Dante Alighieri’s Inferno: Heroes In Hell

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Dante Alighieri the poet was well known for writing his three-part poem “The Divine Comedy”. Dante dedicated 12 years of his life to the poem which he began in the year 1308 and finished in 1320. In the first part of the poem Dante wrote about his firsthand visit to Hell. While to many people this seems impossible, Dante the poet believed he was writing about an actual event that took place in his life. On one occasion Dante the pilgrim detaches himself from the story to acknowledge that what he was claiming might sound crazy, but, was true. Dante’s infamous trip to hell includes countless well-known figures, fictional and non-fictional, of his time period. Dante not only put his neck on the line, challenging political, historical, and religious figures, who he deemed good and bad, by placing them in categories of hell. Dante also acknowledged well known fictional characters and Gods in order to weave famous classical works and to show respect to the great poets before him. Instead of completely discrediting their work and religion, he incorporates their fictional characters into his depiction of Hell. While there is no way of knowing if Dante actually made a trip to Hell, it is safe to assume Dante’s placement of these characters were based on his own influences and beliefs. Ulysses and Aeneas are two of the most well-known characters of this time period, both considered epic heroes but of differing cultures. In Dante’s “Inferno” Ulysses is punished worse in Hell than Aeneas, despite both characters’ similarities. Dante’s placement of these most influential “heroes” highlights the influence and changing role of the “hero” from a hero driven by reputation to a more unselfish hero driven by pious and duty.

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Aeneas is first introduced in the first Circle of Hell. This first circle of Hell is named Limbo, where the unbaptized infants and virtuous pagans reside. In the Inferno Virgil says, “I would have you know, before you go farther, that they did not sin. But if they earned Merit, it did not suffice without the rite of baptism, the portal to the faith that you observe; And if they preceded Christianity, they did not give the worship owed to God.” This explains that the people in Limbo are not actually sinners they are just unfortunate. They were stuck in Hell due to circumstances out of their control. Aeneas falls into that category because he was born before the birth of Christ and had no way of worshipping the one true God. Due to his untimely life and death, he is punished for the rest of eternity, to an extent. However, this punishment isn’t necessarily the worst in Hell’s placement. The idea of contrapasso, where the punishment fits the sin, is seen in Aeneas’ placement in Limbo. The people in Limbo, “For these defects, and for no other fault, we are lost, but afflicted only so far that we live in longing without any hope.”(4.40-42) This highlights the punishment of Limbo. Not being able to know God, one will remain stuck in sorrow, longing for something for which they will never find. In Limbo Dante describes seeing many people both fictional and non-fictional, such as, “I saw Electra with many companions, among whom I knew Aeneas and Hector, and Caesar, armed with flashing falcon eyes… King Latinus… Lavinia… Socrates… Plato…”Ironically though we do not see Ulysses, also an epic hero, born before the birth of Christ. It is important to point out that Aeneas was in fact a Roman hero. Virgil wrote the Aeneid to be an origin story for the founding of the Roman culture. Aeneas was to the Romans what Odysseus was to the Greeks. (As we all know) Dante was influenced more by Roman culture because as an Italian he saw himself as a descendent of Rome. Dante also was heavily influenced by Virgil, aspiring to be like him. We see this influence in Dante’s choice to use Virgil as his guide in Hell. When talking of Ulysses in Hell Virgil even says to Dante, “‘But you see that you restrain your tongue/And let me do the talking./I understand just what you want, but because they were Greeks they might be scornful of what you would say.’” This quote brings to light the idea of some sort of disdain and difference between the two cultures during the time period in which Dante was writing. It was likely that Dante showed favoritism to the hero, Aeneas. This appears to be only part of the picture.

