On Good Friday 1300 AD, in Dante’s thirty-fifth year, he goes astray from the straight road into the Dark Wood of Error. Seeing the Sun (Divine Illumination) lighting the Mount of Joy in the Distance, he attempts to climb up the mountainside but is blocked by three beasts of worldliness: the Leopard of Malice and Fraud, the Lion of Violence and Ambition, and the She-Wolf of Incontinence. When his hope is nearly lost, the shade of the Roman poet Virgil (a symbol of Human Reason) appears to him.
Virgil has been sent by Beatrice in Heaven to lead Dante from error; he explains that to defeat the beasts it is necessary to take the harder route through Hell (where sin is recognized), Purgatory (where sin is renounced), then to Heaven to revel in the light of God. Dante accepts and sets off with him. The Poets pass through the Gate of Hell (inscribed with the famous line, Abandon all hope ye who enter here) and step into the Vestibule, where they see the torments inflicted on the opportunists and those who took neither side in the Rebellion of the Angels.
They are not officially in Hell nor Heaven because their actions in life were not good enough or bad enough to warrant a place in either. They must forever pursue a banner just out of their reach while being stung by wasps; the blood and pus flowing from their wounds is feasted upon by worms and maggots. (The punishments in Inferno always fit the crime. The wasps signify the sinners guilty consciences and the worms and maggots, their moral filth.) The Poets wish to be ferried across the river Acheron by the boatman Charon, but Charon realizes that Dante is still living and refuses them passage until Virgil makes a good argument for Dante’s case. Charon reluctantly agrees, but Dante faints out of pure terror and only awakes when he is on the opposite bank.
Upper Hell, for those who committed the least serious sins, is made of five circles, each containing fewer sinners and smaller than the one before it. The first of these is Limbo, where unbaptized children and virtuous pagans are placed. Virgil is one of these souls, who lived decent lives but died before Christ came (in Dante’s mind, belief in Christ was necessary to enter Heaven). They are not tormented but must spend eternity without hope. Dante and Virgil tarry in Limbo to talk with other great poets of the ancient world.
(Dante must have had tremendous pride in himself to have imagined walking with Homer and Ovid.) Entering the second circle, where the torments begin, the Poets are blocked by Minos, the beast who judges the damned and condemns each soul to its proper level of Hell, but Virgil convinces him to let them pass. (Dante fused pagan mythology and Christian beliefs together in his Hell quite often.) They then see the souls of the carnal, swept around by tempests much as they allowed their reason to be swept away by passion in life. Here they meet Paolo and Francesca, who were murdered by Francesca’s husband before they could repent from their sin of adultery. After hearing their story, Dante faints again. Upon recovering, Dante and Virgil enter the third circle, where storms of stinking snow and freezing rain fall and form slush under their feet. Cerberus, a three-headed dog, guards the gluttonous souls and chews at them.
One of the gluttons, Ciacco, a Florentine like Dante, prophesizes Dante’s later exile. (It becomes apparent later that the damned can see far into the future but cannot see the events of the present. Thus on Judgement Day, the last day, their powers will become useless.) The fourth circle is guarded by the monster Plutus but Virgil again manages to talk his and Dante’s way past him. (I assume that this means Human Reason can always outwit anything hellish.) The circle is filled with souls of hoarders and wasters, who are eternally at war with one another. They are in Hell because in thinking of nothing but money they destroyed the light of God within them.
It is now past midnight on Good Friday, and the Poets proceed to the fifth circle, the Marsh of Styx. This is the last circle of Upper Hell. The souls of the wrathful attack one another in the marsh and the souls of the sullen lie entombed beneath the slime. The Poets stand at the edge at the edge of the marsh and Phlegyas, the ferryman of Styx, rushes across thinking they are new souls to torment and does not want to give them passage when he finds out they are not; Virgil (once again) convinces him otherwise.
