Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
An unquestionably significant part of Dante’s aim in writing Inferno was to offer a large-scale commentary on the political nightmare of fourteenth-century Florence, from which he had recently been exiled. He makes his assertions in various ways. First, he condemns political figures with whom he disagreed by scattering them ruthlessly throughout Hell. Second, because Dante sets the action of Inferno several years before the years in which he wrote it, he can predict, as it were, certain events that had already taken place by the time of his writing. He issues these seeming predictions via the voices of the damned, apparently endowed at death with prophetic powers. In these souls’ emphasis on the corruption and turmoil of the so-called future Florence, Dante aims pointed criticism at his former home. Third, Dante asserts throughout the poem his personal political belief that church and state should exist as separate but equal powers on Earth, with the former governing man’s spirit and the latter governing his person. Thus, in his many references to Rome, Dante carefully mentions both its spiritual and secular importance.
The poem’s arresting final image provides another testament to the equal importance of church and state: Lucifer chews both on Judas (the betrayer of Christ, the ultimate spiritual leader) and on Cassius and Brutus (the betrayers of Caesar, the ultimate political leader). Treachery against religion and against government both warrant placement in Hell’s final circle. While Dante emphasizes the equality of these two institutions, he also asserts the necessity of their separation. He assigns particularly harsh punishments to souls guilty of broaching this separation, such as priests or popes who accepted bribes or yearned for political power.
Although the values that Inferno asserts are decidedly Christian, on a thematic and literary level, the poem owes almost as much to Greek and Roman tradition as it does to Christian morality literature. Dante’s Christian Hell features a large variety of mythological and ancient literary creatures, ranging from the Centaurs to Minos to Ulysses. He even incorporates mythological places, such as the rivers Acheron and Styx. In addition, Dante often refers to and imitates the styles of great classical writers such as Homer, Ovid, Lucan, and Virgil himself. He therefore attempts to situate himself within the tradition of classical epics while proving that he is a greater writer than any of the classical poets.
Dante incorporates this ancient material for other reasons too, including the simple fact that mythological elements contain much dramatic potential. More important, however, Dante includes mythological and classical literary elements in his poem to indicate that Christianity has subsumed these famous stories; by bringing many religious strands under one umbrella, Dante heightens the urgency and importance of his quest—a quest that he believes necessary for all human beings.