Pauca Anecdota Neapolitana

© 1999, John Opsopaus

I. The Cumaean Sibyl

According to tradition, the Greeks were led by a dove sent by Apollo Archagetes (The Founder) to Cumae, where they established on the Tyrrhenian (Etruscan) Sea the first Greek colony in Italy (c.740 BCE). One of their first actions was to build a Temple of Apollo on the acropolis overlooking the bay; Virgil says it was built by Daedalus, who was fleeing Minos of Crete.

The Cumaean Sibyl established herself in a cave under this temple, for Apollo is the principal god of prophecy. Virgil calls her Deiphobe, daughter of Glaucus ("Blue Man"), and says she was a priestess of Hecate and Apollo, both guides through the infernal fires of the underworld (see below). She probably came from the Near East, also the origin of many of the prophetic and divinatory arts of Italy.

Indeed, the earliest Sibyl is supposed to have come from Erythrae (on the coast of Asia Minor) or from Trojan Mt. Ida, where her cave was discovered near a sanctuary of Apollo in 1891. Also, "alphabet oracles," in which each Greek letter is associated with a prediction, are known from Near Eastern temples of Apollo (see, for example, my translation of a Greek Alphabet Oracle from Limyra in Lycia); many of these temples had dice or knucklebones for consulting such oracles on a table inside the sanctuary. Since the Greeks who founded Cumae are said to have brought the alphabet to Italy with them, they may have brought alphabet oracles too. Furthermore, the well-known Etruscan practice of haruspicy (liver-reading) is known from the Old Babylonia, where instructional livers have been found that are essentially the same as those found in Etruria; such divinatory arts were gifts of Shamash, the Babylonian sun god (corresponding to Apollo); they both "bring the truth to light." Indeed, according to ancient tradition (e.g. Herodotus 1.94), the Etruscans (Tyrrhenoi) themselves came from the East, from Lydia.

The Cave of the Sibyl was rediscovered in May 1932 by Amedeo Maiuri. It is a trapezoidal dromos or passage over 131 meters long running parallel to the side of the hill and cut out of the volcanic stone. The 5 m. high tunnel is reminiscent of Mycenaean and Etruscan rock-cut tombs and appears to be of Greek workmanship. Along the passage are many small openings which look over the ocean and once had wooden shutters: the "hundred gateways and hundred wide mouths" (aditus centum, ostia centum) from which the Sibyl's words (voces) emerge (Aen. VI.43-44). Branching off the side of the main passage are three small bathing rooms for ritual purification. At the end of the passage is the Adytum, the Penetralia, the Oikos Endotatos, the Inner Sanctum, where dwelt the Sibyl; it is called the Thalamos Hypogeios, "subterranean chamber," but the term Thalamos also means a marriage chamber. There, seated on a throne, the prophetess pronounced her oracles.

Virgil (Aen. III.444ff) says that the Sibyl sings the fates and entrusts signs and symbols to leaves (foliisque notas et nomina); she arranges the inscribed leaves and keeps them in her cave, but when a wind blows through an opened shutter and scatters the leaves, she lets them go without reassembling the verses. Interestingly, the term (folia) used by Virgil (and Juvenal) for the "leaves" of the Sibyl can also refer to thin sheets of metal, especially gold-leaf. Whether metal or not, the use of these leaves hints at something like rune-casting; certainly metal leaves inscribed with the letters of the alphabet can be used to consult alphabet oracles such as those found in sanctuaries of Apollo.

According to the tale told by Ovid (Met. XIV) Apollo promised the Cumaean Sibyl any gift in exchange for her love, and she requested as many years of life as in a heap of sand. She forgot to ask for eternal youth as well, but would have been granted it had she not spurned Apollo in spite of his gift. As a result she was destined to wither away to a negligible weight, until only her voice (vox) would be left. It is tempting to see this as a metaphorical way of saying that all that would be left of her would be her words (voces), that is, the inscribed golden leaves preserved in her cave. (Pausanias mentions that a small stone pot containing her bones was kept in the sanctuary of Apollo at Cumae.)

