Virgil and Dante among the fortune-tellers
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It’s now time for me to talk of even stranger torments as I relate this twentieth canto of this first canticle – the one about the souls condemned to Hell.The “ordinary” tone of this opening with its enumerations and seeming redundancy actually has the effect of momentarily calming the reader after Dante’s tirade in the previous canto and … Continue reading As I noted previously, I was already at the spot where I could look down into the fourth bolgia – its floor wet with the tears of the anguished sinners trapped there. What I saw looked like a litany procession in our world, moving slowly along that great ditch. Except down there it was sinners moving along silently and weeping the whole time.In this canto, Dante and Virgil look into the fourth ditch from the bridge above it, but they never actually go down into it. Notice that the first thing Dante observes is that the ground is wet – … Continue reading But here’s the amazing part: as I looked them over and saw their tear-stained faces, it became clear to me that they were all terribly distorted. Their heads were completely turned around, so that they never saw where they were heading. They moved forward by moving backward! I suppose there may have been someone who was distorted like that in a fit of palsy or something, but I’ve never heard of it, and I doubt whether that could happen. And so, may God grant you some good from what I’m telling you here, but let me ask you: how on earth could I stop weeping when I saw, up close, human bodies so horribly twisted, with their tears flowing down to wet their butts at the crack? I leaned against a jagged rock and cried like a baby!As it turns out, the procession of sinners in this bolgia is slowly moving away from where Dante and Virgil are watching them from the bridge. And soon enough it becomes clear why they didn’t … Continue reading
“Hey, there!” Virgil shook me. “Are you still like all the other fools? Let me be clear: in this place it’s a pious thing when you no longer show any pity! Think about it: who could be more of a fool than to try to bend God’s will to their own! Now, get hold of yourself and look over there.If we compress the time space between this canto and the last one, we see here a very different Virgil from the one whose approval and affection for his pupil was so apparent not long before this … Continue reading That’s the one who was swallowed up by the earth when he thought he could escape the war against Thebes. Seeing him run away, they all shouted at him: ‘Amphiaraus, where are you going? Why are you running away?’ But he just kept running until he fell right down to Minos, who catches everyone who comes down here. See how his chest is now his back? That’s because he thought he could look far into the future. Now all he sees is where he’s been!Dante’s source for this story is the Thebiad of Statius. Amphiaraus was both a seer and a king of Argos. He and Capaenus (the blasphemer in Canto 14) were among the famous seven who set out to … Continue reading And look over there. That’s Tiresias, who transformed himself from a man into a woman. In order to get himself back, he had to strike two mating snakes with a wand – then he was transformed again.Tiresias was a famous soothsayer who lived in Thebes. There are several different stories involving him and Virgil’s observations come from Ovid, who writes that the seer once saw two snakes … Continue reading The one in front of him is Aruns. He lived in a cave of white marble in the hills of Luni that were cultivated by peasants from Carrara. Up there he could gaze at the sea and the stars with nothing to block his view.Aruns was an Etruscan soothsayer who lived in the hills near Luni and present-day Carrara, north of Pisa and famous for its beautiful marble. Noted in Book I of Lucan’s Pharsalia, he predicted the … Continue reading
“Now, that one there, with her long hair covering her breasts, and her hairy parts in front, but actually behind her, that was Manto. Before she came to live where I was born, she had wandered through many places, and I’ll tell you a little of her story. After her father, Tiresias, died, and Thebes fell into slavery, she wandered around for many years. Far north of here in Lombardy, there’s a lake below the mountains that make a border with Germany beyond Tyrolia. It’s called Lake Benaco, fed by more than a thousand alpine streams from Garda to Val Camonia. There’s an island in the center of that lake where, if they wanted to, the bishops of Trento, Brescia, and Verona could meet and say Mass. On the lower shore of that lake sits the lovely fortress of Peschiera built to hold off the nearby folk of Brescia and Bergamo.
