An Initiatory Journey to the Afterlife for Spiritual Realization in the World of the Living

Isabelle Ohmann

The Divine Comedy is a masterpiece of literature and a monument of thought, which inspired the West in the same way that Homer did in antiquity. Written in Ravenna between 1304 and 1316, while Dante was in exile for political reasons, the work describes Dante’s own journey through the three worlds beyond: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.

The mathematical keys of the “Divine Comedy”

The Divine Comedy takes the form of a very long poem (14,233 verses, the equivalent of a volume of seven hundred pages) written in verse according to very precise architecture and mathematical keys. One of the numerical keys used by Dante in his poem is the ternary. On the one hand, Dante uses a rare poetic form, terza rima, which gives the poem a ternary rhythm. The stanzas are of three rhymes. The first verse rhymes with the third, and the second rhymes with the first and third of the next third, thus creating a form of chaining between the stanzas.

I n addition, each verse has eleven syllables, which is called “endeca[1]syllable”, that is, thirty-three verses per stanza (3 verses of 11 syllables each). It should be noted that thirty-three is also the number of chants of each of the three parts, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, Three symbolic animals guard Hell, which in turn has three rivers, etc.

The “Divine Comedy”, an archetypal and symbolic work

More than an extraordinarily imaginative poem, more than a work with theological overtones, full of all the erudition of its time, more than a testimony of the customs and characters of its time, the Divine Comedy is a text of the soul, about the soul and for the soul; an archetypal and symbolic work that speaks to us of the essential, of the spiritual realization of the human being and of his fullness in this life. Its reading and even its meditation is “allegorical, moral or anagogic”, in Dante’s own words, anagogic in the sense that it carries a spiritual and mystical meaning suitable for the elevation of the soul.

The “Divine Comedy”, an initiatory journey

The work recounts in first person the imaginary journey of the narrator, who is suddenly immersed in a dark forest.

There he meets Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, who invites him to enter the world beyond. Virgil is sent by Beatrice, Dante’s beloved lady, for the salvation of Dante’s lost soul and becomes his guide.

They begin their journey in Hell, followed by Purgatory, where Virgil is finally replaced by Beatrice herself, and finally Paradise, until the discovery of God, or the mystery of the origin of the world.

Excerpts from “Dante and the Initiatory Journey of the Divine Comedy”

The ‘‘Divine Comedy” begins on the night of Holy Thursday to Good Friday, April 8, 1300, in a “dark forest, in the middle of the path of life.” The age of the writer is thirty-five, and Dante has lost his way, is lost in life; in fact, he has lost himself.

[…] This forest represents our daily life, when it is empty of meaning and dominated by anxiety.

The writer finally finds Virgil… Virgil is a monument of Latin literature, just as Homer is to the Greeks; he is “The Poet”, with whom, of course, Dante is identified. Virgil, author of the Aeneid, in which Aeneas takes a journey to hell, is somehow endowed with some experience. […]

In the distance, Dante sees the mountain of Purgatory illuminated by the sun’s rays and wants to go there, but three animals prevent him: a panther, symbol of lust; a lion, image of pride; a she-wolf, image of greed, projection of the three deadly sins, which our traveler will see later through the mediation of punished souls.

“… against the fear that seized me at the appearance of a lion. It seemed to me that he was coming straight towards me, full of furious hunger, with his head held high, so that all the air could be shaken.” Inf. I, 45.

Virgil explains to Dante, at first, that he cannot go directly to the sun and the illuminated mountain, but must go through the sufferings of Hell and the redemption of Purgatory: “It is convenient that you go another way […] If you want to escape this wild place… I will be your guide and take you from here to an eternal place where you will hear the desperate cries, you will see the ancient spirits in pain crying out each for the second death; and you will see those who are content in the fire, because they hope to one day, in the future, become happy pthem,you will find a soul much more worthy than me: I will leave her when I leave. “Inf. I, 90-123

Dante passes through the gates of Hades and the nine circles of the pit of Hell; like Ulysses in the Odyssey and Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid, but with a guide. Without a guide, Dante would have been doomed to remain in the dark forest or never find his way back to Hell.

In addition, the journey is full of pitfalls that Virgil tries, as he can, to thwart: the ill will or rage of the guardians of the infernal circles; the closed doors of Dite; Dante’s fainting; the steep steps on which Virgil has to carry Dante; Malacoda’s lies, etc. Virgil is, in a way, Ariadne’s thread. As in any spiritual journey, it is necessary to have a teacher and a guide to accompany you along the way.

Virgil explains to Dante what awaits him: he will have to face the vices, darkness and pain of Hell, before he can enter Purgatory. This is the path of initiation, symbolized by Job sitting on the dunghill and by the black work of the alchemists: every path to the light begins with an encounter with darkness and blackness.

Virgil also predicts that, when they arrive in Paradise, he will be replaced by a more worthy soul, namely, Beatrice. This is also significant: to ascend to spiritual heights, Dante will need not only the inspired intelligence that Virgil represents, but, from a certain moment, he will have to awaken in himself the love-intu[1]ition that Beatrice symbolizes. Our reason and our mental perception, which Virgil represents, are relegated to the limbo of ourselves. They alone will not allow us to reach spiritual awakening, even if they are a guide and an indispensable passage to reach certain summits.

The monumental work of the Divine Comedy, for the intensity of the narrative, the imaginary geography, and the strength of all its descriptions, has inspired many artists over the centuries, starting with Botticelli, but also William Blake, Gustave Doré and Salvador Dalí, to name the best known. Today he invites us to rediscover the inner path towards the highest of ourselves.


Isabelle Ohmann (2021). Dante et le voyage initiatique de la Divine Comédie, Isabelle Ohmann, Éditions Maison de la Philosophie, Collection Petites conférences philosophiques. 88 pages.
Isabelle Ohmann (2021). ‘Dante, poète éternel’. Revue Acropolis, nº332. https://www.revue-acropolis. fr/dante-poete-eternel/