What the Hell?

With the announcement of Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus taking place in the Nine Hells, it's worth looking back on how we got here. And for that, we can blame Dante Alighieri, whose apocalyptic vision of hell greatly influenced D&D.


View attachment 106558
Dante shown holding a copy of the Divine Comedy, next to the entrance to Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory and the city of Florence, with the spheres of Heaven above, by Domenico di Michelino - Jastrow, Self-photographed, Public Domain

Who's This Dante Guy Anyway?

As Darryl mentioned in his coverage of the announcement of the new D&D adventure hardcover:

"It's a trip to Hell! It is D&D meets Mad Max Fury Road with a bit of Dante's Inferno." - Chris Perkins.

Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet during the Late Middle Ages who completed the Divine Comedy in 1320, widely considered the most important poem of the Middle Ages and the greatest literary work in the Italian language. In the Divine Comedy, Dante himself is escorted first by the Roman poet Virgil through Hell and Purgatory, then Dante's lost love Beatrice through Heaven. Throughout, Dante mixed in his knowledge of classical myths and pagan archetypes with his own personal vendettas, focusing on the conflicts between Black and White Guelphs, two political factions that Dante was intimately familiar with.

Beyond the enormity of the work itself, the Divine Comedy is notable for using Tuscan Italian instead of Latin, making it more readily available to a wider audience. The poem itself is an overview of medieval Christian beliefs on death and the afterlife, but it is also a surprisingly scientific overview of a spherical earth; Galileo Galilei even lectured on Dante's dimensions of Hell. It cemented in medieval imagination the portrayal of Heaven and Hell, and it influenced later literature and art through the ages. That influence is still felt today in Dungeons & Dragons' Nine Hells, which is indebted to Dante's vision of Hell.

A Macabre Mashup

Dante's wide-ranging knowledge of classic sources gave him a rich tapestry of monsters to draw from. In Dante's Inferno, anyone who died might end up there, including many creatures from Greek myth. That includes monsters that are now part of D&D lore: centaurs, erinyes, giants, harpies, medusae, and minotaurs. They all were enlisted along with more traditional archetypes of devils as tormentors for the damned. This loose mixing of mythological sources serves D&D well and is reflected in the game's cosmology.

Before the transition to Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, I worked on converting and fleshing out the Abyss role-playing game by Marco Pecota for 3.5 D&D. Unfortunately that product was never produced, but that research did inform my recent bestiary covering the demons, angels, and condemned souls of Dante's Inferno.

It's worth noting that not everything Dante created holds up under modern sensibilities. Dante was influenced by current events and medieval beliefs at the time, and his portrayal of figures both broad and specific range from inaccurate to offensive. And yet, there's enough ingredients to work into any fantasy setting, which is exactly what later authors would do. Dante's mix-and-match sensibilities line up nicely with D&D, but it wasn't fully fleshed out 1983. And it's all Ed Greenwood's fault.

What the Hell, Ed?

Ed Greenwood, father of the Forgotten Realms, laid out his vision of Hell in Dragon issues 75 and 76. Greenwood took Dante's material and brought into the D&D cosmology. Rich Baker explains:

To this day, the layers of Avernus, Dis, Minauros, Phlegethos, Stygia, Malbolge, Maldomini, Cania, and Nessus remain the best known of all the outer planes. Ask any D&D player what the first layer of Acheron is like or what the names of the Seven Heavens are, and you’ll probably get a blank stare. But every true D&D fan knows that you’ll run into fireballs and spined devils on the plains of Avernus, that Geryon was once the lord of Stygia, and that gelugons—or ice devils—haunt Cania, the frigid eighth hell. These grim and terrifying domains belong to every D&D game. They comprise part of the common legends and lore players from all over the world can share and trade stories about. And it was Ed Greenwood’s brilliant, evocative vision that brought the Nine Hells to your gaming table.

Of note is that the "layers" line up roughly with Dante's "circles" but are mixed and matched. Caina is the name used for the first part of the ninth circle of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, Canto XXXII. Dante describes it as a completely frozen lake formed by the river Cocytus. Dis (a synonym for Hades), is a large, walled city in Hell with a well-guarded gate (Cantos VIII-IX), which is the origin of the D&D plane’s description. Geryon ferries Dante and Virgil down between the seventh and eighth circles, and his appearance as a human-faced, bear-pawed wyvern and his portrayal in Cantos XVI-XVII greatly informs his D&D appearance. Dis was also a name for Lucifer, so D&D used Dispater ("pater" means "father" in Latin) to distinguish between the two. Malebolge is derived from the Eighth Circle of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, Cantos XVIII-XXX, and means ‘evil pouches.’ Cocytus was transferred to Pandemonium (from Milton's Paradise Lost, itself a capital city for devils), as was the Phlegethon, another river in the Inferno.

