What Does Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here Mean?

You’re about to open the door and step into a place when a person walking out of it says to you, rather emphatically, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!” If you’re not familiar with this phrase, you’d probably be confused when you heard it. Although, the words just sound sinister and foreboding, don’t they? Like a clear warning? Indeed they are, for the most part, intended that way, and the phrase certainly does have an ominous literary origin. However, today, the saying is most often used in jest, in a humorous way. Keep reading to learn much more about this expression.

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What Does Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here Mean?

Although abandon all hope, ye who enter here is considered an idiomatic expression, it’s not exactly your typical idiom. That’s because idioms have figurative rather than literal meanings that can’t usually be figured out just by looking at the individual words that comprise them. (Learn more about idioms here.) Yet, you can determine the basic meaning of this particular phrase by examining the definitions of the words it contains. 

Let’s start with abandon. This word means “to give up” or “to withdraw from.” When you hope, you desire something or want something to be true or to happen. Ye is an archaic version of the pronoun you. (As you’ll discover below, the expression comes from the Divine Comedy, a poem written in Latin in the 14th century.) Of course, enter means “to go or come in.” Taking the words all together, what is the phrase saying? It’s warning you, when you’re entering a location, to give up on what you want to happen there; it’s even perhaps suggesting you withdraw or retreat from that place completely. The phrase implies that whatever the location, it’s a hopeless one. In other words, it’s far from a desirable place to be and, in fact, might be somewhere from which you should expect the worst.

As it is an idiomatic expression, however, it’s not always used literally in exactly this way. The word enter can also mean “to make a beginning,” and thus the phrase doesn’t have to be a warning just about physically entering a tangible space. It can also be a warning about starting something new, whether a different job or field of study, as a couple examples. What’s more, it’s usually used jokingly, to humorously suggest someone proceed with caution before entering a location or into a new endeavor. Perhaps the person saying the phrase has had a less-than-pleasant experience with that space or undertaking before, or just isn’t its biggest fan. Although there may not universally and obviously be something wrong with it, they want to warn you, in good fun, not to have too high of expectations before you enter it or partake in it. The phrase is not typically used when a situation is truly dire or entirely futile and hopeless. Rather, it’s used to jocularly suggest a person should perhaps be prepared for the worst, or at least not the very best.

Here are some example sentences using the expression abandon all hope, ye who enter here:

  • The cafeteria at my work is certainly not known for high-end, gourmet food. I joke with my colleagues all the time that I can’t even tell what I’m eating, and that there should be a sign above its door that reads: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!
  • My boss at my last job was impossible to please. When I trained my replacement, the first thing I said to her was, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!”
  • One of my literature professors in college, who was known as a difficult grader, had the phrase abandon all hope, ye who enter here written at the top of his class syllabus. 

The Phrase’s Ominous Origin

This expression was originally used in Inferno, the first part of the 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy, written by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (who is often referred to as simply Dante). The epic poem is considered one of the greatest literary works in the world, and one of the preeminent pieces of Italian literature. 

It tells the story of Dante’s travels through hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio), and paradise/heaven (Paradiso), of the soul’s journey out of sin and towards God. Throughout the poem, he’s accompanied by three guides: Virgil accompanies him through hell and purgatory; Beatrice guides him partially through heaven; and St. Bernard of Clairvaux helps him complete his journey.

In Canto III of Inferno (cantos are divisions in a long poem), Dante passes through the gate of Hell, which is inscribed with the Latin phrase Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate, which translates roughly to “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Once he passes the gate, it’s not a pretty picture. He hears anguished screams, and he sees souls chased and stung by swarms of wasps and hornets. Virgil guides Dante through nine concentric circles of hell: limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, heresy, violence, fraud, and treachery. Each circle represents a gradual increase in sin or wickedness, and the sinners in each circle are punished for eternity in a manner that fits their crimes.

Although Dante wrote the poem likely between 1308 and 1320 (the exact dates are uncertain), an 1814 translation by Henry Francis Cary is often cited as the origin of the phrase in English:

Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric mov’d:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.

Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon ye who enter here.

You’ll notice that in this translation, the order of the words is reversed, from abandon all hope to all hope abandon. As is often the case with common phrases, it morphed and changed over time into the version we use today. You may even sometimes see it written or heard it said as abandon hope all ye who enter here. It can be written with or without a comma before ye.

Summary

The expression abandon all hope ye who enter here comes from Dante’s Inferno, one part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, an epic poem that tells of Dante’s journey through hell, then purgatory, and finally heaven. Specifically, the phrase is an inscription over the gates of hell. Over time, it has come to be used as a warning to someone entering a physical location or into a new endeavor to proceed with caution and not have too high of hopes about that place or activity, perhaps even to expect the worst from it (or not even enter at all). However, it is usually used in a humorous, joking way to imply a place or undertaking has “hellish” attributes.