THE APENNINE SIBYL
A MYSTERY AND A LEGEND
FROM EARTHQUAKES TO AN APENNINE SIBYL AND
A LAKE OF PONTIUS PILATE:
A NEW CONJECTURE ON THE ORIGIN OF THE
LEGENDARY TRADITION OF THE SIBILLINI MOUNTAIN
RANGE IN ITALY1
1 Released on November 15th 2021 on https://www.researchgate.net/ and https://www.academia.edu/
1. Seismic land and generation of legends
Earthquakes and ancient legendary tales: could it be that the peculiar
seismic character of a territory may have inspired attempts by antique local
populations to develop prescientific accounts on the origin of shocks and
tremblors, involving the elaboration of oral narratives aimed at providing a
mythical explanation as to the generation of earthquakes?
This is what possibly occurred, in times as ancient as the Iron Age, at the
very center of pre-Roman Italy: the elaboration by Sabines and Picenes of a
complex legendary structure, unfolding across many centuries, which was
shaped to deal with tremblor-induced terror and involved the definition of
rituals aimed at protecting local settlements from recurrent seismic
destruction. A legendary structure which is now totally lost to us, but whose
faint remnants are still visible and readable in later unexplained legendary
narratives, whose original meaning is to be unveiled according to this new
original, conjectural scenario.
The seismic land which has repeatedly been struck by earthquakes over the
millennia is the Sibillini Mountain Range, a portion of the Italian
Apennines; and the renowned, unexplained legendary narratives which
have inhabited the same region for many centuries, possibly shielding from
view an earlier legendary framework connected to earthquakes, are the
ancient tales concerning the Sibyl's Cave and the Pilate's Lake.
Fig. 1 - Sibillini Mountain Range, Italy
This new, unprecedented conjecture was set forth by Italian physicist and
writer Michele Sanvico in a series of papers released on Academia.edu and
Researchgate.net from 2017 to 2020. A reasoned, consistent research which
casts a new light on the illustrious legendary framework which lives amid
the peaks of the Sibillini Mountains and was once widely known
As fully highlighted by the researcher, the fifteenth-century tales which are
retrieved in Andrea da Barberino's romance Guerrino the Wretch,
connected to the presence of an Apennine Sibyl concealed beneath the
cliffs of the Sibillini Mountain Range, and Antoine de la Sale's account The
Paradise of Queen Sibyl, which narrates of both a sibilline subterranean
kingdom and a demonic Lake which allegedly houses the burial place of
Pontius Pilate, are not of local origin: they both came from distant lands
and settled in a specific location in central Italy where possibly older
legends were present already.
Both are to be considered as literary layers which seem to have been
superimposed to a basic mythical core connected to the presence of a
sinister Cave and Lake on what is known today as Mount Sibyl and Mount
2. The Sibyl that wasn't there
A main starting point in the investigation of the origin of the legendary tale
of an Apennine Sibyl set on Mount Sibyl, in the Italian mountainous region
set between the provinces of Umbria and Marche, is the fact that, before the
fifteenth century, we cannot retrieve any previous literary reference about
an oracular Sibyl who allegedly lived in that area of the central Apennines2.
Nothing is reported about the presence of a Sibyl in the Reductorium
Morale written by Petrus Berchorius, a French monk and abbot, at the mid
of the fourteenth century, a work in which he mentions the sinister renown
of a magical Lake of Norcia, yet no words are spent on a sibilline abode
laying in the same area; and no reference to any Sibyls is contained in the
verses written in fourteenth-century Dittamondo by Fazio degli Uberti, a
2 Sanvico M., The Apennine Sibyl: a journey into history in search of the oracle, 2018, doi:
poet from Tuscany, on a gloomy mount and Lake of Pilatus. And no Sibyl
is mentioned, either, in the Charters of the Municipality and People of the
Land of Norcia (Statuti del Comune et Populo della Terra di Norcia), a
collection of laws and rules dating to the same century.
If we push ourselves further back, we jump straight (owing to the lack of
any other relevant references) to the fourth century, with Lucius Caecilius
Firmianus Lactantius and his De divinis institutionibus adversus gentes, in
which the Latin author enumerates a list of ten Sibyls, considered by
scholars as a classical standard catalogue: however, only three are the
Sibyls connected to Italy (the Cumaean, the Cimmerian and the Tiburtine).
