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Dante’s Divine Comedy

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dante incorporates Virgil’s portrayal of Hades from The Aeneid into his poem, and similarities between the Inferno and Hades can be drawn, however Dante wasn’t attempting to duplicate Virgil’s works. Although the Hell depicted in Dante’s Inferno is essentially based on the literary construction of the underworld found in Virgil’s Aeneid, in their particulars the two kingdoms are quite different. Virgil’s underworld is largely undifferentiated, and Aeneas walks through it without taking any particular notice of the landscape or the quality of suffering that takes place among the dead.

Aeneas’ first concern is with the fate of his friends, then with meeting his father once more: the philosophical and religious significance of sin and death is nothing to him, and there is no moral judgement implied in the fate of the departed. In Dante’s Inferno, on the other hand, there is a systematic differentiation of the landscape, and each progressively lower circle of hell implies a deadlier sin. The quality of punishment given out to the sinners is thus increased as Dante’s descend, and Dante’s compassion for the dead lessens as he moves downward to the bottom of hell.

Virgil’s underworld is really an extension of the natural world, being entered through a cave mouth at the end of a beach at the Euboian settlement of Cumae, renowned as the dwelling of Sibyl, it is she who permits his passage to the realm below: The cavern was profound, wide-mouthed and huge, Rough underfoot, defended by dark pool And gloomy forest. Overhead, flying things Could never take their way, such deathly Exhalations rose from the black gorge Into the dome of heaven. Fitzgerald, p168)

Virgil’s first descriptions of the underworld are dramatic and turbulent, and there is even a series of symbolic fates that are medieval in their abstraction: And pale Diseases and sad Age are there. And Dread, and Hunger that sways men to crime. And sordid want – in shapes to affright the eves And Death and Toil and Death’s own brother, Sleep…(Fitzgerald, p. 169) But once Aeneas gets past these figures, and the on rushing horde of the dead and dying at the boatman’s shore, the underworld turns out to be relatively calm and stable setting.

There are some further similarities between Virgil’s and Dante’s hells, no doubt due to Dante’s close reading of the Latin and his wish to make Virgil his guide and mentor. For example, there are periodic challenges to the living as they walk through hell, and the boatman warns Virgil, It breaks eternal law for the Stygian craft to carry living bodies. Virgil also conceived the idea of separating the dead infants wail in one area, the falsely accused and condemned in another, the suicides in yet another.

But all Virgil’s dead are condemned to the same hopeless fate, and it is only the memory of life which torments them. Conscious of this, Aeneas apologizes to Dido for deserting her at the behest of the gods; unfortunately, Dido repudiates him and joins Sychaeus, her former mate. A central concern of many of Aeneas encounters is whether or not the burial rituals have been carried out; the unburied are not even allowed to cross the River Styx, and those whose rituals have not been properly performed seem to suffer some kind of anguish on that account.

The main purpose of Aeneas’ visit to the underworld is to see his father, and the encounter with Anchises is one of the high points of the Aeneid. The basic distinction of Virgil’s hell is that the elect are sent to the Blessed Groves, where, as one of them tells Virgil, We walk in shady groves, and bed on riverbanks and occupy green meadows fresh with streams. (Fitzgerald, p183) Here Aeneas meets Anchises, and his father gladly tells him about the great secrets of eternal life, and how those Souls for whom a second body is in store drink from the waters of forgetfulness.

In Virgil’s scheme, the virtuous dead are reborn through the device of cleansing their memories, through a vague process of purification at Elysium. Most important of all, however, is the knowledge that the living Aeneas will go on to found Rome and create a line of Caesars. In contrast to the broad landscape of Virgil’s underworld, Dante’s Hell is a more highly structured and directed place and Dante’s entry into the Inferno is the occasion of great fear and anxiety.

Dante’s fear is calmed greatly when he learns that his companion is to be the great Latin poet who had himself described the underworld in his own epic: Art thou then that Virgil, that fountain which pours Forth so rich a stream of speech? … O glory and light Of other poets, let the long study and great love that Has made me search thy volume avail me. Thou are my Master and my author. (Sinclair, p. 27) After entering hell, Dante leads the reader downward through circles whose degree of damnation is based strictly on the sins committed in life.

We learn that Virgil and in fact all the ancients whose lives were unstained by sin (the virtuous pagans) are confined to the first layer of hell, where they go unpunished and suffer only from the knowledge that they missed salvation by an accident of chronology. There are some other resemblance’s between the hell of Virgule and that of Dante, most of which can be attributed to the direct literary influence of the Roman author.

The challenges that greet the living visitor to the world of the dead are similar in Dante, and we could draw a comparison to the photos of Dido and Sychaeus in the moving story of Paolo and Francesca, the two lovers whose infidelity condemns them to the eternal frustration. But Dante’s reaction to the scenes before him is much more violent, and the plight of the damned in The Inferno is much more intense because their sufferings seem more physical and emotional. At one point, Dante is so moved that he faints: While the one spirit said this the other wept so that for pity I swooned as in death and dropped like a dead body. Sinclair, p. 79)

Yet Dante is only at the beginning of a long and complex series of encounters, each of which represents a more completely and painfully damned group of sinners. In comparison with Virgil’s experience, Dante’s journey is an epic in itself, and the arrangement and order of Dante’s journey is an epic in itself, and the arrangement and order of Dante’s hell is complex enough to justify a study in itself. Significantly, the damned are rigorously classified and placed in circles according to the serious the their sin, as interpreted by the theology of the church in the Middle Ages.

Unlike Virgil, Dante makes explicit moral judgement on each of the individuals he meets, and the damned encountered range from historical figures, to contemporary popes and poets, to the greatest sinner of them all: Judas Iscariot. Judas is encountered in the lowest circle of hell, being ground between the teeth of Satan. Satan is a bizarre figure who is more pagan than Christian in his appearance as of Dante had to resort to primitive images to convey the ugliness of the anti-Christ.

Satan has three heads and needs all of them to inflict pain on his victims: With six eyes he was weeping and over three chins Dripped tears and bloody foam. In each mouth he crushed A sinner with his teeth as with a heckle and thus kept Three of them in pain…(Sinclair, p. 423) As if to balance his references to the Christian and classical worlds, Dante places Cassius and Brutus alongside Judas in the mouth of Satan, as all are betrayers. Dante’s hell is a closed system, with no escape for the damned, whereas Virgil’s open underworld encompasses purgatory and paradise as well. There are many similarities between Virgil and Dante’s hells.

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