deserve Heaven (or Purgatory), nor bad enough to end up in the rest of Hell. This also includes the angels who didn't take a side during Satan's rebellion against God. These particular sinners are regarded as the Butt Monkeys of the afterlife. Dante was very passionate about politics, and had a deep contempt for people who just wanted to mind their own business and were ready to change their allegiance whenever it was more convenient.
- He reserved the deepest layer for his personal betrayers who were convenient about alliances.
- Badass Bookworm: Dante in Real Life; he was a poet, but he also fought as a knight ("Feditore a cavallo", a particularly dangerous task) for the faction of the Guelphs.
- Barred from the Afterlife: Those who refused to commit to a position in life were left to run back and forth in the borderlands, for even Hell won't take them in.
- Body Horror: Several levels of Hell involve grisly torments:
- Fortune tellers have their heads turned around backwards.
- People who committed suicide are turned into trees that are broken by harpies and demon hounds and can only speak when bleeding.
- Thieves are turned into snakes and have to regain human form by attacking others.
- Possibly the nastiest example is what happens to Muhammad. Dante saw him as a schismatic (he viewed Islam as basically an offshoot from Christianity), so the Prophet is depicted split in half down the middle, with all his organs hanging out. And Dante still has a conversation with him.
- The penance for Envy in Purgatory; people who committed the sin have their eyes sewn shut with wires. The idea is that they committed envy through their sight and so, to purge them of their sin, they see nothing.
- Bury Your Gays: Homosexuals and usurers get the same level in Hell. (Usury is charging excessive, unreasonably high, and often illegal interest rates on loans; it used to mean charging any interest on debt.)
- By placing both homosexuals and usurers in the circle of the violent, and in a setting that so strongly symbolizes sterility (the burning desert), Dante establishes each sin as the opposite of each other: the homosexuals make sterile that which should be fertile (their sexuality— according to medieval theology, all sex should have procreation as its final purpose), while usurers make fertile that which should be sterile (wealth should be generated by nature or art, not by interest accumulated by existing wealth.)
- It should be noted that Dante sees his mentor in the burning desert, as he was gay. Also, that part took place in the middle of Inferno, which has a special place in the other books as well. Thirdly, he depicts homosexuals as constantly running from being burned, which might be symbolic for how gay people had to run from being marked during their lives (more likely it has to do with the rain of fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah).
- There is an actual critical debate if the group in which Dante places his mentor (Brunetto Latini) is where homosexuals are punished or if it's for pedophiles. Sodomy was in fact a common "contracepting technique" in the middle ages (it is noted by famous Dante scholar Vittorio Sermonti), and it would be unlikely that Dante punishes the act of sodomy in that circle. Moreover, when Dante asks his mentor to name some other fellow sinners, he enumerates only clergymen and literates, indicating a sort of "master-student" relationship issue.
- It has also been argued that the reason they're there is not necessarily that they are gay, but because of extreme self-hatred of being so. This becomes more obvious when you learn more about Brunetto Latini's writings.
- Gay people also appear in Purgatory's circle of lust, running in the opposite direction from the rest of the crowd. So either way, if you're gay, you're going to spend a lot of time jogging when you die.
- Character Filibuster: Paradiso in particular features long discussions of theology, philosophy, and morality.
- The Chosen One: Dante says that he was chosen for its spiritual journey in order to help to REDEEM MANKIND with the book that he is going to write based on this experience (i.e. the Divine Comedy: intended as a sort of fifth gospel, so to speak).
- Circles of Hell: The Trope Namer, if not the Trope Maker. Dante traverses all of them in the Inferno.
- Clown-Car Grave: The heretics in Hell lie in flaming tombs, each of which can hold some thousands of sinners.
- Cool and Unusual Punishment: Trope Exemplar.
- Corrupt Church:
- There are many clergy members and a few Popes in Hell, punished for their greed and for perverting the Church by selling indulgences and church offices.
- In Heaven (Paradiso), St. Peter himself harshly criticizes the church of the time and deems it corrupt, to the extent of calling the papal seat a "sewer of blood and stench".
