Chapter 32 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
My colloquy with the Goddess left me with conflicting sensations of excitement and languor. There was still a difficult path to tread in order to find my way from the Circus Maximus to the Shrine Beneath the Rocks, and I no longer felt the Goddess’ presence or her guiding hand. I would have to complete the journey alone.
I fortified myself with some water and bread (for I had eaten my small supply of almonds along the way), and set out again, tired but determined. As it happened, I twice mistook the path and had to laboriously retrace my steps, then try a different route, until I recognized my surroundings. Soon, however, I sensed other sisters nearby. Though they gave no sign, I could hear their footsteps and an occasional whisper. They had been worried, as the Goddess said, and they were waiting for me. Now they formed a silent escort, following behind. As I approached the Shrine Beneath the Rocks, they began softly to sing:
Fiery queen of stars and air,
Mother of rock and stream;
You inhabit the Seven Hills,
And shine below the Earth:
Accept our gift, accept our gift,
And be our saving Guide.
At last I took the final few steps, found the lustral basin which stood at the entrance to the shrine, and sprinkled myself with purifying water. Then I was enfolded in the arms of a great many sisters, and there were glad shouts of “Lucia, Lucia!” and “Goddess be praised!” I was led forward, and my blindfold was removed. I opened my eyes to more light than I had ever seen in Romalia, a profusion of torches. The shrine of the Good Goddess on the Aventine Hill was closed to all men, and its inner sanctum lay in the mouth of a cave. I stood now in a cavern, spacious by Romalian standards, which must be a deeper part of that cave.
Thana was there, and Atilia, the priestess of the Good Goddess who supervised the shrine and had charge of its healing operations. Above, I knew, was a dispensary for herbs, a spring with healing properties, and a building full of gifts left by grateful patients: legs modeled in clay or wax, and eyes and ears and breasts and wombs. The crowd here was the largest I recalled since coming to Romalia. I spotted Theodora, standing head and shoulders above the others, and the flash of Drusilla’s short blond hair.
Now I received congratulations, and enjoyed a dish of salt-and-vinegar pork, from a sow which Atilia had sacrificed earlier that day. I was sure they all wanted to know what had kept me so late, but out of a kind of delicacy, no one mentioned my journey except Anna, who asked in her blunt way whether the Goddess had been with me.
“If she walked with you, it means you’ll be able to consult her using a token. Some of us, like Thana, have the ability to hear her answers, when she wishes to be heard. The Goddess speaks even to me, when I pray among the goats. Others feel an inward push or pull as they use the token.”
“How do you know what object to use?” I wondered. Thana had a fragment of sculpture from an ancient ruined temple of the Dawn Mother, yet another of the Goddess’ many names. Drusilla used a tiny silver horn which had been placed on a thong around her neck when she was exposed as an infant—a gift from her mother, she believed. Anna herself had a twist of cloth cut from the bandages she wore when the sisters nursed her back to health. She had worn it around her wrist to reminder her of their love, until it became her token.
“The knowledge comes to you after you walk with the Goddess,” she replied, “but it may take a few days. It will happen when your mind is on something else, so don’t be anxious or think too hard.”
But as soon as I awoke the next morning, I knew what I needed. I went to Prisca and asked her to save the knucklebones from the kid used in the sacrifice before my Ordeal. These are the little bones closest to the hoof, shaped like elongated cubes, which serve Roman children for dice. I remember playing with them as a child, though they were more coveted by boys. Prisca had already disposed of the hind legs, but she gave me the two front bones after boiling them clean and drying them beside the fire for a couple of days.
I brought these to Thana, to learn more of the art of consultation. She told me that holding a token helps us to recapture the state of mind achieved during the Ordeal, and thus to bring the Goddess near.
“Each sister has her own way,” she said. “I was taught mine by my predecessor as Counselor, a woman of Samnite background named Bantia. I used to speak the words aloud and listen for an answer, as she did, but now in the latter part of my life, I need only form the words mentally, and the Goddess replies. At times, I can consult her even without my token.”
