Does hell have its own history? For Dante, the structural and thematic history of ‘hell’ in the Inferno begins with the Roman epic tradition and its champion poet, Virgil. By drawing heavily from the characteristics of hell in Book VI of The Aeneid, Dante carries the epic tradition into the medieval world and affirms his indebtedness to Virgil’s poetry. Moreover, Virgil becomes a central character in the Inferno as he guides Dante, the pilgrim, who has no knowledge of hell, through his own historical model. Similarly, the protagonist of The Aeneid, Aeneas, lacks the foresight necessary to make the journey through hell on his own and thus places his trust in the mythological prophet, the Sybil. Because the Sybil and Virgil already have knowledge of the underworld, their characters in The Aeneid and the Inferno are associated with history, both literally through Virgil’s poetry and metaphorically through their enduring wisdom in eyes of the pilgrim and Aeneas. For Aeneas and the pilgrim, however, religious history evolves from an ancient world of paganism to medieval Christianity and these values are transposed onto hell itself--showing that its history changes over time. Furthermore, the living realities that the pilgrim and Aeneas take into the underworld prove unstable when juxtaposed with hell’s slippery and ever-changing ambience. In Book VI of The Aeneid, Aeneas enters an underworld filled with triple-hybrid beasts, sinners, heroes, and a transparent physical reality that foils his warriorlike instincts for conflict and resolution. Likewise, in Dante’s Inferno, the journeying pilgrim witnesses a horrific blurring of life and death, which in this case nega...
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...f. Through the infernal struggle Aeneas and the pilgrim discover the limitations of their mortal realities, and ultimately come to an awareness of their existence as transcendent, spiritual beings against shifting religious, historical, and poetical climates.
Bailey, Cyril. Religion in Virgil. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969.
Clarke, Howard. ed. Virgil’s Aeneid. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State UP, 1989.
Day-Lewis, C. ed. The Eclogues of Virgil. London: Jonathan Cape, 1963.
Durling, Robert M. ed. The Inferno. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
Eco, Umberto. Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. Trans. Hugh Bradin. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.
Jacoff, Rachel and Jeffrey T. Schnapp. The Poetry of Allusion: Virgil and Ovid in Dante’s Commedia. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991.
Virgil. The Aeneid. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. 1965.
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