The word sibyl comes (via Latin) from the ancient Greek word sibylla, meaning prophetess. There were eventually many Sibyls in the ancient world, but because of the importance of the Cumaean Sibyl in the legends of early Rome codified in Virgil's Aeneid VI, she became the most famous among Romans, supplanting the Erythraean Sibyl famed among Greeks: in Latin she was often simply referred to as The Sibyl.
She is one of the four sibyls painted by Raphael at Santa Maria della Pace (see gallery below.) She was also painted by Andrea del Castagno (Uffizi Gallery, illustration right), and in the Sistine Ceiling of Michelangelo her powerful presence overshadows every other Sibyl, even her younger and more beautiful sisters, such as the Delphic Sibyl.
There are various names for the Cumaean Sibyl besides the "Herophile" of Pausanias and Lactantius or the Aeneid's "Deiphobe, daughter of Glaucus": "Amaltheia", "Demophile" or "Taraxandra" are all offered in various references.
The famous cave known as the “Antro della Sibilla” was discovered by Amedeo Maiuri in 1932, the identification of which he based on the description by Virgil in the 6th song of the Aeneid, and also from the description by an anonymous author known as pseudo-Justin.(Verg. Aen. 6. 45-99; Ps-Justin, 37). The cave is a trapezoidal passage over 131 m long, running parallel to the side of the hill and cut out of the volcanic tufa stone. An innermost chamber, where the Sibyl was thought to have prophesied has later been identified as an early Christian burial chamber from the 4th or 5th century AD (M. Napoli 1965, 105).
Centuries ago, concurrent with the 50th Olympiad and the Founding of the City of Rome, an old woman "who was not a native of the country" (Dionysius) arrived incognito in Rome. She offered nine books of prophecies to King Tarquin; and as the king declined to purchase them, owing to the exorbitant price she demanded, she burned three and offered the remaining six to Tarquin at the same stiff price, which he again refused, whereupon she burned three more and repeated her offer. Tarquin then relented and purchased the last three at the full original price, whereupon she "disappeared from among men" (Dionysius).
The books were thereafter kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, Rome, to be consulted only in emergencies. The temple burned down in the 80s BC, and the books with it, necessitating a re-collection of Sibylline prophecies from all parts of the empire (Tacitus 6.12). These were carefully sorted and those determined to be legitimate were saved in the rebuilt temple. The Emperor Augustus had them moved to the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, where they remained for most of the remaining Imperial Period.
The Books were burned in AD 405 by the General Flavius Stilicho, who was a Christian and regarded the books as Pagan and therefore "evil". At the time of the Visigothic invasion five years later in AD 410, certain Pagan apologists bemoaned the loss of the books, claiming that the invasion of the city was evidence of the wrath of the Pagan gods over the destruction of the books.
Virgil may have been influenced by Hebrew texts; according to, amongst others, Tacitus.
Constantine, the Christian emperor, in his first address to the assembly, interpreted the whole of The Eclogues as a reference to the coming of Christ and quoted a long passage of the Sybilline Book (Book 8) containing an acrostic in which the initials from a series of verses read: Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour Cross.
The Sibyl was a guide to the underworld (Hades), its entry being at the nearby crater of Avernus. Aeneas employed her services before his descent to the lower world to visit his dead father Anchises, but she warned him that it was no light undertaking:
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