The Sybil of Cumae

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Elihu Vedder (American, 1836-1923). The Cumaean Sibyl.

In the ancient world, Oracular Priestesses were given different titles depending on the oracle temples they served, and the geographical location they served in. The most famous of these Oracles was the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The Delphic Priestesses were known as “Pythia” or “Pythoness” referring to the sacred serpent who was said to have lived in the cave nearby at the founding of the temple in the days before the Sun God Apollo overtook the Delphic Oracle, usurping it from the Python Goddess.

A priestess of Aphrodite was known as a “Melissa”, and their totem was the Bee. Their primary function had to do with fertility magic and also in the participation of sexual congress with men who came to the temple and paid for their services as a form of religious worship. They were in fact ancient prostitutes back in the day when there were no cultural taboos on this practice. With the rise of Christianity came the rise of derision for these ancient cultural forms of worship.

Underworld Priestesses of Persephone and Hades were known as “Sybils” and the Sybil’s primary totem was a dog, specifically Cerberus, the three head hound of hell which guarded the gateway to Hades.
In the first article in this series , Discovery of the Underworld, I discussed the discovery of the underworld temple of Avernus, Oracle of the Dead in Baia, Italy. This oracle neighbors the location of the Sybil’s Grotto in Cuma, Italy, just a few miles away.

Robert Temple tells us in his book, Oracles of the Dead:

“The Sybil of Cuma was the chief prophetess for the whole of Greek Italy….anyone wishing to consult the Oracle of the dead at nearby Baia, first went to Cuma and consulted her. She would answer normal oracular inquiries but if the matter were more serious, she would make the arrangements for Baia and take the visitor there in person. In the Aeneid, it is she who actually escorts Aeneas into the underground Baian Oracle. Her own grotto, which is a kind of semi cave, is fairly impressive in its’ own right. It is approached on ground level at the base of a small hill which then rises above it. It consists of a very long tunnel carved out of the rock, running adjacent to the side of the hill. All along that side are a series of openings onto the outside, thus conveying no underworld aspect at all…………”This tunnel as you walk through it, is enhanced by a series of magnificent trapezoidal archways. It is entirely carved out of the rock of the side of the mountain and as you look down the tunnel you are looking at a series of alternating light and dark shadows that fall onto the floor very much like a chessboard; leaving you with the impression that you are walking into an inter-dimensional space between worlds.

In the study of sacred geometry, many modern ceremonial magicians have experimented with the shape of the trapezoid to enhance the theatrics in a ritual room. For some people the exposure to an intense sensory visual of this geometrical image in a well staged environment, has been found to be really quite disorienting to the mind, sometimes dangerously so, depending on the person. This effect can generate quite an intense inner experience of distorted spatial perception which then has the possibility of resulting in extreme emotional reactions of a positive or negative type to the sensory experience. The shape of the trapezoid is often associated with magical gateways and its use is most often employed by modern magicians of the left hand path, more so then practitioners of the right.

Robert Temple continues:

“At the very end of the long trapezoidal tunnel of the Sibyl’s Grotto, one comes to three chambers, the inner one on the left being the chamber where the Sibyl delivered her oracles against the back wall. On either side are prominent dog ties carved into the stone, suggesting she sat flanked by ferocious hounds. We have certain evidence that infernal hounds were officially associated with Cuma because they are depicted on the coins of the city. Cerberus, the three headed hound of hell is a common motif on Cumaean coins….we can be certain that ferocious hounds were not limited to Cuma alone, but were employed within the nearby Oracle of the dead as genuine hounds of Hell.
The central chamber at the very back of the tunnel appears to have been blocked by a partition, and was where the Sybil would have rested and made herself ready to come forth into her prophetic chamber. The chamber on the right, which opens to the outside, would have held the waiting colleagues of the client, and its doors would have been flung dramatically open behind them at the moment of the Sybil’s frenzied prophetic outburst.

Also off to the side of the trapezoidal tunnel are two large pits with steps descending into them. One of these is clearly a bath, in which clients purified themselves before consulting the Sibyl. The other may have been a “pit of ordeal”. It has a circular hole above it in the nearside corner the form of a chute, through which someone could have been lowered. “Virgil gives a harrowing, fascinating descriptive account of the Sibyl in action at Cuma delivering her prophecies in a very deep state of seizure like trance. The underworld God takes possession of her body as she enters a psychic trance; possibly as a result of some severe type of intoxication with a mind altering substance or by some other effective trance induction technique.

“The huge side of an Euboean rock is cut out into a cave, whither a hundred broad avenues lead, a hundred doors; whence rush forth as many voices, (possibly referring to the effects of echo) the responses of the Sibyl…the prophetess, as yet not suffering the influence of Phoebus (The God Apollo), raves with wild outrage in the cave, struggling if possible to disburden her soul of the mighty God: so much the more he wearies her foaming lips, subduing her ferocious heart, and by bearing down her opposition, molds her to his will. And now the hundred spacious gates of the abode were opened of their own accord, and pour forth the responses of the prophetess into the open air. “There seems to have been some sort of conflict between the worship of the old Cthonic underworld Gods and the arrival of Apollo as the new conquering Sun God. Just as Apollo usurped the power of Delphi, so it seems he wished to usurp the power of the Sybil and her prophetic mysteries too. Some of the descriptions of the legend of the Sybil indicate that Apollo cursed the Sybil for refusing to worship him, and remaining loyal to her old underworld deities which we are presumably led to believe are none other then Persephone and Hades, or possibly Hecate. This is an easy assumption to make since the prophetess is clearly on intimate terms with both the dog totem of the underworld and the neighboring Oracle of the dead at Avernus.