And it can be easily determined, from a number of well-known literary
references, that no one of them features any relation to the Sibillini
Even the Tabula Peutingeriana, which comes to us from the times when the
Roman Empire was a ruling power, makes available no information on a
possible sibilline site in the region set between the ancient provinces of
Picenum and the river Tiber. The specific area in the Tabula where the
Sibillini Mountain Range raises its peaks appears to be empty.
Fig. 2 - The area of today's Sibillini Mountain Range in the Tabula Peutingeriana (Codex Vindobonensis
no. 324, Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Wien)
So the legendary tale which concerns a Sibyl of the Apennines seems to
pop up from a sort of literary void at the beginning of the fifteenth century:
a sign that the investigation into the tale's origin must take a different
course, if we really want to fill that void.
3. The Apennine Sibyl as an extraneous legend
The Sibyl who, according to Andrea da Barberino and Antoine de la Sale,
allegedly found an abode in the Sibillini Mountains, Italy, actually
originates from a most illustrious literary lineage, as she is connected to the
characters of Morgan le Fay and her companion Sebile, who both belong to
the Matter of Britain; this is a connection that can be fully retraced across
an extended collection of medieval romances and poems staging the two
necromancers and their magical, concealed realms3.
As a matter of fact, 'Sibyl' is a traditional character that is often present
within the romances and poems belonging to the Matter of Britain and the
Arthurian cycle. Her first appearance in written literature as a powerful
necromancer, just as powerful as Morgan le Fay, King Arthur's half-sister,
and with a potential reference to Vergil's Cumaean Sibyl, dates back to
1185 and the poem Erec, written by German poet Hartmann von Aue. From
that time on, in many medieval works Sibyl began to be staged as Morgan's
companion and best friend, with an increasing confusion and mix-up
between the figures of the two enchantresses.
Lechery, captivity of knights, and magical dwellings set beneath castles and
mountains, in one case raising even in Italy, were all characters attached to
Morgan across a number of works, including Li Hauz Livres di Graal,
Parzival, Lestoire de Merlin, Le Livre d'Artus, Claris et Laris, Floriant et
Florète, Ly Myreur des Histors. Following von Aue's Erec and an incessant
flow of oral narratives, the same traits were also conferred to Morgan's
companion, Sebile, staged jointly with her fellow-enchantress as in Le
Livre de Lancelot del Lac, Prophécies de Merlin and La Chanson
d'Esclarmonde, or even as a principal character as in Wartburgkrieg and
Perceforest: an unrelenting journey across the centuries, which also
includes Huon de Bordeaux, in which a lady called Sebile lives in a
3 Sanvico M., Birth of a Sibyl: the medieval connection, 2019, doi: 10.5281/zenodo.4007828, 4007836
magical castle guarded by metal contrivances similar to the enchanted
doors mentioned by Antoine de la Sale, and Huon d'Auvergne, featuring a
necromantic dame who lives under a mountain.
Fig. 3 - The passage on «Sebile l'enchanterresse» from the Prophécies de Merlin (manuscript Additional
MS 25434, British Library, folium 173r)
A complete list of literary references including a significant number of
mentions of the character and deeds of 'Sebile', the powerful enchantress
staged in many chivalric poems and romances which are part of the Matter
of Britain, is presented in the dedicated paper Birth of a Sibyl: the medieval
connection, fully supporting the inference that the narrative which concerns
an Apennine Sibyl is not original of the Sibillini Mountain Range, as it has
to be considered as an offspring of this illustrious, extraneous, northern-
European literary tradition.
The above scenario seems to point straight to a transplant of a version of
the story of Morgan and Sebile into the remote peaks of the Sibillini
Mountain Range: a mountainous chain which seemed fit enough, for some
unspecified reasons, to host a legendary narrative centered on a
necromantic Sibyl housed in a Cave set beneath a rocky crest. A Sibyl that
was not born there, as it is now clear that she belongs to a different
mythical tradition coming from northern, far-off countries.
The Sibyl of the Apennines as an offspring of the negromantic character of
'Sebile' widely present in the Matter of Britain: though overlooked by most
of the researchers who across the decades have confronted with the specific
issue concerning Mount Sibyl, this relationship was already highlighted in
the past by illustrious academics (Lucy Ann Paton, Ferdinando Neri, Roger
S. Loomis) withouth turning into the principal focus of their investigations.
Time has come now to fully address this fascinating topic and push the
enquiry further ahead along a path that will lead to significant findings.
