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The Cumaean Sibyl 6

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, Metamorphoses 14.110).

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 camp.

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 vary):

"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 divine.

Aeneas prays to the god

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 come.

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 allow.

Disappointed consultant

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:

"Maiden, there 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.

The Sibyl

Aeneas' wish

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 Carthage.

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 Polydeuces—who comes and goes sharing death and immortality with his brother Castor 1—had 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 daylight—that 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 seducing Persephone, 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 birds—two doves—to 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 night.

Hecate opens

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, empty shades.

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.

Wasting time

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:

"Night is 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 abbreviated:

"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.

Aeneas' gratitude

And as they were walking along their road to the light, said Aeneas to the Sibyl:

"Whether you 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.

Additional notes 


Cumae has been regarded as the oldest of Italian cities, and as they say, was founded by colonists from Cyme and Chalcis in Euboea (the island off the eastern coast of Boeotia and Locris). The Phlegraean plain close to Cumae, was as prosperous as the city itself, and some have said that it is here that the Gigantomachy took place. Near Cumae is Cape Misenum, named either after Misenus 1, the man whom Aeneas must bury before descending to Hades, or after Misenus 2, a companion of Odysseus. Some have believed, in the course of time, that it was here that Odysseus descended to Hades, or that he at least visited the oracle of the dead that was in Cumae. Birds flying the adjacent Gulf Avernus, were believed to fall down killed by the poisonous vapours of the earth; so also Virgil:

"Above it no winged creatures could ever wing their way with impunity, so lethal was the miasma which went fuming up from its black throat to the vault of heaven: wherefore the Greeks called it Avernus, the Birdless Place." (Virgil, Aeneid 6.239).

Places with this kind of mephitic emanations are called Plutonia; and a Plutonium is regarded as an entrance to the Underworld (for a description of the hot springs and Plutonium of Hierapolis see Strabo, 13.4.14). The whole region about Baiae and Cumae had

"... a foul smell, because it is full of sulphur and fire and hot waters." (Strabo, Geography 5.4.6).

The people of Cumae were called Opici, and they affirmed that the boar's tusks dedicated in their sanctuary of Apollo had belonged to the Erymanthian boar, which Heracles 1 trapped and brought to Mycenae when performing one of his LABOURS (Pau.8.24.5).

Sibyls in mythical times

The Erythraean Sibyl. 4535: Anonyme XVIIe siècle: La Sibylle d'Erythrée. Musée des beaux arts, Caen.

Sibyl 1.
Sibyl is a surname. The first woman to chant oracles at Delphi was a daughter of Zeus and Lamia 1, daughter of Poseidon (Pau.10.12.1).

Sibyl 2.
After her came Herophile, known for having said that Helen would be the ruin of both Asia and Europe. She was daughter of Theodorus, a shepherd from Cilicia (Asia Minor) and a nymph (Nymph 11). That is why she chanted:

"I am by birth half mortal, half divine;
An immortal nymph was my mother, my father an eater of corn;
On my mother's side of Idaean birth, but my fatherland was red
Marpessus, sacred to the Mother, and the river Aidoneus."

She was at first attendant of the temple of Apollo Smintheus ('Mouse-god'); there were two temples on Apollo Sminthian: one in Tenedos—the island off the coast of the Troad—and one in Chrysa, near Mount Ida in the plain of Thebe), and although she lived most of his life in Samos (the Aegean island off the western coast of Asia Minor), she is known to have visited Colophon, Delos, and Delphi, where she sang her chants standing on a rock. She died in the Troad, and upon her tomb-stone in the grove of the Sminthian it was written:

"Here I am, the plain-speaking Sibyl of Phoebus,
Hidden beneath this stone tomb.
A maiden once gifted with voice, but now for ever voiceless,
By hard fate doomed to this fetter.
But I am buried near the nymphs and this Hermes,
Enjoying in the world below a part of the kingdom I had then."

This is the Sibyl that was also called Erythraean.

(Pau.10.12.1-2, 10.12.6-7).

Sibyl 3.
Pausanias says, following the account of the historian Hyperochus of Cumae, that the next woman to give oracles, was Demo 1 from Cumae, although no oracle given by her was preserved. A stone urn in the sanctuary of Apollo kept her bones. She could have been the Sibyl that led Aeneas (Pau.10.12.8).

Sibyl 4.
Then Pausanias mentions Sabbe, a seeress who grew up among the Hebrews in Palestine, though some call her Babylonian and others Egyptian. She was daughter of Berosus and Erymanthe (Pau.10.12.9).

Sibyl 5.
Another Sibyl, called Samian or Cymaean, has been mentioned (Hyg.Fab.128).

Erythrae in Ionia is a city opposite the island of Chios. According to Strabo 9.2.12 it was a colony of Boeotian Erythrae. Strabo says that the Ionian Erythrae was the native city of Sibylla and later of Athenais, two women who had the gift of prophecy (14.1.34).
Isidore de Seville describes ten Sibyls in his Etymologies.

Related sections

Ov.Met.14.105ff.; Strab.5.4.4; Vir.Aen. 6 and passim.