MEETINGS WITH THE SYBIL OF CUMAE: About the Spirit of Place, women and predictions

08/14/2014 07:34

The summer brought quite a lot of burrowing among old things; much of it has been long forgotten paper work and uninteresting books. This activity triggered memories, associations took off, the mind began to spin, one thought led to another. I intend to take you along on a fairly long ride through the rapids of thoughts, whims and fancies. Together we will rush forward on a winding and extensive thought stream, though there is a danger that I might lose you along the way, or that we will end up in a stagnant pool.

I have once again ended up morning tired on the train up to my work in Växjö, the thoughts I am writing down began a to emerge a few days ago when I found some magazines left over from my father. They had names like Horizon or Cross-section. When my father finished his night shift as editor-in-charge he used to bring with him those magazines and read an article or two, drank a toddy made of egg yolk and porter that my mother had prepared  and then went to bed. My find turned up shortly after I, in a yellowed copy of Norra Skåne, had read an obituary written in memory of my father. Among other things it said: "In every inch he was the classical journalist with becoming bohemian traits in his personality and with an approach to his various undertakings that had been formed by the brotherhood of the night where he spent countless evenings and nights together with typographers and printers in eager anticipation of the first copies. Then the hour hand could have reached both three and four at night. He often finished the night sessions by following a workmate home to his garden, where the early morning´s freshness was enjoyed by lush flowerbeds. During his entire life he nursed a warm love of nature."

It happened that I woke up during the wee hours of the morning and entered the living room where I found my father sitting in his easy chair within the yellow light circuit of the reading lamp, smoking his pipe, always plugged with Hamilton´s Mixture, while he leafed through one of those magazines I now had found. In vain I searched among them to find the one that had fascinated me the most. On its cover was a picture of a corridor with remarkable arches and a mysteriously, streaked light that fell in from the left. Probably, I found the picture before I could read properly; it may explain why it took several years before I knew what it represented. However, I had realized that it must have been some kind of shrine situated at an unknown but exotic location. I was familiar with biblical illustrations and assumed that the corridor could be associated with the remarkable places they depicted - but for real. There was no one under the arches and since I did not have anything to compare the size of the arches with I assumed they must have been very high. I fantasized about where the gallery could lead - to a treasury, a monster's lair, or a gaping chasm? I know for certain that I nurtured such thoughts because I found a childish drawing of precisely that corridor and at the end of the opening I had drawn the wide open jaws of an enormous predator.

It was only much later I found out that the mysterious corridor led into the sibyl's oracle at Cumae, located among the ruins of a town north of Naples. She is considered to have been the mysterious clairvoyant that the historian Dionysus of Halicarnassus writes about in his Roman Antiquities, written some decades before the birth of Christ:”A certain woman who was not a native of the country came to the tyrant wishing to sell him nine books filled with Sibylline oracles; but when Tarquinius [a Roman king who died in 495 BC] refused to purchase the books at the price she asked, she went away and burned three of them. And not long afterwards, bringing the remaining six books, she offered to sell them for the same price. But when he thought her a fool and mocked her for asking the same price for the smaller number of books that she had been unable to get for even the larger number, she again went away and burned half of those that were left; then, bringing the remaining books, she asked the same amount of money for these. 

Tarquinius, wondering at the woman's purpose, sent for the augurs and acquainting them with the matter, asked them what he should do. These, knowing by certain signs that he had rejected a god-sent blessing, and declaring it to be a great misfortune that he had not purchased all the books, directed him to pay the woman all the money she asked and to get the oracles that were left. The woman, after delivering the books and bidding him take great care of them, disappeared from among men. 

Tarquinius chose two men of distinction from among the citizens and appointing two public slaves to assist them, entrusted to them the guarding of the books; and when one of these men, named Marcus Atilius, seemed to have been faithless to his trust and was informed upon by one of the public slaves, he ordered him to be sewed up in a leather bag and thrown into the sea as a parricide. 

Since the expulsion of the kings, the commonwealth, taking upon itself the guarding of these oracles, entrusts the care of them to persons of the greatest distinction, who hold this office for life, being exempt from military service and from all civil employments, and it assigns public slaves to assist them, in whose absence the others are not permitted to inspect the oracles. In short, there is no possession of the Romans, sacred or profane, which they guard as carefully as they do the Sibylline Oracles. They consult them, by order of the senate, when the state is in the grip of party strife or some great misfortune has happened to them in war, or some important prodigies and apparitions have been seen which are difficult of interpretation, as has often happened." 

My grandfather, who was fascinated by all Classical Roman and Greek, told me the story of the Sibyl. Much later, I and my high school pals found T.S. Eliot's great poem The Waste Land,  inspired by Christian, Greek and oriental myths it mixed them with personal memories and impressions from a dingy English everyday existence. On the flyleaf there was a dedication to Ezra Pound, written in Latin and Greek, in translation it reads "For I indeed once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in her jar, and when the boys asked her, 'Sibyl, what do you want?' she answered 'I want to die'."

