The ageless Cumaean Sibyl was the priestess presiding over the Apollo
Apollo is one of the most important and complex of the Olympian deities in Greek and Roman mythology...
In Classical Antiquity, an oracle was a person or agency considered to be a source of wise counsel or prophetic predictions or precognition of the future, inspired by the gods. As such it is a form of divination....
Cumae is an ancient Greek settlement lying to the northwest of Naples in the Italian region of Campania. Cumae was the first Greek colony on the mainland of Italy , and the seat of the Cumaean Sibyl...
, a Greek colony located near Naples
Naples is a city in Southern Italy, situated on the country's west coast by the Gulf of Naples. Lying between two notable volcanic regions, Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields, it is the capital of the region of Campania and of the province of Naples...
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...
The word sibyl comes (via Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...
) from the ancient Greek
Ancient Greek is the stage of the Greek language in the periods spanning the times c. 9th–6th centuries BC, , c. 5th–4th centuries BC , and the c. 3rd century BC – 6th century AD of ancient Greece and the ancient world; being predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek...
word sibylla, meaning prophet
In religion, a prophet, from the Greek word προφήτης profitis meaning "foreteller", is an individual who is claimed to have been contacted by the supernatural or the divine, and serves as an intermediary with humanity, delivering this newfound knowledge from the supernatural entity to other people...
ess. There were many Sibyls in different locations throughout the ancient world. The importance of the Cumaean Sibyl in the legends of early Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....
as codified in Virgil
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English , was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues , the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid...
The Aeneid is a Latin epic poem, written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC, that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans. It is composed of roughly 10,000 lines in dactylic hexameter...
VI, the Cumaean Sibyl became the most famous among the Romans, because she was near to Roma. The Erythraean Sibyl
The Erythraean Sibyl was the prophetess of classical antiquity presiding over the Apollonian oracle at Erythrae, a town in Ionia opposite Chios, which was built by Neleus, the son of Codrus....
from modern day Turkey was famed among Greeks, as was the oldest Hellenic oracle, Sibyl of Dodona, possibly dating to the second millennium BCE according to Herodotus favored in the east.
The Cumaean Sibyl is one of the four sibyls painted by Raphael
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino , better known simply as Raphael, was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance. His work is admired for its clarity of form and ease of composition and for its visual achievement of the Neoplatonic ideal of human grandeur...
at Santa Maria della Pace
Santa Maria della Pace
Santa Maria della Pace is a church in Rome, central Italy, not far from Piazza Navona.The current building was built on the foundations of the pre-existing church of Sant'Andrea de Aquarizariis in 1482, commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV. The church was rededicated to the Virgin Mary to remember a...
(see gallery below.) She was also painted by Andrea del Castagno
Andrea del Castagno
Andrea del Castagno was an Italian painter from Florence, influenced chiefly by Tommaso Masaccio and Giotto di Bondone. His works include frescoes in Sant'Apollonia in Florence and the painted equestrian monument of Niccolò da Tolentino in the Cathedral in Florence...
(Uffizi Gallery, illustration right), and in the Sistine Ceiling of Michelangelo
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni , commonly known as Michelangelo, was an Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect, poet, and engineer who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art...
her powerful presence overshadows every other Sibyl, even her younger and more beautiful sisters, such as the Delphic Sibyl
thumb|right|Michelangelo's rendering of the Delphic SibylThe Delphic Sibyl was a legendary figure who made prophecies in the sacred precinct of Apollo at Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. According to a late source, her mother was Lamia, daughter of Poseidon...
There are various names for the Cumaean Sibyl besides the "Herophile" of Pausanias and Lactantius or the Aeneids "Deiphobe, daughter of Glaucus
Glaucus is a Greek name. In modern Greek usage, the name is usually transliterated Glafkos. It may refer to:*Glaucus, a sea-god in Greek mythology*Glaucus , a mythical Lycian captain in the Trojan War...
": "Amaltheia", "Demophile" or "Taraxandra" are all offered in various references.
Ancient Roman propheciesThe excellent story of the acquisition of the Sibylline Books
The Sibylline Books or Libri Sibyllini were a collection of oracular utterances, set out in Greek hexameters, purchased from a sibyl by the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, and consulted at momentous crises through the history of the Republic and the Empire...
by Lucius Tarquinius Superbus
Lucius Tarquinius Superbus
Lucius Tarquinius Superbus was the legendary seventh and final King of Rome, reigning from 535 BC until the popular uprising in 509 BC that led to the establishment of the Roman Republic. He is more commonly known by his cognomen Tarquinius Superbus and was a member of the so-called Etruscan...
