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Free Study Guide-The Divine Comedy-The Inferno by Dante Alighieri-Notes
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The end of Canto III sees the Pilgrim faint due to the impact of the storm that had suddenly arisen. Now he comes back to his senses. He gets up on his feet and looks around to discover where he is. He finds himself at the brink of a deep valley that is filled with the sound of numerous cries. The valley is in darkness and the Pilgrim is unable to see what is happening in its depth.

Virgil tells him that they must enter the valley. He asks the pilgrim to follow his lead. The pilgrim notices his guide's pallor (Virgil's face is pale) and assumes the latter is frightened. He says so to Virgil. The latter informs him that it is pity, not fear that has made him lose his color. He feels pity for the souls suffering in the valley. The move forward toward the First Circle of Hell.

The only sounds emanating from the first circle are those of untormented signs of men, women and children. Virgil tells him that these are virtuous souls who did not sin during their lifetime. They were born before the birth of Jesus Christ. And hence they were not baptized into Christianity. They were unaware of God, as the Christians see him, and hence they could not be saved. Therefore, they find themselves languishing in Limbo from eternity. Their only suffering is their separation from God and their hopeless desire to be one with him. This desire is hopeless because they are doomed forever to exist in Limbo. Virgil is one of these souls who are consigned to the Limbo after their death. The Pilgrim feels pity for the fate of these, otherwise virtuous souls.

Dante the pilgrim asks his guide if any of the souls (of the Limbo) had been rescued and taken to Paradise. He is trying to confirm the Christian teaching that said Jesus Christ rescued several Testament figures from Limbo. Virgil confirms this and names the ones rescued: Abel, Noah, Moses, Abram, the patriarch David, the King of Israel plus his father and his children, Rachel along with several others. These souls were the first ones to reach salvation.

The two poets are on the move while Virgil is relating this to the Pilgrim. Soon the latter perceives a fire in the distance whose glow dispels some of the darkness. The pilgrim also perceives that the spot in question is occupied by honorable souls. Virgil satisfies his (Pilgrim's) curiosity about these souls and tell him that they are favored by Heaven for their deeds in the world of the living. The Pilgrim hears on of these shades express a desire to welcome Virgil back. Your shades join the two poets Virgil names then for the Pilgrim's benefit: Homer, Horace, Quid and Lucan. All illustrious poets of antiquity. And they include Virgil as one of their group. They welcome the pilgrim and include him in their august group (of great poets).

Then, this group of six, proceeds towards the light. Dante the poet does not disclose the subject matter of their discussion to the reader. They reach a castle surrounded by seven circular walls and a single stream. They cross the stream by walking right over it and then proceed by walking through a gate in each of the seven walls. They reach a meadow filled with serene figures displaying great authority. They move on and reach a place, at a certain height from where they can view everyone present in the meadow. Several great shades are pointed to the Pilgrim. These include Electra, Hector, Aeneas, Caesar, Camilla, Penthisilea, Latin King, Lavinia, Brutus, Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, Cornelia, Saladin, Socrates, Plato, Democritus, Diogenes, Thales, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Zero, Heraclitus, Dioscorides, Orpheus, Jully, Linus, Seneca, Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna, Averroës and many more. Dante the poet says that he cannot relate all their names because his story his long and he has therefore to omit some of the things he saw.

They part company with the other four and once again the pilgrim and his guide move on by themselves. Virgil takes him out of this peace into a noisy place, which is in darkness.


The pilgrim faints at the end of Canto III and reawakens at the beginning of Canto IV. During this time (While he is senseless) the two poets have crossed the Acheron. How this occurs remains undisclosed to the pilgrim. Thus his swoon (or sleep) is used as a transitional device - when he awakens he finds himself in Hell proper and out of the vestibule.

He finds himself at the very edge of Hell and Virgil leads him to the first circle of Hell call the Limbo. He comments on Virgil's pale color and the latter explains that it is due to pity for the virtuous souls languishing in Limbo. Christianity says that only Christians (who have been baptized) can attain salvation. Thus only Christians can reach Paradise where God dwells. Virgil explains that the souls in Limbo lived before the birth of Christ. Hence they were unaware, during their lifetime of God. Thus these souls, who have otherwise committed no sin, are denied entrance to Paradise. Virgil, himself, is one such soul. But now they are cognizant of the Christian God and desire communion with Him. This desire shall never be fulfilled and they are doomed to the Limbo for eternity. Thus although they are not tortured physically they suffer mental anguish due to the hopelessness of their positions. This is clearly illustrated by the Pilgrim's sensory impression of Limbo, "no wails but the sounds of sighs... of untormented grief".

An important point to note here is the pity which Virgil feels for these souls. It might appear incongruous at first, because, in the later Cantos he will rebuke the pilgrim for feeling the same emotion (pity) for the suffering sinners. But a closer book reveals that his attitude is understandable and proper. Vigil personifies 'Reason' in the Divine Comedy. And it is unreasonable to feel pity for sinners. But the souls in the Limbo are virtuous, their only fault being that they were born before the birth of Christ. Hence it is very reasonable and legitimate to feel pity for their sad condition.

