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The Dark Forest
The Pilgrim (Dante) loses his way while sleepy and finds himself in a dark forest. He tries to climb a mountain to get out, but his way is blocked by three beasts — a leopard, a lion, a she-wolf. To evade them, he runs back into the Forest. He is rescued by the shade of the poet Virgil (author of The Aeneid). Virgil explains to Dante that he has been sent by Dante's childhood sweetheart Beatrice, who is currently in Heaven and was herself sent by the Virgin Mary. He is here to guide Dante through Hell and Purgatory.
Entrance of Hell
Dante and Virgil come upon the gates of Hell. Inscribed upon these gates is a poem, the last line of which is far better known than the others:
When they pass through this gate, they enter the Vestibule of Hell. Here are punished the souls of the Opportunists, who never took sides during life, not even between good and evil, but were merely out for themselves. There's also the angels who didn't take sides in the war between Heaven and Hell. Their punishment is to forever chase after an elusive banner while being stung by wasps and hornets. Dante recognizes one shade who "by his cowardice made the Great Refusal", but does not name the person (it's thought to be Pope Celestine V, who refused the Papacy).
Separating the Vestibule from Hell proper is the river Acheron, where a boat helmed by Charon takes damned souls across. He initially refuses to take Dante since he's still alive, but Virgil pacifies him by telling him that it's Heaven's will that Dante cross. They enter the boat along with wailing and blaspheming damned souls, but the crossing isn't described since Dante faints and wakes up when they're on the other side.
First Circle (Limbo)
The first circle of Hell is for those who were not really wicked, but could not enter Heaven because they were not Christian. Because of this, they are not tormented by anything other than the knowledge that Heaven is there and they missed out on it (some pre-Christian Jews were taken to Heaven by Jesus when He came down). Here, Dante meets multiple famous pre-Christian historical figures such as the poets Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucian, along with the Muslim general Saladin.
Second CircleAt the entrance to the Second Circle, Minos judges the souls of the damned, condemning them to whatever circle is appropriate by wrapping his tail around himself a corresponding number of times. He hinders Dante and Virgil, but Virgil rebukes him and the two continue.
The Second Circle punishes Lust, and sinners here are blown about by the winds of a violent storm. Virgil points out historical figures like Semiramis (legendary Assyrian queen), Dido, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Paris, Achilles (oddly enough, since his Fatal Flaw is actually Wrath), and Tristan. He meets two sinners who turn out to be Fransesca Da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta. Fransesca tells their story — she married the deformed Giovanni Malatesta for political reasons, but fell for his younger sibling Paolo, and the two began an affair. Giovanni found out, surprised them in Fransesca's bedroom, and stabbed them to death. Fransesca notes that Caina awaits Giovanni once he dies.
Dante is overcome with pity for Francesca and Paolo, and faints. When he wakes up, he's in the Third Circle.
The Third Circle of Hell punishes Gluttony. In it, gluttons lie in a foul slush produced by endless, freezing rain and are constantly torn apart by Cerberus. Dante and Virgil pass safely by filling Cerberus's three mouths with mud. There are no famous sinners identified, but Dante does stop to talk with a Florentine contemporary called Ciacco. Ciacco predicts the expulsion of Dante's political party from Florence by their opponents, who had the help of Pope Boniface VIII (events which occurred before the poem was written, but after the time it was set). Ciacco then lies down again, and Virgil says he's not going to get up until Judgement Day.
The Fourth Circle punishes Greed. It is guarded by Pluto. In here, those who hoarded money (including an awful lot of clergymen) joust with those who wasted money, with their weapons being large weights they push with their chests. They're all too absorbed in this to talk to Dante and they're all so nondescript that no famous figures can be picked out, so instead of talks with sinners, this section features a discourse from Virgil on the nature of Fortune.
The Fifth Circle punishes Wrath. It consists of the River Styx, which is a smelly, slimy swamp where the actively wrathful fight each other on the surface and the sullen (passively wrathful) lie sunken into the mud. A boatman named Phlegyas takes Dante across. While he's doing that, they're accosted by Fillippo Argenti, a personal enemy of Dante's who took Dante's property when he was forced to leave Florence. Dante is quite unsympathetic towards him.
