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The Ancient Sibyl at Cumae

Updated on April 26, 2012
The shrine of the Sybil at Cumae
The shrine of the Sybil at Cumae | Source
The Sybil at Cumae
The Sybil at Cumae | Source

There is an ancient Greek settlement in the northern part of Italy, near Naples, called Cumae. It is the original Greek settlement in the Italian peninsula; it is also the birthplace of our alphabet.

This mystic and holy place was first settled more than one thousand years before the birth of Christ. It was the home of the Cumaean Sibyl, who first prophesied the coming of Jesus.

People in ancient times believed in the prophesies of the Sibyls, who were not named personally but after the sites of their shrines. The Sibyls were oracles; they were viewed with much awe and respect, for they had their ears to the lips of the gods and goddesses. Kings, princes and warriors of great renown would visit the Sibyls, to find out the future.

People in those times lived a lot closer to the earth; they were attuned to the giant heartbeat of the earth; the change in its seasons; the changes in weather. People in those times were very much more exposed to the elements; they were also more in tune with the natural world around them. The elements and nature had the status of deities with the ancient peoples; there were gods and goddesses of sun and moon and water and wind, of harvest and fertility and rain; and those gods and goddesses must be acknowledged and appeased, to insure a prosperous harvest and protection from harm.

In those ancient days, people believed absolutely and naively what they believed; the gods and goddesses must be appeased, and there were those through whom the gods and godddesses spoke. The Sibyls were not only the prophets of the future; they were also the translators of the will of the gods, rendering it intelligible for human beings to comply with it.

The Grotto at Cumae
The Grotto at Cumae | Source
The Grotto at Cumae
The Grotto at Cumae | Source

Heraculitus, five centuries before the birth of Christ, had this to say of the Sibyl at Cumae:

"The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by the aid of the god."

It gives us an excellent picture of the ancient Sibyl, doesn't it?

The ancient Sibyls were respected. They were listened to by the most powerful people in the land. They devoted their lives to the gods, to listening to those still voices from within and without, that delivered warnings and exposed the will of the gods and goddesses. The Sibyls were not of this world, in many ways. They cared not for the ways of the world. They followed ancient customs and collected ancient knowledge; they had powers within their gifts that awed both the common populace and the kings and princes of the land.

The ancient Sibyls at Cumae used their powers benignly. They were helpful, in their way. They later took to wandering, abandoning their ancient shrine at Cumae as the Romans conquered Italy, displacing the Greeks and the Greek gods and oracles.

Much later on, these wandering Sibyls were demonized by the new Christian church; before that, they were demonized by the Jewish religion. They were called "witches", and were not suffered to live.

It seems that the monotheistic religions, both Jewish and Christian, not only demonized the Sibyls, calling them "witches" and killing them, but also would not accept female prophets. For Christians and Jews, the prophets in the Bible are male. In Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, where there was a pantheon of gods and goddesses, the prophets were predominantly female:

  • The Persian Sibyl, also called the Oracle of Apollo, was female. She prophesied the coming of Alexander the Great, and the defeat of Darius, king of Persia.
  • The Libyan Sibyl was the prophetic priestess who was the oracle of the ancient Zeus Amon, and much consulted by the pharoahs of Egypt.
  • The Sibyl at Delphi, also know as the Oracle at Delphi, was perhaps the most famous of the ancient Sibyls, and who was, according to legend, "born between man and goddess"; other legends have it that she was the daughter of Apollo.

It was a way of disempowering women in the male-dominated monotheistic societies that became prevalent. The gods and goddesses of equal power became a thing of the past; and all the priests or rabbis of the monotheistic orders of religion were men. The balance of power between men and women was lost.

Location of the ancient ruins of Cumae, in Italy, near Naples

A markerThe ancient ruins of Cumae, in Italy -
Cuma, 80078 Pozzuoli Naples, Italy
get directions

Michelangelo's Delphic Sybil at the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo's Delphic Sybil at the Sistine Chapel | Source

It is odd, this demonization of the Sibyls by the Christian Church. Very odd. Look above at the picture of one of the Sibyls which adorn the Sistine Chapel. She doesn't look wicked or harmful, does she?

We owe much to the ancient Sibyls at Cumae.

I mentioned before that Cumae is the birthplace of the alphabet as we know it, right? Well, I wouldn't be typing in this article were it not for the alphabet; you wouldn't be reading it, and there would be a lot less information shared.

Cumae is the seat of the ancient Cumaean Sibyl; it was the Cumaean alphabet first adopted by the Romans upon their conquest of Italy; thus becoming the Latin alphabet, the one we use and the most widely used phonic method of writing in the modern world, today.

This Cumaean alphabet was first used, in times so old they are lost in the mists of history, to record the original Sibylline books...the accumulation of knowledge and prophecies of 1000 years. And it is said that the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, bought those books of Sibylline prophecy from the last remaining Sibyl; who sold them as a way of preserving them. It was in those books, as mentioned by Virgil, the Roman poet, in his Fourth Ecologue, the coming of the savior, which Christians later interpreted to be Christ.

Did the Sibyls really have powers? You decide.

Did the ancient Sibyls really have powers beyond the ordinary, or is it all ancient superstition?

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    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks for the comment, Drbj and Robwrite. I'd love to visit this place. Who knows? Maybe I will.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Hi Paradise; Very interesting stuff. I didn't know any of this. I do know that it wasn't unusual for the Christian or Hebrew Churches to condemn other religions or practices as witchcraft or satanism, especially if they contained female dieties or priestess'.

      Thanks for teaching me something today,


    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      Fascinating and entertaining exposition, Paradise, about the Sibyls of ancient times. Seems that glass ceilings existed even then.

      Voted up for your painstaking research and writing skill.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 6 years ago from Upstate New York

      You're welcome, Kitty, and thank you for the comment. In ancient times, the power of women was the power of fertility, and women were also associated with nature, hence, "Mother Nature". The ancients had great respect for Mother Nature and her daughters. We are less close to Nature, now, and also in great danger of overpopulation, which could be some of the reasons for the change in philosophy regarding women, and the predominance of men in power.

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Nicole Canfield 6 years ago from the Ether

      Wonderful! I've never heard of this place or the sybil at cumae. Very interesting indeed. It is funny how women were treated with such different ways in those days, many of them being considered wise or even "prophets" as you've said here. Of course not every culture honored & respected women, but many more did then than they did in the more recent centuries past. Thanks for writing this. I really enjoyed learning.