Guide to Dante's 9 Circles of Hell

A Guide to the Structure of Inferno

By Agnolo Bronzino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dante’s Inferno (14th C) is the first part of a three-part epic poem, followed by and Paradiso. Those approaching the La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) for the first time might benefit from a brief structural description.

This first part is Dante’s journey through the nine circles of Hell, guided by the poet Virgil. At the beginning of the story, a woman, Beatrice, calls for an angel to bring Virgil to guide and aid Dante in his journey so that no harm will befall him.

The nine circles of Hell, in order of entrance and of severity  

  1. Limbo: Where those who never knew Christ exist. Dante encounters Ovid, Homer, Socrates, Aristotle, Julius Caesar and more here. 
  2. Lust: Self-explanatory. Dante encounters Achilles, Paris, Tristan, Cleopatra, Dido, and others here.
  3. Gluttony: Where those who over-indulge exist. Dante encounters ordinary people (i.e. not characters from the epic poems or gods from mythology) here. Boccaccio takes one of these characters, Ciacco, and later incorporates him into The Decameron (14th C).
  4. Greed: Self-explanatory. Dante encounters more ordinary people, but also the guardian of the circle, Pluto. Virgil discusses the nation of “Fortune” but they do not directly interact with any inhabitants of this circle (the first time they pass through a circle without speaking to anyone – a comment on Dante’s opinion of Greed as a higher sin).
  5. Anger: Dante and Virgil are threatened by the Furies when they try to enter through the walls of Dis (Satan). This is a further progression in Dante’s evaluation of the nature of sin; he also begins to question himself and his own life, realizing his actions/nature could lead him to this permanent torture. 
  1. Heresy: Rejection of religious and/or political “norms.” Dante encounters Farinata degli Uberti, a military leader and an aristocrat tried to win the Italian throne, convicted of heresy in 1283. Dante also meets Epicurus, Pope Anastasius II and Emperor Frederick II. 
  2. Violence: This is the first circle to be further segmented into sub-circles or rings. There are three of them, the Outer, Middle, and Inner rings, and each ring houses different types of violent criminals. The first are those who were violent against people and property, such as Attila the Hun. Centaurs guard this Outer Ring and shoot its inhabitants with arrows. The Middle Ring consists of those who commit violence against themselves (suicide). These sinners are perpetually eaten by Harpies. The Inner Ring is made up of the blasphemers, or those who are violent against God and nature. One of these sinners is Brunetto Latini, a sodomite, who was Dante’s own mentor (note that Dante speaks kindly to him). The usurers are also here, as are those who blasphemed not just against “God” but also the gods, such as Capaneus, who blasphemed against Zeus.
  1. Fraud: This circle is distinguished from its predecessors by its being made up of those who consciously and willingly commit fraud. Within the 8th circle, there is another called the Malebolge (“Evil Pockets”) which houses 10 separate Bolgias (“ditches”). In these exist different types of frauds, including: Panderers/Seducers (1), Flatterers (2), Simoniacs (those who sell ecclesiastical preferment) (3), Sorcerers/Astrologers/False Prophets (4), Barrators (corrupt politicians) (5), Hypocrites (6), Thieves (7), False Counsellors/Advisers (8), Schismatics (those who separate religions to form new ones) (9), and Alchemists/Counterfeiters, Perjurers, Impersonators, etc. (10).  Each of these Bolgias is guarded by different demons, and the inhabitants suffer different punishments, such as the Simoniacs who are stood head-first in stone bowls and forced to endure flames upon their feet.
  2. Treachery: The deepest circle of Hell, where Satan resides. As with the last two circles, this one is further divided, this time into four rounds. The first is Caina, named after the Biblical Cain who murdered his own brother. This round is for traitors to kindred (family). The second is named Antenora and comes from Antenor of Troy who betrayed the Greeks. This round is reserved for political/national traitors. The third is Ptolomaea (for Ptolemy son of Abubus) who is known for inviting Simon Maccabaeus and his sons to dinner and then murdering them. This round is for hosts who betray their guests; they are punished more harshly because of the traditional belief that having guests means entering into a voluntary relationship (unlike the relationships with family and country, which we are born into); thus, betraying a relationship you willingly enter is considered more despicable. The fourth round is Judecca, after Judas Iscariot who betrayed Christ. This is the round reserved for traitors to their lords/benefactors/masters. As in the previous circle, the subdivisions each have their own demons and punishments.

    The Center of Hell

    After making their way through all nine circles of Hell, Dante and Virgil reach the center of Hell. Here they meet Satan, who is described as a three-headed beast. Each mouth is busy eating a specific person – the left mouth is eating Brutus, the right is eating Cassius, and the center mouth is eating Judas Iscariot. Brutus and Cassius are those who betrayed and caused the murder of Julius Caesar. Judas did the same to Jesus Christ. These are the ultimate sinners, in Dante’s opinion, as they consciously committed acts of treachery against their lords, who were appointed by God.