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Old August 28th, 2011, 12:23 AM
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Default 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.


She was known as the Cumaean Sibyl, a woman who could change her features at will. She was wild-eyed, wild-haired and wild-tongued. One day, she came to see the king, Tarquin the Elder. She brought with her an offer.

"I have nine books to sell to you," she told the king.

"What books would those be?" the king asked. She was an odd-looking woman, and the king did not believe she was the prophetess she claimed to be.

"In these nine books," she said, "is contained the destiny of Rome."

Tarquin the Elder laughed at the old woman. He had heard of her, of course, but he did not believe she could predict the future, and he did not, for one moment, believe that these books she carried contained the destiny of the world. Her voice, after all, was more like a croak, and when she spoke, foam gathered on her lips.

Tarquin had heard that she wrote her predictions on oak leaves and that she laid these leaves at the edge of her cave. When the wind came and blew the leaves, they drifted this way and that, hither and yon, so that those who received the woman's messages often were confused by the words.

Tarquin did not believe she was as wise as she claimed, but he was curious about her offer. "How much money do you want for your books?" he asked.

"Nine bags of gold," she answered.

The king and his advisers roared with laughter. "Nine bags of gold? How could you ask such a fortune?"

"The future of your world lies within them," she repeated, but seeing that he did not wish to buy her books, she started a fire, and into this fire she hurled three of her books.

Within moments they were burned to ash, and the sibyl of Cumae set off for home, leaving behind the king and his advisers.

It was another year before the sibyl returned. This time, she arrived with six books.

"What do you want now?" Tarquin asked her.

"I offer six books for sale," she answered. "Six books that contain the rest of the destiny of Rome."

"How much?" the king asked her.

"Nine bags of gold," she said.

"What?" asked the king. "Nine bags for fewer books? Are you mad? You asked nine bags for nine books, but now you offer only six for the same price?"

"Think what they contain before you refuse," the sibyl said. "The rest of the future of Rome."

"Too much," Tarquin answered, and so, once again, the woman built a fire and tossed into it three more books. Then she turned and walked away, crossing the wide farmlands that separated Rome from Cumae .

The roads between the two cities were long and treacherous in those days. The woman's journey was difficult. Still, the next year, she returned to see the king once again. This time she brought with her the three remaining books.

"Three books remain," she said, "and I will sell these to you for nine bags of gold."

Now the king's advisers gathered around, and they consulted among themselves. They were worried that the old sibyl would burn the very last of the predictions. What if what she said were true? What if they might know their future? What if they were throwing away their opportunity to read their destinies?

"You must buy these books," the advisers told their king, and so he did, paying the old sibyl nine bags of gold.

When the king and his advisers had read the three books that remained, they understood that this odd old woman was truly a great sibyl, prophetess of the future. The king sent at once for her and had her returned to his court. "Please," Tarquin begged her, "will you rewrite the other six books?"

"No," she said, refusing to discuss the matter. "You have chosen your destiny, and I cannot change that."

Rome did rise to be a great kingdom, and for years and years it flourished as a powerful republic, conquering Gaul under the famed Julius Caesar . But when the Roman Empire collapsed, people wondered what wisdom they might have learned in those six books burned by the sibyl of Cumae .


Link: http://www.fisheaters.com/sybils.html
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