David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 4: Limbo”

“Canto 4: Limbo”

  • Dante the Pilgrim wakes up in Limbo. How does Dante the Poet depict Limbo?

Dante falls asleep, and then he wakes up in Limbo. Limbo is the first Circle of Hell. It is not a place of shrieks; rather, it is a place of sighs. The souls here are separated from God, but they are not being tortured. However, many of the souls here are great thinkers, and part of their punishment for not worshipping God correctly is to be denied knowledge: knowledge of God.

Limbo is where Virgil resides in the afterlife. This is where Beatrice came to ask him to be Dante’s guide. Other virtuous pagans live here, too.

Limbo is interesting because some people who used to be here are here no longer. During the Harrowing of Hell, Jesus released these people and took them to Paradise.

  • Which three classes of people are (or were) in Limbo?

These are the three classes of people who are (or were) in Limbo:

1) The virtuous pagans. These pagans were good morally, but they were not Christian (or Jewish in the days before Christ). They did not believe in the one true God. Virgil says that “they did not worship God the way one should” (Musa Inferno4.38). Later, we will see that some pagans are in Paradise.

2) The unbaptized, including infants. Because they are unbaptized, they are here. These are not morally bad people. Later, we will see that some unbaptized children are in Paradise.

3) The people who used to be here, including the Jewish patriarchs. Jesus released these people from Limbo during the Harrowing of Hell.

Apparently, the souls who are still here will be here “forever” (Musa Inferno4.45), according to Dante the Pilgrim, but perhaps we should remember that Dante the Pilgrim is naive and does not know the full story. In any case, it is God’s decision whether these souls stay here forever. God’s mercy may be greater than Dante the Pilgrim thinks. However, salvation is a mystery, and we humans are not fully capable of understanding the will of God.

  • What is the Harrowing of Hell?

According to mythology, after Jesus died and before He was resurrected, He entered Hell to save the souls of great religious figures such as King David and Adam and Eve. He took them out of Limbo and put them in Paradise. Jesus saved the souls of the faithful Jews.

By the way, Virgil died in 19 B.C.E., so he was present at the Harrowing of Hell. Virgil says that he was “a novice in this place” (Musa Inferno 4.52) when “a mighty lord” (Musa Inferno 4.53) came and rescued Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, Abraham, King David, Israel, Rachel, “and many more” (Musa Inferno 4.61).

We may think of Dante as using his Divine Comedyto do some of what Jesus did. Dante lets us know what we need to avoid doing and what we need to do to avoid going to Hell.

  • If you have read Plato’s Apology, explain how Socrates envisioned the afterlife in this work of literature.

Socrates said after being condemned to death that death must be one of two things: 1) a sleep that goes on forever, or 2) a place where he can talk with the other deceased souls. Limbo sounds very much like this second alternative. By the way, Limbo apparently has a library, as Virgil shows later that he is familiar with the work of poets who followed him.

  • Why are the virtuous souls in Limbo not found in Heaven?

They did not worship God correctly. Of course, the righteous Jews showed that it was possible to worship God correctly even before the coming of Jesus. (Also, they expected the Messiah to appear.)

By the way, later in Paradisewe will read of two pagans who are in fact in Paradise. There we see that salvation is a mystery and we humans are not fully capable of understanding the will of God.

  • How do the renowned ancient poets in Limbo treat Dante?

They treat him as an equal. He is one of the great poets. This is remarkable, on Dante’s part. He is comparing himself to ancient poets such as Homer and saying that he is in their league. Few if any modern poets would do that today — I hope.

Dante writes:

When they together had discoursed somewhat,

They turned to me with signs of salutation,

And on beholding this, my Master smiled;

And more of honour still, much more, they did me,

In that they made me one of their own band;

So that the sixth was I, ’mid so much wit.

(Longfellow 4.97-102)

Four great pagan poets — Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan — talk with Virgil and Dante.

Virgil, of course, wrote the Aeneid, which tells the story of the fall of Troy and recounts the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy and his successful attempt to become an important ancestor of the Romans.

Homer is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad tells the story of the argument between Agamemnon and Achilles in the final year of the Trojan War, and the Odyssey recounts the adventures of Odysseus after the Trojan War.

Horace is the author of the collection of poems known as theEpistles.

Ovid is the author of the Metamorphoses, a collection of myths involving metamorphoses or transformations.

Lucan is the author of the Pharsalia, an epic poem about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great.

One interesting point to note is that both Dante and Virgil walk on water here, as presumably the souls of all the virtuous pagans can do: “we walked right over it as on hard ground” (Musa Inferno 4.109). The “it” refers to “a sweetly flowing stream” (Musa Inferno 4.108). The Inferno is an allegory, and the stream is a symbol of something, although what that something is, is open to interpretation. Mark Musa believes that one possible interpretation is that the stream symbolizes eloquence, something that Dante and Virgil and the other ancient poets most definitely have (Musa Inferno, 104).

  • Identify some of the people who are found in Limbo.

Some other people found in Limbo are fictional/mythological:


Aeneas, of course, is the hero of Virgil’s Aeneid. In the Aeneid, Aeneas survives the fall of Troy, takes his father and son out of the city (but his wife perishes in the chaos), and leads the Trojan survivors to Carthage and then to Italy, where he becomes the founder of the Roman people.


Lavinia is the Italian princess whom Aeneas marries in Italy. She and Aeneas become important ancestors of the Romans.


Hector is the great leader of the Trojans during the Trojan War. His death at the hands of the great Greek warrior Achilles means that Troy will fall.


Electra is the daughter of Atlas, the god who holds up the sky, and the ancestor of all the Trojans, including Aeneas and Hector.


Camilla fights for the Italians against Aeneas in Italy. TheAeneidtells of her death.


Penthesilea is an Amazonian queen. She fought for Troy against the Greeks during the Trojan War.

Others are real:

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar became the ruler of Rome and the Roman Empire as the Roman Republic ended.


This Greek philosopher believed in the theory of atoms: the idea that matter is composed of imperishable and indivisible units.


Diogenes of Sinope, aka “the Cynic,” was a Greek philosopher who advocated self-control and abstinence.


Zeno may be Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic School of Philosophy, or Zenoi of Eleo, a disciple of Parmenides. Both Zenos were ancient Greek philosophers.


Euclid is famous for his writing about geometry.


Ptolemy gave his name to a system of astronomy that placed the Earth at the center of the universe.

John Ciardi divides the people found in the Citadel into three groups: 1) The Heroes and Heroines, 2) The Philosophers, and 3) The Naturalists (Ciardi, The Divine Comedy, 44-45).

  • Which three Muslims are placed in Limbo — something that should be regarded as a mark of honor?

A major point to notice is that three Muslims are found in Limbo. Many Christians in the Middle Ages were hostile to Islam, but Dante does put three eminent Muslims in a place of honor:

1) the philosopher Avicenna (980-1037). He was a Persian physician, philosopher, and scientist. He memorized the Koran.

2) the philosopher Averroës (1126-98). He was an Arab who wanted to reconcile Aristotelianism with Islam.

3) the sultan Saladin (1138-93), who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders. He was a great Muslim general and leader.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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