regulation of men’s sexuality in ancient Greece

sightless eel

About 2700 years ago, the Greek poet Archilochus wrote to his ex-mistress: “many a sightless eel you have taken in.”[1] The brutish image of a “sightless eel” figures men’s penises. Cultural disparagement of the penis was a component of castration culture and supported highly discriminatory, harshly oppressive regulation of men’s sexuality in ancient Greece.

Just as in modern criminalization of sex, offenses were socially constructed to have men as perpetrators and women as victims. The ancient Greek term moichos refers to an man engaging in consensual, illicit sex with a woman. No corresponding term exists for a woman engaging in consensual, illicit sex with a man. Rape similarly in ancient legal systems was defined as a man forcibly having sex with a woman.[2] That sex bias in criminalization has a long shadow. Until 2012, the U.S. Uniform Crime Reporting system defined rape as a crime that men perpetrated against women. With respect to rape understood as forced intercourse, more women rape men than men rape women. The gender difference in common understanding of rape reflects the social construction of men as crime perpetrators and women as crime victims.

Gender bias in defining sex crimes supported oppressive regulation of men’s sexuality in ancient Greece. Classical Athenian homicide law allowed a man to kill another man he caught in the act of having sex with his “wife, or mother, or sister, or daughter, or concubine kept for procreation of legitimate children.”[3] Basic legal protection against being killed thus didn’t generally apply to a man having  consensual sex with a woman. The corresponding punishment for the women partner in such illicit, consensual sex was merely being denied the right to attend public sacrifices.[4] That’s stark sex discrimination in punishment.

The trial of Lycophron in Athens about 335 BGC underscores the harsh regulation of men’s sexuality. Relatives of a deceased husband charged Lycophron with having adulterously contributed to a pregnancy with the deceased husband’s wife. That pregnancy resulted in a child positioned to inherit much of the husband’s estate. By charging Lycophron with adultery, the relatives sought to illegitimate the child and thus position themselves for inheritance from the deceased husband. If convicted of adultery, Lycophron would be executed and his remains expelled from Greece.[5]

Lycophron’s speech at his trial indicates the extent of sex-related violence against men. In an ancillary charge, Lycophron’s opponents accused him of urging aloofness on his former lover as she processed to marry another man. Specifically, he was accused of urging his former lover not to have sex with her new husband. Lycophron in his own defense declared:

Was I then so utterly senseless, do you think, that with all those other people in the procession, as well as Dioxippus and Euphraeus his fellow wrestler, both acknowledged to be the strongest men in Greece, I had the impudence to pass such comments on a free woman, in the hearing of everyone, and was not afraid of being strangled on the spot? Would anyone have listened to such remarks about his sister as these men accuse me of having made, without killing the speaker? [6]

As Lycophron indicates, men could be killed merely for expressing socially disfavored opinions to a woman. Moreover, women have relatively powerful capabilities for inciting men to violence against men. If a man doesn’t sexually serve a woman to her satisfaction, she could arrange to have him killed.

In the sixth century BGC, the Greek poet Hipponax perceptively figured the pervasive ritual of scapegoating men. A surviving fragment of Hipponax’s poetry urges:

… till he’s starved dry; let him be led a scapegoat
and given seven lashes on his penis. [7]

Criminalizing and demonizing men’s sexuality is a harshly oppressive feature of gynocentric society. Yet classical scholars have not recognized the highly sex-discriminatory regulation of men’s sexuality in ancient Greece. That scholarly debacle mirrors grotesque social injustice today. Men and women should refuse to consent to totalitarian regulation of men’s sexuality and should seek to establish a more just social order.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Archilochus, fr. 189, from Greek trans West (1993) p. 3.

[2] Cohen (1991) p. 99, p. 100 n. 5. Associated with the ancient Greek word moichos (man adulterer) is the word moicheia (adultery). Cohen observes:

A woman serves as the object of moicheia, never the active agent. Accordingly, Athenians employed such circumlocutions as “The woman with whom the adulterer {moichos} was apprehended ….”


[3] Demosthenes 23.53 (Against Aristocrates), from Greek trans. A.T. Murray (1939) for Loeb Classical Library. Cohen (1991), Ch. 5, for relevant discussion and analysis.

