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The Structure Of The Trinity In The Inferno

Dante’s Inferno, itself one piece of a literary trilogy, repeatedly uses the number three as a recurring symbol of the trinity. The number three plays an important role in Catholic theology because of the triune God, made up of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Throughout The Inferno Dante uses dates involving the number three, encounters many different groupings of three characters representing the trinity, and uses the terza rima rhyming pattern with it’s three line stanzas as a structural building block as well.

The opening tercet of Inferno situates the poem in time “When I Had journeyed half of our life’s way” (186; I.1). The Bible’s Psalms describe a human lifespan as being “threescore and ten years” or seventy years. Because of the many close links between The Divine Comedy and the Bible, we can assume that Dante was thirty-five, which would date the poem to around the year 100. As well as taking place in a year that includes the number three, the poem also takes place in three days. Dante began his journey on Good Friday and completes it on Easter morning.

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Throughout The Inferno there are several different groupings of three characters, which represent the trinity, beginning with the beasts Dante encounters in the first canto a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. The most common interpretation of their meaning is that they represent the three major forms of sin found in Hell, respectively fraud, anger, and incontinence or lust. Secondly, as Dante and Virgil travel through Hell, they come upon three furies

…”Look at the ferocious Erinyes!

That is Magaera on the left, and she

who weeps upon the right, that is Allecto;

Tisiphone’s between them.” …(1861;IX.45-48)

The Furies are named Megaera (the jealous), Allecto (unceasing anger), and Tisiphone (avenger of the murdered). These women represent the retributive justice in Hell for the sins of the Lion, Leopard, and She-wolf. Finally, the two poets reach Satan, a creature symbolizing everything that is the exact opposite of God. His form with three pairs of bat wings outspread parodies Christ on the cross. Satan has three heads, each one being a different color white, red, and black.

I marveled when I saw that, on his head,

he had three faces one�in front�bloodred;

and then another two that, just above

the midpoint of each shoulder, joined the first;

and at the crown, all three were reattached;

the right looked somewhat yellow, somewhat white;

the left in its appearance was like those

who come from where the Nile, descending, flows. (140;XXXIV.8-45)

Each head represents a different sin; a “little white lie”, ambition, and finally murder or fraud, a more planned sin. Dante uses these perversions of the trinity to symbolize Hell’s Godlessness.

Dante uses the terza rima rhyming pattern, with each three lines forming a set. Each line has eleven syllables, and each stanza has three lines�eleven times three equals thirty-three, which happens to be the age of Christ when He was crucified. Terza rima also serves to link the poem’s formal structure, for the three-line stanzas mirror the three-pronged nature of the entire Divine Comedy, which consists of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Furthermore, each of these parts contains its own three sections in Inferno, for example, these are the Ante-Inferno, Upper Hell, and Lower Hell. Purgatorio and Paradiso each have thirty-three cantos; although Inferno has thirty-four, its first canto serves as a general introduction to The Divine Comedy as a whole. Hell, in its entirety, divides into nine circles�three times three. Many more threesomes exist as well, revealing only a small part of the intricacies of Dante’s structural plan.

The symbolism of the recurring trinities throughout The Inferno reflects Dante’s relationship with God, which represents the experience of a deeply committed Christian. Through his personal journey, Dante effectively allows the readers to analyze their own relationship with God.

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