With great synchronicity, having just “released” the deeper meaning of my glass butterfly preoccupations through my painting “Reflection Upon Life”, I tripped upon the Cumaean Sybil in my reading, not once but several times this weekend. The Sybil was a prophetess who was said to live a 1000 years, having asked for eternal life, though she shrank and shrank until she was kept in a glass vial and, in the end, was no more than a voice.
A work of fiction, you assume, and yet her “story” crosses over into history where she is said to have been the priestess presiding over the Apollonian oracle at Cumae, a Greek colony located near Naples. Her prophesies were said to be kept in a series of nine books, which were offered to the semi-legendary last king of the Roman Kingdom, King Tarquin who declined to purchase them…so she burned three of the books and offered them again. Still he turned them down so she burned three more and offered them a final time; which is when he finally relented, keeping the books in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, to be consulted in times of dire need. Then the temple burned down in the 80s BC so what was remembered of the Sibylline prophecies was gathered from all parts of the empire to be sorted and compiled into another record, which was saved in the rebuilt temple. The Emperor Augustus moved them to the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, where they remained for most of the remaining Imperial Period.
The Cumaean Sibyl is featured in the works of, among others, Virgil (The Eclogues, The Æneid), Ovid (Metamorphoses) and Petronius (The Satyricon). She was even included in the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo; so what was it that made her stand out so, that made her “story” so durable and deeply woven into our culture? Why does this resonate with me, so strongly, right now at this time like a bolt of electricity that tells me her story is our story and that this match-up with our female circumstances is her greatest prophesy of all? Is it the case that, what once was not valued at all (our most sacred female input, that which would rebalance this sickly world), though we offered it many times, will be the thing that is valued the most and which is set to transform this world once it is fully liberated?
If this sounds extreme, I’m not the only “modern” thinking person to have been engaged by the idea of her; this all-seeing woman who, it is said, wrote her prophesies on oak leaves (I’ve been consumed by multi-layered thoughts of oak trees lately) and predicted the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact Constantine, the first Christian emperor, quoted lengthily from the Sibylline Oracles (not the same as the Sybylline Books referred to above…but some suggest a connection) in his first address to the assembly, as if to give weight to his words as he changed the paradigm of a whole civilization.
In the epigraph to T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” (1922) a quote is included from the Satyricon of Petronius (48.8) wherein Trimalchio states “For I indeed once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in her jar, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered ‘I want to die’.” The writer Sylvia Plath, who famously committed suicide at the age of 30, is said to refer to the Sybil in her ampulla in the title of her semi-autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar” (1963) about her descent into mental depression and that, somehow, pinged my thoughts to Virginia Woolf with whom I have identified so much over the years and who also took her own life.
Then Mary Shelley’s extraordinary introduction to her novel, “The Last Man” (1826) claims that, in 1818, she discovered handful’s of the Sybil’s prophetic writings written on oak leaves in her cave near Naples and that these were used as the foundation of her story, which is an apocalyptic tale of a plague and a darkening of the sun event that wipes out humanity in the late twenty-first century until only one man is left standing. Shelley’s own prophetic ability to tune into the depths of a possible future far removed from the times when she was writing, as she did in “Frankenstein”, held me riveted to that novel in my student days and later came back to haunt me as I tackled my own electro-sensitivity and some of the new realities of where science was meeting, or grating uncomfortably with, human consciousness. So, to find this so-called autobiographical account in the opening pages of “The Last Man” – which I dived upon yesterday morning – ignited me with so many cross-overs with my own thoughts. However unlikely it sounds that she found what she claims to have found in the Sybil’s cave, she was most likely tuning into the female gift of prophesy – you could say, rediscovering her inner Sybil – and touching upon far bigger themes than the small-scale metaphor that this novel is broadly assumed to be.