Law in action differs from formal law, just as the prevalence of men as public officials in no way implies that a political system favors men generally. Men often escaped the death penalty for adultery by paying money to the aggrieved man. Nonetheless, anti-men sex bias in actual punishment for adultery is well-documented both historically and cross-culturally. Mohsen’s 1970 study of the Egyptian semi-nomadic Awlad ‘Ali people found that out of 14 charges of adultery, three men were killed in punishment and no women killed. Cohen (1991) p. 132.

[4] Cohen (1991) pp. 121, 124. Men in ancient Rome faced worse punishment merely for not marrying. Id., Ch. 6, rightly shows the absence of fact and rationality in the still-prevalent ideological construct that women in classical Athens were secluded within their homes. Nonetheless, Cohen approvingly reproduces scholarly contortions such as “women produce their own consent to the order by which they are dominated.” Id. p. 162, quoting Godelier. Like claims about misogyny, that’s scholarly obfuscation in the service of dominant gynocentrism.

[5] Burtt (1954) pp. 370-4, introduction to Hyperides, In defense of Lycophron.

[6] Hyperides, In defense of Lycophron 6, trans. Burtt (1954) p. 385. The wife with whom Lycophron allegedly committed adultery was Dioxippus’s sister. She apparently wasn’t charged with any crime.

[7] Hipponax, fr. 10, from Greek trans. West (1993) p. 116. I’ve substituted “penis” for the local-colloquial term “willy.” In another surviving fragment of Hipponax’s poetry, a man reports a woman sexually abusing him. She thrashed his testicles “as if he were a scapegoat.” Hipponax, fr. 92, trans. West (1993) p. 121. Compton (2006) Ch. 4, discusses Hipponax and scapegoating, but without any recognition of the particular relevance to men and men’s sexuality.

[image] Electric eel at Georgia Aquarium, Nov. 7, 2011.  Available under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0. Photo thanks to Lars Juhl Jensen.


Burtt, J. O., trans. 1954. Minor Attic Orators, Volume II: Lycurgus. Dinarchus. Demades. Hyperides. Loeb Classical Library 395. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954.

Cohen, David. 1991. Law, sexuality, and society: the enforcement of morals in classical Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Compton, Todd. 2006. Victim of the muses: poet as scapegoat, warrior, and hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European myth and history. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University.

West, M. L. 1993. Greek lyric poetry: the poems and fragments of the Greek iambic, elegiac, and melic poets (excluding Pindar and Bacchylides) down to 450 B.C. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

praise of hundred-petaled rose underscores gender inequality

Simple facts about expected lifespan and being murdered, to say nothing of reproductive rights, matter little in public discussion of gender inequality. The public meaning of gender inequality depends mainly on imagination. That’s why it’s important to study poetry.

red rose

In sixth-century north Africa, the man poet Luxorius wrote eloquent, insightful Latin poetry. Consider his poem entitled In praise of the hundred-petaled rose {De laude rosae centumfoliae}:

In praise of the hundred-petaled rose

This one, I think, the golden sun has colored with its own rising
or has wished to be one of its own rays.
But well-known as Cypriot’s hundred-petaled rose,
into it all the blood of Venus has entirely flowed.
This is the star of flowers, this is the nourishing Lucifer over the fields,
its fragrance and hue merit the honor of heaven.

{De laude rosae centumfoliae

Hanc, puto, de proprio tinxit Sol aureus ortu
aut unum ex radiis maluit esse suis.
Sed si centum cum foliis rosa Cyridos extat,
fluxit in hanc omni sanguine tota Venus.
Haec florum sidus, haec Lucifer almus in agris,
huic odor et color est dignus honore poli.} [1]

Lucifer (literally, “light-bringing”) has the meaning “morning star,” the star that signals the coming of day. Yet Luxorius surely also knew that Christians associated Lucifer with Satan, a star cast down from heaven. Luxorius vigorously asserted the honor of his poem’s Lucifer — the rose flowing with the blood of Venus.

Another of Luxorius’s poems more directly indicates the figure of his praise. This poem draws upon the frequent epigrammatic motif of a statue coming to life:

About a statue of Venus on whose head violets grew

A Cypris {Venus} made of shining-white marble
revealed the truth of herself through a breathless body.
She infused her own heat into the parts
and by the flowers on the statue she came alive.
The jest isn’t deceptive:  “What blushes on the outside,
preserves the roses of the handmaiden’s vagina.”

