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There are six entries related to Cuma and the Sybl. The first three appeared separately in the original version of the Around Naples Encyclopedia on the dates indicated.
entry July 2003, revised, photos added July 2014
Time has not been
kind to Cuma. In Rome, for example, it is no problem
at all to wander among Imperial relics and be awed by
antiquity. Indeed, even in Naples, itself, if you
criss-cross the historic center of town, you are still
very much in physical contact with downtown Neapolis
of 400 BC. Cuma, however, is
different. Today, it is an "archaeological park,"
where you get the impression that, well, here is where
the Greeks and Romans maybe built a temple or
something. There is little to remind the average
visitor that Cuma was one of the truly important Greek
city-states of the ancient world, just like its more
famous cousin, Athens.
(both photos, above, by
Cuma plays a large role
in many of the myths handed down to us as part of our
classical heritage: Ulysses and Aeneas both landed
here, the Cyclopes roamed here, and here was the
entrance to Hades through the Averno
swamp. Cuma, of course, is best known as the abode of
the sibyl, the priestess of Apollo, one of many in the
Greek world, and the most famous (see entry below this
one on this page). In the fifth century BC,
she is said to have offered to sell the Etruscan king
of Rome, Tarquin, nine books of prophecy. Twice, the
king refused. Each time the sibyl tossed three of the
books into a fire and doubled the price on those
remaining. Tarquin bought the last three books; they
contained instructions for gaining the favor of
foreign gods. Perhaps Tarquin sensed, rightly, that
his Etruscans were about to need all the help they
could get in the face of the impending revolt of their
Roman subjects. The Sibylline books were used to
invoke divine help in 431 during an epidemic, and thus
did the foreign god, Apollo, make his way into the
Roman pantheon, the first of many Greek deities to do
for the figure of the sibyl continued even into the
Renaissance, where she puts in an appearance in
Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel.
Cumans came from Eubea in Greece to settle on the
Italian mainland, although they apparently settled
first on Pithecua, the island of Ischia, before moving
across to the mainland to displace an Italic people
known as the Opici. This
happened sometime around 700 b.c., although there are
questions about the precise date. In any event, the
Cumans built themselves into a formidable power in
this part of the Mediterranean, contending over the
course of three centuries with other powers such as
the Etruscans from the
north and, later, with the Samnites
from the interior. [See Ancient
Ischia/Pithecusa] The city-state of Cuma was at
its height roughly between the years 700-500 BC,
ruling much of present-day Campania. The city, itself,
spread out well beyond the simple site of the
acropolis we see today into the surrounding area of
Miseno and Baia. In 680 the Cumans helped to found
modern Naples, in the sense that they moved in to
displace settlers from Rhodes, who were then forced to
desert their own original town of Parthenope and move inland to
set up a new city, a neapolis -- Naples. The
two populations eventually mixed, as did the old and new cities.
("Parthenopean" still remains a common synonym for
"Neapolitan" in local usage.) The Cumans also reached
out farther south to found Zancle, modern-day Messina.
At its height, Cuma was a
bulwark against Etruscan expansion from the north and
played a part in the defeat of the Etruscans in the
waters off of Cuma, hastening the demise of Etruria.
Then, in 420, the Cumans, themselves were annexed by
another great early Italic power, the Samnites, fierce warriors
from the rugged territory near Benevento, who later
battled the Romans for two centuries for hegemony in
southern Italy, a battle the Samnites ultimately lost.
The Roman road, the via Domiziana,
When the Romans annexed Cuma, it flourished once again, this time as a sort of an early version of the Riviera. Here is where the "beautiful people" of the Empire rubbed elbows. Cicero, Lucullus, Julius Caesar, and Pliny, among others, built villas and took the waters in the famous thermal baths of the Flegrean fields. Further growth took place when Caesar Augustus turned the entire area of Miseno into a mighty port for the Western imperial fleet.
After the fall of Rome,
Cuma was apparently used as a base by the invader
Goths. It then turned Greek again for a brief period
under the short-lived Byzantine reunification of
Italy, subsequently falling under the dominion of the
Duchy of Benevento. It was sacked a few times during
Saracen incursions and, finally, Cuma, this first
great city in Italy, was little more than a nest for
itinerant pirates when it was destroyed by Naples in
1207. Yet, fascination with Virgil's description held
sway over the centuries. In the Middle Ages they
searched for the Sibylline grotto and even thought
they had found it a few times. (Today there is still
another "grotto of the sibyl" at nearby Lake Averno.
