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The Cumaean Sibyl

The Cumaean Sibyl


Ancient Rome's Great Priestess and Prophet

Centuries ago, concurrent with the Fiftieth Olympiad and the Founding of the City of Rome, an old woman arrived incognita in Rome. She came to see King Tarquin.

She told him that she came on business, which she then clarified for him: she came to see him on the business of the state. She offered to sell him nine books. Her price was three hundred pieces of gold.

The king couldn't believe his ears. Nor his eyes. "Books? What books?" She was such an old woman!

"I want to sell you nine books," she told him. "They contain the destiny of the world."

The king still could not believe his ears. "The what?" he asked.

"The future of the world," she told him in simpler terms. "My books contain the destiny of the world."

"Even so," said the king. "The price seems too high..."

A few weeks later -- for the old woman had to journey all the way from Rome to Cumae, which is on the north hook of the Bay of Naples, and then, all the way back, crossing the farm lands of Campania -- she presented herself again at the audience chamber of King Tarquin.

"What now?" he impatiently asked. She was really an old, old woman.

"I offer you six books for sale," she answered.

"How much?" he asked.

"I told you. Three hundred pieces of gold."

"Too much."

Some time later, for the old woman was not as young as she used to be, and the roads between Cumae and Rome are very long roads in any century, she presented herself again at the court of King Tarquin.

"I can offer you three books," she told the king.

"How much?" he inquired.

"Same price. Three hundred pieces of gold," she said.

"What happened to the other six," he asked.

"I burnt them," she said.

King Tarquin bought the three remaining books, which contained the destiny of the world, for three hundred pieces of gold, from the old woman. She was the Cumaean Sibyl in person.

Then he asked her to rewrite, or to have reconstituted, the other six books.

"No," was her reply.

After he had read his three books, he asked her again. "No," she repeated.

Thus, great Rome rose to be a kingdom and subsequently flourished as a republic, which conquered Gaul under Julius Caesar. Then Rome inaugurated its worldwide empire. That Caesar was stabbed to death in the Roman Forum. And all these centuries, Rome expanded but never knew its destiny, until it finally collapsed. What wisdom might have been gleaned from those six burnt books?


In a closely guarded vault beneath the Capitoline temple of Jupiter (in Rome) were once kept the renowned sibylline books, which were consulted by the college of priests on the occasion of earthquakes and other disasters. History records that the Apollonian sibyl who dwelt by the spring at Cumae originally offered Tarquinius Superbus (534-510 BCE) nine books of oracular utterances in Greek hexameters. The price being too high, Tarquinius rejected the offer, only to learn that she was burning the books of wisdom one by one. When the sibyl shrewdly offered the remaining three books for the same exorbitant sum as the original nine, he paid the price, and the books were preserved until the disastrous fire which incinerated the Capitol in 83 BCE.

After that disaster, the Senate sent envoys to various oracles to collect similar prophecies, assembling a collection that survived for several centuries until it was reportedly destroyed by Stilicho.

Virgil, in his Aeneid, describes the Cumaean Sibyl thus: "She changes her features and the color of her countenance; her hair springs up erect, her bosom heaves and pants, her wild heart beats violently, the foam gathers on her lips, and her voice is terrible." And when she was possessed, Virgil added, "She paces to and fro in her cave and gesticulates as if she would expel the gods from her breast."

One of the Cumaean Sibyl's peculiarities, moreover, was that when consulted she would write her predictions on oak leaves and lay them at the edge of her cave, from which they were blown hither and yon by the wind and often confusedly mixed up, making them all but unintelligible to their readers. The Cumaean Sibyl, declared one historian, never sat on her tripod to give answers without first swallowing a few drops of the juice of the bay laurel.



The Roman Senate ordered two Roman patricians to rewrite the lost Sibylline Books. Later, their ranks were increased to Ten Men; their ranks were, in turn, increased to Fifteen Men, later to increase to a whole College of Priests charged to reframe the lost Sibylline Books. No one else was ever permitted to read the three original Books. One Marcus Atilius was sewn into a sack and thrown into the Tiber River for authorizing someone to copy them.

Julius Caesar gave a copy of the Sibylline Books to his high priests, who were the only public servants legally allowed to read them. These Books were guarded, stored, and preserved in subterranean chambers of the Capitoline Hill. Those chambers and the temple on the Hill had been completed and consecrated in 500 BCE.

The Sibylline Books were finally completely destroyed in 83 CE when the temple of Jove Capitolinus burned.

Augustus Caesar authorized a High Commission to seek out capable authors worldwide, who were to rewrite, edit, and reestablish the Sibylline Books. They may now be read in The Apocryphal Literature edited by Charles Cutler Torrey, who has said that the present Books IV and V were written by the Sibyl who introduced herself as a granddaughter of Noah.

The Sibylline Books and their troubled history may also be traced in the extant books of Roman historian Livy (Volume III). He follows their thread from the year 461 BCE, when the two original commissioners (duumviri -- "two men") consulted the Books because of a terrible earthquake when the heavens also blazed -- and again in 443 BCE, when people and cattle were struck by an epidemic. The Sibylline Books warned Rome of all multiples of three.

