The Wood of the Suicides, by Gustave Dore (Project Gutenberg)

Dante’s Inferno and contrapasso

Dante created contrapasso – the idea that divine punishment of the damned in Hell would mirror the sin being punished.

Dante Alighieri was born in approximately 1265 in Florence to poor but noble parents. He became involved in Florentine politics, was a delegate to Pope Boniface VIII, was sent into exile when his political enemies (and possibly eventually his allies too) took exception to him, and died in 1321 in Ravenna at the approximate age of 56. He was married into a politically powerful family and fathered several children, but he fell in platonic love with Bice Portinari, ostensibly at first sight at the age of nine. Dante fought several battles over the years, mostly over which faction ruled Florence, but was not a remarkable soldier.

In most respects Dante was an unremarkable man. Yet that one way – his poetry, and especially The Divine Comedy – has had an unusually large influence on not just Italy and the Italian language, but also western civilization and Christianity in general.

Before Dante, Hell was where sinners suffered generally due to their inability to feel God’s love. But Dante invented the concept of contrapasso, the idea that sinners should be punished in a way that mirrors or resembles the sin. And so it has been, to a greater or lesser extent, ever since Dante imagined his Inferno.

The geography of the Inferno

Sideview of the Inferno, from the Marc Musa translation, Penguin Classics

Sideview of the Inferno, from the Marc Musa translation, Penguin Classics

Dante divided Hell up into three major subdivisions according to the type of sin, but with two areas that sit apart from the sinful. Outside of Hell proper is the Vestibule, where the cowardly souls who refused to commit to either virtue or vice are punished. The First Circle is where those virtuous pagan souls who died unbaptized or who died prior to the coming of Christ reside. They can’t be saved, but neither are they truly punished in the same tortuous ways that Dante will describe for those deeper into Hell.

Sins of incontinence (ie sins resulting from the inability to control one’s base desires) are punished in Circles Two through Five. According to Dante the Poet (as opposed to Dante the Pilgrim, the main character in The Divine Comedy) those sins are lust, gluttony, hoarding or squandering money, and the mirrored sins of anger and sloth.

The sins of violence are punished in the next two circles, but they’re grouped somewhat oddly. The heretics of the Sixth Circle form something of a bridge between the “passive” sins of incontinence and the “active” sins of violence, fraud, malice, and treachery. The heretics are punished above a tall cliff that leads to the sins of violence, but are walled off from the rest of the sins of incontinence by a wall that is patrolled by Furies. At the base of the cliff is the Seventh Circle where the sins of violence are punished. Dante breaks these sins up into three groups and so splits the Circle into three concentric rings, one each for those violent toward others, toward the self or one’s property, or toward nature. Dante’s view of “nature” is quite different than the modern understanding, including such things as blasphemy, “unnatural” sex acts, and usury (think loan-sharking).

Below the Great Barrier (a massive cliff that Dante the Pilgrim and his guide Virgil can only descend with the help of a flying demon) are the Eighth and Ninth circles. The sins of fraud and/or malice are punished in the Eighth Circle, but there are so many types that Dante divided them up into ten circular “Malebolgia.” And below yet another cliff lies the sinners punished for their treachery.

Contrapasso in the Inferno

Nearly every punishment described in Inferno is intended to represent a contrapasso, a reflection of the sin being punished. Dante first introduces the reader to the idea in the Vestibule, where the uncommitted are punished. Because they were uncommitted in life, they are forced to forever chase, but never catch, a pennant while being tormented by stinging insects. In addition, since they never did great deeds for good or ill, their identities are impossible to discern. Dante the Poet considers them to have never truly been alive, and thus now they can never truly die either.

Limbo is the only place within Hell that contrapasso doesn’t apply. After all, the only “sin” the virtuous pagan committed was something they ultimately had no control over – being born before Christ and/or dying without having been baptized. According to the Christian Church of Dante’s time, such souls could not be saved (although Dante writes that several were saved by the personal intervention of Jesus, who led them out of Hell following his crucifixion), but Dante felt that such souls would be condemned least of all, suffering no physical tortures, only the mental anguish of knowing that they could not know God’s love. Dante’s guide through Hell and later Purgatory is one of these virtuous pagans – the poet Virgil, who wrote the Aeneid.

