Divine Comedy


   Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

Dante was a citizen of Florence who was driven into exile from his beloved city, because of political factional fighting.

The Divine Comedy is a long narrative poem in old Italian.

It concerns Dante’s mid-life crisis at age thirty-five, though he was older than that when he wrote it (around 1307 onwards).
It comprises an imaginative description of an imaginary journey through Hell (Inferno) and by way of Purgatory to Paradise and the celestial realm.

We could perhaps call it medieval 'science fiction', as it relates:
    a journey to the centre of the Earth,
    an ascent of a mountain on an island in the southern seas,
    a voyage into outer space.

The science is astronomy (mingled with astrology, though Dante rejects astrological practices and predictions), and there is a possible reference to the Southern Cross as a group of four stars seen only in the southern hemisphere

It is an allegory, which means that the characters and images have more than one meaning.

As a matter of local interest: a New Zealand scholar, Judith Dell Panny, has shown that Janet Frame's tenth novel, Living in the Maniototo, is allegorical and grounded in Dante's vision. The journey of the narrator Mavis goes from Blenheim (actually meaning Auckland, equivalent to Upper Hell) to Baltimore (Lower Hell, 'the pits') and to Berkeley (Grizzly Peak, corresponding to the earthly Paradise on the summit of the mountain of Purgatory). (I Have What I Gave: The Fiction of Janet Frame, 2002)

 La Divina Commedia. A comedy?

A comedy is a drama with a comic atmosphere prevailing in it, culminating in a happy ending.  

Dante infuses irony into his words, and not just double meanings but quadruple references. One comical feature is that Satan is ruling the underworld but in an ungainly clownish position: when Lucifer fell from Heaven he crash- landed head first, so that his head and torso are in the Inferno (Hell) but his legs are stuck in ice.

A tragedy has tragic elements running through it, climaxing in an unhappy ending.  

 A tragicomedy has both characteristics, with “all’s well that ends well” as its conclusion.
By these criteria we have examples of each in Dante’s poetic triptych (a picture on three separate boards or canvasses; here a three-part drama).

INFERNO is a tragedy, as all the characters meet a nasty fate, and worse, their pain is unending, for ever, and ever, and ever (and never an “amen” or “it is finished”). Of course, we are led to believe that they all deserved their punishment.

PURGATORIO is a tragicomedy, as all the personages have to go through a process of purging their sins, but they will eventually attain Heaven, we trust.

PARADISO would be the comedy, and although it is serious and not comical, everything in the Paradise-garden is lovely and rosy (indeed, it ends with an enormous rose made up of saints), and everybody is blissfully happy, enjoying “the beatific vision”.

Just in passing, note the problem that Christian doctrine creates: there will be a last judgement, at which all humans will be either condemned to Hell or consigned to Paradise; but Dante has already put them in their allotted place; so, they will eventually have to stop what they are doing (climb out of their pits of boiling pitch, for example), line up before the Judge, and then be sent back to their eternal destiny. It’s a paradox, but so is the whole universe, a mass of contradictions; that is probably no problem to God, who designed it all with supreme intelligence. That’s “Intelligent Design”, the new godly name for godless mindless Evolution, though I would prefer a compromise, such as “Designer Evolution”; and if evolution is not restricted to “the species” on planet Earth, but applicable to the whole universe, then I would plump for “intelligence evolution”, because I like to think there is actually a mind in this machine.

I can’t help thinking that if I was the one who had designed all this vast universe, I would feel good if someone praised me and thanked me for doing it. So I like to say to the Universe: “Thank you for having me”.

How about you?

Are you ready for this turbulent roller-coaster ride?

Down, down, down we go through the twenty-four circles of Hell, till we reach the bottom, at the centre of the Earth.   

Then up the long tunnel to the surface, at the foot of the mountain that is Purgatory on the other side of the globe, in the antipodes (where the Southern Cross can be seen).

Soaring ever upwards we whirl through the celestial spheres, beyond the planets and the stars, into the Empyrean realm (the sphere of fire and the abode of God) to gaze mystically at the glory of the Godhead.

We will certainly have stars in our eyes. Each of the three parts ends with the word stelle (‘stars’).

Inferno:  “We came forth to see again the stars” (34.139)

Purgatorio: “I came forth ... pure and ready to climb to the stars”

Paradiso: “The Love that moves the sun and the other stars”

The first essay (on Inferno) may not have a monopoly on truth, but its theme will be: 

"Go to Hell. Go straight to Hell. Do not pass GOD. Do not collect a reward".

