From Dante to Dan Brown: 10 things about Hell

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Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown's new book borrows its title and theme from Dante's Inferno, an account of the Italian poet's imagined journey through hell. Writer and church historian Stephen Tomkins gives a 10-point tour of the underworld.


1. Hell is conical

Hell, as Dante described it, consists of nine concentric circles, going deeper each time as they get smaller, towards the centre of the Earth. Which of the nine you are condemned to depends on your sin, with circles devoted to gluttons, heretics and fraudsters. The centre point of the surface of the cone is Jerusalem. The river Acheron runs around hell, separating it from the outside world. Outside hell itself, but still part of the scheme, there are the people who somehow never did anything good or evil in their lifetime. Even they are punished for their neutrality, running round for eternity being stung by wasps while maggots drink their blood.

2. Hell is diverse

The modern cartoon image of Hell, with flames and pitchforks for everyone, is tragically bland compared with medieval depictions. This modern version is probably the legacy of Milton, who in Paradise Lost describes hell as "one great furnace" whose flames offer "no light, but rather darkness visible". Then again, he is setting it in the time of Adam and Eve when its only population is demons, so even his Hell might have livened up a bit later. In the medieval hell explored by Dante and painted by Hieronymus Bosch, punishments are as varied as sin itself, each one shaped to fit the sin punished. In Dante, sowers of discord are cut to pieces, those who take their own lives are condemned to live as mere trees, flatterers swim in a stream of excrement, and a traitor spends eternity having his head eaten by the man he betrayed. In Bosch, one man has a harp strung through his flesh while another is forced to marry a pig in a nun's wimple, and other people are excreted by monsters. This Hell is not a fixed penalty, but the fruition of bad choices made during our lives.

3. Hell is underground – maybe

In the Middle Ages, people generally thought of Hell as being underground, and there were legends of travellers seeing its smoke coming up through holes in the ground. Dante agreed, and because he assumed that the Earth was round, he had Satan at the bottom of Hell, with his waist the centre of Earth's gravity. Milton's Hell, however, is far from Earth. Paradise Lost is set in the time of Adam and Eve when the Earth was still perfect, so it would be incongruous for hell to be in the centre of it. Dante manages to do the whole tour of Hell, purgatory and heaven in less than a week. Meanwhile it takes Milton's Satan nine days just to fall from Heaven to Hell.


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  1. Hell is imaginary.

    Dante’s Inferno

    “Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Dante’s ‘Inferno’ – a medieval journey through the nine circles of Hell. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”. This famous phrase is written above the gate of Hell in a 14th century poem by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. The poem is called the ‘Divine Comedy’ and Hell is known as ‘Dante’s Inferno’. It is a lurid vision of the afterlife complete with severed heads, cruel and unusual punishments and devils in frozen lakes.

    But the inferno is much more than a trip into the macabre – it is a map of medieval spirituality, a treasure house of early renaissance learning, a portrait of 14th century Florence, and an acute study of human psychology. It is also one of the greatest poems ever written.

    With, Margaret Kean, University Lecturer in English and College Fellow at St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford; John Took, Professor of Dante Studies at University College London and Claire Honess, Senior Lecturer in Italian at the University of Leeds and Co-Director of the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies”

    In our Time, Radio 4, podcast:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00f05zj

    I think Dante was writing social commentary about Florentine crime families.

  2. The BBC news website on 4th April 2000 had a link to an interesting website, http://what-the-hell-is-hell.com/
    The news comment was about the 1996 decision made by the synod of the Church of England that hell was just a myth.
    Robert M. Price, ” The reason driven life “, writes an excellent review of the development of the myth of hell.
    It is interesting to read about the concept of universalism – that everyone goes to a happy ever after.
    Tentmaker website explores universalist ideas.

  3. IMNSHO, the christian heaven is hell.

    I mean, how horrific is it to be obliged to spend eternity kissing the arse of a ‘god’ who is (in Richard’s brilliantly florid summation) “jealous and proud of it, a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak, a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”?

    (It reminds me of the 1967 movie “Bedazzled,” where Dudley Moore, the Faust character, asks Satan – Peter Cook – why he rebelled and got kicked out of heaven. Cook says, “Pretend I’m God and now dance around me and sing my praises.” Moore does, but after a few seconds comes out with, “I’m getting tired … can we switch places?” to which Cook replies, “That’s exactly how I felt!”)

    Moreover, how petty – or psychopathic – must the believer be who wants to look down and gloat while millions of ‘sinners’ are everlastingly tortured?

    I’d rather go to Tir na n’Og, where one gets to party forever. Unfortunately there is no evidence that the Celtic Otherworld exists either…

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