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evloution of sin in Dante's Inferno

By SogandNastaran Jan 15, 2014 3803 Words

A Study in Evaluation of Sin
in Dante's Inferno
Dr N. Shabazi

Nastaran Saberi Rad


Dante Alighieri (1256-1321) was an Italian poet whose most acclaimed work is The Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia) which is a trilogy: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. In the Inferno Dante with the guide of ancient Roman poet Virgil (1 st c. BC) goes through the nine levels of hell. During this journey Dante encounters and converses with the souls of the damned. At the end of the journey Dante must face Satan (Lucifer) and find a solution to escape the underworld. Dante's world was filled with civil and international wars; political struggles; and corrupt Popes; religion was misunderstood, abused and manipulated; greed, pride and violence were disguised as holiness.

Dante is the first Renaissance Christian humanist who exposes the evil of his world in his symbolic Inferno. This study is about gaining an insight of Dante's evaluation of sins based on the level of hell and the severity of punishment that he put the damned souls – who committed sins of different nature – through. Key words and key terms: nature of the sin, intellectual sin, sins of indulgence, the dual nature of humans. Dante's Inferno is Symbolic; especially the manner in which Dante has designed the punishments for each sin. To understand this symbolism more we need to ponder a little on "the poetics of pain and punishment, in the symbology of sin; the Ironic Judgment and the Poetic Justice in the term Counterpass "contrapasso". Dante has introduced this term into Italian. Contrapasso is derived from the Latin contrapassum – used in Aquinas's translation of the Nichomachean Ethics to render a Greek phrase meaning "he who has suffered something in return" meaning "retribution" or "retaliation". In Dante's Inferno contrapasso is mentioned just once at the end of Inferno; Canto XXVIII, where it closes the Apologia of Bertran de


Born in the circle of schismatics. Decapitated by a sword-wielding angel, healed as he marches around his circle, and struck again as he repasses the angel: Perch'io parti' cosi giunte persone
Partito port il mio cerbero, lasso!
Dal suo principio ch'é in questo troncone.
Cosi s'osserva in me lo contrapasso
(XXVIII, 139-142)i

In Dante's Inferno the pains of the damned are in truth their own living sins, but sins converted to torturing images by what Dante would persuade us is the allegorizing eye of eternal Justice."ii

According to the Bible God created Man in His own Image "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness ..."iii Yahweh – the personal name of God – shapes the first man from dust, places him in the Garden of Eden, and breathes his own breath into the man who thus becomes ‫ ֶ ֶש‬nephesh, a living being; man shares nephesh with all creatures, but only of man is ‫נפ‬

this life-giving act of God described.iv This duality of nature in human being – a part dust and a part God's breath – which somehow can refer to humans instincts (body) and intellect (soul) in religious point of view enables humans to rise so high to embrace God or to stoop so i

"Because I parted persons thus united, I carry My Brain parted from its source, alas! Thus is the retribution [contrapasso] observed in me"


Infernal Metamorphoses: an Interpretation of Dante's "Counterpass"; Kenneth Gross; Johns Hopkins University Press


Book of Genesis verse 26


Book of Genesis 2:4–24


low to become the lowest form of being on Earth. We have two forms of sin; we have sins of indulgence (Gluttony, Lust) and intellectual sins (Fraud, Treason). Now the question that arises is that which kind of sin is more punishable? The ones committed by the body (sins of indulgence) or the ones committed by the soul – God's token to humans – (intellectual sins)? Which one deserves a more severe punishment? Defiling of the body (dust) or defiling of the soul (God's own Breath)?

Aristotelian ethics, also provide an insight into the evaluation of actions, based on the intention behind the done deeds. Aristotle follows Socrates and Plato in taking the virtues to be central to a well-lived life. Like Plato, he regards the ethical virtues (justice, courage, temperance and so on) as complex rational, emotional and social skills. He believed what we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole. Virtue in Aristotle's point of view, manifests itself in action. More explicitly, an action counts as virtuous, according to Aristotle, when one holds oneself in a stable equilibrium of the soul, in order to choose the action knowingly and for its own sake. This stable equilibrium of the soul is what constitutes character. Therefore in both Aristotelian ethics, and religious point of view Soul is the criterion upon which the value of the actions is measured.

