Canto 20

AND now the verse proceeds to torments new,
Fit argument of this the twentieth strain
Of the first song, whose awful theme records
The spirits whelm'd in woe.  Earnest I look'd
Into the depth, that open'd to my view,
Moisten'd with tears of anguish, and beheld
A tribe, that came along the hollow vale,
In silence weeping: such their step as walk
Quires chanting solemn litanies on earth.

As on them more direct mine eye descends,
Each wondrously seem'd to be revers'd
At the neck-bone, so that the countenance
Was from the reins averted: and because
None might before him look, they were compell'd
To' advance with backward gait.  Thus one perhaps
Hath been by force of palsy clean transpos'd,
But I ne'er saw it nor believe it so.

Now, reader! think within thyself, so God
Fruit of thy reading give thee! how I long
Could keep my visage dry, when I beheld
Near me our form distorted in such guise,
That on the hinder parts fall'n from the face
The tears down-streaming roll'd.  Against a rock
I leant and wept, so that my guide exclaim'd:
"What, and art thou too witless as the rest?
Here pity most doth show herself alive,
When she is dead.  What guilt exceedeth his,
Who with Heaven's judgment in his passion strives?
Raise up thy head, raise up, and see the man,
Before whose eyes earth gap'd in Thebes, when all
Cried out, 'Amphiaraus, whither rushest?
'Why leavest thou the war?'  He not the less
Fell ruining far as to Minos down,
Whose grapple none eludes.  Lo! how he makes
The breast his shoulders, and who once too far
Before him wish'd to see, now backward looks,
And treads reverse his path.  Tiresias note,
Who semblance chang'd, when woman he became
Of male, through every limb transform'd, and then
Once more behov'd him with his rod to strike
The two entwining serpents, ere the plumes,
That mark'd the better sex, might shoot again.

"Aruns, with more his belly facing, comes.
On Luni's mountains 'midst the marbles white,
Where delves Carrara's hind, who wons beneath,
A cavern was his dwelling, whence the stars
And main-sea wide in boundless view he held.

"The next, whose loosen'd tresses overspread
Her bosom, which thou seest not (for each hair
On that side grows) was Manto, she who search'd
Through many regions, and at length her seat
Fix'd in my native land, whence a short space
My words detain thy audience.  When her sire
From life departed, and in servitude
The city dedicate to Bacchus mourn'd,
Long time she went a wand'rer through the world.
Aloft in Italy's delightful land
A lake there lies, at foot of that proud Alp,
That o'er the Tyrol locks Germania in,
Its name Benacus, which a thousand rills,
Methinks, and more, water between the vale
Camonica and Garda and the height
Of Apennine remote.  There is a spot
At midway of that lake, where he who bears
Of Trento's flock the past'ral staff, with him
Of Brescia, and the Veronese, might each
Passing that way his benediction give.
A garrison of goodly site and strong
Peschiera stands, to awe with front oppos'd
The Bergamese and Brescian, whence the shore
More slope each way descends.  There, whatsoev'er
Benacus' bosom holds not, tumbling o'er
Down falls, and winds a river flood beneath
Through the green pastures.  Soon as in his course
The steam makes head, Benacus then no more
They call the name, but Mincius, till at last
Reaching Governo into Po he falls.
Not far his course hath run, when a wide flat
It finds, which overstretchmg as a marsh
It covers, pestilent in summer oft.
Hence journeying, the savage maiden saw
'Midst of the fen a territory waste
And naked of inhabitants.  To shun
All human converse, here she with her slaves
Plying her arts remain'd, and liv'd, and left
Her body tenantless.  Thenceforth the tribes,
Who round were scatter'd, gath'ring to that place
Assembled; for its strength was great, enclos'd
On all parts by the fen.  On those dead bones
They rear'd themselves a city, for her sake,
Calling it Mantua, who first chose the spot,
Nor ask'd another omen for the name,
Wherein more numerous the people dwelt,
Ere Casalodi's madness by deceit
Was wrong'd of Pinamonte.  If thou hear
Henceforth another origin assign'd
Of that my country, I forewarn thee now,
That falsehood none beguile thee of the truth."