{De statua Veneris in cuius capite violae sunt natae

Cypris candidulo reddita marmore
veram se exanimi corpore praebuit.
Infudit propriis membra caloribus,
per florem in statua viveret ut sua.
Nec mendax iocus est: “Quae violas foris,
servabit famulas inguinibus rosas.”} [2]

To Luxorius, a woman’s vagina is a fragrant, red rose — the star of flowers. It is doubly valued:

a pleasurable garden that is also useful to its master

{hortus amoenus inest aptior et domino} [3]

The vagina’s use is incomparably elevated:

Healing of all diseases follow from this place.
I have long thought that this spot is heaven, where the divine presence reigns,
because within this meadow death’s burden can be vanquished.

{Omnibus hinc moribus cura sequenda placet.
Iam puto quod caeli locus est ubi numina regnant,
cum datur his herbis vincere mortis onus.}

Throughout history men have commonly praised women. Yet in naturalistic poetry reaching to heaven, few have outdone Luxorius’s praise of the vagina.

No comparable poetry exists in praise of the penis. In medieval Latin poetry, Bernardus Silvestris forthrightly recognized the importance of the penis to women. Yet Bernardus’s poem doesn’t depict an organ exalted as much as the vagina in Luxorius’s poetry. Classical literature documents women’s appreciation for large penises, but it does so without poetic eloquence. Typical treatment of the penis is disparaging. The Old French fabliau The Fisherman of Pont-sur-Seine records a wife’s outrageous disparagement of her husband’s penis. The fifteenth-century Middle English poem A Talk of Ten Wives on Their Husbands’ Ware heaps abuse on husbands’ penises to an astonishing extent. Dafydd ap Gwilym’s medieval Welsh poem Cywydd y Gal (Penis Poem) shows how men internalize such abuse and how it becomes enshrined in men-oppressing sex criminalization. Compared to many initiatives today, encouraging more poetry in praise of men’s penises would be a relatively fruitful and worthwhile step toward gender equality.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Luxorius, Hanc puto de proprio, Anthologia Latina 361, Latin text from Riese & Shackleton Bailey (1982) p. 281, my translation with help from Rosenblum (1961) p. 159  (poem 80) and Beck (2012) p. 177. Subsequent translations are done similarly. Cypriot is an epithet for Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Beck (2012), pp. 13-4, recognizes the erotic figure of this poem.

On Lucifer, see Isaiah 14:12-5 and Luke 10:18.

[2] Luxorius, Cypris candidulo, Anthologia Latina 351, Latin text from Riese & Shackleton Bailey (1982) pp. 275-6. This is poem 70 in Rosenblum and Beck. Readings of the Latin vary for the last two lines. Rosenblum has:

Nec mendax locus est. Qui violas feret,
Servabit famulas inguinibus rosas.

Rosenblum (1961) p. 152. The sense of the praise of the vagina doesn’t depend on a particular textual variant.

The figure of Venus on whose head violets grew adapts an ancient figure. In Homer’s Odyssey, the bard Demodocus sang the Love of Ares and Aphrodite Crowned with Flowers. Odyssey 8.266-366. Venus was the Roman assimilation of the Greek goddess Aphrodite.

[3] Luxorius, Constructas inter moles, Anthologia Latina 364, Latin text from Riese & Shackleton Bailey (1982) p. 283. The subsequent quote is from id. This is poem 83 in Rosenblum and Beck.

[image] Red Rose. Photo thanks to George Hodan, who released it to the public domain on


Beck, Art, trans. 2012. Luxorius. Opera omnia or, a Duet for Sitar and Trombone. Los Angeles: Otis Books | Seismicity Editions.

Riese, Alexander, and David R. Shackleton Bailey. 1982. Anthologia latina: sive poesis latinae supplementum. Pars. 1. Carmina in codicibus scripta. Fasc. 1. Libri Salmasiani aliorumque carmina. Stutgardiae: In aedibus Teubneri. Online prior edition Riese (1894).

