The Millennium Phoenix

The Millennium Phoenix

The Millennium Phoenix

Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Hozier’s Unreal Unearth

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265 and would go on to be known as one of (if not the best) writers in the Italian language. One work of his stands above all others, “The Divine Comedy”. The work, originally just referred to as ‘The Comedy’, tells the story of Dante’s journey by god through the 9 circles or layers of hell. This work functioned as the artistic inspiration behind Irish singer-songwriter Hozier’s newest album Unreal Unearth.


Dante’s long narrative poem begins in Limbo this opening layer is not as much ‘hell’ as it is eternal living. This circle is essentially Earth, for those who lived before the death of Christ and they can never die. They will never know the depths of hell but, importantly they will never know heaven. What makes this layer particularly interesting is that it is the only layer some have been rescued from. Dante notes briefly in his work that when Jesus went back up to heaven after his resurrection he went to this layer to save some Old Testament (pre-resurrection) biblical figures from this eternal limbo. In a sense, this layer is the only one where God’s grace can save you but Jesus’s actions here leave the rest of hell damaged. A ripple effect is sent through the other layers leaving visible scars. 

This layer is also where Hozier begins with the two-part song De Selby. In these songs, he establishes our entry into hell with two important symbols/ motifs that will emerge later in the album just as they do in The Inferno. The first is God’s effect on His living creatures and the second is the importance of the light versus the dark. The first of the two can be seen in the lyric:

With all mirrorin’ gone from the world/ But still the mind, rejectin’ this new empty space/Fills it with something or someone/No closer could I be to God/Or why he would do what he’s done”. Hozier begins our journey through the layers of hell with a reflection in the emptiness of hell. The first thing that is brought to mind in this eternal loneliness is the harm God has done. 

Light is a visual motif that is not lost in De Selby Part One especially light through home, specifically through Ireland. In this song, the ‘light’ comes from the Irish lyrics, 

“Bhfuilis soranna sorcha/Ach tagais ‘nós na hoíche/Trína chéile/Le chéile, claochlaithe

Bhfuilis soranna sorcha/Ach tagais ‘nós na hoíche/Is claochlú an ealaín/Is ealaín dubh í”

Translated* These lyrics describe their love as a bright light that when mixed with the darkness of night (hell or him acting as a personified version of hell) metamorphoses into a new state of being. A being now ready to descend into the deeper layers of hell with Dante.

The next layer is Lust. This layer is pretty self-explanatory but it essentially is for all of those who were “blown about by the passions of love”. The punishment (as it does in all layers) fits this crime with an eternity of being blown about by mighty winds.  Here Hozier continues De Selby Part One by continuing this narrative of the narrator becoming one being with his lover. Illustrated through the line, “I wanna run so far, I’d beat the mornin’/Before the dawn has come, I’d block the sun/ If you want it done”. His love here goes beyond the physical boundary of man but, this is a story of the journey through hell. Here his love is too much, so he lies in sin. 

*Not literally due to the fact he utilizes centuries-old conjugations that aren’t commonly used in modern Irish-speaking 


Gluttony follows, this circle is for those who overindulged during their lives. In this layer, there is a constant mix of hail and sleet so no one is ever comfortable. On top of that, there lives the three-headed dog Cerberus, who rips people open violently and leaves their still-living corpses scattered around the hellscape. In this layer, we see the first visible effect of Jesus’s saving of those biblical souls from the first layer, as we see Cerberus with visible scars and lacerations from Jesus’s visit. 

The effects of Jesus on specifically a dog connects ever so perfectly to Unreal Unearth’s 14th track ‘Abstract (psychopomp)’ which tells the story of when Hozier at a young age saw a dog hit by a car on the side of the road dying and saw someone pull over to comfort the dying creature. “The memory hurts, but does me no harm/Your hand in my pocket to keep us both warm/The poor thing in the road, its eye still glistening/The cold wet of your nose, the earth from a distance”. The person who got out of the car in this story acts as a Psychopomp, a Greek mythological creature that guides souls to their deaths. The psychopomp can do nothing to prevent the death of the creature except provide some comfort to this being’s last moments. The stranger is not God, or whatever supernatural force did this to the dog but, yet in that moment, they hold more power in the eyes of that dying soul than any god possibly could. 

Next is Greed. This layer is also rather self-explanatory as it is the layer with those whose egos and self-indulging blinded them from the remaining aspects of their lives. In this circle, people are constantly stampeding into one another and beating each other with bags of money to the point where they are bruised and mangled beyond recognition leading to an eternity of being Unknown and unrecognizable. 

As the title suggests this layer rather perfectly aligns with Unearth’s 15th track, ‘Unknown’ which describes the pain of the end of a relationship where you are left with no one other than yourself and have to live with the pain of being unknown. What the connection to Dante suggests, however, is that this ‘being unknown’ is a punishment for having been loved.


Wrath is a layer describing those who were constantly blinded by anger and hatred. Their punishment is constant drowning and fighting in the muddy end of the river Styx. Dante and his guide travel across this river to reach the next four layers which are guarded by a large wall and behind that is the city of Dis. The city represents a large shift in the intensity of the sins, everything beyond this point gets much, much worse. 

