by Ben Amundgaard
The Cumaean Sibyl
Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel
In the ancient world,
sibyls were prophetesses associated with a particular location.
Many of their
prophecies played key roles in determining the direction
of important events.
Though there were
variations based on place and time, the sibyls all seem to share
They were always
They gave their
prophecies in an ecstatic state, under the power of a particular
deity (often Apollo), and they were usually associated with a
specific ancient oracle or a temple.
Though early sources
refer to only one sibyl, the number eventually grew to ten:
the Libyan Sybil
the Delphic Sibyl
(though here it appears there was an elder and a younger
Sibyl (again, an elder and younger)
the Samian Sibyl
the Cumaean Sibyl
The Cumaean Sibyl
is probably the best known of ten (or twelve) sibyls.
Her cave was located near
the town of
Cumae on the western coast of
Italy, in the same location as a temple of Apollo.
While most often known as
the Cumaean Sibyl or the Sibyl of Cumae, she is also
variously referred to as:
The Cumaean Sibyl plays a
crucial role in two events associated with the foundation, rise, and
continued success of Rome.
First, according to
tradition she was the woman who sold the Sibylline books to the
last king of Rome.
prophesies to Aeneas about his future in Italy and takes him
into the underworld to see his father (who tells him that his
descendants will found Rome).
In the Roman Antiquities,
Dionysius of Halicarnassus recounts the story of an old woman
who came to visit Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (or Tarquin the
Proud), the last king of Rome.
She brings with her nine
books that she claims contain sibylline prophecies. She offers to
sell the books for what seems like an unreasonable amount of money.
The king laughs at her ridiculous price.
In response, the woman
burns three of the books.
A while later, the woman returns with the remaining six books and
offers to sell them at the same price as the original nine. Again,
the king laughs at her, assuming she has lost her mind.
Again, the woman leaves
and burns three more of the books.
Undeterred by the king's obstinacy, the woman returns with the
remaining three books. She offers to sell the king the three books
for the same price as the original nine.
This time the king does
wondering at the woman's purpose, sent for the augurs and
acquainting them with the matter, asked them what he should do.
These, knowing by
certain signs that he had rejected a god-sent blessing, and
declaring it to be a great misfortune that he had not purchased
all the books, directed him to pay the woman all the money she
asked and to get the oracles that were left."
Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities
records a similar story in Attic Nights.
In his story, however,
the old woman burns the books in front of the king. In both accounts
the old woman disappears after she sells the books.
The Sibyl of Cumae
The Sibylline Books (sometimes called the Cumaean Books)
became crucial in the ongoing decisions of Rome.
The lecti viri - a
group of two (duumviri) men that grew to 10 (decemviri) and
eventually 15 (quindecimviri) - guarded the books. When the senate's
seers couldn't divine the meaning of extraordinary events, or when
Rome needed direction in times of crisis, they would order these men
to consult the Sibylline Books.
The books often clarified the meaning of certain divine events or
ordered particular sacrifices and oblations to avoid a disaster.
Livy reports that,
while strategizing for war...
"The state was at
this time suddenly occupied with a question of a religious
nature, in consequence of the discovery of a prediction in the
Sibylline books, which had been inspected on account of there
having been so many showers of stones this year.
It ran thus:
foreign enemy should bring war into the land of Italy, he
may be driven out of Italy and conquered, if the Idaean
Mother should be brought from Pessinus to Rome."
The Romans took this
prophecy very seriously and immediately worked to bring the
Idaean Mother to Rome.
The Romans took these books so seriously that, according to
Dionysius, dereliction of one's duty to care for the books could
have disastrous results.
When someone reported
that one of the guardians of the books had allowed someone else to
borrow one of them, King Tarquinius,
"ordered him to be
sewed up in a leather bag and thrown into the sea..."
Harsh, but perhaps not
too harsh, given the role they played in the fate of Rome.
Virgil and the
In Book 3 of the Aeneid, Aeneas visits a priest/prophet who
tells him to visit the Cumaean Sibyl.
"And when, thither
borne, thou drawest near to the town of Cumae, the haunted
lakes, and Avernus with its rustling woods, thou shalt look on
an inspired prophetess, who deep in a rocky cave sings the Fates
and entrusts to leaves signs and symbols."
Virgil (the Aeneid)
The sibyl has important
news for Aeneas:
"The nations of
Italy, the wars to come, the mode whereby thou art to flee or
face each toil, she will unfold to thee; and, reverently
besought, she will grant thee a prosperous voyage."
Virgil (the Aeneid)
In other words,
the fate of the
founding of Rome rests on the prophecy she gives Aeneas...
In Book 6, Aeneas finally
visits Cumae and finds the sibyl.
She tells him that though
he has survived the troubles of Troy and the dangers of his sea
voyage, he has further troubles ahead.
"O thou that at last
hast fulfilled the great perils of the sea - yet by land more
grievous woes await thee... Wars, grim wars I see, and Tiber
foaming with streams of blood...
Even now another
Achilles is raised up in Latium, he, too, goddess-born; nor
shall Juno anywhere fail to dog the Trojans, whilst thou, a
suppliant in thy need, what races, what cities of Italy shalt
thou not implore!
The cause of all this
Trojan woe is again an alien bride, again a foreign marriage!"
Virgil (The Aeneid)
She says, however, that
Aeneas should not fear this fate, that he has the ability to rise
Conveniently there happened to be a portal to the underworld nearby.
As he wanted to go there anyway, Aeneas asks the sibyl if she will
take him there to see his dead father.
She says that he must
first find a golden bough in the forest. On that bough will be a
If he is able to pick
the fruit, he will be worthy to visit the underworld.
Aeneas Flees Burning Troy,
Having completed the task (and burying one of his crew who had
challenged the gods to a trumpet-blowing contest and been killed by
Triton), Aeneas returns to the sibyl, who escorts him into the
There, Aeneas meets his
After discussing some of
the particulars of the underworld, Anchises shows Aeneas his future
and the future of his descendants.
"Come now, what glory
shall hereafter attend the Dardan line, what children of Italian
stock await thee, souls illustrious and heirs of our name - this
will I set forth, and teach thee thy destiny."
Virgil (the Aeneid)
Anchises recounts the
destiny of all of Aeneas' descendants. As grandparents are often
wont to do, he extols their greatness and victory.
Anchises tells Aeneas that among his descendants are Romulus,
founder of Rome and Caesar Augustus (the first Roman Emperor
and, perhaps not surprisingly, patron of Virgil).
According to Anchises,
"... again set up the
Golden Age amid the fields where Saturn once reigned, and shall
spread his empire past Garamant and Indian, to a land that lies
beyond the stars, beyond the paths of the year and the sun,
where heaven-bearing Atlas turns on his shoulders the sphere,
inset with gleaming stars."
Virgil (the Aeneid)
Aeneas is struck by the
importance of his journey and is eager to get on his way.
Once his father's
prophecy is over, the sibyl accompanies him back to the land of the
living and, eager to continue his epic journey, Aeneas sets sail.
Clearly, the Cumaean Sibyl plays a crucial role in
the founding and ongoing fortune of Rome...
If it weren't for her,
the Romans would not have had the guidance of the Sibylline Books.
If it weren't for her prophecy, Aeneas would not have been prepared
to rise above his fate in his journey towards Italy.
If it were not for her
guidance, Aeneas would not have met his father and not have known
the import of his continued journey...