Rosenblum, Morris. 1961. Luxorius: a Latin poet among the Vandals; together with a text of the poems and an English translation. New York: Columbia University Press.

counter nostos: wonder of men willing to marry in ancient Greece

ODysseus struggling in nostos

Homer’s myth of Odysseus overcoming all obstacles and pain to return home to his wife Penelope (nostos) has greatly influenced western Eurasian imagination. Archilochus, another archaic Greek poet, apparently addressed the imaginative force of Homer’s tale of Odysseus:

There is nothing now you can’t expect, nothing’s against the odds,
there are no miracles, now Zeus the father of the gods
has turned noonday into night and hidden the bright sun
out of the sky, so clammy dread came over everyone.
From now on all is credible, and like enough to be:
let none of you now be surprised at anything you see,
not even if land animals switch to where dolphins roam,
and the salt sea and the crashing waves become their chosen home,
while dolphins take a fancy to the mountains and the trees. [1]

The poem then takes a surprising turn. What follows has survived only in fragments, but a key feature can be discerned. A eminent classical scholar explained:

The text then becomes very fragmentary, but we can see that in the next line the speaker focused on a particular happening in the local community, no doubt one that was unexpected or contrary to the natural course of things. It concerned an Archeanactides and a marriage which he or someone else contracted, and we know that the speaker went on to talk about his own daughter. [2]

The scholar partially reconstructed the text as:

Indeed, already we observe that Archeanactides,
the … the son of ..
had entered wedlock …
… but my daughter … [3]

What is a wonder like the wonder of land animals making their homes in the sea and dolphins living in trees? It’s the wonder of a man getting married!

Within gynocentric society, many men have long been reluctant to marry. The specific ways in which marriage increased the oppression of men in ancient Greece haven’t been clearly preserved. That’s not surprising. Written records are created and preserved within the gynocentrism that vigorously suppresses challenges to its fundamental order. Yet a surviving couplet of archaic poetry hints at the oppression and abuse of men within marriage:

Two days in a woman’s life give greatest pleasure:
those of her wedding and of her funeral. [4]

Records from the Roman period indicate Roman men’s reluctance to marry. Moreover, Juvenal, through the undeniable force of his poetic genius, managed to have disseminated poetry that questions the sanity of a man who plans to marry. Many men in ancient Greece probably faced marriage in a similar way.[4]

Of course, marriage in ancient Greece almost surely wasn’t as oppressive as marriage in many countries today. Anti-men sex discrimination in child custody and child support appears not to have been as severe in ancient Greece as it is today. No evidence indicates that laws like the four-seas law of cuckoldry existed in ancient Greece. Ancient Greece didn’t have a huge legal apparatus to gender-profile men for domestic violence and evict them from their homes through a shocking despotism completely inconsistent with fundamental principles of law and justice. Nonetheless, that a man got married in ancient Greece was an event of great wonder.

Many persons are deeply ignorant of the truth about men’s personal and social positions. Husbands and fathers deserve much more gratitude and appreciation than they typically receive.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Archilochus, fr. 122, from Greek trans. West (1993) p. 10. Archilochus apparently is drawing upon his experience of an eclipse of the sun. Such an eclipse occurred in 648 BGC. Davenport (1980), p. 1., names Archilochus (Archilochos) as the “second poet of the West,” after only Homer. Harris (2005) provides a detailed poetic appreciation of Archilochus.

[2] West (1997) p. 501.

[3] Archilochus, fr. 122, from Greek trans. West (1993) p. 11. The poem might include more direct reference to Odysseus or nostos in a part that hasn’t survived.

To both ancient Greeks and Romans, Archilochus was known as “the Satirist.” Davenport (1980) p. 2. Davenport observes:

Though he is said to have written with venom and, according to Gaitylikos, splashed Helicon with gore, we have no evidence of anything so caustic. We have to take antiquity’s word for it, or assume that the Panhellenes were far touchier than we about satire. Certainly their sense of honor was of an iron strictness. To mock, a Greek proverb goes, is to thumb through Archilochos.

Id. p. 4. Aristophanes associated Archilochus with lengthy poetry. Id. The ancient Greeks revered Archilochus’s poetic skill. In the third century BGC, a shrine to Archilochus was constructed on his home island of Paros. Archilochus thus would have been a worthy rival to Homer. What’s know about Archilochus is consistent with him making a lengthy, satiric challenge to Homer.