They are ferried to Dis, the capital of Hell, which marks the boundary between Upper and Lower Hell. The gates of Dis are guarded by Rebellious Angels, whom Virgil is powerless against (Human Reason alone cannot cope with Evil) and sends up a prayer for divine aid. Virgil’s fear is made worse by the presence of Three Infernal Furies (symbolizing remorse). He calls on Medusa to turn them into stone, tells Dante to turn away and shut his eyes in order not to glimpse this evil, and even places his own hands over Dante’s eyes.
Sudddenly a Heavenly Messenger approaches, proceeded by a great storm (symbolizing God’s power). He throws open the gates of Dis and then returns to Heaven. The Poets are now free to enter the sixth circle, wherein the souls of the heretics (specifically, those who denied the belief in the immortality of the soul) are entombed in iron tombs heated by fires. These tombs will be closed forever on Judgement Day and the heretics will be sealed forever in a death within a death.
The Poets continue through the sixth circle, where they meet one Farinata degli Uberti (who would have been a political foe of Dante’s had he not died a year before Dante’s birth), with whom Dante discusses politics, and his friend Guido Cavalcantis father Cavalcante dei Cavalcanti.
They reach the inner edge of the sixth circle and find rubble that was formerly a cliff but which was destroyed in the great earthquake that shook Hell when Christ died. The stench that arises from the seventh circle is so powerful that they seek shelter behind a tomb to accustom themselves to the smell. Virgil uses this time to describe the divisions of Lower Hell. It is now two hours before sunrise on Holy Saturday. (Virgil is somehow able to track the motion of the stars, which cannot be seen in Hell as they are a symbol of God’s shining hope and virtue.) While descending the rocks, Virgil manages to trick the Minotaur, who tries to block their way. The souls of the violent against neighbors are wallowing in a river of blood inside the seventh circle.
Many tyrants and war-makers are punished here. Centaurs patrol the river and menace the Poets as they try to pass, but Virgil convinces Nessus the Centaur to bear them across. Nessus deposits them in the second round of the seventh circle, the Wood of Suicides. Their souls have been trapped in trees whose leaves are chewed off by Harpies, causing them to bleed.
Other souls of the violent against themselves are chased through the Wood by packs of dogs who tear them to pieces. In round three of the seventh circle, blasphemers (the violent against God), sodomists (the violent against Nature, the child of God), and usurers (the violent against Art, the child of Nature and thus the grandchild of God) are scalded by rains of fire on a plain of burning sand. (The unnatural rain is a fitting punishment for their unnatural actions.) Dante walks along the banks of a rill flowing across the plain and converses with Ser Brunetto Latini, whose writings Dante greatly admired and from whom he learned numerous literary devices. When the Poets come within hearing distance of the waterfall that lunges from the seventh into the eighth circle, three Florentines rush over to Dante and begin speaking of Florence’s present tate of degradation. At the top of the waterfall Dante removes a cord from his waste and drops it over the edge, signalling the approach of a great monster.
The monster is Geryon, the Monster of Fraud, who will fly them down the cliff. As Virgil negotiates for their passage, Dante examines the souls of the usurers. He sees them crouching on the edge of the burning plain with purses (bearing the coats of arms of prominent Florentine families) hanging from their necks. Returning to Virgil, he mounts Geryon’s back with him and they fly around the waterfall and down the cliff.
Geryon deposits them in the eighth circle, Malebolge (Evil Ditches) which consists of ten bolgias (ditches/pockets); those guilty of simple fraud are punished therein. Stone dikes running from ditch to ditch will serve as bridges on which the Poets can cross them. The first bolgia contains the souls of panderers and seducers, eternally driven by lashes from horned demons. The souls of the flatterers are sunk in excrement.
The souls of simoniacs (those who corrupted the Church by making a profit from it) are in the third bolgia, jammed upside-down inside tube-like holes in the ground with fire scalding the soles of their feet, and are jammed farther into the holes as new sinners arrive to take their places. (Baptismal fonts in Northern Italy were constructed similarly in Dante’s time, and by making a mockery of baptism the simoniacs are punished likewise.) Dante (good Catholic that he is) makes a heated denouncement of these sinners, and afterwards is carried up a ledge to the fourth bolgia by Virgil. They stand on the bridge over the fourth bolgia and gaze upon the souls of fortunetellers and diviners. In life these people wished to see into the future through forbidden methods, so their heads are placed backward on their shoulders – they can never see in front of themselves and can only walk backwards through eternity. In the fifth bolgia are the souls of the grafters, sunk in boiling pitch and guarded by demons who tear them with grappling hooks if they dare to rise above the surface.
