Is a book, written in 1320, still relevant today? How our understanding of sin has changed over centuries.
After contemplating for long, this year I finally took up the challenge of reading the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy- ‘Inferno’. The book is a difficult read because
(a) the book was originally written in Italian. So you need to find the best translation without losing the essence of the original language anywhere.
(b) It is a long poem which is divided into cantos(long sections of a poem). And we know that poems can be complex and have their own interpretations
(c ) It was written 700 years ago so the words and our understanding is completely different.
What is Divine Comedy about?
Divine Comedy is a poem in which a soul takes a journey through the 3 stages after life - Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Dante, the man himself, is granted the task of going through all these stages. Since he is supposedly still alive, his soul is guided by that of Virgil (the poet) in Inferno (hell)and Purgatario. And later by Beatrice, in Paradiso. Through his journey, he meets many souls and encounters many famous personalities and learns about their sins/good deeds, and why they are there.
The number 3 is of significance in Divine Comedy- The book itself consists of 100 Cantos. Each of the 3 stages- Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso contain 33 cantos, with Canto 1 giving an overview of the entire book. The book supposedly takes places over 3 days- from a Good Friday in 1300s through Easter Sunday. Even the obstacles or the characters come in 3s. And the poem itself uses terza rima rhyming, ie. the first and third lines rhyme, while the second line rhymes with the first and third of the next stanza.
How to make reading easier?
Call it poetic justice, but I decided to read this book in 3 ways at the same time-
- I would read each Canto from the translation by the Rev. Henry Francis Cary, and illustrated by M. Gustave Doré.
- I read notes and analysis of each section from Sparknotes.
- And then I would listen to the Canto in an audiobook borrowed from the local library while following it line to line. Because the voice modulation always tells you the right way to read it.
Was the effort worth it?- I wouldn’t recommend reading this any other way if you truly want to enjoy this, without losing it’s essence.
The Nine Circles of Hell
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrate (Abandon all hope ye who enter)
These are the last words inscribed on the gates of hell. Here Dante and Virgil hear the painful screams of the uncommitted souls. Virgil explains that these cries emanate from those souls who did not commit to either good or evil but who lived their lives without making conscious moral choices; therefore both Heaven and Hell have denied them entry. These souls now reside in Ante-Inferno: which is within Hell yet not truly a part of it, where they must contantly chase a dirty blank flag while wasps and worms torment and bite them.
Dante’s punishments very often have allegorical significance: the blank banner that the uncommitted souls chase symbolises the meaninglessness of their activity on Earth (because moral choice is what gives action meaning).
In this way we explore the circles of Hell, with vivid descriptions, the horrors of which can send a chill down your spine. We read about the sins committed and the symbolically torturous punishments being received by the souls. And we even get to witness Dante interacting with a soul or two at each stage - many of whom are famous personalities from history. Although fiction, the book has the power to make the reader introspect continuously, and question oneself for each of the sins committed in one’s own life. Although a non-believer, I wondered many times what punishment I would receive for the actions which were labelled as sins by Dante.
How do you define sin?
What constitutes a sin? Is what you call a sin, same as what I would call a sin? Isn’t everyone’s moral compass slightly different based on our own experiences and situations in life? Does the definition of sin change over the years?
Power lies with those who are good with words. Dante has the power to move people, make them imagine, make them laugh and also make them shudder through his words. The Church was also very powerful in the 1300s in Europe. So it is anybody’s guess how significant this book would have been- a book so agreeable with the Church and it’s beliefs. Although it has it’s heart in the right place and there are certain actions which are universally right or wrong, there is a whole spectrum of sins which cannot be defined by one person, at one point in time, and through his own interpretation of God.
Dante uses his power of words to his advantage- against any opinion or political affiliation he does not agree with. He shows these people to be in hell, bearing the brunt of their actions, meticulously describing the tortures they go through.
First circle of Hell is Limbo - which contains virtuous people born before Christianity or those who were not baptised. Seventh circle of Hell is for sodomites- those who commit violence against God/nature- and this includes homosexuals. And the 9th pit of Eighth circle of Hell contains sowers of scandal and schism- and this contains Prophet Mohammad himself! Even worse, through every passing circle of Hell, Dante keeps losing his pity for souls and thinks it serves them right to be stuck in Hell!
One cannot even begin to imagine how scandalous Divine Comedy would be if released today. The literature which was lauded in a different era, would divide an already divided world today. This makes me wonder what could be the deeds of today which we categorise as sins, which would not be so, a thousand years from now? And does it mean that human beings are getting wiser or more tolerant? Or is it just that our moral compass gets recalibrated over time?
Today, the world is celebrating diversity such as homosexuality and gender fluidity. If not all of us then at least many of us. Would it be the same centuries from now? What if human race is on the decline and homosexuality is considered a sin again?
Violence against nature I imagine would go on to become one of the worst sins in the future. May be the future generations would call us the greatest sinners of all time for not saving flora and fauna- being the real culprits of climate change. And who knows, may be human beings would have bigger demons to fight against, bringing them closer than ever before and making them celebrate their differences; rather than lauding a fictional literature from medieval times which shows other religious leaders and people in love, to be in Hell.
Present times and influences have a major role to play in our interpretation of anything which we cannot judge with our primate sense of justice. But Divine Comedy is still timeless in many ways. Dante is so meticulous and thorough with his imaginary arrangement of the entire cosmos that even centuries later, you are in awe; even if you might not fully agree with it. I am really looking forward to reading the other two parts and cannot wait to see what I discover further.