My Tour of Dante’s Inferno (Circles 1-7)

Dante did Inferno in 34 cantos. I’m doing mine in 24 and posting them in three parts. Here is Part 1, which consists of cantos 1-11 (Circles 1-7). I will post cantos 12-22 (Circle 8) in early February, and cantos 23-24 (Circle 9) in mid February.

A few notes are in order. First, I admit this is a hit piece, but I believe appropriate since that’s what Dante’s classic is. Inferno is revenge fiction, pure and simple. But it’s hard to appreciate if you’re not familiar with 13th-14th century Italian politics. I wanted to walk in Dante’s footsteps and find modern people in Hell — politicians, scholars, celebrities, authors — and rub their noses in their “sins” as I see them. (Though like Dante I also include some figures from the deep past.)

Unlike Dante, however, I thought it was only fair that I enjoy this fun at my own expense, and so I put myself in Hell — on quite a low Circle for that matter.

There’s an interesting payoff to this exercise. In filling the Inferno with modern souls, I became acutely aware of how weird the medieval hierarchy of sin is. As far as I’m concerned, the first Ring of Circle 7 (violence against others) contains the worst sinners and should be the lowest circle, while the souls of the second Ring of Circle 7 (violence against self) don’t deserve to be in Hell at all. Not to mention the sodomites of the third Ring. Then there is the curiosity of Circle 1, which is a quasi-paradise for virtuous non-Christians; they end up doing far better than the liberal (heretical) Christians who are burning in tombs down on Circle 6. But this counter-intuitive scheme is precisely what makes Dante’s Inferno so compelling. It’s weird but has a consistent logic on its own terms.

I’ve provided notes at the end for the various souls I encounter in Hell.

As for the setting, it’s simple: The year is 2061 AD. I have traveled from my present time (2021 AD) through a gate that leads forty years into the future, to the bank of the Archeron River in the First Circle of Hell. Thus begins my downward tour of Dante’s Inferno. I hope you like it.

Upper Hell: Ignorance and Excess (Circles 1-5)














Canto 1: The Virtuous Unbelievers (Circle 1)

In the first Circle I see the virtuous souls who dwell “suspended” without being punished. They are not tormented like the souls on Circles 2-9. The only “torment” they experience is the permanent exclusion from paradise. These souls are non-Christians — noble atheists, righteous Jews, virtuous pagans, saintly Buddhists, etc. — who were morally upright and thus don’t deserve to be on any of the “sinner circles” below, and yet they cannot attain paradise since they do not profess Jesus Christ. The Circle is a state of ignorance and shadowy bliss, an ashen wasteland with the pocket paradise of the Noble Castle. The souls of the virtuous are content here for the most part, yet aware that their fate is somehow blighted.

Here I stood in the devil’s blind
With the Acheron River roaring behind
Ready to begin my tour of Hell
Starting with those who nobly fell

As I surveyed the ground of the virtuous elect
It was hard to see why a soul would object
To being denied paradise
Since the “punishment” here looked pretty nice

There was no torture, nor any screaming
Only the sighs of souls day-dreaming
They sat, reclined, or wandered about
Aimlessly, as if slightly worn out

A few of the souls became dimly aware
Of my presence and called to ask my affair
I told them I was a visiting guest
And they shrugged as if I were a common pest

I went down a road through the ashen tide
And saw more souls on either side
Some in groups, some alone
But always sighing their wistful moan

And I kept my eyes peeled for my very own self
For I was hoping to end up on this shelf
Of the nine circles whenever I died
As I wanted to be on virtue’s side

After some miles I came to a castle
With towers tall – white and gracile
The citadel had seven walls around
With a moat and bridge to completely surround

I was greeted at the bridge by a familiar ghost
The soul of a famous talk-show host
Bill Maher, still so smug
Yet somehow earned it, so it didn’t bug

“Bill,” I said, “fancy you here!
You actually seem in fairly good cheer
But why this post, outside at the gate?
Is this your eternal mandate?”

“This is my penance for being dismissive
Of all religion – now I’m submissive
To the noble souls who abide in this castle
I am ever their dutiful faithful vassal.”

“At least you made it to the very top
Probably for preaching against sin, non-stop
Granted in your own secular way
It was still pretty harsh back in the day

Especially that funny New Rule segment
When you blasted obesity and stayed unrepentant
You pissed off the world and made your fans nervous
When you were only providing a public service.”

[Maher, laughing]
“I wouldn’t want to be down on Circle 3
I’d get lynched and again repeatedly
Nor for that matter, on any of the others
Honestly, if I had my druthers.”

And with that he told me to go on in
And to stop my yakking about rules and sin
So I crossed all bridges into a field
That I couldn’t believe Hell concealed

The meadow was fresh and full of trees
And a perfect 72 degrees
Fruits and fountains sparkled brightly
With notes of music falling lightly

Wildlife that I’d never seen
And everywhere impossibly clean
A pocket paradise truly unnerving
Granted to souls that were most deserving

I wanted to lie and go to sleep
But I crossed the field into the keep
And there inside I stopped in awe
Stunned by all the souls I saw:

Asra Nomani, for Muslim reform
She took the Islamic world by storm
Calling out her faith as violent and crude
And for teaching the truth got viciously skewed

From devout Muslims and the woke left too
Who weren’t so different (who fucking knew?)
Both of them allies for the same cause
Reinforcing Islam’s blasphemy laws

Nomani had blasted them, time and again
Refusing ever to put down her pen
Going for the jugular, sawing the bone
Saying Muslims do shit to police their own

Sam Harris was there in the hall
As calm as ever before his fall
Here in Hell he seemed just as unflappable
And content enough inside this chapel

Perhaps his life of meditation
Continued giving some sedation
Against the knowledge of his fate
That for an atheist must surely grate

I saw David Lynch, the Yogi apprentice
Whose impact on film was simply momentous
His dark brutality was overdone
So that grace came not cheap but dearly won

There was Margot Adler, drawing down
Whose love for nature knew no bound

Elie Wiesel, to my right
Who made us feel the pain of night

Gendun Drubpa, intoning Brahma
The very first Dalai Lama

And many – too many – more souls yet
Whom people on earth owed a mighty debt
For laboring hard with endless grace
To make the world a better place

They welcomed me to make my stay
But I said that I had to be on my way
They were melancholy souls and bittersweet
With no resentment or sense of cheat

I realized then that I could only aspire
To be in such company when I expired
I expected to find my future soul
On the next level down, in the lustful bowl

And so I departed.

