Dante finds himself lost in a dark, frightening wood. To regain his path, he tries to climb a mountain, but a leopard, a lion, and a wolf block his way. The Roman poet Virgil approaches him and offers to conduct him through Hell and Purgatory as the only way back to the right path. Virgil comes at the request of a lady from Heaven, Beatrice (a woman whom Dante once loved), who will guide the pilgrim through Heaven once he reaches it.
When the travelers arrive at Hell’s entrance, Virgil explains that the large group of souls outside the gates lived their lives without committing to good or evil, so neither Heaven nor Hell will accept them. At the River Acheron, where they find the ferryman Charon, Dante is seized with terror and falls unconscious. Aroused by a loud clap of thunder, he finds himself across the river and follows his guide through Limbo, the first of the nine circles of the funnel-shaped Hell. The souls in Limbo, most of whom lived in ancient times, lived virtuous lives but were not baptized (since Christ had not yet come to Earth when they lived). Unlike the other souls in Hell, they are not undergoing any torments.
The next four circles Dante and Virgil visit are reserved for those who committed sins of incontinence. In the second circle, they meet Minos, the infernal judge, who appoints newly arrived sinners to their appropriate circle for punishment. Dante is overcome by pity as he witnesses the souls who are guilty of sexual sin being eternally buffeted by a stormy wind. He speaks to two souls and faints when he hears their story. The third circle houses gluttons, who are forced to lie in muck under a constant rain of filthy hail, snow, and stagnant water and are guarded by the terrifying three-headed dog Cerberus. In the next circle, guarded by Plutus, Dante witnesses the prodigal and the avaricious in two semicircles rolling heavy boulders and clashing up against each other. Dante and Virgil reach the muddy river Styx, in which the wrathful are submerged and are tearing at one another. Dante meets someone he knows, as he does in many circles, but for the first time he feels no pity for the sinners as he begins to understand the justice of Hell’s torments. At Virgil’s signal, the ferryman Phlegyas transports them across Styx to the city of Dis.
The city of Dis, or lower Hell, encompasses the last four circles of Hell. When Dante and Virgil are denied admittance by the fallen angels who guard the city’s walls and gates, a terrified Dante wants to retrace his steps and return the way he came. However, an angel arrives from Heaven and commands the rebellious spirits to allow the two travelers passage. Once inside Dis, they discover fiery tombs that house the souls of heretics, and Dante speaks to two of the tormented. During a pause in their journey made necessary by the increasing stench from below, Virgil explains the philosophical rationale for the moral ordering of Hell’s nine circles and describes the next three.
The Minotaur—the raging half-man, half-bull—guards the seventh circle of souls who committed violence against others, against themselves, and against God. Dante and Virgil see a red river of boiling blood, in which murderers are submerged. Dante is transported by a centaur across this river to a forest and discovers that the gnarled trees there contain the souls of those who committed suicide. Next, they come to a plain of burning sand, where they find those who sinned against God (blasphemers) or nature (homosexuals and usurers). Flakes of fire rain down on all three groups. Among the homosexuals, Dante is astounded to find a former mentor, and he speaks with three souls from Florence. The two poets then come to a precipice.
To reach the eighth circle far below, Virgil summons Geryon, a frightful flying monster with a scorpion’s tail, to transport them. When they reach the bottom, they see ten moat-like ditches in descending sequence, connected by rocky bridges. Each ditch houses...
(The entire section is 7,308 words.)