In 2003, Dan Brown breathed new life into the claim that Jesus fathered a Holy Bloodline of Grail Kings with his international bestseller The Da Vinci Code, and in 2009 he sparked new interest into claims that the Freemasons were hiding a religious secret amidst the monuments of Washington, D.C. You will, I trust, recognize these claims as embedded in the fabric of America Unearthed, whose first season roughly paralleled the Da Vinci Code (and explicitly referenced the parallels), and whose second season is filming this week in Washington, quite possibly in search of (sigh) Freemason mysteries. Therefore, I have a passing interest in Brown’s newest thriller, released yesterday, Inferno, which takes for its inspiration a portion of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Let’s stipulate that Brown’s Inferno is a work of fiction, and despite its prologue’s spurious claims to factual legitimacy (a common conceit more popular in the Gothic era), anything presented in the book is, by definition, fictitious and cannot therefore be criticized as some did with the Da Vinci Code for fabricating or manipulating facts.
That said, one of the silliest thing in the book, according to one review I read (I have not yet finished the novel to confirm this myself) is perhaps the claim that the international symbol for biohazards, a set of three almost complete circles overlapping a smaller, finished circle, is in fact a code for the three heads of Satan nibbling on sinning traitors at the base of Dante’s hell. This is only slightly more plausible than Scott Wolter’s idea that the Nova Scotia flag contains a Templar code marking the spot where the Jesus Bloodline came to America.
It’s a fairly well-known fact that Dante’s vision of hell was drawn largely from the Greco-Roman version of the Underworld, and one of the concepts Dante brought to the Inferno from Antiquity was the idea of the “Gates of Hell,” a concept found among the Greeks and Romans as well as Near Eastern peoples going back to the Sumerians. It is this concept that interests me because it suggests that ancient peoples did not have the sophisticated understanding of science and space aliens that ancient astronaut speculators tell us.
For Dante, Hell was fairly clearly in the center of the earth, with Satan occupying the exact center. But for the peoples of Antiquity, the Underworld sat beneath a flat earth. How can we know this? The Sumerians and their successors in Babylon believed that the sun passed through the underworld gates in the west each night and served in the dark hours as the judge of the underworld, returning in the morning through the eastern gate of dawn (Sumerian fragment known as "Sumerian Underworld" and Enuma Elish 5.9-11). Obviously, if the ancients thought the world were round, they could not have envisioned a night job for the sun, or envisioned him as passing into the underworld. This concept carries over, in modified form, into Hesiod, who was influenced by Near Eastern myths. For him, there is a single great bronze threshold to the underworld. While the Greek sun does not descend and rise (taking instead a golden cup across the River Ocean at night), Hesiod does have Night and Day “draw near and greet one another as they pass the great threshold of bronze: and while the one is about to go down into the house, the other comes out at the door.”
But why should the sun, or night and day, need gates to travel from plane to plane? That is where things get interesting. It’s because the ancients believed that the plane of the earth was covered with an impenetrable dome accessible only via specific gates cut into it. For the Babylonians, this dome was made from the flayed hide of Tiamat, the cosmic chaos monsters slain by Marduk and set up over the earth, punctuated with gates. Many scholars believe that since the Sumerians claimed the sky dome had a zenith and that tin was the “metal of heaven” that they believed the sky to be a tin dome. Outside this was an all-encompassing ocean.
The writers of the Hebrew Bible, drawing on Near Eastern myths, also believed that the sky was some sort of dome holding back cosmic waters (Genesis 1:6-8). In the Flood narrative, gates in the sky open to let in those waters (Genesis 7:11). In the Jewish apocryphal literature, we hear speculation about whether the heavenly dome is made “of clay, or of brass, or of iron” (3 Baruch 3:7).
For Homer and the early Greeks, the sky was also a gigantic metal dome, either of bronze (Iliad 17.425) or iron (Odyssey 15.329). This is why gates were needed to reach the underworld below: one could not simply keep traveling to the edge of the earth and jump off. Instead, one had to either pass through the bronze gates of day and night at the edge of the earth, or pass through holes in the earth itself to pass to the plane below, as Heracles, Orpheus, and Theseus did in their journeys to the underworld, a type of adventure called a catabasis.
I’ve mentioned before that this belief strongly suggests that no aliens came to teach the ancients about astronomy or geology. Had they done so, we should expect mythology to reveal some understanding of outer space, or a round earth, or that the stars are not tiny lights suspended from an iron dome on cables, as the Egyptians believed. Where did Zecharia Sitchin think that the ancients imagined all those Sumerian rocket ships flying off to?
Such beliefs equally belie the claims of alternative historians who argue for a prehistoric cult of scientifically advanced priest-kings from a lost civilization who obsessed over astronomy and perfectly understood the finest details of the heavenly motions. How does David Childress square his belief in an ancient global power grid, predicated on the idea of a globe-shaped earth around which the power flowed, with a belief in a solid sky cutting off the world at its edges?
5/15/2013 10:55:55 am
5/15/2013 12:57:10 pm
I'm unclear... how is he trying to sit in Dante's head? This sentence, perhaps? : "For Dante, Hell was fairly clearly in the center of the earth, with Satan occupying the exact center."