Canto 2: The Lustful (Circle 2)

I finish crossing the First Circle, and enter the Second, where the souls of the lustful are tossed about on a howling wind. As they had been swept away on earth by raging sexual desires, so now they are swept away by a storm that doesn’t stop.

As soon as I crossed, I was hit full force
With roars lamenting intercourse
The light was dim and the air alive
With souls blown about like bees from a hive

It was official now, this was Hell
As every soul could only yell
Under devil patrol and torment unending
Against which there was no hope of defending

I began my trek and got real sour
As the winds blew 50 miles an hour
Souls rolled by like tumbleweeds
Wailing their protests and lustful screeds

But after a while I saw a face
Blowing around in the same place
It was caught in a vortex – a whirring loop
I doubted this poor soul would ever recoup

Screaming loud so that I could be heard
I asked who she was to be so interred
“If you have to ask, you don’t deserve
To look upon my seemly curves!”

And lo, I recognized the sultry voice
That had given men a raunchy choice:

Madonna, that vixen of unbridled lust
Who published Sex to wide disgust
Though frankly I thought it was quite a gem
With lurid photos of S & M

Some even called it a liberation
For women who lived in sexual frustration
But there was no reward for Madonna now
No freedom at all that Hell would allow

“I do recognize you, Louise Ciccone
And always admired you for not being phony
It doesn’t seem fair to be punished so awful
You pushed obscene limits, but always lawful.”

“All my sex was based on consent
So let my fucking critics vent
I hope they’re all suffering too
On deeper levels than Circle 2.”

“Speaking of that, are you aware
If I’m being blown about anywhere?
I come from the past about 40 years
And was expecting to find my soul here in tears.”

And I told her my name, but she knew it not
She’d never seen me on this lustful lot
I thanked her then and wished her well
But she cursed me and all who were down in Hell

Steeling myself I plodded on
Through winds that battered like demon spawn
And on my way to Circle 3
I recognized some who flew past me:

Tiger Woods, whose sordid affairs
Caught his wife at unawares

Paris Hilton of nympho fame
Screwed any-who and which-where to shame

Albert Einstein (I gasped in awe)
Who slept with every woman he saw

Sex addicts so very misunderstood
Nymphos who had all the sex they could:

Danielle Staub every day
Ernest Fucking Hemingway
Russell Brand, Brittany Spears
Lust defined their whole careers

Others spilling, rolling by
Burning hot to gratify
Their partners lost to other places
While here they pined, devoid of graces

And so I came to the Third Circle.

Canto 3: The Gluttonous (Circle 3)

I cross into the Third Circle, where the souls of the gluttonous lie in a filthy mire, bombarded with rain, hail, and dirty snow. They wallow in the mud like the pigs they were in life.

The high winds stopped but the air got worse
Freezing cold like Narnia’s curse
I was in a swamp with drifts of snow
Over sludge and mud like sloppy joe

From the sky poured misery to feed my pain:
Snow, hail, and icy rain
But worse than even the filthy sleet
Was a smell on the air of rotten meat

The smell came strong from every which way
Like some kind of omnipresent decay
And the souls, they groveled down in the sludge
Howling like dogs unable to budge

Their overindulgence of food and drink
Is what put them down in this putrid stink
They looked like they each weighed a ton
As if eating had been their only fun

Dante thought he had witnessed fat
But in his day gluttons weren’t even that
The souls I saw were downright obese
And had feasted daily on sugar and grease

Revolted and shivering, I started my walk
But right away looked over to gawk
Weltering in the mud and vomiting hard
Was Game of Thrones author Lord Lard

George R.R. Martin, he preferred to be called
But his fans didn’t care, they were so appalled
At the snail’s pace he pretended to write
Around sports and politics he indulged on his site

And because of that stubborn outrageous cunctation
He had become irrelevant to his own creation
The TV writers finished the series
Finally resolving all the fan theories

And make no mistake, what they wrote
Was better than Martin’s recent bloat
Books 4 and 5 of Ice and Fire
Were filled with chapters dull and dire

“George,” I said, disturbed by his plight,
“Christ, but you’re a sorry sight
Perhaps it wasn’t the smartest play
To shit on your fans every day.”

“I never asked much of a devotee
Just that they worship and fawn over me
But all they did was piss and moan
About deadlines I never cared to own.”

“No one will accuse you of having thick skin
But you’re guilty of this particular sin:
Instead of revising the drafts you wrote
You were shoveling troughs of food down your throat.”

“Watch your mouth or be prepared
To get the treatment as you dared
The odor here is bad enough
But I can let out viler stuff.”

And with that Lord Lard let loose a fart
That stung my nose and stopped my heart
Clutching my chest I lurched and fell
Face down into the putrid gel

[Martin, laughing]
“You think I don’t know who the hell you are?
The blogger who acts like a fucking czar?
Your shitty, lousy, absurd reviews
Set a whole new bar for the fakest news.”

I tried to rise but no such luck
I could hardly move in the stinking muck
His toxic gas clawed at my lungs
I muttered words, speaking in tongues

But the poison finally dissipated
Though my chest felt utterly desecrated
I crawled away from that awful hog
And finally rose to resume my slog

Slowly recovering, I went a few miles
Realizing I had frozen piles
And the roars of the gluttonous drove me insane
I could hardly watch them – the sight was profane

I did however hear a shout
That my ears automatically singled out
From all the other barks and brays
I’d know this voice to the end of my days

It was Sally Struthers, I tell no lie
Howling for cake and apple pie
She came a long way from her comedy days
Her slim figure yielding to gluttonous ways

Her face contorted with starving rage
Which she was clearly demanding that I assuage
“Sorry, Sally, I’ve no remorse”
And I went on my way as she screamed herself hoarse

I finally neared the circle’s brink
And saw that it sloped down into a sink
But before I could escape the freezing bog
I saw a monster in the smog:

President Taft, blocking me
Three-fifty pounds to an absolute tee
He’d hosted the White House in slothful disgrace
Falling asleep while feeding his face

There was even a rumor of some doubt
That his bathtub held him and he couldn’t get out
More reliable was the tale of the horse:
That he broke its poor back as a matter of course

Taft was thrashing and yowling in trauma
But I was having none of his rabid drama
I kept my distance and skirted around
And came to the edge of the gluttons ground

And I descended the cliff.

