Afterlife is a common topic everywhere we look – in television shows, in movies, in our everyday lives, and even in books. Our own portrayal of life after death comes from others’ perceptions that stick with us. In literature, this is no different. In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, we are exposed to one of the more unique views of the underworld that has ever been published. This view, however, was not completely original. It is, instead, based upon a foundation that can be found in two earlier books: Homer’s the Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid.
The three works are not perfectly identical by any means when it comes to their views of the afterlife, but it is interesting to see how each compare to the others and perhaps how the first two eventually even played a role in Dante’s Inferno. Homer’s writings on the afterlife are unique because they are some of the first writings to be recorded on this topic. In the Odyssey, Homer talks less about what the afterlife looks like and more about the conditions there. We learn that all mortal men, good or bad, descend to Hades, or the underworld, after death.
In the book, Odysseus embarks on a journey back to his wife, Penelope, but is detoured through the underworld. While there, he questions many dead souls, or “shades”, and he discovers that they, the shades, have their knowledge from before their deaths but lack the ability to see or understand the current world around them once they enter the kingdom of the underworld. This is perhaps a way of punishing those that are doomed to Hades. One example of this is when Odysseus asks Achilles about his son and Achilles cannot answer the simple question in Lines 496-499 of Book XI.
Later, Odysseus is surprised to find out that Minos, a king during his life, continues to have power in the underworld by passing out justice to the dead (Homer, Book XI, Lines 562-571). Later in his journey through the underworld, Odysseus is exposed to the punishments that are given to different souls. In book XI, lines 572-590, we see a challenge before Tantalus in which is never won. He is forever thirsty and hungry but cannot eat or drink despite having food and water in his possession. Later, we see Sisyphus punished in a similar way.
He is in a never-ending cycle of pushing a boulder up a hill just to have it roll back down on him at the bottom. These are two examples of punishments that must be served in Homer’s depiction of the afterlife. As a whole, most of the afterlife that we are exposed to in the Odyssey is simply conversations with those that populate Hades, which leaves us room to learn a lot more about who these people are and what they did to deserve their punishments in both the Aeneid and Inferno. The afterlife, despite having a few similarities, is portrayed slightly different in Virgil’s Aeneid.
An immediate similarity between this book and the Odyssey is the journey that each main character embarks on. In this book, Aeneas travels to the afterlife for reasons similar to those of Odysseus’: he is seeking questions from someone who can only be found in the afterlife. Virgil, however, presents us with many more details about the underworld and all that it possesses. Aeneas’s travels through the underworld bring him to a ferryman named Charon (Virgil, Book VI, Lines 335-338). Charon, though, does not ferry for everyone; Charon will not ferry for the dead souls that have not yet received proper burials.
This, perhaps, could mean that these souls are seen as unclean or unhealthy and are therefore punished because of it. Charon, who does not encounter very many living souls down in the underworld, is surprised to see Aeneas. He does not like Aeneas and requires that he, Aeneas, must present a golden stick before he can gain passage across the river (Virgil, Book VI, Lines 461-476). Throughout these books in the Aeneid we learn that there are many different parts of the underworld and different souls go to different parts.
We also see through Aeneas’ travels that, like the Odyssey, punishments are fitted accordingly to the sins that were committed by the souls during their lives. Also, for the souls that have yet to ask for forgiveness for their sins in life, Tisiphone punishes them by “whipping them till they quail, with her left hand shaking all her twisting serpents, summoning up her savage sisters, bands of furies. ” (Virgil, Book VI, Lines 660-663). Here we see another punishment, this time acted out upon those that are yet to ask for forgiveness.
We lastly learn of the punishment that is handed down onto the worst of the sinners: a monster named Rhadamanthus tortures them without end. Virgil presents us with an interesting interpretation of the afterlife. Dante Alighieri presents an entirely new vision of the afterlife in his Inferno and gives us a greater idea as to what specifically takes place in the underworld. In Dante’s depiction of Hell, there are nine descending circles and sinners find their places amongst these according to the sins they committed while they were still living.
The worst of the worst, the bottom level, is covered in ice and the lord of the underworld, Lucifer, eats at the souls of the darkest sinners. Each of these different levels of Hell are laid out in a specific order: the lower you went meant the worse your crime was, while if you went to an upper level then you committed a lesser sin and would therefore receive less harsh of a punishment. The “upper-level” sins might consist of heresy or gluttony while the “bottom-level” sins might consist of betrayal or fraud.
This depiction of the afterlife has many similarities and differences to those that have been discussed already. The first similarity between the three is the simple fact that poets Homer and Virgil are mentioned when talking about a level of Hell called Limbo (Alighieri, Canto IV, Lines 41 and 91). Also, like the other two books, Inferno possesses many different monsters. One of these monsters is Minos, who plays the same role of acting as though he is a judge and then has the jurisdiction to decide one’s punishments once they are in Hell.
His decision per person is based upon how many times he wraps his tail around himself; each wrap-around represents the level of Hell that the individual will be taken to for punishment. This is an example of the many different levels to Hell that can be found in Inferno – the other two works also had different levels to their underworlds. Inferno, though, goes one step further by including different rings in each of these levels. Each of these rings specify the level of how bad a sin is.
A difference between these books, however, would be that in Dante’s Hell, those that were neither good nor bad get punished while in Homer’s book and Virgil’s book they did not get punished nor praised. Another difference is found in the fact that “hell” as a whole is called Dis in the Aeneid while Dis is simply just levels six and worse in Dante’s Inferno. Another large difference between these three texts would be found in the geography of each one’s underworld. Homer does not specify on what his Hell looks like very much while Virgil notes that the geography in his Hell is called Fields (Virgil, Book VI, Line 513).
On the other hand, Dante depicts his Hell as a very rough-terrained location with mountains and rivers that naturally separate the different levels. A last similarity between these three works resides in the common theme of punishment for a lack of commitment to one’s religion. In Dante’s Inferno, members are put into Limbo because they neglected to accept the beliefs of their religion. Paralleling this theme, in Homer’s work and in Virgil’s work we see characters get punished for not receiving appropriate burials – a task that is requested in many religions.
When this task is not met, they are punished. These are examples of how refusal of one’s religious obligations can result in an eternity spent in Limbo and denial from Heaven. It is interesting to see how these three famous works of literature compare and contrast when talking about their views and depiction of the afterlife. It is surprising, in fact, to see the level of similarity between Homer’s the Odyssey, Virgil’s the Aeneid, and Dante’s Inferno when discussing life after death.