First Circle (Limbo)
In Limbo reside the unbaptized and the virtuous pagans, who, although not sinful, did not accept Christ. Limbo shares many characteristics with the Asphodel Meadows; thus, the guiltless damned are punished by living in a deficient form of Heaven. Without baptism ("the portal of the faith that you embrace") they lacked the hope for something greater than rational minds can conceive. Limbo includes green fields and a castle with seven gates to represent the seven virtues. The castle is the dwelling place of the wisest men of antiquity, including Virgil himself, as well as the Persian polymath Avicenna. In the castle Dante meets the poets Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan; the Amazon queen Penthesilea; the mathematician Euclid; the scientist Pedanius Dioscorides; the statesman Cicero; the first doctor Hippocrates; the philosophers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Averroes; the historical figures Lucretia, Lucius Junius Brutus, and Julius Caesar in his role as Roman general ("in his armor, falcon-eyed"); mythological characters Hector, Electra, Camilla, Latinus, and Orpheus; and many others. Interestingly, he also sees Saladin in Limbo (Canto IV). Dante implies that all virtuous non-Christians find themselves here, although he later encounters two (Cato of Utica and Statius) in Purgatory and two (Trajan and Ripheus) in Heaven.
Beyond the first circle, all of those condemned for active, deliberately willed sin are judged to one of the lower eight circles by the serpentine Minos. Minos initially hinders the poets' passage, until rebuked by Virgil. Minos sentences each soul by wrapping his tail around himself a corresponding number of times. The lower circles are structured according to the classical (Aristotelian) conception of virtue and vice, so that they are grouped into the sins of incontinence, violence, and fraud. The sins of incontinence – weakness in controlling one's desires and natural urges – are the mildest among them, and, correspondingly, appear first, while the sins of violence and fraud appear lower down.
Second Circle (Lust)
In the second circle of Hell are those overcome by lust. Dante condemns these "carnal malefactors" for letting their appetites sway their reason. They are the first ones to be truly punished in Hell. These souls are blown back and forth by the terrible winds of a violent storm, without rest. This symbolizes the power of lust to blow one about needlessly and aimlessly.
In this circle, Dante sees Semiramis, Dido, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Achilles, Paris, Tristan, and many others who were overcome by sexual love during their life. Dante is told by Francesca da Rimini how she and her husband's brother Paolo Malatesta committed adultery, but then died a violent death, in the name of Love, at the hands of her husband, Giovanni (Gianciotto). Francesca reports that their act of adultery was triggered by reading the adulterous story of Lancelot and Guinevere (an episode sculpted by Auguste Rodin in The Kiss). Nevertheless, she predicts that her husband will be punished for his fratricide in Caïna, within the ninth circle (Canto V).
The English poet John Keats, in his sonnet "On a Dream," imagines what Dante does not give us, the point of view of Paolo:
... But to that second circle of sad hell, Where ‘mid the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw, Pale were the lips I kiss’d, and fair the form I floated with, about that melancholy storm.
Third Circle (Gluttony)
The "great worm" Cerberus guards the gluttons, who are forced to lie in a vile slush produced by ceaseless foul, icy rain (Virgil obtains safe passage past the monster by filling its three mouths with mud). In her notes on this circle, Dorothy L. Sayers writes that "the surrender to sin which began with mutual indulgence leads by an imperceptible degradation to solitary self-indulgence." The gluttons lie here sightless and heedless of their neighbors, symbolizing the cold, selfish, and empty sensuality of their lives. Just as lust has revealed its true nature in the winds of the previous circle, here the slush reveals the true nature of sensuality – which includes not only overindulgence in food and drink, but also other kinds of addiction.
In this circle, Dante converses with a Florentine contemporary identified as Ciacco, which means "hog." A character with the same nickname later appears in The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio. Ciacco speaks to Dante regarding strife in Florence between the "White" and "Black" Guelphs. In one of a number of prophecies in the poem, Ciacco "predicts" the expulsion of the White party, to which Dante belonged, and which led to Dante's own exile. This event occurred in 1302, after the date in which the poem is set, but before the poem was written (Canto VI).