Petronius who died in Cumae 66 AD and from whom Eliot borrowed his quote, was apparently familiar with the story of the beautiful girl who could not die and therefore continuously aged until she shrank so much that only her voice remained. Ovid (43 BC to 18 AD) lets in his Metamorphosis the Sibyl from Cumae tell her tragic story. Apollo, who was madly in love, told her: “´Virgin of  Cumae choose what you wish, and what you wish you shall have.´ Pointing to a pile of dust, that I had collected, I foolishly begged to have as many anniversaries of my birth, as were represented by the dust. But I forgot to ask that the years should be accompanied by youth. He gave me the years, and lasting youth, as well, if I would surrender: I rejected Phoebus’s gift, and never married. 

But now my more fruitful time has turned its back on me, and old age comes, with tottering step, that must be long endured. Though I have now lived seven centuries, three hundred harvests, three hundred vintages, still remain to be seen, to equal the content of the dust. The time will come when the passage of days will render such body as I have tiny, and my limbs, consumed with age, will reduce to the slightest of burdens. I will be thought never to have loved, and never to have delighted a god. Phoebus too perhaps will either not know me, or will deny that he loved me. I will go as far as having to suffer transformation, and I will be viewed as non-existent, but still known as a voice: the fates will bequeath me a voice.”

Many years after I had learned those stories, I found myself with my daughters on the sandy beach of Sperlonga, below a gray mountain range and between the ruins of Emperor Tiberius' villa and the rock with the city's whitewashed houses. In the distance we could glimpse the mole grey silhouette of Circe´s Island and it was easy to imagine how Odysseus´ or Aeneas´ ship sailed along the heat shimmering horizon in a never ending quest for adventures, as in the final words of the Odyssey´s second song: "and the prow sheared through the night into the dawn."

As I looked out over the sea, I remembered that Cumae was not so far away. Why not do as Aeneas once had done in a mythical past - enter her magical cave? The girls are always keen on adventure and together we drove down to the small coastal town, some 15 kilometers north of Naples.

It was a hot day. The mountainsides were burned by the scorching sun and soon only thorny bushes, cypresses and agave cacti would have endured. After we had passed the ticket shack at the entrance of Cumae’s temple mound, we found that we were the only visitors and briskly walked towards the sibyl's cave.

An openingrmed as a corbelled Mycenaean arch, but carved dirctly out of the porous tuff, opened toward the cave. We entered and I found that I had ended up in my childhood´s enchanted corridor! The same Mycenaean arches and yellow light that fell in through the openings from the right side of the gallery, the sunbeams streaking the floor. I shuddered at this unexpected encounter with my past, vaults were lower than I had expected them to be when I saw the picture, but there was no doubt whatsoever that I was entering my childhood´s fantasy realm and like Aeneas in the poem written two thousand years ago, I was now on my way to a meeting with the sibyl, she who had brought the Trojan hero to the Underworld: “The giant flank of that Eoboean crag has been dug out into a cave; a hundred broad ways lead to that place, a hundred gates; many voices rush from these – the Sybil´s replies. Just as the Trojans reached the threshold the virgin cried: “Now call upon the Fates for oracles. The god is there! The god!”

There were not a hundred ports and passages, but light fell in from five wide niches that opened to the sea and the clear blue space above it. Here Virgil had passed on his way towards an arch shaped chamber carved into the rock. The Roman poet had described how the Sibyl, sitting in that deep niche, had turned towards Aeneas: “her face and color alter suddenly; her hair is disarrayed; her breast heaves, and her wild heart swells with frenzy; she is taller now; her voice is more than human, for the power of god is closing in, he breathes upon her.”

Like Aeneas I had met obsessed mediums. When I lived in Santo Domingo, I occasionally visited brujas, who induced themselves into a trance in order to become possessed by spirits and deities. I remember a young lady called Doña Rosa. We sat together on wooden chairs in front of an altar in the somewhat embarrassing intimacy of her bedroom. The bed was unmade and her altar cluttered with the usual jumble of all sorts of things and images of different saints. She asked if I wanted "cards or spirits", meaning that I had the choice to have my future fortune told by a either a deck of Tarot cards or hear it from a voodoo deity. Of course I replied "spirits". Doña Rosa sighed and wrapped a red shawl around her hands while she mumbled holofrases, incomprehensible "holy words". With increasing intensity she released a flow of strange words while she tossed her head back and forth, stomping her feet hard on the floor. Her voice rose and the words turned into small cries sounding like: "Sassa Sassa sasssa! Sassaaaa! Sassaaaaa ". She joined her hands behind the neck and shook her head violently while her feet hit the floor in an increasing staccato rhythm. It appeared to be a painful process. After five minutes, she calmed down and started to breathe heavily and regularly. Then she turned her face towards me, her dark features gleamed with sweat. A cynical smile played on her lips and the voice that rose from deep within the throat was completely altered; dark and guttural. Her soul had left the body and its place had been occupied by Ogun Balenyó, the voodoo war god. The Sibyl stared straight into my eyes and asked irritably: "What are you doing here? You do not believe in me?"