Guarding the walls of Dis is a crowd of demons that block the still-alive Dante from entering. That is when an angel appears and states that Dante is on a mission from god and if they stop him they will face the same fate as Cerberus, the physically harmed-three-headed dog from the 3rd layer of hell. Heresy is the straying of others from God’s path and Dante holds this sin within the city of Dis because he not only betrayed love but God’s love. At this point, the torture turns from misery to active suffering as those in Heresy are set permanently aflame only being able to see the past and future of the world but, never the present. 

As Dante walks along this section, he walks along the cracks left by Jesus’s entry into the first layer of hell. This gives off the notion that this mission by god was preordained. This layer is Violence, the largest of the nine layers it is divided into 3 parts; violence against others, violence against themselves, and violence against god, each more severe than the last. 

  1. Violence against others is the expected murder and genocide. The punishment for this was a permanent drowning in a boiling river of blood. 
  2. Violence against yourself includes suicide and active bodily harm (the belief that the church does not follow). This section’s punishment was the entombment in trees that Harpies are permanently attacking. This was to show that because they harmed their bodies in life they now had to spend eternity in something that is not their bodies.
  3. Violence against god was doing things deemed “unnatural”, this included bestiality and homosexuality (once again the catholic church did not and does not support that this is worse than murder, this is a 13th-century man’s opinion). This part’s punishment is an eternity in a flaming pit of sand. 

Hozier draws on the angel of the last circle Hersey and once again brings light into the darkness. His 12th track Butchered Tongue is easily my favorite of the album. Its imagery conveys the violence of colonization and the strength it takes to regain that lost culture. The first chorus states, And as a young man blessed to pass so many road signs/And have my foreign ear made fresh again on each unlikely sound/But feel at home, hearin’ a music that few still understand/A butchered tongue still singin’ here above the ground”. The first line referencing road signs is a connection to the Irish structuring of road signs that shows the English name for a location with the Irish written above it. The signs here illustrate the Irish people’s constant fight to keep their language alive. The title lyric ‘Butchered Tongue’ is not only an admission to a lack of perfect understanding of the Irish language but also a reference to the brutal violence the Irish faced at the hands of their oppressors. The lyric, “The ears were chopped from young men if the pitch cap didn’t kill them” in particular is a tie to the Wexford Rebellion of 1798, when the main rebel forces of the Society of United Irishmen revolted against British forces. The revolution ended with the death of over 3000 civilians and soldiers and the first use of ‘pitch capping’. This was a form of torture used by the British on rebels that involved covering their paper caps in hot tar (pitch) causing burns so severe they often led to the soldier’s death. Despite constant pain and oppression, their language can be read and sung on signs today. 

The next two layers Fraud and Treachery are also very sub-divided to the point where it would take another 1000 words to fully explain them. Simply put, however, the circle of Fraud consists of anyone who willingly commits fraud and Treachery holds— anyone who betrays Kin, Country, Friends, or God.  

Dante meets Lucifer and all of his faces in the pit of hell and then climbs out of the layers of hell and states: “Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars’ ‘. Like Dante Hozier ends his album looking back up at the heavens with First Light. The melodies of this song can only truly be described as ethereal we can feel Dante’s rise like the sun as Hozier describes, The sky set to burst, the gold and the rust/The color erupts, you fillin’ my cup/The sun comin’ up. After 15 songs describing the comparison of a relationship to the literal layers of hell, we ascend into the light. 


Erin Bejasa, one of the co-writers of this article, was asked what her favorite song on the album was, and without hesitation, she said it was Unknown / Nth. “I just love the unique imagery in the song. It’s so different from everything else I’ve listened to,” she says. One of her favorite lyrics is, “You called me an angel for the first time / My heart leapt from me / You smile now, I can see its pieces still stuck in your teeth.” Bejasa describes how this specific line takes such a human experience of fondly looking back on a memory and makes it feel so special and unique. Along with this line, her other favorite part of the song is the lively sha-la-la woven throughout the chorus, juxtaposing the depressing lyrics describing what it feels like to truly be alone. 

Ciara O’Reilly, my co-writer of this article, states her favorite song is Butchered Tongue: “It’s biblical love, you know. I would say it’s because he writes the song about home, Ireland. This song is written from one of the lower layers of hell specifically, violence. He describes Ireland as this faint memory of when things were better and when he was closer to the surface, and basically when he was closer to Heaven is what he describes Ireland as. I thought that was some stunning imagery.” One of her favorite lyrics in the song other than the one mentioning the young men and the pitch cap would have to be, “You may never know your fortune / Until the distance has been shown between what is lost forever / And what can still be known”. Ciara notes in regards to this line “Hozier has always spoken about the effects of colonization on culture and here it just shines through. Here, I believe he is talking about the Irish language and how grateful he is that despite generations of cultural cleansing by the English, the Irish have still managed to keep some of their ‘fortunes’, their culture.  

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