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

[1] The dark wood.
Maundy Thursday night
(1300 CE)
In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself within a dark wood / where the straight way was lost.
(Age 35 years, half of “three-score and ten”)
The sunny hill leading to Paradise (Sun = God). 
Good Friday morning
Three beasts prevent him ascending. (Jeremiah 5:6)
Three types of sin in the three divisions of Hell (Canto 11 has a description of the nine circles)
Leopard = Lust, incontinence, sins of self-indulgence  (Inferno Circles 2 – 6; Cantos 5-11)
Lion = Pride, bestiality, sins of violence  (Inferno Circle 7:1-3; Cantos 12-17)
She-wolf = Avarice, fraud, sins of malice (Circles 8:1-10, 9:1-4; Cantos 18-34)
A greyhound (veltro) will eventually destroy her (Dante’s friend Can Grande, ‘big dog’)
Virgil (Vergilius, 70-19 BCE) the Latin poet (author of the Aeneid epic) will be his guide, through Hell to Saint Peter’s gate (entrance to Purgatory, not the gate of Heaven) and through Purgatory.
[2] Discouragement. Good Friday evening
Dante will be retracing Christ’s descent  into Hell, but he is not equal to Aeneas (=the Roman Empire) who went into the underworld (Aeneid 6), or Saint Paul (=the Church) who was lifted mystically into Heaven.
However, Saint Lucy, and his beloved  Beatrice, and  the Virgin Mary are supporting him in Heaven.
[3] The gate of Hell.“Abandon all hope, ye who enter”
But Dante will be allowed to exit from Hell now, and as a repentant sinner go straight to Purgatory when he dies.
Charon ferries the eternal shades across the Acheron river, into ‘fire and frost’. Sinful souls choose and desire Hell!
[4] First circle. Limbo
The unbaptized (particularly babies) and virtuous heathen  are ‘suspended’ here (‘neither happy nor sad’), including Virgil. I tremble think where he is now, since Pope Benedict has abolished Limbo.
[5] Second circle. Minos, judge of Hell (Aeneid 6).
Question: does Dante make the penalty suit the offence (‘let the punishment fit the crime’)?
The lustful are tossed eternally on a howling wind
Francesca da Rimini tells of her sinful love for Paolo, brother of her husband, who killed them.
Nota bene: Sexual sins with love and mutuality are the least of the deadly sins.
[6] Third circle. The gluttonous wallow in mire.
Self-indulgent, self-centered, each soul oblivious to others.
[7] Fourth circle. The avaricious & prodigal
Hoarders and spendthrifts roll huge rocks. Pluto. Fortuna,
Fifth circle The wrathful in the marshy Styx
 The raging attack physically; the sullen sulk in the slime.
[8] Phlegyas ferries Dante and Virgil across the Styx to the city Dis (Nether Hell) with iron walls(=obstinacy)
Holy Saturday
[9] The Furies threaten to let Medusa the Gorgon loose; her ugly face turned men to stone. They enter.
Sixth circle. The heretics in their blazing tombs
[10] Dante meets 2 Florentines from opposing factions
[11] The lay-out of Hell (a prose-diagram)
[12] Seventh circle. The violent
       First round. Those who do injury to others are boiled in Phlegethon, the river of blood, guarded by the Minotaur and centaurs; tyrants such as Alexander and Attila the Hun are there.
Second round. Those who do violence against themselves (suicides) or their property (profligates who squander  their goods) become bleeding trees.
[14-17] Third round. Those who do violence against God (blasphemy), Nature (so-called ‘sodomy’), or Art/Industry (usury) are punished on a burning sandy  plain, with fire raining on them
[18] Eighth Circle. The fraudulent in pits (bolgia)
(1)    Panders and Seducers  Jason
(2)    Flatterers Thais the harlot
[19] (3) Simonists  Simon Magus, Pope Nicholas 3
[20] (4) Diviners sorcerers, fortune-tellers
[21-22] (5) Barrators malicious creators of discord, here traders  in public offices, plunged in boiling pitch
[23] (6) Hypocrites
[24-25] (7) Thieves
[26-27] (8) False Counsellors  Ulysses
[28] (9) Makers of discord   Muhammad and `Ali (Islam a Christian heresy) religious schism, civil strife, family disunity
    continually cut asunder by a sword
[29] (10) Falsifiers alchemists
         stricken with diseases, scratching off itchy scabs
[30] impersonators  Gianni Schicchi, perjurers,  coiners
[31] giants including Nimrod, (‘the mighty hunter  before the Lord’ , who built cities in Mesopotamia/ `Iraq [Genesis 10:8-12]; also blamed for the Tower of Babel and the multiplication of languages [11:1-9]) chained, for their hubris, arrogance, defiance of the gods
[32-33] Ninth circle Treacherous / Traitors
 in the frozen lake at the bottom of the Pit, shivering and shuddering, and attacking one another; their frozen tears prevent them seeing another’s face.
[34] At last we see Dis/ Pluto/ Lucifer /the Devil.
He has six wings, and three faces on his head  (a blasphemous travesty of the Holy Trinity).
In each mouth he crunches a sinner; one is Judas Iscariot; the others are Brutus and Cassius.
Dante and Virgil follow the course of the Lethe stream and emerge at the mountain of Purgatory, “to see again the stars”. 


