"No tortured wailing rose to greet us here
but sounds of sighing rose from every side,
sending a tremor through the timeless air,

a grief breathed out of untormented sadness,
the passive state of those who dwelled apart,
men, women,children--a dim and endless congress."

-Inferno Canto III, II. 25-30


The first level of Hell we see is introduced to us in the third canto of The Divine Comedy, the level of Limbo, home of the virtuous pagans. The name might sound strange, but it is quite simply that level of Hell where those who did not (or could not) accept Christ are doomed to live eternally without hope of knowing God's glory in the eternal kingdom of Heaven. This includes those who were not baptized or accepted Christ willingly in their lifetimes, or as in Virgil's case, were born before Christ shed his blood for man granting them entry into the kingdoms of his Father.

As Dante & Virgil pass through this level, they meet some familiar faces. Faces that we will all recognize from earlier in our readings. Within the level of Limbo we see Homer, Ovid and of course the Greek Literary theorist, Horace. What is interesting about their placement in Limbo is detailed in lines 76-78:

"And he to me: "The signature of honor they left on earth
is recognized in Heaven and wins them ease in Hell
out of Gods'favor."

This is perhaps the most clearly defined statement we can draw about the level of Limbo and its relation to Hell. In that it simply is not "Hell" as we would come to think of it in the traditional sense. Limbo is geographically very dark, but has within it plains and fields and forests. It is the absence of God, the most one soul can hope for who either did not anger him greatly, or performed some admirable service in their lives as to mark them as deserving of an afterlife devoid of eternal damnation.

At the end of Limbo, just before The Second Circle awaits the Dread King, Minos. This is of course the same King we see referenced in Greek literature such as The Odyssey &
Metamorphoses. He is a serpentine creature, which we can draw several interpretations from given past examples of snake-like personas. He is known as the Judge of the Damned in Hades in Greek Myth, and in Dante's cosmology, he does the same thing. He at first rebukes Dante's presence, warning him on his navigation of the deeper ravines of Hell. Virgil snaps back, and they continue onward into the abyss.

It is in the first few stanzas of Canto V we see the judgement process of Minos. All those souls who freely committed sins in their lifetimes stand before him, and he picks them up with his tail. He examines them in depth, with all their sins laid bare. It is on those sins that he judges, and depending on which level of Hell their sins fit most, he wraps his tail around them in coils for that number: ex. six coils for the sixth level of Heresy.

After those damned souls are judged, they descend in earnest into the true Hell. Minos sits on the brink between Limbo and the Second Level Dante & Virgil continue towards. The Circle reserved for those who delved too deeply into life's more carnal indulgences...