The ancient town of Cumae was the oldest Greek colony in the west. It was founded in the last quarter of the 8th century B.C. From the town’s acropolis one can see the island of Procida and its smaller islet of Vivara; farther away is the island of Ischia. Mycenaean artifacts have been found on these islands, proving the presence of Greek colonists in the area in the 8th century. We are told that Ischia was called Pithekoussai in Greek, which means “island of the monkeys.”
The cult of Apollo had a presence at Cumae; the remains of his temple is located on the acropolis. Also found there are the remains of a smaller temple of Diana. The acropolis at Cumae overlooks the lower city, and at its height Cumae had a forum, market place, water cisterns, and everything else that a smaller Roman town might have. Cicero had a villa here, and Cumae is the location for one of the dialogues in his work On Moral Ends.
But what the town was most famous for was the Cumaean Sibyl, the prophetess of Apollo. The priestess of Apollo had a special grotto and cavern here where, it was said, she made attempts to predict the course of future events. The poet Virgil mentions her in the Aeneid (VI.126), and she is noted with reverence by other ancient sources. She even has a place in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land.” Cumae was finally abandoned as an inhabited town around the year 1200, and the location of the Sibyl’s cave was eventually lost.
One of the most prized literary possessions of the ancient Romans was the so-called Sibylline Books, which were books of prophecies consulted by government officials in times of emergency. The legend of their acquisition is told by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, as well as by Aulus Gellius (I.19). One of Rome’s kings (Tarquinius Priscus) was approached by an old woman who offered to sell him her books of prophecies. There were nine of them. She named her price, but the king found it too exorbitant. So she thew three of the books into a fire; the remaining six were offered for the same price. He again hesitated, so she burned three more books. In a panic, the king finally bought the remaining three books at the original price. True knowledge is perishable, and comes at a dear price. The Sibylline Books were cherished governmental possessions and preserved for centuries, until supposedly being destroyed by a renegade general named Flavius Stilicho in late antiquity.
Modern archaeologists searched for the grotto for many years in vain, and it was finally discovered in May 1932. The entrance to the cave had been walled up with an oven, and the distinct trapezoidal-shaped passageway had completely silted in with the detritus and dirt of centuries. Walking through the grotto is a weird, fascinating experience, laden with history and the spirits of dead gods. Even now, the Sibyl has refused to give up all of her secrets.
When I entered the grotto, there was a teacher giving a presentation to a group of schoolchildren. At first I thought of waiting for them to leave, so as to photograph the area without anyone present. I soon changed my mind; for some reason, seeing innocent young children in this mysterious, vaguely ominous place was strangely appropriate. The incongruity of it was evocative, and fitting. I think the sibyl herself would have approved.
And as I finished these lines and prepared this article for publication, I began to see something in the photo that caught my uneasy attention. I took another look at the schoolteacher holding court before these innocent, enraptured children. And then I thought to myself, only half laughing, maybe this could be seen as the Sibyl herself, whose restless spirit still haunts this grotto, reaching down the centuries to influence the minds of the unformed and the immature.
Whether these were idle fancies, or whether they were something else, is a question I will leave to the reader to decide.
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