Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Sibyl's Grotto

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi'intrate.
(Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.)
Inscribed above the Gates of Hell in Dante Alighieri's Inferno (111, 9)

Nook of Naples: Along the road at Lake Averno, an easily missed sign reads Grotto di Sibilla. Here, a dirt path curves and ends at a gated opening. Legend has it that Aeneas, with the Sybil at his side, embarked on his journey to Hades through this cave. Nowadays, a charming guide, Carlo Santillo, gives tours by reservation, handing visitors candles and lamps.

This cave, archeologists say, was once a Roman military tunnel that connected Lake Averno to Lake Lucrino where fish used to be abundant until the 1698 eruption, which killed them off and created an entirely new mountain called Monte Nuovo. Inside the tunnel, carved inlets show where Romans placed oil lamps to light the way, giving the dark area a heavy scent of noxious fumes. The cave also had a circuitry of interconnected passageways that today end in dirt or water. Carlo takes visitors down one passageway that ends in murky water. He then explains that this is the entrance to Hades and the water is the beginning of the River Styx.

The tour resumes with a walk to the end of the main tunnel, where a mammoth staircase leads to what may have been a Roman restaurant, bathhouse, or – Carlo maintains – the place where the Sybil uttered her oracles. A body of water has a wooden plank over which visitors step to see the caverns where the Sibyl bathed and had a sanctuary.

Is this in fact the ‘real’ location where the Sybil uttered her oracles? In the book Sybils and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity, H.W. Parke explores this very question. Virgil’s Sybil lived at Cuma, but scholars theorize that perhaps there was another far older Cimmerean Sybil who gave her oracles in this particular hollow space.

Parke says that the Roman writer, Varro, identified ten Sybils in the ancient world. Two were located in Campania – the Cimmerean and the Cumaean. Varro took his evidence of a Cimmerean Sybil from Gnaeus Naevius who stipulated that the Cimmereans inhabited the area around Lake Avernus before the Cumaean’s.

This Roman legend would have been essential for the Caesars and their populous to believe. Why? Although Cuma was recognized as the oldest Greek colony on the Italian mainland (established around 600 B.C.), the settlement did not antedate the Trojan War. For Naevius, legend had it that Aeneas fled from Troy after the war and reached Italy where he consulted the Sybil who “prophesied the future to mortals and lived in the town of the Cimmereans.” So if Aeneas fled came to this lake, then a colony must have existed already around 1000 B.C.

While touring a cavern like this, myth and legend become far more truthful than archeological finds and historical records. Bradyseism has made it difficult to tell what exactly existed here two-thousand-years ago; most of the grotto is under 30-60 feet of dirt. But when Carlos blows out the candles, the pitch blackness of the cavern gives the impression of being a place where Hades himself still roams.

Getting There: The Lake lies in a hidden crater with only one narrow road leading toward it. But hang in there and you'll find the wonderful Grotto di Sibilla, which is worth a visit. It's by reservation only, so call Carlo Santillo at 333-632-0642.

Book Recommendation: The Metamorphoses by Ovid (34 BC - 17 AD) This is my favorite collection of ancient Greek and Roman myths. Ovid starts at the creation story and ends with the deification of Augustus. The tales he spins include those of Daedalus, Pygmalion, and also a passage describing the Sybil’s tragic life.

La Cucina Napoletana: The Sibyl's Grotto connected insipid Lake Averno to what was once the lush Lake Lucrino. During ancient times, the lake teemed with fish of all kinds. Today, markets everywhere in the Naples region sell a wide array of fish that are still fresh and unpolluted.

Grilled Fish

The Neapolitans eat their fish simply. No recipe necessary. Just buy a gutted fish, put a little olive oil on the outside and then throw it on a grill for about 20-30 minutes. After that, opening the fish at its belly and taking out the bones from head to tail in one fell swoop makes for ease of eating. A grilled fished is moist and buttery all on its own. Make sure to add a little lemon juice to give it a tangy bite.

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