The grotto of the Cumaean sybil

I’ve been reading a guide-book to Naples and the Amalfi coast today, and I was struck by a photograph of the grotto of the Cumaean sybil, probably the most famous pagan prophetess of Roman Italy.  This, it seems, was only discovered in the 1920’s. 

I can’t find anything as evocative of Captain Kirk as the image in the book, but did find this one online:


I’ve never really paid attention to the Sybilline literature, which includes some prophecies of Christ.  I understand that it has probably been tampered with both by Jewish and Christian interpolators.  It would be interesting to see the manuscript tradition of the text, and what copies it exists in.

But… ancient magical stuff is always faintly disgusting, isn’t it?  I recall getting a translation of the Hermetic corpus — the books supposedly by Hermes Trismegistus — while I was on holiday in Egypt, in Aboudi’s bookshop in Luxor, and feeling that it was rather creepy stuff.  It’s a real element in the ancient world; but not necessarily one that deserved to live, while so much perished.


2 thoughts on “The grotto of the Cumaean sybil

  1. I have an open mind towards the Hermetic literature. Potentially it represents (along with other influences) a late-antiquity extension of religious ideas generally traceable to ancient Egypt. (Who really knows? But it’s a possibility).

    If we accept that ancient pagan religion was a “preparation for the Gospel”, then it must include some elements of truth. It seems to me that there is nothing in this principle that causes it to stop once Christianity began. Note that Christianity continued to borrow or adapt developments in Neoplatonism for several centuries, Pseudo-Dionysius perhaps being a good example.

    It’s probably worth noting that, for a while, Hermeticism received a fair amount of attention among “orthodox” Christians in the Renaissance. This led, admittedly, to certain excesses in some cases, but early on, people like Marsilio Ficino seemed able to integrate Hermetic literature (which Ficino translated) within a more or less orthodox Christian framework.

  2. All these are good points, and quite right. Maybe it doesn’t make your flesh creep as it does mine! But yes, it is most certainly a genuine element in paganism. Probably there is some loose connection to ancient Egyptian religion, although I doubt we could show it now.

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