Archetypes / C.G.Jung / Fine Art / Literature / Literature & Art

Dante’s Divine Comedy – symbolism and archetypes

Dante is not just any poet. With his epic poem “Commedia”, in English “Divine Comedy” he created an Italian cultural Monument, a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise full of symbols, archetypes, historical and allegorical references. The article wants to revisit the work of Poet Dante Alighieri from a Jungian view in the light of 2015.


Dante’s Commedia was written from 1307 to 1321 and is the most famous Otherworld journey of world literature. Accompanied by Virgil, the poet passes through the Gates of Hell to the icy center of the earth, and from there to the paradise flying high with his beloved Beatrice. On the way, he meets almost six hundred celebrities from politics, literature and mythology for their salvation, repent of their sins, who tell the poet of their life. It was a longitudinal study of the Western World at that time.

See above a short powerpoint as an introduction if you are in the visuals or not sure to where this article will lead: Dante in a hurry.

Is Dante meaningful today?

My answer is yes. Yes, period. Not only, because i every time you go in a museum, you will find pictures representations of Dane’s allegories and poems. Like Dante sensed a big transition. our world seemingly falls apart.  We all know, that transcendental illiterates try to create a paradise on earth, but achieved hell. Jihadists have created hell on earth to get into their paradise.

Dantes Inferno Lust - bosch garden

Dantes Inferno Lust

Could it be, that one or more of Dante’s circles is as subversive today as it was then?  As a reader of my blog might expect, I am interested in Dante’s reflection in art and society and last but not least of his concept of evil, since the 34th song of his journey inspects Lucifer himself.

  •  Literal and historical: around 600 real people mentioned pointing out the disconnect between medieval and classical practice
  •  Allegorical: archetypal representative of Dante’s belief system and values
  • Moral: makes points about morality where the big questions in the Divine Comedy are:
    • What is man?
    • Why does he act as he does?
    • What is Good and what is Evil?
    • When it so often looks like “The Good loses,” why should anyone be good?

Warning – reading Dante might be harmful

True and False - Right or wrong - good or evil - black or white

True and False – Right or wrong – good or evil – black or white

The great works of world literature, Antigone, Hamlet, Faust, torture not only students’ hearts but all hide an eternal sting. This warning upfront, it is not to harmless to engage with Dante. Next to the Bible is the ‘Divine Comedy’ the most commented book in World literature. The phenomenon is even more amazing, because Dante is the most difficult, least accessible poet of world literature. Dante combines the whole scholarly tradition of the Latin Middle Ages and asks of his readers to have this knowledge or debark, before the ship leaves the safe shore:

O voi che siete in piccioletta barca,
desiderosi d’ascoltar, seguìti
dietro al mio legno che cantando varca
tornate a riveder li vostri liti:
non vi mettete in pelago; chè forse
perdendo me, rimarreste smarriti.

The human rights organization “Gherush92” has claimed some chants of “Commedia” are full of racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic stereotypes and by the way, I add not even equal opportunity – fewer women suffer in hell.

For the contemporary reader it is, however, not only the scholarly high sea of political correctness, in which they could get  lost. Further difficulties are added: spatial, temporal, and formal ones.

Spatial context

We must see the world through the eyes of Dante. The world view of Dante in the first two decades of the 14th century, his image of the earth and the structure of the three kingdoms   corresponds to the Ptolemaic system, unchallenged until Copernicus three hundred years later. This makes up the basis of Dante’s astronomy, described by his prose ‘Convivio’

Dante’s heavenly scheme

Comedy's geography

Comedy’s geography

Claudius Ptolemy concluded in the middle of the second century AD in Alexandria his main work, the ‘Megale syntaxis (‘ Big assortment ‘), his world-view: The stationary center of the universe is the spherical earth, of which only one half
occupied with the vertex Jerusalem, the other is covered by ocean.  Down into the sea, now obviously no longer Ptolemy, but Dante, as an exact antithesis to Jerusalem, is the mountain of purification, the scene of the second part of the ‘Comedy’: the ‘Purgatorio’.  More closely tied to Ptolemaic ideas are the spatial relationships his understanding of space and stage. Albert Ritter sketched the Comedy’s geography from Dante’s Cantos:
Hell’s entrance is near Florence with the circles descending to Earth’s centre; sketch 5 reflects Canto 34’s inversion as Dante passes down, and thereby up to Mount Purgatory’s shores in the southern hemisphere, where he passes to the first sphere of heaven at the top.


Dantes Divine Comedy - Paradiso

Dantes Divine Comedy – Paradiso

Around the earth revolve in outward increasing speed nine concentrically enclosing transparent hollow spheres. Seven blessed spheres with the earth as center and five planets known in his time have attached the heavenly bodies: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  The ninth circle are the fixed stars, identical with what “le stelle” at Dante’s.  Beyond those nine celestial spheres is the seat of the supreme deity, the empyrean, “cielo di fiamma o vero luminoso or “the light and flame sky – itself immobile – like the earth.

This heavenly scheme is matched by Dante’s topography of the ‘Purgatorio’ and ‘Inferno’.



Dante’s Divind Commedy Purgatorio

The Purgatorio rises on the apex of the uninhabited area covered by the ocean opposite to Jerusalem. It is the location of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, and also divided into nine districts. At the bottom of the beach belt land, the souls that are shipped to death first wait on a ledge and into a ravine for the entry in the actual Purgatorio, located on the ring terrace The Prayer and Purification passage leads through seven by rock walls separated ring terraces. On the top is the  abandoned earthly paradise.



Dante’s Divine Comedy Inferno

Likewise, the Inferno is precisely located  in the Ptolemaic system of Dante. Hell corresponds to the conical Purgatory at its negative hollow image. It is located in the interior of the inhabited hemisphere. Lucifer has bored with the insubordinate angels after his fall into the earth to its center. Thus, the funnel-shaped narrowing again be divided into nine circles Hellmouth has emerged. Where did the displaced Earth’s mass go? In this creation model, it was reused as material for the Purgatory and therefore the mountain’s height  matches the hell crater’s depth.

Temporal context

Poets write  for eternity, but within a Zeitgeist. Dante had his contemporary readers in mind, to achieve certain political effects. Much of this vision of the afterlife is therefore based on the period of history and culture he lived in. Naturally, as in any art, this requires explanation, if the  context is not there anymore nowadays. Like his topographic structure, are the conditions in Dante’s temporal structures coherent whole. Its center is natural is located in Rome.  As a matter of fact, in a trinity of  Rome. The Classical Rome of Augustus, the New Byzantine Rome and the Rome of the Holy Roman Empire – the papal Rome. The history of the latter began on Christmas in the year 800 with the coronation of Karl (Karl the Great) to the Roman emperor, executed by the pope Leo III.  Around 1160 the official denomination Imperium Romanum changed  into Sacrum Imperium and 1254 the empire was named Sacrum Imperium Romanum and became in the 15th century the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation. The title of the supreme monarch was initially “king”. The emperor’s honor could only be achieved only by the coronation of the pope.

Historical context

As an ambassador of his native city of Florence, Dante came 1301 AD to Rome. The contradiction between idea and reality on court of Pope Boniface VIII traumatized him.  Jerusalem, taken 1099,  was lost 1187, but the Crusaders had relocated their dwindling Kingdom of Jerusalem to Cyprus around 1300 but the Mamluks besieged and captured the last Templer fort Ruad in 1302. Constantinople would hold only 150 years more.  Dante’s central idea is of unity and  continuity of Roman and to him this is world history under the sign of the eagle. In the sixth canto  ‘Paradiso’ the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian (527-565) describes the trajectory of the eagle (the Roman character)  together with history lessons. As the author of the corpus juris civilis,  on which the Napoleon code and the whole  Western legal system is based.
Justinian is the representative of the Roman Empire. The eagle will start with Troy westward to Lazio. Under Augustus, the conquest consolidated in the golden Aion. Constantine, who moved his residence 326 moved to Constantinople against the natural and divinely ordained east-west direction and through the donation of the Papal States, repealed the division of sacred and secular rule. The Imperium Romanum was for Dante the epitome of everything that he wanted to see realized in history. Not the Sacrum but the center of the Civitas Dei, with its dual objective: eternal blessedness of the man through the exercise of the theological virtues (faith, hope and love) – under the leadership of church; earthly well-being through the use of intellectual and moral faculties – under the leadership of a worldly State with Plato’s virtues (Prudence, Justice,  Courage, Temperance).

More problematic is the difficulty in understanding the political references: What can we do with them now? They include all a closed world view: Catholic of the Middle Ages. That is why one meets a lot of Popes and even Mohammed in Dante’s hell. To him, a natural state order has its historical origin in the classical Roman Empire. To me this the first glimpse into the area of enlightenment, to invoke a secular (one might say pagan) legitimation of power again.

Northern Italy’s political struggle

Conclave_Vatican_yesterdayIn Northern Italy’s political struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines, Dante was part of the Guelphs, who in general favored the Papacy over the Holy Roman Emperor.
Dante wrote in his political credo in ‘De Monarchia’ about the basic  relationship between empire and papacy  (Imperium and Sacerdotium), or secular and religious rule. Only in the harmonious coexistence of the two powers Dante saw a guarantee for a just and peaceful world order in which the salvation of humanity can be accomplished. Florence’s Guelphs split into factions around 1300: the White Guelphs, who opposed secular rule by Pope Boniface VIII and who wished to preserve Florence’s independence, and the Black Guelphs, who favored the Pope’s control of Florence.
Dante was among the White Guelphs who were exiled in 1302 by the Lord-Mayor Cante de’ Gabrielli di Gubbio, after troops under Charles of Valois entered the city, at the request of Boniface and in alliance with the Blacks.
The Pope said if he had returned he would be burned at the stake.

Form of poetry

We encounter now the third hurdle, with which the reader is confronted reading Dante: the formal aspects of the ‘Divine Comedy’. Three elements are highlighted here:

  •     the language,
  •     the symbolism
  •     and the symbolism.

Dante has decided, his main work in the so-called vernacular: in Italian and that was all but self-evident at that time.
The Italian cannot be seperated from the ‘Divina Commedia’. However, its rhythmic form, the tercet, does not occur in Italian poetry.

Sacred numbers

Here you find Dante’s sacred numbers:

  • 3: trinity
  • 9: 3X3
  • 33: multiple of 3
  • 10: considered number of perfection
  • 100: 10 X 10 absolute perfection
Living systems are recursive systems

Living systems are recursive systems

Three verses are together, of which the first and third rhyme, while the second rhyme will be picked up in the next Tercet. So the terza rima form an elaborate chain. Three 3 cantiche, each formed of 33 cantos, adding up to 99, which with the addition of the first introductory canto, adds up to 100. The Poem is written in Teresa Rima: 3 line stanzas with a rhyme scheme aba, bcb, cdc, ded etc, so each rhyme is used 3 times.

The big Munich Romanist Wilhelm Ritter von Hertz, whose translation of the ‘Purgatorio’ and the ‘Paradiso’ I use, dominates the iambic rhythm, rhyme and the trisection. The three rhymes belong to the center of Dante’s symbolism ultimately, together with the Trinitarian concept of God. The symbolism of numbers plays in the ‘Divine Comedy’ a very important role just as with C.G. Jung. Each of the three main parts of the work, called cantiche , consisting of thirty-three songs, canti, which indicate the years of the life of Christ. An additional song of the introduction is to increase the total number of canti to hundred. The hundred is ten times the number ten, which, according to the View in Dante’s was a symbol of perfection. The Inferno is divided into nine circles and the court; in the ‘Purgatorio’ there are pre-Purgatorio and the earthly Paradise on the top of nine circles; the nine heavens are completed by the Divine Office: the empyrean – again to number ten. The three-rhyme has not only aesthetic, but symbolic, one might almost say metaphysical significance.
The whole work is almost saturated with symbolism. Here are more difficulties for the contemporary Dante reader. Without reading scholarly commentary, the symbols remain a very superficial affair. For example, refer the three wild animals in the first canto of the Inferno to the main vices: Sensuality (Panther), Pride (Lion), Greed (wolf). Whether something is right or left, to Sun and Star is never random. In the architecture of the poem, there are numerous, but not obvious correspondences. For example, the sixth Song of the ‘Paradiso’, in which, as mentioned, the Roman eagle represents the continuity of world history has an inner relationship to both the sixth canto of the Inferno and the ‘Purgatorio’ – pointing to the different factions in Florence.

The 9 circles of inferno in a hurry

First Circle (Limbo) – The virtuous Pagans

Luke Warm. Neither sinned nor believed in Christ.

Luke Warm. Neither sinned nor believed in Christ.

Here reside the unbaptized and the virtuous pagans, who, though not sinful, did not accept Christ.

