Dante’s Inferno: Canto 20 Retelling — The Soothsayers and Fortune Tellers

Chapter 20: The Soothsayers and Fortune Tellers

Dante and Virgil now were on the bridge above the fourth bolgia. Looking down, Dante saw that the sinners were crying as they walked around the Circle; the floor of the Circle was wet with tears. Dante also saw that the sinners were twisted in a grotesque way; their heads were twisted so that the face was above the back, not above the chest. As the sinners cried, their tears ran down their backs and into the cleft of their buttocks.

Dante cried, too — something that Virgil did not like.

Dante is a backslider, Virgil thought. He realized that simony is a great sin indeed, but now he pities how the sinners are being punished in the fourth bolgia.

“Dante, you are a fool,” Virgil said. “The Inferno is not a place for pity. Every soul here deserves to be here, and every soul here is punished in a very appropriate way.

“The sinners in this fourth bolgia are the soothsayers and the fortune tellers. They tried to look too far ahead in the future, and now they are punished by not being able to look ahead at all. Now they travel by walking backward because they can see only backward, not forward.

“Look around you. Here is a sinner who was one of the Seven Against Thebes. The two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices, decided to share the rule of Thebes after their father abdicated the throne. Each brother was supposed to rule for a year and then allow the other brother to take the throne for a year; however, after ruling for a year, Eteocles refused to step down from the throne and allow Polynices to rule for a year. Therefore, Polynices raised an army and marched against Thebes and his brother.

“Amphiaraus was one of the seven generals of the army marching against Thebes and Eteocles. He foresaw that he would die if he fought against Thebes, so he attempted to hide himself so that he would not have to fight. However, his wife revealed his hiding place, so he had to go on the military expedition. During the attack on Thebes, the Earth opened up and he fell into the chasm, dying as he had foreseen. He appeared before Minos, who never errs. Minos judged him and sent him here.

“Now look at Tiresias, the most famous prophet of Thebes. You have read about him in Ovid. Tiresias was famous enough to be consulted by Odysseus in the Underworld in Homer’s Odyssey.

“Tiresias lived life as both a man and a woman. He once saw two snakes having sex, and he hit them with his staff. As his punishment, Hera turned him into a woman. Tiresias married and gave birth to Manto, his daughter, who was also a prophet. After seven years as a woman, he again saw two snakes having sex, and he again hit them with his staff and changed sexes, this time turning back into a man. Because Tiresias had lived life as both a man and a woman, when Zeus and Hera quarreled over who enjoyed sex more — the man or the woman — they turned to Tiresias to settle the argument. Tiresias said that women enjoyed sex more, and Hera struck him blind.

“Because Tiresias tried to see too far into the future, he is punished here.

“Now look at Tiresias’ daughter, Manto, whose long hair now covers her breasts instead of her back, while her hairy parts are now in back and not in front. Manto was a soothsayer at Thebes. After Tiresias died, she went to Italy and founded Mantua, the city where I, Virgil, was born.

“Listen carefully, and I will you the true story of how my city, Mantua, was founded. Truth is important, and I don’t want you to believe any inaccurate stories of how Mantua was founded.

“Manto saw land lying surrounded mostly by a marsh. She moved there and died there. After she died, men arrived and build a town there because it was well protected by the marsh. They named their town after Manto.”

Learn from this story, Virgil thought. The theme of my story is truth. The story of the founding of Mantua is controversial, with more than one version. I am here telling the true story. Truth, of course, is something that people engaging in fraud wish to hide.

You, Dante, must say the truth in your writing. If you tell the true story of the founding of Mantua in your Divine Comedy, you will be letting your readers know that you care about truth. You will be establishing your credibility. Because your readers will know that you care about the truth of the founding of Mantua, they will know that you are careful to report the truth about the afterlife.

“Virgil,” Dante said, “you always tell me the truth. Now can you tell me about some other sinners here?”

Virgil replied, “Eurypylus is punished here in this part of the Inferno. You know about him from reading my Aeneid — my epic poem that you know almost by heart. Eurypylus was a Greek warrior who was sent to the Oracle of Delphi in order to inquire why the gods were angry at the Greeks.

“Also punished here is Michael Scot, a mathematician and scholar who was born in Scotland. He was a magician who was able to serve his guests food magically brought from France and Spain and other countries.

“But we have seen enough. Let us continue our journey.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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