Punishments In Dante
’s Inferno Essay, Research Paper
Burn in Hell
The Comedy, later renamed The Divine Comedy was written by
Dante Alighieri of Florence, Italy. In the early 14th century,
while in exile, Dante wrote this epic poem which is broken down
into three books. In each book Dante recounts his travels through
Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven respectively. The first book of The
Divine Comedy, Inferno, is an remarkably brilliant narrative. He
narrates his descent into and observation of hell through its
numerous circles and rings. One extraordinary way Dante depicted
hell is in his descriptions of the various punishments that each
group of sinners has received.
In a prior college course I took we learned about medieval
torture practices. This knowledge led me to see similarities in
the punishments given in Inferno. The diverse punishments that
Dante envisions all the sinners in hell receiving are broken down
into two types. The first he borrows from many gruesome and
severe forms of medieval torture. The second type is often less
physically agonizing. It is Dante?s creative, very clever forms
of punishment. Although all sinners in hell are souls, Dante
gives each one a physical attribute so that the reader can
envision the entire atmosphere clearer. The borrowed medieval
forms of torturous punishments create physical pain for the
different sinners in hell, and thus intended to be interpreted
literally. The creative punishments are conceived to deliver
mental and psychological pain to be understood metaphorically.
Creative punishments in many cases can, however, inflict both a
mental pain and a physical pain upon the sinner.
Many of the severe punishments that Dante foresees for the
sinners are borrowed from practices of medieval torment and
imprisonment. The medieval dungeons were usually gloomy and dark,
and inundated in disgusting stenches. Dante used this depiction
to describe the overall atmosphere in the inferno. Unbearable and
unavoidable extremes of cold or hot temperature, which are
portrayed in the Inferno, are also representative of Medieval
times. Prisoners of Medieval jails were provided with little or
no ventilation to protect them from the extreme cold or hot
weather, they could easily freeze to death or die of heatstroke.
Throughout Inferno images of cruel punishment adopted from
the ideas of medieval torture are seen to inflict physical pain
upon the sinners. The eighth circle, called Malebolge, contained
the sinners known as the Flatterers. The sin of flattery was
punishable through torture intending to create physical anguish.
As Dante travels over a bridge he sees that ?the ditch beneath/
held people plunged in excrement that seemed/ as if it had been
poured from human privies? (167). The sinners were obviously
condemned to live in ?*censored*? because of all the ?bull*censored*? that
ran across their tongues while they were living. Dante meets up
with a sinner who informs him of this: ?I am plunged here because
of flatteries–/ of which my tongue had such sufficiency? (167).
The irony is intentional that the sinners sit immersed in the
crap that originally came from their mouths in the form of
flattery. This punishment is quite vile and repulsive. It is
designed to inflict physical agony upon the sinner. Dante, as a
visitor to this place, is questioned by a sinner, ?Why do you
stare more greedily at me than at the others who are filthy??
(167). Although Dante feels depressed for the sinners he has seen
throughout his journey, in this ring among the flatterers he
seems to be nonchalant about meeting them. He is not as moved by
their condition as he is in other rings, maybe because he thinks
they deserve this sort of punishment, however disgusting it may
be. Dante, the visitor, leaves the ring having had his sights
fill of it.
The second form of punishment Dante uses in Inferno is very
interesting to analyze. These are his metaphorical punishments
which are quite creative and more original than any physical
torture. In Canto XX Dante, the visitor, travels with his
companion through the eighth circle where the souls of the
Diviners, Astrologers, and Magicians have been sent to suffer.
Dante describes a procession of ?mute and weeping? (179) souls
who ?found it necessary to walk backward? (179) because they had
their heads turned all the way behind them. These souls, when
living thought they could see the future and are now damned to
only see behind them.
This description of these pathetic souls is an example of
one of the psychologically painful punishments invented by Dante.
It is obviously uncomfortable to have one?s head turned
backwards, but the mental anguish is far greater. For Dante who
was raised in a religious background, telling the future was a
form of blasphemy because only God knew the future. Dante has
angrily punished the sinners to forever look behind them and walk
backwards as well. The punishment for blasphemy in Medieval times
was often death by burning in a fire, instead of using some sort
of physical torture such as this Dante creates a rather sensible
and creative punishment for the sinners.
While traveling through the eighth circle we read that Dante
breaks down in tears, ?May God so let you, reader, gather fruit/
from what you read; and now think for yourself/ how could I ever
keep my own face dry/ when I beheld our image so nearby? (179).
He speaks of the sad, contorted figures surrounding him and feels
very sorrowful. Dante?s guide berates his sadness explaining that
if God has judged these souls this way, sorrow should not be
felt, they are deserving of their punishment, ?Are you as foolish
as the rest?/ Here only pity lives when it is dead:/ for who can
be more impious than he who links God?s judgment to passivity??
Through these two types of punishments, physical and
metaphorical, Dante has clearly illustrated how horrible hell
truly is. His physical tortures are horrifying in their
disgusting and excruciating extremes and his creative tortures
are psychologically vicious and cruel. The differences in the
forms of punishment add to the poem?s complexity and its
unexpected qualities. Dante wrote Inferno with the mission of
naming his peers in an objective manner and succeeded in doing
so. His poem is a masterpiece and will continue to stand the test
Alighieri, Dante (1980). The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri
Inferno (Allen Mandelbaum, Trans.). California: University
of California Press.