Chapter 4: Limbo
Thunder sounded, and Dante awoke from his sleep. Charon had already ferried Dante and Virgil across the Acheron, and Dante saw before him the brink of Hell, a deep and dark and hazy place of agonized cries. Dante looked down, but he could see nothing clearly.
Virgil, his face very pale, told Dante, “Let us climb down now. I will go first; follow me.”
“You are afraid, Virgil,” Dante said. “If you are afraid of this place, how can I descend into it?”
“I am not afraid,” Virgil replied. “My face is pale because I feel pity for the souls in Limbo, the first Circle of the Inferno. The color of fear is also the color of pity. Let us go. We have a long journey ahead of us.”
Dante and Virgil walked down into the first Circle of Hell. There Dante heard no screams, but only sighs. Grief need not be accompanied by torture. Men, women, and infants were in this Circle.
“You aren’t asking me which souls reside here,” Virgil said to Dante, “but you ought to know that. It is part of the education you will receive in the Inferno. These souls did not sin, but they deserve to be here nevertheless. Even the souls who did great things while they were alive deserve to be here. Some souls were not baptized while they were alive, and as your faith tells you, baptism opens up Paradise. Or, if the soul lived before Christ was born, the soul did not worship God in the proper way. I myself lived before Christ and failed to worship God in the proper way. For these reasons, these souls — including myself — deserve to be here. We have no hope of ever achieving Paradise, yet we continually desire Paradise.”
Dante, like Virgil, pitied the souls here. He asked Virgil, “Have any souls ever left here, either through their own merit or through the help of another?”
Virgil knew the event that Dante was elliptically referring to — the Harrowing of Hell by Christ — and he replied, “I was not long a resident here when a Mighty Warrior came and rescued out of this place such great forebears and Jews as Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, Abraham, King David, Rachel, and many more. These souls deserved their salvation, and they were the first to be saved of all the souls who have ever existed.”
Virgil and Dante continued walking as they talked, traveling through a wood, and Dante saw a fire lighting a residence where honorable souls gathered. “Obviously, this is a special place. Which souls enjoy the honor of residing here?”
“Those souls are still renowned in the living world,” Virgil replied. “Their renown above also wins them special honor here.”
Dante heard a voice saying, “The renowned poet who left us has returned. Let us greet him.”
Four souls began walking toward Virgil and Dante.
Virgil identified them, “The soul in the lead, carrying a sword, is Homer, the mighty author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, epic poems about the Trojan War and its aftermath. Next is Horace, author of Satires, which teaches morality. Then comes Ovid, the author of the Metamorphoses, which collected many myths involving metamorphoses or transformations. Finally comes Lucan, the author of the Pharsalia, an epic poem about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great.”
Together, the group, including Virgil, consisted of the greatest poets of antiquity. By honoring Virgil, the four great poets honored poetry.
The five poets of antiquity talked together briefly, and then they motioned for Dante to join them, an honor that made Virgil smile. And yes, it was a great honor, indeed. Dante’s place as a poet is among the greatest poets of all time.
As they talked, they drew near the light. Arriving, they saw a castle circled by seven high walls and by a stream. Dante and the other poets needed no bridge to cross the stream; they walked on water as if they were walking on solid ground.
Passing through seven gates in the seven walls, they arrived at a meadow where renowned souls dwelled. Looking around, Dante recognized many of the souls. He saw heroes and heroines such as Aeneas, the hero of Virgil’s Aeneid who survived the fall of Troy, took his father and son out of the city (although his wife perished), and led the Trojan survivors to Carthage and then to Italy, where he became the founder of the Roman people. He also saw Lavinia, the Italian princess whom Aeneas married in Italy. She and Aeneas became important ancestors of the Romans. Camilla, a female warrior who fought for the Italians against Aeneas in Italy, was also present.
Among the philosophers whom Dante saw were Democritus, a Greek philosopher who believed in the theory of atoms: the idea that matter is composed of imperishable and indivisible units. Dante also saw Diogenes of Sinope, aka “the Cynic,” a Greek philosopher who advocated self-control and abstinence; and he saw Euclid, who is famous for his writing about geometry.
Dante also saw three great Muslims: the philosopher Avicenna, a Persian physician, philosopher, and scientist who memorized the Qur’an; the philosopher Averroës, an Arab who wanted to reconcile Aristotelianism with Islam; and the sultan Saladin, a great Muslim general and leader who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders.
The Supreme Emperor is not prejudiced, Virgil thought, except against unrepentant sinners. When Muslims deserve a place of honor, and yes, in the Inferno, this castle in Limbo is a place of honor, they get it.
Virgil led the way once more. Dante followed him, leaving behind the virtuous pagans, and they arrived at a place of darkness.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here: