In Search of Sybil

In Search of Sybil

This special issue is about once-in-a-lifetime journeys. First off the bucket list, how a temperamental GPS can lead you to the Cumaean Sybil in Italy.

Gateway to the unknown: The harbour at Pozzuoli. (Source: Thinkstock Images)

The road to the underworld isn’t easy to find. Unless you are favoured with the help of a guide, like a classical hero, chance must light you the way there. And since you and I aren’t heroes, we can’t go down it. We can only peer in the doorway and wonder.

I stumbled on the door to the underworld by chance, having lost my way. I was driving my family from Naples to Cumae, near the modern Italian town of Pozzuoli, in search of the grotto of the most influential sybil of Roman Europe. The Cumaean Sybil was the most powerful of her class because she was geographically favoured. She was the soothsayer closest to Rome. Besides, or perhaps because of that, Virgil wrote about her. And besides, she was a killer salesgirl. She sold the Romans the books prophesying their future at a 60 per cent premium.

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The legend goes that the sybil offered nine books of prophecy to Tarquinius Superbus, the last and possibly legendary king of Rome. Tarquinius got sticker shock. A guerrilla bargainer, she burned three books and offered him the remaining six at the same price. When the king gave her the regal brush-off again, she burned three more and offered the survivors again at the same price. And this time, a flustered Tarquinius shook on the deal. The Sybilline books were sent to the temple of Jupiter on Rome’s Capitoline Hill, to be consulted whenever Rome was threatened with destruction.


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Her magnum opus sold, the Sybil repaired to her grotto by Lake Avernus and spent centuries writing prophecies on oak leaves which she left at the entrance. They were frequently scattered by the wind, but she would not help her clients get them back in order so that the future could be read properly. She had gazed far into the future to the capitalist age, and knew that efficient service and support hurts repeat purchases. In her non-profit life, she was also a guide to the underworld, and took Aeneas to meet his dead father Anchises — another prophet of the future of Rome.

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The quick and dirty traveller takes the tourist bus to the official sybil’s cave, which was discovered on a hillside in 1932 by the archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri, but is now thought to be of more recent vintage than Virgil. Besides, it is way up a hill and far from the lake, which was classically known to be the route to the underworld. Which is mythologically logical, since Avernus is a volcanic crater. Someday, the earth had opened here. On the other hand, a guide to the underworld setting up shop far away from its gates is wholly illogical. Nevertheless, the grotto on the hill remains the official version. This is where the tourist buses stop.

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Cumaean Sybil by Andrea del Castagno. (Source: Wikipedia)

But if you happen to be driving yourself, which I was doing, and if your car is equipped with a temperamental GPS, as mine was, you would lose your way and dive down to the lake. We circled it twice in search of the grotto, driving down overgrown lanes which may have been paved last in Mussolini’s time. We got much-needed encouragement from an elderly Hell’s Angel type, who served as outrider for part of the way and assured us that the grotto was right on the water. Couldn’t we see the spectacularly ruined temple of Apollo, which was also on the lakeside? Sybils want to be near temples, don’t you know?

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Finally, at the mouth of a tiny footpath we found a hand-lettered sign reading: “Grotta della Sibilla.” The footpath was overgrown, a tunnel of green driven into the hillside. It was littered with empty bottles and beer cans, and bums and vagrants had fouled it. Skinks and geckos, unaccustomed to visitors, skittered for cover. The background music was the relentless hum of bluebottle flies, bees and clouds of giant mosquitoes which put ours to shame.

At the end of the path was the grotto of the sybil, its walls receding into Cimmerian darkness. Which sybil, though? Could there have been more than one? Maybe one stationed at the official cave for commercial day-to-day prophesying, and another here, at the shore of Avernus, serving as a guide to the underworld, accessible only to heroes?

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We couldn’t go into the grotto because it was barred by a rusted and padlocked gate, a wise precaution put in place by an unknown well-wisher, because we were mere mortals. In the Aeneid, Virgil warns that it is relatively easy to descend into the underworld, but only the superhuman return from it.

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Classical and folk traditions the world over have legends of heroes and gods who descended into the underworld and made it back home, the most famous being Orpheus’s descent in search of Eurydice. The Greeks had a name for the trope: katabasis, a word now used to describe various descents, including that into clinical depression.


The grotto could just be a Roman tunnel or waterway, silted up centuries ago. But when we emerged from the green tunnel, eaten alive by the local wildlife, the volcanic lake and temple of Apollo were magical in the failing light. It was easy to imagine that Aeneas, back from the Trojan war, may have plucked the Golden Bough on those very slopes, the passport that Charon would demand to ferry him across the river of death. That here, by this lakeshore, with the talisman in hand and the Sybil showing the way, he stepped over the threshold of the world into the tunnel to Hades.