Heaven does not claim them, Hell does not want them. They are not punished in an active sense, but rather grieve only because of their separation from God, without hope of reconciliation. Without baptism (“the portal of the faith that you embrace”) they lacked the hope for something greater than rational minds can conceive. Limbo includes green fields and a castle, the dwelling place of the wisest men of antiquity.

Second Circle – The Lustful

Lust Blown about in darkness.

Lust Blown about in darkness.

Those overcome by lust, are punished by violent storm in this circle. Blown about in darkness.  Dante condemns these “carnal malefactors” for letting their appetites sway their reason. They are the first ones to be truly punished in Hell. These souls are blown about to and fro by the terrible winds of a violent storm, without hope of rest. This symbolizes the power of lust to drive one  needlessly and aimlessly.

Third Circle – The Gluttonous



Gluttons are forced to lie in the mud under continual cold rain and hail. Deprived of individuality. Each is alone, cold, and miserable. Cerberus guards the gluttons, forced to lie in a vile slush produced by ceaseless foul, icy rain (Virgil obtains safe passage past the monster by filling its three mouths with mud).  The gluttons lie here sightless and heedless of their neighbours, symbolising the cold, selfish, and empty sensuality of their lives. Just as lust has revealed its true nature in the winds of the previous circle, here the slush reveals the true nature of sensuality – which includes not only overindulgence in food and drink, but also other kinds of addiction.

Forth Circle – The Hoarders & Wasters

Dante's greedy

Dante’s greedy

Hoarders and Wasters push as two groups a great weight against the heavy weight of the other group. Dependency toward material goods deviated from the appropriate means. They include the avaricious or miserly (including many “clergymen, and popes and cardinals”), now bankers ans politicians who hoarded possessions, and the prodigal, who squandered them. The two groups are guarded by Plutus, the Greek god of wealth (who uses the cryptic phrase Papé Satàn, papé Satàn aleppe). The two groups joust, using as weapons great weights which they push with their chests

Fifth Circle  – The Wrathful

Wrathful and Sullen

Wrathful and Sullen

In a swamp-like water of the river Styx, the wrathful fight each other on the surface. The sullen lie gurgling beneath the water, withdrawn “into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe.” Phlegyas reluctantly transports Dante and Virgil across the Styx in his skiff.The lower parts of Hell are contained within the walls of the city of Dis, which is itself surrounded by the Stygian marsh. Punished within Dis are active (rather than passive) sins. The walls of Dis are guarded by fallen angels.  Oh well, fallenangel.

Sixth Circle –  The Heretics

Heretics are in tomb.

Heretics are in tomb.

Heretics are trapped in flaming tombs of the City of Dis. Heretics, such as Epicurians (who say “the soul dies with the body”) are trapped in flaming tombs. Pausing for a moment before the steep descent to the foul-smelling seventh circle, Virgil explains the geography and rationale of Lower Hell, in which violent and malicious sins are punished. In this explanation, he refers to the Nicomachean Ethics and the Physics of Aristotle. In particular, he asserts that there are only two legitimate sources of wealth: natural resources (“nature”) and human activity (“art”). Violence, to be punished in the next circle, is therefore an offence against both.

Seventh Circle – The Violent

The seventh circle houses the violent. Its entry is guarded by the Minotaur, and it is divided into three rings:

Outer ring



Violent against people and property,  are immersed in Phlegethon, a river of boiling blood and fire, to a level commensurate with their sins: Alexander the Great is immersed up to his eyebrows. The Centaurs, commanded by Chiron, patrol the ring, firing arrows into those trying to escape.

Middle ring

In this ring are the suicides, who are transformed into gnarled thorny bushes and trees, excluded from resurrection. Here are the suicides (the violent against self), who are transformed into gnarled thorny bushes and trees, which are fed on by the Harpies. Unique among the dead, the suicides will not be bodily resurrected after the final judgement, having given their bodies away through suicide. Instead they will maintain their bushy form, with their own corpses hanging from the limbs. The trees are a metaphor for the state of mind in which suicide is committed. The other residents of this ring are the profligates, who destroyed their lives by destroying the means by which life is sustained (i.e. money and property). They are perpetually chased by ferocious dogs through the thorny undergrowth.

