Devilish Details: The 7 Wickedest Inflictions in Dante’s Inferno

For those of you bemoaning this late-November holiday and dreading having to suffer the company of your relatives, just remember: it could always be a lot worse. Dante furnished unnerving reminder of this seven centuries ago in his classic compendium of severe yet suitable punishments. As a Thanksgiving Day special Dispatch from the Macabre Republic, here are my choices for the seven worst, most cursed fates in the Inferno–ones I’d be forever thankful to avoid.


7.Torment of the Barrators (Canto XXI)

The Fifth Pouch of the Malebolge combines the worst that the underworld has to offer: passive languishing and active torture. Sinners stew in a “thick and tarry mass” of boiling pitch, and when they surface, gasping for air, they are mercilessly pronged by armed guard-demons. Dante’s image of a cook’s urchins “forc[ing] the meat with hooks / deep down into the pot, that it not float” drives home the point of just how horrid this torment must be.


6.Torment of the Arch-Heretics (Canto IX)

In the Sixth Circle of Hell, “a spreading plain / of lamentation and atrocious pain” sports sinner-stuffed sepulchers kindled to a “glowing heat” by scattered flames. Consciousness of claustrophobic internment and the sense of impending roasting–this nightmarish situation reads like something Poe might dream up (cf. “The Pit and the Pendulum”).


5.Torment of the Alchemists (Canto IXXIX)

Sinners–“each, from head to foot, spotted with scabs”– within the final patch of the Malebolge scratch themselves furiously yet futilely. No sooner is one scab clawed off than another crusted wound replaces it. Just thinking about the woeful Alchemists obsessing over their maddening, unrelenting itches makes me squirm in my seat.


4.Torment of the Sowers of Scandal and Schism (Canto XXVIII)

Clive Barker’s Cenobites seem to trace their ancestry back to the Eighth-Circle, Ninth-Pouch demon that disembowels and dismembers victims with his sword. Dante catalogues woundings of the utmost grotesquerie: one sinner’s face is “opened wide from chin to forelock,” another walks around “with both his hands hacked off,” while a Headless Horseman forerunner carries his own severed head “just like a lantern.”


3.Torment of Traitors Against Their Benefactors (Canto XXXIV)

The demons and assorted monsters of the Inferno are awful in their own wrong-punishing right, but imagine being personally tormented for all eternity by Lucifer himself. Such is the fate of Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius, each chewed down on by the “gnashing teeth” of the titanic, Saturn-like Satan (the clawed “emperor of the despondent kingdom” also subjects Judas to flaying: “his back was stripped completely of its hide”). Add in an icy cold climate for bad measure, and this all sounds utterly unbearable to me.


2.Torment of the Simonists (Canto XIX) 

These sinners are planted head-down inside holes in rock, with only their lower limbs showing. Their extremities are exposed to extreme torment, as flames are set down on bare feet (the agonizing Simonists’ “joints were writhing with such violence, / they would have severed withes and ropes of grass”). Anyone who has ever scampered across scorching beach sand knows just how terribly tender the soles of the feet are; I can’t stand to think of a protracted suffering of such searing.


1.Torment of the Neutrals/Cowardly (Canto III) 

Dante designs a system of increasingly sinister punishment, but my top choice of worst infliction harks back to the very first one detailed in the Inferno. The angels who remained neutral during Lucifer’s war against God, alongside “the sorry souls of those / who lived without disgrace and without praise,” file along as their naked bodies are “stung again, again / by horseflies and by wasps that encircled them.” Maybe it’s just the hopeless insectophobe in me speaking, but this sounds like the most awful and all-too-realistic plight (one that I could actually experience while still alive).


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