By Ugo Rossi
Translated by Jack Davidson Walmsley
This Sunday my story is set in a city where history and myth have always gone hand in hand. I’m talking about Naples where, in the area to the north, known as “Campi Flegrei”, lies the Archaeological Park of Cuma. Inside is a real gem shrouded in legend: The Cavern of the Cumaean Sibyl, an artificial structure made of tufa stone dating back to the Greek-Roman period, between the 7th and 6th centuries BC, and can be reached by walking along 130 metres long, dark tunnel lit only by the presence of natural light, which penetrates through nine side openings positioned at regular intervals.
The Cumaean Sibyl has been in the limelight since ancient times thanks to Virgil’s stories in the Aeneid, and its history has remained intact to this day. There is an undeniable sense of a mysterious aura that can be felt when entering the gallery: those who have been lucky enough to visit this magical place have been struck by its beauty and the fascination of the history and myth that characterises the area.But who was this Cumaean Sibyl?
Apparently she was an expert priestess specialized in the oracular art, inspired by the Gods, transcribing her prophecies in hexameters (a typical Greek and Latin versification) on leaves, presumably palm leaves, which were then thrown and left to fly carried by the wind that penetrated through the slits in the gallery and, once collected, the verses had to be interpreted. The difficulty of putting these omens in order and making sense of them gave rise over time to the expression “sibylline”, which therefore refers to everything that is obscure and difficult to interpret.
After walking through the gallery, visitors came to the presence of the Cumaean Sibyl, who listened to their requests while seated on a throne. Before proceeding to question the oracle and obtaining her response, she would immerse herself in the waters of three pools, probably to purify herself, only once this rite had been performed, she would proceed to proclaim her judgement.But where does this myth originate? What makes the Sibyl such a divine and famous being? The legend tells of a young girl of Greek origin (Deiphobe of Galuco, according to Virgil) of such beauty that the god Apollo fell madly in love with her at first sight. In order to win her over, he offered to grant her every wish and she asked to become immortal. Love, as we know, often leads to unimaginable things, and so the young girl’s wish was granted and the priestess settled in Cuma, loved and adored by Apollo.The request, however, was not well expressed and did not include eternal youth. The body of the Cumaean Sibyl began to age and wither, until all that remained of her was her voice. Apollo at this point gave her a choice: if she became completely his, he would gift her youth back.However, in order not to renounce her chastity, she refused.
A modern interpretation debunks the myth and attributes the structure of the gallery, due to its trapezoidal shape and the presence of side openings, to a military use, protecting the city of Cumae and it’s port. The pools would have then been intended as water cisterns.It is probable that this version is the most correct, but we like to imagine the Sibyl intent on writing and the cavern echoing with her voice, wrapped in the respectful silence of visitors, arriving from all over, anxiously waiting to know their fate.
My thanks for this useful and important information go to my dearest friend Angelica Perrotta, Neapolitan by birth but Milanese at heart, who is always very precise and attentive to these kind of stories. She is also responsible for the beautiful photos accompanying this article.
See you next Sunday with another “journey” to discover the beauties of our beautiful peninsula.
Jack Walmsley, British blood but Italian in his heart. Passionate about Rugby, Food, Nature and Mixology (Gin in particular). Aspiring member of the Golden Keys currently in force at the Park Hyatt Milan as Night Goalkeeper, the undisputed reality of Milanese hospitality. The Lockdown was a hard blow for me, but I can't wait to get back in the game!
Jack Walmsley, sangue Britannico ma Italiano nel cuore. Appassionato di Rugby, Cibo, Natura e Mixology (Gin in particolare). Membro aspirante delle Chiavi d’oro attualmente in forza al Park Hyatt Milano come Portiere Notturno, realta’ indiscussa dell´ospitalita´ Milanese. Il Lockdown per me e´stato un duro colpo, ma non vedo l’ora di rimettermi in gioco! Traduco i testi in inglese per EnjoyItalyGo. Linkedin