Dante’s Afterlife

The Divine Comedy is Dante’s epic poem describing his journey through the afterlife of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.  Experience this journey with David Lafferty, his new book Penance: An Introduction to Dante’s Purgatory is now available here:

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Excerpt from Afterlife-An Introduction to Dante’s Inferno

Midway upon the journey of our life

I found myself within a forest dark,

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Inferno, canto one

Inferno begins in darkness. Surrounded by the gloom of a forest, Dante wakes up, lost in time and space. Confused, he begins to search for a way out. In the distance he sees a hill bathed in light and starts running toward it.However his path is suddenly blocked by a leopard. He sprints away, only to have his path cut off by a lion and then by a ravenous wolf. Finally, Dante flees back into the woods, seized by fear. Slowly, through the trees, a vision of a man appears, Dante begs for mercy, terrified, fearing death. Amazingly, the ghost speaks, introduces himself as the poet Virgil, and offers to lead him out of the dark wood. Dante is relieved until the ghost mentions one detail, the only way out is down the center of the earth, through Hell, Dante hesitates but realizes it is his only escape and reluctantly follows the ghost of Virgil.

Inferno tells the story of our lives, when we wake up one day and realize our life has strayed from its original path. Slowly, without realizing it, something has gone terribly wrong. We’ve woken up confused, in a dark wood of moral error but the way out is blocked by sin. The leopard, lion, and wolf are generally thought to represent Fraud, Violence, and Incontinence (putting desire before reason). Medieval Christianity saw these divisions as the three major categories of sin. Dante’s guide is Virgil, the greatest of the roman poets as well as Dante’s inspiration. Virgil was a pagan, who represented human reason, the quality that enables us to realize we are in the dark wood and begin to guide us out of Hell. However, we learn in the third book of the Divine Comedy that human reason alone is not sufficient for entering Heaven. The completion of that part of the journey requires God’s grace represented by Dante’s other major character, Beatrice.

Dante in the dark wood.

Etching by Gustave Doré, 1857.

As they begin walking, Dante hesitates. The idea of traveling through Hell begins to sound worse than the dark wood. In an effort to justify his fear, Dante suggests to Virgil that he isn’t worthy to embark on such an important journey. Virgil sees through Dante’s charade, calling him a coward. Virgil then tells the purpose of the journey to Dante. He explains that the Virgin Mary has taken pity on Dante in his plight of losing his way in life, and told Saint Lucia to help Dante. Saint Lucia then asked Beatrice (Dante’s real life love, prior to her death) to intercede. Finally Beatrice traveled down to Hell, summoned Virgil, and in sadness and mercy asked him to be Dante’s guide. Dante is moved by the telling of these events and in a renewed moment of boldness tells Virgil he is ready to resume the journey.

The Divine Comedy is a poem with many layers and intertwining themes. The afterlife, exile, redemption, politics, religion, philosophy, science, and subtle humor all play a part in the journey. Dante’s exile from Florence is reflected in Inferno just as his character in the poem is exiled from the world. Dante’s afterlife is based on Medieval Christianity, and Dante the poet is relentless in its criticism of the corruption and politics that permeated the church at that time.

Table of Contents

Preface

1. The Awakening

2. Do I really want to do this?

3. The Gate of Hell

4. Hell’s Preview

5. Ferrying into Hell

6. In Limbo

7. Lust

8. Paolo and Francesca

9. The Gluttons

10. The Prodigal and the Miserly

11. The Wrathful and the Sullen

12. Crossing the River Styx

13. Medusa and the Furies

14. The Heretics

15. The Violent

16. The Forest of the Suicides

17. The Blasphemers

18. The Teacher from Hell

19. The Moneylenders

20. Journey to the Pit of Hell

21. Chatting with a Pope

22. The Diviners and Soothsayers

23. The Grafters

24. Escape from the Demons

25. The Hypocrites

26. The Thieves

27. The Transformation of the Snakes

28. Sinners in Flames

29. A Monk in Hell

30. Carnage in Hell

31. Meeting with the Alchemists

32. The Falsifiers

33. The Floor of Hell

34. The Frozen Lake of the Damned

35. The Horror of Cannibalism

36. Encounter with Satan

37. Escape from Hell

Afterword - Beyond Inferno

A Beginners guide to Dante

Appendix - Summary of the Levels of Hell

References

Credits