[Notes by LKG]
This story is part of the Dante's Inferno unit. Story source: Dante's Divine Comedy, translated by Tony Kline (2002).
Canto 4: Limbo
But those spirits, who were naked and weary, altered colour and gnashed their teeth when they heard his former, cruel words. They blasphemed against God, and their parents, the human species, the place, time, and seed of their conception, and of their birth. Then, all together, weeping bitterly, they neared the cursed shore that waits for every one who has no fear of God.
(Charon, by Michelangelo)
Charon, the demon, with eyes of burning coal, beckoning, gathers them all and strikes with his oar whoever lingers. As the autumn leaves fall, one after another, till the branches see all their spoilage on the ground, so, one by one, the evil seed of Adam threw themselves down from the bank when signalled, like the falcon at its call. So they vanish on the dark water, and before they have landed over there, over here a fresh crowd collects.
The courteous Master said: 'My son, those who die subject to God's anger all gather here, from every country, and they are quick to cross the river since divine justice goads them on, so that their fear is turned to desire. This way no good spirit ever passes, and so if Charon complains at you, you can well understand now the meaning of his words.
When he had ended, the gloomy ground trembled so violently that the memory of my terror still drenches me with sweat. The weeping earth gave vent and flashed with crimson light, overpowering all my senses, and I fell, like a man overcome by sleep.
The First Circle: Limbo - The Heathens
A heavy thunder shattered the deep sleep in my head, so that I came to myself, like someone woken by force, and, standing up, I moved my eyes, now refreshed, and looked round, steadily, to find out what place I was in. I found myself, in truth, on the brink of the valley of the sad abyss that gathers the thunder of an infinite howling. It was so dark, and deep, and clouded, that I could see nothing by staring into its depths.
The poet, white of face, began: 'Now, let us descend into the blind world below: I will go first, and you go second.'
And I, who saw his altered colour, said: 'How can I go on, if you are afraid, who are my comfort when I hesitate?'
And he to me: 'The anguish of the people, here below, brings that look of pity to my face that you mistake for fear. Let us go, for the length of our journey demands it.' So he entered, and so he made me enter, into the first circle that surrounds the abyss.
Here there was no sound to be heard, except the sighing that made the eternal air tremble, and it came from the sorrow of the vast and varied crowds of children, of women, and of men, free of torment. The good Master said to me: 'You do not demand to know who these spirits are that you see. I want you to learn, before you go further, that they had no sin, yet, though they have worth, it is not sufficient, because they were not baptised, and baptism is the gateway to the faith that you believe in. Since they lived before Christianity, they did not worship God correctly, and I myself am one of them. For this defect, and for no other fault, we are lost, and we are only tormented, in that without hope we live in desire.'
When I heard this, great sadness gripped my heart, because I knew of people of great value, who must be suspended in that Limbo. Wishing to be certain in that faith that overcomes every error, I began: 'Tell me my Master, tell me, sir, did anyone ever go from here, through his own merit or because of others' merit, who afterwards was blessed?'
And he, understanding my veiled question, replied: 'I was new to this state when I saw a great one come here crowned with the sign of victory. He took from us the shade of Adam, our first parent, of his son Abel, and that of Noah, of Moses the lawgiver, and Abraham, the obedient Patriarch, King David, Jacob with his father Isaac, and his children, and Rachel, for whom he laboured so long, and many others, and made them blessed, and I wish you to know that no human souls were saved before these.