How are punishments in Hell determined?

In the Inferno, punishment is designed to fit the crime, though in some cases, punishment is also designed to symbolize the sin itself, especially its impact during life on the sinners and/or their victims. Every punishment is justly suited to the nature of the particular wrongdoing for which the sinner is condemned. Gluttons, for instance, become ghostly forms “flattened by the rain,” so that while they once indulged and pampered their physical bodies to excess, those bodies now become “emptiness,” and the souls experience intense discomfort, lying exposed to the cold downpour. Similarly, the soothsayers, who pretended to predict the future, are punished by having their heads turned around backwards, looking out over their buttocks. Because these people “wished to see too far ahead” into the future and made specious, untruthful prophecies, they are justly punished by having all power of foresight taken away completely. 

While all punishments fit the crime, some punishments in the Inferno also symbolize the nature of the sin being punished and its effect on people. Several punishments show how a particular sin, in life, affects the sinner who commits it. Among these punishments is the punishment for lust: being trapped in a “hellish cyclone” that “snatches the [lustful] spirits up in its driving whirl, / whisks them about and beats and buffets them.” Being blown about by hot winds, Dante explains, is a fit punishment for people “who made their reason subject to desire” and were figuratively blown about by their sexual passion.

In this way, the Inferno makes a point about how uncontrolled lust works during life, steering people away from rational choices and making them the puppet of their physical urges. Likewise, traitors are encased in what Dante describes as “a lake of ice, which in the terrible cold / looked not like frozen water, but like glass”; the imagery indicates that in life, treason freezes warm, meaningful human relationships between the traitor and his community, family, or benefactors. The Inferno thus describes some punishments in a way that symbolizes for living readers how they may be affected by their own wrongdoing.  

Other punishments, with an “eye for an eye” sensibility, symbolize how sin affects other people. In these cases, the sinners experience what their victims experienced in life. Thieves, for instance, are periodically attacked by snakes. Dante, describing an attack, notes the sinner “went up in flames / and disappeared in a collapse of ash,” only to have those ashes gather and his body restored, making him vulnerable to a second attack. The punishment symbolizes what happens to the thieves’ victims: as the thieves literally turn to ashes, so victims of theft have their whole livelihood figuratively turn to ashes.

Similarly, people who sowed discord are cut apart by demons. Dante describes one with “limbs lopped off” and another “slashed down the face from cowlick to the chin.” As Virgil explains, because these souls “sowed scandal, discord, [and] schism when alive,” in death their physical bodies are literally torn apart the way they tore apart the figurative body of human relationships and communities. Dante’s Inferno thus intentionally designs punishments to fit the crime and to reflect back to readers the ways these crimes affect both sinners and their victims on earth, urging readers to renounce their sin and live a holy life.