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Circles of Hell

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"Cigars are evil, you won't miss 'em
We'll find ways to simulate that smell
What a sorry fella
Rolled up and smoked like a panatella
Here on Level 1 of Robot Hell!"
The Robot Devil, Futurama

It's not bad enough to have just one plane of eternal torment. Many times, Hell has multiple layers, with those layers being tailored toward punishing certain kinds of evil, and the ones further down holding even more horrible punishments than the upper layers. Fire and Brimstone Hell is usually just one of the lesser levels; sometimes they really get creative. As such, it's common for this trope to be partnered with Ironic Hell, usually by grouping similarly themed punishments into shared areas.

Often, Heaven will have a number of layers as well, corresponding to varying degrees of holiness and/or purity.

Contrast Heavenly Concentric Circles, when heavenly planes or beings are depicted as concentric circles in the sky. In the sense of being a geometric motif.

As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Dragon Ball, Hell - also known as the Home For Infinite Losers - seems to have a number of layers.
  • YuYu Hakusho, where Younger Toguro requests to be sent to the last circle of hell, which is 10,000 years of torture for 10,000 cycles until his soul ceases to exist.
  • One Piece: Although the real 'Hell' hasn't been seen, Impel Down, the strongest prison in the One Piece world is based on this, having each layers of prison floors a hell, (ie: Level 2 is 'Beast Hell', level 5 is 'Freezing Hell and etc..)
  • The Hell Verse movie of Bleach mostly takes place in Hell. The first layer of Hell is a "city" of floating gray blocks with blue walkways between them all under a red sky. The guards, called Kushanada, mostly patrol this layer, which contains damned souls that have gone insane. The second layer is a vast sea with stone platforms and giant bowl-like sculptures shaped like lilies floating on it. At least one has a Kushanada skeleton impaled within it. The sky here is a lavender color. The third layer has the bottom of the sea as its "sky" and is made of several plateaus pockmarked with pits of yellow liquid. The liquid can harm souls and is deep enough to hide Kushanada. The spaces between the plateaus are filled with clouds. The fourth layer is covered in dunes of blue grit, which formed from countless damned souls dying again. The most prominent landmark is a Stonehenge-like structure that partly encircles a Lava Pit that has a giant humanoid skeleton halfway out of it. The horizon is concealed by yellow clouds which also fill the sky. The lowest layer is dotted with irregular pillars topped with lava pits. The Kushanada can emerge from the pillars. Rivers of lava flow between the pillars under a perpetual thunderstorm. Bones of various sizes cover most of the solid ground there.

    Comic Books 
  • Spawn features ten spheres of hell. They're distinguished from one another more by their native fauna than by their prisoners.
  • DC crossover Underworld Unleashed used this model for Neron's hell.
  • The Empyrean, the afterlife of the comic book Afterlife Inc consists of many discs (heavens) arranged around a central shaft. Each heaven serves a specific function. Shehaqim, for example, provides a home for all the plants and animals that die, while Machonon, the afterlife's capital city, is home to the vast majority of undead souls.
  • Subverted in an X-Men annual where the team goes to Hell to save Nightcrawler's soul. Since supernatural realms are out of their element (this was before Magik became the X-Men's resident sorceress), they enlist Doctor Strange's help, but he notices that "hell" is exactly as it's described in The Divine Comedy and is nothing like the previous time he had been there. Sure enough, it turned out to be an illusion created by Nightcrawler's adoptive mother, sorceress Margoli Szardos.
  • Mephisto's Hell is intentionally modeled after this, to intimidate the damned mortal souls who end up there.
  • Two Disney Mouse and Duck Comics adaptations of The Divine Comedy, Mickey's Inferno and Donald's Inferno. Both have the circles being of specific, family-friendly sins.
  • Star Trek (the comic book incarnation) once featured Kirk, Spock, and McCoy having to get to the bottom of Dante's that Spock could mind-meld with "Lucifer" — actually the powerful but sick alien telepath who'd incapacitated the entire Enterprise with the illusion (he'd read the actual book shortly beforehand) — and snap him out of it, restoring things to normal.
  • Zander Cannon's Heck uses Dante's map exactly: the nine circles, the horrific punishment, Satan at the center, the whole thing.
  • Justice League of America 80-Page Giant 2011 has Dante's Hell. The League find themselves split into two-person teams, each sent to the circle that's most appropriate for them.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Referenced in Liar Liar: Fletcher, unable to lie, declares that he has "slipped into the seventh circle of hell."
  • In Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds, the recently deceased must traverse 7 Hells and endure 7 trials in order to achieve reincarnation. The order in which a soul goes through the Hells is decided by the King of Hell, Yeomra. The order is based on the severity of the crimes committed by the soul in life, so it's different for every person.

