Afterworld in Inferno and the Epic of Gilgamesh by Dante Alighieri
Afterworld is a common theme in many poems of ancient civilizations and the Middle Ages. As a result, various works illuminate various depictions of the afterworld and its creatures. For example, the poem Inferno, written by Dante Alighieri, portrays the underworld in the way it is commonly seen today. It is represented as a frightening place, fraught with condemned souls who are punished for various sins and guided by mythical creatures. Meanwhile, the poem The Epic of Gilgamesh utilizes a more ancient perspective, portraying mighty gods who are similar to mortals. While the most prominent themes of the poems are sin and mortality, the deep themes reveal the complexity of the afterworld.
In the first poem, Inferno, the afterworld is represented by Inferno, Purgatory, and Heaven, the final destination, which is only reached when the soul is purified. The poem accentuates the power of divine punishment and the importance of repentance in the afterworld. In the work, the reader sees every step the main character takes to move through the circles of Hell and reach the final point (Alighieri). With the exception of the pilgrim and mythological beings, everybody in every process of Hell is dead.
The souls in the underworld are referred to as shades since they are nothing more than spirits – their human bodies on Earth are no longer alive. The author’s tormented sinners may be in the underworld without their material existence, but Dante alleges that they are essentially the same individuals they were before death (Alighieri). Among the first sinners that Dante met was Francesca da Polenta of Ravenna (Alighieri). Dante’s recently discovered curiosity prompted the woman to tell Dante about her lustful story, which had sealed her destiny in the inferno (Alighieri). Francesca vibrantly told Dante her heartbreaking story, which eventually cost her and her loved one, Paolo, their lives. Dante finally faints due to unbearable pity, which indicates the beginning of the character’s evolution.
Gradually going through other circles of hell, Dante encounters other sinners. Each sinner invokes an array of emotions in the protagonist. In the sixth circle, the Epicureans are condemned, along with the heathens, by being imprisoned in tombs because they believed there was no afterlife (Alighieri). During the seventh circle of hell, Dante plucks a branch of a tree that is Pier Delle Vigne, an advisor who took his life due to a tainted reputation (Alighieri). While wanting to sympathize with the sinner, Dante learns that this is part of divine justice (Alighieri). This is the point when the main character learns about the essence of sin and stops feeling pity towards everyone in hell. The realization lies within the inevitability of people’s punishments and God’s justice. According to the author, death is not the final stage of these spirits’ existence. In reality, death is an excruciating and unavoidable afterlife for those who are in Inferno and they can only repent for their wrongdoings through torments.
However, aside from the tormented soul in the Inferno, there are other creatures who guard the place and guide the spirits. The seven main creatures of Dante’s Inferno, notably Plutus, Minos, Minotaur, Cerberus, Geryon, Centaurs, and Harpies, are analyzed for their purpose and responsibilities in the plot (Alighieri). Every one of these significant beings flawlessly fits their crucial position and plays their role in Hell.
There are two significant perspectives when it comes to the reason for the integration of the seven creatures. The first perspective depicts the creatures in their roles as guardians and persecutors of Inferno, which serves as a tool for creating a disturbing underworld environment. In other words, the author Dante portrays the beings as frightening lifeforms for the protagonist Dante because he believes that this method is critical to the plot’s progression. Another perspective recognizes the demons as metaphors that strengthen the author Dante’s discourse because they accurately represent human wrongdoings as they depict the notion of God’s retaliation for sin categorization. For example, Cerberus is the guardian of the third circle of Hell and represents the sin of Gluttony (Alighieri). The depiction of the essence of this sin was through the moment of Virgil throwing mud in the creature’s mouth to pass them.
As for The Epic of Gilgamesh, the poem depicts both Hell and Heaven from its own perspective. Interconnections between mortals and deities in the Epic of Gilgamesh are not what society holds in most contemporary religions. By far, the most striking distinction between divine and human strength is when Gilgamesh, the protagonist, is described as two-thirds god and one-third mortal, which uncovers the fact that Gilgamesh is the child of the king Lugalbanda and the deity Ninsun (The Epic of Gilgamesh). Unlike in Inferno, with distinct lines, The Epic of Gilgamesh implies that the boundary between mortal and divine is incredibly thin and that deities cannot and do not differ substantially from humans.
