The Sibyl

I let my imagination wander far afield in this one, creating an alternate reality. Many years ago I spent some time on the island of Samos and tapped into my memory of that enchanted place. The story appeared in The Lowestoft Chronicle, issue #18.

 

Dr. Orion Westover, Ph.D., head of the Classics Department at Springfield University, eminent scholar, published author and gifted linguist, despite his middle-aged stodginess, was a man who loved adventure. Nothing pleased him more than to leave his cluttered office behind, hop on a plane, and get out ‘into the field’ for the summer. He loved to poke about in the dusty stones of some ancient Greek or Roman ruins in order to decipher barely legible markings. Under the hot sun, the subject matter he studied so laboriously at his desk came to life and spoke to him.

Orion led a well-ordered life and saw himself as a rational and sensible man. Yet in his deepest slumbers, when he had surrendered his normally obedient intellect to the alien regions of the dark, he frequently experienced the most remarkable dreams. They were vivid, disturbing, intoxicating, and they defied any kind of explanation or credence. His nocturnal visitors seemed to emerge from a realm nearly vanished in the haze of time. Warriors in glistening breastplates, frightening hags with bony hands, and laughing satyrs cavorting in olive groves inhabited these dreams. He suspected that even Athena and Apollo might have appeared to him. These exalted deities revealed wondrous things, revelations that he desperately tried to remember when he awoke—but they always dissipated like smoke from a chimney on a windy day. He didn’t share these experiences with anyone, not even his adoring wife. His colleagues would have suspected that he had gone off the rails completely.

But one day, unexpectedly as the best things are, he made a discovery that changed everything and put a new slant on the phenomenon of his nocturnal visions. In the Topeka Public Library, of all places, he came across an extraordinary book.

Stopping in Topeka had been a completely spontaneous decision. He was driving on the interstate, on his way west to a conference of Ancient Greek scholars in Colorado, when he decided to exit. He cruised through the downtown area in the hope to finding a suitable place to have lunch. Finding eateries that offered good quality food was always a challenge on these long road trips. He decided on a small café where he consumed a passable tuna salad on rye. On his way out the door he espied the public library just across the street, a handsome neoclassical edifice. It beckoned to him. It was his habit to check out the classics offerings of provincial collections. University bibliotheca were the most interesting, of course, but even municipal libraries could offer some pleasant surprises.

He browsed the small collection of books on classical subjects and was pleasantly surprised to find a few of the Loeb editions that offered original Greek or Latin texts with the translation on the opposing page. Not every library had those. He was ready to leave and head back to his car when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a volume on its side behind the other books on that particular shelf. He carefully extricated the book from its hiding place. To his surprise it was in German and by a scholar he had never come across before. The title was Die Geheimnisse des sibyllinischen Mysteriums, which translates as Secrets of the Sibylline Mysteries, by Eusebius Blankenschmidt. It had been published in Berlin in 1904. He was mightily intrigued as the subject of the Sibylline Oracles was a subject dear to his heart. The book looked like it was brand new. It didn’t even have a Topeka Library identifier in it. As there was no way he could check the book out—he didn’t even live in Kansas—he did something he had never done before: he surreptitiously ‘borrowed’ the book, concealing it under his tweed jacket while he headed for the exit. No alarms went off. If no one had even cracked the book open in over a century, who was going to miss it? He planned to send it back when he was done with it.

As he was quite fluent in German (not to mention Homeric Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, and Portuguese), he set to work translating his newly found treasure. It was a curious work, speaking with assured authority on subjects where most scholars tiptoed lightly. In chapter seven, entitled The Enduring Presence of the Oracle, he encountered a startling assertion: The Sibyl was still on this earth and accessible—if one knew how to find her. His heart was racing, his mouth dry like cotton balls as he read further. According to Blankenschmidt, the Sibyl, mouthpiece of the gods, still held court in Greece. And then the author gave the precise directions to the Oracle’s whereabouts as well as the incantations needed to access her holy precinct. It was too preposterous! If he hadn’t been reading this in a scholarly work, Orion would have dismissed it as some kind of hoax. Yet the book was too old to be mere New Age claptrap and its scholarly tone seemed authentic. He read on, enthralled. The prospect of meeting a living Sibyl filled him with an indescribable euphoria. He had to check it out.

