THE LAW OF CONTRAPASSO
Updated: Aug 27
Inferno is that place where Divine Justice prevails because it's the prison where mankind’s sins are punished. The backdrop is visceral; raw, primal, shocking. Apocalyptic. It has to be, because its message is blunt: renounce sin on Earth or, upon the day of Final Judgement, suffer eternal death in this cruel, violent, barbaric realm where castigation is torturous, brutal and inhumane; where punishment goes beyond mortal man’s capacity to endure. So, through his poetry, Dante sends a warning - that earthly man must reject temptation and renounce sin. If he doesn’t, he’s on a one way ticket to the nine circles and punishment so sadistic it's beyond comprehension.
As we leave the relative tranquillity of Inferno’s first circle (believe it or not, it’s Limbo) we are introduced to Minos, a monstrous beast cast as the infernal judge. He works to the law of Contrapasso, dictating that for every sin there is an equal and fitting punishment. Having taken a wretched soul’s confession, he consigns them to their rightful sentence by coiling his enormous tail around his trunk, indicating the circle of Hell the sinner is to attend. It’s all downhill from there (no pun intended).
We learn through Contrapasso that punishment is not random. It is not arbitrary, haphazard or illogical. It is deliberately and perfectly designed to match the corresponding level of sin. Take the Gluttonous; naked sinners found writhing in a pyroclastic flow of filth, a volcanic eruption of sewage, as they are force-fed repellent muck and excrement, choking upon dung, all for they overindulged on Earth denying the needy sustenance. And, for this, Contrapasso dictates they shall be over-indulged in Hell. For eternity.
Minos and his tail command that the sowers of discord, those who caused divide amongst men on Earth, shall so be divided upon death. Literally. Tantamount to massacre, these wretched souls endure butchery as they are slashed and maimed, dismembered and mutilated in a wanton display of carnage. As they walk a perpetual circle, their bodies reform only to endure another vicious onslaught. Then another. Indeed, this macabre punishment will continue for eternity.
Astrologers, sorcerers and oracles suffer the torture of dislocation as their heads are brutally twisted, rotated and re-positioned to ensure they may never again see into the future, denied all chance to predict the future. So, Contrapasso decrees they shall spend eternal death walking with a backward gait, only to see what they leave behind, all for their soothsaying demonstrated wanton denial of the will of God. This scene haunts Dante to distraction and, not for the first time in Hell, he finds himself quietly weeping at such barbarism.
You understand what I mean about punishments not being random? They are specific; explicitly designed to counterbalance the sins performed in earthly life. Even on the Mountain of Purgatory, where errant souls seek redemption of their spirits through penance, reparations are fitting. The penitent Proud carry enormous boulders on their backs to flatten their pride. The penitent Envious find their eyelids stitched closed with iron wire as, blind to the merits of their fellow men, they took earthly pleasure in witnessing their downfall and misfortunes.
For those not familiar with Inferno, it’s easy enough to waive it off as a literary work about Hell. Sure, the title screams fire/ furnace/ brazier, but the contemporary audience may not realise that more precisely, it’s about the punishment of sin. Written as a stark warning, with the intention of diverting mankind from the torture of eternal death in the inferno (and all the suffering and misery that goes with it), Dante needed mortal man to understand that the Underworld, this first realm of the afterlife, must be circumnavigated at all costs. And it could be, quite simply by renouncing sin during earthly life. He demonstrates most compellingly - and vividly - the dire and torturous punishments awaiting mortal man should he fail to follow the path of light and truth, should he succumb to temptation; vile castigation in the barbaric, cruel, apocalyptic Inferno, that place from whence no man returns. Seriously. Avoid, avoid, avoid!
But, renouncing sin alone isn’t enough to guarantee ascension to the heavenly realms and Dante clearly conveys this message throughout Purgatory and Paradise. Yes, to reject sin will divert your path from eternal death in the inferno and, undoubtedly, it’s a great place to start. However, ensuring ascension and eternal life in the bliss and glory of Paradise is quite a different matter and the two don’t go hand in hand. Yes, one can renounce sin and bypass Inferno, but then what?
Dante’s message in Purgatory and Paradise is loud and clear and, in fact, much more prevalent and crucial than Inferno’s: redeem yourself. Spiritually cleanse your soul through penance. Prime yourself for ascension. Restore your faith in God. Only then can you rise to enjoy eternal life, love and bliss in the celestial heavens. The starting point for this glorious moment is to reject sin, to avoid Minos and his tail, to bypass the inferno and vile punishments therein. Mortal man, therefore, must renounce sin during his earthly life. Only then can he begin the journey to Paradise.
Minos : Gustave Doré