II. The Crater

Nearby Cumae is Lake Avernus, a volcanic crater filled with dark, muddy water. Hellish vapors rise from its depths, which kill any birds that fly over the lake. Impenetrably deep, its roots are said to reach into Tartarus. Although archaeologists put the Sibyl's Cave at Cumae, popular tradition places it in the "Grotto of the Sibyl" on the shore of Lake Avernus. Indeed, according to Strabo there was an oracle of the dead at Lake Avernus before the arrival of the Greeks. This is not surprising, because volcanic craters are places of power and prophecy, for they are entrances to the Underworld. As the new oracle at Cumae was associated with Apollo and the Sun, so the old one at Avernus was associated with the Moon and Night.

In any case, by the shore of Lake Avernus are the "black jaws of Orcus," the "doors of gloomy Dis," which lead into the depths of Tartarus. Thus Odysseus came to Avernus to descend into the Underworld, and the Sibyl led Aeneas down by the same way, as described in Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid. To make the descent Aeneas had to find the ever-renewing "bough golden in leaves" (aureus foliis ramus) sacred to Persephone, whom Ovid (Met. XIV.114) called Avernal Juno (Iuno Avernae). By presenting this offering to the Queen of the Underworld he might hope to return to the living. Perhaps these golden leaves were the same ones inscribed by the Sibyl with the oracles she brought back from the Underworld.

Peter Kingsley has done much to illuminate the Mysteries of Persephone, which were celebrated around volcanic craters in Sicily and many other places. According to the Pythagorean and Orphic doctrines that grew out of these mysteries, there is a Central Fire within the Earth, a hidden Sun burning in the heart of darkness. This dark sun is the wellspring of life and source of all the light of the heavens and upper world; according to the alchemists it is the innate warmth of the Womb of Nature, which brings about alchemical transformation.

However, Tartaros, the deepest part of the Underworld, is also a paradoxical place where opposites merge, where fire and water unite to engender the quintessence. There are hints of this Conjunctio Oppositorum to be seen around volcanic craters, with their rivers of fire and boiling hot springs. These are common around the crater of Lake Avernus, and Kingsley shows the parallels between Avernus and descriptions of Underworld geography.

Indeed, as Kingsley explains, the ancient Greek word crater primarily refers to a mixing bowl, but also to the bowl-shaped volcanic crater. The crater had great symbolic significance for the Greeks, because they mixed in it the cool water and the fiery wine to achieve the balance necessary for cosmic order. It is hardly surprising that an important, but sadly lost, esoteric Orphic poem was called The Crater. Significantly, the Bay of Naples itself was known as the Crater.

The waters of Lake Avernus are described as kuanos (dark blue), a term especially associated with the Mysteries of Persephone. According to one myth, she was dragged into the Underworld through a spring named Kuane, and carried by Hades through the hollows and coils (koila, koilomata) under the Earth. These are the fiery coils of the serpent Typhon, stretching from Naples to Sicily, but also connecting other places where the Rites of Persephone were observed. (Koila and koilomata are the same terms used to describe the coils in the womb of Fire-bearing Hecate, who holds the keys to the Underworld.)

According to Strabo (v.4.5), when Odysseus needed to visit the Underworld, he journeyed to the land of the Cimmerians (Kimmerioi), who lived near Avernus, to make his descent. The Cimmerians were a mysterious people, said to have come from the furthest boundaries of the earth (historically, from southern Russia), who dwelt in gloomy caves on the coast around Cumae. "Cimmerian gloom" is proverbial, for their ancestral practice was to live in darkness, coming out of their caves only at night. They were smiths and miners, alchemists in fact, for Mircea Eliade (Forge & Crucible) has shown that the first alchemists were smiths, who combined magic, religion and metallurgy, skilled in fiery transmutations. Gnome-like midwives of the metals, they were the dwellers in the fiery coils of the womb of Mother Earth. (The Cimmerians can be compared with other dwarfish divine smiths, such as the Cabiri, Dactyls, etc.)

