An Encounter with the Sibyl

On the second day of the tour around the Bay of Naples, I saw the famous grotto at Cumae, the seat of Apollo’s Sibyl.

It’s a vast area with deep caverns carved into the rock and paths wending up to the acropolis, which have gorgeous views of the bay and the islands of Ischia and Prochida.

I imagine that these are the shores that Virgil talked about when “tandem Euboicis Cumarum adlabitur oris” (Aen. 6.3). I had a great time imagining Aeneas’ fleet of ships arriving here, and Aeneas himself trekking through that terrain towards the acropolis, where the grottoes are.

“Iam subeunt  Triviae lucos atque aurea tecta.
Daedalus, ut fama est, fugiens Minoia regna
praepetibus pennis ausus se credere caelo
insuetum per iter gelidas enavit ad Arctos,
Chalcidicaque levis tandem super astitit arce.
Redditus his primum terris tibi, Phoebe, sacravit
remigium alarum posuitque immania templa” (Aen. 6. 13-19)

The places pictured here are almost certainly the places that Virgil had in mind when he wrote those lines. According to legend, Daedalus had come to this place and dedicated the temple to Apollo, after fleeing Minos.

In the early empire, Augustus’ right-hand man Agrippa had apparently built a tunnel connecting Avernus and the town of Cumae, and Augustus himself had rebuilt this temple to Apollo (which was originally a Greek structure) and reoriented it so that the facade would overlook the town itself.

In Aeneid 6 (15-40), Aeneas came here with the Sibyl to make the preliminary sacrifices so he could go into the Underworld. Aeneas became slightly lost in thought while staring at the doors, which had pictures depicting the adventures of Daedalus on them. The Sibyl chides him, saying essentially that now is not the time to be gaping at such spectacles. They then go inside the temple to sacrifice. The doors are, of course, nowhere to be found if they existed at all.

Here is a picture of the temple to Apollo, with me in front of it:


Not the best picture of the temple, but it was mostly just a pile of rubble at this point. And it was in the middle of the blazing sun, so I didn’t spend too much time climbing on it.

There are actually two temples on the acropolis, one to Apollo and another of uncertain dedication that was converted to a church in the middle ages:


It had a pretty amazing view of the bay, but this one was also in the blazing sun and I didn’t want to spend too much time there for fear of getting too sunburned.

I think I enjoyed the dark, damp grottoes the most. I could imagine what it might have been like as a religious sanctuary:

“excisum Euboicae latus ingens rupis in antrum
quo lati ducunt aditus centum, ostia centum,
unde ruunt totidem voces, responsa Sibylla…” (Aen. 6. 42-44)

“Ventum erat ad limen, cum virgo, ‘Poscere fata
tempus,’ ait, ‘deus ecce deus!’ Cui talia fanti
ante fores subito non vultus, non color unus,
non comptae mansere comae; sed pectus anhelum,
et rabie fera corda tument, majorque videri
nec mortale sonans, adflata est numine quando
jam propriore dei.” (Aen. 6. 45-51).

There were so many great moments on this trip, but one of my favorites was being able to reread Book 6 and imagine it in this context and it was truly breathtaking.


More Italian Adventures

I spent two days on my own in Rome. The first day, I visited the Vatican. I didn’t go inside, but I spent a lot of time in the square just staring at the statues or people-watching.

The second day, I went to the Colosseum and the Forum (referring generically to everything that is on the Palatine Hill and thereabouts). Since I was alone, I did whatever I wanted and I spent more hours here just exploring and people-watching.

Standing in front of the Colosseum was one of my favorite experiences of the whole trip. It’s such an iconic building, and it was not at all disappointing to finally stand before it in person and simply enjoy its majesty. This picture does not nearly do it justice, even though I really tried.colisseum

Probably my proudest achievement of this whole excursion was not having anything stolen from me. Nobody harassed me either, even though I was completely expecting it.

Exploring the Palatine Hill area was great too; there is definitely a lot to explore. I will definitely be back to explore again, though probably not at the height of the vacation season next time. This time, it was necessity that I had to be there in the middle of July.

The actual tour was a study tour that took me ALL over the Bay of Naples. It was a group of 21, including the two professors who led it. We were of all ages and walks of life, but we were all united by our love of classics. Several of us were college students getting ready to attend grad school, some were Latin teachers, others were simply there for love of the subject matter.

I learned so much, and got to see an enormous number of wonderful, mind-blowing things. I got to climb around in the deep underbelly of two Roman amphitheaters, which are marvels of architecture and engineering:


The amphitheater at Pozzuoli


I think this is Pozzuoli, the lowest level of the amphitheater.

I saw Pompeii and Herculaneum:

Pompeii - Suburban Baths

The lower level of Pompeii: the suburban baths.


View of Herculaneum from above: it’s in a pit that is 60′ deep.





















I climbed to the top of Mt. Vesuvius:



Incredible view from Mt. Vesuvius







I managed to get up the trail to the top in about 15 minutes, because I didn’t stop to take any pictures on the way up. It was hot and smelled like sulfur, but I wanted to beat the prediction that it would take me 40 minutes to get to the top.






I will continue posting pictures as the spirit moves me, over the next several days, probably. Overall, this trip was probably the best introduction to Italy I could have asked for. I enjoyed so many wonderful things while I was there, and I already can’t wait to return!


Roman Holiday – First Day

20160709_141345There’s nothing quite like learning to navigate a new foreign city on your own, without any help from the internet.

I don’t know much Italian at all, not even the “essential phrases” that the internet says you ought to know. I figure it just adds to the sense of adventure and danger, not knowing much of the lingo.

Thankfully because I travel in the US a fair amount I know how to get around and am not shy about asking ignorant questions. I navigated the airport easily and the trains that took me into Rome, since everything is designed for ignorant tourists anyway. Again, the language barrier really isn’t much of a barrier. You can get by just with hand gestures in a pinch.

People (Americans like me) in the airport seemed to think that I looked like I knew what I was doing and were asking me questions. That was amusing, since I only look like I know what I’m doing and sometimes I don’t even manage that very well. Several American tourists were asking me how to use the ATM machine, or something along those lines. I’m not really sure what happened. I probably just used hand gestures.

As I rode into Rome by rail, a lot of the vegetation was very similar to my part of CA. Lots of ivy, oleander, azalea, thistles and the like. It’s hot like Cali too. There were a couple of shanty towns along the tracks, buried in the vegetation, buildings made out of blocks and metal siding and tarps. Not a sight I expected when I first set out. California has similar things, although ours are more hidden by brush and mountains. That’s a pretty dangerous part of Rome, where you should never venture on your own.

I walked to my hotel from the train station and met two of the most hilarious hotel proprietors I have ever encountered who have treated me like royalty since I got here. My room is absolutely gorgeous too, with a balcony.

Probably my favorite part of today was the time I spent sitting in the shadow of the Vatican, simply enjoying the view. I didn’t feel up to standing in a mile long queue to get inside, especially in the blazing sun in July, though I might try when I come back in a couple of weeks. I was pretty tired anyway and needed some time to simply think and recenter myself after all the chaos of traveling. And there is a lot to enjoy just by staring at the architecture and the statues.

The whole time I was surrounded by people, but it didn’t get to me at all like it normally might. Nobody bothered me at all, or tried to talk to me. I could just sit and look and relax. And watch other people. Many, many selfies were taken by carefree, happy-go-lucky tourists brandishing their selfie sticks.

Maybe my obvious lack of selfie-stick was the reason why people didn’t seem to think I was a tourist. Everyone else has them and waves them around all the time.

I didn’t take a single selfie. Instead, I enjoyed sitting and thinking, without having something to do. It was great. I think everyone should do it a lot more often.

I have no idea what I’m going to do tomorrow, but that’s OK. That means that there are more possibilities. And winging it is always a fun adventure anyway.

Dragons in the Schoolyard – A Short Story

Peter Larkin, the author, stood up to thunderous applause that did not die away until he had reached the podium to receive his award. He held a small piece of paper with pencil markings on it, the guidelines for the speech he had written the day before.

