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THE CUMAEAN SIBYL



The Cumaean Sibyl gains her power



Living persons who wish to go to the underworld need a golden bough obtained from the Cumaean Sibyl

Charon, in Greek mythology, is the ferryman of the dead. The souls of the deceased are brought to him by Hermes, and Charon ferries them across the river Acheron. He only accepts the dead which are buried or burned with the proper rites, and if they pay him an obolus (coin) for their passage.

Those who cannot afford the passage, or are NOT admitted by Charon, are doomed to wander on the banks of the Styx for hundreds of years.




"Charon was receiving passengers of all kinds into his boat. Magnanimous heroes, boys and unmarried girls, as numerous as the leaves that fall at autumn, or the flocks that fly southward at the approach of winter. They stood pressing for a passage and longing to touch the opposite shore. But the stern ferryman took in only such as he chose, driving the rest back. Aeneas, wondering at the sight, asked the Sibyl, 'Why this discrimination?' She answered, 'Those who are taken on board the bark are the souls of those who have received due burial rites; the host of others who have remained unburied are not permitted to pass the flood, but wander for hundreds of years, and flit to and fro about the shore, till at last they are taken over.' Aeneas, displaying the sacred golden bough given him by the Sibyl, persuades Charon to make an exception and allow him, one of the living, to cross into the realm of the dead in order to bury a fallen comrade and see his father." (from Dante's Inferno, 1300AD).



The Cumaean Sibyl wrote her prophecies on leaves, which she then placed at the mouth of her cave. If no one came to collect them, they were scattered by winds and never read. Written in complex, often enigmatic verses, these "Sibylline Leaves" were sometimes bound into books. It was said that the Sibyl herself brought nine volumes of these prophecies to Tarquin II of Rome, offering them to him at an outrageous price. He scoffed, and she immediately burned three volumes, offering the remaining six at the same high price. Again-rather less casually--he refused. Again she burned three volumes, again asking the original price. This time the king's curiosity was high, his resistance low, and he purchased the Sibylline prophecies.

The volumes were carefully kept in the Capitol and consulted only on momentous occasions by the Senate. Some were destroyed by fire in 83 B.C. while the rest survived until A.D. 405, when they perished in another fire. The people of Rome searched the world looking for prophecies to replace the Sibylline Leaves but were unable to find any. The Sibyl herself, it was discovered, had vanished. So the way was left clear for the production of pseudo-Sibylline prophecies, a profitable business until the end of the Roman Empire.

The Sibyl of Cumae gained her powers by attracting the attention of the sun god Apollo, depicted as doing so in the painting by Salvator Rosa (cir. 1650s) above. Apollo offered her anything if she would spend a single night with him. She asked for as many years of life as grains of sand she could squeeze into her hand. Granted, the sun god said; and Sibyl, glad to win her boon, refused his advances. Thereafter she was cursed with the furfillment of her wish--eternal life without eternal youth. She slowly shriveled into a frail undying body, so tiny that she fit into a jar. Her container was hung from a tree; Sibyl needed, of course, no food or drink, for she could neither starve nor die of thirst. And there she hung, croaking occasional oracles, while children would stand beneath her urn and tease, "Sibyl, Sibyl, what do you wish?" To which she would faintly reply, "I wish to die."


SEE:
DEATH HAD A FACE: The Specter of Death in Shamanism and Zen

PARABLE OF THE FERRYBOAT

OMENS




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Text from Patricia Monaghan's The New Book of Goddesses and Heroines
Published by Llewellyn, copyright 1997.