These demons present the only physical danger to Dante during his journey (some have surmised that this is due to the fact that Dante was exiled from Florence on false charges of grafting). Virgil hides Dante behind some rocks while he negotiates with the demons leader, Malacoda, and is guaranteed passage to the next bridge, as the one intended to be crossed lies shattered. When two of the demons are tricked into the pitch by a couple of wily sinners, a rescue is organized by the remaining demons while Dante and Virgil take advantage of the confusion to sneak away. Fearing pursuit by the demons, the Poets slide down the bank of the sixth bolgia to hide.
There they see the souls of the hypocrites moving slowly round a narrow track, weighted down by outwardly beautiful robes that are actually made of lead. (Excellent symbolism here – in life their outward appearance was that of bright holiness, but now their consciences bear the weight of their ugly, terrible guilt.) The Poets find that Malacoda lied to them about the existence of the bridge and are obligated to climb up the opposite bank to exit the seventh bolgia. They walk the length of the bridge across the seventh bolgia and observe the souls of the thieves. These souls are trapped in the coils of reptiles who bind their hands behind their backs and pierce their veins. Some sinners appear to Dante as humans, others as reptiles; he watches as one of the reptiles latches itself onto one of the humans and exchanges forms with him. The eighth bolgia contains the souls of the evil counselors – those who abused their God-given gifts for evil purposes – who are completely engulfed in flames.
Dante speaks to a flame and finds that the souls of Ulysses and Diomede, soldiers in the Trojan war, are contain within and listens to the story of Ulysses’s last voyage. He then speaks to a lord of Romagna, discussing its tragic state of affairs. The Poets continue to the ninth bolgia, where they see the sowers of discord.
Because in life they separated what God had intended to be united, they are hacked at and torn apart by a demon bearing a bloody sword. They are divided into three classes: sowers of religious discord (Mohammed is chief among these), sowers of political discord, and sowers of discord among kinsmen.
Virgil hurries Dante onto the bridge over bolgia ten, where they observe the falsifiers. These souls are subjected to various kinds of corruption (disease, filth, darkness, stench) as they corrupted society in life by their falsifications. They are divided into four classes: alchemists (falsifiers of things), evil impersonators (falsifiers of persons), counterfeiters (falsifiers of money), and false witnesses (falsifiers of words). Dante observes two of the falsifiers quarrel with one another until he is reprimanded by Virgil.
The Poets approach the Central Pit, which contains Cocytus, the final circle of Hell. The Pit is guarded by half-buried Titans, placed here because they symbolize earthly passions that men must strive to overcome. One of the Titans helps the Poets by lowering them to Cocytus in the palm of his hand. Cocytus is a frozen lake and the souls guilty of treachery against those to whom they were bound by special ties are frozen to varying degrees within. This ice is divided into four concentric rings: Cana (named for the biblical Cain, it contains the souls of the treacherous against relatives), Antenora (for the treacherous to their country, named for the Trojan who betrayed his city during the Trojan war), Ptolomea (named for Ptolemaeus Maccabeus who murdered his father-in-law, for the treacherous to guests and hosts), and Judecca (named for Judas Iscariot, reserved for the treacherous to their masters).
Satan himself is in the very center, beating his huge wings in a vain attempt to free himself from the grip of the ice. He has three hideous faces (a mockery of the Holy Trinity) and chews a sinner in each of his mouths – Judas, Cassius, and Brutus. To exit Hell, the Poets climb down Satan’s hairy flanks until they pass over the center of gravity and emerge at the Mount of Purgatory on the other side of the world to finally gaze at the stars.