(Italian for "Hell") is the first part of Dante's
. The poem was written in
the early 14th century. It is an allegory telling of the journey of Dante through what is largely the
medieval concept of Hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil. In the poem, Hell is depicted as nine
Circles of suffering located within the Earth. Allegorically, the
journey of the soul towards God, with the
describing the recognition and rejection of sin.
The poem begins on the night before Good Friday in the year 1300, "halfway along our life's
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
). Dante is thirty-five years old, half of the Biblical
life expectancy of 70 (Psalm 90:10), lost in a dark wood (perhaps, allegorically, contemplating
suicide—as "wood" is figured in Canto XIII, and the mention of suicide is made in Canto I of
with "This man had yet to see his final evening / but, through his folly, little time was
left / before he did he was so close to it,"
implying that when Virgil came to him he was on the
verge of suicide or morally passing the point of no return), assailed by beasts (a lion, a leopard,
and a she-wolf) he cannot evade, and unable to find the "straight way" (
) - also
translatable as "right way" - to salvation (symbolized by the sun behind the mountain).
Conscious that he is ruining himself and that he is falling into a "deep place" (
the sun is silent ('
l sol tace
), Dante is at last rescued by Virgil, and the two of them begin their
journey to the underworld. Each sin's punishment in
is a contrapasso, a symbolic
instance of poetic justice; for example, fortune-tellers have to walk forwards with their heads on
backwards, unable to see what is ahead, because they tried to look ahead to the future in life.
represents the Christian soul seeing sin for what it really is, and the
three beasts represent three types of sin: the self-indulgent, the violent, and the malicious.
These three types of sin also provide the three main divisions of Dante's Hell: Upper Hell (the
first 5 Circles) for the self-indulgent sins; Circles 6 and 7 for the violent sins; and Circles 8 and 9
for the malicious sins.
Dante passes through the gate of Hell, which bears an inscription, the ninth (and final) line of
which is the famous phrase "
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate
", or "Abandon all hope, ye
who enter here"
Before entering Hell completely, Dante and his guide see the Uncommitted,
souls of people who in life did nothing, neither for good nor evil (among these Dante recognizes
either Pope Celestine V or Pontius Pilate; the text is ambiguous). Mixed with them are outcasts
who took no side in the Rebellion of Angels. These souls are neither in Hell nor out of it, but
reside on the shores of the Acheron, their punishment to eternally pursue a banner (i.e. self
interest) while pursued by wasps and hornets that continually sting them while maggots and