, the semi-legendary last king of the Roman Kingdom
The Roman Kingdom was the period of the ancient Roman civilization characterized by a monarchical form of government of the city of Rome and its territories....
, or Tarquinius Priscus
Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, also called Tarquin the Elder or Tarquin I, was the legendary fifth King of Rome from 616 BC to 579 BC. His wife was Tanaquil.-Early life:According to Livy, Tarquinius Priscus came from the Etruria...
, is one of the famous mythic elements of Roman history.
Centuries ago, concurrent with the 50th Olympiad
An Olympiad is a period of four years, associated with the Olympic Games of Classical Greece. In the Hellenistic period, beginning with Ephorus, Olympiads were used as calendar epoch....
not long before the expulsion of Rome's kings, an old woman "who was not a native of the country" (Dionysius) arrived incognita in Rome. She offered nine books of prophecies to King Tarquin; and as the king declined to purchase them, owing to the exorbitant price she demanded, she burned three and offered the remaining six to Tarquin at the same stiff price, which he again refused, whereupon she burned three more and repeated her offer. Tarquin then relented and purchased the last three at the full original price, whereupon she "disappeared from among men" (Dionysius).
The books were thereafter kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill
The Capitoline Hill , between the Forum and the Campus Martius, is one of the seven hills of Rome. It was the citadel of the earliest Romans. By the 16th century, Capitolinus had become Capitolino in Italian, with the alternative Campidoglio stemming from Capitolium. The English word capitol...
, Rome, to be consulted only in emergencies. The temple burned down in the 80s BC, and the books with it, necessitating a re-collection of Sibylline prophecies from all parts of the empire (Tacitus 6.12). These were carefully sorted and those determined to be legitimate were saved in the rebuilt temple. The Emperor Augustus had them moved to the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, where they remained for most of the remaining Imperial Period.
The Books were burned in AD 405 by the General Flavius Stilicho, who was a Christian and regarded the books as Pagan and therefore evil. At the time of the Visigothic invasion five years later in AD 410, certain Pagan apologists bemoaned the loss of the books, claiming that the invasion of the city was evidence of the wrath of the Pagan gods over the destruction of the books.
The Cumaean Sibyl is featured in the works of, among others, Virgil (The Eclogues, The Æneid), Ovid
Publius Ovidius Naso , known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who is best known as the author of the three major collections of erotic poetry: Heroides, Amores, and Ars Amatoria...
Metamorphoses is a Latin narrative poem in fifteen books by the Roman poet Ovid describing the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a loose mythico-historical framework. Completed in AD 8, it is recognized as a masterpiece of Golden Age Latin literature...
) and Petronius
Gaius Petronius Arbiter was a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. He is generally believed to be the author of the Satyricon, a satirical novel believed to have been written during the Neronian age.-Life:...
Satyricon is a Latin work of fiction in a mixture of prose and poetry. It is believed to have been written by Gaius Petronius, though the manuscript tradition identifies the author as a certain Titus Petronius...
Stories recounted in Virgil's ÆneidThe Cumaean Sibyl prophesied by “singing the fates” and writing on oak
An oak is a tree or shrub in the genus Quercus , of which about 600 species exist. "Oak" may also appear in the names of species in related genera, notably Lithocarpus...
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 the leaves to form the original prophecy again.
The Sibyl was a guide to the underworld (Hades
Hades , Hadēs, originally , Haidēs or , Aidēs , meaning "the unseen") was the ancient Greek god of the underworld. The genitive , Haidou, was an elision to denote locality: "[the house/dominion] of Hades". Eventually, the nominative came to designate the abode of the dead.In Greek mythology, Hades...
), its entry being at the nearby crater
A volcanic crater is a circular depression in the ground caused by volcanic activity. It is typically a basin, circular in form within which occurs a vent from which magma erupts as gases, lava, and ejecta. A crater can be of large dimensions, and sometimes of great depth...
Avernus was an ancient name for a crater near Cumae , Italy, in the Region of Campania west of Naples. It is approximately in circumference. Within the crater is Lake Avernus .-Role in ancient Roman society:...