To complete our understanding, we see Ulysses in a completely different place in Hell. Ulysses is being tormented in Hell in the circle of the fraudulent, specifically for the sin of false counseling. When describing his final journey, Ulysses rallied a group of his men to follow him on his endeavors which ultimately led them to their demise. “He answered me: ‘Ulysses and Diomedes are tormented there, eternal comrades in punishment as once they were in wrath” As we see with this quote Ulysses is receiving a far worse punishment than Aeneas. While Aeneas is “hanging out” in Limbo Ulysses spends his eternity in torment. Instead of just mentioning the sight of the character like he did for Aeneas; Dante intentionally spends more time developing the character of Ulysses. Dante the pilgrim has a conversation with Ulysses in which Ulysses tells of his final journey that led to the death of he and his comrades. Through the character development we see more aspects of Greek vs. Rome. Dante’s connection with the Romans gave him a bitter outlook on Ulysses because the Romans were originally Trojans. The Greeks destroyed Troy and not only was Ulysses Greek, but he was one of the main Greeks who caused the fall of Troy. Dante the poet intentionally wrote the story of Ulysses’ demise in order to highlight the shift from the old heroic ideal to the newer heroic ideal, which is why Ulysses gets placed deeper in Hell. “Neither the sweet thought of my son, nor reverence/ for my old father, nor love I owed/ Penelope and that would have made her glad/ Could overcome my burning desire/ for experience of the wide world above/ and of men’s vices and their valor.” This quote encapsulates what it meant to be a Greek hero of old to Dante. Ulysses was driven by self-fame and reputation. The only way it was thought to achieve this status was through being as God-like as possible so that one day the Gods may look at you in the same way. Even after all he had achieved in The Odyssey, Ulysses still sought something more. This burning desire of adventure and his own dedication to his reputation which, on one hand, made him such a prominent Greek hero, ultimately led him to his demise in Roman literature. In the sight of Dante, the poet. Ulysses’ dedication to himself before God is a major sin in Christianity which placed him deeper in Hell. In a way, Ulysses falsely counseled his own life through seeking selfish interests and trying to obtain God-like immortality. During the time period of Dante, attempting to be like God was a cardinal sin, for there was only one powerful God and anyone trying to achieve his status was a heretic. As well, self-fame and seeking self-interests was against Christianity. Aeneas is pictured in the Aeneid with very similar heroic characteristics to Ulysses but has a major difference and a different placement in Hell. Aeneas was portrayed to be very pious and dutiful. He answered first to his Gods, then to his nation, and lastly to his family. Unlike Ulysses, Aeneas did not always act in his own self-interest. He was driven by a set order. This made him more heroic to Dante and to the Christian religion. In the Aeneid, Aeneas did the things he had to in order to please the Gods and to finish his divine mission. On many occasions, he was seen neglecting his own self interests. This image of a hero is more in line with Christianity. This hero is more devoted to God and to other people before himself. This devotion can be seen through the story of Dido and Aeneas. While Aeneas was in love with Dido, he turned down his own self-interests when commanded by the Gods to lead his people to find a new home and establish the origins of Rome. In the world of Christians, God is number one, neighbors are number two, and then there is everybody else. A lot like the Roman hero Aeneas, you are supposed to be devoted and driven by a greater cause. This shift to the newer heroic ideal of Aeneas and its’ similarities to Christianity, highlights Dante’s reasoning behind the intentionally different placements in Hell for these two characters.

Dante Alighieri the poet wrote the Inferno to give a depiction of Hell and to influence people to start thinking about what the after-life was going to look like for them. A huge part of the religion of Christianity is driven by the after-life. The time you spend on earth is only to set you up for where you will spend eternity. Dante intentionally placed Aeneas and Ulysses in different places with this in mind. The shift from the old heroic ideals to the new heroic ideals was a shift in a way of thinking. This shift created heroes, like Aeneas, who were more bound by a sense of pious and duty. When Dante was writing “The Inferno” from a Christian lens to a Christian audience, it was easy to understand that Aeneas was placed in Limbo because he lived his life the right way. He was dedicated to the Gods, just the wrong ones. Ulysses was not seen in the same light for the old heroic ways aligned him with sin rather than virtue. The changing role of a “hero” created a closer literary connection to Christianity and ultimately influenced the difference of placement between two epic heroes and redefined “heroism” in literature. 

10 Jun 2021

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