Christian doctrine tells of Christ's Harrowing of Hell. When Christ descends into Hell and during this descent he rescues several Old Testament figures from Limbo. The Pilgrim is aware of this doctrine and wishes to discover if it is really true. He subtly questions Virgil about this being careful not to name Jesus Christ. But Virgil is aware of what the pilgrim desires to discover and confirms the Church doctrine. Christ did indeed save several souls from Limbo and these were the first human souls to reach paradise. These included, among many others; Abel, Noah, Moses, Abram, the Patriarch, David the King, Israel with his father and his children, Rachael.

The reader should pay attention to phraseology of Dante the poet, to grasp the skillful way in which the subtler shades of meaning are illustrated for example Virgil describes Christ as a "mighty lord" bearing "the sign of Victory as his crown". This is because he is unable to understand Christ in Christian terms and uses the imagery of his own classical culture. Then, Dante the poet, describes the multitude of souls in the Limbo as "the woods.... Souls were thick as trees". The imagery of "woods" should bring to the reader's mind the "dark woods" of Canto I and its symbolic meaning of loss of salvation.

As they continue forward the pilgrim perceives "a hemisphere of light" up ahead. He becomes aware that honorable souls occupy that spot. Virgil informs him that these are the souls of men who won great honor on earth and are graced by Heaven even though they dwell in the Limbo. The light is a symbol for human intellect. And the souls placed in the lighted castle are those of highly intellectual men and women.

Four great shades welcome Virgil back to the Limbo. They include him as one of their own; meaning a "poet" and extend the same honor to Dante. These four great poet's are: Homer, Horace, Quid and Lucan. Homer was a Greek poet and Dante portrays him bearing a sword because he was mostly aware of Homer's work on the Trojan War. Dante's inability to read Greek limited his access to Homer's work. He could only read the Latin translation and were mostly to do with the Trojan War. Homer was the great epic poet of Greece (9th or 10th century BC). He wrote the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey".

Horace is Quintus Horace Haccus, the Latin poet born around 65 to 68 BC He was born in Apulia and educated in Rome.

Ouid (Publius Ovidius Noso) was a Roman poet, born at Salmo in 43 B.C. His best known work is his "Metamorphoses", a collection of legends narrating the transformations of human beings into other shapes.

Lucan (M. Annaeus Lucanus) was a Roman poet born around A.D. 39. He was born at Cardova and educated at Rome. It was from Lucan that Dante got a lot of mythological material and historical information on the civil war between Compey and Caesar.

The "one name" they share with Virgil is that of "poet". And Virgil's expression, "they honor me and do well doing so" is not a boast but an expression of modesty. Because what this phrase means is that by honoring him they four poets are honoring the art of poetry, which is common to them all. Dante says that they included him as one of their elite group. Thus Dante has placed himself on an equal footing with the great poets of ancient times. This can be seen as self-praise or as an indication of Dante's awareness of his role as a poet, his purpose in writing. And also of the special position he enjoyed in the literary scenario of his times.

The six poets proceed towards the source of the light, which is a castle. This castle is surrounded by seven walls and a stream. The poets have no problem crossing this stream - they walk right over it as if it were solid. And just as easily they pass through the seven walls, through a gate in each. The castle is symbolic of the dwelling place of the greatest intellects. Similarly the stream and the seven walls are symbols too. The stream may represent eloquence. And the eloquent Virgil and Dante cross it easily. Since the souls in the castle aren't Christians, their intellect hasn't been illuminated by divine wisdom. Then it follows that the seven walls are the seven virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, intellect, science and knowledge. And the seven gates that provide an entrance to the castle are the seven liberal arts that were taught during medieval times. These are, music, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Dante gives a descriptive word picture of the castle's inhabitants. They are figures of calm authority displaying calmness of poise and seriousness of spirit. This description befits these men and women who are all very important pagan philosophers and poets, as well as famous warriors.

The Electra mentioned here is the daughter of Atlas. She was the mother of Dardanus, who founded Troy. Thus all the members of the Trojan race are her followers.

Hector was one of Electra's descendants. He was the eldest son of Priam, King of Troy. Aeneas is also a descendent of Electra. He marries Lauinia, the daughter of King Latinus. Thus in Aeneas and Lavinia the Trojan and Latin lines unite and this eventually leads to the foundation of Rome. The reader should note that Dante the poet effects transition from Trojan to Roman hero through the figure of Aeneas.

The Caesar that Dante mentions is Julius Caesar, dictator of Rome. He became the first emperor of Rome after subduing many opponents in civil wars. In 448 BC, on the Ides of March, he was assassinated by a band of Romans led by Brutus and Cassius. During his lifetime he was a brilliant general and he won popularity by his conquest of Gaul.

