Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Old Woman in a Basket

The Cumaean Sybil

Southern Italy is quite the hotbed for pagan practices. Even today after hundreds of years, there still remains a shroud of secrecy around the witches of Benevento, a town not far from Naples. While I delved on the witches of Benevento in my novel, The Mascherari, today I want to explore another mysterious place in Southern Italy, the village of Cuma.


Like Naples, Cuma lies in the province of Campania. It is a village which corresponds to the 8th century BC Greek settlement of Cumae. 

Once upon a time in Cumae, there lived a virgin prophetess, the famous Cumaean Sybil (from the Greek word sybilla = prophetess). Like the other Sybils of antiquity (there were a few), she had the power to read into the future. Apparently she even prophesied the coming of Christ.

Randy Apollo

According to legend, the Sibyl of Cumae acquired her powers by attracting the attention of the sun god Apollo. Much like all randy Greek gods, Apollo was quite smitten by young virgins and was determined to bed the Sybil. He offered her anything she wished if she would accept to spend a single night with him. 

It is said that she picked a handful of sand and said, "As many birthdays must be given to me as there are particles of sand." 

Apollo granted her wish. She acquired a thousand years of life, along with her divine wisdom. 
But the young woman had no intention of honoring the bargain and summarily refused Apollo's advances. 

Apollo, furious at getting no action (it's a pattern in Greek mythology and in modern slighted men), decided to get even; he did not rectify her omission to request eternal youth such that the Sybil was cursed to age with every one of those thousand years. 

The Old Woman in the Cave

Where did the Sybil of Cumae live? Now it gets a little creepy.

She lived inside a dark cave which according to Virgil, had one hundred entrances. Atlas Obscura mentions that the "official" Cave of the Sibyl was uncovered near Naples, in 1932, by archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri, who was in charge of excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum for many years.

The Sybil Cave

The discovered cave has many entrances (though not one hundred), along with cisterns and galleries, and its longest passage measures 5 meters high by 132 meters.  At the end of the long passage, there lived the Sybil who sat in a tiny niche. 

Entrance to the Sybil Cave, Cumae

While this cave is a fascinating archaeological site, its shape has since been attributed to Etruscan origin. It is believed that Etruscan slaves of the Romans would have cut it around the 6th century BC which makes it a little younger than the Sybil cave referred to by Virgil. 

The Seer

In the past, people would visit the Sybil for help. She either sang her prophecies or wrote them on oak leaves that she then left at the mouth of the cave for people to read. If no one came to collect them, the wind would simply blow them away. 

Her prophecies were complex and written in verses. So enigmatic were they that every meaning and its opposite could be interpreted (a little like your regular astrology column).  Sometimes she bound her prophecies into books or scrolls which she then guarded. 

In this manner, she possessed several scrolls about the future of Rome. The legend says that around 500BC she traveled to Rome with nine scrolls filled with her wisdom. 

I particularly like this representation of the Cumaean Sybil by 19th century painter, Elihu Vedder. I love the determination in the Sybil to carry the scrolls to Rome and ensure their safety. Actually when I first stumbled upon this painting I thought it was the picture of a dude. But that is probably because she was by then many hundreds of years old. 

The Cumaean Sybil
Elihu Vedder (1876)

What happened when this woman reached Rome? That is another legend.

The Sybil in Rome

Rome was then reigned by Tarquinius Superbus (the very name makes one shudder).
One day Tarquinius the Proud was sitting around eating grapes and having his toes sucked by his Nubian slave, when he saw this old lady striding into Rome bearing nine scrolls and thought, "What THE..."

Little did he know that this shriveled old lady with the moustache was the wise Sybil. 

What did he know, Tarquinius? He was probably too eager to tend to his orgies and could not once imagine that these nine scrolls were so important as to foretell Rome's future. So when the Sybil offered him the nine scrolls for an outrageous price, he balked. I'm guessing the answer was probably more something like, "Get stuffed."

In retaliation, and without a word, the Cumaean Sybil took three of the nine scrolls and burnt them.
Then she turned to Tarquinius and offered him the remaining six scrolls at the same price as before.
Tarquinius was getting a little tired of this old crank, so again, he refused.
Bad move.
Again, the Cumaean Sybil burnt three scrolls so that now, only three were left.
In a foreboding manner, and knowing the worth of her own prophecies, she offered the three remaining scrolls to Tarquinius at the original price.

Perhaps the king took fright at her assurance. Either way he understood that these were valuable scrolls and that if there was a chance these three remaining scrolls could save Rome or ward off perils in the future, he might be better off purchasing them... 
And so he did.

The Sybilline prophecies as these were called became a famous source of power and knowledge. They were kept on Capitoline Hill in Rome and were consulted on important occasions by the Senate.

In 82 BC, the books were destroyed in the burning of the Temple of Jupiter.

The Tragedy of the Sybil

For having slighted Apollo, the Sybil gained eternal life without eternal youth. 

What happened to the Sybil when she was almost a thousand years old? It is said that she aged so much that she withered to a tiny form until there was nothing left of her, save her voice. 

When she had reached a tiny size, the people of Cumae suspended her in a basket in a public place.
(Kind of like what animator, Tex Avery does to every mother-in-law character in his cartoons.)

In the famous Roman novel, Satyricon, written by Petronius under Emperor Nero's reign (37- 68 AD), a boastful Trimalchio recounts having seen the Sybil hanging in her basket. 

Local boys asked her, “Sybil, what do you want?” and she replied: “I want to die.”

Be careful what you wish for.

I leave you with this moving chant from one of my all time favorite music bands, Dead Can Dance. 

Song of the Sybil - Dead Can Dance

No comments:

Post a Comment