The tempest of the lustful, by Gustave Dore (Project Gutenberg)

The tempest of the lustful, by Gustave Dore (Project Gutenberg)

The contrapasso in the Second Circle isn’t obvious as it is in many other circles, but the translation notes of my Penguin Classics version (translated by Mark Musa) indicate that tossing sinners around forever in a dark storm is supposed to reflect how the Lustful allowed their reason to be ruled by their passions. It’s Dante’s description of the Lustful that contains one of my favorite descriptions in Inferno:

and as the wings of starlings in the winter
bear them along in wide-spread, crowded flocks,
so does that wind propel the evil spirits:

now here, then there, and up and down, it drives them
with never any hope to comfort them –
hope not of rest but even of suffering less.

While I’m not sure how Dante meant the mud and battering rain and hail to be contrapasso with respect to the Gluttons in the Third Circle, being attacked forever by a three-headed dog is pretty obvious. In this case, the sin of eating too excess is punished by having a ravenous monster tear at and devour parts of the souls, which, being eternal, eventually heal only to be attacked and devoured yet again.

While the contrapasso in the Fourth Circle is unclear to me, it’s quite obvious in the Fifth. Here is a marsh created by the river Styx. In the marsh the wrathful are forever condemned to fight each and “tore each other limb from limb” without rest or reason. The slovenly, representing what Dante considers to be the opposite sin from wrath, are submerged below the marsh’s surface, prevented from moving at all.

Sepulchers of flame in The City of Dis, by Gustave Dore (Project Gutenberg)

Sepulchers of flame in The City of Dis, by Gustave Dore (Project Gutenberg)

The Sixth Circle is also the City of Dis, and it’s where the heretics are punished. The “city” is mostly a massive circular plain of sepulchers and sarcophagi that are heated with fires so that the heretics within them are punished by the heat. In addition, in the case of heretics who led sects of non-Christian religions, all the heretical followers are also jammed into the same burning sepulcher with the heretical leader.I don’t personally see this as contrapasso either, but rather eternal “purification” of heresy by flame.

The outer ring of the Seventh Circle, where the violent are punished, is a river of boiling blood. Sinners who were violent toward others are punished by varying levels of submersion – true tyrants are completely submerged in it while those who were less violent toward others may only be forced to stand or sit in it. This is another obvious example of contrapasso – those who spilled blood are punished by blood forever.

In my opinion, Dante’s description of the middle ring – the Wood of the Suicides – is one of the most striking in the entire Inferno. Unlike all other sinners, who are judged and placed precisely where they belong within their Circle, the souls of the suicides are tossed randomly into the Wood, where they grow into trees and bushes that can only cry out in pain when their branches are broken by ravenous dogs or by the harpies who nest in them:

Like a green log burning at one end only,
sputtering at the other, oozing sap,
and hissing with the air it forces out,

so from that splintered trunk a mixture poured
of words and blood.

The Wood of the Suicides, by Gustave Dore (Project Gutenberg)

The Wood of the Suicides, by Gustave Dore (Project Gutenberg)

And after the Second Coming, when the souls of the dead are reunited with their bodies for eternity, the suicides will be forced to wear their bodies upon their branches, unable to inhabit a body that, in Dante’s view, they once tossed aside:

Like the rest, we shall return to claim our bodies,
but never again to wear them – wrong it is
for a man to have again what he once cast off.

We shall drag them here and, all along the mournful
forest, our bodies shall hang forever more,
each one on a thorn of its own alien shade.

The inner ring of the Seventh Circle is an expanse of sand drenched in a rain of fire. Here are those who were violent against nature in some way. The blasphemers are forced to lie upon the sand, the usurers (more or less loan sharks) crouch on the sand with heavy bags of money around their necks, and the sodomites (those who have “unnatural” sex, not necessarily just homosexual acts) wander through the storm in groups. As vivid as the images are, again I’m not sure how these torments qualify as contrapasso to Dante, and Musa’s translation notes in my version don’t provide any answers.

The sinners guilty of fraud and malice are punished in ten Malabolgia of the Eighth Circle, but not all have good examples of contrapasso. Rather than describe each punishment, I’ll instead focus on the sins that best illustrate Dante’s concept of contrapasso.

