Cumae: An Ancient Cave Of Prophecy: Oracles, Roman Poets & The Entrance To The Underworld

Temple ruins beside the Bay of Naples pinpoint the place where a mysterious woman delivered her oracles. Who was the Sybil? Why was Cumae chosen as a sacred site? What was the power of the cave at Cumae?

The Cave of the Sibyl
The Cave of the Sibyl

Greek settlers coming to Italy in the 8th century BC chose a spectacular site for their colony at Cumae. At the northwest tip of the Bay of Naples, a volcanic outcrop commanding a wide view offered the perfect place to build an acropolis, defended as it was on all sides by the sea, lakes, woods, and mountains.

Remains of the walls of this acropolis can still be seen, on its highest point the Temple of Jupiter, once a landmark for seafarers. The ruins visible today are those of a building of the 5th century BC, reconstructed under the Roman Emperor Augustus (27 BC-AD 14) and in the 6th century AD converted into a Christian church. Lower down the hill is the base and outline of the Temple of Apollo, of uncertain origins. Lower yet is the cave of the world's most famous oracle, the Cumaean Sibyl.

Oracles Of The Ancient World

The wise woman who can foretell the future appears in the traditions of many lands - none more celebrated in antiquity than the Sibyl of Cumae. At an early date, people in western Asia knew verses believed to be the oracular utterances of prophetesses known as Sibyllai. What the word Sibyl means is unknown, though legend says it was the name of a seeress at Marpessus, near Troy, who spoke her oracles in riddles and wrote them down on leaves and plants. What is certain is that the tradition concerning Sibyls came to be shared by the Greeks, and thence the Romans, and localized in various places. Eventually, Sibyl became a generic name and was given to a number of different prophetesses - the Roman author Varro (116-27 BC) lists 10 - throughout the ancient world, most notably at Cumae.

Whether there was an actual person known as the Sybyl at Cumae is uncertain, though in the days of the Roman empire her tomb was shown to people visiting the Temple of Apollo. In Greek tradition, the Sibyls had been associated with Apollo, as god of prophecy: the Delphic Oracle in Greece, known as the Pythia, was a priestess of his shrine at Delphi. She either chewed leaves of laurel - Apollo's tree - in order to fall into a prophetic trance, or sat on her tripod over a fissure in the ground and inhaled intoxicating fumes. Whichever means she used, she was thought to be directly inspired by the god, who spoke through her in notoriously ambiguous oracles.

The ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Cumae
The ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Cumae

Cumae, like Delphi, lies in an area of volcanic activity - the Campi Flegri, or Flegrean Fields, west of Naples, in Roman times favoured by the rich for residential purposes and for the spa developed around the thermal springs at Baia. Like the Delphic Oracle, the Cumaean Sibyl was connected with Apollo. The story the Roman poets told was that she came from the East and Apollo had offered her anything she asked for if she would accept him as her lover. She asked for as many years of life as there were grains in a handful of dust, which proved to be a thousand. But she forgot to ask also for her perpetual youth, so she grew older and smaller until she was so shrivelled with age that she was shut up in a bottle which hung at Cumae. When children asked her in Greek what she wanted, all she would answer was: "I want to die."

The Entrance To The Underworld

The cult of Apollo was both necromantic and chthonic - concerned with the dead and the Underworld. It is as a guide to the Underworld that the Cumaean Sibyl appears in the sixth book of the Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil, written between 29 and 19 BC. The Trojan hero Aeneas comes to consult her in her sanctum, a "dark enormous cave" below the Temple of Apollo. She instructs him first to arm himself with the Magical Golden Bough as his passport through the Underworld, before leading him and his men to its gateway at Lake Avernus.

This mysterious lake, only 4km (2.5mi) from Pozzuoli, is still called Lago Averno. In antiquity overhung by dark brooding woods, magically evoked by the painter Turner, it is today much changed by volcanic eruptions and building development. It is nonetheless a dramatic place. Deep and sulphurous, it fills the crater of an old volcano whose deadly fumes, said tradition, prevented birds from flying over it. Hence, it was thought, came its name, supposed to derive from Greek a-ornos, "birdless."

Where Is The Cave Of Sibyl?

On the acropolis at Cumae was a cave known by tradition as that of the Sibyl. When excavated in the 1920s, however, it turned out to be bigger than expected, a huge gallery 183m (600ft) long, with light shafts and water cisterns leading off it. This gallery drove straight through the hill to the other side and was soon identified as a military work engineered on the orders of the Roman general Agrippa (ca. 63-12 BC). In 1932, a second cave was discovered nearby, which archaeologists were satisfied was the Sibyl's. The approach is a gallery 107m (350ft) long, with 12 short side galleries opening onto the hillside to form light shafts.

The main gallery ends in a vestibule with a pair of built-in stone benches and beyond it, a vaulted chamber. People may once have sat on the seats while waiting to consult the Sibyl, hidden on the other side of the door originally separating the vestibule from the inner sanctum. They were, perhaps, in a state of heightened anticipation for, in daytime, the alternate bands of light and dark created by the shafts along the gallery meant that anyone coming in from the inner end to conduct newcomers to the sanctum would seem to appear and disappear.

The light shafts may also have served to overawe visitors to the sanctuary in another fashion. Like apertures remarked elsewhere in oracular chambers, such as those in Malta, these openings in the rock could produce the calculated "special effect" described by Virgil: "The cliff's huge flank is honeycombed, cut out, in a cavern perforated a hundred times, having a hundred mouths, with rushing voices, carrying responses of the Sibyl."

In 1932, it seemed as if this cavern had certainly been found and it is the one still shown at Cumae as the Sibyl's. But is it? The sanctuary of the Cumaean Sibyl was revered throughout the Greek world from the 6th or 5th century BC, but most of what is now visible belongs to a slightly later period. There were virtually no associated finds to confirm or deny a religious use for the cave and some archaeologists think further investigation is needed. Yet it is easy, standing at the entrance of this cavern, to imagine Virgil's hero Aeneas and his Trojans, seasoned warriors all, yet chill with dread, as the Sibyl "from her shrine sang out her riddles, echoing in the cave..." Petra: The City Of Tombs Carved Into The Jordanian Desert


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