In the early 14th century Dante Alighieri, author of the matchless Divine Comedy, would not have known about meteorites. Yet the rocky architectures of his Inferno ironically suggest something just like that.
Inferno fascinates me for many reasons besides the religious and the ethical questions it raises. While teaching it again recently, it struck me how pervasive is the presence of rock in the poem, how elaborate its depiction, how intricate its relationships to both ancient mythologies and the geographies of Dante’s real Italian life.
Google “Dante’s Inferno + rock” and you’ll discover some pretty odd stuff, including some hard-rock bands who favour spicing their songs with diabolical imagery, and a route-map to a rock climb named Dante’s Inferno on Old Reservoir Wall in Eden Park, Ohio. Not many seem to have written at length about this aspect of the poem, though: I found one sketchy article, and a chapter in a book on mediaeval geology that I can’t presently access. No doubt there’s more out there, but why take the fun out of having my own run at it? I’m also having fun re-imagining the vivid landscapes in paint: as the character-pilgrim Dante and his guide Virgil descend the multiple, narrowing circles of Hell, they are constantly encountering geological features: valleys and fissures and giddying cliffs, rivers of blood and swamps of boiling mud, jagged ridges and ditches, embankments and screes and a series of stone bridges. Those famously appalling words, Abandon hope all ye who enter here, are carved on a gateway of rock.
Oddly – and inexplicably – some features seem to have been built by the hand of man: the walls of the City of Dis halfway down, seemingly of “cast iron”, with “deep-dug moats” and huge towers sending undeciphered signals into the void; sarcophagi with carved lids; pathways. But even these apparently manufactured features, despite the paradoxical implication that eternal Hell is subject to change through time, have all the force of a terrible geological permanence.
Geological? The word ‘geology’ was only invented in 1795, and in Dante’s time knowledge of earth processes was still primitive. Much of what passed for science then was derived from the Greek philosophers such as Aristotle – and even his unflagging curiosity was available to Dante only indirectly through commentators such as the Persian Ibn Sina (a.k.a. Avicenna, d.1037) and Isidore of Seville. Aristotle had proposed something like continental tectonic-plate movement in his Meteorology (circa 350 BC); Isidore in his Etymologies (circa 610) aired the current theories of why the earth was demonstrably unstable:
The earth’s natural attribute is that of dryness, for if it is moist, that comes from a union with water. Of its motion some say that it is the wind in its hollows that, itself moved, moves the earth. ... Others maintain that lifegiving water moves in the earth and simultaneously shakes it, like a vessel, as for instance Lucretius (see On the Nature of Things). Yet others are of the opinion that the earth is “spongy”, and that its mostly hidden, collapsing interior shakes everything placed upon it. Also, an opening in the earth is created through the movement of water in the lower regions, or through repeated thunder, or through winds that erupt from cavities of the earth.
And Isidore, in his encyclopaedic geographical survey, notes the volcanic activity and visible lava of Mount Etna on Sicily and on the neighbouring Aeolian islands which “burn like Etna” and were “riddled with caves and tunnels” – real precedents for Hell which Dante would have read about, if not actually visited. Isidore, who took the actual existence of ancient mythic figures and places for granted, also described Paradise (“in the east”), thus:
A spring which bursts forth in the centre irrigates the whole grove and it is divided into the headwaters of four rivers. Access to this location was blocked off after the fall of humankind, for it is fenced in on all sides by a flaming sword, that is, encircled by a wall of fire, so that the flames almost reach the sky. Also the Cherubim, that is, a garrison of angels, have been drawn up above the flaming sword to prevent evil spirits from approaching, so that the flames drive off human beings, and angels drive off the wicked angels, in order that access to Paradise may not lie open either to flesh or to spirits that have transgressed.
Isidore seemed to envisage a wheel-shaped Earth, but most, including Dante, knew it for a sphere, even if no one knew the full nature of its core. It is this mundane sphere with which the rebellious Satan, booted out of Heaven, calamitously collides. So massive is the impact that it at once creates the entire, funnel-shaped hollow of Hell, from one side of the planet to the other. In fact, only in the closing lines of Inferno, after they have traversed all nine terrible circles, does Virgil explain to Dante how this worked. They have just scrambled over the hairy flanks of Satan himself, locked in ice, and are about to emerge at the foot of Mount Purgatory, directly opposite on the globe from Jerusalem (I like to fancy this is Table Mountain):
On this side he fell down from Heaven; the earth,
Which till then had stood out here, impelled by fear
Veiled itself in the sea and issued forth
In our own hemisphere. And possibly,
What now appears on this side fled its berth
And rushing upwards left a cavity:
This hollow where we stand.
(Canto 34; Robert Pinsky’s translation)
In short, the shape of Hell is formed by the very earth shrinking from the repellent presence of evil.
As for the details of the resulting stony architecture – Dante strikes an extraordinary balance between mathematical precision in the arrangement of sins-to-circles, and an atmosphere of monstrous chaos – these are often paralleled with geology on the surface:
Where a wall of mountains rises
To form fair Italy’s border above Tirolo
Lies Lake Benaco, fed by a thousand sources: ...
There, all the cascades Benaco cannot contain
Within its bosom join in one river that flows [and]
Soon spreads to a marsh...
Descriptions of parts of the underworld are similarly precise:
We travelled across
To the circle’s farther edge, above the place
where a foaming spring spills over a fosse.
The water was purple-black; we followed its current
Down a strange passage. This dismal watercourse
Descends the greyish slopes until its torrent
Discharges into the marsh whose name is Styx.
This kind of precision is deftly melded with the landscapes culled and modified from the various Classical accounts of others’ visits to imagined Underworlds: Orpheus, Ulysses, Theseus, Aeneas. So, for example, the pilgrims cross two of the rivers of the Greeks’ mythical Hades, Acheron and Styx, with their respective grumpy boatmen. But Dante also draws on apocryphal Christian texts (there is surprisingly little about hell in the Bible itself). Of these, the most geologically interesting is the so-called “Harrowing of Hell”, first related in the Gospel of Nicodemus. This is a mythic event in which Christ, between Crucifixion and Resurrection, visits Hell in order to liberate a clutch of deserving souls – and in so doing causes a substantial earthquake. Dante knew about earthquakes in seismically unstable Italy, describing one in Canto 12:
This side of Trento
There is a place a landslide fell and struck
The Adige’s flank: because of unstable ground
Or earthquake, rocks once tumbled from the peak
And formed a passage where people can descend –
Such was the footing we had in that ravine...
Indeed, on the bank of Acheron “the earth of that grim shore/ began to shake: so violently / I shudder and sweat recalling it now” (Canto 3). Earth tremor as psychological terror. At several points in the narrative Virgil and Dante have to negotiate the damage of the Harrowing: at one juncture, Virgil sort of slaloms down a loosened scree holding a terrified Dante in his lap like a baby; at another, the sixth of the ten rock bridges across the ditches of the Eighth Circle has collapsed, necessitating some awkward and exhausting climbing. The lithic architecture of this realm – Malebolge – is precise:
I shall say more in time. A belt remains
Between the base of that high wall of stone
And the central pit, a circular band divided
In ten concentric valleys, as in a plan
Where guardian moats are successively graded
Around a castle’s walls.
The sixth bridge was shattered, as one resident of Hell informs the pilgrims, 1265 years previously – that is, when Christ was 35, the poem being set at Easter, AD 1300. By negotiating the wreckage of the bridge, Dante and Virgil are in a way re-celebrating that event: the 35-year old Dante, following Christ into Hell, is in the process of resurrecting his own sin-bedevilled soul.
One could write a lot more, but suffice it to end with a speculation that rock itself is so present in the poem that it is virtually a character in its own right. It almost has agency. In an unremittingly over-written but provocative recent book, Stone: An ecology of the inhuman (2015), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen avers:
The philosopher Michel Serres argues that stone is the foundation of story at every archaeological level of human history. ... Stone becomes history’s bedrock as lithic agency impels human knowing. Neither dead matter nor pliant utensil, bluntly impedimental as well as collaborative force, stone brings story into being, a partner with language (just as inhuman), a material metaphor.
Though he has little to say about Dante or Inferno, Cohen pertinently adds:
Thinking geologically brings the mediaeval and the modern into unaccustomed proximity and reveals how, when imagining deep time, a shared vocabulary of cataclysm reveals an abiding inclination to stories of rocky entanglement, to the making of exigent and unexpected art.