Summary and Analysis Canto XX



Dante looks down upon the faces of the sinners in the next chasm and weeps with grief at their torment; these sinners must walk through eternity with their heads on backwards and tears in their eyes. Virgil reproaches Dante for feeling any pity for these sinners, the Fortune Tellers and Diviners, because they are here as a point of justice. They sinned by trying to foretell the future, which is known only to God.

As Virgil mentions Manto, one of the sinners in this chasm, he also delivers a lengthy, detailed description of how his native city, Mantua, originated, and Virgil makes Dante promise to tell this true story. Dante promises and asks about the others in the chasm. Virgil names a few of the souls before saying that he and Dante should hurry onward because the moon is already setting. With that, the poets travel on to the next chasm.


Dante takes a step backward in his learning process in this canto. For the first time in Malebolge, Dante feels pity for the sinners in this circle, and Virgil chastises him for his behavior. Perhaps Dante wasn't ready to see the true nature of sin in those earlier cantos. Also possible is that Virgil is fallible and can also feel pity for some of the souls in Hell but not for those in the final circles.

In keeping with Dante's theme of Divine Retribution, the Fortune Tellers and Diviners have their heads on backwards and their eyes are full of tears. These are the souls who, on Earth, tried to see too far ahead of them, and thus will spend eternity forever looking behind with blurred vision. Following the teachings of the papacy, the theme of religion is broached, because the papacy did not approve of sorcery in any form.

For the first time, Dante violates his own concept of judging each spirit by the standards of the time in which he lived. Here he condemns the Greek prophets, who were held in high esteem in their own time. It is interesting that the Old Testament prophets are not here, and Dante offers no explanation for their absence.


Thebans citizens of Thebes, one of the chief cities of ancient Greece.

Amphiareus one of the seven captains who fought against Thebes.

Tiresias Greek Mythology. a blind soothsayer of Thebes.

Aruns a soothsayer from Etruria.

Luni an ancient Etruscan city.

Manto sorceress after whom Mantua is named.

Bacchus Greek and Roman Mythology. the god of wine and revelry.

Mantua commune in Lombardy, Northern Italy; birthplace of Virgil.

Eurypylus Greek augur.

Michael Scot Irish scholar; dealt with the occult.

Guido Bonatti court astrologer and military adviser.

Cain with his bush of thorns the moon.