Dante’s cosmology
Earth is at the centre of the universe.
Inferno, Hell, is a funnel-shaped cavity, starting beneath Earth’s surface and reaching down to the centre.
This point is not only Earth’s centre, but also the centre of the universe, and the farthest point from God.
Down the sides of the conical cavity there are nine levels of diminishing concentric circles, on each of which various classes of unrepentant sinners are located, and punished. The lower the level the more serious the offence, and the more severe the chastisement.
The northern hemisphere of Earth is mostly land, and has Jerusalem (the Holy City, the place of the Crucifixion) at its centre, and on the line of the central axis of Hell.
The southern hemisphere is ocean, with the only land being the mountain-island Purgatory, at the antipodes of Jerusalem, in antipodean relation to the Holy City.
Dante’s view of Purgatory is different from the official ecclesiatical line: Purgatory was considered to be a subterranean place, like Hell. Dante has it out in the light and in the open air, a mountain resort with stunning views of sea and sky.
Ante-Purgatory (Cantos 1-9): the lower irregular slopes are populated by souls whose penitence has been delayed:
(1) excommunicated (Manfred),
(2) lethargic (Belacqua),
(3) unabsolved (penitent at the last hour, that is the twelfth hour, not the eleventh hour),
(4) negligent rulers (Harry/Arrigo of England, Henry 3, b. 1216, r. 1226 -1272).
Purgatory (Cantos 10-16): the Purgatorio gate leads into the place of purgation of sinners and purification from sins, through penance.
Seven circular terraces rise one above the other, connected by steps in the rock. Each level is concerned with purging one of the seven capital sins (the deadly sins) from souls who are obsessed with that particular vice.
(1) Proud (2) Envious (3) Wrathful  (Perverted Love)
(4) Slothful  (Defective Love)
(5) Avaricious & Prodigal  (6) Gluttonous (7) Lascivious  (ExcessiveLove)
Paradise (24-30): this is the earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden.
Here Dante finally encounters Beatrice.
For the record: Dante was married to Gemma Donati; she bore five children; the last of these was named Beatrice, same as his beloved Lady

[1] Prologue “To course over better waters the little boat of my wit now lifts her sails, leaving behind her so cruel a sea; and I will sing of that second realm where the human spirit is purged and becomes worthy to ascend to Heaven.” (1.1-7)
Venus   “The beautiful planet which encourages us to love was making all the East laugh, veiling the Fishes in her train.... And I saw four stars only ever seen before by the first people. The sky seemed to be rejoicing in their flames. O widowed northern region, bereft of that wondrous sight.”
(The Southern Cross? After the Fall, humans  were driven from Paradise into the northern hemisphere.)
I personally think that the model for Dante’s south-sea island was Ceylon, Sri Lanka, renowned as a beautiful island. It has a high mountain with a large footprint at its summit. Hindus revere it as a mark made by the god Siva, known as Nataraja, “Lord of the Dance” (I presume he would have put one foot down on this spot as he did his creative dance through the world). Buddhists believe it is a relic of the Buddha (he likewise practised levitation and flying through space). Christians and Muslims know the mountain as Adam’s Peak, and they assume that the footprint belonged to the first man (in Jewish lore, Adam’s head reached to the clouds, so he was envisioned as a large human, who would leave a big footprint). This suggests that the Paradise Garden was thought to be on this island, anciently known as Serendiba, from which the word serendipity is derived, from a fairy-tale “The three princes of Serendip”, in which the heroes were always making happy discoveries by accident (Horace Walpole, 1754). Dante may have encountered the tradition of Adam’s Peak and incorporated it into his scheme. Maybe I have had a serendipitous moment through this thought that has come to me.