The subterranean dwellings of the Cimmerians were called argillai or orcullae. The obscure word orculla seems to mean a small orca, which is a narrow-necked earthen jar, but also suggests Orcus, a name of the Underworld; orcullae were also used like a dice-cup for throwing dice and knucklebones, perhaps for divination. The Latin word orca appears to derive from Greek urkhê, a jar especially used for storing pickles. (We are reminded of the story of how Glaucus restored to life the son of Minos, who had been pickled in a jar of honey.)

(See my "Ancient Greek Esoteric Doctrine of the Elements" for more on the Central Fire, Persephone, Hecate, etc.)

III. The Miraculous Birth of Virgil

We tend to think of Virgil as the most famous epic poet of the Roman empire, but we would hardly consider him supernatural. Therefore it is surprising to see him treated in ancient times as a semidivine hero, and to be viewed in the Middle Ages as a powerful magician and (pre-Christian) saint. Perhaps this is less surprising when we recall the semidivine Orpheus, an earlier poet who also charted the Underworld, performed miracles and founded the Orphic Mysteries.

Virgil's parents were of Celtic descent; Stimichon, his father, was a Magus (Magician) and Astrologus (Astrologer), who worked for a man named Magius or Magus. This suggests that he may have been Apprentice Mage to the latter. Stimichon fell in love with his master's daughter, who was called Magia (Magic) or Maia (She Who is Great). The latter name is suggestive, for Mercurius' (Hermes') parents were Maia and Jove, who is also called Maius (He Who is Great). Thus in some ways Virgil appears as a mortal double of Mercurius.

Indeed, according to a folktale recorded by Leland, Maia became pregnant when she drank flakes of gold-leaf (Jove in disguise), which had blown in her window and settled in her cup of wine. That is, she ingested the alchemical Aurum Potabile (Drinkable Gold). We can see Virgil's mortal parents working as an Alchemist and his Soror Mystica (Mystic Sister) to accomplish the Great Work of the Poet's incarnation.

Many miracles attended Virgil's birth, which Leland compares to stories of the Buddha's birth. For example, Maia had dreams and visions that she would give birth to a laurel twig, so they consulted her brother, the famous philosopher Lucretius. He informed them that the child had been blessed by Phoebus Apollo and should be named Virgilius after the laurel twig (virgula laurea). (Lucretius later committed suicide on the very day that Virgil put on the toga of manhood, 15 Oct. 55 BCE.)

It is said that Virgil was born while Maia leaned against a terebinth tree, and that flowers bloomed when he touched the ground. There were other signs of his supernatural gifts: he had a golden star on his forehead, walked immediately, had all his teeth and was very hairy. The Dryads attended his birth. All of this suggests that Virgil was not so much an ordinary poet as a traditional Divine Man (Divinus, Theios Anêr), an explorer of the unseen realms, like Orpheus, Empedocles, Pythagoras and even Heracles.

IV. The Legend of the Enchanted Egg

About 600 BCE the Cumaeans founded Neapolis (Naples) about 10 miles away from Cumae on the Bay of Naples ("The Crater"). Although the legend that Virgil founded Naples is chronologically impossible, it may refer to the story that he secured the city's boundaries magically, which may have been when it became "Neapolis" (New City), for its original name was "Parthenope."

Virgil ordered that a Griffin's Egg be constructed, one half shining yellow bronze, the other midnight blue (i.e. kuanos). He consecrated the egg, invoking a spirit into it, and carried it with a censer of burning sulphur around the borders of the city. This act of purification combined the male sulphur with the female egg in an alchemical union. The egg was placed in an ampule (ampulla) and sealed with Hermetic incantations, thus making it a Hermetic Flask (Vas Hermeticum). The ampule in turn was placed in an iron cage which was supported by silver ribbons from four columns on a pillar of carved bronze. The Castel dell'Ovo (Castle of the Egg) was built on a promontory in the Bay of Naples, and the egg and its ampule were installed in a secret room in its basement. (In ancient times similar eggs supported on columns were displayed in the Roman circus, and nowadays ostrich eggs are suspended in tombs, churches and mosques.)

