The Odious Women Tour: The Sybil of Cuma foretold of wars, writing her oracles on palm leaves which would often blow away. Known for their trancelike states and shuddering voice, Michelangelo thought that the Sybils were so important that he seated five on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Cumean Sybil, in particular, was depicted as a dark complexioned woman with wrinkles and burly build. She read a large manuscript, perhaps the Sibylline books.
The fourteenth century humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio, devoted a chapter to the Sybil in his Famous Women in which he called her a maiden named Almathea or Deiphebe. Boccaccio said she was born in the city of Cumae and lived many centuries until the reign of the Etruscan king of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus. He claimed that she preserved her virginity and had a sanctuary near Lake Avernus where she made many predictions.
Boccacio took his legends from the Roman writer, Varro (116 B.C. – 27 B.C.) who collected a compendium of extant knowledge about the Sybils. Varro wrote of the legend that the Cumean Sibyl went to Rome with nine Sibylline books, which she wanted to sell to Tarquinius, the Etruscan king of Rome. When he refused her price, she burned three of them in his presence. She came back the next day to burn another three until he paid the full price for the remaining three books. He acquiesced because the books contained the entire destiny of Rome.
The Roman writer Ovid also mentioned the Cumean Sybil in his Metamorphsis. Here, the Sybil spoke in her own voice, explaining that she was not a goddess, but a mortal woman who asked Apollo that she remain a virgin and gain eternal life. Apollo granted her eternal life, but forgot to add eternal youth. As a consequence, she lived for seven hundred years, shriveling into grains of sand.
Interestingly, Pausanias, the Greek traveler and geographer of the 2nd century A.D. said the temple guides at Cumae showed him a stone water-jug (hydria) of small size in which, they said, lay the bones of the Sybil. This was considered proof that before her death, the Sybil had shrunk to diminutive size. Petronius also told a folktale that she hung in a bottle (ampula) in Cumae wishing to die.
The highest respect to the Sybil was given by Ovid’s predecessor, the Roman poet Virgil. In his fourth book of the Ecologues he mentioned her as having foretold the coming of Christ. Virgil also described the Sybil in The Aeneid when Aeneas, after leaving Dido at the shores of Carthage, landed at Cumae. He wrote: “…her face was transfigured, her color changed, her hair fell in disorder about her head and she stood there with heaving breast and her wild heart bursting in ecstasy. She seemed to grow in stature and speak as no mortal had ever spoken...”
Antro della Sibilla with shafts on one side pouring light into the trapezoidal tunnel at Cuma
The Sybil's Cave at the end of the trapezoidal tunnel at Cumae
In 1932, Amedeo Maiuri (January 7, 1886 - April 7, 1963), the Neapolitan archeologist who was installed as chief archeologist for Pompeii, said he re-discovered the entrance to the Sybil’s cave that corresponded to Virgil’s account. But today, a mystery continues. An 'Antro della Sibilla' exists at Cuma whereas a 'Grotto della Sibilla' exists at Lake Averno.
Which is the real Sybil's cave? In the book Sybils and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity, H.W. Parke explores this very question. Virgil’s Sybil lived at Cumae, but scholars theorize that perhaps there was another, far older Cimmerean Sybil who gave her oracles at Lake Averno.
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 Romans to believe. Why? Although Cumae was recognized as the oldest Greek colony on the Italian mainland (established around the 6th century B.C.), the settlement did not antedate the Trojan War. For Naevius, legend had it that Aeneas fled from Troy after the Trojan 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 came to this lake, then a colony must have existed already around 1000 B.C. The Sybil would have been Cimmerean, not Cumean.
Dirt Path Leading to the Grotto della Sibilla at Lake Averno
The Entrance to the Sybil's cave inside the Grotto della Sibilla at Lake Averno
Of course, by the time Virgil and the Romans wrote legends about the Sybil, she no longer existed. So the Romans themselves were already stipulating and creating fictions of their own.
Which legends about the Sybil do you believe?
Book Recommendations: Sybils and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity by H.W. Parke and Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel by Andrew Graham-Dixon.