THE CUMÆAN SIBYL

Of all the sibyls, the one we hear most about is the Cumæan. The legend runs that, having asked a boon of Apollo, she gathered a handful of sand and said, "Grant me to see as many birthdays as there are sand grains in my hand." The wish was gratified, but unluckily she forgot to ask for enduring youth, so she was doomed to live a thousand years in a withered old age. Thus we always think of her as an old woman, as Michelangelo has represented her.

She is called the Cumæan sibyl because she is supposed to have lived in Cumæ, which was the oldest and one of the most important of the Greek colonies in Italy. Her real name, we are told, was Demos. She lived in a great cavern, where the people came to consult her, and her answers to their questions were regarded as oracles, or answers from the deities. She used to write on the leaves of trees the names and fates of different persons, arranging them in her cave to be read by her votaries. Sometimes the wind sweeping through the cavern scattered the leaves broadcast through the world.

The manner of consulting her is fully described by the Latin poet Virgil in the sixth book of the Æneid. He tells how Æneas, arriving with his fellow voyagers at the town of Cumæ, immediately goes to the temple of Apollo,

"And seeks the cave of wondrous size,
The sibyl's dread retreat,
The sibyl, whom the Delian seer
Inspires to see the future clear,
And fills with frenzy's heat;
The grove they enter, and behold
Above their heads the roof of gold.
"Within the mountain's hollow side,
A cavern stretches high and wide;
A hundred entries thither lead;
A hundred voices thence proceed,
Each uttering forth the sibyl's rede.
The sacred threshold now they trod:
'Pray for an answer! pray! the god,'
She cries, 'the god is nigh!'
"And as before the door in view
She stands, her visage pales its hue,
Her locks dishevelled fly,
Her breath comes thick, her wild heart glows.
Dilating as the madness grows,
Her form looks larger to the eye;
Unearthly peals her deep-toned cry,
As, breathing nearer and more near,
The god comes rushing on his seer."

Æneas now begs a favor of the sibyl. He has heard that here the path leads downward to the dead, and he desires to go thither to visit his father, Anchises. There are certain conditions to fulfil before setting forth, but when these are done the sibyl guides him on his way, and the journey is safely made.

THE CUMAEAN SIBYL. Sistine Chapel, Rome.
THE CUMÆAN SIBYL. Sistine Chapel, Rome.

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Another legend of the Cumæan sibyl has to do with the Roman emperor Tarquin. The sibyl came to him one day with nine books of oracles, which she wished him to buy. The price was exorbitant, and the emperor refused her demand. She then went away, burned three of the books, and, returning with the remaining six, made the same demand. Again her offer was refused, and again she burned three books and returned, still requiring the original price for the three that were left. Tarquin now consulted the soothsayers, and, acting upon their advice, bought the books, which were found to contain directions concerning the religion and policy of Rome.

For many years they were held sacred, and were carefully preserved in the temple of Jupiter in the Capitol, under the care of official guardians. At length the temple was destroyed by fire, and the original sibylline books perished. In the following centuries they were replaced by scattered papers, collected from time to time in various parts of the empire, purporting to be the writings of the sibyl. These sibylline leaves, as they were called, contained passages supposed to be prophetic of the coming of Christ, and this is why the Cumæan sibyl is placed by Michelangelo among the prophets.

The sibyl is reading aloud from one of her books of oracles. The two little genii standing behind her shoulder, and listening with absorbed attention, hold another book, not yet unclasped, ready for her. She reads her prophecy with keen, searching eyes, and a manner that is almost stern. We can see in the large, strong features the determination of her character.

It is not a gentle face, and not pleasing, but it is full of meaning. We read there the record of the centuries which have passed over her head, bringing her the deep secrets of life. Yet the prophecies are still unfulfilled, and there is a look of unsatisfied longing in her wrinkled old face.

You will notice that the outlines of the Cumæan sibyl are drawn in an oval figure similar to that inclosing the Delphic sibyl. Here, however, the oval is of a more elongated form, and the left side is broken midway by the introduction of the book.