  • Older Than Print with The Divine Comedy:
    • The Trope Namer, if not the Trope Codifiers, are the nine circles Dante traverses in Inferno, which start from the top with the offenses that least distance man from God, and gradually get graver and graver until it reaches the Earth's core, which is reserved for direct traitors to God like Lucifer and Judas. While it's often depicted as a series of vertically stacked discs, as in the page image, Dante's Hell is a subterranean bowl, with the levels descending in rings, so they are literally circles of hell (except the bottom one, which is a frozen lake). The lowest are divided into secondary circles, to give special attention to the various permutations of the worst sins. The Seventh Circle, for the violent, is divided into rings for the violent against others, the violent against themselves, and the violent against nature, art, and God. The Eight Circle, for fraud, is divided into ten "evil ditches" (male bolgie) for specific types of hucksters, thieves and cheats. The Ninth and last Circle, for traitors, is divided into four icy rounds — Caina, for traitors to family; Antenora, for traitors to their country; Ptolomaea, for traitors to their guests; and Judecca, for traitors to their lords. Satan, who personally betrayed God, is at the very center and bottom.
    • The Seven Terraces of Purgatory each serve to reconcile people that committed one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Since Purgatory is a mountain with the entrance to Paradise at the top, the worst of the Sins (pride) has its terrace at the bottom, and sinners must then climb through the other terraces until they reach the least offensive sin (lust) and do penance for that.
    • The Nine Spheres of Paradise are based on the Ptolemaic (geocentric) model of the Universe and its inhabitants get more perfect as Dante ascends them. Dante actually takes issue with this, since he's uncomfortable with inequality in the realm of a just God. Well, he has nothing to worry about, because Heaven only appears to be divided into spheres, and in actuality, all saints dwell outside the Heavens in God's dwelling, the Empyrean. They only appeared to Dante in the Spheres so he could better understand the different types of people in Paradise.
  • Grounded for All Eternity: The Pit is divided into nine circles, with souls sent to whichever circle best fit their most predominate evil trait. The first pit is for apathy, the second jealousy, the third theft, the fourth greed, the fifth wrath, the sixth liars, the seventh violent, the eighth manipulators, and the ninth holds the Cage. Samuel Parris is from the eighth circle.
  • Referenced, naturally enough, in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Inferno (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle), which is a 20th century take on Dante.
  • Midkemia in The Riftwar Cycle is sandwiched between seven hells and seven heavens, though it is pointed out that whether a plane is heaven or hell is subjective to the individual (i.e. Midkemia would be considered the First Heaven to someone from what they consider the First Hell, and vice versa). Also, it may go further up and down; it's merely that once you reach the seventh layer either direction, human minds are no longer capable of comprehending what's going on.
  • In Jodi Picoult's The Tenth Circle, Daniel, one of the main characters, creates a comic book about traveling through the circles of hell to rescue his daughter. It reflects off the struggles he's having at home.
  • In the Incarnations of Immortality series, both Heaven and Hell possess different circles/regions. Where you end up depends on what kind of person you were in life. In Heaven you go to different circles if you were a philosopher or a military leader. In Hell people who litter (yes) are forced to pick up litter in the freezing cold without any clothes until they've picked up as much litter as they contributed to, directly or indirectly, in life... though since this was shown and explained by Satan while giving a third party a supervised "tour" of Hell, its truthfulness is highly questionable, at best.
  • In L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero in Hell, there are regions to Hell. Worse, there are Hellwinds which will blow you back to the appropriate place, even if you're a visiting still alive mortal.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire the main religion of Westeros is known to have seven gods (one of whom, the Father, is explicitly identified as a judge,) and seven hells, but no details of the hells are ever given, so it's unknown whether they belong to specific gods or are tailored to specific sins or have any sort of hierarchy of punishment. As seven is considered a holy number and comes up a lot in the culture of the (ahem) Seven Kingdoms, it may be simply a figure of speech.
  • Master Li and Number Ten Ox must pass through the twelve levels of China's Hell in The Story Of The Stone to get information from a dead man. Either that, or the two of them took hallucinogens to spur Master Li's memory, letting him recall a conversation with the then-living man that Master Li has forgotten. It's left deliberately ambiguous.
  • Unsong inverts the usual concept. Here, the demons send the most irredeemable sinners to the relatively benign layers of Hell, reserving the worst areas for those who just barely failed to get into Heaven. That way, people who are worried about going to Hell are incentivized to go over the Moral Event Horizon, increasing the amount of evil in the Universe. Also, whenever the victims of people like Hitler and Stalin are sent to Hell, their tortures are made even more painful by the knowledge that their killers will always be better off than them, even in death.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Referenced by Shepherd Book in the Firefly episode "Our Mrs. Reynolds".
    Book: If you take sexual advantage of her, you're going to burn in a very special level of hell. A level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theater.
  • An episode of Angel had a character trapped in a suburban style part of hell and Angel had to bust him out. Spike tagged along and told him that there's more than one Hell such as a "Freezing Hell".
  • In the final episode of HEX, Mehpistopheles drily comments to Leon: "Well, if you'd been on a permanent loop through the nine circles of hell, you wouldn't look too hot either".
  • In the Green Hornet special episode of MythBusters, Grant comments after he and Tory riddle a Black Beauty with 250+ sub-machine rounds that "if there's a circle of hell for people who destroy beautiful cars, that's where we're going".
  • The Twilight Zone (1985): In "Dead Run", newly condemned souls arrive in the Outer Circles of Hell and are eventually brought to its center where they are to spend all eternity. The Celestial Bureaucracy doesn't particularly care whether the damned suffer as long as they are kept somewhere they can't hurt others.