- Crapsack World: One could draw from the Comedy that Dante sees the world as this.
- Cultural Translation:
- In Dorothy L Sayers' translation, Arnaut Daniel, who, in the Purgatorio, spoke Provençal rather than the narrative's Italian, now speaks in the Scots language. (However, most, if not all translations choose to explain Dante's historical and cultural references in footnotes or endnotes.)
- This is taken to its logical extreme by Sandow Birk's translation, which translates Dante's vernacular Italian verse into slangy (and profanity-ridden) vernacular American English prose. Many of Dante's allusions to medieval life, history, and culture are replaced or augmented with references to modern life and pop culture, and the lists of sinners in Hell now include such figures as Bill Clinton, "Reagan, and Bush (both of them)."
- Dead Unicorn Trope: A typical description of the Inferno would probably mention "demons with pointy sticks torturing sinners chained to the wall,". This is actually a fairly uncommon punishment in Dante's Hell, and is shown directly only a couple of times; sinners are tormented by fire, ice, storms, hounds, snakes, etc.
- The Devil Is a Loser: Some readers and critics have noted that Satan is one of the least colourful villains of the whole Inferno, but this was actually deliberate. Satan is a giant whiny thing, trapped waist-deep in a frozen lake, beating his massive wings trying to fly away from heaven, and while doing so creating cold gusts of wind which freeze ice back up, and push him up into the broken shards of ice. Loser Indeed.
- Empathic Environment: When the Corrupt Church is discussed in Heaven, the sky turns dark and reddish, as if the whole cosmos is ashamed of how the true religion has been perverted.
- The Everyman: "Midway through the journey of our life..."
- Even Evil Has Standards:
- The Uncommitted souls and fallen uncommitted angels aren't even considered worthy of entering hell, although they're still punished.
- In the fiery desert of the seventh circle, blasphemers and sodomites keep themselves away from the usurers.
- Evil Chancellor
- Evil Is Burning Hot: A large portion of hell is torturously hot, like the fiery sands and the river of blood, and fire is used as aspects of punishments in other areas. It notably averts associating Satan with fire, as he's trapped in the coldest part of hell.
- Evil Is Deathly Cold: The deepest circle of Hell, reserved for traitors and lorded over by a monstrous but helpless Satan, is a frozen lake.
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: It's a story with a happy ending— seeing God.
- Comedies traditionally ended with lovers being reunited (think A Midsummer Night's Dream or Twelfth Night) and sure enough, Dante is reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Beatrice, who meets him on the threshold of Paradise and guides him to the throne of God.
- Extranormal Prison: This Ironic Hell features horrid weather, cliffs, monsters, demons, and a doorway marked "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
- Eye Scream: Traitors to their guests are encased in the frozen lake Cocytus, with only their faces coming out. The intense cold freezes their tears, encrusting their eyes in ice. Any further tears cannot get out and increase pressure on the eyes.
- Fainting: Dante faints twice near the beginning of Inferno, as the first tortures terrify him before he braces himself for the rest of the journey. He faints again towards the end of Paradiso as he approaches God.
- Fantasy World Map: Diagrams of Hell and Purgatory are featured in many translations; some fine ones can be found here.
- Fartillery: One of the devils in the later part of Hell lets out a huge fart as a sort of military trumpet. Even Dante himself points out the similarity.
- Fate Worse Than Death: One might think that The Inferno is chock full of these, but the ones who really have it bad are the ones trapped in Hell's Vestibule — The Opportunists. As they never took sides between good and evil in life, so is their fate in death. They're not actually a part of Hell, and they have no chance at redemption. They just have one small place to be tormented for eternity alone by themselves.
- Flipping the Bird: ...or the equivalent of that time: One damned soul curses God and gives Him "the figs"note with both hands.
- Fluffy Cloud Heaven: Often depicted as such in illustrations; the actual "landscape" of Paradise is a bit vaguely described.
- From a Certain Point of View: One sinner asks Dante if he will clear the ice from his eyes after he tells his story. Dante responds that if he doesn't, may he "go to the bottom of the ice". As it turns out, the entrance to Purgatory is reached by traveling below the ice...