There is also evidence to suggest she did not simply just rave in trance when giving oracles. Many accounts of the Sybil’s are said to have written in very sophisticated cipher and in fact were held in high esteem as women of political and educated intelligence even by the conquering Romans. There is a collection of these ciphers now known as the Sibyline Oracles or books, which were kept privately stashed away by the Roman political officials. One excerpt written by Cicero a notable Roman of his day, states:

“We Romans preserve with solicitude the verses which the Sibyl is reported to have uttered…For whoever was the author of these sibylline oracles, they are very ingeniously composed. It is evident, however that they are not a song composed by any one in a prophetic ecstasy, as the poem itself evinces, being far less remarkable for enthusiasm then for technicality and labor; and as is especially proved by that arrangement which the Greeks call acrostics, where, from the first letter of each verse in order, words are formed which express some particular meaning; as is the case with some of Ennius’s verses, the initial letters of which make “Which Ennius wrote”….Now in the verses of the Sibyl, the whole of the paragraph on each subject is contained in the initial letters of every verse of the same paragraph. This is evidently the artifice of a practiced writer, not of one in a frenzy, and rather of a diligent mind, than of an insane one. Therefore, let us consider the Sibyl as so distinct and isolated a character that according to the ordinance of our ancestors, the Sibyline books shall not even be read except by decree of the Senate, and be used rather for the putting down than the taking up of religious fancies.”One description of the Sibyl’s oracular deliveries tells us of a scene wherein she writes a series of complicated messages on tree leaves and arranges them carefully on the chamber floor…..then leaves the chamber probably by some back door. When the client opens the door to enter into the oracle chamber the draft blows the leaves about the room, scrambling her oracle so that the client may never know the exact nature of the answer to his question. He is left to piecemeal the oracle together for himself and he leaves with only a piece of the partially now incoherent prophecy. This is presumably a strategy for stretching the client’s mind some. The nature of divination or oracle is intentionally vague in many cases because it requires a stretch of the clients powers of perception and personal intuition. The priestesses probably knew that to give the answers in plaint totality would defeat the purpose of the spiritual seeker for enlightenment. There always had to be a question remaining, or some kind of mystery to search after in order to feed the soul. The priests and priestesses of the ancient world most likely knew full well that when a person stops searching for the mysteries in life and thinks they have learned all there is to learn, they are as good as the living dead, continuing on with purposelessness and unfulfilled lives. The tweaking of an oracle in such a manner was necessary in order to keep the client on a personal quest for self awareness. This seems to be a rather ingenious form of divination indeed, which may well have been superior to even that of the Oracle of Delphi.
Robert Temple speculates that the Delphic oracle may possibly have participated in a form of fraud by the use of carrier pigeons to and from the temple to give personal information and news about their approaching clients. This would have given the Pythia’s a distinct advantage over their awe struck clients in the absence of true psychics. Robert Temple does not discount eh fact that true psychic women may have worked the oracle, but the many women that did come and go in service to the temples most likely did not all possess such second sight. Some form of consistency had to be kept up to insure a good business. Here at the Grotto of the Sibyl however we see an entirely different type of divination afoot, one designed to inspire the seeker to engage in a quest for the deepest self which is at the heart of all underworld mystery school traditions. This wasn’t merely a business of fortune telling.

People came to the Oracle of Delphi to ask about matters of state and affairs concerning the minutia of their personal lives. I call this in our modern times the “love money and sex syndrome” that so many people come in the door for tarot readings for. Back in the days of Delphi, political advice was high on the list of topics to seek out the Oracle for. Delphi in fact was probably one of the largest political centers of the entire ancient world and matters of state were hardly ever acted upon without first consulting the sacred Pythia and taking their political advice. If Robert Temples’ speculations are right, information of this kind is easily enough divulged through the use of carrier pigeons used by an elaborate spy network.

People came to the Sibyl of Cuma however for different reasons, primarily to commune with the spirit world and to cope with the loss of loved ones, and to learn the meaning of their personal lives. She was much more of a psychologist and a therapist I suspect then a fortune teller or a politician. The participation of the Oracle of the dead in Baia that the Sibyl lead them to was experiential. The client was not merely a member of an audience listening to the words of prophecy as it was interpreted by some priest as Delphi did. The client was led first hand down into the underworld chambers for a full sensory experience of mind altering perceptual enhancement which effected all parts of his being very profoundly.

I suspect very much that the ordeal that occurred at the temple of Avernus with the assistance of the Sibyl as guide, was very intimately connected to the rites of Eleusis and were without a doubt a carry over of the ancient Egyptian rites of Osiris through the Underworld of Amenti. The secretes of these mystery schools were transmitted and taught only to chosen initiates. In fact it is possible that some of the rites of Eleusis may have prepared the candidate for a more secret journey to the Avernus oracle for the final ritual experience in some cases.

In the Aenid there is a passage I personally find very meaningful, that hints at the tremendous importance of the function of the Sibyl priestess in assisting the candidate psychologically on his journey through his grief and his underworld ordeal. Aenas says to her:

“Virgin Divine, nothing remains in this life, that can tire me or frighten me. Nothing will be new to me, or that I have not foreseen. I am prepared for every kind of suffering. All I ask of you, since it is here, it is said, that the entrance of the underworld and the lake of Acheron begins, let me come to see my beloved father. Here is the gate, if you show me the road and be my guide.”

Somewhere in the story of Aeneas he shares with her a very intimate feeling of awe and admiration for her. He says something to the effect of ( I cannot find the exact quote), I don’t know if you are human or immortal, but you will always be in my heart for helping me find my way.

 

Monique Lockhart

Copy write 2008

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