While Arenas faced Cumae´s Sibyl did he feel a similar discomfort as the one that that took hold of me in front of the possessed the lady in Santo Domingo? Virgil writes that Aeneas and his companions trembled "deep down in bone and marrow." While I and my daughters stood looking at the sibyl´s empty niche we found that we had company. A shaggy, black dog had quietly crept up behind us and now sat calmly and watched us with his different colored eyes; one was brown and the other blue. In Cumae´s the presence of such a dog was somewhat unsettling. In folklore it is assumed that heterochromic creatures are "double visioned", meaning that they may see and abide in two worlds; the real one and Aldilá, "The World Beyond". Dogs were Hecate´s companions, the goddess of sorcery, cross roads and entrances. Besides Apollo, Hecate was protector and ruler of conjurors and sybils. 

I had never seen a dog with different colored eyes. Why did he show up in the Sybil’s cave? Perhaps Hecate had ordered the heterochromic dog to keep a watchful eye on the intruders? He followed us closely during our walk through Cumae´s temple area.¨. When we left the place, he sat down by the entrance shed and looked after us with his strange stare.

Hecate’s dogs could serve as psychopomps, meaning that they followed recently departed souls on their journey through the Underworld. The living are not aware of the dangers and snares in the World of the Dead, when we die we thus could be in need of a companion who can show us the way, someone who knows the worlds of both the living and the dead. That is why sybils are excellent escort on such perilous journeys. They are persons whose bodies are sometimes claimed as vehicles for the gods, thus sybils are well acquainted with both the everyday world and the spiritual realm.

In voodoo a spirit medium is call “a horse” (chwal or caballo) since it is assumed that  a god controls her, it is generally women who act as mediums, like a rider is taming his horse. A parable that Virgil used while he described how Apollo possessed the sibyl: "But she has not yet given way to Phoebus: she rages, savage in her cavern, tries to drive the great god from her breast. So much the more, he tires out her raving mouth; he tames her wild heart, shapes by crushing force […]so Apollo urges the reins as she raves on; he plies the spurs beneath her breast.”  However, the Sybil is not entirely lost to the domination, as soon as the god let her be, her “frenzy is done, her raging lips are hushed” and she becomes calm and sane. Cool and clear-headed, she leads Aeneas through the terrifying Underworld. She offers him good advice, protects him from dangers and converses boldly with the monsters and tormented souls they encounter down there. Without the sibyl´s company Aeneas would have been lost.

As a condition for her to bring with her Aeneas down to the World of the Dead, the sibyl asks him to retrieve a golden bough from a tree in a nearby forest, at that time, Italy was covered with deciduous trees. Aeneas was anxious to get down to Hades in order to talk to his dead father who could see into the future and give him the advice he needed for his encounters with the various dangers that he knew was awaiting him.

After Aeneas had found the golden bough the sibyl brought him to Avernus, a volcanic lake which stench of sulfur and phosphorus prevented birds from flying over it: "Wide open gaping, rough and deep, a giant cave lies beside the black lake, protected by the forest´s darkness. No bird has unpunished stretched its wing pens over that lake - so sickening are the vapors flowing up from its gloomy throat, rising to the sky."

Having sacrificed four bulls Aeneas follows in the footsteps of the fearless and confident sibyl, down they go into the exceptionally nasty Tartarus, Home of the Dead: "Next to the abode of the Stygian king he builds the nightly altars and burns the bulls´ carcasses, drowning their steaming entrails with plenty of oil.” The morning sun rises over the horizon, the ground trembles beneath them and the sibyl gives a sign to Aeneas telling him to follow her into the depths of Hell: "You, Arenas, press on, draw thy sword out of its sheath. All your undoubted courage and a steadfast heart are now required." Virgil's sibyl is not a taciturn person, she is impulsive and bold and "straight into the cave she eagerly plunges herself, while he audaciously keeps pace with her."

It was a frightening journey they made. With a graphic, nuanced language Virgil depicts Tartarus nasty, sulfur saturated atmosphere. They penetrate further and further into the bleak worlds of the Underworld. Aeneas meets friends and acquaintances, as well as he encounters monsters and unrepentant sinners. As few mortals before them Sibyl and Aeneas succeed in using the golden bough to bribe the unpleasant demon Charon who takes them across the river Styx. During the journey Aeneas stands upright in the boat, "the seamed craft moans under his weight, while slush gushes in through leaks. Finally they reach the opposite shore, coming to solid ground through disgusting mud and dark green bulrush."