Fourth Circle (Greed)
Those whose attitude toward material goods deviated from the appropriate mean are punished in the fourth circle. They include the avaricious or miserly (including many "clergymen, and popes and cardinals"), who hoarded possessions, and the prodigal, who squandered them. The two groups are guarded by a figure Dante names as Pluto, either Pluto the classical ruler of the underworld or Plutus the Greek deity of wealth (who uses the cryptic phrase Papé Satàn, papé Satàn aleppe), but Virgil protects Dante from him. The two groups joust, using as weapons great weights that they push with their chests:
… I saw multitudes to every side of me; their howls were loud while, wheeling weights, they used their chests to push. They struck against each other; at that point, each turned around and, wheeling back those weights, cried out: Why do you hoard? Why do you squander?
The contrast between these two groups leads Virgil to discourse on the nature of Fortune, who raises nations to greatness and later plunges them into poverty, as she shifts "those empty goods from nation unto nation, clan to clan." This speech fills what would otherwise would be a gap in the poem, since both groups are so absorbed in their activity that Virgil tells Dante that it would be pointless to try to speak to them – indeed, they have lost their individuality and been rendered "unrecognizable" (Canto VII).
Fifth Circle (Anger)
In the swampy waters of the river Styx, the wrathful fight each other on the surface, and the sullen lie gurgling beneath the water, withdrawn "into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe." Phlegyas reluctantly transports Dante and Virgil across the Styx in his skiff. On the way they are accosted by Filippo Argenti, a Black Guelph from a prominent family. When Dante was forced to leave Florence, Argenti took all his property. When Dante responds "In weeping and in grieving, accursed spirit, may you long remain," Virgil blesses him. Literally, this reflects the fact that souls in Hell are eternally fixed in the state they have chosen, but allegorically, it reflects Dante's beginning awareness of his own sin (Cantos VII and VIII). Just as Argenti seized Dante's property, he himself is "seized" by all the other wrathful souls.
The lower parts of Hell are contained within the walls of the city of Dis, which is itself surrounded by the Stygian marsh. Punished within Dis are active (rather than passive) sins. The walls of Dis are guarded by fallen angels. Virgil is unable to convince them to let Dante and him enter, and Dante is threatened by the Furies (consisting of Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone) and Medusa. An angel sent from Heaven secures entry for the poets, opening the gate by touching it with a wand, and rebukes those who opposed Dante. Allegorically, this reveals the fact that the poem is beginning to deal with sins that philosophy and humanism cannot fully understand. Virgil also mentions to Dante how Erichtho sent him down to the lowest circle of Hell to bring back a spirit from there (Cantos VIII and IX).
Sixth Circle (Heresy)
In the sixth circle, Heretics, such as Epicureans (who say "the soul dies with the body") are trapped in flaming tombs. Dante holds discourse with a pair of Epicurian Florentines in one of the tombs: Farinata degli Uberti, a Ghibelline (posthumously condemned for heresy in 1283); and Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti, a Guelph who was the father of Dante's friend and fellow poet, Guido Cavalcanti. The political affiliation of these two men allows for a further discussion of Florentine politics (Canto X). Also seen here are Epicurus, Emperor Frederick II, and Pope Anastasius II – although some modern scholars hold that Dante erred in the verse mentioning Anastasius ("Anastasio papa guardo, lo qual trasse Fotin de la via dritta"), confusing the pope with the Byzantine emperor of the time, Anastasius I.
In response to a question from Dante about the "prophecy" he has received, Farinata explains that what the souls in Hell know of life on earth comes from seeing the future, not from any observation of the present. Consequently, when "the portal of the future has been shut," it will no longer be possible for them to know anything.
Pausing for a moment before the steep descent to the foul-smelling seventh circle, Virgil explains the geography and rationale of Lower Hell, in which violent and malicious sins are punished. In this explanation, he refers to the Nicomachean Ethics and the Physics of Aristotle (Canto XI). In particular, he asserts that there are only two legitimate sources of wealth: natural resources ("nature") and human activity ("art"). Usury, to be punished in the next circle, is therefore an offence against both:
From these two, art and nature, it is fitting, if you recall how Genesis begins, for men to make their way, to gain their living; and since the usurer prefers another pathway, he scorns both nature in herself and art her follower; his hope is elsewhere.