Canto 4: The Greedy (Circle 4)

I descend to the Fourth Circle, where the hoarders and spendthrifts — the flips sides of greed — roll huge rocks against each other.

The switchbacks went 500 feet down
To the circle’s floor of blackened ground
I realized then I was glad to be alive
And I reflected on Circles 1 through 5

Dante had called them “Upper Hell”
Since their punishments weren’t nearly as fell
As those on the circles far down below
– The unspeakable full-blown horror show

Here at the top were the sins of excess:
Lust, gluttony, and greediness
And wrath too, that didn’t bruise
Or in any way physically abuse

These were the sins of the appetite
Good in themselves, in doses lite
But when overindulged they became a beast
Though not doing harm to others at least

Upper Hell basically punished the brat
Who took much of this, and did much of that
Warping what mattered in his or her life
For the sake of making these pleasures rife

I saw this now as I reached the floor
And heard the march of the Greed Corps:
Souls being whipped by devils close by
To labor and heave without any cry

Against each other they pushed huge boulders
And strained to agony the joints of their shoulders
Hoarders and spendthrifts, the flip sides of greed
Tasked with making the other bleed

A tormented shriek then ripped the air
And I looked to see what caused the scare
A soul had collapsed while pushing his rock
Unable any more to keep up the walk

And holy shit, did I know this swine
As would anyone who lived online
He was the fifth richest person from the year I came
And everyone, everyone, knew his name:

Mark Zuckerburg, CEO troll
Of Facebook that spiraled out of control
So that by the year 2021
He controlled all discourse under the sun

Which he justified being in the private sector
Like any greedy executive director
“Private business” – that feeble excuse
For big tech companies on the loose

The public discourse was as he deemed
In a way that governments only dreamed
Banning users by capricious whim
Like his pal Jack Dorsey, who was equally dim

And sure enough, not far behind
I saw Jack Dorsey in the grind
Unlike Mark, he pushed his stone
But with awful effort – and many a groan

Ignoring Jack, I knelt in place
And leaned over in the other’s face:

“Mark Zuckerburg, I cannot tell
How glad I am to see you in Hell
Your wealth and greed was only surpassed
By all the arrogance you amassed

You began as a neutral platform mission
Where people could post without condition
Then slyly became an editorial site
Without being liable for what you invite

Maybe you thought that policing the Net
Was fine according to ‘Terms’ you set
But anyone with half a brain
Knows this is wrong – simple and plain.”

“Go away, you hectoring shit!
You think I care for any of your spit?
Facebook was mine and no other fool’s
My fucking house, my fucking rules!”

“Your house was the entire goddamn globe
Is something wrong with your temporal lobe?
If that’s the line you want to own
Then enjoy your eternity of heaving stone!”

And with that, a devil snapped its whip
And Zuckerburg let out a yip
Before getting up and pushing on
In the godforsaken marathon

There were others I noticed shoving weights:
Simon Cowell, William Gates;
The Koch Brothers, and Julia too
None of them worth talking to

Of this parade I took my leave
And left these wretched souls to grieve
Forever to haul and break their backs
And regret their greedy acts

And I came to next cliff.

Canto 5: The Wrathful (Circle 5)

I descend the cliff to the Styx River, which forms the Fifth Circle and contains the souls of the wrathful, yelling at each other on the surface of the river, reenacting their rage in life.

500 feet of treacherous path
Brought me down to the souls of wrath
My senses were smacked by sounds and smells
Surely not found outside the Hells

Cries of fury raged on the air
And the clapping of water everywhere
I looked and beheld the River Styx
Oily brown and a filthy mix

It smelled of eggs foul and rotten
Washing over souls misbegotten
Angry and pissed, as they’d been in life
They yelled and thrashed in eternal strife

Sunk to their necks to swim and splash
Through mounds of rancid stinking trash
And the soul that yelled by far most loud
Stood out from the rest of the crowd:

Steven Anderson, the fundie pastor
Who had followed Christ his ultimate Master
For all the good it did him now
Swimming in trash up to his brow

Also known as Pastor Piss
For castigating men who were remiss
In peeing properly against the wall
(To pee sitting down was a major shortfall)

The pastor screamed above the din
Ripping face for every sin
Hell itself was put to shame
As he cried out all the offenders by name:

Sodomites, whores, girls wearing pants
Abortionists, Zionists – his favorite rants
But the people who made him zealously bitter
Were those who committed the crime of litter

He projected that outrage on every soul
With orders to clean this stinking hole
As he now tried to do, in fervent haste
To rid the Styx of trash and waste

“Listen to me, everyone, listen now!
Clean up this river, I don’t care how!”
Don’t worry about a devil backlash!
Throw away this stinking trash!”

Raving like this, he threw his slop
To the bank where I stood, but it was only a drop
From a river filled with bottomless junk
And the pastor got crazier like a roaring drunk

“Hey there, Pastor, calm the hell down!
You’re wasting effort, you stupid clown!
All this trash is your just deserts,
Your eternal penance, as bad as it hurts.”

He stopped and stared at me over the water
And his face announced he was ready for slaughter
Putting aside his litter crusade
He went off on a nasty (and crazy) tirade:

“Listen to me, you filthy queer!
Come and say that to me over here!
You homos will never be content
Until the rise of your one-world government.”

As I began to reply with utter contempt
A horde of souls made a vengeful attempt
They dove at the pastor, jaws open wide
And Steven Anderson cursed them and cried

These souls had taken it none too kind
At what went on in the pastor’s mind
Nor for commanding them this way and that
So they tore and ate at him like a rat

And as his soul was eaten live
I saw a boat about to arrive
As it glided forward the souls swam clear
Of the demon inciting terrible fear

Phlegyas, I recalled from Dante’s verse
A demon under a nasty curse
For horrible crimes in ancient days
He was consigned to patrol Hell’s waterways

“Phlegyas,” I called, “ignore Pastor Piss!
I need safe passage to the City of Dis
Ferry me, please, as you once did Dante
And then I’ll happily go on my merry way.”

