Dante's 9 Circles of Hell

A guide to the very bottom...

Read time: 6 minutes

Few works of Western literature can compete with Dante’s Divine Comedy. It’s a fascinatingly engaging read, despite being written over 700 years ago and containing many complex references to history and myth. For those who want to master the cultural heritage of the West, it’s required reading. 

Dante grabs the reader’s attention in Inferno, the first part of his Comedy. In it, he travels through Hell, recounting the people and punishments he observes.

However, Inferno is constructed to be read metaphorically as well, and in this sense Dante offers an understanding of the darkness through which the human soul must wade in order to eventually reach the light.

While Dante had Virgil to guide him through the nine circles of Hell, your guide is right here. I will take you on a tour right to the bottom…

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This Saturday dives into the less-talked-about part of the Divine Comedy: Purgatory — and how it’s the best self-improvement manual ever written…

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The Map of Hell

Sandro Botticelli, The Map of Hell (1485)

Dante’s Hell is full of complex geography that draws both from classical mythology and Renaissance science. Though complex, every detail of Dante’s world-building has meaning that adds to his story.

In the Comedy, Hell is a funnel-shaped pit comprising descending concentric circles, similar in a sense to stadium seating. Specific sins are punished at each level, with both the trespasses and corresponding punishments growing increasingly severe as the levels descend.

Dante’s journey takes him from the uppermost, least severe circles of Hell, all the way to the lair of Satan himself at its core.

Inscribed on the gate as he enters: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here"

First Circle: Limbo

The Castle of 7 Gates, Stradanus (1587)

When Dante first enters Hell, the scene is hardly hellish: he sees green fields capped by a castle. Virgil explains that this is Limbo, the eternal resting place of people who lived virtuous lives but, lacking the opportunity to become Christians, could not enter Heaven.

They live eternally in a beautiful place devoid of pain, but also bereft of the full presence, joy, and spirit of God. Individuals found here include Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Aeneas, and Julius Caesar.

Second Circle: Lust

Paolo and Francesca, Anselm Feuerbach (1864)

The second circle of Hell is the first circle of punishment, and it is the circle of the lustful. Here reside the souls who, in their earthly lives, gave themselves up to the whims of their sinful passions. Correspondingly, they are punished by being swept through the air by hot winds. This is the first example of Dante’s contrapasso, a device by which he matches Hell’s punishments to the sins of the damned. 

Here, Dante meets Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, a real-life pair of lovers whose adulterous affair ended in their death. Despite their illicit romance (or perhaps, because of it), their story has inspired artists for centuries. 

Third Circle: Gluttony

Cerberus, William Blake (1827)

Here the three-headed hound of Hades, Cerberus, barks at and harrasses gluttonous souls who are mired down in a pool of foul-smelling sludge. Having devoted themselves to comfort and good food throughout their lives, they neglected the truly worthwhile aspects of life. Now, they are drenched by freezing rain and are only able to eat the putrid slime they wallow in.

Fourth Circle: Greed

The Hoarders and Wasters, Gustave Doré (1857)

In the next circle on the descent Dante encounters the souls of both the avaricious and the prodigal — or in other words, those who hoarded wealth, and those who squandered it.

These two groups are condemned to push massive boulders against each other in a never-ending struggle. This endless, futile effort of pushing weights mirrors the endless and pointless pursuit of wealth they engaged in during their lives, causing the souls to reflect on the vanity of their earthly pursuits.

Fifth Circle: Wrath

The Barque of Dante, Eugène Delacroix (1822)

Journeying deeper into Hell, Dante and Virgil cross the river Styx. Here, the souls of the wrathful (those who were consumed by anger and acted on it) fight each other in the chaotic, putrid waters, while the sullen (those who harbored resentment in silence) are buried at the bottom of the river and choke on mud.

The travelers cross the river and approach the dark city of Dis, the gateway to the next section of the underworld where the graver sins are punished. After demons deny them entry, an angel appears to force open the gates and allow Dante and Virgil to proceed.