“The water that overflows from Lake Benaco creates a stream called Mencio that flows south through the fertile countrysides until it reaches Governolo and joins the Po. But not far from where it joins the Po it becomes a kind of marsh where it’s very hot in the summertime. When Manto came to this place and saw that it was uninhabited she stayed there for the rest of her life, practicing her magic. After she died there, people began to live on that spot because it was well-protected by the marshy land. They built a city over her grave, and without recourse to any sorcery, they honored her by calling the place Mantua. There used to be a lot more people living there until that foolish Count Casalodi was outsmarted by Pinamonte. So, I warn you, if you ever hear the origin of my hometown differently, don’t be fooled.”This long digression, which comprises 42 lines in the Poem, serves several purposes. It gives Virgil an opportunity to recount his version of the story of Manto of Thebes, daughter of Tiresias; and, … Continue reading
After hearing all this, I said: “Master, to me all your explanations are true. I have complete faith in you. Any other explanations would be like dead coals.Dante’s gushing affirmations here are a bit overweening. Yet, remember that moments before this he was very strongly rebuked by Virgil for acting like a fool and pitying the twisted sinners . … Continue reading But tell me more about these spirits passing by us, if any of them are worth noting, because right now they’re all I’m thinking about.”This statement provides more evidence that Dante has heeded Virgil’s earlier rebuke about pity. Having had a moment to think while Virgil spoke about Manto, he’s now ready to continue learning … Continue reading
He obliged, saying: “That one over there, whose long beard flows down his back is Eurypylus. He was an augur at the time when the Trojan war had taken all the men of Greece and all that were left were little boys still in cribs. At Aulis he and Calchas were the ones to cut the first ship’s cable free and thus launch the Greek fleet. I sang of him in my Aeneid – you’ll remember where since you know it so well.Dante (Virgil) seems to make an error here with Eurypylus and Calchas. When the Greeks sailed from Aulis to Troy, only Calchas the augur was there, and it was he who advised Agamemnon to sacrifice … Continue reading Then, that one over there with the skinny legs was Michael Scot, who knew every fraudulent magic trick in the book.Michael Scot (d. 1250) was a Scottish astrologer in the court of Frederick II at Palermo. He was learned in philosophy, the natural and occult sciences, and was noted as great magician. To this day … Continue reading There’s the astrologer Guido Bonatti.Guido Bonatti was a famous thirteenth-century soothsayer from Forlì. He was the author of several texts and was the private astrologer to Guido da Montefeltro, the lord of that region, who will … Continue reading And that one’s Asdente. I’m sure he wishes he had kept to making shoes because it’s too late to repent for his sorceries now.In Italian, asdente means “toothless.” He was a poor shoemaker from Parma who was said to have considerable prophetic powers. Further on, look at that bunch of witch-like hags. When they should have been sewing and weaving, they spent their time casting spells with dolls and strange potions.At last we have witches and sorceresses who were, perhaps, more wicked or dangerous than the others mentioned in this canto because their sin dealt with evil powers over the wills of their clients or … Continue reading
“But now, we’d better be moving on. Cain with his bundle of sticks already straddles the sky from east to west and dips into the sea beyond Spain. Last night was a full moon, which you should remember because she aided you when you were lost in the dark wood.”In Hell, time is told by the moon, not the sun, and Virgil’s reference to Cain is an old “man-in-the-moon” legend. In chapter 4 of the Book of Genesis, Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, was … Continue reading And we moved along the whole time he was talking.
[See Post Script at the end of the footnotes.]Post Scrpt: In the Middle Ages, divination, astrology, and all their cousins – near and distant – were commonplace. It was even more common in the ancient world, as Dante highlights in the first … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||The “ordinary” tone of this opening with its enumerations and seeming redundancy actually has the effect of momentarily calming the reader after Dante’s tirade in the previous canto and before he peers curiously into another fascinating section of Malebolge, where progressively serious sins of fraud are punished in the most imaginative ways. In this canto, as the early commentator Benvenuto da Imola notes, the contrapasso is entirely Dante’s creation, with nothing borrowed from Homer or Virgil.|
|↑2||In this canto, Dante and Virgil look into the fourth ditch from the bridge above it, but they never actually go down into it. Notice that the first thing Dante observes is that the ground is wet – and, to be precise, it’s wet with the tears of the sinners down there who seem to be moving along slowly as though they are in a kind of religious procession. Already something is amiss. These sinners do not speak – ever; they continually weep. All of this, of course, not only rouses Dante’s curiosity, but the reader’s as well. Who are these sinners and what have they done?|
|↑3||As it turns out, the procession of sinners in this bolgia is slowly moving away from where Dante and Virgil are watching them from the bridge. And soon enough it becomes clear why they didn’t go down into the ditch itself. Having no idea of how a modern video camera works, Dante does with words what a film director would do with his camera. He focuses first only on the crying faces of the sinners. Then, ever so slowly, he moves back to reveal a wider scene of terrifying contortion, making it clear why they “moved forward by moving backward.” The heads of these sinners are twisted completely backward so that while the rest of their bodies are moving forward and away from Dante and Virgil, their weeping faces are always looking in the opposite direction and their tears stream down the back of them! When all is said and done, these sinners never know where they are going! Trying to make sense of what he sees, Dante wonders if such a thing could be the result of a disease, but he quickly dismisses this as an impossibility. Left with no other explanation, Dante bursts into tears of pity, excusing them by hoping we will benefit from what he is witnessing – a clever way of bending our sympathies in his direction. If looking backward is a key to partially understanding this canto, looking back at the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis will give us a sense of how far these sinners have fallen. Humans were created in the image and likeness of God. To be so twisted and contorted is visibly the result of sin, which twists and de-forms our likeness to God. Obviously, what we and Dante see is the contrapasso for these sinners, but not knowing what they did to deserve such a punishment only heightens the suspense here and amplifies our curiosity.|
|↑4||If we compress the time space between this canto and the last one, we see here a very different Virgil from the one whose approval and affection for his pupil was so apparent not long before this scene. That Dante falls apart emotionally here – even before he knows what sin these backward-looking souls committed – seems jarring when, for example, we consider that in an earlier canto he had a long conversation with his beloved teacher, Brunetto Latini, and shed not a single tear for his eternal disgrace. At least he has not fainted. But how far down into Hell must he go before he hardens his heart against these eternally condemned sinners? Nevertheless, Virgil’s rebuke here is a significant learning moment both for Dante and for us: to show not an ounce of pity for the sinners in Hell is the right thing to do! Otherwise, we are like fools – and only here do we begin to get a sense of what these sinners did to end up in this place. They strove “to bend God’s will to their own.” But what does this mean? After telling Dante to “get a grip,” Virgil begins to identify several of the sinners here and slowly everything – including the clever contrapasso becomes clear: these sinners were all sorcerers, fortune-tellers, astrologers, enchanters, diviners, dabblers in the occult. Fools, they strove to look into the future, which is the prerogative of God. Now they must walk into that future without seeing it come. Instead, they can only view the past.|
|↑5||Dante’s source for this story is the Thebiad of Statius. Amphiaraus was both a seer and a king of Argos. He and Capaenus (the blasphemer in Canto 14) were among the famous seven who set out to ravage the city of Thebes. As a seer, he foreknew that he would die in the battle and hid. His wife, however, betrayed his hiding place and he was forced to join. During the battle, the ground opened up and swallowed him and his chariot as he fled. Minos was waiting for him! Mark Musa, in his wonderful commentary, notes that at this point in Dante’s text, the Poet (it’s actually Virgil who speaks here) cleverly describes the earthquake that swallowed Capaenus by separating the verb s’aperse from its noun terra. He writes: s’aperse a li occhi d’i Teban la terra (literally, “opened before the eyes of the Thebans the earth”). Again, cleverly, Virgil ends his observations about Amphiaraus that, because his head is twisted around as it is, he both walks backwards and looks backwards. Implied is the fact that any attempt to look into the future is questionable. Is he actually walking backward or forward? Is he actually looking backward or forward?|