It was long thought to be the mythological cave
but, apparently, is not. See "The Pseudo-Grotto...",
second item below this one on this page).
It wasn't until the middle of the 20th century that the real thing was brought to light, uncovered through the efforts of Neapolitan archaeologist, Amedeo Maiuri. The chamber in question is strangely trapezoidal; the oddly tapered walls are perhaps the influence of Etruscan architecture. It is the closest thing yet found to the chamber described by Virgil, but is it the real "real thing"? Probably, but only one person knows for sure, and she has been silent for many centuries.
(two photos left &
right, above, by Napoli Underground)
entry Sept. 20032.
in a cave the Sibyl makes abode;
book 6, 10-13,
cave of the sibyl of Cuma
There were many such sites in Greece and Magna Grecia. The most famous of these was certainly the site at Deplhi, on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, a site protected by Apollo, himself. The term "delphic" has, of course, come to mean, by extension, "obscure" or "cryptic". The temples were generally on some sacred site, a place thought to be specially endowed with qualities that would enhance the oracular abilities of the priestess, perhaps a spring, a cave, a mountain peak, or a place often struck by lightning. Strabo (A.D. 46-120) spoke of the pneuma, the gas or vapour that arose from a cleft in the earth. It was inhaled by the priestess, thus inducing the trance in which she could interpret the answers from the gods correctly.
In 1900, a scholar,
Adolpe Paul Oppé, wrote that no such chasm or cleft
existed at Delphi, and that, anyway, no gas could
imitate the symptoms of spiritual possession. Since
that time, modern science has sort of pooh-poohed the
idea of pneuma-induced trances at Delphi, and,
by extension, other such sites in the world of ancient
Greece. Now, lo and behold, according to the August
2003 issue of Scientific American, "two geologic
faults that intersect precisely under the site of the
oracle [have been found]..." and "...the
petrochemical-rich layers in the limestone formations
of the region most likely produced ethylene, a gas
that induces a trance-like state and that could have
risen through fissures created by the faults."
After inhaling a goodly quantity of ethylene, I am reminded of our local oracle, Cuma, the sibyl of which handed out prophecies just like her sisters in Greece. As far as I'm concerned, the sibyl of Cuma was even better; after all, her name has generalized to "sibylline," meaning "mysterious," obviously better than "delphic" -- "obscure". I would rather be sibylline than delphic, any day, and I'm sure I speak for most ethylene breathers.
Geologically, I wonder if investigators of Delphi might like to come and have a look at Cuma, on the edge of the infamous "Phlegrean Fields," one of the most geologically active zones in Europe. We have clefts and bubbling sulfur pits and caves with abundant pneuma. Of one such place, Mark Twain wrote:
Dangling a beautiful priestess over a pit of pneuma? Now, that's my idea of a good time. [See Lake Agnano & the Grotto of the Dog.]
entry Mar 2010
Pseudo-Sibyl still sells seashells...
(photo courtesy of NapoliUndergound)
Not really, but there is a kindly gentleman named Carlo who stills sells tourists a post-Grand Tour tour of the grotto at Lake Averno, once believed to be the abode of the famed Cumaen Sibyl. Carlo is the
...last survivor of the family that has been hauling people through Sybil's grotto at Averno since the 1800's, is about 80 and is like a character right of an Eduardo play. He takes a bus from Pozzouli to meet tourists who call ahead, then after his first step inside, supported by his walking cane, recites his spiel, as he has done since childhood...
We followed Carlo listening to his fascinating and fantastic accounts as we moved through the principal tunnels and galleries...we can still see ancient symbols etched on the walls (first a cross, and a palm and a bit further on a fish and more). About halfway into the exploration, on the right wall there is a small mysterious passageway that curves to the left continuing on with a long stairwell carved into the rock, ending in a flooded tunnel.