The Senate had recourse to the Books again in 399 BCE, a year of catastrophic distemper in humans and livestock. In 343 BCE, they were again consulted because of a fearsome omen: a shower of stones fell on Rome.

Livy says it was the Cumaean Sibyl who told the Romans that their Gods and Goddesses had been imported from Greece. When a pestilence decimated the Romans in 293 BCE, the Books instructed them to send for the healer Asclepius.

During the winter of 218 BCE, a horrendous time for Rome, Romans were terrified because of a large number of prodigies:

1. A baby of six months of age suddenly uttered, "Victoria!"
2. An ox climbed three stories and then jumped.
3. Phantom ships gleamed in the sky. [This one might be of interest to UFO researchers.]
4. The temple of Hope was struck by lightning.
5. A wolf snatched a sentry’s sword.

The situation in Rome grew most precarious the next spring (217 BCE) when Hannibal moved out of his winter quarters to finish his so-far highly successful campaigns against Rome.

That spring in both Italy and Sicily, the heavens gave many warnings. First, the orb of the sun decreased in size. Then it appeared to be colliding with the moon. Then two moons appeared in the daytime sky. Then the sky split apart; through this rift a brilliant light shone, and then the sky appeared to catch fire. Then, in the city of Capua, during a rainstorm, one of these moons fell to earth. The same portent that had signaled the fall of Thebes occurred: a holy spring ran blood.

The Cumaean Sibyl finally ordered the now hysterical populace to go out and sit at the crossroads and to pray to Triple Hecate, and last of all to bring from Asia the Black Stone of Mother Cybele, and then Cybele Herself, as their protectress in this grave emergency.

Despite these records, and despite this long tradition of sanctity, the Cumaean Sibyls were considered fantasy until archaeologists proved their actual existence by discovering sticks and stones, tunnels and slabs of quarried rock, and the cave in which each Sibyl had lived at Cumae.

Roman historian Varro listed ten Sibyls, not by origin, but by place of prophecy: Persian, Libyan, Delphic, Cimmerian (Italian), Erythraean (Ionian?), Samian (Isle of Samos), Cumaean, Phrygian (Trojan), and Tiburtine (Latin).

The first Christian to list the Sibyls was L.C.F. Lactantius (c. 260-340 CE). In his book on holy, religious institutions (Book I, Chapter 6), he lists the Sibyls as follows:

1. Persian (or Chaldean, who answered Alexander the Great)
2. Libyan (Her name was Lamia, meaning Snake or Medusa)
3. Delphic Sibyl (Mount Parnassus in Greece)
4. Cimmerian (Near Lake Avernus; i.e., Cumae)*
5. Erythraean (From Babylon; she predicted the Trojan War)
6. Samian (Isle of Samos, near Hera’s Temple)
7. Cumaean (Sibyls named: Deiphobe, Amalthea, Herophile, Demophile, Taraxandra)
8. Hellespontian (born at Troy during the lifetimes of Solon and Cyrus the Great)
9. Phrygian (Priestess of Cybele who prophesied at Ankara, Turkey)
10. Albanean or Tiburtine (Latin town of Tiburs)


Saint Augustine, who admitted that the Sibyl spoke words received from the Judeo-Christian deity (from God) considered that there had been only one Sibyl. As more research was completed into the matter, the number of Sibyls had, by the Middle Ages, reached twelve. Other oracular centers were found: Colophon, Rhodes, Ephesus, and Sicily.

When they obliged by answering questions, the later priestesses employed several methods, either vocal, in writing, or by arcane signs and symbols. Often, they transcribed their answers onto palm leaves that the wind sometimes picked up and scattered, to the great consternation of the suppliant. [Such is the realm of the oracle -- cannot make it TOO easy!]

Throughout all antiquity, it appears, Cumae was kept sacred, and it was dedicated by the priestesses of the dead to their Queen-Priestess Persephone, who had been abducted by Hades in Sicily.

Archaeologists have found an inscribed gravestone with the message: "Nobody but initiates may be interred here." It has no date, and the Romans had no date for Cumae before 524 BCE. Cumae was destroyed by landing parties from a Saracen fleet in 915 CE.

By the early 1600s, archaeological activity had uncovered valuable treasures in buried statues, cremation tombs, beehive tombs, cellars and other underground structures, vaults, and niches for cinerary urns.

Since 1932, it has been known but not widely or openly admitted that the Cumaean Sibyl once lived and that she, and others of that title, had been High-Priestesses of Rome.

An unidentified early Christian visited the site just after the Sibyl ceased to perform her priestly duties; i.e., before the end of Rome’s Republic and the death of Julius Caesar. This visitor was taken on a tour of the temple at Cumae and was told that the Sibyl had purified herself there. Donning a long, ceremonial robe, she proceeded solemnly to her chamber, seated herself upon a throne, and delivered her oracles. At the end of her chamber was the holier adyton or sacred inner chamber. The Cumaean Sibyl was especially venerated by early Christians not only for her prophetic gift but also because she had specifically prophesied the birth of Christ -- the fact of which most of today's Christians remain unaware.




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