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Recapping Dante: Canto 20, or True Dantective

March 10, 2014 | by

This winter, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: Virgil and Dante go True Detective.


Giovanni Stradano, Canto XX, 1587.

Dante: I’ve never seen anything like it. The moment we entered the domain of the diviners, I knew right away something was very wrong. Some sick bastard went to town on them. Their bodies were contorted, their heads were twisted back 180 degrees so their tears fell down their asses. It’s the sort of thing nobody should see once. You spend the rest of your career trying to avoid anything like it again. I was almost ruined after that. But Virgil, he was fascinated.

* * *

Virgil: A man in hell surprises even himself. You go down there waiting to get hit with a rush of pity, but it never arrives. No. The first thing that hits you is the great irony of divination. You wonder, are these sinners being punished for lying—for creating the illusion that somehow they were graced with the power of premonition? Or maybe they’re down there because they saw something and decided to reveal whatever improbable truth nobody was supposed to know about until it actually happened? If that’s the case, then they already know what’s going to happen to them. You see, an ordinary sinner holds out in ignorance, thinking that something might change ten, one hundred years down the line. But the diviners know that they can’t leave hell. Is that why they’re weeping? Wouldn’t you weep if suddenly you felt the silence of God and knew He wasn’t going to return?

* * *

Dante: I can’t remember whom we spoke to first. There were a few Thebans, but none of them had anything useful to say. One old man, Amphiaraus, kept giving us some line about how he was sucked down into the earth and dragged to hell when he tried to delay his own death.  We figured out pretty quickly that these Thebans were all part of the same cult of seers, led by a blind man named Tiresias.

* * *

Virgil: Tiresias was a distraction, you see. That wasn’t the real story. You hear a big name like Tiresias, and you assume it’s going to tie back to him, but then we found a woman named Manto.

* * *

Dante: Now, Manto was an interesting story. She traveled a lot before she died. She went along all of northern Italy.

* * *

Virgil: She went from town to town, across rivers and cities. I imagine she was running from that itinerant solitude that can drive you to madness. That feeling, that emptiness, cuts through reason and reality, and slowly tells you that there’s only one way to run away from it all. It lets you put the pieces together yourself. Maybe that’s what Manto saw. You spend your whole life convinced that there’s such a thing as a direction, some path carved out, even if you can’t see it. I think Manto had figured it out.

* * *

Dante: The ancient case file on Manto said that the city where she died was later named Mantua. The city where she settled and practiced her sorcery was named in honor of her. But here’s where it gets interesting. Manto isn’t Italian, or Roman. She’s Greek. How do you suppose a Greek got all the way to northern Italy? None of it adds up.

* * *

Virgil: Once we figured out Manto wasn’t from Italy, there was a logic to the disorder. When you’re dealing with diviners, you can’t expect time to lay itself out in any traditional sense. You embrace the notion that time is just a flat circle.

* * *

Dante: We were asking the wrong questions. We wanted to know who founded Mantua, but the mythology on the matter contradicted what we had just learned. We ended up talking to one more sinner who was being punished. Eurypylus, I think his name was. He was one deranged old man. He was down there after demanding a sacrifice from the Greeks. He had one of them kill his own daughter.

* * *

Virgil: What would a man have to say to you—what he would have to promise—to get you to do such a thing? The compulsion to create life is our greatest instinct. It keeps us alive. Imagine what a father would have to think in order to go against his programming like that.

* * *

Dante: We ended up leaving empty-handed, unless you consider a long series of moral lessons and an hour-long speech by Virgil something you can hold on to.

To catch up on our Dante series, click here.

Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for the New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.




  1. Samwise | March 10, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    Virgil’s thoughts on Tiresias are keen. He is distracting! Sophocles used him as a voice of wisdom like Plato’s Socrates–but what’s really behind the man?

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