Science in Dante’s “Inferno”

It is a common myth that the medievals thought that the world was flat. One of many proofs to the contrary is in Dante’s Inferno, written in the early 1300s. This poem depicts the standard medieval view of a spherical Earth – and, since the poem is set at Easter time, it’s appropriate to revisit it this month. In the poem, Dante actually travels down a Hell described as conical, through the centre of the Earth (long before Jules Verne!), and up into the Southern Hemisphere:

Dante correctly describes the shift in direction of gravity when passing through the centre of the Earth, and the effect of travelling to the Antipodes:

And he to me: You still believe you are
north of the center, where I grasped the hair
of the damned worm who pierces through the world.
And you were there as long as I descended;
but when I turned, that’s when you passed the point
to which, from every part, all weights are drawn.
And now you stand beneath the hemisphere
opposing that which cloaks the great dry lands
and underneath whose zenith died the Man
whose birth and life were sinless in this world.
” — Inferno, XXXIV, 106–115, tr. Mandelbaum

That is, by travelling through the centre of the Earth, Dante and Virgil arrive in the South Pacific, directly opposite Jerusalem, at about 32°S 145°W, around 460 km south of Rapa Iti.

Dante suggests here that the Southern Hemisphere is largely covered by water. There was an ancient belief in a Terra Australis, but Dante has rearranged geography so that the Southern Continent becomes a single, though extremely high, mountain. It was several centuries later that explorers like Abel Tasman and James Cook resolved the Terra Australis question.

See also science in the Purgatorio and in the Paradiso.


10 thoughts on “Science in Dante’s “Inferno”

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