Through centuries have tunnels and caves been carved out of the soft tuff and travertine surrounding Vesuvius and several of them have been identified as the passage way Aeneas and the sibyl used to get down to Hades. If you travel along the lake Avernus´ southern shore, you may on a wall catch sight of a hand-painted text and an arrow indicating a dirt road that will lead you to La Grotta della Sibilla.  A skinny, rather old man supporting himself on a cane may be at hand to guide you through an intricate tunnel system that extends at least 250 meters below the earth.  Carlo Santillo handles you a candle and you follow him into a tunnel that is said to connect Averno with another lake, Lucerno, situated by the coast a few kilometers further south, though Carlo says that one of the unexplored ducts we pass by down there in the darkness might just as well lead straight down to Hell.

He points to narrow pathways and staircases into compact darkness or stagnant pools with black water. No one knows what purpose this labyrinth might have served. Where the tunnels we walk through once connected with some kind of mysterium, a mystery cult, or where they dug for a military reason, or maybe they were used for bathing, or served as fish ponds?  No one knows if this is the cave system that inspired Virgil´s tale about Arenas´ journey through Hades. As his friend and patron Maecenas had given him a country house in the vicinity Virgil was familiar with the surroundings of Lake Averno and must have known about the tunnel system, maybe he even went down into it.

And what about the sibyl´s gallery and chamber in Cumae? Are they authentic? Is it really there where she received visitors who wanted to know something about their future, or just sought her advice? It is actually Virgil who first mentioned the sibyl and her Cumaean oracle. The text by Dionysus of Halicarnassus that I quoted above does actually not say that it was the Cumaean Sybil who sold the books to Tarqinius, he just calls her “a certain woman”.

The oldest currently known text mentioning the Sibyl of Cumae is by the Greek poet Lycophron (active 250 BC) who in his poem Alexandra wrote "Phoebus´ mountain where virgin priestess Sibyl has her awful abode, a gaping chasm covered with arched rocks". However, the reference is doubtful. "Apollo's mountain" may refer to the well-known shrine in Cumae, but that is far from certain. Alexandra is written as an oracle recited in prophetic fury by the Trojan clairvoyant Cassandra and has been described as "among the most illegible piece of work found in classical literature." Since the poem mentions that Rome dominates the whole world it has been assumed that it cannot have been written at a time when Rome was not yet the domineering power by the Mediterranean Sea and it is thus likely that Alexandra was written much later than during Lycophron´s lifetime and by a far worse poet.

The Greek geographer Strabo, who was writing by the middle of the century before Christ, mentions an oracle in connection with Cumae, but no Sybil: "there remains an isthmus only a few stadia broad, that is, reckoning straight through the tunnel to Cumae itself and to the sea next to Cumae. The people prior to my time were, wont to make Avernus the setting of the fabulous story of the Homeric ´Necyia´ [Homer´s tale about Odysseus´ journey to Hades], and, what is more, writers tell us that there actually was an oracle of the dead here and that Odysseus visited it."

Apparently there was at Virgil´s time an oracle in Cumae and it's not particularly strange if local people, in an area so rich in caves, underground passages and sulfur-smelling gorges, imagined that somewhere there could have been an entrance to Hades. That there was a famous and popular temple of Apollo at Cumae is also well known. Furthermore, in what is nowadays southern Italy it was quite common that certain temples included oracles staffed by resident sibyls. For example, in the temple of Jupiter in Terracina, just north of Sperlonga, there is a vaulted chamber just under the main building, almost identical with the one found below Apollo’s temple in Cumae and local tradition says that there was a sibyl active in Terracina as well.

It was not until 1932, when a large pizza oven near the Apollo temple ruins in Cumae was demolished, that the entrance to the sibyl's impressive gallery was found. That it had been unknown for centuries is somewhat odd given the fact that the five large, walled up openings of the gallery had been visible from the sea. It is now almost certain that the gallery and the niche have been associated with some kind of oracle. The Mycenaean vaults suggest an advanced age and knowing that Augustus at the same time as Virgil wrote his Aeneid had both the Temple of Apollo and the Sibyl's Cave restored seem to indicate the importance of the oracle. It is thus highly probable that Virgil once walked through the same gallery that I and my daughters had visited. It is also very likely that Virgil's mighty poem gave a new momentum to Romans' interest in Cumae and that the Apollo priests eventually turned the place into a veritable tourist attraction. Something that among other indications is suggested by Petronius´ paragraph about the sybil, the one quoted by T.S. Eliot.

In Petronius´ novel Satyricon it is Trimalchio who utters the famous words of the shrunken Sibyl. Judging by the context it is difficult to imagine that the cultured Petronius would allow the gross Trimalchio to make an utterance characterized by subtlety, or acumen. The stinking rich, vulgar and insufferably boastful Trimalchio is in the novel presented as a monster of tastelessness and his grotesque dinner party is an orgy of brash vulgarity, where the invited guests wallow in indiscriminate flattery of their puffed up and relentlessly bragging host. Trimalchio claims that he has three libraries, one in Greek and two in Latin, but when he tries to make an impact as an educated man all he is able to come up with are embarrassing platitudes and grotesque misconceptions: "Tell me, my dearest Agamemnon, do you remember the twelve labors of Hercules or the story of Ulysses, how the Cyclops threw his thumb out of joint with a pig-headed crowbar? When I was a boy, I used to read those stories in Homer. And then, there's the Sibyl: with my own eyes I saw her, at Cumae, hanging up in a jar; and whenever the boys would say to her 'Sibyl, Sibyl, what would you?' she would answer, 'I would die.'” It may be that Trimalchio might recount some memory of a dubious tourist attraction.

When Pausanias (110-180 AD), who has been called the best travel guide of the Ancient World, visited Cumae he was touring the temple ground accompanied by priests who explained the different sites. Inside the temple of Apollo, he was presented with an "urn" in which the Sibyl's ashes were kept, though he wrote nothing about hearing any prophesies. Either there was at his time no longer any Sybil active in Cumae, or it could happen that the priests, managed to give visitors the impression that the Sybil was speaking to them from within the urn, or ampulla, bottle, as Petronius writes. 

Guides, which in Greek were called periegetai were quite common in popular locations and are mentioned several times in connection with the Sibyl of Cumae. Justin Martyr (100-165 AD), describes how he was shown around by guides in Cumae and then visited among other sights the "Sibyl´s large basilica carved into the rock." An unknown Christian writer who visited Cumae in the early third century also tells how he was offered a guided tour of the place and shown a "bronze bottle" in which the Sibyl´s "remnants" were kept. He also entered a "great basilica carved into the rock, a large and very admirable job." The guides narrated "their ancestral traditions" and took the anonymous Christian writer the “basilica´s inner room” where they described how the sibyl after ritual ablutions sat on a throne on a high platform placed in the middle of the room and from where she "uttered her prophecies.”

In the ancient Greek-Roman world sibyls could be found in many different places and the question is why Virgil chose to make such a big deal of the Sibyl in Cumae. It has been hypothesized that his choice may have been associated with his friend Augustus quest for a divine mandate for its rule. The Sibylline divination books had served as a sacred guarantee for the proper conduct of the Republican Regime, but after they had been lost in a fire in 83 BC there were no longer any divine authority that a Government could rely on. 

When Augustus became High Priest, Pontifex Maximus, in12 BC he organized a "reclaiming" of the Sibylline books. The Senate agreed to pay the expenses connected with dispatching "experts" to various oracles within the Roman realm to collect all written material they could find. Oral testimonies were written down, and contributions from individuals were also welcomed. It has been stated that Augustus burned two thousand items of the collected writings. Those he found to be most "reliable" he placed within two golden cases, which were fitted into the base of the Palatine Apollo statue. Apollo's temple on the Palatine Hill was to become the Empire´s absolute center.

By referring to Virgil´s stories about the Cumaean Sibyl´s prophecies about a Golden Age and by supporting his divine mandate with the reconstructed Sibylline Books, Augustus succeeded in appearing as he was being favored by the gods. Such a “personalized” divine authority could easily be attached to a forceful ruler like Augustus. Gaius Octavius Thurinus had not always been named Augustus. The title, which means “The Illustrious One", had been granted him in 27 BC and was of a more religious nature than a mere sign of political authority. 

Already during his lifetime, bits and pieces of Vergil´s impressive Aeneid had become popular within leading circles in Rome. The epic was not published in its entirety until after the death of Virgil, who claimed that it was not completely finished and wanted it destroyed. Anyway, Virgil had succeeded in turning the Sibyl and Aeneas into unique characters, both living in intimate communication with the gods. He thus demonstrated how the divine could manifest itself in people. The Sibylline books had not been anything more than books, albeit their divine origin, and had to be interpreted by experts. The Sibyl, however, was more than that, she was a person who manifested the gods´ will and furthermore predicted a future that was inevitable, cleverly hinting that the imperial rule of Augustus was something that had been decided by the gods and fate long ago. The fact that neither she, nor Aeneas, did not exist made their message even more effective. They were myths and their message thus became a myth, strengthening the divine power of Augustus.

The choice of the Sibyl of Cumae to be the mouthpiece of the gods was probably Virgil's own. He had for many years lived near her shrine, was familiar with the local traditions and had certainly on several occasions visited the oracle. Virgils´s unique skills, such as a vivid imagination, extensive expertise, political will and exquisite artistry were all required to create a work of subtle lyricism and effective propaganda that fitted like hand in glove for the purposes of his old acquaintance and patron Augustus.