Dr. Orion Westover had been to Greece dozens of times over the years. Although he wasn’t planning on the trip just then, he decided to fly over as soon as the semester ended. After landing in Athens, and despite the fact that he was suffering from the effects of jet lag, he undertook the long and uncomfortable bus ride north to Delphi where he hoped to induce himself into a sibylline mood. He had visited the famous site many times before and knew it well. On his way up the hill to the site of what used to be the Oracle he was, as on previous visits, saddened by the crass commercialism that blighted the place. There were trinket stalls and shops that sold tacky t-shirts. And then there were the hordes of people who traipsed up and down the hill. Where did they all come from? What did they want? Of course, the Sibyl didn’t reside in Dephi any more as the place was overrun with tourists. Her current abode, according to Blankenschmidt, was on the Aegean island of Samos, just off the coast of Asia Minor.

The following day Orion sailed on the overnight ferry to Vathy, the main town on Samos. Upon disembarkation he boarded a local bus that took him to the opposite end of the island. Beyond the last stop, the town of Karlovassi, there was forested, uninhabited mountainous terrain, a part of the island where even the locals rarely ventured. They believed that it was inhabited by ancient spirits.

Once a year, at the onset of spring, it was the custom of the old women of Karlovassi to process into the hills, carrying with them an idol festooned like the Virgin Mary. No one could say when this ritual had originated, it was so ancient. They reverently removed this relic from its shrine, located in one of the villages at the foot of the mountain, and ceremoniously carried it up the forest path, chanting all the way. A priest did not participate in this. The object of their veneration was, in fact, an ancient statue of the Goddess Demeter, dating from the third century BCE.
Orion took a room in Karlovassi’s only hotel and rested up for the adventure that awaited him the next day. He could barely sleep for excitement. He got up early, checked his gear one last time, and set off. He had to hike uphill quite a few miles, but the walk was exhilarating. As he was an avid hiker, he was in good physical shape for the climb. He didn’t encounter a single soul. The Aegean sun filtered through the lightly spaced pines, endowing the forest with an aura of timeless enchantment. Orion remembered that Pythagoras was born and had lived on the island of Samos, some 2,500 years ago. Perhaps, he mused, the ancient philosopher and mathematician had walked on this very path. It was an awe-inspiring thought.

He had Blankenschmidt’s book with him, just to be on the safe side, and had drawn himself a map according to the author’s instructions. But after reaching the summit of the mountain and wandering about for a good hour, he realized that he was completely lost. He didn’t know which way to turn. Then he saw it: the cleft in the rocks that Blankenschmidt described as the entry way to the Samian Oracle. It had been hidden behind a growth of trees. The space was really too small for an adult to slip into. The instructions demanded that one recite the correct incantations, close one’s eyes, surrender to Apollo and walk into the cleft. Despite the fact that it was too much like Harry Potter on platform nine and three-quarters at King’s Cross Station, Orion summoned all the faith he could muster and—by Phoebus Apollo, son of Zeus!—it worked. He was in!

The passageway through the rock was still very narrow as well as unpleasantly dark and damp, but he forged on. After several minutes he saw a bit of light ahead. He arrived at an open space in front of a cave. The place seemed to be deserted. He was amazed that he had managed to come this far, but now that he had reached the precinct of the Sibyl, he wasn’t quite sure what to do next. He waited a few moments, then cleared his throat and began the lengthy salutation he had practiced, in Homeric Greek:

“O mighty Oracle, omniscient Sibyl, servant of Apollo, in your wisdom and mercy, hear my humble supplication for your attention…”

He continued on in this vein for a while. It seemed to do the trick as smoke began emanating from the cave itself. He could barely make out the figure of a woman, a very old one, shrouded in black, sitting on a tripod stool.

“Enough, you blithering fool!” came a penetrating screech from the cave. “Don’t you think I know who you are and what you want?” Orion was stunned to hear this delivered in English, with the trace of a New Jersey accent. “I am the Oracle, the Seer, the Prophetess, am I not? And yes, I speak English, or any other lingo you care to use.”

He switched to English himself. “Oh Revered Sibyl, hear my supplication.”

“All right, already. You got my attention. Business first: where’s your offering?”

Orion fished the jar of Samian honey he had purchased in Vathy out of his backpack and placed it on a low rock just in front of him.

“Good stuff, that. Now, what can I do for you?”

“Divine Sibyl, how is it that you are still functioning as the ancient oracle?” Orion’s curiosity as to her continued existence superseded any questions he had about the future.

