Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy”, written around 1300 A.D., tells a of his fantastic vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven. The first volume, the Inferno, has had incredible influence over our modern conception of hell. There are several free English translations available, but, while researching the Inferno for a book I’m writing (working title: Journey to Erebus), I decided to try to turn Dante’s work into an easy to read book in modern English.
Previous Canto: Virgil is Sent by Beatrice
I am the way into the city of woe; I am the way into eternal sadness; I am the way among the lost people. Justice moved my maker: divine Power, supreme Wisdom, and primal Love made me. Before me, only eternal things were created, and I was the eternal thing created last. Abandon all hope, you who enter!
These were the words I saw written in somber colors at the top of the gates.
“Master,” I said, “these words are foreboding to me.”
“Here you must leave every fear; all cowardice must die,” said Virgil. “We have come to the place where you shall see the sorrowful who have lost all understanding.”
He put his hand on mine, with a smile from which I took courage, and brought me in to the secret place. Sighs, lamentation, and deep wails resounded in the starless air; at first I wept at it. Strange tongues, horrible cries, words of sorrow, accents of anger, voices high and hoarse, and the sound of hands slapping, made a tumult which whirled forever in the dark air, changeless, like the sand in a whirlwind. My head spun with horror.
“What am I hearing?” I asked. “Who are these folk who seem so defeated by sorrow?”
“This miserable noise is made by the wretched souls of those who lived without infamy and without praise,” he replied. “They mingle with the wretched choir of the angels who neither rebelled nor were faithful to God, but cared only for themselves. They were chased from heaven so that they should not make it less beautiful, and the depths of Hell will not receive them, because the damned would feel superior to them.”
“Master, what is so terrible to them, that makes them lament so bitterly?”
“I will tell you very briefly,” Virgil replied. “They have no hope of death, and their blind lives are so worthless that they are envious of every other fate. They have no fame in the world of the living; mercy and justice hold them in contempt. Let us not speak of them, but look and pass on.”
I saw a banner that whirled and moved so swiftly that it seemed to scorn all rest, and behind it came a line of folk so long that I would never have believed death had taken so many. After I had recognized some among them, I saw the shade of one who had, through cowardice, refused to make a great choice. At once I understood for certain why this flock of cowards were so displeasing to both God and to his enemies. The wretches, who never truly lived, were naked, and were stung by the biting flies and wasps that infested the place. These stings streaked their faces with blood, which, mingled with tears, fell to the ground and was devoured at their feet by loathsome worms.
When I looked onward, I saw people on the bank of a great river.
“Master, who are these folk?” I asked, “and why they so ready to pass over, as I can see even in this faint light?”
“Things will be clear to you,” Virgil replied, “when we reach the bank of the Acheron.”
With eyes timidly cast down, fearing that my questions might have irritated him, I refrained from speaking until we reached the river. There, coming toward us in a boat, was an old man, ancient and white haired.
“Woe to you, wicked souls!” he cried. “Do not hope to ever see Heaven! I come to carry you to the other bank, into eternal darkness, fire and ice.”
Then he laid eyes upon me.
“You there, living soul, move away from those that are dead,” he commanded. “You must go by another way and to another port for passage to the far shore, not here. A lighter ship must bear you.”
“Charon,” said Virgil, “do not be annoyed. This has been willed where there is the power to do what is willed. Do not question us further.”
The pilot of the livid marsh’s bearded mouth fell quiet, but rings of flame burned around his eyes. The weary naked souls on the shore had changed color and gnashed their teeth soon as they heard his cruel words. They blasphemed against God and their parents, the human race, the place, the time and the seed of their sowing and their birth. Then, weeping bitterly, they all drew near the bank of the evil river that waits for every man who does not fear God. Charon the demon, with eyes of glowing coal, beckoned to them and collected them all. He beat all those who lingered with his oar. Like autumn the leaves, falling one after the other until the bough sees all its spoils upon the earth, the evil seeds of Adam threw themselves from the shore one by one at his signal. Then off they went over the dusky waters, but before they had landed on the farther side, a new throng had already gathered on this one.
“My son,” said Virgil, “those who die after opposing the will of God during their lives come together here from every land. They are eager to pass over the stream, for divine justice spurs them on, and their fear is turned into desire. Good souls never pass this way, and therefore if Charon snarls at you, you now know what he means.”
The dark plain trembled so mightily that the memory of my terror even now bathes me with sweat. Wind blew forth from the tearful land, and vermilion light flashed out and overcame my senses, and I fell unconscious.
Here Dante adopts features of the Greek Erebus (the realm of Hades), the river Archeron, and it’s ferryman, Charon, into his “Christian” hell.
Next Canto: Limbo