Interesting is also the feminine element which Virgil brought into his message. Since ancient times, divination has primarily been a female prerogative, perhaps because a woman in her capacity as child bearer holds the future in her womb. Pregnant women will give rise to something new. Predictions are about the future, about how things ought to be and about growth, both physical and spiritual. While there are male diviners and seers, like the prophets of the Old Testament, they seldom serve as mediums or practice magic, something that even in the Bible is mainly done by women, like the Which of Endor. In religious contexts like voodoo or Nordic shamanism, male mediums and magicians have often been regarded with great suspicion.

In ancient Norse religion, magic and divination were called seid. It was the epitome of womanhood, the Norse goddess of love, Freyja who taught seid to the Aesir, the Norse gods. Seid was mostly practiced by women. Wizards, or seidmen, were often stigmatized by social exclusion, which could be based on ethnicity, or homosexuality. While seidwomen were respected seidmen were given nicknames like seiðberendi, where berendi is synonymous with the vagina of a cow, or skratti, weaklings. In the poem Lokasenna (Loki´s Quarrel) the trickster god Loki attacks Odin, Ruler of the Worlds: "They say you were doing the seid on Samsø and beat the drum together with the Valas, as a magician you travelled far across the world. To me it seems unmanly practice!"

Like a good wife the Norse seidwoman, just like the Mediterranean sibyls ought to support brave warriors, give them strength and support, just as the Sibyl supported and protected Aeneas. A role that in Christianity was taken over by the Madonna, who is the main supporter and consoler of people in distress.  

The Shepherd of Hermas is a Christian text from the beginning of the second century AD. It was by several Church Fathers regarded as a canonical text and was therefore included in several early editions of the Bible. It was said to have been written by a Christian, Greek-speaking slave named Hermas and consists of five visions, twelve commandments and ten parables. Hermas writes about a vision he had when he was travelling towards Cumae:  “And it was revealed to me, brothers, while I was sleeping, by a most beautiful young man speaking to me, ´The old lady, from whom you have received the book, who do you think she is? ´ I replied, ´The Sibyl.´ ´You are wrong,´ he said, ´she is not.´ ´Then, who is she?´ I asked. He replied, ‘She is the Church´".  Here we encounter the growing perception of the Church as a mother figure, a female creature that envelops and protects those who love and serve her, something that for many Catholics would be the role of Madonna. In the Catholic world, especially within its popular expressions, many also believe that the Madonna, like the Sibyl, may in person direct herself to her believers, bringing them obscure prophecies. This alleged behavior of the Madonna seems to be a continuation of a tradition that meant that women acted as oracles; furthermore it is by far more women than men that are granted visions of the Divine Virgin.

Just like Augustus, Christians made use of the Cumaean Sibyl in support of their political and spiritual leadership. Lactantius´ Divinae Institutiones (from c. 250 AD) was the first introduction in Latin to Christian faith in its entirety and to prove the excellence of Christianity the author made use of both Christian and Classical Greek and Roman authors. Among other things, he interpreted Virgil's Fourth Eclogue as if it was a prophecy of the coming of Christ.

The thirty-year-old Virgil wrote his Ecologae, Sketches, ten years before he began writing his Aeneid. In the obscure Fourth Eclogue Virgil mentions a prophecy named after Cumae. He does not explicitly write that it originates from the Sibyl, but it is generally assumed that he was referring to one of her well-known, but now forgotten, predictions: "Now comes the last age of the Cumaean song; the great order of the ages arises anew. Now the Virgin returns, and Saturn's reign returns; now a new generation is sent down from high heaven. Only, chaste Lucina, favor the child at his birth, by whom, first of all, the Iron Age will end and a golden race arise in all the world; now your Apollo reigns."

As Virgil writes in his Aeneid, it was customary that Sibyllian statements were “wrapped in mystery". Nevertheless, for those familiar with the cumbersome Roman politics this particular prophecy may have appeared as fairly easy to understand. Virgil refers to the recent marriage between Octavian´s (Augustus) sister and his political rival Mark Anthony. If the Goddess of Birth, Lucina, is asked to bless the couple with a son, a golden age would begin and the "Virgin", i.e. a personification of Justice, would return to earth. Virgil had previously written how Justice in the guise of a virgin had left the world because she could not stand that people ignored her.

However, the Christians interpreted the prophecy in an entirely different manner. Lacantius listed the sibyls he considered as heralds announcing the coming of Christ, including the Sibyl of Cumae. He assumed that the clairvoyants he mentioned had proclaimed the existence of a single, omnipotent God and thus Lacantius was able to harmonize Roman and Christian prophesies in such a way that the Romans became convinced of the fact that they, and not only the Jews, had been told by people of their own kind that they were an integrated part of God´s salvation plan for all mankind. According to Lacantius, the might of the Roman Empire would play a crucial role in the realization of the Kingdom of God.

