The Sibyl of Cumae. 3730: Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1751-1829: Sibylle von Cumae, um 1805. Landesmuseum Oldenburg, Das Schloß.
"You shall have your wish,
and with my guidance you shall see the dwellings of
Elysium and the latest kingdom of the universe; and
you shall see your dear father's shade."
(The Sibyl to Aeneas. Ovid,
The Sibyl from Cumae was the guide of Aeneas when he descended
to the Underworld.
City of Cumae
When Aeneas departed
from Carthage, leaving in despair Queen Dido, with whom he had been
amorously involved, he returned to Drepanum in
Sicily, and thence he crossed to Italy,
disembarking at Cumae on the coast of Campania in
southern Italy, which was (or would become, as
History says) an Euboean colony.
The sanctuary of Apollo
Here could be seen, surrounded by a grove
dedicated to Artemis,
the shrine of Apollo, and
a deeply-recessed cave on the flank of a hill,
where the Sibyl, inspired by the god of prophecy,
heard the hundreds of voices that she turned into
oracular answers. This temple, says the poet
Publius Vergilius Maro, was built by the great
craftsman and architect Daedalus, when he came
to earth for the first time, having escaped from Minos 2 flying with the
wings that his genius had conceived. To this
temple, which Daedalus had adorned with sculptures and reliefs depicting
Cretan events, came Aeneas with some of his
friends, while the rest of his men organized the
The Sibyl names the price
The Sibyl, on receiving the visitors, wasted no
time, and told them right away what those in charge
of this kind of office usually say (though words
"Just now, you
would do best to sacrifice seven bullocks." (The Sibyl to Aeneas.
Virgil, Aeneid 6.38).
For they wish to make sure that all understand
from the beginning that there is no receiving
without giving, whether the matter is worldly or
Aeneas prays to the
When Aeneas had performed the rites, she guided them first into the temple and then to the threshold of the cave on the flank of the Cumaean hill. There the Sibyl was overwhelmed by ecstasy, and the god demanded, through her, vows and prayers. It is here that Aeneas solemnly addressed his wishes to Apollo, asking for the
kingdom that destiny had promised. And if
permission for him to settle in Latium were granted
by the god, he would build a magnificent temple of
marble to Apollo and to
his sweet sister, and would appoint festival days
in his honour, and would collect all oracles
uttered by the god, to be kept for all times to
The Sibyl's ecstasy
In the meantime, the Sibyl, with wild hair,
breast heaving, and foaming mouth, still attempted
to shake from her soul the god who rode her; but he
mastered her crazy heart, and when she had
submitted, all doors opened, and she delivered the
oracle, saying in her response that Aeneas and his Trojans
would conquer Lavinium, but that dreadful wars
would come upon them; that they should be resisted
by a man Turnus, whom she called a new Achilles, and that they
should never be rid of the wrath of Hera. Nevertheless, she
encouraged him to never give way, and face all
evils boldly and by whatever means that luck might
The performance of the possessed Sibyl was
impressive, but when her ecstasy had ebbed and she
became silent, she had to endure the complaints of
the consultant, who (and this too happens often)
now felt he had not received enough for his
sacrifices, gifts, and prayers:
is nothing new or unexpected to me in such trials
you prophesy. All of them I have forecast, worked
out in my mind already." (Aeneas to The Sibyl.
Virgil, Aeneid 6.97).
Aeneas could have said
the same thing in whatever instance; for learning
coming from without seems at times to have been
dwelling within from the beginning.
In any case, Aeneas,
being disappointed or feigning disappointment, now
presented a bolder request: to be guided down into
the Underworld, since
this very cave at Cumae was reputed to be one of
its gateways, and he wished much to go into his
father's presence, who had died at port Drepanum in
Sicily, where he was buried before Aeneas sailed to
In the name of his father
And to soften the Sibyl's heart so that she
would assent, Aeneas evoked his ever remembered gestures of piety and
courage, telling how he had saved his beloved
father through the flames of burning Troy, and how he had
rescued him bearing him away on his shoulders,
adding that Anchises 1 himself, while still in this world, had bidden him
several times to visit her and make this very
appeal. So he said with his hands upon the altar:
"I pray you,
kind one, take pity on father and son." (Aeneas to The Sibyl.
Virgil, Aeneid 6.116).