One particular creature unique to Dante are the malebranche, demons who torment the souls of Inferno. Malebranche, which means "evil claws," have morphed through several iterations in D&D as Ecohawk explains:

  • In the original Monster Manual, the Horned Devil is listed on page 22, and is subtitled "Malebranche".
  • In the Outer Planes Monstrous Compendium (MC8), a creature with similar abilities is now known as a Cornugon.
  • The Cornugon is reprinted in the first Planescape Monstrous Compendium, on page 21.
  • In the 3rd edition Monster Manual, the Cornugon appears on page 52.
  • In the v.3.5 revision of the Monster Manual, the same creature is now listed as "Horned Devil (Cornugon)".
For Fifth Edition, it seems "Horned Devil" is what D&D settled on for the Malebranche.

But What About Avernus?

Avernus comes from another source entirely; it's a volcanic crater near Cumae (Cuma), Italy, in the Region of Campania west of Naples. The Romans believed it was an entrance to the underworld, making it a more acceptable replacement for the first circle of Dante's Hell, Limbo, where virtuous pagans (which, in D&D's pantheon of deities, would be difficult to quantify) dwell. Edmund Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene in 1590 -- one of the longest poems in the English language. Avernus makes a brief appearance in the first book as an opening to the underworld, where Sansjoy, foe of the protagonist Red Cross Knight, is brought by a witch to be healed of his wounds by another mythological Greek, Asclepius. Like Dante, Spenser's work mixes classical and romantic archetypes and monsters.

How much does D&D owe a debt to Dante's Inferno? You can see for yourself at Project Gutenberg. D&D continues the rich tradition that was once only relegated to highly-educated poets like Dante and Edmund, blending a hodgepodge of monsters and places from lore and remaking them to create a new kind of epic story.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

mosaic

Visitor
I remember reading Niven and Pournelle's Inferno (Sci Fi retelling of Dante) when I was much younger; I haven't touched it since then.
I love that book! Haven't re-read it recently, either, but I recall it having a rather deep theological proposition - that Hell functioned much like Purgatory, that those in Hell had the ability to leave at any time... once they recognized, accepted and repented for their sins. But those in Hell were even more attached to their sins than those in Purgatory. I don't believe in Christianity or Hell, myself, but I thought it offered a pretty decent answer to the question of how a god who is supposedly all-good, all-loving and all-forgiving could send someone to an eternity of punishment and torture. Inferno's answer - he doesn't, people send themselves, and when they are ready to see that, they can leave, even from Hell itself. Again, not personally a believer, but I thought that was pretty deep for a sci-fi/fantasy book.
 

talien

Community Supporter
The 1979 1e Monster Manual has a lot of the Dante Devil stuff well before Dragon 75. The Horned Devil Malebrache for instance have individual names straight out of the Inferno and there is the hairy pawed Geryon.
...

Yes.

Talien said:
One particular creature unique to Dante are the malebranche, demons who torment the souls of Inferno. Malebranche, which means "evil claws," have morphed through several iterations in D&D as Ecohawk explains:


  • In the original Monster Manual, the Horned Devil is listed on page 22, and is subtitled "Malebranche".
  • In the Outer Planes Monstrous Compendium (MC8), a creature with similar abilities is now known as a Cornugon.
  • The Cornugon is reprinted in the first Planescape Monstrous Compendium, on page 21.
  • In the 3rd edition Monster Manual, the Cornugon appears on page 52.
  • In the v.3.5 revision of the Monster Manual, the same creature is now listed as "Horned Devil (Cornugon)".

For Fifth Edition, it seems "Horned Devil" is what D&D settled on for the Malebranche.
 

Finglas

Explorer
I still blame Ed Greenwood, even if it’s not his fault, because a) he’s a good sport, and b) those Dragon articles were great.
 
I love that book! Haven't re-read it recently, either, but I recall it having a rather deep theological proposition - that Hell functioned much like Purgatory, that those in Hell had the ability to leave at any time... once they recognized, accepted and repented for their sins. But those in Hell were even more attached to their sins than those in Purgatory. I don't believe in Christianity or Hell, myself, but I thought it offered a pretty decent answer to the question of how a god who is supposedly all-good, all-loving and all-forgiving could send someone to an eternity of punishment and torture. Inferno's answer - he doesn't, people send themselves, and when they are ready to see that, they can leave, even from Hell itself. Again, not personally a believer, but I thought that was pretty deep for a sci-fi/fantasy book.
Borrowed from C.S. Lewis.

Who borrowed it from George MacDonald.

Who borrowed it from Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Who borrowed it from... well, probably somebody.

Not a terribly new idea in theology. There are few new ideas in theology. :)
 

Arnwolf666

Adventurer
I was raised my whole life in Christian theology. And the idea that God sends and/or torments people in hell was never taught. It was always people choosing to reject God and go there. And the torment was their separation fromGod and what they chose to do to each other. Basically if you don’t want to live in my kingdom feel free to leave. I respect your right to exist outside my rules if you so choose.
 

In Our Store!

Advertisement

Advertisement

Top