In a fairly similar manner as the sibyls´ utterances were interpreted by early Christians, believers have in modern time interpreted visions of the Madonna as political messages and signs that the world will improve. One famous example is Our Lady of Fatima's three secrets told by her to three peasant Portuguese children in 1917 and that many Catholics now consider as being prophecies about the fall of communism and Pope John Paul the Second´s sainthood.

Currently are more than one million Catholics every year making a pilgrimage to the small town of Medjugorje in Bosnia, where the Madonna in June 1981 appeared to six children. One of them, Vicka Ivanković, proclaims that she like a modern sibyl constantly is receiving messages from Our Lady of Medjugorje and the Madonna´s words are continuously spread throughout  the global Catholic community. Ivanković has declared that: "Our Lady is here with us. She wants to attract us all to his son. That is why she has been here for such a long time and appears to us so often. Here we all feel her presence and love of God."

Classical Virgin Mary worship obviously found inspiration from several religions that revered and worshiped what has been called "The Great Mother", several of which had oracles associated with them. It seems that an official Virgin Mary cult began only after the Council of Ephesus 431 AD and then grew stronger and stronger, especially within the field of popular religiosity. At the same time, Marian revelations and prophecies in her name became more common. Reliable written documentation of the phenomenon of visions of the Virgin Mary does not appear until the 1000's, though it has apparently been present already during Paleo-Christian times. The Oracula Sibyllina appeared in association with the increasing importance of the cult of Mary. These scriptures were gathered and obtained their present form sometime during the seventh century. They consist of a rather chaotic collection of prophecies that have been divided into 12 books, which at various times were created by authors belonging to different religious beliefs. Augustus´ Sibylline Books were destroyed by the Vandals during the 400's, though many theologians erroneously perceived the Oracula Sibyllina as fairly reliable copies of the originals.

When Roman and Greek writers and philosophers were revived as moral role models during the Renaissance, several theologians tried to reconcile their ideas with the Christian doctrines, an endeavor that brought the Oracula Sibylinna to life. In this context Virgil´s Cumaean Sibyl was once again considered to have been a mighty seer who to the Roman emperor had prophesied the coming of Christ. Reference was made to Lacantius´ list of ancient sybils and it was claimed that as well as the Jewish prophets' predictions became the foundation of the Temple of Solomon and the establishment of Jerusalem as a center of the world, likewise could the sibyls´ predictions, now when the Jewish Temple was destroyed and lost, be used as an argument for the necessity of the current Papal triumph. Rome was turning into Jerusalem's true heir as the world´s absolute center, Caput Mundi, and like the Cumaen Sibyl had given her support to the Roman might of Augustus, the pope became considered as the emperors´ heir and a guarantor for the realization of the Golden Age that the Sibyl had prophesied about.

A cleric who firmly believed in the sybils of Lacantius was Pope Julius II's advisor Egidio da Viterbo. Egidio Antonino, his real name, was a serious man with unruly hair, raven black beard, pale skin and a burning gaze. Always dressed in black, he could through his fiery sermons captivate any audience, even Julius II, who generally went to sleep if a sermon lasted more than two minutes. The specialty of Egidio, who was fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic, was to interpret ancient statements as prophecies of Julius II's greatness.

Egidio visited the Sibyl's cave at Cumae (actually Grotta di Coccio, a more than kilometer long tunnel that had been carved in the forties BC to unite Cumae with the Averno Lake) and became convinced that it were the stinking vapors escaping from below that had created the trance of the Sybil and as a natural phenomenon these mind altering vapors had been God´s mode of creating her authentic prophesies.  In his report about the visit Egidio stressed that he was convinced about the fact the Golden Age the Sibyl had predicted now was becoming realized under the benevolent rule of Julius II.

Egidio´s report enthused the pope to such a degree that he ordered a feast lasting for three-days to celebrate the fulfillment of the Cumaean prophesies. Michelangelo's magnificent ceiling was part of all of this and in conjunction with the celebration of the Sibyl of Cumae Michelangelo began painting her picture in the Sistine Chapel. He evidently did not share the abundant enthusiasm for her alleged predictions. Oddly enough, he let one of the boys behind the massive, ancient clairvoyant (he who holds a hand over his friend's shoulder) make a Fica, the sign of the fig, an extremely obscene gesture that expresses a deep contempt for the person it is directed towards. The gesture is barely discernible from the floor and was probably not noticed by many observers, at least not Julius II and Egidio da Viterbo.

It seems as if the Sibyl really is immortal. At least she was invigorated in one story after the other. It was not only the official cult of centralized, political power that kept her alive. A strong folk tradition assured that the immortal, ancient prophetess sometime in the fifth century had left her cave at Cumae, and in contempt of an increasingly stifling Christianity she had with her retinue of maidservants moved up into the mountains north of Rome, settling in a cave some miles outside the city ​​of Norcia. The mountain range where the grotto is located is now called the Sibylline Mountains and a resident of Norcia is called nursino, which is Italian for necromancers.