“As you well know, I am not divine. When Apollo granted my sisters and me a boon we requested eternal life, but we neglected to ask for eternal youth to go with it. What a ferkakte deal that was! So we live on, just getting older.” She stopped for a moment to cough vigorously. “This damn incense, just not used to it so much anymore. Believe me, you don’t want to see me too clearly anyway. Helen of Troy I definitely ain’t, ha-ha-ha!” She laughed heartily at her own joke. Orion was pleased to hear that she had a sense of humor. “Anyway, there were ten of us. My sisters slumber on, but they will never die. I’m the only one still in business. Maybe the others are on a cruise of the Greek Islands, ha-ha-ha!” The Sibyl’s guffaws soon turned into a convulsion of hacking. When she had recovered she continued. “The Pythia in Delphi closed up shop a long time ago. It’s terrible the way the place is overrun. You’ve seen it for yourself; so little reverence for the Mysteries.” She shook her head and clicked her tongue. “This place is very difficult to find. Only the most dedicated, such as yourself, can succeed in locating me. And that is the way it should be. I have had a few visitors over the years. The last one was that German—what was his name?—Krankenblimp or something.

“It was Eusebius Blankenschmidt.”

“That’s right! My memory isn’t what it used to be. See how you do when you’re three thousand years old!

“But Blankenschmidt was here over a century ago!”

“A mere blink of the eye, as they say. He was very clever and was able to find me after much trial and error. He asked me if he could publish the secret of my location. I said sure, fine, no one will bother to come anyway. You see that I was right. Your finding that book, by the way, was no accident. The gods still work in the lives of those who pay attention to them.”

Orion was really enjoying the conversation. It was not at all what he had imagined his meeting with the Sibyl would be like. He posed his next question: “What was it that really terminated the activity of the oracles?”

“Just don’t get me started! That patriarchal, monotheistic fiddle-faddle of a religion—such a downer, so lacking in imagination, so heavy-handed, so boooooring! Where’s the mystery? Where’s the fun? Ugh!”

There was a long pause. Orion thought he should move on to another subject. He asked the first thing that popped into his head. “What does the future of humanity look like?”

“Future? You think you have a future? Ha! Look what you have done to the planet—you’ve ruined the place! In your endless greed and stupidity you have raped Mother Earth. You just don’t learn. In my day humanity wasn’t so smart either—they deforested nearly all of these beautiful islands. Men did that because they wanted the wood for their ships and they never thought of the consequences. That’s the whole problem—you don’t think things through! You just act, stupidly and blindly. There will be much turmoil in the future. Just don’t ask me to give the specifics, because I won’t. It wouldn’t make a bit of difference anyway, even if I did. But just remember this, o mortal: no outside force is doing it to you—you have brought it on yourselves through your own actions. Humanity will survive. The mysteries will be restored. Men will again learn to revere Gaia, the Mother of the World.” There was more coughing and sputtering, then a long silence. The Sibyl continued, “You must go now. I am getting tired.”

Orion had many more questions but it was clear that the audience with the Sibyl was over. He bowed deeply. “Thank you, Revered One, for receiving me.”

As he turned to go he heard one last bit of advice from the crone. “And you’d better get that incantation right or you’ll be stuck here with me forever, ha-ha-ha!” The sound of her cackling echoed from the inside of the cave and receded to nothing.

Orion faced the far too narrow cleft again and succeeded in passing through. He descended from the summit of the mountain as if he were walking on air. Who would believe that he had just had an interview with the living Sibyl of Samos? A few days later he boarded his return flight to the States. There was nothing else in Greece that could top what he had just experienced.

Dr. Westover was inspired by his encounter on Samos and went on to write a book entitled The Oracle Speaks. Although he didn’t directly describe his experience with the Sibyl, or the nature of his dreams, the passion and conviction with which he expressed himself raised eyebrows in academic circles. While he hinted that the Sibyl might still be a living presence, he didn’t divulge too many details. The old crone should only be discovered by the truly perseverant, he reasoned. The introduction to his book included a hearty extension of thanks to Eusebius Blankenschmidt. His academic colleagues in the field of classical studies scratched their heads over the mention of that name.

The Public Library of Topeka received a curious package sometime later. It was a book, in German, along with a note from a Dr. Orion Westover of Springfield University, asking their pardon for making an unauthorized withdrawal of the material. The librarians were rather perplexed as the title of the book was not listed in their catalogue and they had never seen it before. It was added to the pile of unwanted books put aside for the next library sale. They were sure no one would ever buy it.

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