4. Pontius Pilate as an extraneous legend
In the Sibillini Mountain Range, a few miles away from Mount Sibyl and
the alleged abode of an apennine oracle, lies another arcane geographical
setting: a Lake set within the glacial cirque of Mount Vettore, whose name
was connected to the figure of Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect of Judaea
from 26 A.D. to 36 A.D., an official of the Roman Empire who played a
key role in the Passion of Jesus Christ. The Lake is considered by tradition
as the prefect's cursed resting place, as attested by Antoine de la Sale in his
work, with his lively and ghastly description of a chariot drawn by
buffaloes rushing straight into the icy waters of the Lake together with the
However, as it is fully known to scholars, the tradition concerning the
legendary fate of Pontius Pilate was not born here: a vast number of literary
witnesses exist, across Europe and over many centuries, which tell the tale
of the ultimate resting place of the Roman prefect, a tale which has no
connection with the Italian Apennines4.
After reading the words that were written on Pilate by classical authors
such as Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, and, of course, the
passages which mention Pilate in the canonical Gospels, the main line of
investigation follows the works of the Fathers of the Church who, since the
earliest centuries of Christianity, addressed a tricky issue: did Pilate
actually make substantial efforts to set Jesus free from the accusations that
were made against him by the Jews? Or, did he eventually leave the Son of
God to his doom of death on the Cross? Across the centuries, different
4 Sanvico M., A legend for a Roman prefect: the Lakes of Pontius Pilate (2019), doi:
10.5281/zenodo.4008243, 4008248, 4008254
answers were pronounced which led to consider the Roman prefect either
as a saint or a servant to the Evil.
During the centuries of the Middle Ages many apocryphal works on
Pontius Pilate, including the Epistola Pilati, the Gesta Pilati, the De Vita
Pilati, the Anaphora Pilati, the Paradosis Pilati, the Legenda Aurea and
others), used to circulate throughout Europe, certainly arising from a mesh
of oral tales which were narrated before fascinated audiences belonging to
all social classes, and attracting ever-growing legendary accounts on his
life, deeds, final prosecution by an almost Christianised Emperor, be it
Tiberius or Vespasian, and final death.
This collection of tales on Pilate also provided many details on his ultimate
resting place as well. Actually, there was more than one single resting
place. And all such places were infested by demons. Be it the Tiber in
Rome, or the river Rhône by the French town of Vienne, or a marsh or a pit
in the Swiss Alps, the fiendish corpse of Pontius Pilate was not to find any
rest: demons awaited his arrival and rejoiced in his company, arousing
storms and tempests at the very spot of the prefect's burial.
Fig. 4 - The corpse of Pilate is finally thrown into an abyss amid the mountains (the words 'pit' and
'montibus' are highlighted) in the Legenda Aurea from manuscript NAL 1747, preserved at the
Bibliothèque Nationale de France (folium 93v)
This is no different from what Antoine de la Sale narrated in his The
Paradise of Queen Sibyl, dating to the first half of the fifteenth century: in
the vicinity of Mount Sibyl, a Lake of Pilate housed exactly the same story,
with the addition of a chariot and buffaloes, a canonical image of the
Triumph of Death. And his story portrays the same sort of tempests.
However, not a single manuscripted work belonging to the medieval
tradition on the cursed burial place of Pilate ever mentions the Apennines
or the region around Mount Sibyl as one of Pontius Pilate's haunted resting
The legendary narration is certainly the same, but the Lakes of Pilate and
the Sibillini Mountain Range do not seem to be part of it. Especially when
we consider that the earliest retrievable mention about our Italian Lake, as
found in Petrus Berchorius' Reductorium Morale, does report about the
presence of demons, but at the same time does not provide any mention of
the name of Pilate.
Therefore, it is easily inferred that the legend was not born here: as a matter
of fact, it was transplanted to this place, deeply set within the glacial cirque
of Mount Vettore, as an extraneous mythical material. And the myth was
possibly transferred to this location around the beginning of the second half
of the fourteenth century, a date which is pointed to by the peculiar
presence of the chariot and buffaloes, a possible iconographic reference to
the plague that ravaged Italy and Europe after the year 1347, with the
chariots being used for the transportation of corpses.
5. A fundamental question: why right here?
As a result of the preceding investigation, we find ourselves with a
complex of legendary tales which lives amid the peaks of the Sibillini
Mountain Range, a portion of the Italian Apennines at the center of the
peninsula. The tales are connected to a Cave (an Apennine Sibyl on the top
of Mount Sibyl) and a Lake (the resting place of Pontius Pilate on the top
of Mount Vettore).
However, we are now certain that the two tales, mutually independent
though living a few miles away from each other, were not born here.
The Sibyl of the Apennines comes down from a similar character fully
belonging to the Matter of Britain: Sebile, the necromancer, friend and
alterego of Morgana. And Pontius Pilate, with his demonic burial place, is
rooted in the well-known medieval tradition concerning the fate of the
Roman prefect and the many graves for his cursed corpse.
The two independent, mutually unrelated tales appear to have both settled
in the same area, the Sibillini Mountain Range. They colonized a Cave and
a Lake set only a few miles away from each other, and began to enjoy a
significant renown from the fifteenth century onwards, with visitors
coming to the two sites from all over Europe, looking for the hidden realm
of a sensual Sibyl and in search of a demonic place for the consecration of
spellbooks, as attested by many literary witnesses across the subsequent
Philological research, which started on the subject at the end of the
nineteenth century, soon had to confront with questions which seemed to be
unanswerable. Nobody, amid the many scholars who have been dealing
with the Sibillini Mountain Range's legendary heritage, could figure out the
possible reasons that led so illustrious, extraneous tales, which were born
elsewhere, to settle down amid these remote fastnesses, certainly not a
prominent location in Italy.
Fig. 5 - A vision of the Sibillini Mountain Range showing the positions of the Lake of Pilate and the
Why did a Sibyl and a Roman prefect, belonging to heterogeneous,
unrelated legendary traditions, come and deposit themselves right into the
position marked by these distant Italian mountains, like balls spinning on a
roulette wheel? What sort of unidentified local factor, possibly linked to
any peculiar nature of this region, was so remarkable as to generate a
powerful mythical attraction for highly-emotional legendary narratives
coming from foreign territories and traditions?
Can we provide any answer to such questions? Yes, because if we proceed
further into our investigation and lift the fog cast on the whole matter by
the presence of medieval, extraneous layers we may get a glimpse of what
And what lies beyond appears to be an older, almost-forgotten, original
6. A legend before the legends
If we remove the two literary layers concerning an Apennine Sibyl and
Pontius Pilate, which are to be considered as additional legendary overlays,
and we start to look attentively into the underlying characters of the
legends which mark the two sites, the Cave and the Lake in the Sibillini
Mountain Range, we get glimpses of some sort of different narrative: a
narrative that was already there; a narrative that had nothing to do with
Sibyls and antique Roman prefects. Something that seems to preexist the
two additional, extraneous legendary layers.
Some older legend, lying underneath, seems to have attracted the two
illustrious tales of Sebile/Morgan and Pilate to the Sibillini Mountains; and
traces of it can be found in certain common features which can be retrieved
within the Cave's and Lake's traditions, just below the visible layers which
stage a Sibyl of the Apennines and a first-century Roman prefect.
A thorough investigation of the available sources shows that common,
original traits can be highlighted with relation to the two distinct tales
which concern the Sibyl's Cave and the Lake of Pilate: both legends feature
a number of shared aspects, namely the performance of necromantic rituals
at the two sites, the presence of legendary demons at the Cave and Lake,
and devastation and tempests oddly arising from both places when
necromancy is performed, as reported by many authors from the fourteenth
century onwards. All listed aspect are thoroughly highlighted in literature
and analysed in a specific, dedicated paper5.
The first and second shared aspects both point to some sort of magical,
supernatural, legendary presences which may have found an abode under
the Lake's icy waters and in the inner recesses of the Cave; the third trait,
which relates to an odd, puzzling phenomenon originating from the Cave
and Lake, i.e. the raising of tempests that would allegedly sweep and
ravage the surrounding land, is a feature that has always been completely
overlooked by scholars; on the contrary, it makes up a most significant
piece of information when considered in the light of a comprehensive
enquiry into the true origin of the legendary narratives which live in the
Sibillini Mountain Range, as we will see later in this same paper.
