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Going to hell? It's all part of the divine comedy

by Siv Palm, A & E editor


Have you ever known anyone you hoped would burn in Hell? Or have you ever hoped someone you lost was in the other place?

Dante Alighieri did. He lived in 13th-century Italy, and wrote a book that showed his enemies in Hell, and his lost love, Beatrice, in heaven. The Divine Comedy made him Italy’s, if not Europe’s, most acclaimed poet.

Dante, 1265-1321, is one of the most important writers of European literature. He straddles the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. His other major works include La vita nuova, De monarchia, and Convivio.

Dante, born into a noble Florentine family, lost his mother at the age of 7. Five years later he met Beatrice, who was 9. She became the love of his life, but he was never to have her as his own.

They were both promised to other people, as arraigned marriages were common practice at the time.

Beatrice died when she was only 24, and Dante was heartbroken. He buried himself in deep study of philosophy and Provencal poetry, and Beatrice became his muse. He dedicated two major works to her, Convivio and La vita nuova, and she was his guide through Paradise in the third part of The Divine Comedy.

The Divine Comedy is Dante’s most famous work. He wrote it in exile in 1310-1314, but dated it 10 years earlier to give it’s characters prophetic powers.

In The Divine Comedy we follow Dante the Pilgrim through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and to Paradise (Paradisio).

In all the realms Dante meets the famous and the infamous, some from ancient times, and some from his own, contemporaries whom he had met himself.

Dante’s Hell consists of nine circles, beginning at the castle of wisdom, not truly part of Hell, but a limbo where pre-Christian pagans live without God in death, as they did in life. Among these noble souls is the Egyptian Sultan Saladin, the philosophers Plato and Socrates, and the Trojan hero Hector, Aeneas founder of Rome, and Camilla, the warrior Princess who raised an army against him.

Each of Hell’s nine circles is reserved for different kinds of sinners. Caina, or Cain’s hell, the first circle, is reserved for those who sinned against their family. Other circles are reserved for people who committed suicide, fraud, murder, and so on.

Among those confined to eternal torment in Hell is Bruno Latini, a father figure for Dante after his own father had passed away in his late teens. This one-time friend and, mentor is placed in Hell’s seventh circle, among those guilty of “violence against nature,” in this case sodomy. The deeply religious Dante gave no pardons.

The journey through Hell leads Dante through a variety of dangers, but his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, escorts him safely past demons and devices of torture. Tired but relieved, they pass through Hell and reach the foot of Mount Purgatory, the other side of the world.

Dante’s Purgatory is a lofty island mountain divided into seven terraces, where repentant sinners do their penance in order to some day be worthy of Heaven. Here the proud circle the mountain bent double for humility; the slothful run around crying out examples of zeal and the lustful are purged by fire.

On top of the mountain is the Garden of Eden, or earthly paradise. The river Lethe runs through the beautiful lush garden, providing forgetfulness before the cleansed souls ascend to heaven.

Beatrice meets Dante at the river. As the personification of pure love, she has been sent to rescue him, while Virgil, his former guide, returns to the Castle of Wisdom.

Beatrice leads Dante to Paradise where he is able to gaze upon the supreme radiance of God. He ends his pilgrimage in rapture, a vision of “the love which moves the sun and the stars.”

Only a few years after completing The Divine Comedy, the real Dante ended his own pilgrimage as he died in exile. He was 56 years old and still longing for his Beatrice.

The Divine Comedy is fun and interesting to read. Dante creates a fascinating world that has affected not only religious perceptions and imagination, but also most subsequent allegorical creations of imaginary worlds. Some of the characters, like Queen Dido of Carthage, Aeneas’ lover in Virgil’s epic, are considered mere myths today. Others, like the several popes who are given a rather rough treatment in Hell, are historical people with records that can be compared to Dante’s interpretations.

Dante shows imagination, and a certain vindictiveness, when he “sentences” people. To be stuffed down a hole of bubbling magma is considered fitting punishment in for Pope Boniface II, who exiled Dante.

Written originally in Italian, The Divine Comedy is available in most languages today. The most popular translation into English was made by Henry Cary (1772-1884.) My personal favorite is the easily read, and thoroughly explained 1984 translation by Mark Musa.

Written almost 700 years ago, The Divine Comedy is a rock solid classic, well worth the time it takes to read it.


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