The Sowers of Discord, by Gustave Dore (Project Gutenberg)

The Sowers of Discord, by Gustave Dore (Project Gutenberg)

Flatterers are punished for speaking bullshit in life by being stuck forever in raw sewage. The soothsayers, who sought to see the future in life, are punished by being forced to walk with their heads twisted around to look over their back, never again to see where they’re going. Thieves alternate between human and serpent form and the serpents can only become human shaped again by biting (and thus stealing) the form of another sinner who is presently human. Creators of scandal and schism are punished by being cut asunder by a demon with a great sword, only to heal as they walk around in a great circle and be cut apart again when they next encounter the demon.

The Ninth and final Circle of Hell is the frozen lake of Cocytus and it houses those committed treachery by murdering kin, turning against their country, killing their guests, or killing their lords. And again, while the descriptions of individual sinners illustrate some contrapasso, I don’t understand why treachery would necessarily be deserving of being frozen in place like an ice sculpture or embedded in ice up to one’s neck or forced to look up so that one’s tears freeze in place or even being entombed entirely below the surface. Of course, the punishments are certainly unpleasant, but more unpleasant than being burned by sand and a rain of fire?

Where would your sins place you?

I’ve read Inferno at least five times. After the second or third reading I sat down to figure out where in Dante’s Hell would I be consigned for all eternity. While I’m a neo-pagan, I’m also baptized, so I couldn’t be so lucky as to spend eternity in Limbo. Over the years I’ve been lustful, a glutton, a spendthrift, even a profligate (those sinners who, by doing violence to their own property, are chased by ravenous dogs through the Wood of the Suicides). I’m certainly a heretic (earning me a spot in the City of Dis) and could certainly qualify as a blasphemer (prostrate upon the burning sands under a rain of fire). I’ve also used Tarot cards to seemingly foretell the future and, as with every person I’ve ever met, I’ve both lied and been a hypocrite. But where I think I would find myself is in the 9th Bolgia of the 8th Circle – in with the sowers of discord.

Initially, my main reason for reaching this conclusion was my personal faith. After all, I’m not just a Christian apostate, I’m also someone who created his own spirituality from bits and pieces of others, and as such I might be fairly considered a religious schismatic. However, I can hardly compare to Mohammad, whom Dante also places in the 9th Bolgia for his “sin” of splitting Islam away from Christianity and Judaism. On the other hand, over the last few years I’ve spent a great deal of time writing about how I think the Christian god cannot logically exist, how the zygote personhood movement is essentially trying to enslave women into being baby factories, and similar disruptive ideas, especially with respect to religion. If that’s not creating schisms, I don’t know what is. This is why I think that, if Dante’s Inferno were real, I would find myself having my entrails spilled and my limbs chopped off by sadistic devil with a nasty sword for all eternity.

When I asked my fellow Scrogues if they would be interested in placing themselves somewhere in the Pit, one of them was good enough to dig up a quick online quiz that placed you in your specific circle based on your answers. When I took the quiz, it placed me in the 6th Circle along with the heretics – also a fair place given my views on the sins of Christianity. Here’s how some some of my fellow Scrogues fared:

  • Sam Smith found himself in the 2nd Circle with the lustful.
  • Cat found herself in the 3rd Circle with the gluttons.
  • Frank (Ars Skeptica) found himself in the 5th Circle with the wrathful
  • Dr. Denny found himself down in the 6th circle with the heretics.

Let us know where you’d end up in the comments.

17 comments on “Dante’s Inferno and contrapasso

  1. You are not alone in finding Dante’s Wood of the Suicides memorable. Robert Frost obviously did as well. His most famous poem, “Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening,” clearly evokes Dante’s hell. Frost’s horse stops “between the wood and frozen lake / The darkest evening of the year.” Dante’s Wood of the Suicide falls exactly between the Dark Wood of Error at the start of the Inferno and the frozen lake Cocytus, where Satan uncomfortably resides, at the end of that book. Frost’s poem has always been seen as possibly about the speaker contemplating suicide as a blessed release from life’s woes: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep.” That Frost had Dante in mind is confirmed, finally, by the rhyme scheme of the poem, which is in terza rima, the scheme Dante invented especially for his Divine Comedy — and a scheme Frost rarely used.

  2. I’m a little bummed, actually. I was hoping to wind up in level 6 with the rest of the heretics. But if I can’t be there, I suppose there are worse things in hell than an eternity of threesomes with Helen of Troy and Cleopatra.

  3. …”on the seventh day man created God in his own image”…and things have been going to hell in a hand basket ever since.

