Dante’s “Vantage point permitted a clear view of the depths of the pit below: desolation bathed with the tears of its tormented crew, who moved about the circle of the pit at about the pace of a litany procession. Silent and weeping, they wound round and round it.” “And when [Dante] looked down from their faces, [Dante] saw that each of them was hideously distorted between the top of the chest and the lines of the jaw; for the face was reversed on the neck, and they came on backwards, staring backwards at their loins, for to look before them was forbidden.”
Virgil to Dante says “But come: Cain with his bush of thorns appears already on the wave below Seville, above the boundary of the hemispheres; and the moon was full already yesternight, as you must well remember from the wood, for it certainly did not harm you when its light shone down upon your way before the dawn.” As Virgil spoke to Dante, they “Traveled on.”
Canto XX: Analysis:
Dante’s “Vantage point permitted a clear view of the depths of the pit below: desolation bathed with the tears of its tormented crew, who moved about the circle of the pit at about the pace of a litany procession. Silent and weeping, they wound round and round it” (4-9). Regarding the “Litany procession,” litanies are chanted not only in church before the mass, but sometimes in procession, the priest chanting the prayers and the marchers the response. The processions move very slowly.
“And when [Dante] looked down from their faces, [Dante] saw that each of them was hideously distorted between the top of the chest and the lines of the jaw; for the face was reversed on the neck, and they came on backwards, staring backwards at their loins, for to look before them was forbidden” (10-15).
Dante “Saw the image of our humanity distorted so that the tears that burst from their eyes ran down the cleft of their buttocks” (22-24). Since the heads of these sinners are turned backwards, their tears ran down their backs, and down the between the cleft of their buttocks.
These sinners contrapasso is for the sinners to not be able to see in front of them, for they sought to penetrate the future. Since they attempted to move themselves forward in time, so must they now go backwards through all eternity. Similar to the arts of sorcery being a distortion of God’s law, so are their bodies distorted in Hell.
Virgil asks, “Wither do you flee, Amphiareus? Why do you leave the field?” (33-34) Amphiareus is one of the seven Captains who fought Thebes. Statius tells how he foresaw his own death in this war, and attempted to run away from it, but was swallowed in his flight by an earthquake.
Virgil continues, “See Tiresias, who by his arts succeeded in changing himself from man to woman, transforming all his limbs and all his parts; later he had to strike the two twined serpents once again with his conjurer’s wand before he could resume his manly lineaments” (40-45). Tiresias is a Theban diviner and magician. In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses, III,” it tells how Tiresias came on two twined serpents, struck them apart with his stick, and was thereupon transformed into a woman. Seven years later he came on two serpents similarly entwined, struck them apart, and was changed back into a man.
Virgil tells, “High in sweet Italy, under the Alps that shut the Tyrolean gate of Germany, there lies a lake known as Benacus roundabout. Through endless falls, more than a thousand and one, Mount Apennine from Garda to Val Cammonica is freshened by the waters that flow into that lake. At it center is a place where the Bishops of Brescia, Trentine, and Verona might all give benediction with equal grace” (61-69). Benacus is the ancient name for the famous Lago di Garda, which lies a short distance north of Mantua. The other places lie around Lago di Garda. On an island in the lake the three dioceses conjoined. All three bishops had jurisdiction on the island.
Virgil to Dante points out, “That one whose beard spreads like a fleece over his swarthy shoulders, was an augur in the days when so few males remained in Greece that even the cradles were all but empty of sons. He chose the time for cutting the cable at Aulis, and Calchas joined him in those divinations. He is Eurypylus” (106-112).
Virgil to Dante draws attention to, “The other there, the one beside him with the skinny shanks was Michael Scott, who mastered every trick of magic fraud, a prince of mountebanks” (114-117). Michael Scott was an Irish scholar of the first half of the thirteenth century. Michael Scott’s studies were largely in the occult.
Virgil to Dante says “But come: Cain with his bush of thorns appears already on the wave below Seville, above the boundary of the hemispheres; and the moon was full already yesternight, as you must well remember from the wood, for it certainly did not harm you when its light shone down upon your way before the dawn” (124-130). Cain with a bush of thorns was the medieval equivalent of our Man on the Moon. Dante’s reference to Seville means all of Spain and the Straits of Gibraltar, which were believed to be the western limits of the world. The moon is setting. The moonlight appears on the western waves on the morning of Holy Saturday, 1300.