Virgil said that so long as the ampule and egg were intact, the city walls could not be violated, and indeed it is said that the city trembled whenever the egg was disturbed. (Around 1285 Adenes li Rois claimed that Virgil had protected two cities in this way. When some skeptic tested Vigil's claim by dropping the other city's egg, that city sank into the sea; it was called Ys. The Castel dell'Ovo is still in the Bay of Naples, although it was reconstructed in the late fourteenth century by Joanna I; the earlier castle had crumbled when the ampule was damaged.)

It may be that the "Griffin's Egg" used by Virgil was an ostrich egg, for they are commonly used for protection. The medieval bestiaries tell us that the male ostrich broods by night and the female broods by day; by their twofold watchful gaze they bring to term the egg incubating in the hot sands. Therefore the ostrich egg is called Vigilia (Vigilance) and is used for protection. (Also, the Dogon people, who live in the caves of the Hombori Mountains, say that the ostrich combines the forces of fire and water.)

Virgil also caused all the snakes in Naples to be confined in the walls near the city gate. From Bochofen we can understand the reasons for this. First there is the tradition of the House Snake, which protects one's home; ancient Greeks considered it a manifestation of Zeus: Zeus Ktesios (Acquirer). Second, when occupying the walls the snake represents male potency, and has the same meaning as a protective phallus on a wall or a phallic herm in front of a house. (In other contexts the snake is female, a representative of Mother Earth, or even bisexual, as when it appears as the self-impregnating Ouroboros.) The egg is the primary source of life, but the serpent is the differentiating force, which allows the life to manifest in a definite form. Therefore the egg represents of life of the city while the serpent defines the boundaries and protects them. Thus in the Orphic mysteries the Serpent coils around the Cosmic Egg and cracks it open to reveal the Child God, the twofold Mercurial Spirit, the Divine Androgyne (see Jung's Spiritus Mercurii; recall also that Mercury is born of Maius and Maia.) The halves of the Orphic Egg become Heaven and Earth, and therefore they have opposing colors: bright gold and deep blue (the eternal cycle of day and night).

Virgil's Egg is reminiscent of the Egg of the Dioskouroi, which protected Sparta in ancient times. Leda had laid this egg after mating with Zeus disguised as a swan; from the egg were born Helen (of Troy) and the twin Dioskouroi ("Lads of Zeus"). The silver egg was suspended from ribbons in the Temple of the Dioskouroi in Sparta. The Dioskouroi are the Twins (Gemini) of Life and Death, of Day and Night. They wear the halves of the egg-shell as their helmets, which we find united in the two-colored cap of Mercury. The Dioskouroi as protectors of the walls were often associated with snakes, which were shown coiling around twin amphoras or around the beams of the dokona (their characteristic sign, representing a house frame and similar in shape to the astrological sign for Gemini).

Bachofen and Harrison do much to illuminate Virgil's use of the egg. Thus, the Orphics say that the Primordial Egg is the mother and nurse of the elements, the source of creation; therefore eggs are offered to Dionysos in the Bacchanalia. The egg as mother unites with the father: with sulphur for purification, with the serpent for protection. Also, an alchemical manuscript, the Turba Philosophorum (Gathering of Philosophers), which has preserved much ancient lore, demonstrates that the egg is an image of the esoteric Earth and of the alchemical vessel. The yolk corresponds to the Central Fire, and the embryo to the Point of the Sun (Punctus Solis) at its very center.

V. The Legend of Virgil's Bones

When Virgil died at Brundisi in 19 BCE, he asked that his ashes be taken back to his villa just outside of Naples. There a shrine was created for him, and sacred rites were held every year on his birthday. In other words, he was given the rites of a Hero, at whose tomb the devout may find protection and counsel (as from Orpheus' oracular head). Virgil's tomb became a place of pilgrimage for many centuries, and even Petrarch and Boccaccio found their way to the shrine.

