Cumaean Sibyl

Missing image
Michelangelo's rendering of the Cumaean Sibyl

The Cumaean Sibyl was the priestess presiding over the Apollonian oracle at Cumae, a Greek colony located near Naples,Italy.

The word Sibyl comes (via Latin) from the ancient Greek word sibylla, meaning prophetess. There were many Sibyls in the ancient world, but because of the importance of the Cumaean Sibyl in the legends of early Rome, she became one of the most noted and famous, and was often simply referred to as The Sibyl.

In the art of Michelangelo shown to the right, and other painters her powerful presence overshadows every other Sibyl, even her younger and more beautiful sisters, such as the Delphic Sibyl.

There are various names for the Cumaean Sibyl: Amaltheia, Demophile, Deiphobe, Herophile, Taraxandra (in Vergil's Aeneid she is called Deiphobe--daughter of Glacus.


The cave at Cumae

The Sibyl was said to inhabit a cave with one hundred mouths, each of which had a voice [1] ( accessible by a still existing dromos. The Cave is a trapezoidal dromos or passage over 131 meters long running parallel to the side of the hill and cut out of the volcanic stone. The Cave of the Sibyl was rediscovered in May 1932 by Amedeo Maiuri.

It was said in some of the ancient poems that the whispers of the Sibyl would be heard for a thousand years, and some have said that they will resound and echo for all eternity.

Ancient Roman prophecies

The story of the acquisition of the Sibylline Books by Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the semi-legendary last king of the Roman Kingdom, is one of the famous mythic elements of Roman history. 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. The Cumaean Sibyl offered nine books of prophecies to King Tarquin; and as the king declined to purchase them, owing to the exorbitant price she demanded, she burned three and offered the remaining six to Tarquin at the same stiff price, which he again refused, whereupon she burned three more and repeated her offer. Tarquin then relented and purchased the last three at the full original price (Dion. Halic. 4.62), (another version has the price doubling each time.) The books were thereafter kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, Rome, to be consulted only on emergencies. The Sibylline Books were finally completely destroyed in 83 CE when the temple of Jove Capitolinus burned.

Medieval Christianity

In the Middle Ages both the Cumaean Sibyl and Vergil were considered prophets of the birth of Christ because the fourth of Vergil's Eclogues appears to contain a Messianic prophecy by the Sibyl, and this was seized on by early Christians as such - one reason why Dante later chose Vergil as his guide through the underworld and Michelangelo chose to feature the Cumaean Sibyl in the Sistine Chapel as prominently as the Old Testament prophets.

Constantine, the Christian emperor, in his first address to the assembly of Saints, interpreted the whole of the eclogue as a reference to the coming of Christ and quoted a long passage of the Sybilline Book (Book 8) containing an acrostic in which the initials from a series of verses read: Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour Cross.


The Cumaean Sibyl is featured in the works of, among others, Vergil (The Eclogues, Æneid), Ovid (Metamorphoses) and Petronius (Satyricon). The epigraph to T.S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land" is a quote from the Satyricon where Trimalchio states that he saw the withered Sibyl in a hanging jar and that she wanted to die.

Stories recounted in Vergil's Æneid

The Cumaean Sibyl prophesized by “singing the fates” and writing on oak leaves. These would be arranged inside the entrance of her cave but, if the wind blew and scattered them, she would not help to reassemble the le aves to form the original prophesy again.

The Sibyl was a guide to the underworld (Hades,) the entry being at the nearby crater of Avernus. Aeneas employed her services before his descent to the lower world to visit his dead father Anchises, but she warned him the it was no light undertaking:

Trojan, Anchises' son, the descent of Avernus is easy.
All night long, all day, the doors of Hades stand open.
But to retrace the path, to come up to the sweet air of heaven,
That is labor indeed. (Aeneid 6.10.)

Stories recounted in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Although she was a mortal, the Sibyl lived about a thousand years. This came about when Apollo granted her a wish; she took up a handful of sand and asked to live for as many years as the grains of sand she held. But she didn't ask for enduring youth and Apollo allowed her body to wither away because the Sibyl did not consent to have sex. Her body grew smaller with age and eventually was kept in a jar (ampulla). Eventually only her voice was left. (Metamorphoses 14)de:Sibylle von Cumae


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