713 Years of Hell

713 years ago to this very day Dante descended into Hell. In view of this memorable anniversary it seems appropriate to put down a few words concerning Dante with the hope that they might encourage someone who hasn’t read him yet to do so. Dante is universally recognized as one of the world’s great poets, and those who have made it through his three tomes also know that he had one of the most remarkable minds that we have record of. It seems as if he had the whole of medieval philosophy and science in his brain and recent studies have shown the extent to which the popular culture of the day also informed his vision of the cosmos. The Inferno (I like the directness of Dorothy L. Sayers title of her translation: Hell) is the most popular of the books because of its vivid imagery and memorable punishments meted out to sinners, but I prefer Purgatory and Paradise so I will spend a little more time on them (I also know them better).

He starts, of course, lost in a wood which he wants to leave by ascending a beautiful mountain but is prevented by three wild beasts that assail him. They menace him until he is rescued by the appearance of Virgil who was sent by Beatrice, Dante’s youthful love – now passed away, through the mediation of St. Lucy. This is not, as you may suspect, the St. Lucy of Narnia (in Italy, now called Narni) who lived in the fifteenth century and may have been part of the inspiration of C.S. Lewis’s Lucy (who was, of course, the most saintly of the four children), but is an earlier Lucy who was martyred in the persecutions of Diocletian. (The Diocletianic Persecution was the worst and last persecution before the conversion of Constantine, and was a period in which many saints were martyred, including St. George of dragon-slaying fame.) Curiously, both of these Lucys had problems in love, refusing to get married and this may have a reflection in the Lucy of the Chronicles of Narnia who, in contradistinction to Susan, is not interested in lipstick and nylons and suitors coming from all over, but this may be something for another day. (St. Lucy of Narnia does eventually get married for a time, but it doesn’t last.)

Anyhow….To cut a long story short, Dante wants to climb up a beautiful mountain to get out of there but his way is blocked by some wild beasts; Virgil tells him that the only way out is through hell. So Dante descends into the underworld; he doesn’t want to, but there is no other way around it. The word hell is related to the word hole, and that is what hell is, a long hole that descends to the center of the earth and as he goes down it he meets person after person being punished for their sins in very appropriate ways. The first person that he recognizes, after Virgil, is Pope Celestino V. You may have never heard of him, but he is interesting, particularly in light of recent events, because he was the first pope to legalize papal abdication. (Dante condemns him, not for stepping down primarily, but because he left the office open for Pope Boniface VIII, who, in Dante’s opinion was responsible for the sorry state of Italy. Being the kind of guy he was, Boniface decided to put his papal predecessor in prison. Dante will come across him later.)

One of the most charming punishments Dante encounters is in canto seven where the people who cared too much for money, either spending it or hoarding it, are eternally pushing weights around and insulting each other. (I like to imagine that the hoarders are moving the weights into the center of the circle and spenders are pushing them out.) After making it up the other side he emerges at the base of Mt Purgatory, which he now begins to ascend. This may be a good stopping point, so keep watching for future posts to see how it all turns out!

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