There was an ancient oracle connected to the cult of the dead and the gates of Averno, where a thermal water source led to the popular legend that here were the waters of the river Styx and the abode of the gods of the underworld. The belief was so persistent through the centuries that even Hannibal, when he lay waste the fields of Cuma and threatened Pozzuoli in 209 BC, felt compelled to perform ritual sacrifices to the powerful and mysterious gods in this place. Not even the grand transformations wrought by Agrippa and Augustus could eradicate the sense of religious terror inherent in the area. With the triumph of Christianity and the destruction of the vital force of empire, the Sibyllan cult at the acropolis of Cuma and the entire region with its connecting tunnels beneath the hills, fell into a state of total abandon, covered by earthslides and encroaching waters. Popular legend again turned Italic and placed the grotto of the Cumaean Sibyl on the slopes of Lake Averno...The main gallery is actually a path created for the purpose of joining Lake Averno to Lake Lucrino and was probably part of the same large body of construction undertaken by Agrippa in 37 BC. That is, besides the navigable channel from the inner lake to the sea, there was a need to provide a land passageway as well...[for various logistical needs].
The prevailing opinion among scholars is that this gallery was, in fact, part of the general layout of the Roman fleet facilities, all the work of Lucius Aucta Cocceius. The entrance is on the western slope of Lake Averno, still hidden in a stand of trees about 300 meters from the point where the access road in from the coast road meets the lake. You may not be getting the Sibyl of Cuma, herself, but you are getting some spectacular archaeology. I look forward to more news from our NapoliUnderground stalwarts, who, I hear, are breaking out the scuba gear (!) since much of the passageway is now submerged. (The last time I went anywhere with these people, I almost got myself killed. See Proud to be a Troglodyte.)
see how Mary Shelley worked the sibyl's
cave (albeit the wrong one!) into her tale
of The Last Man.]
added June 2015
Sibyl and the Red Island
footnote #2 to Selene Salvi's poem The Sibyl's
Time, which accompanies a marvellous painting
(also shown here, right, in smaller format) by Fulvio
De Marinis. (You should look at that
page before proceeding here.)
The line, “I left my red island forever”, fascinated me. My question to Selene, 'Why red?' elicited this reply:
me a while. I finally realized (!) the we were not
talking about Eritrea in Africa, but Eretria, a town
on the large Greek island of Euboea. There are
significant classical and pre-classical Greek
archaeological sites in and near the town (image,
below). It is ancient, indeed. Eretria was mentioned
by Homer (Iliad 2.537), who said it was one of
the Greek cities that sent ships to the Trojan War.
Also—the important part—Eretria was involved in the
expansion of Magna Grecia
and helped found the settlement on Pithecusa (alias Ischia!)
and the colony of Cuma. (More on Cuma and the Sibyl in
the three items above this one on this page.)
ancient theater of Eretria
to Maurus Servius Honoratus, a late 4th-century and
early 5th-century scholar. He was the author of a set
of commentaries on the works of Virgil. There are two
possibilities for the name Eretria: one, it is from,
as Selene says, Ερυθρό, (Erithroh,
accent last syllable), still one of the words for
'red' in Greek. So far... Euboea is an island, Eretria
was on that island (and still is), and red clay
abounds indeed! But the name might also come from έρέτης
(Erétēs, accent second syllable), which
means 'rower', and no doubt they were rowing all over
Greece in those days; they even rowed (and sailed) to
Italy. I like Servius' (and Selene's version); it has
a poetic ending, the seal with the red clay from home
that breaks the spell.
alternative version has the future sibyl of Cuma, one
of the great far-sighted seers in our mythology,
sitting in a boat as they shove off from the red
island. The crusty captain barks,
sweet-cakes, get your back into it! We ain't got all
year. My purpose holds to row beyond the sunset and
the baths of all the western stars!"
sibyl grunts and grumbles as she bends to the oar, "Hah!
Big man. Big captain...it's sail, not row...sail,
not row... you moron. You're misquoting Tennyson, who
won't be born for another 2500 years. That's how
Zeus-damned far-sighted I am! And I didn't see this
"Not so fast, my friend."
update June 2015: "One problem," says Selene. "I wrote Eritre, not Eretria...Eritre and Eretria are two different places: the former is in Asia Minor and the latter, as you wrote, is on the island of Euboea...I don't know why Servius says Eritre is an island...but this mix-up has got me thinking that you are not the only one to be confused. Maybe Servius and others made the same mistake..."