Hipponax, a Greek poet from the sixth century BGC, provides an example of Homeric parody:

Tell me, O Muse, of Eurymedontiades the Charybdis,
him of the gastric carvers, who eats in irregular fashion:
tell how amid the shingle the wretch will wretchedly perish
by the vote of the people beside the limitless seashore.

Hipponax, fr. 128, from Greek trans. West (1993) p. 123.

[4] Hipponax, fr. 68, from Greek trans. West (1993) p. 119. The Greek: δύ᾿ ἡμέραι γυναικός εἰσιν ἥδισται, ὅταν γαμῇ τις κἀκφέρῃ τεθνηκυῖαν. Hipponax’s proverb of men’s sexed protest seems to have managed to make its way to the present only in the neutered proverb:

The two happiest days in a man’s life are the day when he buys a boat and the day when he sells it.

On the modern history of that proverb, see Barry Popik.

Eminent Professor Gregory Nagy’s online discussion series “The Homeric Odyssey & the Cultivation of Justice” (introduction, outline) makes clear that the Odyssey is deeply concerned with social justice. Men’s relation to women, particularly in current benighted circumstances, is a critical but marginalized issue of social justice.

[image] Nostos. Odysseus and Polyphemus. Painting by Arnold Böcklin, 1896. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Davenport, Guy, trans. 1980. Archilochos, Sappho, Alkman: three lyric poets of the late Greek Bronze Age. Berkeley: University of California Press. (online introduction to Archilochos)

Harris, William. 2005. Archilochus: First Poet after Homer. Worldwide: the Internet.

West, M. L. 1993. Greek lyric poetry: the poems and fragments of the Greek iambic, elegiac, and melic poets (excluding Pindar and Bacchylides) down to 450 B.C. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

West, M. L. 1997. The east face of Helicon: west Asiatic elements in Greek poetry and myth. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

ice in the Inferno: Buddhist eschatology in the Divine Comedy

Lucifer in Dante's Inferno

Hell is frozen over in the deepest pit of Dante’s Inferno. That’s odd. Hell freezing over is usually deployed as an impossibility in a rhetorical declaration. Dante’s Divine Comedy has long been revered as a literary masterpiece and a defining work of European literature. But why the hell is there ice in Dante’s Inferno? The answer may come from Buddhist meditation.

The twentieth-century American poet Robert Frost naturalized ice in the Inferno. In one of his most famous poems, Frost connected a personal sense of love and hate to pondering the end time (eschatology):

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Frost’s personal library contained four editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy.[1] Frost’s poem has nine lines, and Dante’s Inferno has nine circles of Hell. Frost uses a modified form of the terza rima (three-line rhyme group) of the Inferno. Frost gives ice the more negative valiance, just as Dante froze over the place for the worst sinners. Yet hate being cold, and reason being more destructive than passion — those are romantic platitudes. Frost doesn’t really explain ice in the Inferno.

Earlier Christian eschatological literature includes desultory use of cold as punishment. The Apocalypse of Paul, written about 400 GC, describes twenty-five categories of punishment. Twenty categories explicitly refer to punishment with fire or extreme heat. Two punishments refer to icy circumstances:

I beheld there men and women with their hands and feet cut off and naked, in a place of ice and snow. Worms devoured them. When I saw it, I wept and asked, “Who are these, Lord?” He said to me, “These are they that injured the fatherless and widows and the poor, and didn’t trust in the Lord. Therefore they pay without ceasing the due penalty.” …

I looked from the north to the west and saw there the worm that never sleeps. In that place was gnashing of teeth. The worms measured a foot and half, and on them were two heads. I saw there men and women in cold and gnashing of teeth. I asked, “Lord, who are they in that place?” He said to me, “These are they who say that Christ didn’t rise from the dead, and that our flesh doesn’t rise again.” I inquired, “Lord, is there no fire nor heat in this place?” He said to me, “In this place is nothing else but cold and snow.” He further said to me, “Even if the sun rose upon them, they would not be warmed, because of the excessive cold of this place and the snow.” [2]

The punishment in cold and snow is the last-listed punishment in the Apocalypse of Paul. To deny the resurrection is to deny a key Christian belief. Dante referred to Paul’s journey to Hell and probably knew the Apocalypse of Paul.[3] Dante, however, treats icy punishment as a much more integral part of the Inferno than it is in the Apocalypse of Paul.