Sixth Circle: Heresy

The Burning Tombs of Arch Heretics, Gustave Doré (1866)

The sixth circle of Hell is an eerie graveyard housing the souls of heretics. Having denied the immortality of the soul and the afterlife, the heretics are ironically confined in tombs, symbolizing death and the grave. The eternal flames engulfing the tombs represent the eternal consequences of their heresy: just as the heretics spread their dangerous beliefs like fire, they now face an unending torment that mirrors the spiritual destruction they caused.

Seventh Circle: Violence

Harpies in the Forest of Suicides, Gustave Doré (1861)

The circle of violence is sub-divided into three rings: the first contains the souls of those who were violent against others, the second those who were violent against themselves (suicide), and the third those who were violent against God and nature.

The punishments of this circle are as varied as the types of violence that they have committed. Some swim in a lake of fire and blood, while others are trapped on a plain of scorching sand upon which burning rain falls. In one of the most compelling images of the Inferno, the souls of those who died by suicide are trapped within trees and gnawed on by Harpies - it’s a scene that gives your typical “haunted forest” a run for its money.

Eighth Circle: Fraud

Dante and Virgil, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1850)

The next circle of Hell plunges down so steeply that Dante and Virgil have to descend to it by riding on the back of the monster Geryon. With the kind face of an honest man yet the body of a serpent and the tail of a scorpion, Geryon is the perfect creature to represent the fraudulent.

As Dante and Virgil reach the eighth circle, they come across the malebolge: ten levels of ditches where subcategories of fraudsters are punished, including seducers, flatterers, sorcerers, hypocrites, and more. 

The French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau masterfully captures the moment in which Dante and Virgil come across two fraudsters fighting each other in his 1850 classic Dante et Virgile:

Ninth Circle: Treachery

Lucifer, King of Hell, Gustave Doré (1868)

The giant Antaeus lowers Dante and Virgil down from the malebolge to the very bottom of Hell. This final circle contains an icy lake in which the souls of traitors are frozen. Since this is the point in the universe which is farthest from the fire and light of God’s presence, it is unbearably cold.

While treachery might seem the same as fraud at first glance, Dante highlights the differentiating factor: while the fraudulent deceive and manipulate on an impersonal level, the treacherous betray those who have placed their trust in them, making this sin far more personal, intimate, and grave.

Dante reserves the worst punishment in Hell for the men he deems history’s most despicable traitors: Cassius and Brutus, who betrayed Julius Caesar, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ. These three suffer no less a fate than being eternally clawed at and chewed on by Satan himself.

From Hell to Heaven

Virgil and Dante riding the monster Geryon, Joseph Anton Koch (1828)

Dante’s Inferno is simultaneously complex, engaging, and overwhelming. But it's also immediately applicable. 

In the opening lines of Inferno, Dante tells his own story of drifting away from the path of life he knows he ought to be on. The only way for him to return to it is by endeavoring to travel through Hell. 

Thus the Commedia teaches a universal spiritual law: if you want to journey upward, you must first descend into the depths of your own soul…

…and face the darkness you find there.

Next, Dante and Virgil climb down Lucifer’s legs and exit Hell via a narrow tunnel.

They emerge on the other side of the world, early on Easter morning. The next part of the story is about to begin: Purgatory

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Art of the Week

Portrait of Dante Alighieri, Sandro Botticelli (1495)

This simple portrait seems disconnected from Botticelli’s fantastical works such as The Birth of Venus. However, there is a key element of connection between the pieces:

The rebirth of the classical world. 

Botticelli’s Venus exemplifies the Renaissance project of drawing on Greek thought to present Christian ideas. In his writing, Dante was one of the first to do the same thing.

From the very structure of Hell, which he borrows from Aristotle, to the people he meets there, Dante brings the Classical world to new life in an unprecedented way. 

In this portrait, less than two hundred years after his death, Dante has already earned the crown of laurel leaves which will become his identifier in later works of art. It’s a Greek mark of victory conferred on distinguished poets, and well-suited to the heroic accomplishment of the Western canon’s premier poet.


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