The Inferno occurs when the exiled poet, Dante, finds himself approaching mid-life lost in a dark wood. The only path he can take to escape from the dark wood is, unfortunately, a path through Hell. Guided by the spirit, Virgil, Dante transverses the fiery domain of the damned through the nine circles of Hell. As they travel, Dante presents his conception of the sins that are punished in Hell, from the milder forms of sin represented by lust and gluttony, to the most heinous forms, represented by the sin of treachery and malice against one's own kin. Each sin is punished with a contra passo, where the dead sinners pay eternal retribution for their sins by engaging in actions that are the opposite of the sin being punished. A good example would be where Dante makes the penance for the sin of trying to foretell the future to have one's neck twisted so that one eternally looks backwards, even while walking forward.
You wouldn't think that one would laugh riotously while reading through Dante's Inferno, but in truth, I laughed my way through the whole thing. Thus my representations of the images I found in the Inferno do not reflect reverence or fear, but sheer merriment at the inventiveness and humor I found in the Inferno. Dante seems to have a really good grasp on the weaknesses and foibles of humanity.
Do I believe in what Dante has laid out and would I make it a blueprint for my own life? Probably not. I'm not sure I even believe in the concept of sin or eternal punishment. However, I do think Dante's attempt to classify and structure his thoughts on life and society to be admirable and instructive. I often look for complex solutions to complex problems. But sometimes, simple solutions might be best. There are simple lessons in the Inferno and we can take advantage of Dante's having gone down the road before us. In this sense, I do carry his structure with me and find it instructive for classifying some of my own experiences with people and the attempt to define morality.
There are 34 Cantos within the Inferno and 100 Cantos in the entire Divine Comedy. The entire Divina Commedia also includes two other books, one on Purgatory, and one on Paradise. Below is a brief thumbnail summary of the 34 Cantos of the Inferno:
1 - Explores themes of darkness, fear, and the journey. Dante meets Virgil, his guide on the journey ahead
2 - The poet receives inspiration from divine sources and conquers his fears
3 - Charon ferries the tortured sinners over the River Acheron into Hell
4 - Limbo, where dwell those that led decent lives but who did not know God
5 - Minos judges the sinners. Swarms of sinners are condemned for sins of lust and sex swirl in endless embrace in the stormy air above.
6 - Gluttons dwell in rain and stink. The three-headed dog, Cerberus, guards over them.
7 - Avarice and extravagance are punished by pushing huge boulders against each other. Across the putrid River Styx, anger is punished. These souls trapped in mud constantly fight each other.
8 - Phleygas ferries them across the River Styx to the walled City of Dis ahead. Demons and desperate spirits surround them.
9 - Waiting for angels to appear to turn away demons, they see the hideous Furies, who threaten to turn Dante to stone. Angel finally saves them.
10 - Heretics burn in open flaming tombs
11 - Virgil explains the general layout of the three remaining circles. Seventh is for violence, eighth is for sins of fraud, and ninth for sins of treachery.
12 - Those that have committed violence against others bathe in a river of blood, guarded by a herd of Centaurs.
13 - The Wood of the Suicides where the souls are trapped in the trees of the forest, only to cry out when cruel Harpies eat at their leaves.
14 - Flames of fire rain down from the sky on the violent sinners below.
17 - The monster Geryon flies them down to the eighth circle.
18 - Sins of fraud, pimps, seducers, flatters, are punished on the ledges of Malebolge, where they are whipped by demons.
19 - Encounters the simoniacs, who sold positions in the church, buried head first into holes in the ground with their legs sticking up and feet on fire.
20 - Souls of witches, sorcerers, and fortune tellers’ heads are spun around so they can’t see where they are going.
21 - Swindlers burn in boiling tar, while demons jab and taunt them. Some demons guide them the way to the sixth ditch, leaving them with a loud fart.
22 - More demons tormenting sinners appear.
23 - Hypocrites are condemned to plod along in robes and capes of heavy lead.
24 - Thousands of snakes swarm over crowds of sinners who were thieves in life.
25 - Sinners are attacked by snakes and their bodies melt, transform, and distort into snakes.
26 - Sinners who lead others into sin are tortured by burning tongues of fire since they used their burning tongues on earth.
28 - Deformed sinners who caused divisions in the world are punished by being ripped apart themselves
29 - Those who are condemned for sins of falsifying are covered in open sores, continuously itching and scratching.
31 - They encounter giants buried to their waists in towers in the fog. They convince Antaeus to gently lower them down to the frozen Lake Cocytus below.
32 - Horrible torture takes place in frozen Lake Cocytus, where those who sinned against their own families are stuck in the ice to their necks. Some sinners are trapped in thrice so close together than one of them is chewing on the other guy’s head.
33 - Dante speaks to one of the sinners who was gnawing on the head of another.
34 - The huge body of Satan himself is trapped to the waist in the ice. They climb down his back to escape to the other side and surface on a rock path to where Mount Purgatory stands. They look with relief at the stars above.