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Dante's Inferno Second Circle of Hell: Punishments & Description

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

Lust is considered one of the seven deadly sins, but have you ever wondered how Dante thought it ranked as a sin? We'll learn about the punishments for sinners in the Second Circle of Hell in Dante's Inferno.

What is an Incontinent Sin?

If you look up the word ''incontinent'' in the dictionary, you'll most likely find a highly unfortunate disorder of the bladder or bowels. However, in its more abstract sense, this word refers to a general lack of restraint in some form. This is what Dante meant when he assigned Circles Two through Five of Hell to sins of incontinence.

Sinners in these circles are guilty of not being baptized, lust, gluttony, overspending and/or hoarding, or being ''wrathful'' or ''sullen.'' All these sins indicate a lack of discipline or moderation and those affected exhibit excess or negligence with regard to their religion, bodies, money, or moods.

The Second Circle: Lust

The Second Circle of Hell contains the lustful, or people whose sexual appetites are excessive or prioritized over more important things. We'll learn about this area, which is described in Canto Five. As is the case throughout the Inferno, Dante's narrator (the fictional character Dante) is accompanied by Virgil, his guide. Virgil explains the nature of each area of Hell. Since lust is assigned only to the Second Circle rather than the deepest pits of Hell, we can reasonably conclude that Dante did not consider this one of the most serious sins.

Description of the Second Circle

At the beginning of Canto Five, Dante tells us he ''descended'' from the first to the second circle, and that this circle is smaller than the previous one. He also indicates that ''the gate is wide,'' meaning that sins of incontinence are some of the most common and that many souls enter this circle.

Once inside, Dante hears ''the noise of lamentation,'' which ''comes at [him] in blasts of sorrow.'' He describes this sound as ''a bellowing like the ocean'' and observes that the atmosphere of the Second Circle is like a hurricane of constantly buffeting winds.

The Lovers Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta (watercolor by William Blake)
William Blake, Lovers Whirlwind

Minos

The Second Circle is inhabited by a monster called Minos, who judges each soul that descends to the Inferno. Virgil explains that ''a crowd is always waiting,'' since each person is judged individually. Minos does this by wrapping his tail around himself. The number of rings he creates with his tail indicates which numbered circle of Hell the sinner belongs in. Dante calls him a ''great connoisseur of sin,'' suggesting that his judgments are both accurate and precise.

Plate XIII: Canto V: Minos judges the sinners (illustration by Gustave Dore)
Minos by Gustave Doré

Punishments in the Second Circle

Because sinners in the Second Circle are guilty of the incontinent sin of lust, they're doomed to be caught up in and whipped around for eternity in the cyclones of wind. This punishment is symbolic: just as the wind is forever changing direction and never settles down, so these sinners are guilty of frequently changing lovers or sexual partners.

Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta

In Canto 5, lustful sinners are represented primarily by Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, who were lovers in 13th-century Italy. According to at least one account, Francesca was tricked into marrying Paolo's older (and apparently less attractive) brother Gianciotto under the pretense that she was marrying Paolo. Francesca and Paolo had an affair, and Gianciotto caught them one day. As he lunged with his sword toward Paolo, Francesca stood in the way and was killed instead. Gianciotto then killed Paolo as well.

Paolo da Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini surprised by Gianciotto Malatesta (watercolor by Joseph Anton Koch)
Gianciotto, Francesca, and Paolo

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