We’re going to go out on a limb here and say that the Inferno wins the competition for coolest setting of all time. Hands down. Not just because it’s Hell, the most intense of all places, but because it’s Dante’s Hell. The whole idea springs from his creative genius. In other words, he makes it all up. (OK, not all, but most.)
Where theologians before thought of Hell as some abstract fiery place underground, Dante gives us all the gritty details. Where is Hell’s mouth? Somewhere in the shady woods of Florence, Italy. Its exit? On Mount Purgatory in the southern hemisphere. Theoretically speaking, you could roll out of bed, book a flight to Italy, wander in the woods, and find the Hellmouth. That’s how specific Dante gets. His message is that Hell is as real a place as New York City.
Now you’ve seen Hell. You say, "why circles?" Well, Hell’s all about eternity. It’s about locking down sinners forever. Because these people have sinned and haven’t repented before death, they’ve lost their chance at eternal paradise. Their fate is fixed, and they can kiss any chance at improvement goodbye. Now, what better shape can convey the idea of endlessness than a shape that has no edges and no corners? Hence, Hell is comprised of circles. Concentric ones, shaped as a funnel. The worse your sin, the deeper down you are, and the smaller your circle. Dante’s reasoning goes that the worse your sin, the less right you have to act or even move. Smaller circles mean less room to move around. Thus, the greatest sinner – Lucifer – is completely frozen in ice.
Extending the concept of contrapasso further (punishment matching one's crime), one can see that the guardians of Hell reflect the sin of the circle they guard. Cerberus gobbles up anything he can get his fangs on, and thus he guards the gluttonous. Similarly, the Centaurs – specialists in archery and rape – oversee the circle of the violent. Geryon is an "effigy of fraud" and appears at the threshold of the eighth circle. Finally, the giants who betrayed the gods stand immobilized, as anticipatory echoes of frozen Lucifer, before the circle of the traitors.
In a nod to Classical literature, Dante includes the five rivers of the Greek Underworld in his conception of the Christian Hell. He does, of course, modify them to fit his designs, displacing Lethe and, in a creative move, rendering Phlegethon, traditionally a river of fire, instead as a river of boiling blood whose banks can offer protection from the rain of fire coming down.
Let’s talk about time next. We know that Dante enters Hell at dawn. He also emerges at the South Pole at dawn. Experts tell us that that’s 24 hours of travel time. But the fact that he exits Hell at the same time of day that he entered gives the impression – at least to him – that no time at all has passed. Creepy. Dante gives the illusion that time has stopped during his journey through Hell.
As for the exact date, the fact that it’s Easter weekend has to mean something, right? Well, Dante enters Hell on the morning of Good Friday, a commemoration of the day that Jesus was crucified. The death of the Savior coincides with Dante’s descent into Hell. Great religious tragedy and personal crisis coinciding? Do we sense some symbolism here? To give you a hint, Dante begins climbing the Mount of Purgatory and going towards Heaven on the morning of Easter Sunday, on the day when Christ was resurrected. Might Dante be setting himself up as a Christ figure?