Canto XX: English Translation:
(1) Now must I sing new griefs, and my verses strain
(2) To form the matter of the Twentieth Canto
(3) Of Canticle One, the Canticle of Pain.
(4) My vantage point permitted a clear view
(5) Of the depths of the pit below: a desolation
(6) Bathed with the tears of its tormented crew,
(7) Who moved about the circle of the pit
(8) At about the pace of a litany procession.
(9) Silent and weeping, they wound round and round it.
(10) And when I looked down from their faces, I saw
(11) That each of them was hideously distorted
(12) Between the top of the chest and the lines of the jaw;
(13) For the face was reversed on the neck, and they came on
(14) Backwards, staring backwards at their loins,
(15) For to look before them was forbidden. Someone,
(16) Sometime, in the grip of a palsy may have been
(17) Distorted so, but never to my knowledge;
(18) Nor do I believe the like was ever seen.
(19) Reader, so may God grant you to understand
(20) My poem and profit from it, ask yourself
(21) how I could check my tears, when near at hand
(22) I saw the image of our humanity
(23) Distorted so that the tears that burst from their eyes
(24) Ran down the cleft of their buttocks. Certainly
(25) I wept. I leaned against the jagged face
(26) Of a rock and wept so that my Guide said: “Still?
(27) Still like the other fools? There is no place
(28) For pity here. Who is more arrogant
(29) Within his soul, who is more impious
(30) Than one who dares to sorrow at God’s judgment?
(31) Lift up your eyes, lift up your eyes and see
(32) Him the earth swallowed before all the Thebans,
(33) At which they cried out: ‘Whither do you flee,
(34) Amphiareus? Why do you leave the field?’
(35) And he fell headlong through the gaping earth
(36) To the feet of Minos, where all sin must yield.
(37) Observe how he has made a breast of his back.
(38) In life he wished to see too far before him,
(39) And now he must crab backwards round this track.
(40) And see Tiresias, who by his arts
(41) Succeeded in changing himself from man to woman,
(42) Transforming all his limbs and all his parts;
(43) Later he had to strike the two twined serpents
(44) Once again with his conjurer’s wand before
(45) He could resume his manly lineaments.
(46) And there is Aruns, his back to that one’s belly,
(47) The same who in the mountains of the Luni
(48) Tilled by the people of Carrara’s valley,
(49) Made a white marble cave his den, and there
(50) With unobstructed view observed the sea
(51) And the turning constellations year by year.
(52) And she whose unbound hair flows back to hide
(53) Her breasts―which you cannot see―and who also wears
(54) All of her hairy parts on that other side,
(55) Was Manto, who searched countries far and near,
(56) Then settled where I was born. In that connection
(57) There is a story I would have you hear.
(58) Tiresias was her sire. After his death,
(59) Thebes, the city of Bacchus, became enslaved,
(60) And for many years she roamed about the earth.
(61) High in sweet Italy, under the Alps that shut
(62) The Tyrolean gate of Germany, there lies
(63) A lake known as Benacus roundabout.
(64) Through endless falls, more than a thousand and one,
(65) Mount Apennine from Garda to Val Cammonica
(66) Is freshened by the waters that flow down
(67) Into that lake. At its center is a place
(68) Where the Bishops of Brescia, Trentine, and Verona
(69) Might all give benediction with equal grace.
(70) Peschiera, the beautiful fortress, strong in war
(71) Against the Brescians and the Bergamese,
(72) Sits at the lowest point along that shore.
(73) There, the waters Benacus cannot hold
(74) Within its bosom, spill and form a river
(75) That winds away through pastures green and gold.
(76) But once the water gathers its full flow,
(77) It is called Mincuis rather than Benacus
(78) From there to Governo, where it joins the Po.
(79) Still near its source, it strikes a plain, and there
(80) it slows and spreads, forming an ancient marsh
(81) Which in the summer heats pollutes the air.
(82) The terrible virgin, passing there by chance,
(83) Saw dry land at the center of the mire,
(84) Untilled, devoid of all inhabitants.
(85) There, shunning all communion with mankind,
(86) She settled with the ministers of her arts,
(87) And there she lived, and there she left behind
(88) Her vacant corpse. Later the scattered men
(89) Who lived nearby assembled on that spot
(90) Since it was well defended by the fen.