Dante's answer to the questions stated before can be interpreted from his symbolic Inferno. To gain a better understanding a brief summary of the Inferno is mentioned below. At the beginning of The Divine Comedy, the narrator Dante "half way along our life's path" which is 35 years – the Biblical life expectancy is 70 – finds himself in a dark forest behind which is a mountain. The way through the woods toward the mountain is dangerous because of three beasts (a Lion, a Leopard, and a She-wolf). These beast can be considered representatives of three major types of sin; self indulgence, violence and maliciousness. Virgil –


the ancient Roman poet – sent by Beatrice; Dante's lost love – comes to his rescue because the straightway is hard to find, and they start their journey through Inferno. As mentioned above the punishments assigned to each sin is a contrapasso which is a form of symbolic poetic justice. Such retribution "functions not merely as a form of divine revenge, but rather as the fulfillment of a destiny freely chosen by each soul during his or her life."v At the entrance of the Gate of Inferno Dante and his companion Virgil confront the souls of uncommitted, the souls of people who did nothing in their lives, never took sides and never stated any statements. These souls do not enter Inferno yet still they cannot enter Porgatorio or Paradiso either. They are doomed to reside on the shores of Acheronvi eternally chasing a banner – somehow symbolizes their pursue of self interest – and being chased by wasps and hornets.

After confronting the souls of Uncommitted, Dante Passes the Gate of Inferno which bears an inscription with the famous final line "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate"vii . Dante then passes through the nine circles of hell which are concentric and descending and as they go down the wickedness intensifies.

Limbo – First Circle – Limbo includes green fields and a castle with seven gates representing the seven Virtues (Aristotelian virtues), and is the residence of unbaptized and virtuous Pagans who did not commit a sin but did not accept or were ignorant of the Christ. They are punished by being deprived of hope. All the great philosophers of ancient times are in this circle.


Brand, Peter; Pertile, Lino (1999). The Cambridge History of Italian Literature (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 63–64. ISBN 0521-66622-8. vi

A river at the Gate of Inferno, one of the five rivers of underworld in Greek Mythology .


"Abandon all hope, you who enter here"


After the first circle the souls who deliberately committed sins are judged by Minosviii, and he wraps his tail around the body of the sinner a certain amount of times to indicate the circle the soul is condemned to.

Lust – Second Circle – the first souls to be punished in Inferno are the ones committing lust. Their punishment is to be blown away by a molesting strong wind which while molesting them symbolizes their weakness toward their instinct that clouds their reason and makes them follow their carnal needs.

Gluttony – Third Circle – The souls of the gluttons reside here, they are cursed to lie in a vile slushy mud, under never ending rain of filth and unaware of their surrounding and neighbors which symbolizes the selfish and uncaring nature of their existence and their overindulgence in eating, drinking and other kinds of addiction. They are guarded by Cerberusix. Greed – Fourth Circle – The souls that gathered possessions or the ones who squandered goods while alive are punished in the fourth circle. These two groups are punished to eternally fight each other by pushing huge weights toward each other and when they crash they go the other way and complain about the heavy weight of their own load or the load of the others. These souls are so absorbed in pushing their load that they have become unrecognizable. Some popes and cardinals who used their sacred power to gather wealth are among these damned souls. They are guarded by Plutox.

Wrath – Fifth Circle – on the surface of the river Styxxi the wrathful souls fight with each other and in its depth lie the souls of the sullen and Phlegyasxii on a boat, guards them.


Minos was the king of Crete, son of Zeus and Europa. He was known to be a just king.


A three-headed dog in Greek mythology, which guards the entrance to underworld.


Pluto can be considered both, the ancient Roman god of underworld or the ancient Greek god of wealth.


One of five rivers of underworld in Greek mythology.


The rest of the circles of Inferno are inside the city of Dis, this city is guarded by fallen angelsxiii. These angels prevent Dante and Virgil from entering the city but an angel sent from Paradiso grants them entrance. The Angel opens the gate of the city using a wand. Heresy – sixth circle – Here are the damned souls of Heretics lying in flaming tombs. The flaming tombs symbolize their own minds and way of thinking as the source of their sin which like a fire can be pandemic and leading others into false beliefs too. Violence – Seventh Circle – In the seventh circle which is divided into three rings, the violent souls dwell. In the outer ring the souls who were violent against people and property (like murderers) are being punished. The cursed souls are immersed into a river of boiling blood and fire named Phlegethonxiv – which symbolizes their own short temper and violence – and whenever they try to come out of the river they are shot by arrows of the Centaurs xv led by Chiron and Pholusxvi.

In the middle ring the souls of people who committed suicide or the ones who used to be spendthrifts while alive reside. The suicides – violence against self – are turned into gnarled, disfigured, and brittle trees and bushes and their limbs are being torn apart and eaten by Harpiesxvii and their souls are rendered unable to assume human form for the Last Judgment because they have not valued their bodies and their lives while alive – The trees are symbolic; in life the only way of the relief of suffering was through pain, and in Inferno, the only form of relief of the suffering is through pain too. The squanderers – violence against property –


King of Lapiths in Greek mythology who while enraged burned the Apollonian temple and was killed by Apollo.