What I was touching upon here, over and and over, was the theme of a universal female relentlessly burdened by the depths of her despairing knowledge of human affairs, past, present and future. A female so burdened she had conspired to make herself smaller and smaller, to disappear altogether, in order to put out the pain of such knowledge combined with the systemic helplessness imparted by a culture that kept her “beneath glass”; apparently free but only seemingly so. Here was my glass butterfly all over again.
So what is it that the Sybil represents and reminds us of in these times; right where are now in so called “history” on the brink of remembering there is also a thing called “herstory”? Is she that very story…the story of the sacred feminine, the wisdom of the lost female aspect that, with each passing year, was mislaid just a little bit more…burned, droned out and shouted down again and again until she remained only tenuously as a hearsay, word-of-mouth, Chinese whispered thing, like a little voice trapped in a jar?
Is this what Shelley, Plath and Wolfe and others like all of us who realise we carry this shared female experience in our cells have been feeling ever more defeated by, especially last century when the feminine seemed all but doomed (and had nothing to do with burning bras)? Did she feel so done, then, that all she had the strength to long for now was to anaesthetise the pain with prescription medications, or by succumbing to an unconscious lifestyle of endless consumption and distraction to numb her senses, or to snuff herself out altogether, “to die” as Elliot said. Is that the state of hopelessness that Shelley predicted in “The Last Man” and why”The Wasteland” must have felt like the beginning of the fulfilment of that dire prophesy a hundred years ago? Have we just witnessed our “darkest before the dawn” moment and are we now stepping out the other side of that, into the unfiltered light of a glass-less panorama? Had I just scraped the soil off the root of my long-time preoccupation with glass houses and views through windows, the one-time focus of my painting that no longer inspires me. Was this why, I now know from experience, women often have to do most work of all on opening the throat chakra, learning how to make themselves heard again? Have we just gone “direct”, like the solar-return celebration of our civilization, with no more place for misted or distorted panes of glass, no desire or call for an intermediary in any shape or form on our route to clearly seeing our highest selves?
So what has changed, how are we in any different place now, what feels better and how are we re-writing that ending in the midst of an about face turn that changes absolutely everything? I don’t know it in so many concrete terms that I can put into words but I feel it as distinctly as it is possible to feel anything. In myself, I see how I have realised the new ending in the many thoughts that rose up in me, first, about being “kept under glass” and then knowing I was now “released” from that same glass. Like paint doubs on a canvas, I have felt myself fragment and reconfigure entirely and confinement is no longer part of that picture. Its a quantum change yet it is very very real and I feel it for all women.
As I wrote about in my last post and have worked intense alchemy upon through a year’s worth of painting, the inner work has now been done on this; which goes far deeper than anything I can represent in paint or words, and it feels immense and multi-lifetime, like a bell jar has, indeed, been lifted or a glass vial broken to spill all of me “out” to become all that I will, without containment. I am gulping my first lungfuls of fresh vibrant air after eons of being kept, at best, stuffy and stifled like an exotic plant in a hothouse or, at worst, suffocated altogether and this is all of us; I feel this for us all. That confinement, the gagging heat, the glass ceiling limitations, the airlessness, the artificiality, the being forced, the possession, the control, the being seen but not heard…all those things were the female lot…but that was then and this is now. There was no coincidence in my finding the Sybil this weekend straight after my words of Friday since I was clearly ready to be reunited with a “story” I had not yet encountered in this life. I see now how the timeline that Shelley “made” into her story from the prophesies was only one possible outcome and how many others are now available to be chosen; ones which – already – mean we are out of the glass container forever and are never going back in there again.
My introduction to the Cumaean Sybyl came in the form of Barbara Hand Clow’s novel “Revelations of the Ruby Crystal” which works hand-in-hand with her non-fiction writing including “The Alchemy of Nine Dimensions” (all highly-recommended).
Reflection Upon Life is a painting that I recently completed, of a Madagascan Sunset Moth beneath glass, which I talk about in my post “Glass Butterflies“.