I answer'd: "Teacher, I conclude thy words
So certain, that all else shall be to me
As embers lacking life.  But now of these,
Who here proceed, instruct me, if thou see
Any that merit more especial note.
For thereon is my mind alone intent."

He straight replied: "That spirit, from whose cheek
The beard sweeps o'er his shoulders brown, what time
Graecia was emptied of her males, that scarce
The cradles were supplied, the seer was he
In Aulis, who with Calchas gave the sign
When first to cut the cable.  Him they nam'd
Eurypilus: so sings my tragic strain,
In which majestic measure well thou know'st,
Who know'st it all.  That other, round the loins
So slender of his shape, was Michael Scot,
Practis'd in ev'ry slight of magic wile.

"Guido Bonatti see:  Asdente mark,
Who now were willing, he had tended still
The thread and cordwain; and too late repents.

"See next the wretches, who the needle left,
The shuttle and the spindle, and became
Diviners: baneful witcheries they wrought
With images and herbs.  But onward now:
For now doth Cain with fork of thorns confine
On either hemisphere, touching the wave
Beneath the towers of Seville.  Yesternight
The moon was round.  Thou mayst remember well:
For she good service did thee in the gloom
Of the deep wood."  This said, both onward mov'd.


  1. Virgil refers to the medieval belief that God adorned Cain's head with thorns and exiled him to the moon for having murdered his brother Abel. Cain became, therefore, a kind of medieval "man on the moon."

    — Stephen Holliday
  2. Virgil reminds Dante of the full moon which had aided him with its light when he was lost in the selva oscura, the dark wood, in Canto 1.

    — Stephen Holliday
  3. Virgil is pointing to a group of witches. They are characterized as women who abandoned the proper work of women (in the perspective of the 13th century), weaving, to become soothsayers and magicians.

    — Stephen Holliday
  4. Asdente, which means toothless, refers to Benvenuto of Parma, a shoemaker and prophet whose prophecies seem to have been often accurate. He successfully predicted, for example, the defeat in 1248 of Frederick II at Parma.

    — Stephen Holliday
  5. Guido Bonatti (1210–1296) was the premier astrologer of the 13th century. He served as court astrologer of several political leaders, including Frederick II, Guido Novello de Polenta, and Guido da Montefeltro. As a supporter of the Ghibellines, Dante's political enemies, Bonatti claimed that the key Ghibelline victory at Montaperti resulted in part from his astrological calculations.

    — Stephen Holliday
  6. Michael Scot (1175–1232 CE) was a Scottish scholar, astrologer, and alchemist widely known across Europe in the Middle Ages. He published commentaries on Aristotle and Averroes and served as court astrologer for Emperor Frederick II. According to legend, Scot predicted that he would die from being struck on the head by a rock. From then on he wore an iron skullcap to mitigate the coming calamity. One Sunday while he was in church, Scot removed his cap out of respect for liturgical tradition. A stone tumbled from the cathedral's roof, fell directly on Scot's head, and, killed him, fulfilling his prophecy.

    — Stephen Holliday
  7. Eurypilus is character in Virgil's Aenied. He was a Greek soldier who went to Apollo's temple to determine when the Greeks should sail back to Greece at the conclusion of the Trojan War. Here, however, Dante categorizes him as a prophet, indicating that Dante may have misunderstood, or misremembered, his role in the Aenied, or that he chose to tell Eurypilus's story in a new way.

    — Stephen Holliday
  8. At the dawn of the Trojan War, Calchas was the Greek prophet who determined when the Greek fleet should cut its cables at Aulis and sail for Troy.

    — Stephen Holliday
  9. Aulis was an Ancient Greek city, corresponding to modern-day Avlida. It was the embarcation point of the Greek fleet on its way to Troy to begin the Trojan War.

    — Stephen Holliday
  10. Virgil wants his version of Mantua's founding and history to be considered the only true version, primarily because it denies the mythical connection to the pagan soothsayer Manto.

