A Visit to Hell:
The Pseudo-Christianity of Dante's Inferno

Jack H. David Jr.
SWT: ENG 3341
Summer II 1997

††††††††††In the study of visits to the underworld as told in three epic poems, Homerís The Odyssey, Virgilís The Aeneid and Danteís Inferno, it would be easy to assume that since Homer presents the Greek mythological view, and Virgil offers the Roman mythological view, that Dante would be rendering a Christian view of the underworld. The description of hell that Dante portrays, however, is not an accurate representation of Biblical Christian ideology regarding life after death. Dante infuses Greek and Roman mythology into his portrayal of hell. If anything represented to be Christian contains pagan elements, then it is not Christian at all. If you were to mix gasoline and water in equal proportions, the mixture would not be gasoline or water; it would not run in your car and you could not drink it!

††††††††††The total renunciation of paganism is represented many times in both the Old and New Testatments. Consider the following:

Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the Lord (Joshua 24:14 KJV).

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon
(Matthew 6:24 KJV).

Other Biblical references that support this idea include:

Exodus 20: 3-5 ††††††††††Deuteronomy 20: 3-5†††††††††† Isaiah 29:13

2 Timothy 3: 2-7 ††††††††Revelation 3: 15-16 ††††††††††††Revelation 22: 18-19

††††††††††It is up to each individual to decide if Danteís mixing of paganism and Christianity would make him a heretic, and therefore make The Inferno a work of blasphemy from a Christian perspective. However, the fact that Dante did indeed mix paganism and Christianity in The Inferno is easily demonstrated.

††††††††††In Canto 1 of The Inferno, Dante tells us that the creation of the world as told in the Bible took place "as the sun was climbing Aries" (line 38), which suggests that pagan astrology was significant in the creation of the Earth. In Canto 2, Dante appeals to the muses of Greek/Roman mythology for inspiration (lines 7-9). Dante then extends Virgil's story from The Aeneid about Aeneas and his visit to the underworld, where the future glory of the Roman Empire is foretold, to include the history of the Roman Catholic Church (13-30, see footnote). He then compares Aeneas, the supposed offspring of a Roman deity, Venus, to the Apostle Paul, suggesting that their lives and missions were similar or somehow connected (28-33).

††††††††††In Canto 14, Dante encounters Capaneus, who was killed by a thunderbolt hurled from Olympus by Jove (40-69). Virgil then tells Dante, regarding Capaneus, "Living, he scorned God, and among the dead, he scorns Him yet" (66-67). Note that "God" and "Him" were capitalized, meaning not a god, but the God. Dante switches the head Roman god, to the Christian God, in the course of a single story! Later in the same canto, Dante tells the story of Rhea who hid Jove from Saturn, to keep Jove from being eaten (94-96, see footnote); in the very next three stanzas (97-105), Dante describes the statue in Danielís dream from the Old Testament (Daniel 2: 32-34).

††††††††††Greek and Roman mythological characters are found in abundance in The Inferno.
We find Charon the ferryman in Canto 3, Minos the king of Crete in Canto 5, Cerberus the three headed dog in Canto 6, Plutus and the river Styx in Canto 7, Medusa the gorgon in Canto 9, the Minotaur and the centaurs in Canto 12, and the list goes on and on.

††††††††††In Canto 30, in the first stanza, we are told the story of Juno's anger because Jove fathered a son with Semele, a mortal woman, and of the revenge that Juno took upon Semeleís family (1-6, footnote cites Ovidís Metamorphoses). Later in the same canto, we find Potiferís wife, who bore false witness against Joseph in the Old Testament (Genesis 39: 6-23), side by side with Sidon, the Achean who convinced the Trojans to bring the horse inside the gates of the city (97-99).

††††††††††In Canto 34, we finally meet Satan, only to discover that he is a three headed monster who is munching on Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius in his three mouths (55-69). Judas Iscariot was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ who betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver. Brutus and Cassius likewise betrayed Julius Caesar. Are we to believe then, that the betrayal of a pagan emperor of a pagan empire, is a sin equal in magnitude to the betrayal of Jesus Christ, who Christians regard as the Son of God?

††††††††††Just as Milton attempts to "justify the ways of God to men" in Paradise Lost (1: 26), Dante apparently tries to justify pagan mythology to Christians. Dante obviously thinks very highly of Virgil and his poetry, since the Roman poet is chosen as Danteís guide through hell. Dante does not renounce The Aeneid and other works of Greek and Roman mythology as paganism, but considers them to be of such great value that he has to make them fit somehow into Christian ideology. Dante should have taken the advice given by Joshua, that I quoted on page 1, and "put away the gods of his fathers," but Dante just could not let them go!

††††††††††The Inferno follows a grand tradition of fantasy epic poetry such as Homerís The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Virgilís The Aeneid. I consider The Inferno to be a great book, as long as it is recognized for what it is. The Inferno is, like the other three epics, pagan mythology.

††††††††††The Inferno was very difficult for me, as a Christian, to read. I tried to be objective, and to just read it as fiction, but it still really troubled me. The Inferno was much more disturbing to me than the other three epics, because of the mixture of Christianity and paganism. However, I acknowledge The Inferno to be an important part of the history of literature, which should be studied, to better understand the later works that it influenced.