“The Divine Comedy” (1321) by Dante is an epic poem about travels through the worlds of the Catholic afterlife: heaven, hell and purgatory:
- hell: underground below Jerusalem. A place of devils, unbelievers and unrepentant sinners. Famous people: Homer, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Cicero, Caesar, Ptolemy, Galen, Averroes, Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Pope Nicholaus III, Odysseus, Jason, Muhammad, Brutus, Cassius, Judas, Satan.
- purgatory: a mountain that rises out of the sea on the opposite side of the earth from Jerusalem, south of what we now know as French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean. A place for repentant sinners, where they are punished before going to heaven. Famous people: Cato, Dante, Cain, Pope Adrian V, Statius.
- heaven: the moon and beyond, continuing past the stars to where the angels live, and on to where God lives beyond space and time. A place of angels and saints. Famous people: the saints Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Francis, Dominic, Peter, James, John, Bernard, Mary, Jesus Christ.
Virgil guides him through hell and purgatory. Beatrice, the love of his life, guides him through heaven.
Hell was by far the most interesting to read about. Heaven was kind of boring. But that is understandable.
It reads more like Jules Verne than Narnia. For example, Dante points out how the sun is to the north at Mount Purgatory and how his body casts a shadow while shades (souls without flesh-and-blood bodies) do not.
The Comedy certainly was based on the latest Western thinking of the time in science, philosophy and religion. It is a painless way to find out how educated Westerners saw the world back then. Certainly much easier than reading Aquinas’s “Summa Theologica” (1274).
Heaven, hell and purgatory are each divided into seven or more levels, each one for a particular virtue or sin. Purgatory, for example, has a level for each of the seven deadly sins (greed, gluttony, lust, pride, envy, anger and sloth). Dante sees himself as winding up in purgatory because he wants to be a famous writer (pride).
While Dante does see plenty of famous people, like the evil popes in hell, most of the people he meets are Italians of his own time. So you need good footnotes. Most likely there is an online Comedy that footnotes through to the Wikipedia.
The book seems to be a moral warning to the Italians of his time. Not just because of who he meets, but also because he wrote in Italian, not Latin. Like Orwell, Dante does not believe in just world doctrine (this world as being more or less just).
English translations: I read the Allen Mandelbaum (1984) and Charles Eliot Norton (1892) translations. Both are on the Internet. While the plot and imagery come through – like how those who killed themselves became dark and twisted trees – Dante has to be a much better writer than how he comes across in their English.