Eventually the tomb fell into ruin and its exact location was forgotten. It is said that a certain English scholar Ludowicus, acting secretly for the Norman king Roger II (c.1136 CE), who was trying to conquer Naples, came looking for Virgil's bones and book of magic. Through his secret arts he found them, but the people of Naples prevented him from taking the bones, which protected the city, although he was allowed to take the book, the Ars Notaria. (John of Naples showed parts of this book to Gervase of Tilbury around 1200.) The bones were placed in an ampule (ampulla) in the Castel dell'Ovo, where they guarded the city. (Many cities were similarly protected by Heroes; for example Aristotle's bones guarded Palermo, and other cities were protected by Orpheus, Hesiod, Alcmene, Plato and others.) Other sources say that it was Robert of Anjou who placed Virgil's bones there.

Virgil's Bones protected Naples for many years, and attackers usually suffered from plagues of flies. (It is interesting that one of the legends of Virgil has him constructing a Magic Fly to control the Neapolitan flies. Like the hero Heracles, he appealed to Zeus Muiagros, or Fly Catcher. Gervase of Tilbury knew of two churches that used Virgil's spell to control flies.) Eventually, in 1194 Henry VI of Germany, who was well-schooled in classical lore, was able to conquer Naples, for it had been discovered that there was a minute crack in the ampule. Thus the Hermetic seal was broken, and Naples fell by force of arms for the first time in a thousand years.


See "Anecdota de Vergilio: The Secret History of Virgil" for the legends of the Birth of Virgil, the Enchanted Egg and Virgil's Bones.
  1. Bochofen, J. J. Myth, Religion, and Mother Right, Bollingen Series 84, Princeton Univ. Press, 1967, pp. 25-58. (eggs and snakes)
  2. Comparetti, Domenico. Vergil in the Middle Ages (transl. E. F. M. Benecke), New York: G. E. Stechert & Co., 1929.
  3. Harrison, Jane Ellen. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Princeton Univ. Press, 1991 (1922), pp. 627-9. (eggs)
  4. Kingsley, Peter. Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition, Oxford University Press, 1995. (the central fire, the crater, mysteries of Persephone)
  5. Leland, Charles Godfrey. The Unpublished Legends of Virgil, London: Elliot Stock, 1899.
  6. Lempriere's Classical Dictionary. (Sibyls, Cimmerians, Avernus)
  7. Liddell, Scott & Jones Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford Univ. Press.
  8. Maiuri, Amedeo. The Phlegraean Fields: From Virgil's Tomb to the Grotto of the Cumaean Sibyl (tr. V. Priestly), Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato. (the cave of the Sibyl, Avernus)
  9. Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Folk Religion, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1940. (Zeus Ktesios and the Dioskouroi)
  10. Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford Univ. Press. (Neapolis, Cimmerians)
  11. Oxford Latin Dictionary, Oxford Univ. Press.
  12. Paget, R. F. In the Footsteps of Orpheus, Roy Publishers, 1967. (Cimmerians)
  13. Pausanias. Guide to Greece, Vol. I: Central Greece, Peter Levi, transl. See pp. 435-8 with notes (Book X). Penguin, 1979. (Sibyls)
  14. Spargo, John Webster. Virgil the Necromancer: Studies in Virgilian Legends, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934.
  15. Swan, Charles, & Hooper, Wynnand (ed. & transl.). Gesta Romanorum, or Entertaining Moral Stories, Dover, 1959; reprint of Bohn Library, 1876. (Virgil the magician)
  16. Tunison, J. S. Master Virgil: The Author of the Aeneid as he Seemed in the Middle Ages, Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1888.
  17. Various "Lives" of Virgil, including Focas' Vita Virgilii, the Vergilii Vita Donatiana, Vita Gudianae, Vita Monacansis, Vita Noricensis and Philargyrius' Virgilii Vita.

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