The northeast was socked by snow last week, and this weekend the midwest is freezing over. With temperatures below zero and a winter storm, the plains look and feel like the arctic. This winter weather is cold as Hell, literally. Ok, maybe not literally but lyrically.

Lucifer, King of Hell

Lucifer, King of Hell. Pantheon Books edition of Divine Comedy. Scanned, post-processed, and uploaded by Karl Hahn.


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According to Dante and other medieval writers, Hell was a place of torment. This included all sorts of torture devices and plenty of unquenchable fire. But the home of the damned was also a place of ice and snow, which brings its own kind of pain.

Indeed, Dante saved ice as his final punishment for the worst of Hell. At the deepest level of the Hell, it ceases to be an inferno and becomes a lake of ice. The ninth circle of Hell featured a frozen lake blowing with wind blowing from the flapping wings of Lucifer, himself trapped in the ice. The closer souls are to the center, the more their souls are covered by ice, with some stuck in ice. It was a place,

where the shades were wholly covered up,
And glimmered through like unto straws in glass.

Milton, too, had souls experiencing the ravages winter. Unlike Dante, whose souls were trapped in one form of punishment for eternity, Milton’s damned were stuck on a mountain of fire and ice, alternating between blisters and frostbite.

According to the late John Hankins, Milton didn’t crib off of Dante. Both drew their images of Hell from many accounts in a medieval genre of afterlife visions. Unlike today’s cheery (and well-selling) accounts of near-death experiences, these visions were meant to frighten. These visions included the Vision of Tundale, a widely read account of a rich Irish man who collapses and experiences three days in Hell. Ice and cold also appear in the Vision of Alberic, the Vision of Alberic, Vision of Orm, and Vision of the Boy William. One of the earliest descriptions of Hell was penned by Pope Gregory I (aka Gregory the Great or St. Gregory), who wrote that Hell was a place of lightless flame but also extreme cold.

As the temperature continues to drop to record low temperatures, it is going to feel as cold as Hell. We might find the words of Dante’s description of his time in the ninth circle:

How frozen I became and powerless then,
Ask it not, Reader, for I write it not,
Because all language would be insufficient.

Categories: Beliefs, Culture

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Tobin Grant

Tobin Grant

@TobinGrant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

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