Cumaean Sibyl's Cave: Gateway To The Underworld And Sibyl's Wish To Become Immortal

The Cumaean Sibyl’s Cave: Gateway To The Underworld And Sibyl’s Wish To Become Immortal

A mysterious woman delivered her oracles near the Bay of Naples at the Temple Ruins. Various questions arise because of this action, such as why was Cumae chosen as a holy location? What was the Cumae cave’s mystical power? Who was Sybil then?

Cumae was chosen for colonization by the Greek settlers who were traveling to Italy in the 8th century BC. As the volcanic outcrop at the northwest tip of the Bay of Naples was protected by the sea, lakes, woods, and mountains on all sides, it was chosen to build an acropolis.

Cumaean Sibyl
Cumaean Sibyl

At the highest point of the acropolis lies the Temple of Jupiter, which was historically a signpost for seafarers. In this temple, the remains of the walls of the acropolis can still be seen. Roman Emperor Augustus (27 BC-AD 14), restored the edifice in the 5th century BC, and later transformed it into a Christian church in the 6th century AD. The remains visible today are of this church only. The Foundation and outline of the Temple of Apollo may be seen at the base of the hill, but its origins are unknown. The cave of the Cumaean Sibyl, the world’s most famous oracle, lies at yet another lower level of the acropolis.

Roman Emperor Augustus (27 BC-AD 14)
Roman Emperor Augustus (27 BC-AD 14)

The Ancient World’s Oracles

The wise lady who can prophesy the future appears in many cultures’ legends, none more famous than the Sibyl of Cumae. In earlier times, western Asians were familiar with verses that they believed to be the oracular utterances of prophetesses known as Sibyllai. Though it is unknown what the word Sibyl means, according to legends, it was the name of a seeress at Marpessus, near Troy. The oracles pronounced by her were in the form of riddles and were written down by her on leaves and plants. After a while, a number of different prophetesses were named Sibyl, as the term “Sibyl” became very common in ancient times. The Roman author Varro (116–27 BC) names ten Sibyls all across the ancient world, most notably at Cumae.

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

During Roman times, Sibyl’s grave was displayed to visitors to the Temple of Apollo, despite the fact that it was unclear whether the Siybyl of Cumae was a real person. Sibyls were affiliated with Apollo as the god of prophecy, in Greek mythology. A Delphic Oracle from Greece, was a priestess of Apollo’s shrine at Delphi. She was known as Pythia. In order to enter a prophetic trance, she either chewed laurel leaves from Apollo’s tree or sat on her tripod over a crack in the ground and inhaled intoxicating odors. It was believed that she was directly driven by the god who spoke to her in oracles that were hard to understand.

Similar to Delphi, Cumae is located in an area of volcanic activity known as the Campi Flegri, or Flegrean Fields, west of Naples. Cumae was a popular place for the rich in Roman times. It was used by wealthy Romans for residential purposes and to use the thermal springs of Baia, which were located nearby. Just like Delphic Oracle, the Cumaean Sibyl was linked to Apollo. Roman poets asserted that Apollo had promised to give her whatever she wanted if she agreed to be his lover. She asked for the years of her life to be equal to the grains of dust in her hand. Counting the grains of dust in her hand, she requested a thousand more years to live. The only drawback to her request was that she forgot to ask for her perpetual youth throughout her life. Eventually, she became older and smaller until she was so shriveled up with age that she was locked up in the bottle that hung at Cumae. Later, on being asked by her children in Greek what she wanted, she replied, “I want to die.”

Gateway To The Underworld

The dead and the underworld preoccupied the followers of Apollo’s religion, which was both necromantic and chthonic in nature. The sixth book of the Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil, written between 29 and 19 BC, is a guide to the underworld, and in this book, the Cumaean Sibyl appears. Aeneas, the Trojan hero, is said to have visited her in her chamber, which was a “dark, enormous cave” beneath the Temple of Apollo. She then takes him and his troops to the Underworld’s entrance at Lake Avernus before instructing them to arm themselves with the Magical Golden Bough. The Magical Golden Bough was a passport to the Underworld.

Lake Lago Averno
Lake Lago Averno

There is an enigmatic lake which is still known as Lago Averno, and is only four kilometers (2.5 miles) away from Pozzuoli. In ancient times, it was once surrounded by dark, brooding woods that were magically recalled by the painter Turner, but volcanic eruptions and building development have transformed it greatly in recent decades. Despite all this, it is a dramatic location. According to legends, the crater of the ancient volcano is filled with sulphurous and emits lethal fumes that prohibit birds from flying over it. Therefore, the term “a-ornos,” Greek for “birdless,” was considered to have originated.

Location Of The Sibyl’s Cave

A cave on the Cumerian acropolis is believed to belong to the Sibyl by local legend. However, in the 1920s, when it was excavated, it was shown to be larger than imagined, a 183-foot-long gallery with light shafts and water cisterns flowing off of it. It was soon discovered that the gallery led to the other side of the hill, which is thought to be the military structure built on the orders of Roman general Agrippa (c. 63–12 BC).In 1932, another cave was discovered which scientists claimed to have certainly belonged to the Sibyl. The second cave was located nearby the first cave. There the light shafts are formed by 12 short galleries emerging from the hillside, which are 107 meters (350 feet) long.

Cave Of The Sibyl
Cave Of The Sibyl

Beyond the main gallery, a vaulted room is located. The main gallery finishes in a vestibule with two seats built from stones. In ancient times, people had to wait on those seats as they awaited a consultation with the Sibyl, while the Sibyl would be in her chamber on the other side of the door that divided the two areas. Some of the visitors may have been nervous because, in the day light, the shafts of light in the gallery made alternating bands of light and dark. This meant that anyone who came from the inner end to lead newcomers to the sanctum would appear and disappear.

It’s also possible that the light shafts startled the visitors in another way, as the light shafts would have added a special effect there. These openings in the rock, like those noted elsewhere in oracular chambers, such as those in Malta, may produce the calculated “special effect.”

“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.”

Virgil

When this cave was first discovered in 1932, it was thought to be the Sibyl’s, and that’s the one that’s still depicted at Cumae. Is it, or isn’t it? Cumaean Sibyl’s cave was admired and respected by the Greek settlement since the 6th or 5th century BC. Most of what we can see now was built later. Some archaeologist think that  further research is needed in the field of these caves. Still, no evident proof is found that confirms that these caves were used for religious purposes. Even with all this uncertainty, it is easy to imagine, while standing at the entrance of this cave, Virgil’s hero, Aeneas, and his Trojan seasoned warriors. But they were still afraid when the Sibyl “from her shrine sang out her riddles, echoing in the cave.”

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