Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy”, written around 1300 A.D., tells of his fantastic vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven. The first volume, the Inferno, has had incredible influence over our modern conception of hell. There are several free English translations available, but, while researching the Inferno for a book I’m writing (working title: Journey to Erebus), I decided to try to turn Dante’s work into an easy to read book in modern English.
Previous Canto: Minos
When consciousness returned, after its retreat before the pitiful plight of my two kinsfolk, I was confounded with sadness. New torments and new tormented souls awaited all around me, wherever I went, whichever way I turned, and everywhere I looked. We had come to the third circle, a circle of eternal rain, accursed, cold, and heavy. It was continuous and unchanging. Coarse hail, filthy water, and snow poured down through the gloomy air. The earth that received them stank. The rain made the shades of the dead howl like dogs. They kept one side turned into the downpour to shelter the other, and the unholy wretches had to constantly turn themselves.
Cerberus, the great hell hound, stood over the people that were submerged in the mud, barking with all his three throats. He had scarlet eyes, greasy, black fur, a big belly, and paws armed with cruel claws. He tore at the spirits, flaying and rending them. When Cerberus saw us, he opened his mouths and showed his fangs to us. His limbs quivered as if he were tensed to spring at us.
My guide opened his hands wide, took fistfuls of dirt, and threw them into the ravenous maws. As a dog that barks when hungry becomes quiet when he eats his food, and is intent and fights only to consume it, so became the filthy faces of the demon Cerberus, who for the moment ceased thundering at the souls so that they wished they were deaf.
We were walking among the shades who were subdued by the heavy rain, often stepping upon their translucent forms, which nevertheless seemed as substantial as living bodies. They all lay on the ground except one, who quickly sat up as he saw us passing by.
“You who are being led through Hell,” he said to me, “do you recognize me? You were born before I died.”
“The anguish which you have suffered may have changed you from my memory of you,” I replied. “As far as I know, I have never seen you. Tell me who you are and why you have been put in such a sorrowful place, and given a punishment, that, if any is more severe, none could be more displeasing than.”
“I once called fair Florence, which is so full of envy that it runs over the brim, home, and lived there serenely,” he said. “You citizens called me Hog, and for the damnable sin of gluttony I am broken by the rain, as you can see. I am not alone, for all these wretched souls endure the same punishment for the same sin.”
“Hog,” I replied, “your troubles so weigh so heavily upon me that they bring me close to tears. But tell me, if you can, what will happen to the citizens of our divided city. Is there a just man left in it? Tell me why such great discord has afflicted it.”
“After much contention, things will become bloody, and the violent White Guelphs will chase out the Black Guelphs, doing them great injury in the process. But within three days they will fall, and the Blacks will defeat them with the aid of Pope Boniface, who even now is vacillating. They will hold the city for a long time, putting their enemy under heavy burdens, no matter how the White’s may lament and be shamed by it. Only two men in all Florence are just, but they are not listened to. Pride, envy, and avarice are the three sparks that have inflamed the hearts of the warring factions.”
“Please tell me more,” I said. “Tell me where Farinata and the Tegghiaio who were so worthy, Jacopo Rusticucci, Arrigo, and the Mosca, and the others who set their minds on doing well are, and how I may find them, for I really want to know whether Heaven sweetens them, or Hell envenoms.”
“They are among the blacker souls,” he replied. “A different sin weighs them down to the bottom. If you descend far enough, you will see them. But when you return to the world of the living, I pray that you remind others of me. I will say no more to you, nor will I answer you further.”
His straight eyes began to wander, looking awry. He looked at me a little, then bent his head and fell back with the other blind ones.
“He will wake no more until the sounding of the angelic trumpets,” said Virgil. “When the sovereign of the universe comes, each soul will return to his dismal tomb, take on fleshy form once more, and hear that which reechoes through eternity.”
We passed with slow steps through the shades, and the foul mixture of mud and rain, touching a little on the life that was yet to come.
“Master,” I said, “will these torments increase after the day of judgment, will they be less, or will they remain the same?”
“Remember your science, which declares that the more perfect a thing is, the more it feels both good and pain,” he replied. “Though these accursed people can never attain true perfection, it should be expected that thereafter, their pain will be more than it is now.”
We took a circling course along the road, speaking of far more than I will repeat, and came to a point where descent was possible.