The term contrapasso describes the relationship between a person’s sins and the punishment they receive in Hell. It determines a specific punishment for each sinner based off of their sins, rather than them just burning in Hell. The contrapasso is an important factor in Inferno from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.
Throughout Inferno, Virgil and Dante are exploring the Nine Circles of Hell, where they see the contrapasso at work. Every circle they visit, there are sinners being punished for the sins they committed. The punishment they receive is directly proportional to their sins. Dante and Virgil begin their journey through Hell by entering through the Gates. Once they enter, they visit the Second Circle of Hell, the Second Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, the Ninth Bolgia of the Eighth Circle, the First Ring of the Ninth Circle of Hell, and the Fourth Ring of the Ninth Circle of Hell. During this expedition, they see the contrapasso in full force, while watching the sinners suffer in their sins.
Dante and Virgil start their trip by entering the Gates of Hell, where Minos is determining which Circle the sinners belong to. As soon as they enter, they begin to hear the cries and screams of the sinners who did not commit to good or evil. These sinners lived their lives without making sensible and honorable choices, which means they cannot be accepted into Heaven nor Hell. These sinners will forever be stuck outside the Gates of Hell, where they must run after a banner forever while being tormented by flies and hornets. This is an example of contrapasso because the sinners that did not take a side during the war in Heaven have to forever suffer by never going to Heaven or Hell.
Once Dante and Virgil make it into the Gates of Hell, they go to the Second CIrcle where the lustful are being punished. These sinners are being whirled around in wind and rain helplessly. They ask Francesca if she would tell them her story of how she ended up in the Second Circle, and she does. She tells then how she was married to a deformed old man, then fell in love with Paolo da Rimini, who was her husband’s younger brother. One day, he and Paolo were reading the legend about the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, which is when they began to fall and love. When they go to the most romantic part of the story, they began to kiss.
Francesca’s husband quickly found out what was happening and had the two killed. Now Francesca and Paolo must spend eternity in the Second Circle of Hell. This is an example of contrapasso because these lovers were carried away by their passion, so their punishment is to forever drift in the wind.
Later during Dante and Virgil’s journey, they visit the Second Ring of the Seventh Circle, which is a big forest of black bumpy trees. Dante hears screaming like people are suffering, but he cannot see any sinners in sight. Virgil then tells Dante to snap a limb off one of the trees, and when he does, the tree cries out in pain as blood flows town its trunk. This Circle is an example of contrapasso because the sinners here were victims of suicide and squandering. They have been turned into trees so they when one of their branches is broke, they feel the same pain that their family and friends felt when they left. When it is time for the sinners to reunite with their souls, these sinners will not fully reunite with theirs because they abandoned them voluntarily. Instead, the sinners bodies will hang on their trees’ branches, forcing themselves to see their human form that they deserted.
Farther along in the story, Virgil leads Dante to the Ninth Pouch of the Eighth Circle, where sinners who have split political bodies and churches. Contrapasso comes into play here when the sinners are split in half by a devil. The sinners have to continuously walk in a circle, where they pass by the devil, who splits them open. By the time their wounds heal, they are already back to the devil, who splits them open once again. This punishment continues on for eternity. Them being split apart is their punishment because they once were the ones doing the splitting.
Toward the end of Dante and Virgil’s trip, they enter into the Ninth and final Circle of Hell which is made up of four rings. Dante and Virgil enter into the first ring, where they approach the lake Cocytus. This lake is significant because under the frozen top layer, the bodies of sinners who were traitors to their families are there. The First Ring is named Caina after the bible character Cain, who killed his brother Abel. In this Ring, contrapasso is present because the sinners are frozen away from God, facing an everlasting numb because they were numb to repent of their crimes.
The last example of contrapasso in Dante’s Inferno, is when Dante and Virgil enter into the Fourth Ring of the Ninth Circle of Hell. This Ring is named Judecca and Satan is located here. Every sinner that is located in this Ring is completely frozen in the lake, unable to move of speak, contorted into many different shapes as part of their punishment. The sinners that are banished to the Fourth Ring are there for being accused of treachery to their masters. Contrapasso is present in the Fourth Ring because they are fully frozen in the lake unable to speak, since the words they said while they were on earth were false and full of lies. The icy lake symbolizes how they rejected God during their life, as well as their masters, so now they are cold forever. During their life on earth, they rejected the light of God, so they will be in darkness forever.
Contrapasso is a major element that made Dante’s Inferno the epic poem that it is. Contrapasso is what determined how the Circles of Hell were laid out and what occurred in them. The sinners sins determined which Circle they went to, and contrapasso was the reasoning behind what their punishment was.