Other early Christian eschatological literature refers to icy punishment. A vision that Bede recorded in eighth-century England connected cold and hot punishment:

Walking on, we came to a valley of great breadth, depth, and infinite length. On the left it appeared full of terrifying flames. The other side was no less horrid for violent hail and cold snow flying in all directions. Both places were full of human souls, which seemed by turns to be tossed from one side to the other, as if by a violent storm. When the wretches could no longer endure the excess of heat, they leaped into the middle of the cutting cold. Finding no rest there, they leaped back again into the middle of the unquenchable flames. [4]

The narrator’s remarks underscore the association of Hell with flames:

I began to think that perhaps this might be Hell, of whose intolerable flames I had often heard talk. My guide, who went before me, answered to my thought, saying, “Do not believe so, for this is not the Hell you imagine.” … That valley you saw so terrifying for consuming flames and cutting cold, is the place in which the souls of those are tried and punished, who, delaying to confess and amend their crimes, at length have recourse to repentance at the point of death [5]

The alternate punishments of hot and cold are part of an figure of Purgatory. Hell in this vision is fiery, not frozen over.

Medieval European literature prior to Dante’s Inferno doesn’t offer any vision of rationalized icy punishment. Alternating punishments of hot and cold occur in Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis and Lotario dei Segni’s De miseria humanae conditionis — two highly influential, twelfth-century Latin works. Those depictions probably represent Bede’s influence. Vincent of Beauvais’s thirteenth-century Speculum Historiale includes simple accounts of visions mentioning cold punishments in Hell: rivers of ice-cold water, torments of heat and cold.[6] Such torments are more realistic than visionary. No one in Europe prior to Dante seems to have thought deeply about including ice within the well-known intolerable flames of Hell.

Ice in the Inferno, however, has well-pondered precedent in Buddhist eschatology. Narakas in Buddhism are places of torment analogous to Hell. Buddhist texts from no later than the fifth-century GC describe eight cold Narakas (“cold Hells”) and eight hot Narakas (“hot Hells”). One of those cold Hells is named Arbuda:

Arbuda or Chubur-chan. The bodies of the sattvas who fall into this Hell are frozen to bubbles, as foam is formed in the sea, when agitated by high winds. Unbelievers in Buddhism, particularly those who hold that nothing will exist after death, and that death is the end of existence, are destined to fall into the Arbuda or Bubble Hell, which is a gloomy, deep, cold valley filled with ice. Here they are continually smitten by a freezing wind, which penetrates to the bones. [7]

Other cold Hells similarly have evocative descriptions. Buddhist descriptions of the cold Hells involve complex figures and long calculations:

Buddha said to the bhiksus: “Suppose there is a big bamboo container which holds sixty-four pecks of sesame seeds. Suppose one goes to it every hundred years, and takes one sesame seed away. When finally one empties the container, the sinners in the Thick Clouds Hell {a cold Hell, as are the subsequent named Hells} have not yet exhausted their punishment. Twenty times the length of suffering in the Thick Clouds Hell is the equivalent of one period in the No Clouds Hell. Twenty times the length of suffering in the No Clouds Hell is the equivalent of one period in the Ho Ho Sound Hell. Twenty times the length of suffering in the Ho Ho Sound Hell is the equivalent of one period in the Nai Ho Sound Hell. Twenty times the length of suffering in the Nai Ho Sound Hell is the equivalent of one period in the Goats Bleating Hell [8]

Buddhist descriptions of cold Hells occur in long, complex, learned cosmological texts. These include the Abhidharma-kosa {Treasure House of Higher Knowledge}, written in Sanskrit in the fourth or fifth century GC, and the Dirghagama (Long Discourses), Sutra of Cosmology, translated into Chinese in 414 GC. In intellectual scope and intent, these works’ depictions of cold Hells are the most similar prior literature to Dante’s complex figure of ice in the Inferno.