The deities in the epic represent the pinnacle of the hierarchy, and despite the fact that they are not mortals, they still intrude on the human realm. For example, the deities impact living beings through prophetic visions, and they are the greatest ruling power for human civilization, through disconnected from human challenges and hardships (The Epic of Gilgamesh). The deities in The epic of Gilgamesh provide a glimpse into the experiences of Ancient Mesopotamia monarchs and the wealthy elite, as well as how they regarded everybody else in the power structure.
The afterworld in the poem is depicted throughout the plot and interconnects with the character’s path, Gilgamesh, and his warrior friend, Enkidu. For example, Enkidu is reached by Gods and observers the Hell in the seventh table of the poem (The Epic of Gilgamesh). In the dream of Enkidu, the deities decide that one of the warriors should die because of the killing of Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven, and Humbaba, the monster that protected the forest (The Epic of Gilgamesh). Despite Shamash’s protests, Enkidu is sentenced to death and experiences an array of emotions, from cursing to repentment (The Epic of Gilgamish). In a second dream, the protagonist sees how he is being kidnapped and taken to the netherworld by a frightening Angel of Death.
The afterlife is described as a house of dust and nothingness. Here, the creatures that inhabit this place feed on clay and dirt and wear feathers while being watched by disturbing beings (The Epic of Gilgamesh). Unlike the representation of the underworld in Inferno, The Epic of Gilgamesh does not provide a variety of places, instead describes it as a world where no light is ever seen and the everlasting darkness reigns (The Epic of Gilgamesh). Additionally, Hell in the given poem does not differentiate between souls, implying that all dead spirits come to this house of dust.
From the dream of Enkidu, it can be seen how the character encounters various dead individuals, from servants to priests. The warrior describes how every corner of the place has heaps of crowns of former kings and that the kings served as food for frightening creatures, gods Anu and Enlil (The Epic of Gilgamesh). While in Dante’s version, only sinners go to Hell in order to be tormented for their wrongdoings and purify their spirits, in the Epic of Gilgamesh’s version, the souls are devoured by Gods in the underworld. In the end, Enkidu’s illness deteriorates over the course of 12 days, and, eventually, he dies after lamenting the fact that he was unable to meet a heroic death in a battle.
The author later depicts the endeavors of Gilgamesh to defy human mortality and find ways to become immortal after facing the death of Enkidu. In the beginning, the reader can see how desperately Gilgamesh desires to become renowned and pursue glory. The protagonist wants to perform extraordinary acts so that his name and heroism can be remembered everlastingly (The Epic of Gilgamesh). This motivates the character, but it eventually leads to Enkidu’s death as punishment for his arrogance (The Epic of Gilgamesh). After losing the plant that can give immortality, the character realizes they need to accept the eventual death (The Epic of Gilgamesh). The ultimate decision of Gilgamesh is to relish the moments he has now and shares his wisdom with the people of Uruk (The Epic of Gilgamesh). Thus, the idea of the authors is that the protagonists must contend with their physical bodies. Whatever their strength, bravery, or beauty, they will find a place in the netherworld.
As a result, the underworld and realm of gods are intertwined in The Epic of Gilgamesh. As seen in the poem, specific gods inhabit the netherworld and devour the souls of the dead. Moreover, while in Inferno, there is only one Creator who can punish the sinners, in The Epic of Gilgamesh, there are many gods who can punish the humans if they desire. The dream of Enkidu shows how gods can give mortals visions and show the netherworld. Additionally, the poem shows the inevitability of death through Enkidu’s example and Gilgamesh’s acceptance (The Epic of Gilgamesh). The dream of the former illuminates the representation of the afterlife of every living being.
Hence, both works illuminate the afterlife, the essence of the underworld and its inhabitants. However, while sharing some similarities, such as depicting the afterworld as a frightening and dark place with various creatures serving as tormenters and guardians of the netherland, there are still differences between the poems. In the first poem, Inferno, Dante represents Hell as a multi-stage place with Inferno, Purgatory, and Heaven. The depiction of every circle of Hell in Inferno and its guarding creature varies depending on the sin. Meanwhile, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the author depicts the afterlife as the same path for every living being. In this respect, after death, every individual is trapped in the dark realm where everything is covered in dust. Moreover, every soul is eaten by the gods that inhabit the netherworld.
Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Graywolf Press, 2013.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. Translated by Campbell Thompson, Creative Media Partners, 2017.