But as he stood on the stage looking over the audience, he reflected upon his success and the long, difficult road he had taken to get here. Suddenly the speech he had prepared seemed utterly inadequate to the occasion. He had another inspiration instead.

He put the piece of paper back in his coat pocket, cleared his throat, and began to speak:

“Let me tell you a story. It isn’t a very long story, but I think it is fitting for this occasion. The time frame is many years ago, about twenty five or so. The setting is an elementary school in Cleveland Ohio; the main character is a boy in the third grade who saw dragons in the schoolyard.

“He was a very ordinary boy in many ways, but he was a very unusual boy in many other ways. This boy often lived in his imagination, especially when he was at school and very bored. But he could see the schoolyard from his desk in the classroom. The schoolyard was more than just a place for recess; it was a place of infinite possibility and promise. His dragons often played there while he watched, and soon he began to populate that space with knights and damsels and all manner of magical creatures. They were his friends and constant companions, and eventually, they became his guardians.

“It wasn’t long before the teacher noticed how much time the boy spent staring out of the window, clearly not paying attention to the lesson. He was falling behind in his work and was dangerously near failing math and science. She grew concerned about him. At first she simply tried getting him to stop looking out the window, forcing him to forsake his place of refuge and his friends. But his friends were not so easily put off by this.

“Before long, the dragons came into the classroom with him to keep him company, and the boy discovered that he could begin writing about them on paper, describing their appearances and everything they did and said. He was entranced by this discovery and began writing stories that were terrible at first but grew better and better with every try. He hardly cared that he was about to fail school because writing his stories were so much more interesting than anything he could have possibly been doing in school. The teacher grew exasperated. She took his stories away and threatened to call in his parents if he did not behave himself.

“At last the teacher called in the boy’s parents for a long chat. With grave faces the boy’s parents listened to the teacher’s concerns and asked what they ought to do about it. The teacher suggested a doctor’s appointment to diagnose whatever it was that was causing the problem. It took not one, but several doctor’s appointments before anyone was certain. “Attention Deficit Disorder,” they called it. “Asperger’s Syndrome.” “Anti-social Personality Disorder.” All of these terms became names for the boy, who knew there was nothing wrong with him.

“To treat the Attention Deficit Disorder, they told the boy to take one medication. To treat his other disorders, they gave him therapies and more medication. The boy did as the doctors ordered, but he did not stop writing. His dragons grew fiercer; his stories grew longer, more careful, and more sophisticated. Everyone else told him to stop writing stories so he would not fail school. They told him that normal boys did not write stories while they were in school. The told him that normal boys were good at math and science and did not fail school. Normal boys grew up to be doctors and lawyers and to have good, practical careers.

“The boy was broken but not crushed by this pressure. His friends continued to remain with him when no one else did and they became ferocious. His stories grew even more and they grew better because of the pressure. The boy managed to keep writing, but he kept it to himself because the world was not ready for it yet.

“And then suddenly and mysteriously the boy grew up. He went to college and earned an English degree, graduating summa cum laude even though everyone thought he was making a mistake in pursuing something so impractical. And then he began to write stories for a living; he did not make a lot of money at first. In fact, he barely survived. But he continued on; he fought as he had been fighting from the third grade onward.

“That boy stands before you today as a simple storyteller who strove bitterly to be here at all. I stand before you now because I believe in the magic of storytelling, and also the importance of it. It was the spark in me that would not die, even though others tried to douse it in various ways.

“I stand before you here because I believe that stories are conduits for ideas. I believe that stories are how we can change our world for the better, because stories speak to our very souls and change our hearts. Through my stories, I speak for the forlorn, the pressured, and the broken souls in this world. That is my driving purpose, and the reason I stand before you today. And it is all because a little boy saw dragons in the schoolyard. Thank you.”

Peter Larkin descended the stage to thunderous, but more thoughtful applause. The true story he told that evening had the power to change minds, to strengthen old resolves, to form new ones, and to offer hope. Such is the power of a story well-told.