In the Inferno, the mythic Greek ferryman Charon takes Dante across the mythic Greek river Acheron into the Underworld. Charon tells Dante and the other souls waiting to cross over:

Give up all hope to look upon the sky!
I come to lead you to the other shore,
into eternal darkness — fire and ice!

{ Non isperate mai veder lo cielo:
i’ vegno per menarvi a l’altra riva
ne le tenebre etterne, in caldo e ’n gelo. }[9]

A underworld of fire and ice has little precedent in surviving European literature. Those who would consider Dante and Buddhism only when Hell freezes over should show more respect for the Inferno.[10]

Hell on Cosmic Buddha (Vairochana)

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Serio (1999) p. 220, n. 1. Serio describes Frost’s poem as “a brilliant, gemlike compression of Dante’s Inferno.” Id. The subsequent three observations above draw from Serio’s analysis.

[2] Apocalypse of Paul 39, 42, from Latin trans. M.R. James for Clarendon Press, 1924. I’ve modernized the English. Bremmer (2009), pp. 303-7, dates the work about 400 GC in Egypt for the original Greek version, and the end of the fifth century for the Latin translation. A prevalent, less substantiated dating for the original version is the middle of the third century.

Here’s a table of sins and punishments in the Apocalypse of Paul, with each row (sin / punishment) categorized by temperature (fire, snow, or not specified). I’ve adapted the table from Bremmer (2009) pp. 307-8.

[3] On Paul journeying to Hell:

Later, the Chosen Vessel also went
to bring back comfort, strengthening the faith
which is the first step on salvation’s way.
{Andovvi poi lo Vas d’elezïone,
per recarne conforto a quella fede
ch’è principio a la via di salvazione.}

Inferno 2.28-30, from Italian trans. Esolen (2002) p. 15. In 2 Corinthians 12:1-7, Paul describes (with the modesty of a third-person narrative) being “caught up in the third heaven.”

[4] Bede, Ecclesiastical History Bk. 5.12 (Vision of Drythelm), from Latin trans. L.C. Jane (1903), printed by J.M. Dent, London. I’ve modernized the English. The subsequent quote is from id. Bede dates the vision to 696 GC.

[5] Walter of Châtillon’s twelfth-century Latin poems refer to Hell as “the blazing inferno” (ardentis … inferni) and “everlasting fire” (ignis sempiternus). Poems 45, 50, from Latin trans. Traill (2013) pp. 130-1, 166-7. Fiery images of Hell have been dominant throughout Christian history.

[6] Vision of the Boy William (dated 1146) describes in Hell ice-cold rivers as tortures. The Vision of Tundale (Irish, dated 1149, here’s the Middle English version in modern English) has in Hell mountains of fire and ice, as well as cold punishments. Gardiner (1989) pp. 156-7, 169. Both William’s and Tundale’s visions are in Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Historiale, Book 27. The Vision of Orm (England, 1125/6) reports torments of heat and cold. The Vision of the Monk of Eynsham (dated 1196) uses a figure of cold punishment that parallels that in Bede’s Vision of Drythelm:

The side of the mountain overhanging one part of the lake sent fire up to the the heavens, on the opposite promontory of the same hill there was such an intense cold, caused by snow, hail, and raging storms, that I thought I had never seen anything more torturing than the cold in that place.

Adapted into modern English by Gardiner (1989) p. 206. Morgan (1990) provides a less accessible review of popular visions of Hell before Dante than does Gardiner’s Hell Online.

Morgan (1990), Ch. 4, finds considerable continuity in types of sins punished in popular European visions of Hell through to Dante’s Inferno. Morgan, however, ignores the distinction between hot and cold punishments. Barolini (2015) notes that Dante “is original in producing ice at the pit of hell.”

[7] Journal of the Buddhist Text Society of India, Volume 1, Part III (1893), p. 17. Id. p. 12 observes:

The Buddhist Hell which is the sixth state in the Samsara Chakra, or “World Cycle,” is described in Buddhist literature with a minuteness which bespeaks a vast amount of labour on the part of the monks. The terrors depicted far surpass anything of Dante’s Inferno, the tortures are more excruciating than the mind ever conceived, not excepting the darkest days of the inquisition.