Seventh Circle (Violence)
The seventh circle houses the violent. Its entry is guarded by the Minotaur and it is divided into three rings:
- Outer ring: This ring houses the violent against people and property. Sinners are immersed in Phlegethon, a river of boiling blood and fire, to a level commensurate with their sins: Dionysius I of Syracuse, Guy de Montfort, Obizzo d'Este, Ezzelino III da Romano, Rinier da Corneto, and Rinier Pazzo are also seen in the Phlegethon, as well as references to Attila the Hun. The Centaurs, commanded by Chiron and Pholus, patrol the ring, shooting arrows into any sinners who emerge higher out of the river than each is allowed. The centaur Nessus guides the poets along Phlegethon and across a ford in the widest, shallowest stretch of the river (Canto XII). This passage may have been influenced by the early medieval Visio Karoli Grossi.
- Middle ring: In this ring are suicides and profligates. The suicides – the violent against self – are transformed into gnarled thorny bushes and trees and then fed upon by Harpies; the Harpies, and the characteristics of the bushes, are based on Book 3 of the Aeneid. Dante breaks a twig off one of the bushes and from the broken, bleeding branch hears the tale of Pietro della Vigne, who committed suicide after falling out of favour with Emperor Frederick II (his presence here, rather than in the ninth circle, indicates that Dante believes that the accusations made against him were false). Also here are Lano da Siena and Jacopo da Sant' Andrea. The trees are a metaphor for the state of mind in which suicide is committed. Dante learns that these suicides, unique among the dead, will not be corporally resurrected after the final judgement since they gave away their bodies through suicide; instead they will maintain their bushy form, with their own corpses hanging from the thorny limbs. The other residents of this ring are the profligates, who destroyed their lives by destroying the means by which life is sustained – i.e., money and property. They are perpetually chased and mauled by ferocious dogs. The destruction wrought upon the wood by the profligates' flight and punishment as they crash through the undergrowth causes further suffering to the suicides, who cannot move out of the way (Canto XIII).
- Inner ring: Here are the violent against God (blasphemers) and the violent against nature (sodomites and, as explained in the sixth circle, usurers). All reside in a desert of flaming sand with fiery flakes raining from the sky, a fate similar to Sodom and Gomorrah. The blasphemers lie on the sand, the usurers sit, and the sodomites wander about in groups. Dante sees the classical warrior Capaneus there, who for blasphemy against Zeus was struck down with a thunderbolt during the Siege of Thebes. Dante converses with two Florentine sodomites from different groups. One of them is Dante's mentor, Brunetto Latini; Dante is very surprised and touched by this encounter and shows Brunetto great respect for what he has taught him ("you taught me how man makes himself eternal; / and while I live, my gratitude for that / must always be apparent in my words"), thus refuting suggestions that Dante only placed his enemies in Hell. The other sodomite is Iacopo Rusticucci, a politician, who blames his wife for his fate. Those punished here for usury include the Florentines Catello di Rosso Gianfigliazzi, Guido Guerra, Ciappo Ubriachi, and Giovanni di Buiamonte and the Paduan Reginaldo degli Scrovegni (who predicts that his fellow Paduan Vitaliano di Iacopo Vitaliani will join him here). They are identified not primarily by name but by heraldic devices emblazoned on the purses around their necks, purses that "their eyes seemed to feast upon" (Cantos XIV through XVII).
Eighth Circle (Fraud)
The last two circles of Hell punish sins that involve conscious fraud or treachery. These circles can be reached only by descending a vast cliff, which Dante and Virgil do on the back of Geryon, a winged monster traditionally represented as having three heads or three conjoined bodies; however, Dante describes Geryon as having three mixed natures: human, bestial, and reptilian. Dante's Geryon is an image of fraud, having the face of an honest man on the body of a beautifully colored wyvern, with the furry paws of a lion and a poisonous sting in the pointy scorpion-like tail (Canto XVII).
The fraudulent – those guilty of deliberate, knowing evil – are located in a circle named Malebolge ("Evil Pockets"). This circle is divided into ten Bolgie, or ditches of stone, with bridges spanning the ditches:
- Bolgia 1: Panderers and seducers march in separate lines in opposite directions, whipped by demons (here Dante makes reference to a recent traffic rule developed for the Jubilee year of 1300 in Rome: keep to the right). Just as the panderers and seducers used the passions of others to drive them to do their bidding, they are themselves driven by whip-wielding demons to march for all eternity. In the group of panderers, the poets notice Venedico Caccianemico, who sold his own sister to the Marchese d'Este. In the group of seducers, Virgil points out Jason, who gained the help of Medea by seducing and marrying her only to later desert her for Creusa. Jason also seduced Hypsipyle, but "abandoned her, alone and pregnant" (Canto XVIII).
- Bolgia 2: Flatterers also exploited other people, this time using language. They are steeped in human excrement, which represents the words they produced. Alessio Interminei of Lucca and Thaïs are seen here. (Canto XVIII).
- Bolgia 3: Dante now forcefully expresses his condemnation of those who committed simony. Those who committed simony are placed head-first in holes in the rock (resembling baptismal fonts), with flames burning on the soles of their feet. One of the simoniacs, Pope Nicholas III, denounces two of his successors, Pope Boniface VIII and Pope Clement V, for the same offence. Simon Magus, who offered gold in exchange for holy power to Saint Peter, is also mentioned here, although he does not appear. The simile of baptismal fonts gives Dante an incidental opportunity to clear his name of an accusation of malicious damage to the font in the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini (Canto XIX).
- Bolgia 4: Sorcerers, astrologers, and false prophets here have their heads twisted around backward on their bodies, so that they "found it necessary to walk backward, / because they could not see ahead of them." While referring primarily to attempts to see into the future by forbidden means, this also symbolises the twisted nature of magic in general. In this Bolgia, Dante sees Amphiaraus, Tiresias (whose double transformation is also referenced), Tiresias' daughter Manto, Aruns, Michael Scot, Alberto de Casalodi, and Guido Bonatti, among others (Canto XX).
- Bolgia 5: Corrupt politicians (barrators) are immersed in a lake of boiling pitch, which represents the sticky fingers and dark secrets of their corrupt deals. The barrators are the political analogue of the simoniacs, and Dante devotes several cantos to them. They are guarded by devils called the Malebranche ("Evil Claws"), who provide some savage and satirical black comedy – in the last line of Canto XXI, the sign for their march is provided by a fart: "and he had made a trumpet of his ass." The leader of the Malebranche, Malacoda ("Evil Tail"), assigns a troop to escort Virgil and Dante safely to the next bridge. The troop hook and torment one of the sinners (identified by early commentators as Ciampolo), who names some Italian grafters and then tricks the Malebranche in order to escape back into the pitch. The promise of safe conduct the poets received from the demons turns out to have limited value (and there is no "next bridge"), so the poets are forced to scramble down into the sixth Bolgia (Cantos XXI through XXIII).
- Bolgia 6: In the sixth Bolgia, the poets find the hypocrites listlessly walking along wearing gilded lead cloaks, which represent the falsity behind the surface appearance of their actions – falsity that weighs them down and makes spiritual progress impossible for them. Dante speaks with Catalano and Loderingo, two members of the Jovial Friars, an order that had acquired a reputation for not living up to its vows and was eventually suppressed by Pope Sixtus V. Caiaphas, the high priest responsible for ordering Jesus crucified, is also seen here, crucified to the ground and trampled (Canto XXIII).