Gates of Dis
The lower circles of Hell are within the walled city of Dis. The wall is guarded by fallen angels, who won't let Dante through. Virgil is unable to convince them otherwise. Dante is scared, but Virgil reassures him that since Heaven has mandated their journey, someone will be sent to help them. Dante is then accosted by the three Furies, who threaten to set Medusa on him. Virgil tells Dante to close his eyes, but the threat of Medusa is never realized because right then, an angel is sent to open the gates of Dis for them. The angel opens the gates with a wave of his wand, admonishes the inhabitants for resisting God's will, and leaves. Dante and Virgil proceed to the Sixth Circle.
The Sixth Circle
The Sixth Circle punishes heresy. Sinners here are placed in flaming tombs. Dante talks to two contemporary Florentine Epicureans (Epicurus taught that the soul dies with the body, which goes against Christian doctrine) — Farinata degli Uberti (a famous general) and Cavalcante dei Cavalcanti (a political ally of Dante's and the father of one of his friends). Cavalcante asks Dante what happened to his son, and Dante hesitates to reply, which Cavalcante takes to mean his son is dead. After Dante has finished talking with Farinata, he tells Farinata to let Cavalcante know that his son is indeed still alive (he was exiled along with Dante).
The lower levels of Hell smell horrible, so Dante and Virgil delay their journey downwards until they can get used to it. Meanwhile, Virgil tells Dante about what the lower levels of Hell are like. The next one (Seventh Circle) is for the violent and divided into three categories — those violent against others, those violent against themselves, and those violent against God, art, and nature. The Eighth Circle is for those who committed fraud, and the Ninth is for those who committed treachery. The ones they already passed were punishing sins of incontinence (inability to control one's appetites). Those sorts of crimes are less heinous than crimes of violence or fraud (which involve perverting human intellect), so they are punished more lightly. When Dante asks why usury (punished in the Seventh Circle) is bad, Virgil tells him it's because usurers live off an unnatural method of gaining money (excessive interest) and are therefore considered 'violent against nature'.
The Seventh Circle
To get to the Seventh Circle, Dante and Virgil climb down a landslide that was left when Jesus descended into Hell to pick up the virtuous souls from the Old Testament. The Seventh Circle is divided into three rings:
- Violent Against Neighbors: These sinners, who include murderers, war-makers, plunderers, and tyrants, are immersed in the Plegethon, a river of boiling blood and fire. How deep the area they stand in is corresponds to how badly they sinned. If they try to get out, they're shot at by centaurs. Chiron, leader of the centaurs, assigns Nessus to take Dante and Virgil across. As he does so, he points out famous sinners — Alexander the Great, Dionysus (refers to one of two bloodthirsty rulers of Sicily, not the Greek god), Ezzelino (contemporary Italian tyrant), Obizzo d'Este (another Dante contemporary), and Guy De Montfort (who murdered Henry of Almain while Henry was clutching a church altar). He eventually brings them to a ford, and says that on the other side, the depth increases, and famous tyrants such as Attila the Hun are completely submerged. After this, Nessus leaves to return to his post.
- Violent Against Self: This area punishes the violently profligate (who squandered and destroyed their goods), along with people who committed suicide. The suicides are transformed into gnarled, black-leafed trees, and can only talk when a branch is broken off, as Dante discovers when he snaps a few twigs off of what turns out to be Pietro della Vigna, a counselor of Fredrick II who fell from favor and was imprisoned, and subsequently committed suicide. Pietro tells them that the souls of suicides are flung into the 7th Circle by Minos, and take root and sprout into trees wherever they land. Harpies live among them, feeding off their leaves and using their branches to make nests. Unique among sinners, they will not have their corporal forms returned to them at the Last Judgement, since they willingly gave up their bodies by committing suicide. Sure, their bodies will be returned on that day — but the souls won't be able to use them and the bodies will just hang on the branches of the trees. Dante then sees two profligate souls, who are chased by hounds and torn limb from limb. One falls onto a thorn bush, breaking all the branches. The bush turns out to be a suicide from Florence, and Dante talks to him for a bit.
