There is an overgrown, everyday hill north of Naples known today as Cuma. It’s legendary in every sense.
We went in search of it on an early morning in late February my mind as empty as a brand new bucket.
I had no idea, as we pulled up beside a low building at a confusingly signposted intersection, that what we were looking for was the base from which the Greeks set off to found Naples and to colonise other parts.
I knew none of this.
All I had a vague idea about, as we navigated the bumpy road, surrounded now by fields and sudden strips of bamboo, was that the Sibyl and her cave were connected with Cuma, and that was what caught my imagination.
I, as perhaps many others and as intended by Ancient Rome, was confused as to whether the Sibyl was real or a story from the classics. I knew the poet Virgil was involved which suggested fiction, but if she had an actual cave …
It’s not easy to ask these questions when your classical foundations are just a wobbly blob of odysseys and emperors. But … was it true that she had sold three books of her wisdom for the price of nine to the last King of Rome? Did these books contain sage teachings that helped lay the foundations for the Republic of Rome? Were they carefully locked away by Tarquinius Superbus and then destroyed by fire? Did she live so long she shrank over centuries to nothing?
We did eventually find the parking place up a slight slope and under some trees. We knew it was right because of the old man in the shadows watching, and because of the small building with the regulation sign listing the forbidden.
From there it was a quiet stroll up a path towards ruins tucked in amongst the shadows and rocks. It was still, and damp with dew.
A large stained stone plaque with a Latin inscription led us left towards a dark lampshade of an opening with a deep tunnel beyond.
It was the entrance to the Sibyl’s cave.
We gathered and stared into the tunnel leading to the place of her prophecies and voices. Virgil’s Aeneas had followed her through the very gates of hell … yet we were stuck. We scowled at the small, flimsy gate across the entrance. The mouth behind wafted dark, green damp at us, daring us to step in.
We hesitated … clearly foreigners.
Suddenly a woman appeared.
“No, non è possible. Oggi no.”
Instantly we were determined. We had to get in. Our friends had come all the way from England. “Perché no?”
“Non è possible …”
We were about to have walk away from the home of the great prophetess. We would miss the faintest whispers of her legendary voices … life would roll on and we would never again …
We beseeched and insisted. We tried a small display of Anglo-Saxon foot-stamping.
The response? A shrug, as old as the rocks we stood on, and then a gesture that waved us on up the hill.
Up the mossy path we huffed and then … around a corner into brilliant sun. A warm stone terrace hung suspended in the blue sky with nothing but trees and the sea below.
Location, location, location – of course the Greeks had stopped here. Of course the Romans had wanted it too. Of course we would survive bypassing the Sibyl’s cave. While she had been stuck down in the damp the citizens above had been building temples to the gods in the sun.
We trailed up through the stones; over worn rutted rocks; around the patchwork footprint of old foundations; and we sat, here and there, just enjoying the peace and the trees, and looking across into the distance on every side.
Around us were ruins – once hustling places of life, of celebrating occasions, of worship. Now rubbed almost to nothing, at ease in the shadows and no longer insistent on their importance.
Occasionally, on the sea view side, there would be a brief flash on the shore line. We saw it first from the terrace, and then again from every level as we climbed up.
By the top of the acropolis the flashes were clearly visible – trotters in training for the Hippodrome in Naples. Trotters … a slim thread of life that pulled us down again.
Down from the top of the acropolis and its fragmented and redesignated temple of Jupiter; and on past the remains of the temple to Diana on the level below, thought to have been positioned to catch the full moon on the 13th of August 21BC.
Then through the warm terrace sun once more, and down again to exit beyond the cold, gloom of the tunnel leading to Sibyl’s Cave.
We gave the lady attendant a wave, a few coins to the quiet man on parking, then turned the car outwards under the crumbling Arco Felice, once grand entrance to Cuma, and now just able to hold its balance across the last traces of the Via Domitiana.
Life as we knew it felt very far away, but we were headed back and at least my bucket now held a very small collection of first hand samples.
The Sibyl, of course, is still shrouded in mystery.
For further information on Cuma try this link to Napoli Unplugged and The Romans on the Bay of Naples: An Archaeological Guide by Lawrence Keppie (published by The History Press)
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2016