The angels who rebelled against God.


One of the five rivers of underworld in Greek mythology which is described by Plato as a "stream of fire".


Centaurs are half human half horse mythological creatures notorious for being wild and lusty and over indulgent drinkers, and violent while intoxicated.

Two exceptionally cultured and wise Centaurs in Greek mythology.


In Greek mythology Harpies are beautiful women with wings who used to snatch food from people.


are also punished in the middle ring of the seventh circle eternally chased and torn to pieces by ferocious dogs.
Inner ring is the residence of the souls who were violent against God like blasphemers and violent against nature like sodomites and usurers who denied the divine nature and rights of God and humans by going against them. They are kept in a desert of burning sand with flames raining from the sky which is somehow similar to the faith of people of Sodom and Gomorrahxviii. The Blasphemers lie on the sand, the usurers sit and the sodomites wander around in groups.

Fraud – Eighth Circle – The eighth circle of inferno is resided by the fraudulent; souls committed different forms of fraud are punished in ten Bolgias or stony pits with bridges between them:

Bolgia One – Panderers (pimps) and seducers who exploited others lust to obtain wealth and social status, march in opposite directions, while being whipped by demons. Just as they misled others in life, they are driven to march by demons for all eternity.

Bolgia Two – Flatterers also exploit others using language for selfish reasons. They are drowned in human excrement, symbolizes the words they have used to their advantage.

Bolgia Three – The souls who committed Simonyxix are residents of this pit they are implanted headfirst in holes in the rock that look like baptismal fonts, and flames burn the soles of their feet. We see several popes in this Bolgia.

Bolgia Four – Sorcerers, astrologers and false prophets walk backward in this Bolgia because their heads are twisted around their necks and their face is located at the back of their heads, xviii

Biblical cities named in Old Testament, New Testament, and Quran. The citizens of these two cities were so immersed in sin that there was no salvation imaginable for them, hence the Divine Punishment of God was passed upon them in the form of raining fire that consumed both cities.


The act of paying to receive sacraments. Named after Simon Magus who had offered Saint Peter and Saint John (Jesus's disciples) payment in exchange for their empowering him to impart the power of the Holy Spirit to anyone on whom he would place his hands.


hence they have to walk backwards because they cannot see what is ahead of them. This punishment again is a beautifully designed contrapasso for their sin of predicting future and also the twisted heads symbolize the twisted nature of magic that they used to gain insight about future.

Bolgia Five – This Bolgia is the residence of corrupt politicians who are drowned in a lake of boiling tar, which represents the sticky fingers and the dark nature of their political corrupt deals.

Bolgia Six -

In the sixth Bolgia, the hypocrites listlessly walk 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. 

Bolgia Seven – The thieves are kept here, a Centaur named Cacus xx guards them with a fire breathing dragon on his shoulder and snakes covering his back. The thieves are chased, bitten and burnt and the snake bites make them undergo various transformation, just as they had stolen other people's property while alive, their identities get stolen from them here. Also somehow Dante points out the beast within these souls that in Inferno obtains a physical form.

Bolgia Eight – This Bolgia is assigned to fraudulent counselors and advisers, their souls are concealed within individual flames. Again here we are facing fire that catches the surrounding referring to the fact that their actions were sins because they were harmful to God, nature or society.

Bolgia Nine – In the ninth Bolgia, a sword-wielding demon strikes the Sowers of Discord, dividing parts of their bodies as in life they divided others. As they walk their wounds heal only to be ripped open again by the demon.


In Roman mythology Cacus was a fire breathing giant but in Dante's Inferno he is a Centaur carrying a fire breathing dragon on his shoulder.


Bolgia Ten – In this Bolgia various types of falsifiers (alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and impostors) – who are like a disease to the society – are afflicted with different sorts of diseases.

Treachery – Ninth Circle – Inferno's last circle is surrounded by biblical giants, who may symbolize spiritual flaws that lie behind the act of treachery. There are four concentric rounds for traitors.

First Round is named Caina, after Cain who killed his own brother. Traitors to kindred are immersed in the ice up to their chins.

Second Round is named Antenora, after Antenor of Troy, who betrayed his city to the Greeks. Traitors to political entities are placed here and like the first round they are trapped in chin deep, but they cannot bend their heads.

