A Glimpse of Hell – Dante’s Inferno Without Dan Brown

Angels and demons, heaven and hell, the inferno…no, I haven’t been reading Dan Brown. Actually, I’ll be actively avoiding his books a for bit, as one of mine takes inspiration from Dante’s The Divine Comedy: Inferno. No, I haven’t gone mad (at least, no more than usual) – it’s my peculiar new project, the Mel Goes To Hell series.

Originally inspired by a badly-placed briefcase, this story has evolved from a series of comic shorts to something deeper with more angels, more demons and which ventures from the depths of Hell to the very gates of Heaven itself (or Jannah, if you prefer). My research has taken a strange turn – from straight theology and a desire to start watching Supernatural again to fourteenth century morality poetry and paintings by Botticelli. Unlike Dan Brown, I’m not looking for hidden meanings in the symbology of Dante or Botticelli, as my characters predate them both.

Mel is an unusual angel, sent on assignment to work in the HELL Corporation, which is everything it sounds. The CEO, Lucifer, wishes to be known as Luce and he always has an open door policy – mostly so he can see if his PA is wearing a short skirt today. Between the salacious but bureaucratic demons, Mel and her subordinate angels are trying to prevent the powers of HELL from taking over Earth’s governments – as the push for privatisation plays neatly into their hands.

So where does Dante fit in? His vivid, poetic descriptions of Hell have inspired artists for more than seven hundred years. After all, if I intend to set a book in Hell, short of paying the place a visit, I need a travelogue from someone who claims to have visited the place himself. How can I send Mel into Hell unless I know what she’s in for?

Sandro_Botticelli_-_La_Carte_de_l'Enfer low res

La Carte de l’Enfer (Map of Hell) by Sandro Botticelli

Dante’s poetry is originally written in a mix of Italian and Latin, predating Shakespeare by around three hundred years. That makes his wording – and phrasing! – more than a little difficult to understand. Luckily, several different scholars have translated his works into English. His Divine Comedy includes Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, but I’ve chosen just to include Hell for the moment. If you know my work well, you know something or someone will rise soon enough.

Right, Hell. The Pit, the Inferno, a place where damned souls go after they die and they don’t come out. Dante suggests the place has nine circles, plus a vestibule and a pool, specially designed for Satan himself. Intrigued? This is why I liked Dante’s imagery so much.

Dante describes his journey through Hell, accompanied by an Ancient Roman poet called Virgil.

The Gates of Hell

Hell’s gate appears to be simply a cave entrance in the woods, with the following description over the arched portal:

All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Inferno Canto 3 by Gustave Dore

Through me you pass into the city of woe

Through me you pass into eternal pain

Through me you pass among the lost.

Justice moved the founder of my fabric,

Divine power raised me

With the highest wisdom and primeval love

Before me, nothing but eternal things

Were created, and eternal I endure.

All hope abandons those who enter here.

This last line is translated in several ways, with the best known, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!” yet that wording doesn’t appear in the translations I’ve seen. Actually, it appears that it’s the hope doing the abandoning – not the person whose hopes they originally were. Somehow, I think that makes it a little more bleak – the thought of my hopes deserting me because they don’t want to enter the horrible place that awaits.

Hell’s Vestibule

The vestibule of Hell – the bit just inside the portentous gate – is full of people who apparently did nothing in their lives to warrant an afterlife in a specific place. They’re not truly in Hell, nor anywhere else, either. Their punishment is to be plagued by stinging wasps and hornets, while their blood and tears are drunk by maggots and other insects. Plenty of suffering for a place that’s not even Hell yet!

The Vestibule is separated from Hell proper by the Acheron River.

Charon - The Ferryman of Hell by Gustave Dore

Charon – The Ferryman of Hell by Gustave Dore

Acheron River

This river gets its own special mention, as the souls of the damned need to cross it in Charon’s ferry to reach Hell proper. In Greco-Roman myth, Acheron was originally a god who got himself turned into a river by offering the wrong gods refreshment during battle.

First Circle of Hell

This circle is described as a lesser version of Heaven for unbelievers who have lived good lives – it sounds like the Greco-Roman Elysian Fields. It has a castle with gardens.

Second Circle of Hell

This one’s reserved for those who’ve committed the sins of lust or adultery and their punishment is to live in a realm of constant storms. Strong winds, hail, heavy rain…blowing them around the way their passions did in life. Apparently, the storms mean they know neither peace nor rest.

Third Circle of Hell

The third circle of Hell is for gluttons – those with addictive habits, be it food, drink or drugs. Their realm is one with continuous, icy rain, turning the ground into a constant, muddy slush. This is where Cerberus, the legendary three-headed dog is supposed to live.

Fourth Circle of Hell

This is where greedy people get sent. Various sources translate the guardian of this realm as one of two Greek gods – Pluto, the god of the underworld, or Plutus, the god of wealth. I suspect it’s more likely to be the god of wealth. Apparently, the souls sent to the fourth circle of Hell spend their time fighting each other with great weights, pushing either the weights or each other with their chests. It sounds like a pack of aggressive elephant seals to me.

Fifth Circle of Hell

Angry and sullen souls end up in the fifth circle of Hell, which is in the swampy River Styx. The angry ones fight each other on the surface, while the sullen ones gurgle on the riverbed.

The River Styx guards the walls of the underworld city of Dis, which contains the deeper, darker circles of Hell.

I believe that’s enough Hell for one week – next week, I’ll go deeper and darker into the remaining circles of Hell – along with the centre, which is Lucifer’s domain.

Disclaimer: I’ve chosen to use a mixture of the Cary and Mandelbaum translations of Inferno, for the purists who complain that I haven’t trusted just one translator, and I’ve rearranged the wording of some lines so that they read better. So any direct quote from Dante is my paraphrased version of the above two translations and my choices were made solely on the basis of how the words sound and not the accuracy of the translation.