That makes me feel a bit better. I was so sure she had used a slight variation. It seemed so right. And there is vast scholarship about the Euboean influence on the colonization of this part of the Italian coast. There are clearly too many Sibyls and too many places with similar sounding names. So, are we looking for a sibling of sibyl and another place?
It looks that way. There is, indeed, another town with a similar name, called in Greek Erythrae or Erythrai (Greek: Ἐρυθραί). In ancient times (mid-7th century BC) it was one of the twelve Ionian cities of Asia Minor. It is on the western coast of modern Turkey, on a small peninsula stretching into the Bay of Erythrae. It was known for being the seat of the Erythraean Sibyl. Michelangelo's beautiful version (image, left) is in the Sistine Chapel. The ruins of the city are found north of the town of Ildırı in Izmir Province. By almost all ancient descriptions the town was never a separate island but somewhat inland on a peninsula. Only Servius seems to have called it an island. And even worse, according to Pausanias, Erythrae was founded by Cretan settlers under the leadership of Erythrus the Red! That's right, Erythrus the Red. Who says that ancient Greek stuff isn't full of laughs?
Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 27 BC) was a Roman scholar and writer, and widely respected by such as Cicero, Pliny the Elder, and Virgil. Varro left us a sort of Top Ten list of the canonical Greek sibyls. The two that stand out for our purposes, however, are numbers seven and number five. Varro says that number seven was the sibyl of Cuma, called Amaltea. She took the nine books of prophecies to Tarquin the Elder, the legendary fifth Etruscan king of Rome (sixth century BC) in what is the most repeated story about her. Number five, however, was born in Eritre and prophesized to the Greeks as they were underway to the Trojan War, saying that Troy would fall and that Homer would write falsehoods. She is said to have been the oldest sibyl of all. The legends that Varro passed on say that the sibyl of Cuma was the focus of the story of the red clay seal and the clay was from Eritre. It seems to me that number 5 and number 7 are the same sibyl. I thought I was confused before.
There may be a solution. I am going to ask Selene to take another one of her famous trips into the mysterious mountains where the gods of olden Italy still murmur in the evening damps. You may know that there is a mountain group in central Italy called the Sibylline Mountains—high, majestic, beautiful and best of all known for ages as the home of the illustrious prophetess, the Apennine Sibyl! That's right, another one (although not one of the canonical ten). Her abode was (or still is) the Sibyl's grotto high atop Mt. Sibyl (where else?) at 2150 meters, of which Giulio Aristide Sartorio wrote:
There, above the savage Apennine yokes,
6. added March 2017
(Note from translator, Matthews: When Selene Salvi said she had an interesting item for me about Cuma, that was a bit of an understatement. She has two explanatory ed. notes in the text in square brackets [like this]. I have my own two translator's comments, also in square brackets.
Jewish Catacombs in the Roman Crypt at Cuma?
“No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.” (Genesis, 23:11)
Archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri's dream was to uncover the famous chamber of the Cumaean Sibyl, the dreadful chamber within which the prophetess made her divine pronouncements. It was Maiuri's dream but also his obsession; the chamber was a twisted labyrinth where one would inevitably go astray. It was sure to exist, however. That much was certain from all the references in ancient literature; yet in spite of all the indications, finding the exact spot was not easy. Where could it be? Maiuri had no doubts; the chamber had to open onto Monte di Cuma. He finally received from Fascist minister Pietro Fedele “the first substantial funding to start searching for the Grotto of the Cumaean Sibyl”1. The Mussolini government was well aware of the political importance of the discovery of a major symbol of Italic and Greek ancestral roots. The year was 1925. Further archaeological digs followed between 1926 and 1930. Maiuri did not find the famous grotto, but he did bring to light a gigantic Roman gallery, that ran east to west through the entire Cumaean hill (image, above). He did not give up, however, and in 1932 found near that gallery (which then came to be called the Roman Crypt, a large space, a trapezoid, which he held to be the abode of the Sibyl.
photos: amphora, G. De Rossi; other three, F. De Marinis.
1. A. Maiuri, “Cuma. Primi saggi di esplorazione nell'Antro della Sibilla a Cuma” (July-Dec. 1925), in Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità 1926, p. 85
[Also see the entry on The Lunar Calendars of Cuma, the Roman Crypt or tunnel, as well as a separate entry on Jewish catacombs in Naples.]
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