Third Round is the place of traitors to their guests. This round is named Ptolomaea, after Ptolemy, son of Abubus, who invited Simon Maccabaeus and his sons to a banquet and then killed them. They are punished by being trapped in ice lying on their backs so that only their faces are out of the ice and they tears freeze in their eyes shutting their eyes closed.

Fourth Round is the dwelling of traitors to their lords and benefactors and is named Judecca, after Judas Iscariot – Biblical traitor of Christ. The sinners in this round are completely immersed in the ice unable to move or communicate. In the very center of Inferno, condemned for committing the ultimate sin (treachery against God) is Satan. He is a giant beast with three faces and six wings. He is waist deep in the ice weeping tears each of the three sinners in the fourth round are facing one of his faces and he is chewing their heads. 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.
It can be interpreted that; the sins in Dante's Inferno are divided into three main sins (also symbolized by the three beasts in the dark woods at the beginning of the book), sins of wantonness, violence, and fraud. This categorization of sins somehow is rooted from classical (Aristotelian) conception of virtue and vice. The sins of self-indulgence (lust, gluttony, avarice, prodigality, wrath, sullenness) – weakness in controlling one's desires and natural urges – are considered the least offensive forms of sins in Dante's Inferno and hence they appear in the first levels of Hell. While the sins of violence and fraud, appear in the lower levels. What can be interpreted from Dante's evaluation of sins based on the level of hell and the severity of punishment assigned to each soul is that he valued the Aristotelian Ethics, and that based on the Biblical tale of creation and the dual nature of the humans (part dust and part God's breath) the sins committed by the body (lust, gluttony) are evaluated as less offensive comparing to the sins committed by the spirit (fraud).

What is interesting is Dante's addition of two sins (two more levels in Inferno) to the Seven Deathly Sins, introduced by the Bible. These Sins or levels are1) ignorance of Christ despite being virtuous, intellectual individuals; as seen in Limbo in which the souls are not tortured but deprived of hope because of their ignorance and their lack of hope for salvation while alive. And 2) fraudulent souls who have not only exploited other people but also have done harmful actions toward them, sometimes fooling them to gain their properties and sometimes deceiving them spiritually and condemning them to Inferno too. The virtuous unbaptized Pagans are guiltless but suffer from ignorance, the sinners of indulgence are just self-destructive but the spiritual or intellectual sins are not only self destructive they also are socially destructive, they can cause wars and misery for the society. The damned sinners of fraud reside in


the eighth circle of Inferno divided into ten different groups in the Bolgias or stony pits (panderers, flatterers, simonists, false prophets, corrupt politicians, hypocrites, thieves, evil advisers, sowers of discord, and other types of falsifiers). As can be comprehended from these sins "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"xxi. The severity of sin and also the severity of the punishments are increased as we descend the eighth circle, the sins are from the same nature but the corruption increases as we go down the Bolgias.

In Dante's time religious power was in the hands of mostly corrupt and power hungry popes and cardinals, who committed simony, they abused and manipulated religion to gain more power or wealth. Dante has put some of these popes and cardinals in the third Bolgia of the eighth circle (Fraud) of his Inferno, like Pope Nicholas III, Pope Boniface VIII and Pope Clement V. Also the political parties contemporary to Dante were filled with corrupt politicians who used political means and connections to their advantage, these politicians are also placed in the fifth Bolgia of the eighth circle. And somehow these corrupt politicians can be seen as a kind of analogue to the popes who committed simony; both groups using their power and status for personal gain and exploiting others. On the contrary the sinners of the first circle of Inferno (Limbo) are actually virtuous and intellectual people who were born before Christ or did not accept him but have not committed any other form of sin, they are not physically tortured like the other sinners in lower circles of Inferno, but they are deprived of hope and it is the only suffering for them, because they had ignored or were ignorant of the hope and salvation which were brought to the world by Jesus Christ's teachings – they lacked hope for something greater than rational minds can conceive. And as can be seen the great philosophers and scientists of the ancient times like the philosoxxi

Dorothy L. Sayers. Hell.


phers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Scientists like Pedanius Dioscorides and Avicenna, poets like Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and Virgil Dante's companion through Inferno and Purgatorio, all reside in Limbo the first Circle of Inferno.

Dante has exposed the greed, pride and violence disguised as holiness and the means greater good in the Roman church, and the corruption in the political parties that caused wars and struggles, in his symbolic Divine Comedy, especially the Inferno. He also has valued the great philosophers of ancient times and has created a new set of rules for evaluating sins, which were totally different from the accepted criterion of his time. In his evaluation of sins Dante has a higher respect for humans as individuals and hence is considered one of the first humanists of the Renaissance era.

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