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Bloggers of Cumae Debate Immortality

Mark Sarvas blogs about Book Expo and the usual suspects. Nice summary.

While making a literary allusion on a blog comment, I discovered to my delight that I truly didn’t appreciate the full background of the legendary Sybil of Cumae. Here’s a great summary : Some facts I did not know:

  1. St. Augustine and some early Christians actually believed that the sybil’s prophecies were geniune and divinely inspired.
  2. Archeological evidence in Naples has uncovered the caves where the Sybil of Cumae reportedly lived.
  3. While the Cumaen Sybil’s body had disintegrated to the point where she lived in a jar, she still managed to show Aeneus a pretty good time in the underworld. (see this literary essay by Kimberly Tsau analyzing T.S. Eliot’s use of this image from Virgil) .
  4. After the Sybil sold Tarquinius Superbus these prophecies in the 6th century BCE, emporers and the Roman Senate hid these books in vaults underneath the Capitoline temple of Jupiter, consulting them only during times of great crises. Julius Caesar permitted only his high priests to examine the texts. (The webpage cites the book, Apocryphal Literature edited by Charles Cutler Torrey and Priestesses by Norma Goodrich Lorre as its source).
  5. These books were finally destroyed in the 1st century BCE. Later, Caesar Augustus was reported to have solicited writers to gather, edit and rewrite the sybiline books. (Here’s a passable translation of the pseudo-sybilline texts).

Two points about the idea of “hiding knowledge (and especially knowledge of the future) from the public. First, this plot element appears in numerous time travel books, including the Star Trek TV shows. Second, Roger Shattuck discusses the idea of withdrawing knowledge from the people in his amazing book of literary criticism, Forbidden Knowledge (available on amazon.com for $.01!) Curiously, modern times are less willing or able to keep secrets for very long. Read Moynihan’s book Secrecy about how secrecy even for the sake of national security usually ends up crippling the decision-making process, not to mention the public trust. Of course, in this day and age, the only way our leaders could be persuaded to believe in something so nebulous as global warming is for some pseudo-mystical book to pop up on the bestseller list, claiming some quasi-mystical connection between our SUV’s and the melting icebergs. Then and only then would people actually start to give the matter serious consideration.

Of course, no mysticism can be complete without a few casualties:

The Roman Senate ordered two Roman patricians to rewrite the lost Sibylline Books. Later, their ranks were increased to Ten Men; their ranks were, in turn, increased to Fifteen Men, later to increase to a whole College of Priests charged to reframe the lost Sibylline Books. No one else was ever permitted to read the three original Books. One Marcus Atilius was sewn into a sack and thrown into the Tiber River for authorizing someone to copy them. Julius Caesar gave a copy of the Sibylline Books to his high priests, who were the only public servants legally allowed to read them. These Books were guarded, stored, and preserved in subterranean chambers of the Capitoline Hill. Those chambers and the temple on the Hill had been completed and consecrated in 500 BCE.

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