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

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  • 0:00 Heresy and Its History
  • 1:22 The Sixth Circle
  • 2:37 Punishments
  • 2:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Celeste Bright

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

In Dante's 'Inferno,' the Sixth Circle of Hell is reserved for heretics. We'll learn about the physical description of this level of Hell and the horrifying punishment that sinners there have to endure.

Heresy and Its History

Sinners assigned to the Sixth Circle of Hell in Dante's Inferno are guilty of heresy, or having beliefs that contradict any teachings of a major religion; in this case, Christianity. These could include pagans or members of other belief systems.

In the Middle Ages, heresy arose from religious disputes among Catholics, as Protestantism didn't exist yet. Clerics and scholars would occasionally disagree about how to interpret the more complicated parts of Catholic theology, and those in the minority or in less powerful positions could be accused of heresy.

In this sense, heresy becomes something of a question of politics. In thirteenth-century Italy, feuds and wars between so-called heretics and the so-called faithful meant that heresy was a divisive force among Catholics. Thus, part of its evil in the context of the Inferno is that it tears apart the fabric of society.

In his poem, Dante addresses heresy primarily in a general sense. In Dante's version of Hell, heretics are simply people who deny that the soul is immortal, or those who don't believe in an afterlife. However, he also includes characters who have brought discord to the community of the faithful through their divisive politics. It's important to note that Dante assigns this sin to the sixth of nine circles, so it's clearly a serious and major offense.

The Sixth Circle

The Sixth Circle of Hell is the City of Dis, which Dante describes as a ''fortress'' with ''high parapets.'' At the top of one of the towers on the city wall are ''three hellish Furies.'' These are female monsters from Greek mythology whose bodies are wrapped in ''wreath[s]'' of ''bright green hydras,'' or multi-headed vipers. They're angry at something, and Dante cowers in fear as they shriek: ''O let Medusa come. . . to make him stone!''

As it turns out, the Furies are enraged at someone other than Dante and Virgil. The two watch as an angel ''full of high disdain'' marches across the River Styx, which separates the Fifth Circle of Hell from the Sixth, without getting wet. When he reaches the side containing the City of Dis, his footsteps make ''a fearsome crash, by which both shores were shaken.''

The angel opens the gate to the city with a wand and chastises the Furies for complaining about their fate. ''Why this insolence? / Why do you kick against that Will [God's] whose end / Cannot be thwarted, and whose punishments / Many times over have increased your pain?'' Then he leaves again, going back the way he came.

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