You will find it useful to consult the diagram of Hell at the start of your edition of the text.
In many ways, Dante’s view of Hell follows traditional views of Hell within Christianity. These are based on accounts of Hell given in the Bible: the Book of Revelation described a sealed abyss in which Satan dwelled (20.3); the sinful dead would be punished by being thrown into a lake of fire, which was described as a ‘second death’ (20.14). There will be fire in Dante’s Hell (though not everywhere); and Hell, for Dante, is a pit sealed within the bowels of the earth.
But Dante also draws on other sources for his description of Hell. There are rivers in his Hell: Acheron (Canto III, flowing between the indifferent and Limbo); Styx (Canto VII, flowing between the fifth and sixth circles); Phlegethon (Canto XII, flowing between the sixth and seventh circles); and Cocytus (Cantos XXXII–XXXIV, in the ninth circle). These rivers are drawn from Virgil’s description of the underworld in Book VI of the Aeneid.
Dante’s willingness to include classical, non-Christian ideas in the structure of Hell is very important, and will be explored on a number of occasions in this web guide. Dante, however, also displays great personal creativity in his description of two of the earliest parts of Hell he encounters: the area outside the river Acheron, where the neutrals are punished; and the area just inside Acheron, Limbo. The first of these is a complete invention on Dante’s part; in the case of the second, Dante is unconventional in allowing virtuous pagans into Limbo, alongside children who die before being baptised.
As you can see from your diagram of Hell in your edition of the Inferno, Dante’s Hell is divided into a number of circles and subcircles, each of which is devoted to the punishment of a particular group of sinners. We will look at these subdivisions as we move through the text.
© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson