David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 20: The Soothsayers”

“Canto 20: The Soothsayers”

  • Although Dante the Pilgrim makes progress in Canto 19, it does not mean that he will automatically continue to make progress.

Dante the Pilgrim really does make progress in Canto 19. He is completely and fully aware that the Popes being punished for Simony richly deserve their punishment. In Canto 19, Dante the Pilgrim seems aware that God does not make mistakes when he puts unrepentant sinners in the Inferno.

However, Dante the Pilgrim will be a backslider. In the very next canto, Canto 20, he pities the Fortune Tellers.

  • What is the punishment of the Fortune Tellers and Diviners, and why is it fitting?

In the fourth bolgia are punished the Fortune Tellers and Sorcerers, who tried to look too far into the future (Musa, Inferno20.38). Because of this, their heads have been twisted around so that they always look backwards for their eternal, very appropriate punishment. They weep, and as they weep, their tears flow between their butt cheeks: “the tears their eyes were shedding / streamed down to wet their buttocks at the cleft” (Musa, Inferno20.23-24).

  • Who are some of the Fortune Tellers and Diviners found in this Circle?


Amphiaraus was one of the seven kings who fought against Thebes. 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. Unfortunately, his wife revealed his hiding place, so he had to go on the military expedition. The Earth opened up and he fell into the chasm, dying as he had foreseen.


Manto was a soothsayer at Thebes. Her father was the Theban prophet Tiresias, whom Odysseus consulted in the Underworld. After Tiresias died, she went to Italy and founded Mantua, the city where Virgil was born.

Michael Scot

This mathematician and scholar was born in Scotland and had a reputation as a magician; he was supposedly able to serve his guests food magically brought from France and Spain and other countries. (Faust in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustusdoes the same thing.) We read about Michael Scot in Giovanni Boccaccio’s DecameronVIII.9:

The physician declared that he would never repeat what he should tell him, and Bruno said, ‘You must know, then, honey doctor mine, that not long since there was in this city a great master in necromancy, who was called Michael Scott, for that he was of Scotland, […]’

Source: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/23700/23700-8.txt

Translator: John Payne

Guido Bonatti

Guido Bonatti appears in the Inferno because he was a famous astrologer.

  • Who was Tiresias? What is his story?

Tiresias is punished here, along with Manto, his daughter. Tiresias was perhaps the most famous Theban prophet. He was famous enough to be consulted by Odysseus in the Underworld in The 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 saw two snakes having sex, and according to one version of the myth (not Ovid’s version), he did not hit them with his staff. As his reward, Hera turned him into a man again. Tiresias had lived life as both a man and a woman, so 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. Zeus could not undo the blindness, but as compensation, he made Tiresias a seer.

The story of Tiresias appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

The Transformation of Tiresias

3:412’Twas now, while these transactions past on Earth,

3:413 And Bacchus thus procur’d a second birth,

3:414 When Jove, dispos’d to lay aside the weight

3:415 Of publick empire and the cares of state,

3:416 As to his queen in nectar bowls he quaff’d,

3:417 “In troth,” says he, and as he spoke he laugh’d,

3:418 “The sense of pleasure in the male is far

3:419 More dull and dead, than what you females share.”

3:420 Juno the truth of what was said deny’d;

3:421 Tiresias therefore must the cause decide,

3:422 For he the pleasure of each sex had try’d.

3:423It happen’d once, within a shady wood,

3:424 Two twisted snakes he in conjunction view’d,

3:425 When with his staff their slimy folds he broke,

3:426 And lost his manhood at the fatal stroke.

3:427 But, after seven revolving years, he view’d

3:428 The self-same serpents in the self-same wood:

3:429 “And if,” says he, “such virtue in you lye,

3:430 That he who dares your slimy folds untie

3:431 Must change his kind, a second stroke I’ll try.”

3:432 Again he struck the snakes, and stood again

3:433 New-sex’d, and strait recover’d into man.

3:434 Him therefore both the deities create

3:435 The sov’raign umpire, in their grand debate;

3:436 And he declar’d for Jove: when Juno fir’d,

3:437 More than so trivial an affair requir’d,

3:438 Depriv’d him, in her fury, of his sight,

3:439 And left him groping round in sudden night.