    — Stephen Holliday
  11. Virgil refers here to the Guelph political leader of Mantua, Alberto de Casalodi (1320–1288 CE). In 1272, Ghibelline leader Pinamonte de Bonaccorsi convinced Casalodi to surrender Mantua to the Ghibellines. Dante, a Guelph, refers to Casalodi's actions as "madness" and Bonaccorsi's as "deceit."

    — Stephen Holliday
  12. Virgil wants to emphasize the fact that the city's founders did not engage in any divination in the establishing of the city.

    — Stephen Holliday
  13. It seems important to Virgil that everyone understand that Manto, the founder of Mantua, was in the area before it had any permanent inhabitants. Because this "pouch" of the underworld punishes false prophets like Manto, Virgil does not want to connect the city close to his birthplace with Manto, and so on the timeline of Mantuan history, he places her before the city's founding.

    — Stephen Holliday
  14. That is, when the stream begins to flow it is called Mincio, rather than Benaco (the lake that serves as its source water), until it reaches Governo (Governolo), where it joins the Po River.

    — Stephen Holliday
  15. Peschiera—Italian for "fish pond"—is a fortress that stands against the Brescians and Bergamesques where the shore is most exposed by the lake.

    — Stephen Holliday
  16. Virgil refers to the bishops of Verona, Brescia and Trento, whom he characterizes as shepherds of their various flocks.

    — Stephen Holliday
  17. "Benacus" is a reference to Benaco, also known as Lake Garda, where Manto is thought to have founded Mantua.

    — Stephen Holliday
  18. Manto is the daughter of Tiresias and, like her father, can see future events. After Tiresias's death, she traveled to Italy and, according to legend, founded the Tuscan city of Mantua. This event is important to Virgil because he was born in a village near Mantua.

    — Stephen Holliday
  19. This refers to the region of Carrara in northern Italy—Tuscany, to be specific. Carrara is known for producing very pure white marble. 

    — Stephen Holliday
  20. Aruns is an Etruscan prophet who foretold the disastrous Roman Civil War between Caesar and Pompey.

    — Stephen Holliday
  21. Next, Virgil points out Tiresias, a prophet from Thebes who spent part of his life as a woman as a punishment for having struck the female of a pair of snakes. Seven years later, he struck the same two snakes again and was changed back into a man. Eventually, Jupiter (Zeus) and Juno (Hera) asked him whether a man or woman enjoys the act of love more, and Tiresias supported Zeus's view that women get more pleasure from lovemaking. Juno in anger then blinded him, and Jupiter, to compensate for his blindness, granted him the power of prophecy.

    — Stephen Holliday
  22. When Amphiaraus was swallowed by the earth, he fell deep enough into the Underworld to reach one of the three judges, Minos, who determines sinners' punishments.

    — Stephen Holliday
  23. Virgil refers to Amphiaraus, a prophet from Argos, who was persuaded by his wife, Eriphyle, to join the expedition against Thebes, known in Greek mythology as "The Seven Against Thebes" (so named for the seven kings who led the army). Amphiaraus, who foresaw that none of the seven except Adrastus would survive, knew he was doomed, so he asked his son to avenge his death by killing Eriphyle should he not return. During the retreat from Thebes, Amphiaraus was swallowed by the earth and fell into the underworld.

    — Stephen Holliday
  24. Virgil, who holds no sympathy for these sinners, rebukes Dante for his feelings of pity.

    — Stephen Holliday
  25. In one of the occasions in which Dante breaks the fourth wall and addresses readers directly, he expresses the hope that God might allow readers to fully understand what they have read. Dante makes such direct addresses to draw readers more deeply into the narrative.

    — Stephen Holliday
  26. Dante suggests that palsy (a disease of the nerves) may have forced some prisoners to walk backwards.

    — Stephen Holliday
  27. Reins is an archaic word for the area of the heart and stomach, which was thought to be the area of the body in which passion and emotion originates.

    — Stephen Holliday
  28. The prisoners walk as slowly as those walking in religious processions. This is ironic, given the sacrilegious nature of their offenses.

    — Stephen Holliday
  29. Virgil and Dante have reached the Fourth "Pouch" of the Eighth Circle, in which those who claim to know God's intentions, as well as magicians and astrologers, are punished by having their heads turned backwards.

    — Stephen Holliday