Marion Warner

From the Beast and the Blonde by Marion Warner

Chapter One: In the Cave of the Enchantress

For me your love is only pain I’ve opened up my eyes And seen in you, my lady fair, The devil in disguise. –The Tannhauser Ballad

When it looked as if Christianity was taking hold in her native Campania in southern Italy, the Sibyl left her labyrinth of caves in Cumae below the temple of Apollo She had pronounced her oracles there for hundreds of years, but she was now taking to the hills, to make one of the last stands of paganism on the highest ridge of the Apennines, still called the Monti Sibillini in her honour.

She had shown Aeneas the way down to the pagan underworld in Virgil’s epic; she had sold the volumes of Sibylline leaves, her oracles written on palms, to the last king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, and had proved that she was worldly-wise as well as deep: when he would not pay the price she asked for the nine books, she burned three, and when he still would not pay, she burned another three, and so he found himself outmanoeuvred and had to pay the full price for the last remaining three volumes rather than risk their total destruction. But, with the new faith gaining ground, the oracles’ author was obliged to run, to conceal herself in a cave, and practise her forbidden arts there, under the rose One of these was making up stories, passing on information; giving a picture of what the future might hold for her hearers In some accounts, she had even invented the first alphabet in the West – but there are one or two other contenders for this title.

The `Grotta della Sibilla’ in the Umbrian mountains is first mentioned in medieval not classical legend: it appears in the chivalric romance Guerino il Meschino, written by Andrea da Barberino (also called Andrea dei Magnabotti) in 1391 and subsequently read by the literati, as well as told and retold by professional storytellers, the cantastorie. Its eponymous hero. Guerino the Wretch, soon became a byword for Italian cunning and fearlessness: he is all orphan hunting for his parents in the company of an innkeeper’s son; in the course of their wanderings, the two youths reach a mountain pass near Norcia in Umbria, where they meet the Devil. The Devil wants Guerino’s soul – what else? – and tempts him with news of a great fata, a fairy, an enchantress, called Sibilla, who lives near by, in a subterranean kingdom where every delight will be his. Guerino takes up the new quest eagerly, though he is warned what might lie in store for him when he comes across Macco, a victim of the fairy, at the mouth of the cave; changed by the enchantress into a terrible snake, he has been left there, ordered to keep guard.

The Christian origin of this legend demanded that the two great enemies of the faith in Barberino’s day – Jews and heathens – be represented in some sort of conspiracy together. By giving the fairy’s victim the name Macco, the author was demonstrating his orthodoxy. For `Malco’ was the Wandering Jew of legend, and the serpentine shape would then reflect the anti-semitism of such Christian legends, just as the fantasies of female magic emanate from the religion’s prejudices against all daughters of Eve, `the Devil’s gateway’. In the story, Guerino immediately tramples the snaky Macco underfoot, and passes blithely on. Inside the cave, he finds the fata: `so great was her charm that she would have deceived any human being, and with her sweet words and her lovely greetings, there was courtesy in her beyond measure …’ In her subterranean kingdom, trees flower and fruit at the same time, and there is no pain or age or sorrow. She offers to discover the identity of Guerino’s lost father if only the hero will yield to her charms, and these are considerable: `when he was in bed, she laid herself down by his side and showed him her beautiful, white flesh, and her breasts indeed seemed to be made of ivory …’ He learns from the fairies in her entourage that she is the learned Cumaean Sibyl, and that she will live until the crack of doom. According to a divergent variation on the legend, she had fled to her present refuge because, after prophesying the birth of the Saviour from a virgin, she had expected to be chosen herself for the task. `She [had been] so virginal … she thought God would descend into her when he went and took flesh.’ To her disgust, the lot had fallen upon Mary instead.

