Guided by Virgil, Dante enters the Inferno, the first stage of the opus alquímicus, the “nigredo”. In this phase, the peregrine must face the darkness threatening his soul being and eliminate it through a taking of consciousness.
In the Comedy, the Inferno is represented by nine circles or infernal levels where Dante is confronted with all his faults, bad habits and passions to which the human being is subjected.
The esoteric meaning of the work is even more evident if we take into account some of the characters appearing in it. Thus, to have access to the first circle, Dante and Virgil need the help of the boatman Caron. In Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman of Hades, in charge of guiding the souls of the deceased from one side of the river Aqueronte to the other. But, if we go back to the Egyptian world, we find that Hades, the subterranean world or underworld, is not only the world of darkness, but particularly, the place in which to carry out the probationary period before the dead persons could reach the resurrection of their bodies. In other words, an initiation place.
We can see in Greek mythology that the latest work of Hercules consisted in descending to Hades, forcing Charon to take him in his boat (even though the ancient boatman didn’t transport living people) and steal Cerberus, the three-headed guardian dog. However, according to the myth, before Hercules could enter into Hades, he had to be initiated in the Mysteries of Eleusis. There, he was taught how to enter the underworld and come out of it alive.
From a more current perspective, we can say that Hades makes reference to the astral world and that the passage through it alludes to the need of being elevated above the passions and desires for the material world.
In the second circle (the circle of the lustful) the poet meets Minos, who is in charge of indicating to which circle every soul should descend. King Minos, who, according to the myths, was punished for being conceited and corrupt and for breaking his promises before the gods, is a symbol of how human actions have consequences (Karma law) and, as well, how human beings betray their spiritual ideals.
In the third circle of the Inferno (the gluttons’ circle) Dante is confronted with the fierce and three-headed dog Cerberus, whose very presence was terrifying. Cerberus, the watchdog of Inferno’s gate, was responsible for denying access of any mortal to the world of the dead and, likewise, for denying any deceased to access the world of the living beings.
To Platonists, Cerberus represented the very evil extended over the elements Air, Earth and Water (its three heads could derive from there). Generally speaking, we could say that its symbology alludes to the three sanctuaries or aspects of the human being which, once perverted, prevent him to reach liberation.
In Dante’s Inferno appeared three tributaries of Hades. We find the first one before the access to the first circle, it’s Acheron (the affliction river). The second one, in the fifth circle, it’s Styx (the river of hate) the limit between the earth and the world of the deceased. The third infernal river is Phlegethon (the river of fire) whose soul’s ferryman is Phlegyas. Coronide, Phlegyas’ daughter, was seduced by Apolo and begat Asclepio. According to the mythology, Phlegyas, enraged, set fire to Apollo’s temple in Delphos and, in his texts Virgil stated, for that reason he suffered in hell. In addition to these three rivers, in the ninth circle we find an immense frozen lake: Cocytus, divided into four circular concentric pits. In the core of the last one stands Lucifer, which is described as a three foreheads creature chewing non-stop at the biggest traitors in history: Caius Cassius, Marcus Junios Brutus and Judas Iscariot. Brutus and Caius Cassius are considered the assassins of Cesar and Judas, Jesus-Christ’s betrayer.
In the seventh circle (composed of violent people: tyrants, murderers, thieves, suicides and blasphemers) the poet meets with the fruit of betrayal of King Minos, the Minotaur who, together with the centaurs, guarded the river Phlegethon.
The Minotaur, a monster with a bull’s head and a human body, alludes to the beastly and animal part living in the heart of the human being after his soul, due to a corruption process, loses its original condition and enters the world of death.
Geryon, a winged monster, symbol of fraud, transports travellers to the eighth circle. With a human face, “his face –tells the poet- was the one of a just man, so benign was the outside skin” (meaning that delusion manifest itself under a normal and inoffensive aspect) a snake body, lion legs, its back, chest and sides with scales and a scorpion poisonous tail (alluding to the backstabbing)
A pit guarded by giants separates the eighth from the ninth circle of the Inferno. As Cirlot reminds us in his Dictionary of symbols:
In the deepest and ancestral aspect, the giant’s myth alludes to the existence of a primordial and immense being whose sacrifice aroused creation.
However, giants can be as well considered as symbols of a “permanent rebellion”, a symbol of the Universal Man (Adan Kadmon). Thus, we can see in giants a symbol alluding to a human being as a microcosm tied to mortal nature.
At the bottom of hell, the poet is confronted with a vision of Lucifer, after which Dante says:
How frozen and how faint I then became,
Ask me not, reader! for I write it not,
Since words would fail to tell thee of my state.
I was not dead nor living. Think thyself
If quick conception work in thee at all,
How I did feel.
Inferno, Canto XXXIV
The vision of Lucifer alludes to a complete unmasking of dialectics and its expression in the very human being: the so called “Higher self”. He who is confronted with his own “Satan”, “Higher self” or “Threshold keeper” is not dead, but neither is he alive, that is, he doesn’t still belong to the world of the living, he hasn’t still developed his Higher Soul, the Soul-Spirit. Nevertheless, his natural soul has been transmuted though in an elementary way, in a New Soul, a longing soul capable of joining the Spirit.
Such a confrontation makes it evident that Dante has overcome “the nigredo” and that he is prepared for “the albedo”: the soul purification and the development of a New Soul.