Cimmerian Sibyl, by Giambattista della Porta

“Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,

To the Kimmerian lands…”

There is a curious passage in Book V of Strabo’s Geography:

Ephorus, in the passage where he claims the locality in question for the Cimmerians, says: They live in underground houses, which they call “argillae,”​ and it is through tunnels that they visit one another, back and forth, and also admit strangers to the oracle, which is situated far beneath the earth; and they live on what they get from mining, and from those who consult the oracle,​ and from the king of the country, who has appointed them fixed allowances;​ and those who live about the oracle have an ancestral custom, that no one should see the sun, but should go outside the caverns only during the night; and it is for this reason that the poet speaks of them as follows: “And never does the shining sun look upon them”; but later on the Cimmerians were destroyed by a certain king, because the response of the oracle did not turn out in his favour; the seat of the oracle, however, still endures, although it has been removed to another place.

What are we to make of this? Ephorus and Strabo knew very well the Cimmerians – whether or not, two thousands years ago, “Cimmeria” referred to the Crimean peninsula – were a people of the Pontic-Caspian steppe along the Black Sea. Strabo says as much elsewhere in the Geography. So what’s this business of them digging into the volcanic landscape of Campi Flegrei to establish a troglodytic oracular complex either at Avernus (in a geomorphological – and archaeological, alas – regime that was subsequently overwritten by the 1538 eruption of Monte Nuovo) or else within the nearby Monte Gauro crater complex (from the slopes of which, 15th c Neapolitan historian Scipione Mazzella claimed in his Sito et antichità della città di Pozzuoli, Christ descended to enter hell for his Easter harrowing through the portal at Lake Avernus). And did the destruction of this Cimmerium by some prehistoric king cause the Sibylline oracle to be re-founded at Cumae?*

While there certainly is archaeological evidence of Iron, and even Bronze, Age inhabitations of the Campi Flegrei that preceded Euboean colonization (given tombs near Paestum dating back to 2800 BC, it’s hardly inconceivable that the Guado culture might have extended as far north as Cumae), a.) I’m not aware of any that decisively points to the influx of a Crimean migrant/refugee population and b.) Lake Avernus fills the crater of a volcano that erupted approximately four thousand years ago, which is something to consider when testing Marija Gimbutas-like hypotheses of prehistoric migration. But if that is what happened – or even if that’s just what supposedly happened – it would help explain certain details in Book VI of the Aeneid (to do with Hekate Trivia [the og trinity], etc.) and weld the geography of Homer’s Necyia to that of the katabasis of Aeneas in a way that should matter to Danteists. Except for the fact that, prior to 38 BC, the slopes of the Avernus crater “were thickly covered with a wild and untrodden forest of large trees” (i.e., a ‘forest dark’) that Agrippa had cleared so his contractor Lucius Cocceius Auctus could build logistics tunnels and canals more easily, I’ll say no more.

*God speaks in hydrocarbons. In a region as volcanically active as the Campi Flegrei it’s not totally surprising that multiple Sibyls would spring up like fruiting bodies from the same fault rhizome. More so, I think, if they had operated contemporaneously; less if one Sibyl was forced to shutter – for whatever reason (e.g., a ruler homicidally displeased with an unfavorable oracle; or ongoing seismicity shutting off the pneuma in one spot and venting it elsewhere nearby) – before another hung her shingle.

One Response to “Cimmerium”

  1. Bough wow wow yippie yo yippie yay | Chamblissian Says:

    […] – down one of its flooded stone stairwells; and the chamber of an even more ancient – Cimmerian – Sibyl down another. Unfortunately, thousands of years of bradyseism and the nearby eruption […]

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