- Violent against God and Nature: This ring is a desert with fire raining down from the sky. There are three groups of sinners here — the Blasphemers, who are lying stretched out, the Usurers, who are crouched down, and the Sodomites, who are running around. Dante talks to Capaneus, a blasphemer who got struck down with a thunderbolt for cursing Jove. He's still blaspheming, even in the afterlife. Dante manages to find safe passage along a small stream, which is separated from the rest of the circle. While he's walking along it, he comes across a group of sodomites that include his former mentor, Brunetto Latini. They're happy to see one another, and talk before Dante's mentor leaves. Dante then speaks to three Florentine sodomites.
After this, they are lowered into the Eighth Circle, Malebolge, by a demon named Geryon.
Eighth Circle (Malebolge)
The Eighth Circle is divided into ten valleys/ditches, or 'bolgia', each for a different kind of fraud. They are as follows:
- First Bolgia: Here panderers (pimps, basically) and seducers are punished by being made to walk around being whipped by a demon. Dante recognizes Venedico Caccianemico, and asks him why he's in Hell. Venedico replies that he pressured his sister into doing sexual favors for a Marquis. Jason of the Argonauts is also here, because he seduced and abandoned several women in order to get the Fleece.
- Second Bolgia: The second bolgia is a ditch of excrement where flatterers are put. Dante recognizes Alessio Interminei, and Virgil points out Thais, a courtesan who supposedly gave excessive thanks to her lover for sex.
- Third Bolgia: The third bolgia is where the sin of simony (selling church offices) is punished. Since these people made a mockery of the holy nature of the Church by selling positions for mortal money, they are punished in a mockery of baptismal fonts — holes in the ground where sinners are stuck upside-down with flames burning at their feet (as opposed to real baptism where water is poured on one's head). One sinner, Pope Nicholas III, mistakes Dante for Boniface VIII, his successor in simony who will himself be in Hell soon (though Nicholas does mention it's a few years too early) and will fall into the same hole as Nicholas III, displacing him deeper into the ground. Nicholas tells Dante that Boniface himself will be later followed by Clement V, who will move the papacy from Rome to Avignon. After this, Dante rants a good deal about how wrong simony is before he and Virgil move on.
- Fourth Bolgia: The fourth bolgia is for fortune-tellers and sorcerers. These sinners are forced to walk with their heads twisted around so they can only see behind them, as punishment for using forbidden means to see the future. Virgil points out such famous sinners as Amphiaraus (the king who foresaw his death in battle and tried to escape it by hiding, only to be killed by an earthquake), Tiresias (who used magic to turn himself into a woman and back again), Manto (a witch who was the namesake of Virgil's hometown Mantua), Aruns (Etruscan soothsayer who predicted Caesar's victory in the Roman Civil War), Eurypylus (Greek augur), Michael Scot and Guido Bonatti (astrologers), and Asdente (shoemaker and soothsayer from Parma).
- Fifth Bolgia: In this bolgia, corrupt politicians are immersed in a lake of boiling pitch — if they try to get out, they're tormented by demons called the Malebranche, who spear them with pitchforks (making this the only place in Inferno where demons torturing naked souls with pitchforks actually features). One caught sinner is questioned by Virgil, and he tells Virgil a lot about himself, except his name (early commentators identified him as Ciampolo), along with naming Friar Gomita and Michel Zanche as fellow barrators (corrupt politicians). He then makes a deal with the demons to lure some of his fellows out, only to use the opportunity to escape. Two demons brawl over that and then fall into the pitch, and Virgil and Dante take the opportunity to escape. The demons pursue them, but can't follow into...
- Sixth Bolgia: This is the bolgia of hypocrites, who walk eternally in monk's habits made of gilded lead. Dante speaks to two sinners — Catalano dei Malavolti and Loderingo degli Andalò — who were members of the Jovial Friars, a religious order that had quite the reputation for not living up to their vows (they were eventually disbanded by papal decree). Crucified to the ground in such a position that every passing sinner must pass over him is Caiaphas, the biblical high priest who counseled the Pharisees to crucify Jesus.
