Dante's Inferno First Circle of Hell: Punishments & Description

Instructor: Arielle Windham

Arielle has worked worked with elementary, middle, and secondary students in American and Japan. She has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in Education.

Compared to the rest of what Dante experiences in Hell, the First Circle isn't too bad. But everything is relative. This lesson will cover the punishment, inhabitants, and layout of the First Circle of Hell in Dante's Inferno.

The Story Till Now

Dante, the narrator, has found himself lost in a dark wood and chased by terrifying beasts. Virgil, his hero, appears and offers to guide him through Hell.

Dante hesitates at first, but Virgil tells him it was Beatrice, Dante's muse, that sent the ancient poet to rescue him.

Dante gathers his courage, and they continue to the Gate of Hell which reads: ''Abandon all hope, ye who enter.''

Dante and Virgil at the Gate of Hell

Through the gate, they still aren't to the First Circle, Hell proper. First, they pass through the Vestibule where souls and fallen angels who refused to make a decision one way or another are on a futile chase after a whirling standard. Then they must cross the River Acheron. Charon, the ferryman, doesn't want to let the living Dante pass, but Virgil says the magic words. Finally, they approach the First Circle of Hell - Limbo.


Now for modern readers, Limbo might bring to mind the fun, back-breaking party dance. Not so much for Dante and his contemporaries. Still, if it helps you remember it, go for it. Limbo, the First Circle of Hell, is surprisingly nice compared to what Dante has already traveled through, so maybe thinking of it a little like a party won't hurt.

The Punishment

Limbo is where the unbaptized and virtuous pagans, like Virgil, dwell. Virgil explains that these souls didn't sin while they were alive, but because they were not baptized or lived before Christianity took hold, they were unable to go to heaven. They are not tormented like the Futiles Dante saw in the Vestibule or the others he will encounter later on, but they do grieve because they must live eternally without hope of God's grace.

Dante and Virgil speak to the unbaptized

That is really their only punishment. Not too terrible compared to the punishments Dante will see lower down in Hell.

The Layout

Unlike the rest of Hell, which is deafening with screams, moans, and crying, Limbo is quiet ''except the sound of sighing.''

For the most part, the First Circle is dark and shadowy, but within Limbo is a special pavilion for great artists, poets, scientists, leaders, and thinkers that emit a bright light in the darkness. Virgil and Dante head for this shining beacon in the otherwise dark world catching up with the legendary poets Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan on the way.

Dante and Virgil meet the legendary poets in Limbo

As they approach, Dante describes the pavilion as a castle with seven high walls and a deep moat. Inside is a bright green meadow. Here Dante sees many historical figures from the classical era before Christianity. Rulers, soldiers, philosophers, mathematicians and much more great men and women from all over the world (or at least what Dante would have known of the world) reside, relatively comfortably, in the pavilion.

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