[Phlegyas, roaring]
“Who are you to presume what I’ll do?
Listen good, and I’ll explain this to you
I’ll take you across, but not for free
You’ll have to give me one of these three:

(1) Your right arm for my evening chow
(2) All the money you have on you now
(3) Twenty years from your worthless life
– Which I’ll cut and remove with my demon’s knife.”

“Some fucking choice, you goddamn vulture
Is this what passes for devil culture?
Take my wallet, it’s all my money
I assure you this isn’t the least bit funny.”

And he ferried me across.


Lower Hell: Heresy and Violence (Circles 6-7)















Canto 6: The Heretics (Circle 6)

I enter the City of Dis and find the burning tombs of the heretics. As they were intellectually stubborn on earth — liberal or rebel Christians insisting themselves more enlightened than the orthodox — their souls are encased appropriately: iron without and fire within. Many of the tomb doors are open, and the souls are half-exposed, baking in flame and smoke.

As I entered the gates of the smoky city
It was hard not to be moved to pity
For those whose sins were crimes of thought
There shouldn’t be punishment, I always taught

To believe in doctrines the church disapproved
And to continue teaching them after being reproved
For that who could blame them – surely not I
A heretic at heart to the day I die

But my sympathy vanished as I moved through the city
The tomb lids were raised, and the sight wasn’t pretty:

I saw Martin Luther, the worst of the lot
Who deserved exactly the tomb that he got
A “reformer” possessed of hatred and spite
A misogynist and anti-Semite

He should have been barred from reading Galatians
For what it did to Jewish-Christian relations
With Romans his heresies got even more grim
As he reinvented Paul to be just like him

I refused to speak to this pile of manure
It would be way too much for me to endure
So I trucked on past and kept on walking
And then stopped at the sight of two souls talking

Sharing a tomb as if having a fling
Were Dominic Crossan and Karen King
Embracing each other they talked non-stop
About Jewish cynics and gnostic slop

I broke up their tryst and they got all sour
Acting as if they were full of power
“Dom,” I said, “how does it feel?
To be down in Hell is a shitty deal.”

“Cough it up and keep up your brayings
I’m comforted by authentic sayings
The red ones, you know, that passed the vote
The words that came from Jesus’s throat.”

“You certainly peddled a fantasy Jesus
An egalitarian who could readily please us
If only he were remotely true
You wouldn’t be in Dis without a clue.”

“Leave him alone, you insufferable snot
Why should we listen to what you’ve got?
No matter how hot we burn in these holes
The devils will never kill our souls.”

“That’s brazen talk for one who was fooled
Despite your degrees and how you were schooled
You promoted that silly gospel hoax
That duped many liberal and secular folks.”

“I suspected that thing was a hoax all along
That’s why I ignored Walter Fritz for so long
I only finally accepted his offer
To save my Divinity School from the coffer.”

And with that, the pair told me to scram
They obviously didn’t give a tinker’s damn
About what I thought or said or wrote
Or about any reason I had to gloat

Which was fair enough; I left them to bond
And took the opportunity to abscond
Alongside more tombs, and heretics many
Whose theologies were hardly worth a penny

When I reached about the city’s center
I saw the tomb of a known dissenter
Amidst the smoke that was black-and-bluish
Lay a bishop insisting he was truly Jewish

“So here’s the famous N.T. Wright!
Under Hell’s eternal blight
I’ll bet you’re suffering deep abjection
For being stripped of the resurrection.”

“Now you listen good, Mr. Rosson!
I do not belong in this city with Crossan
How can I be judged a heretic?
It’s such a farce it makes me sick.”

“Seriously, Bishop, do you need to ask?
Your ‘orthodox’ doctrine is only a mask
For denying the apocalypse just like those scholars
You think aren’t worth a lousy two dollars.”

“If you paid me attention, you’d clearly see
That God will act dramatically
Within history, yes, I’ve said before
But don’t be blind to metaphor.”

“Say what you want, but I’ve read your works
And you’re just like all the liberal jerks
Who practice blatant eisegesis
And pass it off as exegesis.”

That went too far, and he screamed in rage
And retreated inside his iron cage
I left as he started to raise a din
Yelling, roaring, and burning within

As I continued through the fiery tombs
I gagged and choked on smoky fumes
And finally came to a perilous bluff
That overlooked some nasty stuff

The stench arising from the circle below
Was enough to make my vomit flow
The cliff was a 70 degree-grade slope
I’d have to climb downwards and carefully grope

And so I descended.

Canto 7: Descending the Cliff (from Circle 6 to Circle 7)

I pause in my descent to Circle 7, and reflect on the arrangement of the Circle’s Three Rings.

As I clambered down slowly, I cursed the heat
This climb was 1500 feet
Red misty vapor rose from the crud
Smelling of corpses and sulfur and blood

I paused halfway down to take a rest
And saw below my seventh test
The Circle was really three in one
A trinity of violence with horrors a ton

My studies of Dante seemed like a dream
But this is how I remembered his scheme:

In Ring 1 splashed the violent against neighbor
Destroyers of humanity’s labor
Killers and warmongers of every theme
I saw trapped in the bloody boiling stream

In Ring 2 then the violent against self
Users of every drug on the shelf
Looking down closely I spotted the trees
The warbling souls of the suicide disease

In Ring 3 violent against the divine
Blasphemers shouting while lying supine
Calling God the foulest names
As they writhed and burned under falling flames

Bracing myself, I resumed my descent
And for that was almost made to repent
As I tripped and tumbled for quite a length
Before breaking my fall with all my strength

And at the bottom, I entered the Circle.

Canto 8: The Violent against Neighbor (Circle 7, Ring 1)

I reach the slope’s bottom and come to the River of Boiling Blood. Centaurs with bows and arrows patrol the banks of the river, shooting at any of the souls who try to escape it. These souls in life were murderers, abusers, torturers, pillagers, and warmongers, and they boil for eternity in the blood of their victims.