5/15/2013 01:11:19 pm
I am surprised that you are unclear. Jason wrote that “it is a fairly known fact that Dante’s vision of hell was drawn largely from the Greco-Roman version of the Underworld.” I don’t have any idea from where Jason got that….unless I am not aware of Dante’s writing where he made that statement.
5/15/2013 01:51:54 pm
I'm not sure how it could be in doubt that Dante was drawing on Greco-Roman tradition. His Hell is full of Classical allusions, from the Underworld rivers drawn from Vergil to the Greek Underworld boatman Charon, from the inclusion of the Greek heroes among the damned to the judgment of the dead by Minos, just as in Greek myth. None of this is Christian in orgin. Dante's nine circles are his invention, but he was working with Greco-Roman imagery toward Christian themes.
5/15/2013 08:39:25 pm
"he was working with Greco-Roman imagery toward Christian themes".
5/16/2013 07:58:36 am
I would disagree about the Hittites, whom Dante could not have known except as a Biblical name. I wasn't suggesting Dante simply appropriated the whole Greco-Roman underworld point for point, but rather that his imagery was drawn from Greco-Roman myth, specifically Aeneid 6, with which Inferno has both specific topgraphical as well as deeper thematic parallels.
5/15/2013 03:11:38 pm
Yes, Dante’s Inferno is full of mythological creatures but we don’t know Dante’s motivation, therefore, it is nothing else but making assumptions. We may say that Popes or Bishops were influenced by Greek/Roman mythology by looking at art they commissioned………. ………. more assumptions. lol
5/15/2013 03:38:20 pm
So Dante used Greco-Roman mythological figures and imagery in his writing, but saying his writing was at all influenced by Greco-Roman myths is a baseless assumption?
5/15/2013 05:48:32 pm
LOL It sounds that understanding what making assumptions means….. is difficult to understand for a few.
5/16/2013 04:17:14 am
Tara, it sounds that making assumptions here is contagious. lol Perhaps it is a reason of dealing with so many pseudo scholars and novelists. Please show me where Homer talks about Nine Gates of Hell. Second, Cerberus the many-headed dog that guarded the entrance of Hades, is mentioned as early as the Homeric poems, but simply as "the dog," and without the name of Cerberus. Hesiod, was the first that gave his name and origin, calling him (Theog. 311) fifty-headed and a son of Typhon and Echidna. The place where Cerberus kept watch was according to some at the mouth of the Acheron, and according to others at the gates of Hades. Or another example, geryon or minotaur.
5/16/2013 07:21:19 am
1)I think it is both unfair & pretty excessive to call Jason "a pseudo scholar & novelist".Jason is a professional writer,that`s a fact & I do not remember him making a statement about being a scholar.
5/16/2013 07:54:07 am
I'm not sure I follow you, Mila. No one doubts that Dante had many original thoughts in composing the Inferno, but he drew upon Greco-Roman imagery in creating his vision of Hell. You seem to admit this in describing Cerberus as a denizen of Dante's Hell. Dante transformed the source material, but his debt to it is obvious. Even his nine circles of Hell owe something to the Classical idea that the Underworld had different realms, including Elysium, the general population, and darkest Tartarus.
5/16/2013 08:32:44 am
Tara, you wrote, "I think it is both unfair & pretty excessive to call Jason "a pseudo scholar & novelist".Jason is a professional writer,that`s a fact & I do not remember him making a statement about being a scholar."
5/16/2013 09:07:30 am
5/16/2013 09:47:15 am
5/16/2013 10:48:29 am
It seems, Mila, that you have an odd idea of what I meant by "influence." What, pray tell, do you call using Greco-Roman imagery? "Influence" is not the same as wholesale endorsement.
5/16/2013 07:09:07 pm
Forgive her Jason, she is picking on you.The new glasses & hairstyle have a radical impact on the "weaker sex". ;)
5/17/2013 03:48:39 am
5/17/2013 04:56:05 am
Jason,I was wrong, she is not hitting on you,she is just looking for a pissing contest.
5/17/2013 05:18:11 am
5/16/2013 11:04:08 am
5/16/2013 02:12:53 pm
Oh, Tara. You wrote that you enjoyed sarcastic debates. I don’t because sarcasm is the lowest level of wit. Lol Second, you may call our conversation funny…….I don’t. I have different ideas what funny and intellectually stimulating conversation is. I am already bored to tears. ;)
5/16/2013 07:00:14 pm
Aww,now you`re hurting my feeling.Unfortunately you never saw you coming.Usually when I am acting nice with someone,I have something in mind.Please repeat after me "Getting duped & being had".
5/17/2013 03:50:47 am
5/17/2013 04:08:54 pm
"sarcasm is the lowest level of wit"
11/22/2013 03:48:56 am
Hi Jason, I am quite fascinated with the concept that the antediluvian humans believed that there was field of water surrounding earth. Perhaps with the sun shining on it it would look metallic, bronze as is often found in ancient writings and mythology. I recently came to the idea that perhaps mythology has far more truth to it that we can accept today. The Bible speaks of this type of phenomenon too. I am currently doing more research on this aspect of humanity's historical world view and would appreciate it if you could share your insights in this respect.
11/22/2013 12:38:52 pm
Thank you for your comments; however, you would first need to prove the existence of extra-dimensional beings before speculating on whether they use doors, windows, gates, or wormholes to get here.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.