- From Bad to Worse: As Virgil says, as awful the punishment of the sinners in hell already are, they will worsen after the Last Judgement.
- Giant Flyer: Geryon, demon of fraud and keeper of the "Malebolge". He's described as a devil with the face of a honest man, body of a multicolored serpent, hairy wings and a scorpion's stinger.
- Gorn: Frequent.
- Hand Wave:
- Two pagans are in Heaven, despite Christians being the only ones able to get in. The narrator ascribes this to the mysteries of God, which are unknowable to all.
- However, to medieval Italians it was a fairly common legend that Pope Gregory I raised the Emperor Trajan from the dead and baptized him before Trajan died again. The Other was a man named Ripheus who was granted a grace by God of implicit faith, meaning though he lived before Christ he did so as a Christian, like those Hebrews who where also born before Christ.
- Dante often passes out if he doesn't want to explain something.
- Hellgate: Possibly the Trope Maker.
- Cerberus, who has the traits of a human like beard and hands.
- The black bitches (as in female dogs) chasing and maiming the damned in the Forest of Suicides.
- Hero's Muse: Dante is sent on his quest for redemption through the afterlife by Beatrice, who enlists the help of the poet Virgil to guide him through Hell and Purgatory, and guides Dante through Heaven herself.
- Hijacked by Jesus: Despite the generally Christian nature of this work, Dante borrows aspects of Hell (including the four rivers and various creatures) from the Greek underworld.
- In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous: Everyone in the afterlife is either a well-known historical figure or someone who would be familiar to Dante's readers. It gets a justification as Dante's guides point out these exemplary figures. They also usually have more important places in Heaven or more picturesque punishments in Hell. There are some exceptions, though—the hoarders and spenders, for instance, are so featureless that they can barely be distinguished from each other, and Dante does pause to talk with a nameless Florentine suicide.
- Insignificant Little Blue Planet: In Paradisio, Dante makes this observation in Canto 22 after entering the Eighth Sphere of Heaven:
And turning there with the eternal Twins,
I saw the dusty little threshing ground
that makes us ravenous for our mad sins,
saw it from mountain crest to lowest shore.
Then I turned my eyes to Beauty's eyes once more.
- Ironic Hell: A quite famous one at that.
- Kick the Son of a Bitch: At one point while in the Cocito, Dante pulls a traitor's hair in order to force him to tell his story, going so far as to actually tear out handfuls of hair when the shade stubbornly refuses to say anything.
- The Knights Who Say Squee: Dante's reaction upon meeting his hero, Virgil.
- And in Purgatorio, Statius' reaction to meeting Virgil.
- List of Transgressions: Hell is divided into subsections by crime made life.
- A Load of Bull: The Minotaur is the guardian of the three Violent circles, and is depicted as very wrathful and savage.
- The Muse: Not only does Beatrice inspire Dante, but he invokes all 9 of them (plus Apollo!) to help write the epic the way it deserves.
- No Fourth Wall: Dante addresses the reader repeatedly.
- Non Indicative Name: It's not very funny.
- Nightmarish Factory: One part of hell is compared to the Venetian naval yard.
- No Party Like a Donner Party: Ugolino, according to some interpretations, is implied to have eaten his children when imprisoned in the "Hunger Tower". In Hell, he continually eats the head of the man who imprisoned him there.
- Not Drawn to Scale: Dante provides some scattered measurements for places and things in Hell (such as the distance around one circle and the height of a giant); from these, one can attempt to infer the overall dimensions of Hell, but the results are wildly inconsistent. But considering that it's Hell, see Alien Geometries.
- The Nothing After Death: Limbo, the first and outermost circle of Hell, is inhabited by virtuous heathens (it's not an oxymoron) and unbaptized children who died without knowledge of Christ. They do not suffer torments but live forever without hope or the light of God. And while, depending on your faith, this might be a horrible fate, for people who exist there, like Socrates and other eminent pre-Christians, it's not a bad place. They essentially do there what they did in life: wax philosophic about everything without the distractions of sleep or sustenance.
- Numerological Motif: The number 3 appears a lot, naturally. So does 9, which is 3*3.
- And 10, which is 3x3+1 (for the One True God, of course)
- The Divine Comedy as a whole is structured around the number 100. Each section has 33 cantos, with the exception of The Inferno, which has 34; the extra one serves as an general prologue for the entire poem.
- The Oath-Breaker: The Moon is the sphere of oathbreakers who made it to Heaven despite it.
- The Obi-Wan: Virgil, who's stuck in the First Circle of Hell because he was born before Christ and can't be saved.
- The Omniscient Council of Vagueness: Beatrice and her companions in Heaven, watching over Dante.
- Patchwork Map: Hell juxtaposes regions with wildly different climates; justified in that it's a supernatural world shaped by divine will.
- Pass the Popcorn: Dante gets so caught up listening to two sinners insulting each other that Virgil has to snap him out of it.
- Pet the Dog:
- Dante feels quite sad about Paolo and Francesca (a couple in the circle of the Lustful) as well.
- Count Ugolino, a traitor in the depth of Hell, actually becomes pitiable when he tells his tale about his sons.
- Even more poignant if you consider that Dante's personal tragedy relates closely to Ugolino's because he was exiled from Florence with his (innocent) sons, as Ugolino was imprisoned with his. The fact that his family was condemned for his political choices weighted heavily on Dante's shoulders for all his later life.
- Pop-Cultural Osmosis:
- The concept of circles of Hell and the quote "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" (or a close variant) are well-known and alluded to/copied in innumerable places, but their origin isn't as widely known. (However, in pop culture, they are usually seen with a Fire and Brimstone Hell, instead of the more varied and complex Ironic Hell of the Inferno.)
- In Italy, many quotes from Hell have actually become proverbial. It's also worth nothing that about 15% of the most-used words in the modern Italian language were first used in literature by Dante in the Comedy.
- This is because the Comedy is one of the first works to be written in Italian, rather than Latin.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Dante gives one to greedy Pope Nicholas III.
- Recycled In Space:
- Rhyming with Itself: Done intentionally. To prevent any sense of blasphemy, Dante only rhymed the word "Christ" with "Christ."note Notable in that he had to do it only three times due to the rhyming system of the Comedy (ABA BCB CDC ... YZY Z).
- Sacred Hospitality: Ptolomaea, the second to last round of the ninth circle of Hell, is reserved for those who betrayed their guests. Souls there are buried in ice with just their faces exposed, but their eyes frozen so they cannot weep. And they are sent to Hell before they're dead, their bodies becoming vessels for Demonic Possession.
- Safety In Indifference: The virtuous pagans live in a very mild upper circle of Hell, where their only punishment is that they live without hope (of Heaven) or fear (of Hell). None of them seem to mind this much.
- Satan: Although he's a rather weak and pitiful (albeit gigantic) being, stuck in ice at the very bottom of Hell and chewing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius; he doesn't even put up a fight when Dante and Virgil climb down his body to access the path to Purgatory.
- Dante's description of Satan may be the first time he appears with bat wings.
- Self-Deprecation: Several times in Purgatorio, Dante meets someone and tries to show off some of his poetry, but Virgil rushes them along, saying his poetry doesn't matter.
- Self-Inflicted Hell: The damned are implied to have chosen their own fate, as they clamber madly to cross the river Acheron.
- Self-Insert Fic: The main character is Alighieri himself. It's still a good story, though.
- Seven Deadly Sins:
- Purgatory is patterned after these.
- Hell includes punishments for lust, gluttony, greed, and wrath.
- Seven Heavenly Virtues: They appear as beautiful maidens dancing around Beatrice's chariot in her triumphal procession at the end of Purgatory.
- Single Tear: A soldier Dante meets in Purgatory was put there instead of Hell because he shed a single tear before dying.
- Snicket Warning Label: Some early verses in the Paradiso warn readers not to continue further if they are not ready to deal with the complex theology discussed therein. Most people who end up reading it regret not taking the warning more seriously and end up with a headache, and left very confused.