Some Buddhist texts report ten cold Hells rather than eight. Howard (1986) p. 140 (Dirghagama); Duyvendak (1952) pp. 288, 297 (An Shih-kao, Chinese translation of the Sutra of the Eighteen Hells; Chinese popular belief). Duyvendak dates An Shih-kao’s translation to the second century. It includes cold punishment:

People in snow mountains with an icy wind blowing; their skin cracks but death, though they pray for it, does not come.

Id. pp. 281-2. Images of Hell are an important theme in Eastern Asian art after the tenth century. Leidy (2008) p. 91.

The English chroniclers Ralph of Coggeshall and Roger of Wendover preserved the Vision of Thurkill (dated 1206). Among European eschatological visions, Thurkill’s vision uses cold most similarly to cold Hells in Buddhist texts. Consider:

The second court contained similar cauldrons, but these were filled with snow and cold ice, in which the spirits were tortured by the dreadful cold in intolerable agony.

Vision of Thurkill, trans. Gardiner (1989) p. 232. Different courts of punishment commonly feature in Buddhist visions of Hell.

[8] Dirghagama (Long Discourses), Sutra of Cosmology Chuan 19: Chapter 4, “The Hells,” from Chinese trans. Howard (1986) p. 140.

[9] Dante, Inferno 3.85-7, from Italian trans. Esolen (2002) p. 27.

[10] Important recent scholarship has explored the relation of Islam and Byzantium to Dante’s Commedia. Ziolkowski (2014), Ziolkowski (2015). Duyvendak observes:

The identity of certain fundamental conceptions about Hell, found in East and West, has very ancient origins.

Duyvendak (1952) p. 313. Those common conceptions extend all the way to eastern Eurasia.

[images] (1) Illustration from Dante Alghieri, La Commedia, with commentary by Christophorus Landinus (Brescia, Boninus de Boninis, de Ragusia, 31 May 1487) Columbia University Library, Rare Book Incunabula GoffD31. Here are more information about this book’s illustrations and more information about the book. (2) Digitally enhanced photo of the punishment registers on the front of the Cosmic Buddha (Vairochana), item F1923.15, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. This sculpture dates to the late-sixth century. Here’s more information about the Cosmic Buddha, which you can view in 3D imagery.

The fifth cubicle from the left in the lowest register of the Cosmic Buddha’s front design may represent a form of the Buddhist “Hell of the Dark-Cold.” That cubicle shows:

Two sinners are obliged to plunge into some liquid substance. One has immersed already the top-half of his body, and his legs are visible kicking in the air. An impassible warden pushes them down.

Howard (1986) p. 4. In the “Hell of the Dark-Cold”:

There is a round clear pool of water, with small demons attending on either side, and shouting. Dragging a man by the arm, they throw him into the water, where a large fish with a big head swallows him up in one gulp. And so on, one man after another.

Duyvendak (1952) p. 305.


Barolini, Teodolinda. 2015. “Inferno 34 : Satanic Physics and the Point of Transition.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Bremmer, Jan N. 2009. “Christian Hell: From the Apocalypse of Peter to the Apocalypse of Paul.” Numen. 56 (2/3): 298-325.

Duyvendak, J. J. L. 1952. “A Chinese “Divina Commedia.” T’oung Pao. 41 (4-5): 255-316.

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 2002. Dante Alighieri. The inferno. New York: Modern Library.

Gardiner, Eileen, ed. and trans. 1989. Visions of heaven and hell before Dante. New York: Italica Press.

Howard, Angela Falco. 1986. The imagery of the Cosmological Buddha. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Leidy, Denise Patry. 2008. The art of Buddhism: an introduction to its history & meaning. Boston: Shambhala.

Morgan, Alison. 1990. Dante and the medieval other world. Cambridge {England}: Cambridge University Press.

Serio, John N. 1999. “Frost’s: Fire and Ice and Dante’s Inferno.” The Explicator. 57 (4): 218-221.

Traill, David A., ed. and trans. 2013. Walter of Châtillon, the shorter poems: Christmas hymns, love lyrics, and moral-satirical verse. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M, ed. 2014. Dante and the Greeks. Washington, D.C. : Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

Ziolkowski, Jan M, ed. 2015. Dante and Islam. New York: Fordham University Press.