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.


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