Dante’s enduring vision of hell

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Historian Amanda Foreman searches the past for the origins of today’s world. Read the previous columns here.

What the hell? For Plato, it was Tartarus, the lowest level of Hades where those who had sinned against the gods suffered eternal punishment. For Jean-Paul Sartre, the father of existentialism, hell was other people. For many travelers today, it’s airport security.

No portrayal of Hell, however, has been more enduring than “Hell”, the first part of Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy”, whose 700th death anniversary is commemorated this year. Dante’s Hell is divided into nine concentric circles, each more terrifying and brutal than the next to the frozen center, where Satan resides alongside Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. With Virgil as their guide, Dante’s spiritually private and depressed alter ego enters through a door bearing the motto “Abandon all hope, you who enter here” – a phrase so pervasive in modern times that it greets Disney visitors.‘s

The Pirates of the Caribbean are riding.

The inscription was a Dante invention, but the idea of ​​a physical gate separating the land of the living from the desolate land of the dead was already at least 3,000 years old: in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, written around 2150 BC guard the gateway to an underground world filled with darkness and dust.

The underworld of the ancient Egyptians was only slightly less gloomy. Seven doors blocked the way to the judgment room, according to the Book of the Dead. Overcoming them has been difficult and fraught with failure. The winners then had to submit to having their hearts weighed against the pen of truth. Those who were missing were thrown into the fire of oblivion.

Early Christian visions of hell varied, but all contained the essential elements of Satan, sinners, and fire.

Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the ancient Persians, was perhaps the first to divide the afterlife into two physically separate places, one for good souls and one for bad ones. This view contrasted with the Greek view of Hades as a catch-all for the human soul and the early Hebrew Bible’s description of Sheol as a dark chasm of nothingness. In the 4th century BC, the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great engulfed both Persia and Judea, and the three visions of the afterlife mingled. “Hell” would then appear frequently in the Greek versions of the New Testament. But the word, scholars point out, was a single translation for several distinct Hebrew terms.

Early Christianity offered more than one view of hell, but all contained the essentials of Satan, sinners, and fire. The “Apocalypse of Peter”, a text from the second century, helped start the trend of listing all the sadistic tortures that awaited the wicked.

Dante thus followed a well-marked path with his imaginative punishments of boiling pitch for dishonest people and freezing rains on gluttons. But he deviated from tradition by describing the occupants of Hell with psychological depth and insight. Dante’s narrator rediscovers the meaning of Christian truth and love through his encounters. In this way, Hell speaks of the intricacies of the human condition rather than simply serving as a literary zoo for the damned.

More historically speaking

The “Divine Comedy” changed the conception of the medieval world of hell, and with it, man’s understanding of himself. Boccace, Chaucer, Milton, Balzac, the list of writers directly inspired by Dante’s vision is growing. “Dante and Shakespeare share the world,” writes TS Eliot. “There are no third parties.”

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Published in the print edition of October 2, 2021.


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