- Bolgia 7: Two cantos are devoted to the thieves. They are guarded by the centaur Cacus, who has a fire-breathing dragon on his shoulders and snakes covering his equine back (in Roman mythology, Cacus was not a centaur but a monstrous fire-breathing giant slain by Heracles). The thieves are pursued and bitten by snakes and lizards. The full horror of the thieves' punishment is revealed gradually: just as they stole other people's substance in life, their very identity becomes subject to theft here, and the snake bites make them undergo various transformations. Vanni Fucci is turned to ashes and resurrected. Agnello is blended with the six-legged reptile that is Cianfa. Buoso exchanges shapes with the four-legged Francesco: "The soul that had become an animal, / now hissing, hurried off along the valley; / the other one, behind him, speaks and spits" (Cantos XXIV and XXV).
- Bolgia 8: Two further cantos are devoted to fraudulent advisers or evil counsellors, who are concealed within individual flames. These are not people who gave false advice, but people who used their position to advise others to engage in fraud. Ulysses and Diomedes are condemned here for the deception of the Trojan Horse. Ulysses tells the tale of his fatal final voyage (Dante's invention) where he left his home and family to sail to the end of the Earth only to have his ship founder near Mount Purgatory; Ulysses also mentions of his encounter with Circe, stating that she "beguiled him." Guido da Montefeltro recounts how he advised Pope Boniface VIII to capture the fortress of Palestrina, by offering the Colonna family inside it a false amnesty and then razing it to the ground after they surrendered. Guido describes how St. Francis came to take his soul to Heaven because of Guido's subsequent joining of the Franciscan order, only to have a demon assert prior claim. Although Boniface had absolved Guido in advance for his evil advice, Dante points out the invalidity of that, since absolution requires contrition, and a man cannot be contrite for a sin at the same time that he is intending to commit it (Cantos XXVI and XXVII).
- Bolgia 9: In the ninth Bolgia, a sword-wielding demon hacks at the Sowers of Discord, dividing parts of their bodies as in life they divided others. As they make their rounds the wounds heal, only to have the demon tear apart their bodies again. Dante encounters Muhammad, with his entrails hanging out, who tells him to warn the schismatic and heretic Fra Dolcino. Dante describes Muhammad as a schismatic, apparently viewing Islam as an offshoot from Christianity, and similarly Dante seems to condemn Ali for schism between Sunni and Shiite. In this Bolgia, Dante also encounters Bertran de Born, who carries around his severed head like a lantern (a literal representation of allowing himself to detach his intelligence from himself), as a punishment for (Dante believes) fomenting the rebellion of Henry the Young King against his father Henry II (Cantos XXVIII and XXIX).
- Bolgia 10: In the final Bolgia, various sorts of falsifiers (alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and impostors) – who are a "disease" on society – are themselves afflicted with different types of diseases. Potiphar's wife is briefly mentioned for her false accusation of Joseph. The Achaean spy Sinon suffers from a burning fever for tricking the Trojans into taking the Trojan Horse into their city; Sinon is here rather than in Bolgia 8 because his advice was false as well as evil. Gianni Schicchi is a 'rabid goblin' for forging the will of Dante's relative Buoso Donati. Myrrha suffers from madness for disguising herself to commit incest with her father King Theias.
In Sayers's notes on her translation, she remarks that the descent through Malebolge "began with the sale of the sexual relationship, and went on to the sale of Church and State; now, the very money is itself corrupted, every affirmation has become perjury, and every identity a lie" so that every aspect of social interaction has been progressively destroyed (Cantos XXIX and XXX).
Ninth Circle (Treachery)
The ninth and last circle is ringed by classical and Biblical giants, who perhaps symbolize pride and other spiritual flaws lying behind acts of treachery. The giants are standing on a ledge above the ninth circle of Hell, so that from the Malebolge they are visible from the waist up. They include Nimrod, Ephialtes (who with his brother Otus tried to storm Olympus during the Gigantomachy), Briareus, Tityos, and Typhon. The giant Antaeus (being the only giant unbound with chains) lowers Dante and Virgil into the pit that forms the ninth circle of Hell (Canto XXXI).