... while recalling all those who, like Orpheus, or like Theseus, or like Heracles 1, or like Polydeuceswho comes and goes sharing death and immortality with his brother Castor 1had descended before him.
The Sibyl accepts
The Sibyl answered this prayers thus:
"... the way
to Hades is easy; night and day lie open
the gates of death's dark kingdom: but to retrace
your steps, to find the way back to
daylightthat is the task ..." (The Sibyl to Aeneas. Virgil, Aeneid 6.125).
... but moved by Aeneas' words, she did
not refuse, and instead gave him instructions as to
what to do first: to give burial to one of his dead
comrades, and to get The Golden Bough, sacred to Persephone, the sweet
lady of the dead.
The Golden Bough
This bough, with leaves and stem of gold, was
hidden in the woods and shadowed by the walls of a
small dell. It had to be plucked from the tree (for
no one enters the Underworld without
it), and brought as a tribute to Persephone. And it is
said that when a bough is torn away, another grows
in its place, with the same leaves and stem of
gold. And he who finds it may pull it out easily,
if he is fated to descend; otherwise no sword nor
any amount of force can hew it away.
Who may descend to the Underworld
Now, it is said that those who descend to the Underworld and come
back to the light, can do so either on account of Zeus' love, or on account
of their own goodness, or because they are born
from gods. The last case could be that of Orpheus, who was the son
of a deity, as were Heracles 1 and Theseus, and also
Polydeuces, who comes and goes. But in the case of Odysseus, who was not
the son of a deity, and nevertheless descended to Hades and returned,
the love of Zeus might be
assumed, although his goodness is diversely judged
by different men. Nothing can be said, in this
context, of Pirithous,
who having conceived the extraordinary idea of
descended to the Underworld; for it is
not sure whether he ever returned.
His mother's birds
Now Aeneas was the son
of a delightful goddess, and she, being protective
of her child, sent her birdstwo dovesto
show him the way by settling on the tree where The
Golden Bough gleamed. And since Aeneas was fated to
descend, he, on seeing it, broke it off with one
single pull and brought it to the Sibyl.
Near the entrance of a deep cave, the priestess
made sacrifices and poured libations, as she called
upon Hecate, known to be
powerful both above and below, while Aeneas sacrificed to Nyx, Gaia, and Persephone, and set
up altars to Hades by
But it was not before dawn that the ground
rumbled, the ridges quaked, and the dogs howled as Hecate approached to open
the way. Then the Sibyl ordered the uninitiated to
leave and clear the whole grove, and asked Aeneas to draw his sword
and come forth. And before plunging into the opened
cave mouth, she said to Aeneas:
"Now you need
all your courage, now your stout heart." (The Sibyl to Aeneas. Virgil, Aeneid 6.261).
The Sibyl explains visions
This is how the Underworld opened for Aeneas and the Sibyl, who
walked past many strange and yet so well known
creatures; for such are Hypnos, or Thanatos, or Geras, whose acquaintance
all mortals make once in a while without going to Hades. And the same
could be said of Diseases, or Hunger, or Eris, or Grief. But when Aeneas saw the Hydra, the
Chimera, the GORGONS, and the HARPIES, he draw his
sword against them, and would have attacked them,
had not the Sibyl explained that these were
incorporeal existences, forms without substance,
02193: Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl. "He came upon ... the marshy shores of Cumae, and the grotto of the long-lived sibyl." (Ov. Met. 14.103). Guillaume T. de Villenave, Les Métamorphoses d'Ovide (Paris, Didot 1806–07). Engravings after originals by Jean-Jacques François Le Barbier (1739–1826), Nicolas André Monsiau (1754–1837), and Jean-Michel Moreau (1741–1814).
Following the road that leads to the river
Acheron, they saw the filthy ferryman Charon
embarking on the Stygian marsh some groups of
souls, but letting others stay on the shore. When Aeneas asked his guide
about the reason for such distinction, the Sibyl
replied that those who were left on the shore and
kept at a distance, were the helpless ones, the
unburied. For no one may be taken to the other bank
whose bones have not been laid to rest, unless one
hundred years have passed.
Among these unburied souls they found Palinurus, the son of Iasus 4 and Aeneas' steersman, who
having fallen asleep while watching the stars, was
hurled into the sea between Drepanum and Cumae. Now Aeneas learned what had happened to him; and when Palinurus asked for the peace-bringing burial, the Sibyl comforted him, saying that fate, which cannot be swerved by prayer, should bring about portents compelling neighboring peoples to give him burial.
