The Different Explanation of Underworld for Sinners in Literature
The belief in the existence of an afterlife can be dated back to the beginnings of recorded history. It has been extremely common for cultures around the world to believe in some kind of life or existence after death. It was also common for the ideas of these cultures to mix with others and form similarities between beliefs. One of the first examples of the idea of the afterlife in literature comes from Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Virgil’s Aeneid creates a underworld that is almost identical to that of Homer centuries later. Then, over a millennium later, the ideas of hell in Dante’s Inferno find parallels and similarities to Virgil. Dante even has Virgil as a character in his book to guide his protagonist through the circle of hell. The question arises, how much did Dante copy from Virgil and what parts from Dante’s creation of hell were actually original?
The Aeneid and Inferno are both epic poems based on the same premise. The main character goes on a journey in an epic fashion. Aeneas in the Aeneid must travel to the underworld to learn valuable information from his father while Dante travels through hell to fully understand the different circles of hell and their purposes. In both stories, the characters develop as the journey progresses and they are revealed new information. Aeneas is led through the underworld by a guide named Sybil while Dante is guided by Virgil. Dante used the character Virgil to make it clear to his readers that he was copying certain things from Virgil’s book.
Both guides show no fear while they lead Aeneas and Dante on their journeys. Both journeys also have a limited amount of time in the underworld. Sybil makes it quite clear that Aeneas only has so much time and Virgil keeps Dante on a steady pace so that they don’t fall behind.
A clear and specific adaptation by Dante can be seen in the tenth canto of Inferno. Dante meets Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti who says, “If you go through this blind prison by reason of high genius, where is my son, and why is he not with you?’ This practically mirrors Aeneas’ encounter with Andromache who was the wife of Hector who asked why Hector had not come with him. Both novels also had this idea of having a divine purpose or fate. Aeneas was destined by the gods to set the foundations of Rome. The gods keep him on his path when distractions arise around him. Dante is protected by the heavenly hosts, which can be seen in Canto nine when an angle descended into hell and opens the gate for the travelers.
A difference that arises between the two novels is the idea of where the “good” souls go. In Dante, it is implied that those who do right in their life go to Paradiso where they remain for eternity as a soul. Virgil on the other hand states that the “good souls” are put in Elysium for the rest of eternity. In Elysium, the souls go through perpetual cycles of being reborn and almost trapped in this new reality. In Dante’s novels, he breaks this idea of being stuck in a perpetual circle of life by creating Purgatorio and Paradiso. It is hard to believe that this Elysium was the best that people could look forward to after death. This idea of Elysium is very similar to Dante’s limbo in the upper region of hell. Limbo was a place where the virtuous people who were not believers in God went. These people were not tortured but instead existed in this region with the knowledge that they would forever be apart from God. Limbo for Virgil was the place where people first stopped when taken to the underworld. If a purposes body was not buried then they would walk the shores of Limbo.
The influence of the Church in Dante’s writing can be clearly seen from the creation of his circles of hell. He divided his circles of hell with the seven deadly sins which originated by the Catholic Church. The worse off the sin was the deeper the circle of hell. Pride is seen as one of the worst sins as multiple circles are composed of sinners who committed different kinds of sins related to their pride. Virgil on the other hand does not have any hierarchy for where souls rank in the underworld. Souls are judged based on the actions in life which were based off the cultural view of morality at the time. Virgil believed that no person who lived was perfect and that they had to pay for what they did in life by saying in line 995,
Therefore they undergo The discipline of punishments and pay
In penance for old sins…”
According to Virgil, even the people in Elysium were not perfect, but they were still going to highest place of reward after death. Everyone had to pay up for what they did in life. They were then sent to Elysium if they were moral people and then sent to eternal punishment if they lacked morals in life. Dante’s hell is much harsher and firm. People who sinned in their life but do not repent to the Lord end up in a circle of hell. They are doomed for eternity to be apart from God and suffer the consequences of theirs sins whatever punishments that might entail.
For Virgil, the exact nature of the punishment of the sinner was not important to him. It was more of the thought or the idea of a place of eternal suffering that made the underworld appear quite undesirable. He does mention a few examples of souls being punished in specific ways like having to heave at a giant boulder for eternity. Dante takes the idea of punishment a step further by factoring in the weight of the sin. This is known as Contrapasso, which refers to the punishment of the sinner and in some way or another resembles or contrasts the specific sin.
This idea goes back to the cultural morality of both writers at the time they were alive. For Virgil, in the time of early Rome, as long as people were considered moral people with status in society, they would be considered good people. People who lacked morals by preying on the weak or doing other things were considered evil but there was no separation or tiers of “evilness” for their crimes. Dante’s idea of Contrapasso, made people consider the repercussions of their specific sins.
Both novels have a similar tone, specifically when it comes to the underworld or hell. Inferno can be seen as a depressing dark dungeon that we must travel though and overcome. Yet there is light at the end of the tunnel with the existence of Paradiso, but we must first understand the existence of Inferno before going there. As for the Aeneid, Michael Putnam writes in Virgil’s Aeneid: Interpretation and Influence that, “The Aeneid has no Paradiso. Virgil’s portrait of Elysium, in which few rest forever, or his idealizing glimpses of Augustan Rome, which remains ever in the future, far distant from the lived experience of the poem’s immediate action, are scarcely parallel.” The allegory of the underworld by Virgil states that we are still trapped in the dungeon that mirrors life. In life, we are trapped in our physical bodies of flesh and trapped to the physical responses of being mortal. In death, we are still trapped in a dungeon of a higher power’s choosing.
There is no doubt that the account of the underworld in both the Aeneid and Inferno are very comparable. Both authors created hells that were akin to the beliefs of the time period that they were alive. Virgil created an underworld where everyone must pay for their wrongdoings. Once they have paid in full, they are free to live the rest of time with others who have paid for their wrongdoings. Dante created a hell where people paid for their sins according to the severity of them. Sinners could escape punishment and suffering if they repented for their sins in life and become servants of Christ. The Biblical teaching of hell is what inspired Dante to create his version of hell while adding in his own personal touch. The changeover from the Aeneid’s view on hell to Inferno’s view on hell mirrors the cultural evolution of Italy. The progression of thought of Augustus era Italy to the Italy of the Middle ages.
- Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri : Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise. New York :The Union Library Association, 1935.
- Putnam, Michael C. J. Virgil’s Aeneid: Interpretation and Influence. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Print.
- Perkell, Christine. “Irony in the Underworlds of Dante and Virgil: Readings of Francesca and Palinurus.” Materiali e Discussioni per L’analisi Dei Testi Classici, no. 52, 2004, pp. 127–142. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40236448.
- Russo, Fiorentina. “Dante’s Vergil in Limbo.” Critical Insights: The Aeneid, Sept. 2011, pp. 59–72. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=69855496&site=lrc-plus.
- Spiegel, Dana. “The Aeneid and The Inferno: Social Evolution” 1998.
- Virgil., and Robert Fitzgerald. The Aeneid. New York: Random House, 1983.
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