Aeneas , in Greco-Roman mythology, was a Trojan hero, the son of the prince Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite. His father was the second cousin of King Priam of Troy, making Aeneas Priam's second cousin, once removed. The journey of Aeneas from Troy , which led to the founding a hamlet south of...
employed her services before his descent to the lower world to visit his dead father Anchises
In Greek mythology, Anchises was the son of Capys and Themiste . His major claim to fame in Greek mythology is that he was a mortal lover of the goddess Aphrodite . One version is that Aphrodite pretended to be a Phrygian princess and seduced him for nearly two weeks of lovemaking...
, but she warned him that it was no light undertaking:
- Trojan, Anchises' son, the descent of Avernus is easy.
- All night long, all day, the doors of Hades stand open.
- But to retrace the path, to come up to the sweet air of heaven,
- That is labour indeed. (Aeneid 6.126-129.)
Stories recounted in Ovid's MetamorphosesAlthough she was a mortal, the Sibyl lived about a thousand years. This came about when Apollo
Apollo is one of the most important and complex of the Olympian deities in Greek and Roman mythology...
offered to grant her a wish in exchange for her virginity; she took a handful of sand and asked to live for as many years as the grains of sand she held. Later, after she refused the god's love, he allowed her body to wither away because she failed to ask for eternal youth
Eternal youth is the concept of human physical immortality free of aging. The youth referred to is usually meant to be in contrast to the depredations of aging, rather than a specific age of the human lifespan....
. Her body grew smaller with age and eventually was kept in a jar (ampulla). Eventually only her voice was left (Metamorphoses 14; compare the myth of Tithonus
In Greek mythology, Tithonus or Tithonos was the lover of Eos, Titan of the dawn. He was a Trojan by birth, the son of King Laomedon of Troy by a water nymph named Strymo . The mythology reflected by the fifth-century vase-painters of Athens envisaged Tithonus as a rhapsode, as the lyre in his...
Medieval ChristianityIn the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...
, both the Cumaean Sibyl and Virgil were considered prophets of the birth of Christ
Christ is the English term for the Greek meaning "the anointed one". It is a translation of the Hebrew , usually transliterated into English as Messiah or Mashiach...
, because the fourth of Virgil's Eclogues appears to contain a Messianic prophecy by the Sibyl. In it, she foretells the coming of a savior – possibly a flattering reference to the poet's patron – whom Christians identified as Jesus. and this was seized on by early Christian
A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Canonical gospels and the letters of the New Testament...
s as such—one reason why Dante Alighieri
Durante degli Alighieri, mononymously referred to as Dante , was an Italian poet, prose writer, literary theorist, moral philosopher, and political thinker. He is best known for the monumental epic poem La commedia, later named La divina commedia ...
later chose Virgil as his guide through the underworld in The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri between 1308 and his death in 1321. It is widely considered the preeminent work of Italian literature, and is seen as one of the greatest works of world literature...
. Similarly, Michelangelo prominently featured the Cumaean Sibyl in the Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel is the best-known chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope in Vatican City. It is famous for its architecture and its decoration that was frescoed throughout by Renaissance artists including Michelangelo, Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio...
among the Old Testament
The Old Testament, of which Christians hold different views, is a Christian term for the religious writings of ancient Israel held sacred and inspired by Christians which overlaps with the 24-book canon of the Masoretic Text of Judaism...
prophets, as had earlier works such as the Tree of Jesse
Tree of Jesse
The Tree of Jesse is a depiction in art of the Ancestors of Christ, shown in a tree which rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David; the original use of the family tree as a schematic representation of a genealogy...
miniature in the Ingeberg Psalter
A psalter is a volume containing the Book of Psalms, often with other devotional material bound in as well, such as a liturgical calendar and litany of the Saints. Until the later medieval emergence of the book of hours, psalters were the books most widely owned by wealthy lay persons and were...
Virgil may have been influenced by Hebrew texts, according to Tacitus
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors...
, amongst others.
Constantine, the Christian emperor, in his first address to the assembly, interpreted the whole of The Eclogues as a reference to the coming of Christ, and quoted a long passage of the Sibylline Oracles
The Sibylline Oracles are a collection of oracular utterances written in Greek hexameters ascribed to the Sibyls, prophetesses who uttered divine revelations in a frenzied state. Fourteen books and eight fragments of Sibylline Oracles survive...
(Book 8) containing an acrostic in which the initials from a series of verses read: Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour Cross.
Later literatureThe epigraph
In literature, an epigraph is a phrase, quotation, or poem that is set at the beginning of a document or component. The epigraph may serve as a preface, as a summary, as a counter-example, or to link the work to a wider literary canon, either to invite comparison or to enlist a conventional...
to T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns "T. S." Eliot OM was a playwright, literary critic, and arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century. Although he was born an American he moved to the United Kingdom in 1914 and was naturalised as a British subject in 1927 at age 39.The poem that made his...
's poem, "The Waste Land
The Waste Land
The Waste Land[A] is a 434-line[B] modernist poem by T. S. Eliot published in 1922. It has been called "one of the most important poems of the 20th century." Despite the poem's obscurity—its shifts between satire and prophecy, its abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location and time, its...
" (1922), is a quote from the Satyricon wherein Trimalchio
Trimalchio is a character in the Roman novel The Satyricon by Petronius. He plays a part only in the section titled Cena Trimalchionis . Trimalchio is a freedman who through hard work and perseverance has attained power and wealth...
states, "For I myself once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in her jar, and when the boys asked her, 'Sibyl, what do you want?' she answered 'I want to die.'".
Robert von Ranke Graves 24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985 was an English poet, translator and novelist. During his long life he produced more than 140 works...
fashioned a poetic prophesy by the Sibyl to bind the story together in his work of historical fiction, I, Claudius
I, Claudius is a novel by English writer Robert Graves, written in the form of an autobiography of the Roman Emperor Claudius. As such, it includes history of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty and Roman Empire, from Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 BC to Caligula's assassination in AD 41...
Geoffrey Hill is an English poet, professor emeritus of English literature and religion, and former co-director of the Editorial Institute, at Boston University. Hill has been considered to be among the most distinguished poets of his generation...
's Poem "After Cumae" in For the Unfallen (1958) also refers to the Sibyl's 'mouthy cave'.
Mary Shelley was a British novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer, best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus . She also edited and promoted the works of her husband, the Romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley...
claimed in the introduction to her novel, The Last Man
The Last Man
The Last Man is an apocalyptic science fiction novel by Mary Shelley, which was first published in 1826. The book tells of a future world that has been ravaged by a plague. The novel was harshly reviewed at the time, and was virtually unknown until a scholarly revival beginning in the 1960s...
, that in 1818 she discovered, in the Sibyl's cave near Naples, a collection of prophetic writings painted on leaves by the Cumaean Sibyl. She edited these writings into the current first-person narrative of a man living at the end of the 21st century, which proves to be the end of humanity.
The cave at Cumae
The famous cave known as the “Antro della Sibilla” was discovered by Amedeo Maiuri
Amedeo Maiuri was a renowned Neapolitan archaeologist, famous for his archaeological investigations of the Roman city of Pompeii which was destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August of AD 79....
in 1932, the identification of which he based on the description by Virgil in the 6th book of the Aeneid, and also from the description by an anonymous author known as pseudo-Justin.( Verg. Aen. 6. 45–99; Ps-Justin, 37). The cave is a trapezoidal passage over 131 m long, running parallel to the side of the hill and cut out of the volcanic tuff stone and leads to an innermost chamber, where the Sibyl was thought to have prophesied.
A nearby tunnel through the acropolis now known as the "Crypta Romana" (part of Agrippa
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was a Roman statesman and general. He was a close friend, son-in-law, lieutenant and defense minister to Octavian, the future Emperor Caesar Augustus...
Augustus ;23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) is considered the first emperor of the Roman Empire, which he ruled alone from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD.The dates of his rule are contemporary dates; Augustus lived under two calendars, the Roman Republican until 45 BC, and the Julian...
's defenses in the war against Sextus Pompey) was previously identified as the Grotto of the Sibyl.
The inner chamber was later used as an burial chamber during the 4th or 5th century AD (M. Napoli 1965, 105) by people living at the site.
- Virgil, Aeneis vi.268 ff
- Isidore, Etymologiae viii.8.5
- Servius, In Aeneida vi.72, 321
- Lactantius, Divinae institutiones i.6.10–11
- Solinus, Collectanea rerum memorabilium ii.16, 17, 18