    6th level for me but I didn’t try very hard. Gluttony, hedonism, and heresy are their own rewards apparently. How Denny made it that far is beyond me. Perhaps I’m his contrapasso? Eternity with a jabberbox, that’ll teach him to slam the door on the proselytizers.

    And Sam, 2nd level? Really? That’s where randy nuns and boy scouts who forget to help little old ladies cross the street go. I expected more of you sir.

    Great piece Brian, I’m going to reread it during lunch, it was hard to absorb it all in one sitting.

  4. This is a great piece, Brian. You know what I love best about this? You show readers how Dante gave the world a lot of its conception of hell. Between Dante and Milton, they pretty much created everyone his/her conceptions of both heaven and hell. Ah, the insidious power of great literature… 🙂

    Thanks, Brian.

  5. Hi –

    I’m teaching Inferno right now, and early this week we covered the circle of gluttons. I suspect that Dante intentions are revealed in the first several tercets of the canto, where we read of the miserable situation of the drenching rains and stinking mud (VI:10-12) and the gluttons rolling about in it (VI:20-21). The connection between gluttons and pigs is strengthened by his introduction of Ciacco, the Florentine “Hog” who seems to be a notorious glutton – so I think the initial imagery of the canto may, read through this lens, give us the intended contrapasso.

    • You know, I don’t know I ever made the “people as hogs” connection before, but now you mention it, I’m somewhat embarrassed I didn’t. Because you’re right, that would make a lot of sense, and it would totally fit in with the contrapasso, especially given it’s only the 3rd Circle.

  6. Sorry to weigh in late, but I would belong in a circle for those who failed to demonstrate the requisite amount of moral courage during their lives. Failing that, I’m a lecher: stick me in the second circle with Sam.

  7. Brian, this is a remarkable post–well done. You’ve nicely captured how much of our world view is still shaped by Dante’s vision, while providing as good an explication of the mechanics of that vision as I’ve seen anywhere.

    And I only ended up in Limbo, which is surprising. So I will never know the joy of God’s love, apparently, although I can probably derive solace from my pagan beliefs. I would have thought sloth (my deadliest sin–why do something when you can read a good mystery?) would have counted for more.

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  9. HI! I am currently studying the Inferno and I’ve really enjoyed this article. I’ve been engaged in a lot of secondary reading and the one I loved the most is “A Reading of Dante’s Inferno” by Wallace Fowlie. It is very exhaustive and clear
    For the heretics’ contrappasso, this is what the guide offers as explanation:
    “they denied the immortality of the soul and thereby built their own sepulchres of fire in which the soul continues to live and suffer. The lids of the tombs are open now, but they will be sealed up at the Last Judgement. The lesson is: the bodies of these sinners will be sealed up for eternity, as their minds had been enclosed during their lifetime within their heretical opinions”
    Does it make sense to you?
    Another section I loved in this guide is the one comparing Dante’s Limbo to the Asphodel Meadow of the Homeric/Greek tradition, which made me re-read the Book of Dead from the Odyssey.
    Thanks again for this beautiful post! Have a great day!

  10. I know this is an old post, but i would like to make a comment. I would argue that there is contrapasso in Limbo. My argument is this; the virtuous unbaptized in Limbo were the best humanity could achieve without receiving God’s grace, therefore they live in Limbo in an earthly paradise, but never seeing God’s face.

    • Blake – I’m not entirely sure how that’s contrapasso, though. I see contrapasso as “the punishment fits the sin,” and since the virtuous pagans in Limbo have no sin to be punished, they are beyond the domain of contrapasso.

  11. Hello, i have a question for someone knowledgeable on the matter: What is exactly the difference between the “virtuous pagans” and the “Heretics” in the Divine Comedy? The thing they seem to have in common is that they rejected in some way the religion of christianity, but what is the main difference? Is it that the “Heretics” rejected not only christianity as a religion, but also as an “indisputable moral guideline” by criticizing their doctrines? Thank you for your time.

    • That’s a fair question. What we know is that before Dante’s idea of contrapasso, Christianity held that Hell was a place of eternal torment, but it wasn’t until Dante wrote it that there was the idea that the torment would somehow fit the sin. These days the idea that the torment would fit the sin is a reasonably common belief among Christians, or at least among the American Christians I have known over the years.

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