Apart from a reference in 286 AD about an Apennine oracle there is before 1392 nothing written about the Cumaean Sibyl's possible residence among the high mountains north of Norcia, but since then her cave has appeared in numerous versions sung by generations of Italian cantastorie, popular, professional storytellers.

Based on legends he had heard around Norcia the troubadour Andrea da Barberino in 1392 wrote the story of Il Guerrin Mechino, the Wretch Guerin, who in search of adventures ventured into the Sibylline Mountains where he met the Devil, who tempted him to seek out the fairy Sibilla who lived a cave by the 2 400 meter high mountain Vettore. Sibilla could not die, but by using magic she had succeeded in keeping herself and her maidservants forever young and to transform the interior of her cave into a large and lush orchard. After killing a frightening serpent which guarded the enchanted cave Guerin found his way into the flourishing garden and met the lovely maidens who held court around the eternally youthful Sibyl from Cumae. Guerin manages to avoid the temptation to link up with the Sibyl, mostly because he one Saturday found himself alone in the garden and while strolling among flowers and greenery came upon a rock wall. When he peered through a hole he perceived the real appearance of the sibyl and her handmaidens - a bunch of awfully aged old hags. Horrified Guerin managed to escape and obtained in Rome the Pope's blessing that protected him against the defilement he could have been contaminated by during his stay in the cave.

The sibyl's cave really exists. Together with my wife I drove through the valley that cuts through the Sibylline Mountains´ National Park, a mysterious place with lush fields shadowed by huge mountains and dotted with colorful flower fields. When we reached the village of Castelsantangelo we learned that early in the morning we could hire two mules for the several hours long ride up to the Sibyl's Cave. However, when we had returned to Rome I found that the access to the cave unfortunately was blocked by boulders and rocks. First the entrance had in the 1500s been barred by superstitious shepherds and since then it has repeatedly been obstructed by local treasure seekers who have tried to widen the entrance and the interior of the cave in the search of the gold and diamonds that are said to be stored in its depths.

When da Barberino story was printed in 1473, it spread over Europe and in Germany I blended with legends of about Tannhäuser a troubadour who was said to have ended up with Venus inside her enchanted mountain Hörsel, between Gotha and Eisenach. Soon storytellers placed Venus cave in the Sibylline Mountains and merged with the one of the Sibyl of Cumae. However, Tannhäuser did not escape so easily as Guerin. He did indeed run away from the cave, but when Pope Urban IV refused to help him in his distress and confusion Tannhäuser returned to the cave. Obviously, he learned to accept that the lovely ladies every Saturday turned into old hags and he may still live together with them behind the rubble in front of the cave high up in Síbylline Mountains.

Unfortunately this ended up as an unusually long blog post. In my defense I might state that I became helplessly caught by my own theme. Much more remains to write about female fortune-telling, but now I have to limit myself.

It is now late at night and I have to go to bed, but before I end my story I cannot refrain from telling you about my last encounter with the Sibyl of Cumae. While I was on my way home from the station I ran by the newsstand and caught sight of a Donald Duck Large Pocket called Abracadabra. On its cover was the witch Magica de Spell, who had fascinated me as a child. She was not a nasty old witch, but an attractive and dangerous duck girl with a violent temper and tough attitude, more seductress than witch. This was probably due to the fact her creator Carl Barks stated that he was inspired by Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren, with some flavoring from Morticia Adams. After my sojourn within the world of the Cumaean Sybil, I could not avoid connecting her with Magica de Spell who lives on one of the slopes of Vesuvius, not far from the Averno Lake.

Again, a has a blog spot begun in my childhood and my quest after an immortal sibylla has finally back brought me to my starting point - I believe that Magica de Spell appeared in a Donald Duck magazine about the same time that I had encountered  the Sibyl's cave on the cover of my father´s magazine.

Buitenwerf, Rieuwerd (2003). Book III of the Sibylline oracles and its social setting. Leiden: Brill. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1939). The Roman Antiquities, Vol. II. London: Loeb Classical Library/William Heinemann. King, Ross (2002). Michelangelo and the Pope´s Ceiling. London: Pimlico. Ovidius, Publius Naso (1969). Metamorphoses: a New Verse Translation by David Raeburn. London: Penguin Classics. Petronius Arbiter (1986). Satyricon translated by J. P. Sullivan. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics. Santanegelo, Federico (2013). Divination, Prediction, and the Fall of the Roman Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Suetonius (1997) Lives of the Caesars, Volume I translated by J.C. Rolfe, Harvard: Loeb Classical Library. Virgil (2006). The Aeneid, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Viking Press. Warner, Marina (1995). From the Beauty to the Blonde: On fairy tales and their tellers. London: Vintage. The best book about apparations of the Madonna I have read so far is Blackbourn, David (1994) Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Nineteenth Century Germany. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.



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