Cato, as guardian of the Mountain 

[10] First terrace: Pride > Humility
[13] Second terrace: Envy > Kindness
[15] 3rd terrace: Anger > Gentleness
[18] 4th terrace: Sloth > Zeal (Keenness)
[19] 5th terrace: Avarice & Prodigality >Generosity
[22] 6th terrace: Gluttony > Temperance
[25] 7th terrace: Lust > Chastity

Earthly Paradise
Beatrice (and Matilda)

Beatrice reproaches Dante, he breaks down. But she restores him and instructs him.

Dante’s last lines: I came forth again remade, as new plants are renewed with new foliage, pure and disposed to ascend to the stars (puro e disposto a salire alle stelle)



Interpretation of the Divine Comedy
Dante said that there are four levels of meaning in his poem, which is an allegory:
literal: story of an adventure journey into space;
moral: shows the way of salvation for the soul;
historical: regarding the world of human society, ecclesiastical and imperial politics, the Church, the City, and the Holy Roman Empire;
mystical: regarding the way of the soul to union with God; being lost in sin originally (Inferno), undergoing purgation to attain purity (Purgatorio), in the heavenly ascent experiencing illumination, becoming ever brighter as each sphere is attained (Paradiso 1-32), the achievement of unification, being united with God and beholding the Divine Glory, the Beatific Vision (Paradiso 33) .

Applying this scheme to Beatrice:
Literal: the woman of Florence he met and loved when he was nine, who married another man, and died young, but  lived on in Dante’s heart.
Moral: his Lady, who educates him in the right way to behave.
Historical: she does not symbolize the Roman Empire, or the city Florence, but perhaps the Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ; she first appears to him wearing a white veil, and this would indicate that she symbolizes the Holy Sacrament covered by a white cloth, the true body (Ave verum corpus).
Mystical: as Divine Love, she leads him through the stages of illumination and unification.

[1] La gloria di colui che tutto move
The glory of the One who moves all things
per l’universo penetra  e risplende
penetrates through the universe and shines
in una parte più e meno altrove.
in one part more and elsewhere less.
Nel ciel che più della sua luce prende
In the heaven that most receives of his light [the Empyrean, thehighest realm]
fu’ io, e vidi cose che ridire

I was present and saw things which to retell
nè sa nè può chi di là su discende.

one who descends from there has no knowledge or power. 

This is similar  to Saint Paul’s experience  (2 Corinthians  12:2-4): “caught up into the third heaven”, “into Paradise”; “he heard things that cannot be told, which no one may utter”,  ineffable mystical matters.

[1] Dante/Beatrice ascend from Earth
[2] (1) The sphere of the Moon
[3-4] Faithfulness and inconstancy
[5] (2) The sphere of Mercury.  Service and ambition
[6]  Eagle&Emperor Justinian (527-565)
[7] Divine vengeance, plan of salvation
[8] (3) The sphere of Venus.  Love and wantonness
[9] Repentance and praise
[10] (4) The sphere of the Sun.
The first circle.
Thomas Aquinas (1224-1275) (Dominican)
[11] St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)
Francis received the Stigmata Dominican decadence
[12] The second circle.
 Saint Bonaventura (1221-1274) (Franciscan) known as the Seraphic Doctor, he became General of the Franciscans in 1256
Saint Dominic (1170-1221).
Franciscan decadence
Creation perfect in Adam & Christ
[14] Resurrection of the body.
The third circle.
(5) The sphere of Mars
[15] Ancient Florence
[16] Decline of Florentine families
[17] Dante’s future. Can Grande.
[18] (6) The sphere of Jupiter.
The Eagle of souls
[19] Good pagans and Divine Justice
[20] Salvation of pagans. Predestination
(7) The sphere of Saturn.
The contemplatives. Jacob’s ladder
[22] Saint Benedict (480-543)
Benedictine degeneracy.
(8) The Starry sphere
[23] The Church Triumphant.
Christ, Mary, Gabriel
[24] Saint Peter tests Dante on faith
[25] Saint James tests Dante on hope
[26] Saint John tests Dante on love Adam
[27] Saint Peter denounces the Church.
(9) The Crystalline sphere.
The angelic circles
[29] Angels and their functions
(10) The Empyrean.
The river of light.

The Celestial Rose
[31] The angels in the Rose. Ascent of Beatrice.  Saint Bernard. Virgin Mary
[32] The saints in the Rose.  The beauteous woman at Mary’s feet (Eve) The children among the elect
[33] Prayer of Saint Bernard.

The Beatific Vision (Dante sees God)
“The one that moves all things”(3.1.1) is “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (3.33.145).