Dante and Virgil, in the opening to the medieval epic poem, The Inferno, have begun their journey into the bowels of Hell. There are nine concentric, descending circles they must traverse, each dedicated to a certain group of sinners, each one more frightening and severe than the pervious. Dante, beginning a desperate search to find God, is extremely afraid. Virgil, the Latin scholar, is his guide. The characterizations and descriptions of the groups of sinners in all the Levels, and their forever, eternal torment in Hell, provide stark and terrifying reminiscences of the events of our own lives in the acting out of our addictions. Dante’s and Virgil’s descent into and through Hell is necessary to get them to the recovery stages of Purgatory and eventually Heaven.
The sins and sinners of the Circles of the Inferno are organized generally in line with the Seven Deadly Sins, as promulgated by the medieval Church leading up to Dante’s time. Dante is using them both in a spiritual, political, as well as mythological sense. They are dealt with by Dante according to the Church’s view of increasing severity: lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, heresy, violence and fraud.
Forgetting about the nature of these offences for purposes of our analogy, it is interesting to see the horrific nature of the eternal punishments Dante describes for these sins. From the point of view of pain and suffering, it is a vivid analogous journey of us in our addictions, before recovery, conveying the horror of what we all experienced in our disease.
In the descent, for example, they see souls wallowing in putrid muck and slime, others encased in frigid ice, or boiling in oil and pitch (“enormous bubbling boiling pitch”). Many are on fire. Those whose lives were engaged in endless violence “are steeped in a river of boiling blood.” The greedy, those whose lives were lived as hoarders or wasters of money, are chained together “straining their chests against enormous (opposing) weights with mad howls,” railing at each other’s lack of restraint in life.
Finally Dante and Virgil reach the bottom of Hell, and come face to face with the Devil. They then courageously claw their way over him to a hole in the earth and eventually emerge into day, on the other side of the world. Here begins their journey to Purgatory. This confrontation and emergence, the subject of the next note, could be seen as a very vivid, if symbolic, inflection point for our own initiation into recovery.