    Mythology and Religion 
  • Both the Aztec and Maya Underworlds are divided into 9 levels. In the Aztecs' case, Paradise and the Sky are also divided into 3 and 13 levels, respectively.
  • In Hinduism and Jainism; souls that have accumulated negative karma may be reincarnated into any of several naraka realms where they undergo torture until the karma is exhausted. Death in a naraka is possible, but if the karma is not exhausted the next incarnation will be in the same realm.
  • In Buddhism; the Hells, also known as narakas, are similarly where people with particularly bad karma are reborn. Depending on the version of Buddhist cosmology, there are up to hundreds of thousands of naraka realms. Their residents must live, die and be reborn again and again in whatever hell they're in until they have worked off all of their bad karma, which can last for many kalpas (eons) on end depending on which hell they're reborn in, with Avici, the lowest hell reserved for those who commit one or more of the five unforgivable offenses in Buddhism, being the longest in duration.
    • The mix of Buddhism and local beliefs in East Asia has made some versions of the Hells the Worst Bureaucracy Ever.
  • Somewhat inverted in Origen's notion of Hell. Hell itself was a level... of Heaven.

    Professional Wrestling 

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons: The Outer Planes, both good and bad (and neutral and lawful and chaotic) are almost always divided into different layers. However, a soul's actions in life determine which plane they end up on, usually not which layer of that plane. Those who lived a Lawful Evil existence wind up in Baator where their immortal soul is tortured to empower the devils who rule the plane, evil warlords may face an eternity of mindless conflict on the Infernal Battlefield of Acheron, Chaotic Good fighters meanwhile get to enjoy a Warrior Heaven in Ysgard, and True Neutral souls gravitate toward the Concordant Domain of the Outlands at the hub of the Great Wheel of planes.
    • The Nine Hells of Baator are obviously inspired by Dante, but the individual layers are tailored more to the Archdevils who rule them rather than a particular type of damned soul. Dis for example is an infernal metropolis organized as an Orwellian police state under the paranoid schemer Dispater, while Maladomini is a reeking ruin fit for Baalzebul, the disgusting Lord of Flies. Nessus, the lowest level of Baator, is a flat, scorched plain marred by countless canyons containing fortresses where Asmodeus keeps his personal legions in reserve for his long-planned invasion of the Upper Planes... and according to legend, one spiraling fissure, the Serpent's Coil, is where his titanic true form rests in the deepest part of Hell, still bleeding from the wounds sustained by his violent arrival.
    • The Abyss is probably infinite in horrifying variety, but tradition holds it consists of 666 layers, each somehow worse than the last. It should be noted that there's no real order to these layers, since most of them can be reached by jumping in the right pit from the "top" layer of the plane, Pazunia, the Plain of Infinite Portals, so any numbers associated with them are based on the order of their discovery by planar cartographers. Admittedly, most sourcebooks note that the number 666 was chosen arbitrarily for thematic appropriateness. The actual Abyss is ever-expanding and is host to theoretically infinite layers.
    • The prison plane of Carceri is one that sends damned souls to a layer based on their mortal crimes. The Stygian bogs of Orthrys are home to political turncoats, while those who chose base lust over reason are consigned to the acidic jungles and razor-sharp grasslands of Cathrys. The unrelenting sandstorms of Minethys flay misers who refused to part with their wealth to help others, liars whose falsehoods brought others harm must cling to the cruel mountains of Colothys, while those too shallow and selfish to take the opportunity to help someone huddle on the freezing sandbars of Porphatys' stinging seas.