- Seventh Bolgia: This is the place for thieves. Sinners here are constantly bitten by snakes, and just as they stole from others, their very identities are subject to theft as the snakebites transform them. One Vanni Fucci explodes into ashes (and then reforms) from a snakebite, and others merge with other sinners, turn into snakes themselves, return to human form after attacking others, and more horrible things.
- Eighth Bolgia: This one is for Evil Counselors (meaning those who advised others to do evil). They are punished by being encased in individual flames. Ulysses and Diomedes are punished together for the Trojan Horse thing. Ulysses relates the story of his last voyage (no, not The Odyssey — this is one Dante just made up), where he saw Mt. Purgatory, but after that, his ship was sunk by a storm that God sent and he was killed. Dante also meets Guido da Montefeltro, who counseled Boniface VIII to offer false amnesty to a family so he could betray his family. Though Boniface absolved him in advance for the evil advice, he went to Hell because absolution requires the absolved to be remorseful for their actions, and one can't very well be remorseful for an act that one fully intends to commit.
- Ninth Bolgia: Here, the Sowers of Discord are eternally hacked up by a demon, just as they divided others in life. The prophet Mohammad, founder of Islam, is here and split completely in half (Dante saw Islam as an offshoot of Christianity, rather than its own Abrahamic religion). Also, there are his son-in-law Ali (responsible for the split between Sunni and Shiite Islam), Pier da Medicina, Gaius Scribonius Curio (advised Caesar to cross the Rubicon and therefore begin the Roman Civil War), Mosca de Lamberti (incited the conflict that got Dante kicked out of Florence), and Bertrand de Born (turned King Henry II's son against him).
- Tenth Bolgia: The final bolgia is for falsifiers. Falsifiers of what? Pretty much anything, really. Counterfeiters, identity thieves, alchemists (who faked being able to turn things into other things), and perjurers are all here, and they're all inflicted with diseases. Alchemists include Griffolino d'Arezzo and Capocchio. Two impersonators are shown — Gianni Schicchi and Myrrha (a character from Ovid's Metamorphoses who impersonated her mother to have sex with her father and was later turned into the first Myrrh tree). Dante encounters the counterfeiter Adam of Brescia, who points out several perjurers, like Potiphar's Wife (a person from the book of Genesis who lied to get Joseph thrown in prison after he rejected her advances) and Sinon, who lied to the Trojans to persuade them to take in the Trojan Horse.
- Central Wall: Embedded in the cliffs leading down to the Ninth Circle are several giants. When Dante sees him, he's thankful that Earth (Mother of giants in Greek mythology) didn't create any more of them, because they're basically nature's WMDs. Antaeus, the one giant who is not chained, provides passage down into the Ninth Circle.
Ninth Circle (Cocytus)
The Ninth Circle of Hell exemplifies Evil Is Deathly Cold — it's made up of the frozen lake of Cocytus. This circle is the hell for traitors, and there are several rings of sinners, each encased in ice to different depths as the degree of their treachery worsens.
- Caina: The ring for those who betrayed their kin (eventually including Giovanni Malatesta, who killed his brother Paolo and Paolo's lover Francesca), named after the biblical Cain. Sinners here are frozen up to their necks and are allowed to bow their heads to keep their faces out of the freezing wind that's constantly blowing. Here, Dante meets Alessandro and Napoleone degli Alberti (brothers who killed each other over politics), Camiscione dei Pazzi (killed his kinsman Ubertino), and Mordred, who killed his father King Arthur.
- Antenora: Named after Antenor, a Trojan who betrayed his city to the Greeks, this ring is for those who betrayed countries or other political entities, and sinners here are frozen up to their chins. Dante accidentally kicks the head of a traitor here (who we learn is Bocca degli Abati) and when the shade refuses to tell his story, threatens him with pulling his hair out — and then goes through with it. He still doesn't get the shade's story. He later comes upon two shades, one above the other and eating the guy's head. Dante asks for that story, and the guy who's doing the eating agrees to tell his story since it will shed light on the truly nasty nature of his betrayer. The shade reveals that he is Count Ugolino, and the guy he's eating is Archbishop Ruggeri. Ugolino conspired with Ruggeri to take control over his city, only for Ruggeri to turn on him and imprison Ugolino and his sons and grandsons in a tower, where they starved to death.
