I VISITED Naples on the 8th of December, 1818. My companion and I crossed the Bay, to visit the relics scattered on the shores of Baiae. The transparent, shining waters of the calm sea washed over seaweed covered fragments of old Roman villas, receiving chequered diamond tints from the sun-beams. Imagine water so clear, so blue, that Galatea herself might have skimmed over them, or better yet, Cleopatra might have chosen this path for her magic ship, deeming it more fitting than the Nile.
Although it was winter, the weather seemed more like early spring. Its friendly warmth inspired sensations of tranquility, causing travellers to linger, rather than leave the peaceful bays and radiant peninsulas of Baiae.
We visited the so called Elysian Fields and Avernus, and wandered through various ruined temples, baths, and ancient spots, until finally we entered gloomy caverns in our search for the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl. Our guides carried flaring red torches; the murky subterranean passages seemed eager to drink more and more light.
We passed a natural archway, leading to a second passageway, and asked if we could enter. Our guides answered by simply pointing to the reflection of their torches on the water that paved it, leaving us to form our own conclusion. They did add that it was a pity, for it led to the Sibyl’s Cave. Our curiosity led us to insist entering the passage. Surprisingly, it was not as difficult as we originally expected. We found a dry pathway and arrived at a large, dark cavern, which our guides assured us was the Sibyl’s Cave.
The cave itself was disappointing, but nonetheless we examined it, searching the blank, rocky walls for a trace of a celestial visitant. Clearly this was just another cavern, and not the home of an oracle. To one side there was a small opening. We asked our guide where it led.
“You can travel a short distance further, but few ever try.” replied our lead guide.
“I have to try,” said my companion turning to face me; “it could lead to the real cavern. What do you say?”
I agreed, but our guides protested. Rambling in their native Neapolitan dialect, (with which we were not very familiar), they told us that there were spectres, that the roof would fall in, that it was too narrow, and all that we would find would be a deep pit filled with water where we would surely drown. My friend ended the argument by taking the guide’s torch from him; we proceeded alone.
The passage, which was barely large enough for us quickly grew narrower and lower; we were almost bent over, yet still we continued on. After awhile we entered a wider space, and the low roof heightened; but, as we congratulated ourselves for pressing on, our torch was extinguished by a current of air, and we were left in utter darkness. We did not bring anything to relight the torch – our only choice was to turn back. We groped around the widened space to find the entrance, and after some time thought we had succeeded. This led to another passage which ascended. A dim ray shed a very doubtful twilight in the space. Our eyes grew accustomed to this dimness, and we saw that there was no direct path to lead us further, but that it was possible to climb one side of the cavern to a low arch at the top. With considerable difficulty we scrambled up, and came to another passage with still more illumination, leading to another climb.
After a series of these, we arrived at a wide cavern with an arched dome-like roof. An opening in the midst let in the light from the world above, but it was overgrown with branches and shrubs, which acted as a veil, giving a solemn religious hue to the cavern. It was spacious, and almost circular, with a raised seat of stone at one end. The only sign of life was the perfect snow-white skeleton of a goat, which had likely fallen headfirst while grazing above.
The rest of the cavern consisted of piles of leaves, fragments of bark, and a white filmy substance, resembling the inner part of unripe corn. Fatigued by our struggles we sat on the large rock, while the sounds of tinkling sheep-bells, and shouts of a far off shepherd-boy reached us from above.
“This is the Sibyl’s cave; these are oracle leaves.” my friend exclaimed. On further examination, we found that all the leaves, bark, and other substances contained writing. In itself this may not mean much, but what was peculiar was that these writings were in various languages: Egyptian hieroglyphics as old as the Pyramids, Aramaic, and others unknown to us. Stranger still, many were in modern languages such as English and Italian. It was hard to read in the dim light, but they seemed to contain detailed accounts of recent events. Modern names, dates, tales of happiness, woe, victory and defeat were all here in these thin, scant pages. This was certainly the Sibyl’s Cave, although not exactly as Virgil described it. This whole land had been ravaged by earthquakes and volcanoes; time had not been kind to this once proud land. The only reason these leaves were likely so well preserved was the accident which had closed the mouth of the cavern, and the swift-growing vegetation which had protected its sole opening from storms. We quickly chose a selection of leaves whose writing we could understand and then, content with our treasure, we began the difficult journey to rejoin our guides.
During our stay in Naples, we often returned to this cave, sometimes alone, each time adding to our collection. Since then, when I am not distracted by work or study, I have worked to decipher these sacred remains. Their meaning, wondrous and eloquent, has often repaid my toil, soothing me in sorrow, and excited my imagination. My companion is now gone, and with him, some of the secrets of these leaves may also be lost to me–
Di mie tenere frondi altro lavoro
Credea mostrarte; e qual fero pianeta
Ne’ nvidio insieme, o mio nobil tesoro?
At first the labours of the oracle seemed scattered and unconnected. I worked to add links, and give these writings a consistent form, but I believe that I have found the truth with the divine intuition of the Cumaean Sibyl.
Perhaps another scholar would have given this story another form. The leaves of the Sibyl have likely suffered distortion in my hands, but the only way to make them intelligible was through my interpretation.
My labours have filled long hours of solitude, and taken me out of a miserable world, to one glowing with imagination and power. Readers will surely ask how I could find solace from a narration of misery and desolation. I confess, that at times I have agonized, but still faithfully transcribed this tale from the leaves. Yet such is a mystery of human nature, that a story of excitement and imagination, disaster, and the ruinous passions of man, softened my real world sorrows and endless regrets.
An apology may be necessary. After all, only time will tell how accurately my imperfect work gave form and substance to the frail and attenuated Leaves of the Sibyl. It is still too early to know if this is indeed the story of the last man.