24 Mar 2012

The Pagan Sites of Europe Remembered (15): Cave of the Sibyl, Cumae, Italy

Sibyls were priestess of Apollo noted for their oracular abilities. They usually occupied temples that were connected to caves or grottoes, from whence they were thought to draw their prophecies.

Sibyls are associated with several Greek sites such as Delphi, Dodona, and Erythrae in modern day Turkey. The Sibyls of Cumae, a Greek colony near what is now Naples, were particularly revered by the Romans, who kept books supposedly written by the last Sibyl in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. These were consulted only in emergencies.

In 1932 the Italian archeologist Amedeo Maiuri found a cave that he identified as ths cave of the Sibyl besed 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.

In book VI of the Aeneid, Virgil refers to the Sibyl as follows:

"In these words the Cumaean Sibyl chants from the shrine her dread enigmas and booms from the cavern, wrapping truth in darkness – so does Apollo shake his reins as she rages, and ply the goad beneath her breast."

The cave is composed of a passage cut into volcanic rock over 131 meters long leading to an inner chamber, where the Sibyl is thought to have made her prophecies.

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