Dante’s Inferno: Canto 3 Retelling — The Gate of Hell

Chapter 3: The Gate of Hell

They arrived at a gate. Written on the ledge above the gate were these words:

“I am the way to a place of sorrow.

“I am the way to grief that lasts forever.

“I am the way to souls who are forsaken forever.

“Justice moved the creator of this place.

“Divine omnipotence created this place.

“As did Divine omniscience and Divine love.

“Before me only eternal things were made,

“And I am an eternal thing.

“Abandon all of your hopes, all of you who enter.”

Dante looked at the words above the gate, and then he said to Virgil, “These words are cruel.”

Virgil thought, This is the beginning of your journey to truth, Dante, and you are still naïve. These words are not cruel. Anyone who is in the Inferno deserves to be here — the Supreme Emperor does not make mistakes.

Virgil said to Dante, “Be brave now. Trust me, your guide. Now you will begin to see the souls who have lost the good of intellect.”

Virgil thought, Human beings can tell the difference between good and evil. This is something that animals cannot do. A dog does not feel guilty if it eats the food of another dog. Human beings ought to use their intellect to determine the right thing to do and then use their free will to do it. The unrepentant sinners whom Dante will see being punished in the Inferno and outside its gate did not use their intellect and free will to do these things.

Dante and Virgil heard shrieks piercing the air, and Dante asked Virgil, “Why are these souls grieving?”

Virgil replied, “Outside the gate leading to the Inferno are the souls of those who never took a stand in life. While living, they were neither for good nor for evil, and now that they are dead, neither Heaven nor Hell wants them. These wretched souls who lived without taking a stand are punished with the angels who remained uncommitted during Lucifer’s rebellion against the Supreme Emperor. They did not commit themselves to evil, nor did they commit themselves to good. Even the souls in Hell feel superior to them because the souls in Hell made a choice: they chose evil.”

Dante then asked, “How are these uncommitted souls being punished?”

Virgil replied, “These souls did not truly live, and therefore they will not truly die and go to a final destination, whether Heaven or Hell. Even torment in Hell is preferable to what these souls feel. In addition, these souls did no lasting good or harm on Earth, and they will be not be remembered on Earth.”

Dante looked at the souls, and he recognized a few of them, but he had no desire to remember or to record their names. They had done nothing to be remembered for, so their names ought to be forgotten.

Dante looked, and he saw their punishment: The souls were never still, for they continually chased a banner that continually moved and never took a stand. As the souls ran, hornets and wasps stung their naked bodies, and their blood and pus and tears ran down their bodies to the maggots on the ground.

Virgil thought, In life, the uncommitted souls did not follow a banner; in death, they follow a banner endlessly, running after it as it travels here and here, never remaining in one place. Similarly, in life, these noncommitted souls never staked out a firm position. In life, these souls never felt deeply, either for good or for evil. Now, these souls do feel deeply, as hornets and wasps bite them. They bleed from the bites, and maggots eat the pus that flows to the ground. This punishment is fitting. What these souls avoided doing in life, they now do in death. Divine retribution is always deserved, and it is always fitting. Divine retribution is known as contrapasso.

Dante then looked and saw another group of souls who had gathered at the shore of a river, and he saw that they looked eager for what was about to happen to them, although Dante knew that what was about to happen to them could not be desirable. He asked Virgil, “Who are these souls, and why do they look so eager?”

Virgil replied, “That river is called the Acheron, and I will explain all to you when we reach it.”

Dante stayed quiet; he worried that he had been too inquisitive.

Crossing the river in a boat was an aged man who shouted, “Grief is coming for you. No hope of Heaven exists for you. I will take you across the river to a place of darkness, ice, and fire.”

Seeing Dante, a living soul, the old man — Charon, the ferryman — thought, Living souls always bring me trouble. Hercules once came down to the Inferno and carried out of it Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hell. I want no part of a living man in the Inferno.

He shouted at Dante, “Living soul, go away. Stay away from the dead.”

Dante did not move, so Charon added, “You cannot come this way. If you enter the Inferno, you must use a different boat.”

Virgil spoke, “Charon, this is not the time for anger. This living soul is here because omnipotent power has sent him here. You need know nothing more.”

Virgil’s words quieted Charon, but Charon’s eyes glowed deep in his eye sockets.

The souls on the riverbank were naked and shivering with fright, remembering what Charon had said about their doom. They were also cursing and blaspheming; they blasphemed God, and they cursed their parents and the day they were born and the entire human species, preferring that the entire human species should never have existed rather than for them to be where they now were. Crying, they waited for Charon’s boat to reach the riverbank, and then they boarded the boat as Charon hit with an oar any stragglers. The souls jumped into the boat like leaves falling from trees in autumn.

Virgil explained, “Whenever anyone dies without first having repented, they assemble here no matter where and when they died. They are eager to cross the river, be judged, and be punished, although at the same time they dread it. These souls were eager to sin while they were alive on Earth, so Divine Justice makes them eager for the punishment they so dread. The Supreme Emperor does not make mistakes, and every soul who is punished here deserves that punishment. When Charon makes it clear that he doesn’t want you here, it is a compliment.”

An earthquake moved the land, and a wind swept the terrain. Dante was so frightened that he fainted.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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