Tuesday 28 May 2013

The Geography of Hell: Milton vs. Dante

Dante and Purgatory Mountain. 
Both Dante and Milton described the geography of Hell, but Dante's ultra-detailed vision is far more dominant in popular culture.

There are only a few maps of Milton's Hell online, compared to literally dozens of Dante's. The reason for this is readily apparent: Milton's Hell is, comparatively speaking, rather plain.

Take a look at Milton's netherworld:

Eugene Cox's 1928 map of Milton's Hell. 

Highlights include the Lake of Fire and Pandemonium, but otherwise there's little to draw; The Damned have yet to arrive (the map depicts Hell at the time of Adam and Eve), so it's just wildlife and the angels who threw their lot in with Satan.

A full third of the Heavenly host joined our original rebel narcissist. Johann Weyer's Pseudomonarchia Daemonum puts the figure at 44,435,622, arranged in 666 legions composed of 6,666 demons each, led by 66 dukes, princes, and kings. That was in 1583. Alfonso de Spina counted 133,316,666 demons in 1467, over a hundred years earlier. Apparently there was a massive cull during the early 16th century.

There are the four rivers leading into the Lake of Fire into which the angels fell: the Acheron (River of Woe), the Styx (River of Hate), the Phlegethon (River of Fire), and the Lethe (River of Forgetfulness).

On the Lake of Fire's burnt shores looms the gleaming capital Pandemonium, designed by Mulciber. He's otherwise known as Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. Hephaestus to the Greeks. According to Milton, all the old pagan gods are actually demon con artists posing as deities, just to piss off The Big Guy. That includes the Norse, Greek, Aztec, Roman, Phoenician, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Native American pantheons. Basically, everything listed at God Checker? Demons.

The frozen continent of Sobor lies far beyond, teeming with horrific beasts.

No named geographical features (no, 'Parched Desert' doesn't count). No other cities.

It's fabulous, but more icon than map.

Below Milton's map of Hell is a diagram of the greater cosmos, showing Satan's journey, which is fun but not enough to tip the scales.

In fairness, the geography of Hell was never the focus of Paradise Lost, and was only covered in the broadest of strokes.

Dante's Hell, on the other hand, is obsessively detailed, with punishments exquisitely described across nine circles and dozens of bolgia (pouches). Plus fabulous creatures, walls, giants, and burning blood!

Very different. And much more fun for a map maker.

It's Milton's vanilla versus Dante's Rocky Road with maple bacon and marshmallows sprinkled in evil coconut flakes. The Damned and their punishments make all the difference. Dante sat up many a late night thinking of nasty ways to punish sinners, particularly political figures he disapproved of, in the afterlife.

That's one reason the first part of the epic poem The Divine Comedy, Dante's Inferno, has defined Hell since the 14th-century. It also happens to be beautifully written. So well written, in fact, that it helped shape the Italian language.

Inferno describes a great pit, lined with circular ledges. At the bottom of it all, the centre of gravity, is Satan himself. Buried in the earth, it's the inverse of Mount Paradiso, which rises up out of the earth on the far side and leads to Heaven.

The upper levels hold sinners guilty of a lack of control, while the lower levels are reserved for the purposefully sinful.

First Circle: Limbo. Virtuous pagans and the unbaptized dwell here. It's not an area of active punishment. Think of it as Hell's Lobby. Virgil's a resident of The Castle, along with other famous pagans from the Classical Age. Decent digs and interesting company.

To go further down, souls must be judged by Minos and assigned to their proper punishment zone. There's a sin for every circle.

Second Circle: The Lustful are blown about by powerful winds.
Daniel Heald's map of the Inferno. 
Third Circle: The Gluttons. Blind and pelted by hail, they 'live' mired in foul slush.

Fourth Circle: The Greedy. Those who hoarded or squandered material possessions obsessively push great stones against each other, over and over, for all eternity.

Fifth Circle: The Wrathful. In the fetid swamps surrounding the River Styx, they fight each other, while The Slothful lie hidden beneath the surface.

The Walls of Dis, guarded by Medusa and Fallen Angels, split Hell in half, with the more serious sinners contained within/below. The lower circles are each broken into a number of bolgia (pouches or trenches) for finer and more precise punishments.

Sixth Circle: Heretics. Imprisoned within flaming tombs, they roast alive. Healthier to eat than fried sinners.
Seventh Circle: The Violent. The Seventh has three rings, the first being the River Phlegethon (Violence against others), where sinners fight for position atop piles of bodies in order to escape the scalding blood. Centaurs guard the shores to prevent anyone escaping. Second is the Wood of Suicides (Violence against self), and third the Desert of Fire (Violence against God), where The Damned are pelted by burning flakes.

Eighth Circle: The Fraudulent. Everything from panderers to false prophets: flatterers up to their chins in shit, sorcerers with their heads twisted backwards.

Ninth Circle: Traitors. Buff giants from The Bible ring the floor of Hell. Sinners are frozen under the Cocytus at varying depths, depending on the seriousness of their betrayal. The greatest traitors of them all (Brutus, Cassius, and Judas) are chewed upon for all eternity by the three mouths of Satan, himself imprisoned at the centre of Lake Cocytus, up to his waist in ice.
A rare full colour version from the Museo Casa di Dante. 
Artists, including Sandro Botticelli, have been rendering Dante's Hell for hundreds of years, drawn to it like moths to flame. There are even contemporary versions where it's depicted using pixel art, 3D graphics, and lego.

Pixel Art Hell
But there's always a snake in the grass. The problem with Dante's conception of Hell? The concentric circles make the lower layers cramped (see the black dot, left). It's a cartographer's nightmare. One way around it is to start with absolutely massive circles (below, right). Even so, Lake Cocytus winds up being the size of a jacuzzi.

That just won't do.

Where would Pandemonium go?

In Paradise Lost, Milton describes the breathtaking Infernal Capital, Pandemonium, being built in a single day.

So cyclopean edifices could be raised as quickly as they were razed, and be as common as litter in New York. What a wonderful visual setting: monumental structures dedicated to the vanity of preternaturally powerful beings, jutting out of frozen wastes, lit by scattered volcanoes and steaming pits of bubbling lava. Their internecine fighting would lead to a world made up of beautiful, shattered architecture.


I've loved maps since I was a kid, so naturally I had to do one for my book Rebel Angels (the new title for the online comic Hell Lost). Since I was taking inspiration from both Milton and Dante, I wanted to merge their two visions into one. Have my cake and the icing too.

The result was a pitch black satire. Dr. Strangelove meets Milton. A graphic novel (really long comic book) that explores epic scale, cosmic dysfunction in the realm from which Hellboy came. He's more famous. Just name dropping.

The resulting graphic novel has been retitled Rebel Angels and will be available at fine comic book shops next spring from SLG Publishing. The first seventy pages are available from Comixology here for FREE.

Pick up a copy and discovers what's really happening down below, before it's too late.

So. Merging Milton and Dante: can it be done, or is it mission impossible?

See the results here: Merging Milton and Dante. It's Hell updated and expanded, with cities, petrified giants, and suburban sprawl. All grounded by the carceral architecture of Giovanni Piranesi.

On top of that are amusing musings on plausible Political Factions of Hell, modern interpretations of Hell, and resources relating to Hell's geography.

The full McCulloch version of Dante's Hell