Roberta Writes – Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto 3

My blogging friend Rebecca Budd is currently participating in a #KaramazovReadalong, you can read about it here: https://ontheroadbookclub.com/2021/07/27/karamazovreadalong-day-1-who-is-fyodor/.

The reading group are reading one chapter a day of this book and it inspired me to tackle Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri in the same manner.

Canto 3 opens with the ominous inscription over the gates of Hell: “Abandon every hope, all ye who enter here.”

Dante and Virgil move through the gates into a place of transition where spirits who did not use their intellect to choose to follow either God or Satan, must linger for all eternity. Hell is a place for people who consciously choose an evil way of life and Heaven is for those who choose a righteous way of life. The entrance to Hell is for those whom neither Heaven nor Hell will accept because they chose neither but elected to be undecided.

These ‘undecided’ souls are doomed to remain with the selfish, running after a banner and being stung by hornets and wasps for all eternity.

Dante is horrified by these spirits in such pain and wants to learn more about them, but he is chivied along by Virgil.

Virgil moves Dante along the beach of Acheron to where the ferryman, Charon, is ferrying condemned souls across the river to Hell.

Charon refuses to take Dante as he only ferries souls who have no chance of salvation. Dante is still alive and thus can still be saved. Charon tells Dante he must take a lighter craft from another shore. Virgil argues with Charon that Dante’s journey through Hell has been willed and, therefore, must happen.

Charon ignores Virgil and continues to push souls onto his boat, whacking them with his oar if they resist. Charon sets off across the river with his load of souls and the bank immediately starts to fill up with new souls seeking passage.

There is a sudden earthquake, accompanied by fire and loud sounds and Dante faints from fright.

The Gates of Hel sculpture. Picture credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gates_of_Hell

The Gates of Hell is a monumental sculptural group work by French artist Auguste Rodin that depicts this concept as described in Canto 3. It stands at 6 metres high, 4 metres wide and 1 metre deep (19.7×13.1×3.3 ft) and contains 180 figures. 

In Greek mythology, Charon is a psychopomp, the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased who had received the rites of burial, across the river Styx that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead. A coin to pay Charon for passage, usually an obolus or danake, was sometimes placed in or on the mouth of a dead person. You can read more about Charon here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charon

The Divine Comedy: Inferno 2 Crossing with Charon – The Eclectic Light  Company
Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Charon Herds the Sinners onto his Boat (1857). Picture credit: https://eclecticlight.co/2019/03/11/the-divine-comedy-inferno-2-crossing-with-charon/

A quote from Canto 3:

“Charon, the demon, with his ember eyes

makes beckoning signs to them, collects them all,

and with his oar beats who so takes his ease.

Even as in autumn leaves detach themselves,

now one and now another, till their branch

sees all its stripped off clothing on the ground;

so, one by one, the evil seed of Adam

cast themselves down that river-bank at signals,

as doth a bird to its recalling lure.”

39 thoughts on “Roberta Writes – Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto 3

  1. What an evocative quote – it really captures the essence of what’s happening to all of those souls! And quite disturbing imagery that accompanies it! I was in the Rodin museum in Paris at the beginning of last year and don’t remember seeing these casts but probably walked past them a dozen times without realising their significance…I’ll take more notice next time!

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      1. This book has certainly been so influential for artists and authors alike! Maybe one day I’ll pick it up.
        Paris is a fabulous city and I hope you get there one day!

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      1. But I heard it gets lighter, Liz!!! But you do go through hell first, I am told….

        “O grace abounding and allowing me to dare
        to fix my gaze on the Eternal Light,
        so deep my vision was consumed in it! (Paradiso)

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      2. Hi Liz, I never really thought of it as being dark for some reason. Maybe because I was brought up a Catholic and this was more or less my idea of Hell. It is disturbing, but quite fascinating. I wish I understood the politics of Dante’s time better. I think the humour in his book is a bit like the humour in a pantomine. You miss it if you don’t know the people and circumstances.

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      3. I know what you mean about needing to know the people and the circumstances to get all the humor in this type of book. I had the same experience when I read Don Quioxote. I knew I was missing much of the humor. On the other hand, I got the humor in Tom Jones because I’d previously studied the history and the literature of the time period.

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