Camilla was the valorous daughter of King Metabus. A warrior, she died fighting the Trojans. Penthesilia was the queen of the Amazons. She helped the Trojans against the Greeks. She died by the hand of Achilles during this conflict. King Latinus ruled over the central region of the Italian Peninsula. It was here that Aeneas founded Rome. Latinus gave his daughter Lauinis to Aeneas in marriage.

"Brutus" is Lucius Brutus who expelled the Torquins from Rome. He was then elected first consul and consequently became the founder of the Roman Republic. The four women mentioned after him were famous Roman wives and mothers. "Lucretia" was the wife of Lucius Tarquinus Collatinus. "Julia" was the daughter of Julius Caesar and wife of Pompey. "Maria" was the second wife of Cato of Utica. "Cornelia" was the daughter of Scipio Africanus Major and the mother of the Gracchi, the tribunes Tiberius and Caius.

"Saladin" was the Sultan of Egypt and Syria. He was a distinguished soldier and much lauded for his generosity. The Medieval age honored him and hence Dante includes him here, along with other respected souls. But Saladin was not so honored during his own time. Hence, Dante the Poet places him at a distance from the Trojan and Roman heroes.

Aristotle was regarded as the "master sage" in the later Middle Ages. He was a Greek philosopher born in 384 B.C. in Macedonia. He was Plato's student Saint Thomas Aquinas borrowed matter from Aristotle's system of philosophy and added it to Catholic theology. All Western philosophy has it roots in the works of Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle wrote on numerous subjects like Dialectics and Logic, Philosophy Politics and Art. Dante himself was well acquainted with Aristotle's works and refers to them often in "The Divine Comedy".

Dante places Socrates and Plato close to Aristotle. Plato was a Greek philosopher born in Athens. In his youth he was Socrates' student. His wrote on many philosophical subjects, in the form of dialogues. He also founded the Academic school. Socrates was a Greek philosopher born around 469 B.C., forty-one years before Plato's birth. He did not write anything nor did he try to create a school or system of philosophy. He is famous for his method of argument called the "Socratic Dialectic". It consists of questioning that elicits form opponents an admission of the ambiguity and self-contradictions in their opinions.

Democritus was a Greek philosopher born around 460 B.C. in Thrace. He put forth a theory that said a random grouping of atoms led to the creation of the universe.

Diogenes, Thales, Anaxagoras, Empedocles and Heraclitus were all Greek philosophers. Zeno was from Cyprus and he founded the Stoic school of philosophy. Diogenes was the Cynic philosopher who believed, in attaining virtue through self- control and discipline. Anaxagoras was from the Ionian school. He theorized a spiritual presence gives life and form to material things. Thales founded the Ionian school of philosophy. His main doctrine stated that water is the elemental principle of all things. Empedocles was born in Sicily and put forth his theory of how the Universe results from the combination of the four elements (fire, earth, air, water) under the influence of love. This union is periodically destroyed by Hate. And the process repeats itself all over again. According to Heraclitus, knowledge is based on sense perception and man is capable of achieving perfect knowledge possessed by the gods. He ideas were expressed in very obscure language.

Dioscorides was a Greek natural scientist and physician. "De Materia Medica" is his most important work. In it he writes about the medicinal properties of plants. Orpheus was a mythical Greek poet and musician. His lyrical talent was so great that it moved rocks and subdued wild beasts.

"Tully" is Marcus Tullius Cicero, a famous Roman orator, writer and philosopher. "Linus" was a mythical Greek poet and musician, he was believed to have invented the dirge. "Seneca the moralist" who was wrongly believed during the Middle Ages to be another person. "Seneca the moralist" is Lucius Annaeus Seneca who followed the philosophy of the Stoics in his moral treatises.

Euclid was a Greek mathematician and wrote a treatise on geometry called "Elements of Geometry". Ptolemy was a Greek mathematician, astronomer and geographer. He was born in Egypt the end of the first century after Christ.

Hippocrates, Galen and Tuicenna were all celebrated physicians. Hippocrates and Galen were Greek while Avicenna was an Arab. Hippocrates and Galen were Greek while Avicenna was Arab. Hippocrates founded the medical profession and introduced the scientific are of healing. Galen and Avicenna wrote on the subject of medicine.

Averroes (whose name was ibn-Rushd, although he was known by the former name of Averroes) was an Arabian physician and philosopher. He was widely known in the Middle Ages for his commentary on Aristotle, which served as the basis for the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas. This is what is meant by Dante's phrase, "Averroës, who made the commentary".

Dante the poet says that there were many more souls there. But he is forced to omit them for the story he is telling is long. The two poets (Dante and Virgil) part company with the four shades and continue their journey, deeper into Hell. As they exit the Limbo the pilgrim perceives the charges in the atmosphere. The calm is replaced by agitation of air and darkness replaces the light.

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Free Study Guide-The Divine Comedy-The Inferno by Dante Alighieri-Notes


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