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In Dante’s Inferno, Dante narrates his descent and observation of hell through the various circles and pouches. One part of this depiction is his descriptions of the various punishments that each of the different sinners has received.

The various punishments that Dante envisions the sinners receiving are broken down into two types. The first type he borrows from various gruesome and cruel forms of torture and the second type, though often less physically agonizing, is Dante’s creative and imaginative punishment for sins. The borrowed torturous forms of punishments create a physical pain for the shades, whereas the creative punishments are used to inflict a mental and psychological suffering. However, it is possible for the creative punishments to inflict both a mental and physical pain upon the sinner.

Several punishments that Dante envisions for the various sinners are borrowed from forms of torture. The first physical punishment Dante borrows from that is his punishment for the heretics. The penalty in the medieval era for heresy was often public humiliation or to burn to death. For Dante, to be a heretic was to follow one’s own opinion and not the beliefs of the Christian Church. Dante’s punishment for the “arch heretics and those who followed them” was that they be “ensepulchered” and to have some tombs “heated more, some less.” Since the archheretics believed that everything died with the body and that there was no soul, Dante not only punishes them with the hot and crowded tombs, but he punishes them with their beliefs and lets them feel what it is like to die. This punishment by Dante is one in which he was more focused on inflicting a physical pain rather than a mental one.

Although he uses various torturous practices in The Inferno in order to inflict physical agony, Dante does, sometimes, use famous acts of cruelty to punish the sinners. One such punishment is that which Dante borrows from Emperor Frederick II. Frederick II was well known for his lead capes with which he punished criminals. Dante places all of the hypocrites in “gilded” cloaks that “dazzled; but inside they were all of lead, so heavy that Frederick’s capes were straw compared to them.” Dante uses this analogy to Frederick to demonstrate the extent of cruelty of his cloaks in The Inferno. The way that Dante compares one of the most evil punishments to those in his Inferno effectively demonstrates how horrible Hell truly is. Although this punishment for the hypocrites is quite physically painful, it contains a rather brilliant metaphor. For Dante, the hypocrites were those who were seemingly virtuous and good, but beneath their facades they were quite sinful. The cloaks are a metaphor for the hypocrites’ characters: dazzling on the surface and cloaked in lead or sin underneath.

These examples of punishment that are physically painful are only some of the punishments that Dante borrows from forms of torture. Dante also creates more original punishments for other sinners. It is possible for some of the creative punishments to inflict both a physical and psychological suffering.

One of Dante’s most ingenious punishments are those for the avaricious and the prodigal. The avaricious sinners are those who were miserly on earth, and the prodigal were squanderers. Dante’s punishment for them is one of the avaricious sinners was to be paired with a prodigal sinner. Then, the two individuals would roll the weights around in a semi-circle until “they [the weights] struck each other; at that point, each turned around and, wheeling back those weights, [cried] out: ‘Why do you hoard? Why do you squander?’” These sinners are condemned to forever roll these weights back and forth and yell at each other every time the weights collide. These punishments involve no real physical torment other than pushing the weights; therefore, the punishment is designed primarily as a mental torture. He condemns these sinners, whom are traditionally bullheaded and stubborn, to mutual antagonism. This punishment is brilliant because these sinners, who committed no physical harm or sin, merely a mental one, are tortured only psychologically and not physically.

This idea of punishment as a counter penalty for one’s actions is discussed by one of the victims of the most gruesome and horrifying of all of the creative punishments that Dante envisions. Bertran de Born, one of the sowers of discord and scandal, was an advisor to a “fledgling king” and because he gave bad advice and “made the son and father enemies”, he is condemned to walk about with his head “carried by the hair just like a lantern.” In a discussion with Dante at the end of Canto 28, Bertran reveals to Dante the “law of counter penalty” as the guiding principle for the punishments in The Inferno. In Bertran’s case since he severed the ties between father and son, his head will be severed from his body. This punishment is especially gruesome and physically cruel, but psychologically it is quite ingenious: Since Bertran severed affectionate ties, his head must forever be severed. The similarity between punishment and sin is not only what makes these punishments so compelling and interesting, but also what allows Dante to show his creativity in his punishments.

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