Guerino, a type of folkloric trickster, and a wily survivor, manages to keep his virtue and resist the fata, in spite of all the enchanted blandishments and treats with which he is regaled in the cave. Her `paradise’ offers a life of endless feasting, music, fashionable dress, no pain, no hunger, no poverty, no ageing. But he rejects her, and he becomes glad of his strength of mind, for he soon discovers that on Saturdays Sibilla turns into a monster, and her beautiful attendant ladies into other horrible creatures. He learns it when he peeps and sees their deformed nether limbs under their skirts. So he turns on his lover, and rejects her and her fairy kingdom in fury. She protests at this cruelty, invoking the name of Aeneas, recalling how much more courteously she was treated by that great founding father of civilization, a man who surpassed even Guerino in accomplishments, as he had instituted the Roman empire. But Guerino will not be swayed; he is a pattern of Christian virtue, and he manages to make his escape – he goes to Rome and is absolved of his misspent year in the Sibyl’s company.

A few years later, in 1420, Antoine de La Sale, tutor to Giovanni di Calabria, the son of Louis III, King of Sicily and Count of Anjou, decided to look into the legend of this Sibyl; he travelled from Norcia, across the wide dry bed of a glacial lake called the Piano Grande, crossed the ridge of the Sibillini beneath the 2500-metre peak of the Monte Vettore, and climbed up to the site of the cave from a shepherd’s village on the other side called Montemonaco. He mapped the route he took, and added drawings of the landmarks to the account he produced, `Le Paradis de la Reine Sibille’, one of the miscellaneous ingredients in his entertaining La Salade of 1437-42 (a pun on his name, adopted `because in a salad one puts many good herbs’). `Le Paradis’ follows some exempla in the art of good government and passages from Roman history, but it represents a complete change of register, as Antoine is writing a form of travel autobiography, about a journey he had made himself twenty years before. He mentions local flora, for instance, used in cooking and medicine, but he continually shrugs off responsibility by referring to his sources: `the old chatter of the common people’. He was gathering local accounts about those who had made the long, difficult journey to the Sibyl’s lake in the crater on one peak, and to the Sibyl’s cave on the other, to dedicate their grimoires, or books of spells, and consult the enchantress in her grotto, and he warns that permission to visit it has to be given by the villagers and their lords because storms rose and damaged the harvest when pagan necromancers, intent on improving their diabolical arts, made the pilgrimage to the grotto. The villagers would capture such visitors and deal with them summarily – a bad priest and his companion had been torn to pieces, La Sale reports, and thrown into the lake quite recently. He himself did not dare journey any further than the opening of the cave, but he dwells stirringly on the perils en route – the narrowness of the path, the dizziness he felt, the rampart of stone `three lances high’ which had to be crossed by one of two tracks you had to dismount to negotiate. `And I assure you that the better of these two pathways is enough to put fear into the heart of someone who would not be a feared of any mortal fear . . .’ Antoine de La Sale did not stint on the storyteller’s hyperbole, though it may be true that the summit is indeed so high that on a clear day the sea is visible on both sides of Italy – the Sibyl’s refuge was situated on a magic apex.

La Sale found the entrance, shaped like `a pointed shield’, and crawled through it on all fours to enter a small square chamber, lit by a hole above, with seats carved into the rock on all sides. He did not dare scramble in deeper, but remained content to describe what his informants to]d him: the corridor running deep into the mountain, which led to polished doors of metal, opening on to the inner labyrinth, the doors of crystal that followed, the great wind `very horrid and marvellous’ which howled up from the lower regions, the narrow bridge over a torrent after that, and the two dragons breathing fire at the end. The names of lost knights, who had ventured in and never returned, were carved in the rocks on either side of the grotto’s mouth. The writer in La Sale inspired him to copy them down, and he added his own.

Antoine de La Sale stands as a precursor of a Rider Haggard hero or an Indiana Jones, the type of intrepid explorer relying on hearsay to advance into dread, unknown adventures. He was accompanied by a local doctor and other inhabitants of Montemonaco, and on the mountain they heard `a loud voice crying as if it were the cry of a peacock which seemed very far away’. The others told him it was the voice of the Sibyl’s paradise, but, La Sale adds scathingly, `as for myself, I don’t believe a word of it’. It was the neighing of the horses, he asserted, which they had left below, before the last leg of the climb.