- Ptolomaea: The third ring is for those who betrayed their guests. It's named after Ptolomy, but not the one you're probably thinking of — the namesake of Ptolomaea was from the book of Maccabees and betrayed his father-in-law Simon Maccabeus and his family by inviting them to a banquet and then killing them. Sinners here lie supine in the ice with only their faces exposed. Their tears freeze over their eyes so they can't weep. One soul says he'll tell his story in return for Dante clearing the ice away from his eyes, and Dante promises to do so, lest he "go to the bottom of the ice". The shade is satisfied and says he's Fra Alberigo, here because he invited relatives over for dinner and then had them assassinated. Dante's a bit confused, however, and asks Alberigo if he's actually dead. Alberigo replies that he doesn't know because souls can fall to Ptolomaea before they're actually dead. As an example, he points out a guy named Branca D'Oria behind him. Branca's still living and Dante knows it, but he's here because to betray one's guests is such a horrid crime that the soul often falls immediately, with a demon possessing the body until it dies. Branca fell to Ptolomaea before his victim Michel Zanche (who was mentioned earlier in the poem) arrived at the bolgia of the barrators. Alberigo asks Dante to clear the ice off his eyes, but Dante refuses.
- Judecca: The final ring of Cocytus, reserved for those who, like the ring's namesake Judas Iscariot, betrayed their lords and benefactors. Judas himself, however, is not here — we'll get to him in a moment. This ring is completely silent because all the sinners here are completely encased in ice and twisted into grotesque positions. Since they can't talk to anyone, Dante and Virgil don't spend much time here, quickly passing to the center of Hell.
Center of Hell
In the very center of Hell, the gigantic and monstrous Lucifer (he has six wings and three faces) is frozen waist-deep in the ice. He is constantly crying from all three of his faces, and beating his six wings. The water of Cocytus is his tears, and the cold wind produced by his wings freezes it and keeps him trapped. In each of his three faces, he chews on a prominent traitor — Brutus and Cassius have their feet in his left and right mouths (Dante saw their assassination of Julius Caesar as ruining the chances for a united Italy and killing the guy divinely appointed to rule the Roman Empire, not making sure an ambitious warlord didn't turn the Roman Republic totalitarian), while Judas Iscariot has his head in Satan's middle mouth and is constantly being shredded by Satan's claws.
Dante holds onto Virgil as Virgil climbs down Satan's fur until he switches around and then starts climbing up (but still going down Satan's legs). Why is he doing this? Well, Lucifer is at the very center of the world, so gravity switches around at about his midsection. Purgatory is on the other side of the world, and it's their next destination. They then walk out through the other side of the world and emerge under the stars of the Southern Hemisphere.note
See you in Purgatorio, folks.
Shore of Purgatory
Dante's happy to be finally out under the stars again, and invokes the Muses to help him make the next part of his poem great. He tries to calculate the time based on astronomy, but is interrupted by Cato, a pagan who for whatever reasons is the guardian of Purgatory. He is at first suspicious of Dante and how he managed to get out of Hell, but relents when Virgil tells him what's going on, and that the Virgin Mary sent him despite Dante still being alive. He tells Dante to wash his face in the dew and to get a new belt made from a rush (Virgil used Dante's old belt to summon Geryon). They do so (a new rush immediately springs up after the plucked one).
They then see a boat filled with penitent souls come to the mountain, guided by an angelic boatman. Dante recognizes one of the souls — it's Casella, a friend of his. The two reunite, chat, and Casella sings a song to the other souls, before Cato breaks the whole thing up and tells them to get a move on climbing the mountain.
Ante-Purgatory — the Excommunicates and the Late-Repentant
While climbing up the mountain and before getting to the terraces, he meets two groups of penitents: the Excommunicates and the Late-Repentant. The Excommunicates include a soul who recognizes Dante (though Dante doesn't recognize him). He's Manfred, grandson of the Empress Constance. He repented all of his sins just before dying, which let him into Purgatory. However, since he was the enemy of Clement IV, he died excommunicated from the Church, so despite his redemption, he has to wait here for a period 30 times as long as his time excommunicated. He asks Dante to tell his daughter that he's in Purgatory, so she can pray for him (prayers from the living shorten the time souls must spend in Purgatory).