The stench of blood was a frontal assault
Forcing me to a grinding halt
The air was full of screams so savage
And the first soul I saw looked eager to ravage:

His commands exploded like a bomb
The founding prophet of Islam
He called for war and everything cruel
To subjugate all under Islamic rule

There had never been reasoning with this brute
His orders against infidels were absolute
He screamed those orders in the burning splashes
That plastered his body with burns and rashes:

[The Prophet]
“Put terror in their hearts and strike their necks
And make their women into slaves of sex
Do all of this in Allah’s name
And you’ll reap the rewards for playing His game

Slay the enemy wherever and how
You may spare them only if they bow
To Allah and convert — or if they follow the Book
They can pay the jizya and get off the hook.”

Too unsettled, I found nothing to say
I turned on my heels and walked away
Crossing myself I prayed for the error
Of the millions killed under jihad terror

There were countless others in the broiling run —
Hitler, Stalin, Attila the Hun
Jihadists like Zengi and Saladin
Who turned Palestine into a filthy latrine

“Peaceful Sufis” like good old Shah Wali
Were just as murderous as the school of Hanbali
Al-Hallaj, Ahmad Sirhindi — too many to name
Different sects, but jihad the same

I wanted to flee these abominable sights
But the river wasn’t done showing its frights
I looked and saw five presidents
Whom every American reinvents:

(1) Jackson who robbed and slaughtered the Reds
And sent them to live in homes that were sheds

(2) Lincoln who killed for emancipation
Instead of giving slave owners compensation

(3) Wilson whose catastrophes were so bad
That he remains the worst president we ever had

(4) Johnson whose excursions in Vietnam
Were as bad as dropping a nuclear bomb

(5) Bush who hammered Saddam without cease
While whitewashing Islam as a religion of peace

These five men did plenty to kill
People, their spirit, and much more still
They extended themselves to harm and destroy
Lands, livelihoods, and human joy

They imprisoned citizens for the slightest breach
Even denying the freedom of free speech
They suspended habeas corpus — or two of them did —
And had egos the size of legend El Cid

Yet Americans love them (except maybe one)
As if from their asses shone the sun
I knew better, having studied them hard
And was righteously glad to see them boiled and charred

As if sensing my thoughts, they wailed as one
Clearly not having an ounce of fun
For them I had no forgiveness at hand
They deserved to burn in this evil land

The more I saw in this bloody tide
The more my convictions were amplified
The crimes of these souls were of such a design
That they deserved to be down on Circle 9

Violence against others was underrated
By medievals who felt inoculated
From seeing bloodshed often up close
And Dante himself got his own heavy dose

But for me, this first ring of Circle 7
Contained the souls most anathema in heaven
I had to move on and leave much unexplored
And sighed with relief as I came near the ford

And then I crossed it.

Canto 9: The Violent against Self (Circle 7, Ring 2)

I enter the Forest of Rotting Trees, where Harpies are perched, eating the leaves as the trees scream in pain. The trees are the souls of suicides and people who abused themselves through addiction. As they destroyed their bodies on earth so now they have been denied proper resemblance to a body in hell.

The Wood was pathless and deathly silent
The trees encasing more souls of the violent
But I felt for people who wanted to die
And I wasn’t inclined to vilify

Suicide, really, worse than war?
The souls in the River I could only abhor
But these in the Wood had harmed no other
No stranger, enemy, friend, or brother

Just their own self, which was plainly their right
Or so I believed on this hellish night
And as I walked among the mutated trees
The souls began to voice their unease

“Who goes there?” cried one in pain
And I turned and saw legend Kurt Cobain
“A fan of yours,” I said after pause
And soon more souls took up the cause

The chorus became a mournful keen
Provoking the Harpies to intervene
Alighting on branches, pecking, awling
Until the trees curbed their squalling

Covering my ears I resumed my stride
In a direction I hoped to the other side
After two miles I was stopped in my tracks
By a despondent tree running like wax

I recognized – barely – the visage within
It was Robin Williams, atoning his sin
A man who was such a lovable guy
Had surrendered to his need to die

I asked if I could do anything
To give any comfort or lessen the sting
But he barely even heard me, it seemed
As he moaned about trials of the unredeemed

That he was down in Hell, ill and decayed
Was an irony considering the role that he played
In the 90s film What Dreams May Come
As the husband, Chris, of a wife and mum

Who killed herself unable to cope
With tragedies leaving her zero hope
In a fit of rage Chris left no doubt
That he would descend into Hell and get her out

And so just like Dante (and me of course)
He embarked on a major tour-de-force
Of Hell in all its perilous faces
And found his wife in the darkest of places

Against all odds, and holding his ground
He reached her and turned her completely around
With her spark of life and spirit restored
She then escaped her Infernal ward

I recounted that story of Annie and Chris
But that only served to widen the abyss
Of Robin’s pain that put him here
He cried so loud that all Circles could hear

That film was a fantasy anyway
From the Inferno there was no breaking away
And so I left, troubled and tired
For Williams was someone I had much admired

And I came to the forest’s end.

Canto 10: The Violent against God (Part 1) – Blasphemers (Circle 7, Ring 3)

I reach the Desert of Fire. The souls of blasphemers lie on the ground, shouting vulgarities at the sky, as fire rains down on them. As in life they defied the heavens, so now the heavens strike them down eternally with flame.

Leaving the diseased forest behind
(Robin’s cries still impaling my mind)
I came to a desert of blasted sand
With tongues of fire pouring over the land

And lying everywhere, crying fury
Were the souls for whom God was their judge and jury
They were giving the Deity the middle finger
And frankly I didn’t even want to linger

For fear of guilt by association
That would land me in the same damnation
For the temps in this Ring were out of sight
One hundred and twenty Fahrenheit

Already my mouth was beginning to parch
So I gulped some water then started my march
And as I waded through the ungodly herd
I saw a particularly ugly nerd:

Andres Serrano, the vulgar artist
Who fancied himself the blasphemers’ smartest
His most lurid and infamous work by far
Was a crucifix dumped in a urine jar

There were so many others, but one stood out
As he hurled bolts of venom with every shout
It was Richard Dawkins, most irate
Filling the air with bilious hate:

“Fist and fuck and felch yourself, God!
Your word is shit, your promise fraud!
Torturers are saints compared to you
And clit-snippers start to look pretty nice too.”