The early humanist tradition, of which La Sale forms a part, gave the legend of the Sibyl of the Apennines the character of a secular romance, and as such it becomes enriched and entangled with folklore about fairy seductresses: the winged siren Melusine from the French medieval romance, the deceiving Lamia and the witch Alcina in the chivalrous cycle of Roland stories also turn into monsters unbeknownst to the heroes until it is – almost – too late. These tales have multiple forebears, in classical mythology (the Odyssey – Calypso, Circe) as well as Celtic faery lore, for the Sibyl’s secret paradise resembles in many ways the kingdom of Tir-na-nog, the isle of perpetual youth in Irish myth. The tale of Guerino the Wretch becomes, in La Sale’s telling, a jaunty love story, about a German knight who finally reaches the Sibyl’s kingdom across all those perils inside the mountain and enters there a garden of earthly delights, thronged with beautiful young men and women in exquisite clothes, drinking and dancing and dallying with grace, and speaking every language with ease, and passing or instantly all their accomplishments, so that after only nine days any new arrival finds his tongue loosed as well. But then, alas, peeping at his beloved at midnight one Friday, when, as is her custom, she has shut herself away, this knight discovers, like the worthy and chaste Guerino, that she is really an illusion, and `all her ladies in the state of snakes and serpents all together’. The Sibyl’s paradise is nothing but a trick of the Devil, its sweets poison.

The German knight realizes that he must set himself free, and at last, after 330 days – the final term beyond which all escape is impossible (La Sale’s hero does not cut short his time of bliss) – he manages to leave the accursed mountain, and travel to Rome to see the pope and obtain his forgiveness for his great season in Hell. But in this version, the pope refuses, and the knight goes back to rejoin his lady the Sibyl – having usefully told his story to the world outside – to live in bliss for ever more (except on Saturdays). Clive Bell, in a sprightly nursery rendition of 1923, thought the story preached excellent epicureanism, just the message that was needed:

… tons of may-be bliss don’t measure One ounce of certain, solid pleasure.

And he concludes, addressing the errant knight:

In my opinion, you did well To live for love, though love is hell.

Antoine de La Sale’s princely pupil was only ten years old when La Salade was written for him, to celebrate his recent marriage – the arranged unions so central to fairy tale’s concerns. La Sale himself, born around 1388, a Provencal by birth, had taken up writing late in life after decades as a soldier and a courtier in the Angevin household; he was in his fifties when he was tossing his Salade, a ripe age for the period. He tells his young charge that he has set the story down `to laugh and pass the time, and I am sending it to you so that … one day … you might go there to amuse yourself, and I promise you that the queen and all those ladies will give you a great welcome and feast you in very great joy’. In the fifteenth century, men had a different idea about the education of young princes than we might expect.

La Sale tells tales with relish – and a touch of mischief. In the case of the story of the Sibyl, he wants to have it both ways, and so he too makes several bows to orthodoxy, delivering himself finally of a ringing palinode in which he denounces the woman and all her works, accusing her of being a false prophet, even in terms of classical legend; Christ’s death had brought all pagan devilry to an end. Significantly, he does not relate the Sibyl’s prophecy of Christ’s birth from a virgin: the idea that the pagan and the Christian could overlap in truth-telling in this way perhaps struck too risky a note.

The legends Antoine de La Sale collected appeared in different forms elsewhere: Fazio degli Uberti (d. 1367) had written a poem about Simon Magus, in which the wizard travels to the area to dedicate his grimoire to the pagan oracle; Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (d. 1464), who became Pope Pius II, first identified Sibilla with the goddess of love, Venus herself. This was an appropriate move, perhaps, for him to make. as he had enshrined a Roman sculpture of the Three Graces in the centre of his private chapel in the Duomo of Siena. The reputation of the Sibylline peak combined erotic fantasy and pagan magic in a witch’s brew, and it exercised a potent fascination, as a story and as a place. The poet Leandro Alberti, writing in 1550, mentioned that he had been told the story by women when he was a child: it was circulating in high and low forms literary and oral, learned and popular. Around the same time, the Inquisition obtained a confession of witchcraft from Zuan delle Piatte, who described a journey to the Sibyl’s mountain, where he renounced his faith and met `Donna Venus’ and many of her victims, sleeping an enchanted sleep in the cave. Among them was Tannhauser, and indeed, the legend is principally known to modern audiences through Wagner’s interpretation. Inspired by broadsheet Lieder accounts of the German knight’s attempt to enter the earthly paradise (`I’ve … seen in you, my lady fair, a devil in disguise!’), Wagner used the variant name, the Venusberg, for the mountain stronghold of diabolical passion, reinterpreting it in Tannhauser to convey his own torments about love and lust.