There are three categories of Late-Repentant: the Indolent, who were lazy and waited too long to repent; those who died by violence without receiving last rites; and the Negligent Rulers. All of these must wait out a time equal to their lives before entering purgatory proper. Dante meets and recognizes one of the Indolent, Belacqua, who he's relieved to see is here and not in Hell. Among those who died by violence is Buonconte da Montefrelto (we met Guido, a relative of his, in the hell for evil counselors), who went missing after a battle. Buonconte was injured, repented, and died, with his body being covered by mud. They also meet Sordello, a troubadour from Mantua who's quite happy to see Virgil. Seeing Sordello having such goodwill to a fellow Mantuan sets Dante off on a rant about the political state of Italy.
Meanwhile, Sordello and Virgil have been talking, and Sordello tells Virgil that it's a rule of Purgatory that no one can travel at night. As in, they literally can't — the darkness saps people of their will to move on. They can move back or rest, but never go up. Virgil and Dante agree to stay and rest with Sordello, who leads them to a nice spot overlooking the Valley of the Rulers, where rulers who were too preoccupied by running their country to look after their spiritual needs stay. They get more lenience than their subjects in this since, as kings, they had a lot more duties to think of than their subjects did. Sordello points out Emperor Rudolph, Ottokar II, Philip III (who Sordello calls "father-in-law of the pest of France", referring to Philip IV, who was responsible for the Avignon Papacy), Henry I, Charles of Anjou, Pedro III of Aragon, his youngest son (also named Pedro), and William the Marquis.
That night, a pair of angels come to defend the valley against "the serpent". Sordello leads them down into the valley, where Dante meets up with Nino Visconte, a personal friend who Dante's really happy to find not in Hell, along with Currado Malsapina. After this, Dante goes to sleep and dreams that a golden eagle swooped down, caught him, and then they both got burned in the flaming sky.
Gate of Purgatory
Dante wakes up from his dream to find that Saint Lucia has carried him up to the Gate of Purgatory while he slept. The gate itself is made out of diamond and has three steps — one white, one red, and one black. It's guarded by an angel who carves seven 'P's into Dante's forehead (the 'P' stands for 'peccatum', which means 'sin'), and tells him that the angels who guard the way out of each terrace will remove one 'P' when he passes them). The angel unlocks the gate using the Keys of St. Peter (a gold and a silver key the angel got from Peter himself).
First Terrace- The Prideful
The first terrace purges souls of Pride. Penitents here are hunched over with massive weights on their backs, preventing them from looking down on anything as they walk around the terrace, praising God and praying for those still alive. Sculptures carved into the mountain depict scenes of exceptional humility and people being punished for hubris.
When Dante and Virgil meet them, Virgil asks them to show Dante the easiest way up the mountain, since he's still alive and can still get tired. One soul points them in the right direction and names himself as Omberto. He says that during his life, his arrogance caused serious problems for his family- but he has repented and now shoulders the burdens he refused to bear in life. Dante initally can't see his face, but when he takes the same bent-down position as the penitents are in, he notices that the man was Oderisi, a famous illuminator (illustrated and decorated manuscripts). Oderisi is pleased by his fame, but he's come far enough that he insists that his colleague Franco Bolognese was the better painter. Oderisi notes that he regrets his proud nature and rants about how prized glory and fame is despite its fleeting nature (How many of you knew there was once a man named Oderisi known for painting pretty pictures in Bibles?).
Oderisi points out another penitent, Provenzan Salvani - a Dante-contemporary - here because of the hubris he displayed in trying to conquer all of Siena. He's not in Ante-Purgatory because he worked at repenting for his sin during his lifetime- when his friend was imprisoned by Charles of Anjou, he humbled himself to the point of begging on the streets for ransom money.
Dante and Virgil move on and meet the angelic guardian of the first terrace, who allows Dante to pass- but not before whacking him in the head with his wing, which removes the first of the seven 'P's from Dante's forehead.