    • As said before, even the good afterlives have layers. Lawful Good petitioners undertake a spiritual journey to progress up the Seven Mounting Heavens of Celestia. By the time they reach the summit they either become such paragons of their philosophy that they merge with the plane itself, or perhaps Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence — nobody knows since they don't come back.
    • The gnomish heaven of Bytopia deserves a mention due to how its two layers are arranged, facing each other from about a mile apart. Dothion is a pastoral paradise of tamed fields and peaceful woodlands, while Shurrock is a rugged, resource-rich wilderness to challenge the hardiest of souls. Moving between the two requires flight, or climbing a mountain tall enough to meet its counterpart on the opposing layer like an hourglass.
    • Planar layers can also move around. Menausus was once the third layer of Arcadia, a harmonious mildly-Lawful plane, but enough of the ant-like Formians settled there to tip the layer's philosophy so that it joined the Lawful Neutral plane of Mechanus some millennia ago. Now the second layer of Arcadia, Buxenus, is a mustering ground preparing for an effort to somehow reclaim Menausus from the rival plane.
  • Infernum is set in a Hell styled in this fashion, which is justified because demonic civilization literally arose from the 2400-miles-deep crater which Lucifer and the other First Fallen smashed into the land when they were flung from Heaven. The exterior of the crater, the First Circle, is called Emptiness — a huge barren wasteland where even demons can get lost and wander forever. The bottom of the Pit is the Ninth Circle, the ancient city of Pandemonium. Descending from Emptiness to Pandemonium requires passing through Tempestnote , Tearsnote , Toilnote , Slaughternote , Industrynote , Delightnote , and the Malebolgenote  in that order.
  • In both Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, the Chaos God Slaanesh's palace is described in these terms, ringed by the six Circles of Desire: Avidity, Gluttony, Carnality, Paramountcy, Vainglory and finally Indolence. Each layer serves as a defensive mechanism, so that an intruder may be turned into a lifeless golden statue after lingering too long in Avidity, fall prey to the Daemonettes inhabiting Carnality, or become trapped in Indolence until their body crumbles to dust.
  • Children Of Fire: The Seven Heavens contain a number of realms that would be Hellish in the eyes of many a mortal. The Second Heaven is where the Fallen were cast down after Sammael's rebellion, and is a place of sightless torment. The northern realm of the Third Heaven, Tartarus, is where human sinners are punished, and is a desolate, lifeless place. Finally, the northern realm of the Fifth Heaven is where corrupted angels are punished.
  • In Werewolf: The Apocalypse, the Black Spiral Labyrinth represents the tormented mind of the Wyrm. The labyrinth is divided into nine circles, each of whichtests and torments visitors until their minds are broken. For example, the circle of endurance pushes visitors to their physical and psychological limits, while the circle of loyalty forces visitors to choose between (what's left of) their humanity and fealty to the Wyrm. Black Spiral Dancers pass through the circles to gain rank, but only a handful have ever passed through all nine circles. Gaia Garou consider dancing the Black Spiral a Fate Worse than Death.