The cave can no longer be entered; a combination of circumstances has destroyed access to the chthonic would of the legends. In 1947, Rome was already threatening excommunication to any profane pilgrims to the area, and in the early seventeenth century, it seems, the authorities had ordered that it be filled up to prevent the growing number of pilgrims, and sentries posted at the approaches They were coming, it was said, in great numbers to dedicate their grimoires, consult the Sibyl and increase their powers. In 1898, a mountaineering journal reported that the grotto had been dynamited to prevent wizards from escaping. The word for an inhabitant of Norcia – norcino or nursino – actually became synonymous in Italian with `necromancer’, and still is.

In Ovid, the Cumaean Sibyl tells Aeneas that Phoebus Apollo had fallen in love with her and offered her anything she wanted if she would only sleep with him – she then asked for as many `birthdays as there were grains of dust’ in a heap she scooped together in her hands. But she had forgotten to ask for eternal youth as well. Apollo had reminded her, but she still `scorned him’. When she meets Aeneas, she tells him she will `shrink from her present fine stature into a tiny creature … shrivelled with age’, and that, eventually, her outer form will disintegrate altogether. Then she concludes, `But still, the fates will leave me my voice, and by my voice I shall be known.’ In the Satyricon by Petronius, written more than a thousand years before La Sale’s account, Trimalchio claims that he has seen the Sibyl herself in her cave, so shrivelled with age that she was no bigger than a bat; she was hanging in a bottle, he says, from the roof, moaning that the only thing she wanted was to die. But another traveller reports that he had seen her tomb, at Delphi, inscribed with the epitaph:

I Sibylla, Phoibos’s wise woman, am hidden under a stone monument: I was a speaking virgin but voiceless in this manacle by the strength of fate. I lie close to the Nymphs and to Hermes: I have not lost my sovereignty.

These words capture the paradox of the Sibyl of myth: she is exiled, even abandoned, her voice is muffled, even muted. Yet from inside the `manacle’ of the monument, she goes on speaking.

The voiceless who voice their `sovereignty’ against the odds are by no means always female. But the blocked-up cave is unblocked in the imaginary world of her story, by the memory of her presence inside, the fantasy of her magic and knowledge. The cave represents a pleasure dome, a dream of longliving gaiety and delight – and it is the creation of a figure who is both a teller of tales (the Sibyl, the prophet), and the protagonist of the multiple legends she inspires. The negative value attached to her kingdom never quite convinces: it remains at the same time a garden of earthly delights, a paradise indeed, which its visitors, its reporters, serve. In this sense, the Cumaean Sibilla, taking refuge in the mountains, bodies forth the sheer value of entertainment, as Antoine de La Sale was well aware. That his cautions would fall on deaf ears, he also knew. Fairy tales often claim the moral ground, but their spellbinding power lies with the enchantresses and giants, the magic, the wonders, the mishaps and the good fortune they relate.

Stories often described as fairy tales, be they told in the Caribbean, Scotland or France, can flow with the irrepressible energy of interdicted narrative and opinion among groups of people who have been muffed in the dominant, learned milieux. The Sibyl, as the figure of a storyteller, bridges divisions in history as well as hierarchies of class. She offers the suggestion that sympathies can cross from different places and languages, different peoples of varied status. She also represents an imagined cultural survival from one era of belief to another. Sibilla exists as a Christian fantasy about a pagan presence from the past, and as such she fulfills a certain function in thinking about forbidden, forgotten, buried, even secret matters. `By my voice I shall be known’: it is no bad epitaph for a storyteller.