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Dante Alighieri

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Canto 20

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Canto 20 of Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno.

Inferno | Canto 20 | Summary



Dante looks down into the fourth pouch, and sees souls walking as if in a church procession. They are weeping silently. Their heads are on their bodies backward, and so they must walk backward. These sinners are those who "wanted so to see ahead," so they turned to fortune-telling (soothsayers and diviners). Dante at first feels pity for these people, but Virgil rebukes him, reminding Dante that the soothsayers are responsible for pretending to divine or alter the future ordained by God. Virgil then describes the sins of several of them in more detail, including the Greek prophet Tiresias. He then explains how his own city, Mantua, began, and charges Dante with the task of refuting any other story of Mantua's origin.


The principle of contrapasso is easily understood as it applies to the fortune-tellers, astrologers, and the like. Note that the fortune-tellers here are those who are also guilty of fraud, using tricks to make money.

As Virgil rebukes Dante for feeling pity for the fortune-tellers (he's taken a step back from his righteous indignation in the previous canto, it seems), he revisits the concept of true and false speech that was such an important feature of Canto 16. He wants to make sure Dante knows the real story—the true words—of Mantua, not the false story. This aspect of language—how it can be used to tell truths or to tell lies—is especially appropriate as a topic for discussion in the eighth circle.

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