3:440 But Jove (for so it is in Heav’n decreed,

3:441 That no one God repeal another’s deed)

3:442 Irradiates all his soul with inward light,

3:443 And with the prophet’s art relieves the want of sight.


Translator:Sir Samuel Garth (1661-1719)

  • Why might Dante have classified Diviners, Astrologers, and Magicians as committing fraud?

Dante knew that these people used trickery rather than having supernatural powers; therefore, they are guilty of fraud.

Here is one trick that they used:

To turn water into wine, follow these steps:

  1. Soak a piece of bread in wine.
  2. Let the bread dry.
  3. Distract the victim, then throw the bread into the water. (Presumably, the magician used a vessel that was covered so the victim did not see the bread.)

The famous magician Harry Houdini (who is not guilty of fraud because he did not claim supernatural powers) used to expose mediums. He used to go to a medium and ask about his dear departed Uncle Max. The medium would contact Uncle Max and Harry Houdini would ask questions that Uncle Max would answer. After the séance, Harry Houdini would reveal that he had never had an Uncle Max, then ask, Who was that guy the medium had contacted?

Magicians such as Penn and Teller are not engaging in fraud. They are illusionists, and they do good work debunking fraud, such as on their TV show Bullshit!For example, they debunked feng shui, a kind of mystical interior decorating. They invited several feng shui experts (one at a time, and not knowing that other feng shui experts had also been invited) to rearrange the furniture in an apartment in a way that would be harmonious with the spirits or whatever. Each feng shui expert rearranged the furniture in a different way. Penn and Teller had expected, if feng shui is real, that each expert would rearrange the furniture in the same way.

Here is a definition of feng shui from The American Heritage Dictionary:

The Chinese art or practice of positioning objects, especially graves, buildings, and furniture, based on a belief in patterns of yin and yang and the flow of chi that have positive and negative effects.

Source: http://www.bartleby.com/61/81/F0078175.html

By the way, feng shui is pronounced FUNG sway.

Other magicians such as Randi the Great also spend time debunking people who claim to have psychic powers. Randi the Great once debunked water-witching. In water-witching, a person claims to have the ability to detect underground water by using a forked stick or even a wire clothes hanger. Supposedly, when the person stands over underground water, the forked stick or clothes hanger begins to vibrate. To test whether this has any basis in fact, Randi the Great constructed some underwater pipes in a field. He was able to cause water to flow through one or another of the pipes. He then challenged some water-witchers to demonstrate their skills by showing where the water was underground. All of the water-witchers failed to do this.

  • How does Dante the Pilgrim feel about the Fortune Tellers and Diviners? Should he feel that way?

Dante the Pilgrim weeps when he sees how the Fortune Tellers and Diviners are punished, with their heads on backward.

Of course, Dante the Pilgrim is backsliding here, and Virgil criticizes him for it:

To me: “Art thou, too, of the other fools?

Here pity lives when it is wholly dead;

Who is a greater reprobate than he

Who feels compassion at the doom divine?”

(Longfellow 20.27-30)

  • What is astrology? Should 21st-century Americans believe in it?

Astrology is the belief that the heavenly bodies — meaning the stars and planets — influence us and even determine the course of events.

No, we should not believe in astrology. Certainly the gravity of the planets has very little effect on us, as the gravitational pull on us from such planets as Mars and Venus is so weak.

By the way, Nancy Reagan believed in astrology. Supposedly, she would consult an astrologer and what the astrologer said had some influence on what President Ronald Reagan did.

  • Do you know of any famous Fortune Tellers and Diviners?

We have had a few. Jeane Dixon was one. John Allen Paulos, a mathematician at Temple University, is skeptical of psychics such as Jeane Dixon, and he invented the term “the Jeane Dixon effect.” This refers to a psychic who loudly talks about the psychic’s few lucky guesses and who ignores his or her many false predictions. Ms. Dixon thought that World War III would begin in 1958, and she wrote that the 1960presidential election would be “dominated by labor and won by a Democrat” who then would “be assassinated or die in office though not necessarily in his first term” (the 13 May 1956issue of Parade Magazine).

