Divided into three parts – Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso – the lengthly epic poem traces the journey of Dante, who is both the author and the main character of the trilogy, from the darkness and terror of hell to purgatory and on to the revelation of the divine light of God in paradise. This dramatic journey allegorically represents the soul’s journey towards God.
The story of The Devine Comedy began on a Holy Thursday in the year 1300, when Dante was 35 years old, half of the biblical lifespan of 70.
The first lines of the long epic poem begin with:
Halfway through our life’s journey
I woke to find myself within a dark wood
because I had strayed from the correct path.
Oh how hard it is to describe
how harsh and tough that savage wood was
The very thought of it renews the fear!
Dante found himself lost in a dark wood, implying the apocalyptic vision of the biblical Book of Revelation. There, he faced three fierce beasts, a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf, which respectively signify greed, pride, and lust, chasing after him in an attempt to prevent him from climbing a mountain.
Suddenly, the ancient Roman poet Virgil appeared before him and rescued him from the clutches of the beasts. He told Dante that he had been given a mission to guide him through the upcoming journey. Together the two of them started their descent into Hell, a place made up of nine circles in the middle of the Earth, each with varying levels of sin and punishment.
In the underworld, they saw countless sinners who had expressed no repentance for what they had done while residing on Earth and were now sentenced to painfully suffer relentless punishments relating to the vices they had committed during life. The more serious their sins, the more severe the punishments were that the sinners were subject to.
For example, in Canto XX, or the eighth circle, fortune-tellers, astrologers, and false prophets have their heads twisted around on their bodies backward for all eternity, making them unable to see what is ahead since this is the precise goal they sinfully endeavored to achieve in life.
The first circle of Hell is reserved for mythological and historical characters who were born before Christ and so naturally were not baptized – like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil himself.
The second circle is a place reserved for the souls of the lustful. Dante was shocked when seeing the historical figure Francesca and her lover Paolo to be trapped in an eternal whirlwind, ceaselessly sweeping them through the air just like the way they had allowed the power of lust to blow them about needlessly and aimlessly. After speaking a few words with the couple and learning of the sordid story of adultery that led to their damnation, Dante fainted out of pity for the doomed pair.
In the remaining circles, Dante and Virgil witnessed with their own eyes the ever-increasingly grisly punishments and their varying imaginative forms for sinners of gluttony (circle three), greed (circle four), wrath and depression (circle five). Circle six keeps the souls of the heretics, circle seven contains those who committed violence, deceivers reside in the circle eight and circle nine is a place of trust betrayers.
At the very center of the ninth circle, the two pilgrims saw a three-faced Satan, frozen in an iced lake and gnawing the worst betrayers: Judas (who betrayed Jesus), and Brutus and Cassius (who betrayed Julius Ceasar). The terrifying beast was trapped waist-deep in the ice and desperately beat his wings as if trying to escape from the constant icy wind that only further ensures his imprisonment.
Finally, Dante and Virgil ascend out of the under gloom to reach the second stage of their journey, Purgatory, at dawn on Easter Monday. Purgatory resides on a mountain on an island on the far side of the world, where they must fully purge themselves of sin before ascending to Heaven. There are seven terraces on the mountain, corresponding to the seven deadly sins or “seven roots of sinfulness” which are pride, envy, wrath, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, and lust.
In Purgatory, the sins of man are more psychological than physical compared to those in Hell, rooted in the motive rather than the action.
This part of the journey is actually our protagonist’s most painful process of spiritual rehabilitation, where he had to remove his own attachments and cleanse himself of his sins in order that he may ascend to the heavens.
Here, the souls still have to endure punishments to some extent. Unlike the souls in Hell, these souls sing and praise God while enduring their punishment because they know that they will become worthy of ascent to the final and highest realm. They are even allowed to freely move between the seven levels as they cleanse themselves.
Reaching the top of the mountain, Dante entered the earthly paradise of Eden, where appeared a woman called Beatrice, who replaced Virgil to guide him through heaven. Passing through the nine celestial spheres of Heaven, finally, they reached the Empyrean, the heaven of divine peace.
The Divine Comedy has a happy ending with Dante seeing the Triune God at the peak – also the end of his journey. In a flash, he receives true understanding that he cannot express. Finally, in his mind, the mystery of Christ‘s divinity and humanity is unraveled and his soul becomes aligned with God’s love.
But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.