This entry is strongly influenced by Eileen Gardiner’s “Visions of Heaven Hell Before Dante”
It is out of question that Dante’s vision of Hell, i.e., “Inferno”, is the absolute champion of such endeavour in the Western Literature, if not Culture. How was it, then, before he depicted his masterpiece idea and it became embedded in the Western imaginary?
What was, exactly, the contribution o Dante? According to The Dante Encyclopedia. Ed. Richard Lansing. Garland, 2000, excerpt by Teodolinda Barolini it was:
“Also key to constructing a persuasive representation of Hell is what Dante calls the contrapasso (“counter-suffering,” Inf. 28.142), the principle whereby the punishment fits the crime.
For Dante, the contrapasso frequently takes the form of literalizing a metaphor: thus, the souls of the lustful are tossed by a Hell-storm as in life they were buffeted by their passions; the schismatics, who in life rent the body politic, now find their own bodies torn. Dante’s punishments display remarkable inventiveness and draw from a broad
spectrum of sources, from traditional motifs like the graduated immersion of a sinner in a river or a lake (already present in the Apocalypse of Paul) to the metamorphosis of man into tree as in Aen. 3.
Overall, Dante effectively deploys the contrapasso to deflect any sense of randomness or arbitrariness and to suffuse his text with a feeling for God’s order and justice. In this way, the contrapasso is a crucial tool in Dante’s attempt to represent Hell in a way that bears out the declaration on its gate—Giustizia mosse ilmio alto fattore (“Justice moved my high maker,” Inf. 3.4)—and in a way that reflects its true nature: since Hell is deserved separation from God, punishment is not something inflicted by God but the consequence of the sin itself. Here too, though some of Dante’s punishments may seem more fitting than others, and some more transparently suggest the sin being punished, a comparison of Dante’s Hell to those of his precursors reveals that he is the first author to deploy an ideology of moral decorum not sporadically, but as a systematic feature of his other world.
Ultimately, of course, what most distinguishes Dante’s Inferno from other representations of Hell is that he creates sinners so complex and alive that the reader is compelled to sympathize and identify with them, rather than simply to fear their lot and resolve to avoid it. While the lessons of earlier Hells are straightforward—beware, mend your ways, or this will happen to you—the reader of Dante’s Hell is drawn into a much more sophisticated dance, in which he or she must sort through the sirens’ songs of sinners who are devilishly attractive and tragically human. Only Dante constructs a Hell in which the reader encounters figures like Francesca, Brunetto, and Ulysses, and is thereby induced to engage the challenges not just of death but of life.”
What is this void that Dante fulfilled? Amazingly, if you google it, the most suitable answer comes form an unpretentious work from Eileen Gardiner, which contains English versions of a dozen medieval visions of heaven and hell ranging from the second century to the thirteenth.
These visions are the following and you can either read the book or take a look of what the Internet tells about them: