A story about my personal journey has just been published in this book which is very exciting…
…so I thought I would write about some of the places in Italy where I sought the Sibyls that feature in my short story. (The story published is more of a soul searching journey I undertook to find inner peace but it is cloaked in my love of Italy and all its glorious history).
The Sibyls were oracles mostly from ancient Greece although a handful were also acknowledged from other countries including Italy. The common thread among them is that they were all women able to make divinely inspired prophesies that came to them via underworld deities.
The Cuma Archaeological Park site is difficult to get to by public transport so we chose to hire a car and driver for a half day. The views from the temple of Diana and the buildings associated with the cult of Apollo at the top of the hill are phenomenal looking out to the island of Ischia.
The Greek settlers of Cuma, near Naples included among them their very own sibyl, the Cumaean Sibyl.
She was said by Virgil to sing the fates and write her prophesies on oak leaves. These would be arranged inside the entrance of her cave, but if the wind blew and scattered them, she would not help to reassemble them in order.
The trapezoidal shaft known as the Antro della Sibilla, where the Cumean Sibyl is said to have written her oracles.
She was also said by Virgil to be a guide to the underworld where an entrance lay nearby at the Crater of Avernus.
There are several stories that have made her famous. The first is that she entered into negotiations with the reigning king of Rome, Tarquinius over the Sibylline books. Now these were a series of books written 300 years before by another sibyl, the Hellespontine Sibyl. Somehow they had made their way to Cuma where for some reason she offered them to the King.
Initially nine books of the prophecies were up for sale but the king refused to buy due to their exorbitant price. The Cumaean Sibyl burned three of the books. The remaining six she again offered to Tarquinius at the original price. He refused. She burned three more of the books leaving only three which she again offered at the full original price! This time he accepted. I’ll continue this story when I get to the Rome section…
The Archaeological Museum of Campi Flegrei in the Castello Aragonese is worth a visit in its own right. It includes treasure from Cuma from the Greek and Samnite periods of occupation as well as Roman treasure from the surrounding area. The Castle is stunning and looks back towards Pozzuoli and Naples with Mt Vesuvius in the distance. (Thanks shutterstock for this taste). We included this visit with our 1/2 day car and driver but felt rushed – wish I’d had more time.
Ovid said she lived for about a thousand years. Apollo had wanted her virginity and in exchange he offered a wish. She had taken a handful of sand and asked to live for as many years as the grains of sand she held. He granted her wish but because she later refused him his love, he allowed her body to wither. He argued that in her wish she had asked for the number of years but not for youth. So as time passed her body grew smaller until she was kept in an ampulla. Eventually only her voice was left.
Quotes from Virgil are mounted here and there at Cuma alluding to the sibyl.
Back to the Sibylline books. The king had them preserved in a vault beneath the Capitoline Temple of Jupiter in Rome. This roughly corresponds to the basement of the Capitoline museum where you look out upon the forum if you have ever been. It is a wonderful spot. The books influenced the Kings, Imperial rulers and later, the Emperors of Rome. They were consulted in times of turmoil and great weight was given to their interpretations. Unfortunately in 83 BC the temple burned down and they were lost.
In 76 BC envoys were sent out into the world to find other sibyls oracular utterances with which to make a new collection and these were stored and consulted until the 400s AD.
It is through consultation of the Sibylline books that the goddess, the Magna Mater or Cybele (or even Great Mother), was brought to Rome and placed in a temple on the Palatine Hill.
I travelled to Tivoli by train from the Rome Tibertine station. It was cheap as chips and only a short 10 minute walk to the Villa d’Este site which cost about 15 euro for entry. These frescoes on the walls and ceilings of the palace are rich and tell stories including recognising the Tibertine sibyl. Unfortunately however it is hard to stay focused when there is a water garden to play in outside.
Another site sacred to Sibyl worshipers is Tivoli where the Tibertine Sibyl or Albunea resided. She is thought to be of Etruscan descent and is attributed with prophesying the rise of Constantine to his position of power as an Emperor and then his conversion to Christianity. And of course that was a pivotal event which changed the course of Romes history away from its pagan past.
Mefitis was not a sibyl but a goddess and was worshipped by the Samnites. She was described as a goddess or divinity that sat between the living and the underworld and also was connected with the foul smelling gases of the earth. Because the sibyls received their prophesies from the underworld deities, (a long stretch of the bow, I know), I thought I better visit there too. 🙂
Temple and Sanctuary at Pietrabbondante where the Samnites worshiped female deities such as Mefite.
Virgil wrote about the Cumaean Sibyl. Michaelangelo painted five Sibyls in the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel and Raphael painted four on the wall of the Chiesa Santa Maria della Pace in Rome. Shakespeare referred to them in multiple plays and the Siena Cathedral shows ten panels of various sibyls in its mosaic floor.
These were important women that deserve our recognition and should not be forgotten.
‘Sybils receiving instruction from Angels’, by the Raphael 1514, in the Chigi chapel in the Chiesa Santa Maria della Pace in Rome.
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