The Golden Bough disclosed
Next the ferryman Charon, seeing a man carrying
a weapon, wished to stop them. But then the Sibyl
disclosed The Golden Bough, which she had hidden in
her robe, and Charon took them on board. On the
other bank, the Sibyl calmed the monstrous hound of Hades with a cake of honey
and wheat infused with sedative drugs.
Landscapes of Hades
Having thus neutralized Cerberus 1, they entered Hades, where
different souls receive their different dues in
appropriate landscapes. For those who died in
childhood are not in the same places as those who
were condemned to death on a false charge, and
every place is duly allotted as judgement is given.
And those who killed themselves are in one place;
and those who let themselves be tortured by love's
disease (as Dido, who was
in love with Aeneas to
the point of insanity) are in another. Now Dido also killed herself,
some may rightly argue; yet she loathed life
because of her love's disease, and not because of
life itself. And those who became famous in war
have their own place, where they, keeping the
wounds and mutilations that killed them, can still
feel fear and rancour, and pray for revenge. For
this is a joyless and sunless abode.
Seeing himself reflected in the fate of his
Trojan comrades, Aeneas wasted much of the allotted time, indulging in pity
and self-pity with his old friends, until the Sibyl
called him to his senses:
coming, Aeneas; yet we spend the hours in
weeping." (The Sibyl to Aeneas. Virgil, Aeneid 6.261).
... leading him away from Tartarus, where
criminals are punished, to Elysium.
The Sibyl describes Tartarus
No righteous soul, the Sibyl explained to Aeneas (for Hecate had instructed her), may tread the threshold of Tartarus where Rhadamanthys rules, chastising criminals and forcing confessions, with the help of Tisiphone 1's whip, from all those who hated their own brothers, or who struck their parents, or who entangled clients in fraud, or who joined their wealth to their solitude giving nothing to others (these are the majority, says the Sibyl), or who died adulterous, or who gave themselves to treason, or who yielded to a tyrant lord, or who let themselves be bribed corrupting the laws. These (and others) are punished by the heavy ways of heaven, including Theseus, who sits
eternally on a chair, or so the Sibyl said. And
having grown weary of her long list of evils she
"No, not if I
had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths, and voice
of iron, could I describe all the forms of crime,
or rehearse all the tale of torments." (The Sibyl to Aeneas. Virgil, Aeneid 6.625).
This she said while they approached the Palace
of Hades, in whose doorway Aeneas placed The Golden
Bough for Persephone.
And when this was done, they went on into Elysium,
the abode of the fortunate, a happy land for the
blessed with bright air, and a dazzling light
coming from a sun and stars of its own.
There the Sibyl asked for Anchises 1, whom they
soon found in a green valley, Aeneas tried several
times to put his arms round his father's neck; but
souls beneath the earth, whether they are in the
dark depths of Hades or in the midst of Elysium's light slip any embrace
and withdraw. Nevertheless, Aeneas learned many
things from his father's conversation about life
and death, and past and future, and the nature of
all things. And when the time came for the visitors
to return, Anchises 1 escorted them as far as the ivory gate (which is,
of the two gates of Sleep, the one through which
pass the false dreams that the shades of the Underworld impose
upon mortals), and sent them back through it.
And as they were walking along their road to the
light, said Aeneas to the
are a goddess in very truth, or a maid most
pleasing to the gods, to me you will always seem
divine, and I shall confess that I owe my life to
you, through whose will I have approached the world
of death, have seen and have escaped in safety from
that world. And for these services, when I have
returned to the upper regions, I will erect a
temple to you and there burn incense in your
honour." (Aeneas to the Sibyl. Ovid, Metamorphoses 14.123).
The Sibyl and Apollo
This Sibyl was not a goddess, although she was
seven hundred years old when Aeneas met her. But Apollo (she said) offered
her endless life if she consented to the god's
love. And she, as if accepting his gift, pointed to
a heap of sand, and prayed that she might have as
many years of life as there were sand-grains in the
pile. However, she forgot Youth, without which
immortality is worthless, so the god, hoping that
she would yield to his love, promised endless youth
as well; but she, having spurned the god's gift,
was fated to became the prey of a long Old Age. For the amount of sand-grains were one thousand.