|↑6||Tiresias was a famous soothsayer who lived in Thebes. There are several different stories involving him and Virgil’s observations come from Ovid, who writes that the seer once saw two snakes wrapped together as he walked in the forest. With his staff he separated them, but was immediately transformed into a woman. For seven years he remained this way until, once again, he walked in the forest and came upon the same intertwined snakes. Once again he separated them and was immediately transformed back into a man. It is curious that Dante doesn’t include the rest of the story which accounts for why Tiresias is included among the sinners in this bolgia. Some time after this episode with the snakes, an argument broke out between Jupiter and Juno. At issue was whether women or men had more pleasure during sex. Jupiter felt it was women who had the most enjoyment, and Juno felt it was men. They decided to question Tiresias because he had the experience of being both a man and a woman. Tiresias answered in favor of women. But then, in a fit of pique, Juno struck him blind. Unable to undo what another god had done, Jupiter compensated the blind Tiresias with the gift of prophecy and foresight. The play on words here with Tiresias as a blind “seer” works well because, in spite of their efforts to see into the future, all the sinners in this ditch are virtually blind to the future because their heads are twisted around backwards. And poor Tiresias is doubly blind! Nevertheless, Dante is not finished with the famed seer yet. A large section of this canto will soon be devoted to his daughter, Manto.|
|↑7||Aruns was an Etruscan soothsayer who lived in the hills near Luni and present-day Carrara, north of Pisa and famous for its beautiful marble. Noted in Book I of Lucan’s Pharsalia, he predicted the Roman Civil War and Julius Caesar’s triumph.|
|↑8||This long digression, which comprises 42 lines in the Poem, serves several purposes. It gives Virgil an opportunity to recount his version of the story of Manto of Thebes, daughter of Tiresias; and, by way of a long geography lesson (21 lines), we learn that the ancient city of Mantua, named after Manto, is also his home town. (The reader might have forgotten that in Canto 1 Virgil told Dante that he was a Lombard and that his parents were from Mantua.) There are several different ancient sources for Manto. In this account, Virgil identifies her as the prophetess of Thebes. After her father, Tiresias, died, her travels ended at a naturally secluded region of north-central Italy eventually named for her by her followers, “without recourse to any sorcery.” Interestingly, some commentators point out the difference between the origin of Mantua as told by Virgil in Book 10 of his Aeneid and the story he presents here as the true one. Dante certainly knew Virgil’s epic well enough to avoid this, but it may also be that Virgil’s account, which is one of many, might, with his emphasis on the truth, be a false one in keeping with where he and Dante are at the moment – among sinners whose stock and trade were basically lies. Moreover, one can be fooled by the seemingly most reliable of sources. And so, we might ask ourselves, in what sense are we to take Virgil’s last admonition: “don’t be fooled”? In the end, perhaps, the key question of this canto may be “Who can you actually believe?”
As for the “geography lesson,” just as the sinners here look backwards, Virgil locates Mantua by standing in its local waters, leaping to their source (looking backward, as it were), and then taking us slowly all the way back to Mantua. In the process, he wanders from place to place somewhat like a stream. Lake Benaco is the Latin name for Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy and one of its most beautiful scenic locations. Virgil’s description 700 years ago, as it were, is still accurate today. The long lake reaches northward toward the German alpine border and surrounded, except along the south, by high mountains, it is filled by countless streams. Three different provinces border on the Lake (Virgil refers to three Church dioceses): Trento on the north, Verona on the south-east, and Brescia on the south-west. Val Camonica is one of the longest valleys (almost 60 miles) in the central alpine region west of Lake Garda. The reference to an island in the middle of the lake where the three provinces or diocese meet is problematic. There are just a handful of very small islands in the lake, none in the middle. The best possibility is Isola del Garda on the southwest side near San Felice del Benaco. A small monastery built on the island by the Franciscan monks in 1220 might have been the place where the three bishops could celebrate Mass together. And there is a local legend that Dante himself visited the island in 1304. The great Fortress of Peschiera sits at the very southern part of the lake guarding its only outlet which becomes the River Mencio. In his commentary on this canto, Musa notes that this was the main fortress of the Della Scala family of Verona who hosted Dante for several years during his exile. It was to the young Can Grande Della Scalla that Dante dedicated the Paradiso. More than likely, Dante would have been familiar with this site and its environs. Not far from Mantua to the southeast is where the Mencio joins the Po at Governolo. Backing up several miles from that confluence would be the area of Mantua that Virgil is referring to. The distance from Mantua to Peschiera is about 25 miles. In all of these geographical observations, it’s also clear that Virgil was quite familiar with the region where he grew up and which he describes with subtle affection.
The final reference in this section is to Count Alberto Casalodi. He was among the Guelf Counts of Brescia who had made themselves lords of Mantua. However, they were extremely unpopular. Foolishly taking the advice of the ambitious Pinamonte de Buonaccorsi, he banished most of his nobles thinking that this would keep him in power. Pinamonte, in the mean time, mounted a rebellion, killed the remaining nobles, and ousted Casalodi from power.
