In his epic allegorical poem The Inferno (completed c.1320) the great Italian poet Dante Alghieri imagined Hell to be a deep pit of concentric circles, into which those damned for their sins suffered a variety of appropriate, and highly imaginative, punishments. These fanciful torments include:

The Vestibule – Lucifer’s waiting room is misty forest located on the banks of the Acheron (the river of Woe). Here the ‘cowardly opportunists’, who refused to support one side or the other in life are forced to run through the fog in pursuit of an elusive banner whilst being chased by angry wasps.

First Circle (Limbo) - here dwell the unbaptised and the virtuous pagans who died in ignorance of Christ. These souls do not suffer, instead the wise men of the Classical Age live in a sumptuous castle whilst everyone else inhabits a tranquil meadow.

Second Circle (Lust) - after being judged by Minos, a huge snake, those deemed to have let their appetites cloud their reason are condemned to dwell forever in dark place ‘where nothing gleams’. Here a violent storm rages and the sinners are constantly blown about by terrible winds.

Third Circle (Gluttony) - those being punished for over indulgence must also suffer a great storm but here icy rain produces a putrid slush in which the sinners must wallow. To add to the souls’ torment Cerberus (described as a three headed ‘worm’ not a hound) claws at their flesh with its talons.

Fourth Circle (Avarice) - both the misers who hoarded their riches and those who squandered their worldly goods are ruled by Plutus (often confused with Pluto) the Roman god of wealth, who forces his subjects to joust by rolling great weights at each other.

Fifth Circle (Wrath) – this circle is a vast marsh, fed by the River Styx, where those who gave vent to their anger on earth are forced to fight each other on the surface of the ooze. By contrast, the ‘sullen’( who nursed their anger in silence) must lie under the mud, forever choking on their own frustrated rage.

The Entrance to Dis – Dante is ferried across the marsh, by the boatman Phlegyas (not Charon), to the City of Dis which is the abode of the most loathsome sinners. Dis is guarded by the Fallen Angels of Christian myth as well as the Vengeful Harpies and the snake-haired Medusa of classical legend.

Sixth Circle (Heresy) – those who deny the teachings of The Church are imprisoned in flaming tombs and here Dante indulges in a lengthy discourse with the Epicureans. These philosophers believed that the soul did not survive death, thus earthly pleasure was the highest form of virtue.

Seventh Circle (Violence) - is divided into three smaller circles. The first, guarded by Centaurs, is a river of boiling blood into which murderers, warmongers and tyrants are plunged. The second is reserved for suicides, who are imprisoned in trees and clawed by Harpies, whilst the third is a plain of burning sand. Here usurers, blasphemers and sodomites have to suffer a rain of constant fire.

Eight Circle (Fraud) – the penultimate circle of Hell consists of ten ‘malebolge’ (evil ditches) in which are imprisoned:

1. Panderers (pimps) and Seducers who are constantly whipped by horned demons.
2. Flatterers who are immersed in excrement.
3. Simoniacs (sellers of holy offices) who are buried upside down in holes with hot coals heaped on the soles of their naked feet.
4. Sorcerers, astrologers and false prophets who must walk backwards, blinded by their own tears, for all eternity.
5. Barrators (corrupt public officials) who are immersed in a lake of boiling tar.
6. Hypocrites who are forced to walk in circles wearing cloaks made of lead.
7. Thieves who are constantly bitten by poisonous snakes.
8. Fraudulent Counsellors who are imprisoned in pillars of fire.
9. Sowers of Discord who are repeatedly dismembered by a demon wielding a huge sword.
10. Falsifiers, Alchemists, Impersonators, Counterfeiters and Perjurers who are afflicted with a variety of terrible diseases.

The Well of Malebolge – Dante descends in to the lowest circle of hell through a deep well that is guarded by various giants from classical and biblical literature. These include Nimrud, who built the tower of Babel, and the Titan Ephialtes who tried to storm Olympus.

Ninth Circle (Treachery) – the last circle of The Abyss is a frozen lake named Cocytus. Trapped in the ice, are the souls of traitors arranged in four rings. In the outer ring are those who betrayed their families, the next ring contains those who betrayed their country followed by those who betrayed their guests. The final ring is the prison of those who betrayed their lords and benefactors.

The Centre of Hell – in the middle of the frozen lake is the arch-traitor Lucifer/Satan who betrayed God. The former prince of angels has three different coloured faces and each mouth gnaws on a different traitor from human history. To the left and right the souls of Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Caesar, are being slowly devoured but the central mouth chews on Judas Iscariot.

Dante escapes Hell by climbing down Satan’s fur. As he passes the Devil’s navel, the whole universe turns upside down and the poet climbs up to emerge on the Mountain of Purgatory in the Southern Hemisphere. This mountain is surrounded by a vast ocean, fed by Lethe, the river of Oblivion, and stands at a point directly opposite Jerusalem. From here Dante must begin a new journey which will take him through Purgatory to Paradise.

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