Consulting the Oracle: The Mantic Art
In the ancient world, sibyls were prophetesses associated with a particular location. Many of their prophecies played key roles in determining the direction of important events. Though there were variations based on Sibyl of Cumaeplace and time, the sibyls all seem to share some characteristics. They gave their prophecies in an ecstatic state, under the power of a particular deity (often Apollo), and they were usually associated with a specific ancient oracle or a temple.
The Cumaean Sibyl is probably the best known of 10 (12) sibyls. Her cave was located near the town of Cumae on the western coast of Italy, in the same location as a temple of Apollo. While most often known as the Cumaean Sibyl or the Sibyl of Cumae, she is also variously referred to as: Herophile, Demo, Phemonë, Deiphobe, Demophile, and Amalthea.
The Cumaean Sybil, a prophetess, asked Apollo for eternal life and he granted the boon. In a classic “careful what you wish for” trope, Apollo did not give the Sybil eternal youth, however. (Zeus much earlier played the same trick on Tithonus, lover of Eos, the dawn.) The Sybil aged and became more decrepit and tinier until the disrespectful people of Cumae suspended her in a basket in a public place. At the end of a thousand years, there was nothing left but her voice.
In Chapter 48 of the “Satyricon” of Petronius Arbiter, a boastful freedman named Trimalchio reports having seen her hanging in her basket. When the local boys asked, “Sybil, what do you want?” she replied: “I want to die.”
The “Satyricon” was written during the reign of Emperor Nero (37- 68 AD) and was set contemporaneously. The Cumaean Sybil is also mentioned in Ovid and Virgil (Virgil, the earliest of the three writers, died in 19 BC). I first became aware of the Cumaean Sybil as a child, upon reading “The Waste Land”, to which Eliot affixed the Petronius quote as a lead-in.
Why did the Sybil want to die? The more traditional explanation seems to be that she found herself becoming more decrepit than she could bear; the continuing degradation of her body, projected across the unlimited bounds of time ahead of her, was a terrifying prospect.
Another reason—not inconsistent, she may of course have had two—may have been the burden of her limitless and despairing knowledge of human affairs, past, present and future. To have such knowledge, unredeemed by health or youth, would be a heavy burden.
She stands as a powerful metaphor for our own individual decline: the failing body coupled with the increased knowledge, the loss of illusions, the increasing despair engendered by a loss of faith in the human future, and one’s declining ability to do anything about it.
Eliot never again mentions the Sybil in the body of “The Waste Land” but justifies his choice of epigram by continually reverting to the themes of decrepitude, detachment, foresight and despair, from the invocation of “memory and desire” in the third line. The “dead land” and “stony rubbish” seem to echo the infirmity of the Sybil’s body; the “fear in a handful of dust” the life without comfort or illusions.
I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
To know everything is to know nothing, because data overwhelms information, which destroys knowledge. The Sybil’s knowledge may also seem as hubristic as Daedalus’ wings; “looking into the heart of light” may blind us (as the prophet Tiresias, referred to a few lines later, was blinded). Knowing too much may also render us silent, because nobody wants to hear the truth (Cassandra’s curse was always to know the truth, never to be believed), and because we ourselves find it too horrifying. The Druid said to Jurgen, “If Merlin had seen what you have seen, Merlin would have died, and Merlin would have died without regret, because Merlin receives facts reasonably.” Nietzsche said, “When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” The heart of light may in fact change us as utterly as the heart of darkness into which Mr. Kurtz stared. His final revelation, based on too much knowledge, too little heart: “Exterminate all the brutes”. The question is how to confront great and despairing knowledge and yet remain human.
Eliot’s “withered stumps of time”, “rat’s alley/where the dead men lost their bones”, testify that we are in a declining world of detached horror. He then introduces Tiresias, the transsexual prophet/prophetess of whom Wikipedia says, “Tiresias is presented as a complexly liminal figure, with a foot in each of many oppositions, mediating between the gods and mankind, male and female, blind and seeing, present and future, and this world and the Underworld.” According to Eliot in the footnotes, Tiresias is “the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest.” He watches an apparently trivial scene, a woman seduced in her apartment, with great sadness and distance, as a spectacle which he himself has experienced, which has happened since the beginning of time and will continue without cease.