One of the most vivid—and disturbing—descriptions of hell is the one revealed in the Inferno, which is the first part of Dante Alighieri's 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy. In the Divine Comedy, Inferno is followed by two other books, Purgatorio and Paradiso. From a literary standpoint, the three parts of the Divine Comedy illustrate the imaginative journey of the Italian Dante through Hell, as guided by the Roman poet Virgil. Their travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise are used as a brilliant allegory for man's spiritual journey to God—but it is the first part of the poem, Inferno, that is the most infamous. In the poem's first book, Hell is visualized as nine descending circles of pain and suffering located within the Earth. The sinners in Inferno are punished by extreme contrapasso, or poetic justice, such that flatterers, for instance, are divinely tortured by spewing excrement from their mouths.
RANDY CERVENY is a contributing editor of Weatherwise and a President's Professor of Geographical Sciences at Arizona State University.