    Video Games 
  • Nippon Ichi, particularly Makai Kingdom and Disgaea not only has The Multiverse, but multiple Netherworlds; occasionally warring on each other; much like the Dungeons & Dragons version; but most are not nearly as Grimdark.
  • Dante's Inferno, natch. Since it's based on the Trope Codifier, they sure couldn't miss this one.
  • The Civilization IV mod Fall from Heaven has six circles of hell, one for each evil God/Goddess (except one, who was originally good). Interestingly, hell in that universe isn't so much a prison for the wicked as it is a factory for the creation of demons to eventually wage war back on the outside world of Erebus. Each circle represents some aspect of evil to be cultivated in the inhabitants to turn them more and more demonic. There's even a circle of hell that mimics Erebus, designed to trick would-be-escapees of hell into giving up and returning to the other levels.
  • Act III of Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark takes place in the frozen wastes of Cania, the eighth circle of Hell in the D&D cosmology.
  • ULTRAKILL's levels take place in the nine layers of Hell, and every three layers are grouped into one to serve as a single Act. For example, Act 1 contains Limbo, Lust, and Gluttony, along with the intro levels (Prelude) preceding Act 1.

    Web Animation 
  • Hellaverse: Hell is divided into at least seven rings traveled between by giant elevators. However, deceased human sinners are confined to the Pride ring (the highest), causing an Overpopulation Crisis that is mitigated by annual culls from Heaven. Hellborn demons like imps and royals have free movement between rings. In Helluva Boss Greed is shown to be a crumbling capitalist hellscape while Wrath appears to be mostly agricultural and Lust is known for their nightclubs.
  • In HFIL, a spinoff of Dragon Ball Z Abridged, HFIL is a specific circle of hell made for the "morally-compromised malefactors" of DBZA (and Raditz) to stay while Goz and Mez try to reform them. It's honestly quite pleasant, aside from the Power Limiters keeping them from escaping, the mandatory therapy sessions and sharing circles, and being forced to play beer pong with Shasta.