Inner ring

The violent against God (blasphemers), the violent against nature (sodomites), and the violent against art (usurers), all suffer in a desert of flaming sand with fiery flakes raining from the sky. The blasphemers lie on the sand, the usurers sit, and the sodomites wander about in groups

Eighth Circle (Malebolge) – The Fraudulent



The fraudulent—those guilty of deliberate, knowing evil—are located in a circle named Malebolge (“Evil Pockets”), divided into ten Bolgie, or ditches of stone. The circle named Malebolge (“Evil Pockets”), is divided into ten  ditches of stone, with bridges spanning the ditches:

Bolgia 1 (Canto XVIII):

Panderers and seducers walk in separate lines in opposite directions, whipped by demons.

Bolgia 2 (Canto XVIII:

Flatterers are steeped in human excrement. )

Bolgia 3 (Canto XIX):

Those who committed simony are placed head-first in holes in the rock, with flames burning on the soles of their feet. One of them, Pope Nicholas III, denounces as simonists two of his successors, Pope Boniface VIII and Pope Clement V.

Bolgia 4 (Canto XX):

Sorcerers and false prophets have their heads twisted around on their bodies backward, so they can only see what is behind them and not into the future.

Bolgia 5 (Cantos XXI through XXIII):

Corrupt politicians (barrators) are immersed in a lake of boiling pitch, guarded by devils, the Malebranche (“Evil Claws”).

Bolgia 6 (Canto XXIII):

Hypocrites listlessly walking along wearing gold-gilded lead cloaks.

Bolgia 7 (Cantos XXIV and XXV):

Thieves, guarded by the centaur (as Dante describes him) Cacus, are pursued and bitten by snakes, which make them undergo various ugly transformations.

Bolgia 8 (Cantos XXVI and XXVII):

Fraudulent advisors are encased in individual flames. Dante

Bolgia 9 (Cantos XXIX and XXX):

A sword-wielding demon hacks at the sowers of discord. As they make their rounds the wounds heal, only to have the demon tear apart their bodies again. Muhammad tells Dante to warn the schismatic and heretic Fra Dolcino. (Cantos XXVIII and XXIX).

Bolgia 10:

Groups of various sorts of falsifiers (alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and impersonators) are afflicted with different types of diseases.

Ninth Circle (Cocytus) – The Treacherous (Canto 34).

Frozen in a sheet of ice with only their face exposed to show the pain. Degree of depth based on degree of betrayal



Satan is trapped in the frozen central zone in the Ninth Circle of Hell, Inferno. The Ninth Circle is ringed by classical and Biblical giants. Each group of traitors is encased in ice to a different depth, ranging from only the waist down to complete The circle is divided into four concentric zones.

Zone 1: Caïna (Canto XXXII)

Named after Cain, is home to traitors to their kindred. The souls here are immersed in the ice up to their necks.

Zone 2: Antenora  (Cantos XXXII and XXXIII)

Traitors to political entities, such as party, city, or country, are located here. The souls here are immersed at almost the same level as those in Caïna, except they are unable to bend their necks.

Zone 3: Ptolomæa (Canto XXXIII):

Traitors to their guests are punished here. The souls here are immersed so much that only half of their faces are visible. As they cry, their tears freeze and seal their eyes shut- they are denied even the comfort of tears.

Zone 4: Judecca

Named for Judas the Iscariot, Biblical betrayer of Christ, is for traitors to their lords and benefactors. All of the sinners punished within are completely encapsulated in ice, distorted to all conceivable positions.

Center of Ninth an all circle:  Perverted Trinity (Canto XXXIV)

Condemned to the very center of hell for committing the ultimate sin (treachery against God) is Satan, represented as a giant, terrifying beast. He is waist deep in ice, and beats his six wings as if trying to escape, but the icy wind that emanates only further ensures his imprisonment. He is chewing on Brutus and Cassius, who were involved in the assassination of Julius Caesar, and Judas Iscariot. What is seen here is a perverted trinity. Satan is impotent, ignorant, and evil while God can be attributed as the opposite: all powerful, all knowing, and good.


The Question is:  Are we seven hundred years after the birth of the ‘Divina Commedia’ able to understand Dante’s  world and relate to Dante’s symbolism. My answer is defintely. Not only because Dante’s Inferno is now an action-adventure video game . The story is based on Inferno, the first canticle of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, and shares many similarities with the poem.


lDivine Comedy.” Wikipedia.

lThe World of Dante. Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities

lDante’s Divine Comedy I-III Translated by Mark Musa

lDante’s Die göttliche Kommödie I-III Translated by Willhelm G. Hertz