So unexpected. Late afternoon and I went out to the security gate to say hello to my neighbour T, going out into an autumn wind, oak leaves scattered thick on the path. He held up some kind of wrapped parcel. We talked in Afrikaans
I was tired and slightly impatient, edgy with insomnia and dream-haunted. All week I had dreamed of going down into tunnels and caves under the Vatican where I wandered through the filmy sludge of bat droppings and luminous stalactites trying to catch distant echoes and piece together a chewed-up jigsaw puzzle. In one dream I was walking under the grey-eyed Tiber, moving through a deep hollow chamber where a tall woman with her face turned away from me wove herself into a cage of twigs.
‘Look at this,’ said T and unwrapped a hessian covering. A chipped gilt frame, a poor reproduction spoiled with cheap crackled varnish. ‘It is very religious and biblical.’
He was holding up a copy of Romanelli’s painting of the Cumaean Sibyl. Sitting with the page of her book spilling open in creamy parchment or cured hide, the lettering that read ‘Ut Non Confondar’. Let me not be misunderstood.
A visit from the Oracle, no less.
Unexpected, unanticipated. Before me hung Romanelli’s Sibyl of Cumae who bartered with Tarquin, King of Rome, for a fair price for the Sibylline Books of prophecy, who deciphered oracles on oak leaves and lived in a cave with a hundred mouths, who guided Aeneas down to the Underworld and lived for at least 1 000 years suspended in an urn or basket until all that remained was her voice.
My neighbour: ‘So the artist wasn’t even Christian?’
Me: ‘No, he was very much a Catholic, the nephew of Pope Urban VII. The Cumaean Sibyl prophesied the birth of Christ.’
Even while greeting my sibyl I had to explain to my neighbour that medieval, Renaissance and Baroque artists painted both biblical and pagan classical themes. Both/and not either/or. He was dismayed to think his painting showed a pagan fortune teller and not a good woman from the Bible. He bought it at an auction in Paarl and now felt cheated.
The Cumaean Sibyl was said to inhabit a cave with one hundred mouths, each of which had a voice accessible by a still existing dromos. The Cave of the Sibyl near Naples, Italy, known as the “Antro della Sibilla”, was rediscovered in May, 1932, by Amedeo Maiuri. The cave is a tunneling passage over 130m long, running parallel to the side of the hill and cut out of volcanic stone, filled with echoes.
Perhaps we impute too much to dreams precisely because we cannot control them; we infer that they come to us from some larger or at least external place that knows things that we don’t. Certainly my interest in their reapportioning of the dimensions of my life began to rise when I recently spent eight years writing on the kinship I felt with the unmet novelist Graham Greene. The fact that there was scant basis for my sense of affinity was precisely what gave my presumed connection potency; what one can’t explain away keeps echoing inside one as the explicable never does.
When the poet Aeneas employed her services before his descent to the Underworld to visit his dead father Anchises, the Sibyl warned him that it was no light undertaking:
“Trojan, Anchises’ son, the descent of Avernus is easy.
All night long, all day, the doors of Hades stand open.
But to retrace the path, to come up to the sweet air of heaven,
That is labor indeed.”
She haunts Eliot’s The Waste Land, as you will know –
“For I myself once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in her jar, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered ‘I want to die.’”.
The Sibyl in the dead land, the Sibyl writing down her messages on withered oak leaves, ephemera. The voice in The Waste Land, echoing what Marina Warner has called ‘dark, archaic grief’:
I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
In another artist’s vision she now hangs on the Sistine chapel ceiling, courtesy of Michelangelo, muscular of forearm ( transgendered a little?), indomitable, knowing. The incarnations of the Sibyl unable to die. While Popes come and go beneath her gaze.
And there she was at my gate in a dessicated African autumn, piercing and terrible.
My neighbour said goodbye and left with his reproduction. The Sibyl stayed and watched me reassemble oak leaves on the path. I sat with those oak leaves all afternoon, just looking at the reds and browns and crinkled surfaces. Mapping my guide to the Underworld.