(91) Over those whited bones they raised the city,
(92) And for her who had chosen the place before all others
(93) They named it―with no further augury―
(94) Mantua. Far more people lived there once―
(95) Before sheer madness prompted Casalodi
(96) To let Pinamonte play him for a dunce.
(97) Therefore, I charge you, should you ever hear
(98) Other accounts of this, to let no falsehood
(99) Confuse the truth which I have just made clear.”
(100) And I to him: “Master, within my soul
(101) Your word is certainty, and any other
(102) Would seem like the dead lumps of burned out coal.
(103) But tell me of those people moving down
(104) To join the rest. Are any worth my noting?
(105) For my mind keeps coming back to that alone.”
(106) And he: “That one whose beard spreads like a fleece
(107) Over his swarthy shoulders, was an augur
(108) In the days when so few males remained in Greece
(109) That even the cradles were all but empty of sons.
(110) He chose the time for cutting the cable at Aulis,
(111) And Calchas joined him in those divinations.
(112) He is Eurypylus. I sing him somewhere
(113) In my High Tragedy; you will know the place
(114) Who know the whole of it. The other there,
(115) The one beside him with the skinny shanks
(116) Was Michael Scott, who mastered every trick
(117) Of magic fraud, a prince of mountebanks.
(118) See Guido Bonatti there; and see Asdente,
(119) Who now would be wishing he had stuck to his last,
(120) But repents too late, though he repents aplenty.
(121) And see on every hand the wretched hags
(122) Who left their spinning and sewing for soothsaying
(123) And casting of spells with herbs, and dolls, and rags.
(124) But come: Cain with his bush of thorns appears
(125) Already on the wave below Seville,
(126) Above the boundary of the hemispheres;
(127) And the moon was full already yesternight,
(128) As you must well remember from the wood,
(129) For it certainly did not harm you when its light
(130) Shone down upon your way before the dawn.”
(131) And as he spoke to me, we traveled on.
Canto XX: Italian Manuscript:
(1) Di nova pena mi conven far versi
(2) e dar matera al ventesimo canto
(3) de la prima canzon, ch’è d’i sommersi.
(4) Io era già disposto tutto quanto
(5) a riguardar ne lo scoperto fondo,
(6) che si bagnava d’angoscioso pianto;
(7) e vidi gente per lo vallon tondo
(8) venir, tacendo e lagrimando, al passo
(9) che fanno le letane in questo mondo.
(10) Come ’l viso mi scese in lor più basso,
(11) mirabilmente apparve esser travolto
(12) ciascun tra ’l mento e ’l principio del casso,
(13) ché da le reni era tornato ’l volto,
(14) e in dietro venir li convenia,
(15) perché ’l veder dinanzi era lor tolto.
(16) Forse per forza già di parlasia
(17) si travolse così alcun del tutto;
(18) ma io nol vidi, né credo che sia.
(19) Se Dio ti lasci, lettor, prender frutto
(20) di tua lezione, or pensa per te stesso
(21) com’ io potea tener lo viso asciutto,
(22) quando la nostra imagine di presso
(23) vidi sì torta, che ’l pianto de li occhi
(24) le natiche bagnava per lo fesso.
(25) Certo io piangea, poggiato a un de’ rocchi
(26) del duro scoglio, sì che la mia scrota
(27) mi disse: «Ancor se’ tu de li altri sciocchi?
(28) Qui vive la pietà quand’ è ben morta;
(29) chi è più scellerato che colui
(30) che al giudicio divin passion comporta?
(31) Drizza la testa, drizza, e vedi a cui
(32) s’aperse a li occhi d’i Teban la terra;
(33) per ch’ei gridavan tutti: "Dove rui,
(34) Anfïarao? perché lasci la guerra?".
(35) E non restò di ruinare a valle
(36) fino a Minòs che ciascheduno afferra.
(37) Mira c’ha fatto petto de le spalle;
(38) perché volle veder troppo davante,
(39) di retro guarda e fa retroso calle.
(40) Vedi Tiresia, che mutò sembiante
(41) quando di maschio femmina divenne,
(42) cangiandosi le membra tutte quante;
(43) e prima, poi, ribatter li convene
(44) li duo serpenti avvolti, con la verga,
(45) che rïavesse le maschili penne.
(46) Aronta è quel ch’al ventre li s’atterga,
(47) che ne’ monti di Luni, dove ronca
(48) lo Carrarese che di sotto alberga,
(49) ebbe tra ’ bianchi marmi la spelonca
(50) per sua dimora; onde a guardar le stelle
(51) e ’l mar non li era la veduta tronca.
