Myths of Romes Founding - cautionary tales
Here's a story for you; an odd one that goes to the mythical beginnings of Rome, America's ancestral model as well as that of the Christianity.
There is always some truth in a myth. The first myth or legend of Rome, most of us know of, was of its founding and its founders. That's the myth of the two brothers Romulus and Remus, who were found, nursed, and raised by a she wolf. Later, as adults, so as to acquire women for their new city, through trickery they abducted the women of the neighboring Sabine tribe. That abduction is called “the rape of the Sabine women’” in art (Poussin etal) and in legend.
There is also the story of how Romulus murdered Remus, another Cain and Able story.
Another founding myth was the Aeneid written by the Roman poet Virgil.
Aeneas, supposedly the father or grandfather of Romulus and Remus (a claim complicated by the fact that Troy fell about 340 years before Rome’s legendary founding), was the ancient story line brought up to date by Virgil into his own time. It was a design to include Rome’s first (acknowledged) emperor or "Princeps," Augustus (Octavius Julius Caesar) into the founding legends as connected by his ancient Julian lineage.
Aeneas the hero of the Aeneid was a refugee from the fabled destruction of Troy in the Trojan Warby the Greeks. In his flight from Troy, Aeneas stopped and had a year long affair with Dido (Elissa) queen of Carthage. Dido fell in love with Aeneas, and proposed that he stay, that they marry, and together rule over the Carthaginians and his Trojans. Aeneas eventually sneaked away to continue on to Italy, and Dido, being abandoned, uttered a curse that would forever set Carthage against Rome. Then she committed suicide using the same sword she had given him when he had first arrived.
Those are all seminal stories of Rome; as you can see; their legends are generally dark ones. One that interests me most is the story of the last King of Rome, Tarquinus, and his encounter with the Sybil, the oracle of Cumae, a town about 75 miles south of Rome. Rather than try to improve on it, or tell it myself, I’ll give you a part of the story as quoted from two sources and a link to the rest of the story, and its quasi pagan connection to the Catholic Church.
Skip the brief excerpt from the Aeneid if you like, but do read the story of the Sybil that follows below. The link at the bottom takes you to a larger explanation and background and how the story intertwines with the Catholic Church.
As Virgil tells us in his Aeneid:
Arriv'd at Cumae , when you view the flood
Of black Avernus, and the sounding wood,
The mad prophetic Sibyl you shall find,
Dark in a cave, and on a rock reclin'd.
She sings the fates, and, in her frantic fits,
The notes and names, inscrib'd, to leafs commits.
What she commits to leafs, in order laid,
Before the cavern's entrance are display'd:
Unmov'd they lie; but, if a blast of wind
Without, or vapors issue from behind,
The leafs are borne aloft in liquid air,
And she resumes no more her museful care,
Nor gathers from the rocks her scatter'd verse,
Nor sets in order what the winds disperse.
Thus, many not succeeding, most upbraid
The madness of the visionary maid,
And with loud curses leave the mystic shade.
In the Aeneid, Sybil, gives Aeneas a tour of the infernal regions which are entered into in the land “she inhabited” at Cumae - (this story is believed to be the reason for Dante's having chosen Virgil as his guide in "The Divine Comedy"). After this tour of the underworld, they ascend again, and the Sibyl tells the story (quotes from chapter 25 of Bullfinch's book) of how she came to be hundreds of years old:
Aeneas, after visiting Hades, and his encounter there with Dido’s ghost (where when he called to her she looked away, fastening her gaze on the ground), he, "Aeneas and the Sibyl pursued their way back to earth; he said to her, "Whether thou be a goddess or a mortal beloved by the gods, by me thou shalt always be held in reverence. When I reach the upper air, I will cause a temple to be built to thy honor, and will myself bring offerings." ”
"I am no goddess," said the Sibyl; "I have no claim to sacrifice or offering. I am mortal; yet if I could have accepted the love of Apollo, I might have been immortal. He promised me the fulfillment of my wish, if I would consent to be his. I took a handful of sand, and holding it forth, said, 'Grant me to see as many birthdays as there are sand-grains in my hand.'
"Unluckily I forgot to ask for enduring youth. This also he would have granted, could I have accepted his love, but offended at my refusal, he allowed me to grow old. My youth and youthful strength fled long ago. I have lived seven hundred years, and to equal the number of the sand-grains, I have still to see three hundred springs and three hundred harvests. My body shrinks up as years increase, and in time, I shall be lost to sight, but my voice will remain, and future ages will respect my sayings."
“An ancient woman doomed to live a thousand years, but without youth, shrinking with age each year until nothing is left of her but her voice -- a voice which some say is kept in a jar in the cave, and that others say one can still hear there in her Cumaean grotto.”
Another great tale told of her, is how she went to sell nine books to the King of the Tarquins:
(a story told well by Amy Friedman)
For many years, beneath the temple of Jupiter in Rome , the sibylline books were protected in a closely guarded vault. These were books that the priests consulted, especially during times of natural disaster, when earthquakes and floods and hurricanes swept down on their world, when disease struck and when hardship came. These books contained great wisdom and predictions of what the future held for their land and people. The sibylline books, the priests said, were precious beyond any treasure.