What he then said next was awful mean
I can’t repeat it, it’s too obscene
I looked down asking “Why so much hate?”
And he proceeded to launch a fierce debate

I cut him off with a direct appeal:
“So now you believe that God is real?
Unless you’re in a state of dire confusion
You’d never yell like that at a delusion.”

“I’ll show you yelling, you little twit
So listen closely, you measly shit:

All religion is rotten excuse
Teaching kids God is child abuse
Parents of faith shouldn’t exist
And I don’t care if that makes you pissed.”

He was going to vent on, but was suddenly struck
By a huge tongue of flame and he cried out “Fuck!”
And tried to rise, but was pushed down firm
By a nearby devil to make him squirm

I grabbed my chance and sprinted off
Leaving Dawkins alone to sputter and cough
And as I beat my more than hasty retreat
Souls kept wailing in the sweltering heat

And from that cacophony floated a swear
A voice I would know anywhere
I stopped and turned, hardly believing
That it was my own best friend doing the grieving

I knelt down and got really near:
“Matt, why the hell are you here?”
He scoffed as if I’d had too much to drink:
“Loren, why the hell do you think?”

He was a long-time atheist and a fierce one at that
His sworn enemy the theocrat
Creationist dogmas to him were the worst
Just thinking of them made his bowels burst

Seeing him this way, so reduced
On the sand where God-haters came to roost
I felt remorse for a second time
For a soul that didn’t seem guilty of crime

“Don’t waste your goddamn pity on me
Save it for yourself – you’ll need it, you’ll see
You’re here down with me, burned by this fire
And your sin in God’s eyes is just as dire.”

“What are you saying? That makes no sense
I don’t hate God or have any pretense
My only real sin is lust — it’s true
But my soul wasn’t even on Circle 2.”

At that my friend laughed mightily hard
That his anus let loose a toxic petard
When his gaseous farts began to quit
He explained the scheme of Dante’s pit:

“Your lust unfortunately cuts both ways
You sleep with the straights and you sleep with the gays
And because of the latter, no matter how lite
The Almighty judges you a sodomite.”

I confess I’d forgotten this part of the rhyme
Where Dante made sodomy a grievous crime
Grated the medievals were really austere
But the equation with blasphemy seemed quite severe

“You shouldn’t be surprised by any of this
You listened to the sermons of Pastor Piss
It was he who made clear without facade
That you homos are absolute haters of God.”

“Don’t remind me of that King James fanatic!
The point is what Catholics consider dogmatic
Obviously fundies hate gays with a passion
But Catholics usually have greater compassion.”

“I’m afraid on this subject they’re not that tribal
They read, after all, the very same bible
And that book does call you a reprobate
That you’re filled to the rim with ungodly hate

It’s why Abraham was sent down into Sodom
To witness its sinners who’d hit rock bottom
Not to preach or make them repent
But to see how filthy they really went

With Ham there was no hope – just ‘Cursed be Canaan!’
With Sodom no lifeline – just brimstone rainin’
It wasn’t like Ninevah or any other town
Where repentance was offered to turn things around

There’s nowhere in the bible, anywhere you glance
That gives the sodomites a second chance
Jesus was silent, and the apostle Paul said
That you homos, frankly, deserve to be dead.”

“All right, enough! That puts me to shame
I guess I’m resigned to the Desert of Flame
I can’t believe we’ll be stuck together whining
Though maybe that’s a small bit of silver lining.”

And I moved on.

Canto 11: The Violent against God (Part 2) – Sodomites (Circle 7, Ring 3)

While crossing the Desert of Fire, I see the souls of sodomites, who run about forever, chasing each other — looking toward the human body they offended, without ever getting anywhere.

I departed my friend and walked in haste
And sure enough, across the waste
Came a group of souls running for sport
And I was among them, out of sort

Seeing myself in this marathon
I despaired of my fate as an Infernal pawn
And recalled why the souls ran here and there
For sodomy is exercise that gets nowhere

My soul broke ranks and left the race
And came to me showing the burns on his face
Not to mention the rest of his bod
That had been horribly scorched by the fires of God

[My soul]
“See what the future holds for you?
I hope you’re satisfied, you’ll have to make do:

With running forever, until your legs feel like clay
And you curse the genes that made you half-gay
Every day worse, hotter and hotter
And never getting a cup of water.”

He ran back then to rejoin the throng
Before I could say that we did no one wrong
Not that it mattered in Dante’s design
Our offense was that we had wronged the divine

“Haters of God, indeed,” I sneered
And then the cliff to Circle 8 appeared
But before I got there, I was almost knocked over
By another runner who looked hungover

His face rang a bell and then I recalled
He was Kenneth Pinyan, who had so appalled
Every citizen in Washington State
For fucking a horse, which sealed his fate

“Holy shit, you bestial perv!
What you did took considerable nerve
How did you get that horse to agree
To enter and ream you so thoroughly?”

“Never you mind my tricks of the trade!
Mind yourself and how you get laid
And show me some sympathy – my life was stolen
When I died on the table from a perforated colon.”

“I’m sorry to hear, that’s a bloody shame
You took initiative and went down in flame
I called you a perv, but I don’t really judge
Anyone who likes to pack mammal fudge.”

“That’s small consolation in this devil’s lair
I’m caught in a race that goes nowhere
Do me a favor and get yourself lost
And don’t fuck horses without counting the cost.”

Equine beasts weren’t quite my thing
But I was humbled by the perils of a horse’s ding
I proceeded then straight to the waterfall
Which tumbled down the 2000-foot wall

And I looked over.

Here ends Part 1 of My Tour of Dante’s Inferno. Part 2 is here.


Notes to Canto 1 (The Virtuous Unbelievers)

Bill Maher. “That funny New Rule segment”: Maher’s segment on fat-shaming made a lot of viewers angry, despite his making clear that he opposed mean-spirited shaming.

Asra Nomani. “For teaching the truth got viciously skewed”: Nomani is the rare feminist Muslim reformer who speaks honestly about Islam as a toxic religion. She has taken abuse from the left for her courageous efforts.

Sam Harris. “His life of meditation”: Harris wrote the book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality, in which he advocates techniques of Buddhist meditation remolded for atheist/secular consumption.