The traitors are distinguished from the "merely" fraudulent in that their acts involve betraying a special relationship of some kind. There are four concentric zones (or "rounds") of traitors. These rounds correspond, in order of seriousness, to betrayal of family ties, betrayal of community ties, betrayal of guests, and betrayal of liege lords. In contrast to the popular image of Hell as fiery, the traitors are frozen in a lake of ice known as Cocytus, with each group encased in ice to progressively greater depths.
- Round 1 is named Caïna, after Cain, who killed his own brother. Traitors to kindred are here immersed in the ice up to their chins – "the place / where shame can show itself" Mordred, who attacked his uncle/father King Arthur, is one of the traitors here: "him who, at one blow, had chest and shadow / shattered by Arthur's hand" (Canto XXXII).
- Round 2 is named Antenora, after Antenor of Troy, who according to medieval tradition, betrayed his city to the Greeks. Traitors to political entities, such as parties, cities, or countries, are located here and imprisoned in the same way as the traitors in Caïna. Count Ugolino pauses from gnawing on the head of his former partner-in-crime Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini to describe how Ruggieri turned against him after an accidental death of Ruggieri's illegitimate son during a riot and had him imprisoned along with his sons and grandsons, condemning them to death by starvation. A number of correspondences, such as allusions to the same passage of the Aeneid, link this passage to the story of Paolo and Francesca in the second circle, indicating that this icy hell of betrayal is the final result of consent to sin (Cantos XXXII and XXXIII).
- Round 3 is named Ptolomaea, probably after Ptolemy, son of Abubus, who invited Simon Maccabaeus and his sons to a banquet and then killed them. Traitors to their guests are punished here, lying supine in the ice, which covers them, except for their faces. They are punished more severely than the previous traitors, since the relationship to guests is an entirely voluntary one. Fra Alberigo, who had armed soldiers kill his brother at a banquet, explains that sometimes a soul falls here before Atropos cuts the thread of life. Their bodies on Earth are immediately possessed by a demon, so what seems to be a walking man has reached the stage of being incapable of repentance (Canto XXXIII).
- Round 4 is named Judecca, after Judas Iscariot, Biblical betrayer of Christ. Here are the traitors to their lords and benefactors. All of the sinners punished within are completely encapsulated in ice, distorted in all conceivable positions. With no one to talk to here, Dante and Virgil quickly move on to the centre of Hell (Canto XXXIV).
In the very centre of Hell, condemned for committing the ultimate sin (personal treachery against God), is Satan. Satan is described as a giant, terrifying beast with three faces, one red, one black, and one a pale yellow:
he had three faces: one in front bloodred; and then another two that, just above the midpoint of each shoulder, joined the first; and at the crown, all three were reattached; the right looked somewhat yellow, somewhat white; the left in its appearance was like those who come from where the Nile, descending, flows.
Satan is waist deep in ice, weeping tears from his six eyes, and beating his six wings as if trying to escape, although the icy wind that emanates only further ensures his imprisonment (as well as that of the others in the ring). Each face has a mouth that chews on a prominent traitor. Brutus and Cassius are feet-first in the left and right mouths respectively, for their involvement in the assassination of Julius Caesar – an act which, to Dante, represented the destruction of a unified Italy and the killing of the man who was divinely appointed to govern the world. In the central, most vicious mouth is Judas Iscariot, the namesake of Round 4 and the betrayer of Jesus. Judas is receiving the most horrifying torture of the three traitors: his head gnawed by Satan's mouth, and his back being forever skinned by Satan's claws. What is seen here is an inverted trinity: Satan is impotent, ignorant, and full of hate, in contrast to the all-powerful, all-knowing, and loving nature of God.
The two poets escape Hell by climbing down Satan's ragged fur. They pass through the centre of the earth (with a consequent change in the direction of gravity, causing Dante to at first think they are returning to Hell). The pair emerge in the other hemisphere (described in the Purgatorio) just before dawn on Easter Sunday, beneath a sky studded with stars (Canto XXXIV).
Titans and giants, including Ephialtes on the left, in Doré's illustrations
Dante speaks to the traitors in the ice, Canto 32
Satan is trapped in the frozen central zone in the Ninth Circle of Hell, Canto 34