Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy”, written around 1300 A.D., tells 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: Charon
Heavy thunder broke the deep sleep that had taken me, and I started up, forcefully awakened. I looked about to see where I was. I found myself on the edge of a valley, a horrid abyss that gathered infinite screams into a distant roar. It was profoundly dark and cloudy, so that though I fixed my gaze on the bottom, I could not discern anything there.
“Now we descend into the world of the blind” began the poet, his face deadly pale. “I will go first, and you shall come second.”
“How shall I follow, if even you, who comfort my doubts, are afraid?” I asked.
“My pity for the anguish of the folk who are down below shows upon my face, and you mistake it for fear,” he replied. “Let’s go on, for we have a long road ahead.”
He set off, lead me into the first circle that girded the abyss. Here, so far as I could hear, there were no complaints or sounds of torment. The eternal air trembled with sorrowful sighs from the large crowds of children, women and men.
“Why do you not ask which spirits these are?” asked my guide. “I want you to know, before we go on, that these did not sin. They lived lives of merit, but it is not enough, because they were not baptized, which is part of the faith that you believe, or, if they lived before Christianity, they did not duly worship Yahweh. I am one of these people. Due to such deficits, and through no other guilt, we are kept here, and only harmed in that we live with the desire for heaven, but without hope of reaching it.”
Great sadness seized my heart when I heard this, because I knew that this meant that many worthy people were suspended here in limbo.
“Tell me, my Master,” I began, wishing to be assured of my faith, “has anyone ever left here to become one of the blessed, either by his own or another’s merit?”
“When I was new to this place, I saw the Mighty One come here, crowned with the sign of victory,” he answered, understanding what I asked. “He took the shades of the first man, his son Abel, Noah, Moses, the obedient lawgiver, Abraham the patriarch, King David, Israel, his father Isaac, his daughter, Rachel, for whom he did so much, and many others. Christ blessed them, but before then, no human spirits were ever saved from this place.”
We walked on while he spoke, all the while passing through crowds of spirits who stood like trees in a wood. We had not gone far from where I had slept when I saw a fire that drove back a hemisphere of darkness. We were still a little distant from it when I was able to discern the folk gathered around it.
“You, who honor both science and art,” I said to Virgil, “tell me who these men are that have such honor that it sets them apart from the others in this place.”
“Their honor and fame, which still resounds in the world, has won them grace in heaven and advances them here,” he replied.
“Honor the greatest Poet!” said a voice. “His shade has returned.”
I saw four shades coming toward us. They looked neither sad nor glad.
“The one with sword in hand who comes before the other three, like their lord, is Homer, the sovereign poet,” said Virgil. “The next is Horace, the satirist. Ovid is the third, and the last is Lucan. Since each shares with me the name that the single voice spoke, they honor me greatly.”
So I saw assembled in one place the fair school of the loftiest poetry, which soars above all others like an eagle. After they had spoken together, they turned to me with a salute, and my patron smiled at it. They did me far more honor, for they made me one of their band, so that I was the sixth amid so much wisdom. We spoke on until the light of morning, talking of things of which it is better to remain silent.
The next day, we came to the foot of a noble castle, circled seven times by high walls. A fair creek encircled the walls, but we crossed it as if it was hard ground. I went in through the seven gates with the sages, and we came to a healthy green meadow. There were people there with slow, grave eyes, and the looks of great authority. They spoke seldom, and with soft voices. We drew apart, to one side, to a bright, high, open place, so that we could see them all. There on the green plain were great spirits, whom I am overjoyed to have seen.
I saw Electra, surrounded by many companions, among whom I knew both Hector and Aeneas, and Caesar, in armor, with his falcon’s eyes. I saw Camilla and Penthesilea on the other side, and King Latinus, seated with Lavinia his daughter. There was Brutus, who drove out Tarquin; Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia; and standing alone and apart, Saladin. When I raised my brow a little more, I saw the Aristotle, master of the wise, seated amid the philosophers, who held him in regard and did him honor. Socrates and Plato stood closer to him than the others. Democritus, who ascribes the world to chance, Diogenes, Anaxagoras, Thales, Empedocles, Heraclitus, and Zeno were there as well. I saw Dioscorides, the good collector of the qualities, Orpheus, Tully, Linus, moral Seneca, Euclid the geometer, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, Avicenna, Galen, and Averrhoes, who wrote the great commentary. I cannot list them all; there were so many that any telling must fall short of fact.
Our company of six was reduced to two. My wise guide led me out from that quiet place by another way, into air that trembled, and I come into a region where there was nothing that could give light.
Dante’s concept of Limbo is quite separate from that of purgatory, which he describes in the next volume of the trilogy, the Purgatorio. His conception of what makes one unworthy of heaven is very Catholic: the unbaptized since the time of Christ, and Jews who did not follow the laws of the Torah before that time, along with all virtuous pagans (like Virgil), are condemned to Limbo.
According to Dante, upon his death, Christ descended into hell and raised up Adam and many other virtuous people who had died before his coming. Here, Dante is again referring to an apocryphal book, the Gospel of Nicodemus, which tells the story of the harrowing of hell.