“Does she always answer your questions?”
“No, no,” said Thana with a smile. “Mortals are not meant to know everything the gods do. Sometimes she refuses to answer, and sometimes I am convinced that she herself does not know. Part of the art lies in asking the right questions.”
“Has she ever spoken to you without warning, and laid a command upon you?”
“Only in a dream. You will know if you have such a dream, because you will remember the entire conversation quite clearly.”
“It has happened to me already, in the shrine of Consus. That is why I took so long to complete the Ordeal.” I explained how the Goddess had appeared to me, and what she had said.
Thana’s expression changed at the mention of Caesar’s name. “Gaius Julius Caesar? Long ago, we sisters did him a service, for Bantia had a vision concerning him in that very same shrine of Consus. Oracular power is concentrated there, as in many other places, such as the shrine of Apollo at Delphi.”
I had a fair idea what service the sisters had performed for Caesar, but mindful of Romalian etiquette and anxious to keep my own secrets, I avoided pressing Thana on the subject. “I know that Apollo’s prophet in Delphi is a woman called the Pythia,” I answered, “and that he used to speak to a woman in Neapolis called the Sibyl.” I was eager to learn what Thana could tell me of these women. According to the Greek authors I had read, whenever a Pythia died, another woman was chosen to take her place, and people traveled great distances to see her. “Is Apollo’s wisdom very different from ours?”
“He sees what the Goddess sees, the same branching tree of the future, but he does not speak with his prophets,” said Thana. “He speaks through them. Apollo possesses a woman’s body and uses her mouth to make himself heard. Some find it a pleasure akin to lying with a man, but for others it is violent and painful.”
I shuddered, thinking of Volusius and the unknown man in the tunnel. “The Goddess spoke to me lovingly, almost as a mother speaks to her daughter. I do not envy these women prophets of Apollo.”
“I have never seen the Pythia,” said Thana, “but I spoke once with the Sibyl in the south, when I was a young woman. Her name was Euphemia, and she arrived in Italia with the first Greeks, at the time of the Roman kings. She lived for many hundreds of years, and only died in the time of Cornelius Sulla the Dictator. She was a shrunken thing by then, and had long desired above all else to rest in Orcus, but Apollo would not permit it. Euphemia lived in a deep cave at Cumae, and the Goddess befriended her there. The books she wrote, and offered to King Tarquinius, came from Our Divine Lady, not from Apollo.”
As a former Vestal, I knew of these ancient books. The Sibyl had offered nine to King Tarquinius the Haughty, but he found her price too high. She burned three, and offered the remaining six at the same price. Again he refused, and she burned three more. At last convinced of their value, Tarquinius bought the final three at the original price, and placed them in the new Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol. The Senate used to consult them whenever the city was in danger, but in the year of my birth, the temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest had burned, and the precious volumes had been destroyed. When I was seven, the Senate sent a delegation far and wide through the world, charged with collecting every known verse by the Sibyls of other lands, rejecting the false ones, and distilling the whole into a new set of books for the rebuilt temple.
It occurred to me that women had authored quite a few of Roma’s sacred books, and I said as much to Thana: “There are the Sibyl’s books, and the ritual books which Egeria dictated to her lover, King Numa, and the book of the Tuscan priestess Vegoia, on the interpretation of lightning.”
“Yes. I myself am named after Thanaquil, the Tuscan queen of Roma who was learned in the reading of signs. She too produced guides to divination. All of these women were inspired by our Goddess who rules fire and air, water and earth. Speaking of books, Lucia, it is time for you to see the Romalian Archive, now that you have learned our ways, and met the Goddess in the Ordeal.”
“I have not forgotten your promise,” I answered, smiling. I could hardly wait.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: The information about books written by women is accurate (at least those were the traditions). The only part I changed was to make the source of the Sibylline books my (fictional) Goddess, rather than Apollo. The Romans seem to have been far more willing than the Greeks to attribute sacred learning to women–probably because they were the inheritors of Etruscan traditions.