We were in Sibyl of Cumae’s dark cave by ourselves, and it was creepy as hell. A dark 426-foot long cave with one only one way out.
I know I’m a grown woman, but I admit to you here that darkness terrifies me.
At the very end of the tunnel, one quick movement startled the resident pigeons into a tornado of chaotic flapping and diving. Pigeons also terrify me (but I had one shit on my head once, so I think I have just cause). I beelined out of there, yelping and heart pounding.
The cave outside of Naples belonged to the prophetess Sibyl of Cumae.
To increase the creepy-factor, the cave also sits on a super-volcano. It is Campi Flegrei, “the burning plain” in Italian; the evil partner in crime of nearby Vesuvius, the famous destroyer of ancient towns. Like other super-volcanoes, it isn’t just a single volcanic cone – actually it’s a huge geothermal complex. There are 24 craters and numerous geothermal vents, many of them underwater. In some areas, you can smell the sulfuric gases it spews.
This fiery scene is the backdrop of Greek and Roman myths. With this dramatic scene, it isn’t hard to imagine why these stories held so much sway in the ancient world.
Sibyl is the Roman equivalent of the Greek oracle at Delphi. Both Greek and Roman cultures have “inspired” females who tell the future: the Greeks have the oracle and the Romans have the sibyl. The Sybil of Cumae was the most famous of the Roman sibyls, just like Delphi is the most famous of the oracles.
Sibyl delivered her messages from the sun god Apollo this cave. There is still some question if this is actually the Cave of Sibyl, but the creepy tunnel certainly has the ambiance.
Shrewd Seer in Ancient Literature
Fate “explained” the uncertainty in the ancient world. As a bridge between the people and the all-knowing gods, people craved Sibyl’s knowledge. Always on their minds, fate was a major theme in ancient literature, including Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphosis.
So Sibyl pops up all over in ancient literature. Not just because she told the future, but she also guided people to the underworld. This is why Aeneas visited her. She tells him how to proceed but warns him that while the trip to Hades is easy, the return voyage is limited to the select favorites of Jupiter. Virgil writes:
The gates of hell are open night and day; Smooth the descent, and easy is the way: But to return, and view the cheerful skies, In this the task and mighty labor lies…
A spacious cave, within its farmost part, Was hew’d and fashion’d by laborious art Thro’ the hill’s hollow sides: before the place, A hundred doors a hundred entries grace; As many voices issue, and the sound Of Sybil’s words as many times rebound.
The Sibyl of Cumae gained her powers from the sun god Apollo. He wanted her so badly, Apollo offered her anything if she would spend a single night with him. She asked for as many years of life as grains of sand she could squeeze into her hand. Granted, Apollo said, but Sibyl still refused his advances. Thereafter she was cursed with eternal life without eternal youth. She slowly shriveled into a frail undying body, so tiny that she fit into a jar.
In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Book 14, we encounter her as an old woman on the losing side of the deal with Apollo:
[Sibyl speaking] “But now my more fruitful time has turned its back on me, and old age comes, with tottering step, that must be long endured… 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.”
Authoritative Advisor to the Ancient Romans
Sibyl’s prophesies were regularly consulted during the early Roman Republic. Whenever they made critical decisions, the Senate would order the priests to consult the Books of Sibyl. Off they went to the temple of Jupiter on Capitoline Hill in Rome where they were stored. There are dozens of recorded instances of consultations throughout the early Republic.
Where did these written books come from? The Sibyl is known to have written her prophecies in books. According to myth, the Sibyl takes 9 of these books to Tarquinius, king of Rome, and offers them for an outrageous price.
He refuses. So she burns 3 of them and offers the remaining 6 books.
He refuses. Again, she burns 3 more and offers the remaining 3 books.
He accepts the last 3 books and placed them in the temple of Jupiter on Capitoline Hill in Rome.
Christian Counselor In the Sistene Chapel
Some Middle Age Christians believed Sibyl of Cumae was a prophet of the birth of Christ. Amongst the prediction of the Messiah, she also correctly predicted a few other events of the time. With this credibility, they believed her foretelling of the coming of a savior.
Some 2nd-century scholars considered her no less inspired than the Old Testament prophets. Sibyl became a bridge between pagan tradition and Christianity – a very important role as Christianity spread.
Virgil referenced Sibyl’s prophesies in Eclogues. After that, some associated Virgil with prophesy as well. This is why Dante later chose Virgil as his guide through the underworld in The Divine Comedy. A character in the Purgatorio volume tells Virgil:
And you the first to light my way to God./ You were like the one who, traveling by night,/ Carries the torch behind – no help to him -/ But he makes those who follow him the wiser
Here Dante is piggybacking on the medieval belief to cast Virgil as both a prophet and a poet.
Similarly, Michelangelo prominently featured the Cumaean Sibyl in the Sistine Chapel. His paintings of the 5 sibyls and 7 Old Testament prophets are the largest images in the chapel. Michelangelo’s Sibyl of Cumae is an odd figure – his obsession with the male form disfigures her. He also presented her as an old woman as Ovid described her: haggard and weatherworn. Her shriveled face sits on a strong body; a decrepit facade on an everlasting foundation.
Sibyl got a lot of press in the ancient and medieval world. Her knowledge commanded respect, just like the landscape where she lived. I don’t know how much the fuming fields around Naples contributed to the anxiety that Sibyl eased. I sure find the area spooky! Luckily for me the volcanic soil provides some pretty good wine too, not just fire and fumes. I’ll comfort myself with that.
Do you know any ancient myths related to fortune-telling? Have you ever been to a site where prophecies were told? I’d love to hear about it, please share in the comments below!