|↑9||Dante’s gushing affirmations here are a bit overweening. Yet, remember that moments before this he was very strongly rebuked by Virgil for acting like a fool and pitying the twisted sinners . He’s had a moment to recover and “get hold” of himself. On the other hand, truth and falsehood are at odds throughout this canto and Dante seems not to want to leave the slightest doubt as to where he stands with his Mentor. The image of the dead coals is an unusual one but it works well here. The false “truths” of the fortune-tellers are like the dead coals. The fire has gone out of them.|
|↑10||This statement provides more evidence that Dante has heeded Virgil’s earlier rebuke about pity. Having had a moment to think while Virgil spoke about Manto, he’s now ready to continue learning about the nature of sin – and these particular sinners which, of course, is the purpose of his journey. And because we have no indication that the procession of the fortune-tellers had stopped, we can presume that the earlier ones that Virgil spoke about, including Manto, have moved on. New ones have come into view.|
|↑11||Dante (Virgil) seems to make an error here with Eurypylus and Calchas. When the Greeks sailed from Aulis to Troy, only Calchas the augur was there, and it was he who advised Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. Eurypylus, however, was not an augur. According to the Aeneid (Book 2), he was a soldier sent to get a message from the oracle of Phoebus. When he returns with a dark message, Calchas the augur is brought in to determine what must be done. Thus, while they appear in the same part of the epic, but they do not play exactly the same role. Eurypylus is sent to get the message of Phoebus, but it is Calchas who must interpret it. Apart from this, one cannot miss the great compliment Virgil pays Dante for his mastery of Virgil’s epic.|
|↑12||Michael Scot (d. 1250) was a Scottish astrologer in the court of Frederick II at Palermo. He was learned in philosophy, the natural and occult sciences, and was noted as great magician. To this day legends about him persist in literature and film. He is perhaps most famous for his translation of the works of Aristotle from Arabic to Latin. Scott will also be immortalized for his “skinny legs,” but it is unknown where Dante came up with this piece of trivia.|
|↑13||Guido Bonatti was a famous thirteenth-century soothsayer from Forlì. He was the author of several texts and was the private astrologer to Guido da Montefeltro, the lord of that region, who will feature prominently in Canto 27.|
|↑14||In Italian, asdente means “toothless.” He was a poor shoemaker from Parma who was said to have considerable prophetic powers.|
|↑15||At last we have witches and sorceresses who were, perhaps, more wicked or dangerous than the others mentioned in this canto because their sin dealt with evil powers over the wills of their clients or victims, or even causing their deaths.|
|↑16||In Hell, time is told by the moon, not the sun, and Virgil’s reference to Cain is an old “man-in-the-moon” legend. In chapter 4 of the Book of Genesis, Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, was forced to wander over the earth as a punishment for murdering his brother. One Italian legend has it that he was eventually banished to the moon where he can be seen on the face of the full moon wandering with his bundle of sticks or thorns. Technically, what Virgil is telling Dante is that it’s approximately 6am on Saturday, the day before Easter. “Beyond Spain” is a reference to that part of the globe beyond the traditional Pillars of Hercules and the edge of the world. The last reference to time was at the end of Canto 11 after Dante and Virgil had paused to get used to the stench of Hell and Virgil used the time to explain the structure of the Inferno. At that point it was approximately two hours earlier, or 4am. That the light of the full moon (last night) would have helped Dante when he was lost in the forest is another confusing passage in this canto, and there seems to be no reasonable explanation for it. The reader will recall that in Canto 1 the moon played no part while Dante was lost in the dark forest. He began to climb the mountain because he saw that its top was already illuminated by the rays of the rising sun. How Virgil is able to tell time in Hell is mysterious on the one hand; on the other, like his ability to read Dante’s mind, it is, perhaps, another of his gifts as a spirit.|
|↑17||Post Scrpt: In the Middle Ages, divination, astrology, and all their cousins – near and distant – were commonplace. It was even more common in the ancient world, as Dante highlights in the first part of this canto four famed characters from four great classical literary sources that he was quite familiar with: Amphiaraus figures in the Thebiad of Statius, Tiresias in the Metamorphoses of Ovid, Manto from Virgil’s Aeneid, and Aruns in Lucan’s Pharsalia. For centuries, Virgil himself was considered by many to have been a magician, and this belief was current even in Dante’s time. There was a kind of magic known as sortes virgilanae which involved opening the text of his Aeneid to random places and making predictions based on the particular text that was highlighted. (St. Augustine himself recounts in his Confessions that he did this with the Bible shortly before his conversion.) Benvenuto da Imola, his early commentator, notes that Dante himself “to some degree took pleasure in astrology.” Later, in the Paradiso, we will encounter Dante wrestling with the Platonic teaching that our lives are governed by the stars. All of this – and there is much more fascinating commentary on this canto to be found – stands as a kind of context and stage-setting for this canto where by condemning the fortune-tellers and their ilk to Hell, the Poet clearly stands in opposition to them. Interestingly, though there is slight mention of others, Virgil spends most of his time telling Dante about soothsayers from the classical era. The fact that Dante the Poet gives him 97 lines of speech in which to do this, compared with only 6 of his own, may also be Dante’s way of removing his mentor from any complicity with their sin.|