David Lynch. “So that grace came not cheap but dearly won”: Lynch is agnostic, but some of his films have been hailed as profoundly (if obliquely) religious.

Margot Adler. “Drawing down”: An allusion to Adler’s famous book Drawing Down the Moon, the famous study of modern pagans.

Elie Wiesel. “Made us feel the pain of night”: An allusion to Wiesel’s acclaimed book Night, based on his Holocaust experience.


Notes to Canto 2 (The Lustful)

Madonna. (1) “Published Sex to wide disgust”: Madonna pushed sexual boundaries left and right, and her pornography book included images of sadomasochism. It was widely panned at the time, though later became hailed as a daring post-feminist work. (2) “Louise Ciccone”: Madonna’s real name.


Notes to Canto 3 (The Gluttonous)

George R.R. Martin. (1) “Around sports and politics indulged on his site”: Martin is legendary for his snails-pace writing, and the long intervals between the volumes in A Song of Ice and Fire. Pissing off his fans even more is the fact he indulges writing so many off-topic posts on his blog, instead of getting his ass to work on Ice and Fire. (2) “A whole new bar for the fakest news”: Years ago I had written satirical reviews for The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, which hadn’t been published yet (and still haven’t). Many readers, blind to the humor, took these reviews seriously and went viral with their enthusiasm. Martin didn’t take kindly to this.

Sally Struthers. “A long way from her comedy days”: Struthers was slim when she played Gloria in the ’70s sitcom All in the Family. After putting on a ton of weight, she became the butt of jokes, and in the South Park comedy was ruthlessly satirized. The South Park creators saw one of Struthers’ commercials and found it hilarious that a massively overweight woman was doing commercials for starving children in Africa. So they wrote an episode in which she was asking for food donations — and then hoarding the food for herself instead of giving it to the African children. Later the show turned her into a female Jabba the Hut. (See here.)

William Howard Taft. “Three-fifty pounds to an absolute tee”: President William Howard Taft did in fact weight 350 pounds, and was so fat that he fell asleep everywhere — at important meetings, state funerals, even White House dinners as he was in the middle of eating. He probably did not get stuck in the White House bathtub, though it’s hardly surprising that urban legend was taken seriously.


Notes to Canto 4 (The Greedy)

Mark Zuckerburg. “Without being liable for what you invite”: When big-tech companies censor and de-platform users, they are assuming the role of an editorial site instead of a neutral platform. If they want to do this (that is, censor and/or remove users according to “Terms of Service”), then they should be treated as an editorial site and be stripped of their legal immunities: held liable for what is posted on their site (copyright violation, defamation, etc.), like any other editorial site. Only under that condition should they be allowed censoring privileges as a private business.


Notes to Canto 5 (The Wrathful)

Steven Anderson. (1) “Those who committed the crime of litter”: One of the worst sins in Anderson’s bible is littering; it drives him nuts. He publicly chastises anyone he sees littering, and sermonizes with as much rage as he does on the subjects of sodomites, abortionists, Calvinists, Modalists, Zionists, and men who pee sitting down. (2) “The rise of your one-world government”: Anderson subscribes to the one-world government conspiracy, but puts a spin on it: this new order is run by a cabal of vicious homos, who are bent on pushing “the homo agenda” everywhere.


Notes to Canto 6 (The Heretics)

Martin Luther. “Reinvented Paul to be just like him”: Luther’s readings of Galatians and Romans have influenced Christian theologians immensely, despite the fact that the apostle Paul was saying something very different about the law than Luther was. Not least, the fact that Paul had no trouble being righteous under the law as a practicing Pharisee (Philip 3:6). Luther read Paul’s attack against the law through the lens of western guilt and insecurity – and many Christians today still read Paul as a prototype of Martin Luther.

John Dominic Crossan. (1) “The Lord’s authentic sayings”: as a member of the Jesus Seminar, Crossan voted on which of the gospel sayings were likely spoken by the historical Jesus. Few of them made the cut. (2) “Egalitarian Jesus”: Crossan wrote a famous book called The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991), which argued that Jesus was an egalitarian. But the idea of social equality between human beings originated with the 18th-century Enlightenment and was first put into practice (and only imperfectly) with the American and French revolutions. Jesus wasn’t born out of time and place. He was a messianic boss who chose twelve male disciples as his closest confidants. That he provided for the weak and vulnerable, and promised a reversal of fortune in the kingdom of God, didn’t make him egalitarian; nor did his reciprocity in common table-fellowship promote a message of equality.

Karen King. “To save my Divinity School from the coffer”: A conman named Walter Fritz emailed Karen King on July 9, 2010, describing Coptic fragments he wanted to sell. She didn’t reply until almost a year later, on June 25, 2011, and that was to tell him she wasn’t interested. Then, four months after that, on October 15, 2011, she suddenly had a change of heart. And for the next four and a half years, she promoted the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”, even though it was effectively debunked as a hoax less than a month after she announced it publicly in September of 2012. She finally conceded the hoax in June of 2016. The question is why King ignored Walter Fritz for so long before finally taking his bait, and then persisting in willful denial when the hoax was clearly exposed. Ariel Sabar’s book Veritas (2000) answers this question: In October 2011, Harvard University was on the brink of creating a secular religious studies department, and the divinity department (and Karen King’s status) was in jeopardy. To Karen King, the Jesus-Wife fragment may have seemed a godsend for keeping progressive liberal theology married to academic scholarship.

N.T. Wright. (1) “A bishop insisting he was truly Jewish”: Wright sees every piece of New Testament theology as Jewish to the core, even when it’s at its most supersessionist, and even when mainstream Jews laugh his interpretations out the door. (2) “Don’t be blind to metaphor”: Wright is often seen as a conservative biblical scholar, and in many ways that’s true, but not others. He rejects the idea that biblical apocalyptic language speaks about the destruction of the earth and the world coming to a literal end. He claims that apocalyptic language was a vivid and colorful way to use metaphors when describing major socio-political changes occurring within human history. But this claim is based not on a careful assessment of literary evidence, but on Wright’s personal views of creational monotheism — which by rights should make him a heretic in the eyes of the orthodox.


