Thursday, 7 May 2009

Sibyl, Pontius, and Le Marche's fabled splendour

"Perhaps the same harshness of these mountains, scoured by the whistling wind, devoured by precipitous torrents, and drilled by peculiar karst phenomena, has contributed not a little to furthering a series of witch legends and making this place celebrated in the 14th and 15th centuries throughout all Europe for magical fairytales and necromantic initiations."

Giuseppe Santarelli knew these mountains well, these central Apennines that bear a prophetess' name. The Sibillini range on Le Marche's western edge may be crowned by Monte Vettore, its highest point at 2,476m/8,123ft, but it's Monte Sibilla that's the keeper of its secrets. Up here on the airy ridges you're never far from the legends that pervade this area, none more so than Sibilla's cave, an enchanted grotto of paradise and promiscuity, serpents and servitude.

Julius with Monte Sibilla hidden by his cap, and Monte Vettore in the distance on the right

Some would have it that the Apennine Sibyl (Sibilla) is she of Cuma from Virgil's Aeneid, transmigrating here from the Phlegraean fields near Naples to escape the retributions of a burgeoning and disapproving Christianity. But local legend claims otherwise - she is born of the Apennines, a beguiling blend of soothsayer and enchantress, luring knights and adventurers into her lair until the end of time.

We spend a lot of time up there, but we've never found the cave, although Julius claims otherwise (see picture). While being somewhat "atmospheric" and "suggestive", his grotto somehow didn't bear the marks of legend - of devil's bridges and razor's edges that widen with each successive step, sparkling sculpted dragons whose eyes illuminate all around, crashing metal doors that threaten to crush intruders, or "gilded alcoves and iridescent furniture."

Julius' Grotta della Sibilla

Antoine de la Salle tells of a German adventurer - some say it was Wagner's Tannhauser - who braved the doors, the dragons, and the violent winds to find a paradise of "gay and carefree youth" fluent in all the languages of the world, where stunning maidens treated them to a life of inexhaustible lust and pleasure, where "old age was banned and pain did not have the right of citizenship." But the signs of the devil were ever evident as every Friday at midnight their consorts transformed into the most terrifying serpents, staying that way until midnight Saturday, when they retransformed themselves into the creatures of delight that kept the knight there without coercion.

When he finally pulled himself away on the 330th day - after which he would not have been able to leave - his conscience bade him express his remorse to the pope and beg for pardon. When the pope refused, the devastated knight returned to the cave, never to be seen again.

While we haven't been able to find the cave, legendary signs abound. Like the shattered shards of shale around Monte Vettore, for example, a product of the goatlike feet of the cave's fate (fairies) as they scrambled back to the grotto. Periodically the fate would descend from their haven to teach the village girls spinning and weaving, and dance the saltarello with the young men. If they didn't make it back to the cave before sunrise, they transformed into mere mortals. And if you were a fata, who (gasp) would want that?

Monte Vettore's "shattered shards of shale", Monte Sibilla ridge in the background

The other main mythical site in the Sibillini, Lago di Pilato (Pilate Lake), is somewhat easier to find than the cave - it nestles in a mountain bowl just below Monte Vettore, and is a popular summer hiking destination. It's here that Pontius Pilate is reputed to be buried, deep in the frigid waters of the twin lakes "in the form of two lenses, like the glasses of a rattlesnake." While many other places in Europe claim to be his final resting place, locals claim that before being executed, Pilate asked Emperor Tiberius for his corpse to be put into a cart drawn by buffaloes, "and left to the power of fate." Somehow fate guided the buffaloes huffing and puffing up to the Sibillini. Another account claims that the waters of the lake turned blood red at the precise moment of Jesus' crucifiction, and that on the surrounding slopes leaves suddenly sprouted resembling two joined hands, each pierced with a nail. (The fact that a rare freshwater shrimp turns the lake's waters red at spawning time is neither here nor there.)

Lago di Pilato
The lake was also a gathering place for necromancers - nearby Norcia in Umbria was a known centre of witchcraft. Here they would summons their demons, asking for favour in executing evil deeds, in exchange for thier souls. Intruders on such rites were summarily dispatched in rather unappealing ways. But of course that's all just legend ...

... and one doesn't need the legends to enjoy this most spectacular of Le Marche's natural wonders. However, it certainly adds a little colour, and gives its already mystical air yet another dimension. After all, as Giuseppe Santarelli suggests with a classical Italian lyricism: "... inside the cocoon of the ancient legend is the diligent silkworm of eternal knwoledge and the light butterfly of immortal poetry."

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