(52) E quella che ricuopre le mammelle,
(53) che tu non vedi, con le trecce sciolte,
(54) e ha di là ogne pilosa pelle,
(55) Manto fu, che cercò per terre molte;
(56) poscia si puose là dove nacqu’ io;
(57) onde un poco mi piace che m’ascolte.
(58) Poscia che ’l padre suo di vita uscìo
(59) e venne serva la città di Baco,
(60) questa gran tempo per lo mondo gio.
(61) Suso in Italia bella giace un laco,
(62) a piè de l’Alpe che serra Lamagna
(63) sovra Tiralli, c’ha nome Benaco.
(64) Per mille fonti, credo, e più si bagna
(65) tra Garda e Val Camonica e Pennino
(66) de l’acqua che nel detto laco stagna.
(67) Loco è nel mezzo là dove ’l trentino
(68) pastore e quel di Brescia e ’l Veronese
(69) segnar poria, s’e’ fesse quel cammino.
(70) Siede Peschiera, bello e forte arnese
(71) da fronteggiar Bresciani e Bergamaschi,
(72) ove la riva ’ntorno più discese.
(73) Ivi convien che tutto quanto caschi
(74) ciò che ’n grembo a Benaco star non può,
(75) e fassi fiume giù per verdi paschi.
(76) Tosto che l’acqua a correr mette co,
(77) non più Benaco, ma Mencio si chiama
(78) fino a Governol, dove cade in Po.
(79) Non molto ha corso, ch’el trova una lama,
(80) ne la qual si distende e la ’mpaluda;
(81) e suol di state talor essere grama.
(82) Quindi passando la vergine cruda
(83) vide terra, nel mezzo del pantano,
(84) sanza coltura e d’abitanti nuda.
(85) Lì, per fuggire ogne consorzio umano,
(86) ristette con suoi servi a far sue arti,
(87) e visse, e vi lasciò suo corpo vano.
(88) Li uomini poi che ’ntorno erano sparti
(89) s’accolsero a quel loco, ch’era forte
(90) per lo pantan ch’avea da tutte parti.
(91) Fer la città sovra quell’ ossa morte;
(92) e per colei che ’l loco prima elesse,
(93) Mantüa l’appellar sanz’ altra sorte.
(94) Già fuor le genti sue dentro più spesse,
(95) prima che la mattia da Casalodi
(96) da Pinamonte inganno ricevesse.
(97) Però t’assenno che, se tu mai odi
(98) originar la mia terra altrimenti,
(99) la verità nulla menzogna frodi».
(100) E io: «Maestro, i tuoi ragionamenti
(101) mi son sì certi e prendon sì mia fede,
(102) che li altri mi sarien carboni spenti.
(103) Ma dimmi, de la gente che procede,
(104) se tu ne vedi alcun degno di nota;
(105) ché solo a ciò la mia mente rifiede».
(106) Allor mi disse: «Quel che da la gota
(107) porge la barba in su le spalle brune,
(108) fu—quando Grecia fu di maschi vòta,
(109) sì ch’a pena rimaser per le cune—
(110) augure, e diede ’l punto con Calcanta
(111) in Aulide a tagliar la prima fune.
(112) Euripilo ebbe nome, e così ’l canta
(113) l’alta mia tragedìa in alcun loco:
(114) ben lo sai tu che la sai tutta quanta.
(115) Quell’ altro che ne’ fianchi è così poco,
(116) Michele Scotto fu, che veramente
(117) de le magiche frode seppe ’l gioco.
(118) Vedi Guido Bonatti; vedi Asdente,
(119) ch’avere inteso al cuoio e a lo spago
(120) ora vorrebbe, ma tardi si pente.
(121) Vedi le triste che lasciaron l’ago,
(122) la spuola e ’l fuso, e fecersi ’ndivine;
(123) fecer malie con erbe e con imago.
(124) Ma vienne omai, ché già tiene ’l confine
(125) d’amendue li emisperi e tocca l’onda
(126) sotto Sobilia Caino e le spine;
(127) e già iernotte fu la luna tonda:
(128) ben ten de’ ricordar, ché non ti nocque
(129) alcuna volta per la selva fonda».
(130) Sì mi parlava, e andavamo introcque.
Alighieri, Dante, “The Inferno,” Trans. John Ciardi, Signet Classics, New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, New York, 2009, Print.