Hell in the divine Comedy and Aeneid
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dante incorporates Virgil’s portrayal of Hades (In The Aeneid) into his poem, and similarities between the Inferno and Hades can be drawn, however Dante wasn’t attempting to duplicate Virgil’s works. Although the Hell depicted in Dante’s Inferno is essentially based on the literary construction of the underworld found in Virgil’s Aeneid, in their particulars the two kingdoms are quite different. Virgil’s underworld is largely undifferentiated, and Aeneas walks through it without taking any particular notice of the landscape or the quality of suffering that takes place among the dead. Aeneas’ first concern is with the fate of his friends, then with meeting his father once more: the philosophical and religious significance of sin and death is nothing to him, and there is no moral judgement implied in the fate of the departed. In Dante’s Inferno, on the other hand, there is a systematic differentiation of the landscape, and each progressively lower circle of hell implies a deadlier sin. The quality of punishment given out to the sinners is thus increased as Dante’s descend, and Dante’s compassion for the dead lessens as he moves downward to the bottom of hell.
Virgil’s underworld is really an extension of the natural world, being entered through a cave mouth at the end of a beach at the Euboian settlement of Cumae, renowned as the dwelling of Sibyl, it is she who permits his passage to the realm below: The cavern was profound, wide-mouthed and huge, Rough underfoot, defended by dark pool
And gloomy forest. Overhead, flying things Could never take their way, such deathly
Exhalations rose from the black gorge Into the dome of heaven.(Fitzgerald, p168)
Virgil’s first descriptions of the underworld are dramatic and turbulent, and there is even a series of symbolic fates that are medieval in their abstraction:
And pale Diseases and sad Age are there.
And Dread, and Hunger that sways men to crime.
And sordid want – in shapes to affright the eves
And Death and Toil and Death’s own brother, Sleep…(Fitzgerald, p.169)
But once Aeneas gets past these figures, and the on rushing horde of the dead and dying at the boatman’s shore, the underworld turns out to be relatively calm and stable setting.
There are some further similarities between Virgil’s and Dante’s hells, no doubt due to Dante’s close reading of the Latin and his wish to make Virgil his guide and mentor. For example, there are periodic challenges to the living as they walk through hell, and the boatman warns Virgil, “It breaks eternal law for the Stygian craft to carry living bodies.” Virgil also conceived the idea of separating the dead infants wail in one area, the falsely accused and condemned in another, the suicides in yet another. But all Virgil’s dead are condemned to the same hopeless fate, and it is only the memory of life which torments them. Conscious of this, Aeneas apologizes...