Chris Marsh
Chris Marsh asked:

How did Dante get his inspiration about the structure of hell? Many of the characters and figures are borrowed from mythology and his contemporary society, but I was wondering if there was a similar source for the layers of circles that Dante and Virgil travel through. Thoughts?

Edward He made it up. Dante likes threes, because Christian theology finds them important. Hence the Holy Trinity.

To carry that out, Dante built lots of three-based structures into the work. The entire poem is made up of triplets that interlock, rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, and so on. In Inferno, he goes on like this for 34 cantos (chapters, you might call them). He continues with 33 each in Purgatorio and Paradiso, because he wanted 100 in the total, and he wanted Inferno to be slightly imperfect (because it's about hell, and all).

The nine-level formation of hell is another example of his fixation on threes (nine being the square of three). So is the fact that the Divine Comedy is, itself, divided into three parts.

But if you're asking if he cribbed from a preexisting Christian idea of how hell is structured, then no. His depiction of hell is so compelling that it has given rise to a lot of the popular imagination of what hell is like. Theologically, Christianity is extremely vague about what damnation is like.
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