Notes to Canto 8 (The Violent against Neighbor)

Muhammad. (1) “Put terror in their hearts and strike their necks”: see Qur’an 3:151, 8:12, 8:60, 47:4. (2) “Make their women into slaves of sex”: the Qur’an teaches that infidel women can be lawfully taken for sexual use (cf. its allowance for a man to take “captives of the right hand”), 4:3, 4:24, 23:1-6, 33:50, 70:30. (3) “Slay the enemy wherever and how”: see Qur’an 2:191-193, 4:89, 5:33, 8:39, 9:111. (4) “Pay the jizya and get off the hook”: The Qur’an teaches that Jews and Christians (“People of the Book”) may live if they refuse to convert to Islam if they pay the jizya, which is a special tax (Qur’an 9:29). (Paying the jizya tax puts Jews and Christians under a mafia-like rule which subjects them to a raft of discrimination laws; it’s a second-class citizenship at best.)

Saladin. The first sultan of Egypt and Syria and founder of the Ayyubid dynasty (died 1193 AD). He led the military campaigns against the Crusader states. In modern myth-making, Saladin has become the prototype of the tolerant, magnanimous Muslim warrior. He was in fact as ruthless as other Muslin sultans and had visions of extending his jihad far beyond the holy land of Palestine; he believed that his fight against the Crusaders was part of a larger global jihad, which he intended to pursue. (Dante actually put Saladin on Circle 1, with the virtuous unbelievers, following the precursor to the modern myth, that Saladin, like Richard the Lionheart, was “nobly chivalrous”.)

Sufi Muslims (Shah Wali Allah, etc). It’s a common myth that Sufi doctrine is peaceful, just because it is heretical. The mystical doctrine of the Sufis in not at odds with the jihad imperative, and many Sufis are jihadists as Islam requires.

The five presidents. (1) “Jackson who robbed and slaughtered the Reds”: Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, and was responsible for more suffering and death on the part of the Natives than any other president. (2) “Lincoln who killed for emancipation”: Abraham Lincoln could have ended slavery as other countries had ended it (Britain in the 1833-38 period, and even “backwater” Mexico in 1829), and the cost of this kind of emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the obscene cost of human lives, which by the end of the Civil War totaled 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were African Americans. (3) “Wilson the worst president”: Woodrow Wilson was the most catastrophically interventionist president in history, causing more deaths than any other; he was a virulent racist, who fueled the rise of the second KKK; he was the worst offender of peoples’ civil rights; his presidency screwed up the 20th century and beyond – and the meter is still ticking. (4) “Johnson’s excursions in Vietnam”: Lyndon Johnson knew and acknowledged that the Vietnam War was stupid and wrong, and yet for political purposes escalated the war to the point of getting 58,000 American soldiers killed. (5) “Bush who hammered Saddam without cease”: George W. Bush was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, because he could have prevented them, but was too consumed with scheming against Saddam Hussein; he was responsible for ISIS, because he deposed Saddam Hussein who was a lesser evil; he peddled a rosy view of Islam, which impedes an understanding of the motivations of jihadists — the religious ideology that drives groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS; and he was responsible for the deaths of over 4000 American soldiers and 100,000 indigenous peoples in Iraq, for a war entirely without cause.


Notes to Canto 9 (The Violent against Self)

Robin Williams.What Dreams May Come“: In this 1998 film directed by Vincent Ward, Williams played Chris Nielsen, and Annabella Sciorra played his wife Annie. Annie goes to Hell when she commits suicide, and Chris finds a way to enter Hell and rescue her. The imagery of Hell in the film is very Dantean.


Notes to Canto 10 (The Violent against God – Blasphemers)

Andres Serrano. “Crucifix in a jar of urine”: The artist known for glorifying images of feces and bodily fluids, especially in his photograph Piss Christ.

Matt. “The sermons of Pastor Piss”: A reference to Pastor Steven Anderson (encountered on Circle 5 among the wrathful). Anderson teaches the Reprobate Doctrine (Romans 1:18-32), which states that there is a line which an unbeliever can cross, where God no longer wishes for that person’s salvation. The Deity — fed up after being patient and offering second chances — finally gives the person over to a reprobate mind, turning the person into a sodomite. That’s how people become homosexual, according to the Reprobate Doctrine. Homosexuals are beyond hope and impossible to save, because God has “given them up” to be precisely this way, in an act of irrevocable rejection. Curiously, the modern fundamentalist Reprobate Doctrine aligns fairly well with the medieval Catholic view, which also treats sodomites very harshly, as the Inferno makes clear.


Notes to Canto 11 (The Violent against God – Sodomites)

Kenneth Pinyan. “I died on the table from a perforated colon”: This isn’t an urban legend. Pinyan was sodomized by a horse and died from it.



Souls Punished
Souls I encounter on this Circle
Circle 1
Virtuous Unbelievers Bill Maher, Asra Nomani, Sam Harris, Margot Adler, Elie Wiesel, Gendun Drubpa
Circle 2
The Lustful Madonna, Tiger Woods, Paris Hilton, Albert Einstein, Danielle Staub, Ernest Hemingway, Russell Bran, Brittany Spears
Circle 3 The Gluttonous George R.R. Martin, Sally Struthers, William Howard Taft
Circle 4
The Greedy Mark Zuckerburg and Jack Dorsey, Simon Cowell, Bill Gates, the Koch Brothers
Circle 5
The Wrathful Pastor Steven Anderson
Circle 6
Heretics Martin Luther, John Dominic Crossan, Karen King, N.T. Wright
Circle 7, Ring 1
The Violent against Others (Murderers, Warmongers) Muhammad, Hitler, Stalin, Attila the Hun, Zengi, Saladin, Shah Wali Allah, Al-Hallaj, Ahmad Sirhindi, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush
Circle 7, Ring 2
The Violent against Self (Suicides) Kurt Kobain, Robin Williams
Circle 7, Ring 3
The Violent against God (Blasphemers, Sodomites) Richard Dawkins, Matt Bertrand, Loren Rosson, Kenneth Pinyan

2 thoughts on “My Tour of Dante’s Inferno (Circles 1-7)

  1. Pingback: My Tour of Dante’s Inferno (Circles 1-7) | Talmidimblogging

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