- Suicide Is Shameful: Dante portrays the souls of the suicidal as residing in the 7th circle of Hell, reserved for the violent. For committing violence against themselves, they have their bodies entombed in oak trees or strewn across thorny bushes and are feasted upon by demonic harpies, and for rejecting God's gifts, they will be denied the chance to regain their human forms come the Day of Judgement.
- Sympathy for the Devil: Although Dante has nothing but contempt for Satan and his minions, he often shows feelings of empathy, pity, and even respect for several sinners he meets in Hell. Virgil sometimes tells Dante off for this. After all, if an omniscient and all-loving God has decided they're not worth pity, why should anyone go against divine will and feel sorry for them?
- Take Our Word for It: At the end of Paradiso, this is how Dante describes God. Anything else would have been underwhelming.
- Take That:
- Dante's personal and political enemies, as well as historical villains—even some of his friends—often end up in Hell. One of the most notable examples is none other than the then-current Pope, Bonifacius VIII, of whom Dante was not a big fan. According to Cracked.com, this was a big "screw you" to "Pope" Boniface and the town of Florence for double-crossing and exiling him (in an order that wasn't repealed until 2008). The pope's not in Hell yet, but it's stated that he will be.
- Dante himself gets one when he meets Beatrice at the top of Purgatorio. While he expects a tender and loving reunion, she angrily lambasts him and tears him apart, calling all of heaven to bear witness to the fact that Dante doesn't love her like he thinks he does.
- Mohammed and Ali are seen in the Circle of Hell reserved for schismatics, cut in half, a reference to how they supposedly divided God's domain.
- Taken for Granite: The Furies on the walls of Dis threaten to call forth Medusa to turn Dante to stone, but Virgil shields him with his cloak.
- Tears of Remorse
- Tender Tears
- Thicker Than Water
- This Loser Is You:
- Dante faints, weeps, kicks the heads of incapacitated shades, and lambastes in the narration things his character self almost immediately does.
- Also, well, there's a reason that Dante has to go through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. See Author Avatar.
- One theory of the Commedia is that Dante is contemplating suicide at the beginning of the poem. He describes himself as "lost in a dark forest," and what's the only other dark forest we see in the Commedia? The circle of Hell in which suicides are transformed into barren trees.
- To Hell and Back: Literally.
- Toilet Humour:
- One of the Malebranche "makes a trumpet of his ass" as a salute to his fellow demons.
- The flatterers in the second Bolgia are immersed in shit.
- Weirdness Search and Rescue: In Inferno, the living poet Dante is given a free pass into and out of Hell to report on what he sees there, and is given the soul of Roman poet Virgil (a man who was in hell because he had the misfortune to live and die before the mission of Christ), as his tour guide.
- Wish Fulfillment: Seeing as he gets to beat up people he doesn't like in Hell, confronts Satan, meets the woman he fell in love with during her life and be saved by her, sees God Himself, and transcends the mortal realm forever. The real kicker is that it's actually pulled off fairly well as far as self-inserts go. See Author Avatar above.
- He does not transcend the mortal realm forever, actually. Since the Comedy is set in 1300, after his voyage Dante (the character) returns to Florence, knowing full well about his exile and writing the Comedy to redeem mankind.
- Worthy Opponent: Saladin, the Muslim opponent of Richard the Lionhearted during The Crusades, is in the circle with virtuous pagans rather than further down among heretics, probably because of this trope.
- Farinata degli Uberti (Inferno canto X) counts too. He was a Florentine past political leader, and one of the most prominent member of the Ghibellini (the faction which sided with the Emperor as opposed to the Guelfi, which sided with the pope) and he and Dante's ancestors were enemies. From their meeting in hell it is clear that Dante admires the man much even if he acknowledges their rivalry and differing viewpoints.
- Wounded Gazelle Warcry: Helen of Troy in hell can be interpreted as having been this trope in life, rather than the passive object of desire she was in The Iliad: Dante gives her the full blame for the Trojan War, as if she got herself kidnapped by the Trojan prince on purpose in order to give her own nation an excuse to invade Troy.
- It boils down to whether you think she was abducted by Paris or gave in to lust and ran off with him willingly.