Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Because the poem is an overarching allegory, Inferno explores its themes using dozens, even hundreds, of symbols, ranging from the minutely particular (the blank banner chased by the Uncommitted in Canto III, symbolizing the meaninglessness of their activity in life) to the hugely general (the entire story of The Divine Comedy itself, symbolizing the spiritual quest of human life). Many of the symbols in Inferno are clear and easily interpretable, such as the beast Geryon—with the head of an innocent man and the body of a foul serpent, he represents dishonesty and fraud. Others are much more nuanced and difficult to pin down, such as the trio of creatures that stops Dante from climbing the sunlit mountain in Canto I. Here are just a few of its most notable instances of symbolism.

Sinners & Their Punishments

When reading Inferno, it is extremely important to consider each element of the poem according to how it fits into Dante’s larger system of symbolism—what it says about the scene, story, and themes of the work and about human life. Perhaps the most important local uses of symbolism in Inferno involve the punishments of the sinners, which are always constructed so as to correspond allegorically to the sins that they committed in life. After all, as Dante says in Canto XXVII, "Those who, sowing discord, win their burden." The Lustful, for example, who were blown about by passion in life, are now doomed to be blown about by a ferocious storm for all of time. Gluttons are “flattened by the rain,” so that while they once indulged and pampered their physical bodies to excess, those bodies now become “emptiness,” and the souls experience intense discomfort. Other major types of symbols include figures among the damned who may represent something more than merely their sins, such as Farinata, whose punishment is to spend eternity in a flaming tomb and who seems to represent qualities of leadership and political commitment that transcend his identity as a Heretic in Hell.

The Circles of Hell

The Hell of Dante’s Inferno consists of a very different structure than that in other depictions, such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which portrays a chaotic geographic terrain with an intellectual Satan. In Dante’s case, Hell features a highly organized series of concentric circles, each with specific delegated punishments, and a Satan who is not just grotesque and but powerless, trapped in Hell like all the other sinners. Given the highly politicized nature of the journey his character embarks upon in the story, it makes sense that Dante would choose to reflect the complicated infrastructure of Italian society, to underscore the sins of the very real citizens he’s chosen to depict, along with the allegory and its message.

By providing a hierarchical system of punishments, Dante is able to explore and assess the various misdeeds, virtues, and sins of his contemporaries and weigh them against each other with far scrutiny and nuance than if Hell were merely a singular realm. This structure of Hell also speaks to the difficulty and importance of recognizing proper restorative work for each respective sinner. Dante’s disapproval of the corruption within the clergy and political landscape of Florence suggests it’s not as simple as merely placing saints in Heaven and sinners in Hell. Not all deeds on earth are equal, and neither is each punishment. The infrastructure Dante has developed not only grants the reader a glimpse into his own own philosophical and ethical views, but also paints a portrait of the political divisions and corruptions plaguing the time in which Dante lived.

The Woods

Inferno, and thus Dante’s entire Divine Comedy, opens in a dark forest. For an epic poem, allegorical in nature, the woods offers a perfect foundation on which the vastness of the poem unfolds. Its chaotic, disorienting nature and sparseness juxtaposes the orderly, though no less terrifying, structure that is Hell. By opening the poem in this dark forest, Dante sets an ominous tone in which danger likely lurks around every corner. In this respect, the entire poem can be seen as a dark night of the soul, one in which Dante has found himself because he is physically and spiritually lost. This is paralleled in the suicide forest in the Second Ring of the Seventh Circle; those who have ended their own lives are damned to live in Hell as immovable trees who are still bleed and cry out. Though not directly related to the forest Dante encounters at the outset, it does nonetheless strengthen the association between forests and sin. That is, one must never stray from the “right path” lest they remain trapped forever, lost in a metaphorical forest; the woods, then, is representative of a sinful life on Earth from which one must find their way back to God.