By the way, it is possible to have a very high number of your predictions come true. Simply predict such things as what you will eat for breakfast tomorrow. Or predict that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow. Do not predict that all human heads will be triangular tomorrow.

  • Why does Dante the Poet use this canto to have Virgil tell Dante the Pilgrim the true story behind the founding of Mantua, the town where Virgil was born?

Virgil tells Dante the Pilgrim the true story behind the founding of Mantua, the town where Virgil was born. Manto saw land lying surrounded mostly by a marsh. She moved there and died there. After she died, men arrived and built a town there because it was well protected by the marsh.

The theme of the story is truth. Apparently, the story of the founding of Mantua was controversial, with more than one version. Virgil here tells the true story. Truth, of course, is something that people engaging in fraud wish to hide. The people sending Nigerian e-mails do not tell you that they want to draw money out of your bank account and spend it although that is the truth. The people who engage in fraud do not want you to know the truth.

By telling the true story of the founding of Mantua, Dante is letting his readers know that he cares about truth. He is establishing his credibility. Because he cares about the truth of the founding of Mantua, he will be careful to report the truth about the afterlife.

  • What is the difference between an Illusionist/Magician such as David Copperfield and a Psychic who has claimed special powers such as Uri Geller?

The difference lies in the abilities that they claim. As an Illusionist/Magician, David Copperfield is entertaining the audience by tricking them into thinking that they are seeing something that is impossible. He claims no psychic abilities, although obviously he has extraordinary showmanship skills. Uri Geller, on the other hand, has claimed special psychic powers such as being able to bend spoons with his mind. However, actually Illusionists/Magicians are able to do exactly the same thing by using stage magic. Illusionists/Magicians are not committing fraud; Uri Geller is — or at least used to.

  • Is it immoral to believe something without sufficient evidence that it is true?

William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) believed that it is immoral to believe something without sufficient evidence that it is true. Clifford came up with a very vivid parable to illustrate his point:

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant ship. He knew that she was old, not overwell built, and often had needed repairs. It had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. He thought that perhaps he ought to have her overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense.

Before the ship sailed, however, he said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms, that it was idle to suppose that she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was safe and seaworthy: he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their new home; and he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

Source: William Kingdon Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief”

Clifford was a very logical person — he was a mathematician as well as a philosopher — who believed that “it is wrong to believe on insufficient evidence, or to nourish belief by suppressing doubts and avoiding investigation.” And according to Clifford, everyone has the duty to be rational in his or her beliefs: “It is not only the leader of men, statesman, philosopher, or poet, that has this duty to mankind. Every rustic who delivers in the village alehouse his slow infrequent sentences, may help to kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which clog his race. No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all that we believe.”

According to Clifford, if you choose to believe without sufficient evidence, then you are like the shipowner who sent all those emigrant families to a watery grave and then collected the insurance.

If you agree with this argument, then you will most likely think that it is immoral to believe in such things as astrology, fortune telling, and bending spoons with your mind.

However, when it comes to things such as choosing to believe in God, we may very well have to make a leap of faith and believe without sufficient evidence either that God does exist or that God does not exist.

  • Who is Eurypylus?How well does Virgil think Dante knows the Aeneid?

Eurypylus is punished here in this part of the Inferno. Dante thought of him as a Greek soothsayer; however, in the story told by Sinon the Lying Greek in Book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid, he was a warrior who was sent to the Oracle of Delphi in order to inquire why the gods were angry at the Greeks.

We find out that Virgil thinks that Dante knows the Aeneidvery well indeed. In John Ciardi’s translation, we read,

“He is Eurypylus. I sing him somewhere

in my High Tragedy; you will know the place

who know the whole of it.” […]

(Ciardi 20.112-114)


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


Free eBooks by David Bruce (pdfs) (Includes Discussion Guides for Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise)


Dante PDFs and Links(davidbruceblog#2)














This entry was posted in Discussion Guide, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s