  • Ctrl+Alt+Del, like Dante, gives nine circles, but they're for the different types of bastard you encounter in MMOs. Griefers are forever spawn-camped, Ninja Looters roll a 1 on every drop, and so on.
  • Circles exist in And Shine Heaven Now's version of Hell. There's one specifically for people that get in the way of Integra's mission. Committing that sin takes precedent over any other sins the human or vampire may have committed (explained as because she's on a mission from God, fighting her is akin to fighting God). One of the fangirl story arcs takes place in this hell as a way for fans to gush over some of the TV series villains (and Helena, who was only there due to a clerical error). By the end of the comic it's very crowded in that circle.]
  • Hellgasm Slaughter: the main point is for the main characters to travel to all nine levels while gathering allies, fighting enemies, and getting stronger so they can beat the Big Bad.
    • It's also revealed early on that there are actually thirteen circles of hell. Dante was just too cheap to pay for the premium trip.
  • In Hell Lost Dante is revealed as being mistaken: they are not circles, in fact, but ledges that step down to the Frozen Plain described by Milton, where both a frozen lake and one of fire can be found.
  • I'm the Grim Reaper has nine circles of hell. As you go up the numbers, the punishments and sins of those inside grow progressively worse. For example, petty theft can land you in the first circle, with a punishment of loneliness, if the amount you steal goes high enough. Kill one person and you go to the fifth circle, where you hang from a noose, get picked apart by birds, and have your flesh regrow every day. Serial killers, world leaders, and scummy businessmen might go to the ninth circle, with a punishment of languishing in a void lacking in any of the five senses for eternity.
  • In Dresden Codak, plans for Hell involve figuring out which circle you end up in.
  • In The Non-Adventures of Wonderella Satan made an extra circle of hell where fans of Monty Python's Flying Circus go and quote lines at each other. Ironically, everyone else is tortured for eternity, the fans think they're in heaven.
    Satan: Irony's all relative, anyway.

    Web Originals 
  • Codex Inversus:
    • Before the Collapse, Hell was divided into nine Circles where sinners were punished. After the Collapse forcibly merged all planes into the material world, the Rings collapsed and fell into ruin. In the modern day, little is left of them but vast derelict pillars in the lands of the Infernal Empire, although one, the Ninth, still endures as a huge unbroken arch of stone above the city of Goetia.
    • The modern Empire remains divided into nine provinces named after common names for Hell and its Circles — Cocytus, Erebus, Dis, Maladomini, Malebolge, Cania, Minauros, Nessus and Styigia.
  • The Onion has an article with the headline "Tenth Circle Added To Rapidly Growing Hell". Corpadverticus, the realm of Total Bastards, is built to contain publicists and lobbyists, media whores, and awards-show hosts.
    • Niven and Pournelle just stuck those types in Malebolgia with the rest of the flatterers (wallowing in shit).
      • They also added a second anus to them, which eternally flows with shit. It's right below their tongue (Spouting shit).
  • The Seven Levels of Pun Hell.
  • Barely anyone gets into Heaven in Bartleby Tales due to the God of the universe being a dick (only six souls out of virtually countless dead even made it to Heaven in the past year), so the first level of Hell was converted into the closest thing Satan could make to Heaven. The second (where the story is set) is A Hell of a Time, helping people deprogram from a life spent following God's mindless taboos. The third through sixth are like purgatory, and only the seventh is a proper Ironic Hell (for people who're really, really evil.)
  • Inferno Quest shamelessly copies Dante's work, with it being noted in-universe that Dante's works were inspired by the Angels to educate people. However, Hell has changed quite a bit from how it was featured in Dante's work.

    Western Animation 
  • Futurama and all the levels of Robot Hell. In the Robot Devil's Villain Song he takes Bender to multiple levels for various ironic punishments, specifically levels number 1 (where, for smoking cigars, he's rolled up in a giant cigar and smoked), 2 (where for gambling, cheating, and forging bogus IOUs he's strapped to a wheel of random torments), and 5 (where Beastie Boys use his hard drive as a turnstile for music piracy).
  • Parodied in God, the Devil and Bob. The Devil gets so wrapped up in his competition with God over Bob's soul (and, by extension, the fate of Earth) that his underlings turn the fourth circle into a luxurious golf course. When he finds out, he decides to show them what a tough course really looks like.