Necromancy, demonic presence, raising of tempests; and a forth common
element is also extant: the marks of the presence of some sort of
Fig. 6 - A miniature from a Les Visions du chevalier Tondal, a French manuscripted version of the Vision
of Tnugdalus dating to 1475 and preserved at the Getty Museum
5 Sanvico M., Sibillini Mountain Range: the legend before the legends (2019),
Amid the most remarkable elements that the Sibillini Mountain's tradition
received from earlier otherwordly accounts we find the magical 'test
bridge'6, narrow as a razor's edge but widening itself when trodden by a
true, righteous soul, a narrative item which is part of a most renowned
literary tradition spanning through Europe across a thousand years, and
throughout the Middle Ages; and the magical ever-slamming doors7, a
metal device which is retrieved in a number of different forms in many
chivalric romances and poems: a narrative legacy which comes from very
antique times, and can ultimately be traced in Vergil's Aeneid (the gates of
Tartarus) and Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica (the Symplegades).
Fig. 7 - A seventeenth-century print showing the ship Argo as it passes through the clashing rocks of
Symplegades, preserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
6 Sanvico M., Antoine de la Sale and the magical bridge concealed beneath Mount Sibyl (2018), doi:
7 Sanvico M, The literary truth about the magical doors in "The Paradise of Queen Sibyl" (2018), doi:
These are literary items which seem to mark the presence of an
otherwordly narrative. Has the Sibillini Mountain Range ever been
considered as a possible passageway to some sort of Otherworld in a
The answer might be in the affirmative, because as we proceed further into
our investigation we find a number of patent narrative links to other
renowned tales concerning classical and medieval journeys into the
Otherworld, including Vergil's Aeneid, with the Cumaean Hades; St.
Patrick's Purgatory at Lough Derg, Ireland; and various early-Christian and
medieval visions accounting for legendary visits to a realm of the dead or a
demonic Hell, as we will see in the next paragraph.
7. The Lake and Cave: entryways to an otherwordly realm
We believe that the correct path we need to tread if we want to unveil the
true core of the legends of the Sibillini Mountain Range leads to a specific,
and somewhat unexpected, keyword: Otherworld8.
Otherworld: a most ancient dream that men have been dreaming since the
earliest antiquity when confronting with life and death, mortality and the
divine, and, after the rise of the Christian era, the ultimate truths of
salvation and punishment.
At a closer scrutiny, the legendary tales of the Sibyl's Cave and the Lake of
Pilate appear to be marked by a number of otherwordly narrative elements.
In the account written by Antoine de la Sale, a test bridge of supernatural
narrowness crosses a frighftul abyss, but it gets wider as you tread on it, a
typical contrivance dating back to Pope Gregory the Great's Dialogues and
then present in a number of medieval visionary writings. Metal doors are
also present, magically slamming day and night with a ceaseless crushing
motion, a sort of device which is found in earlier chivalric works and is
connected to otherwordly descriptions contained in the Aeneid and in the
Greek myth of the Symplegades. Crystal rooms await the visitors in the
Sibyl's Cave, the clear sign of an afterlife setting. And the Lake is openly
8 Sanvico M., Sibillini Mountain Range, a cave and lake to the Otherworld (2020), doi:
indicated as an entrance to Hell in an excerpt drawn from Petrus
Berchorius, written in the fourteenth century. The Lake itself is called 'Lake
Avernus' in a manuscripted diagram dating to the sixteenth century, thus
marking a remarkable narrative correspondance with the famous, classical
entryway to the House of Hades set in Cumae.
Fig. 8 - The Lakes set in the Sibillini Mountain Range as depicted in the sixteenth-century diagram found
in manuscript Vat Lat 5241 (folium 9v)
An entryway to the Otherworld: since time immemorial this has been an
impious craving housed in the soul of men. A dream, a desire for a vision of
the afterlife, a longing for prohibited communications with the dead, a
quest for obtaining forbidden wishes. And the search for an ultimate truth.
A well-established Western tradition narrates the ghastly journeys
performed by visionary heros in otherwordly realms. In classical antiquity,
Ulysses and his visit to Hades, then Aeneas and his journey into the
Avernus, with the Cumaean Sibyl as a guide. And subsequently, the visions
of early Christianity: St. Paul and his visionary dreams of Hell, Pope St.
Gregory I the Great with his soldier, the first in a series of knights
travelling to the Otherworld. And, then again, Ireland, with its medieval
descriptions of appalling journeys into the excruciating torments and
punishments inflicted to the sinners: the Vision of St. Adamnán, the Vision
of Tnugdalus, and the Purgatory of St. Patrick.
But only two are the journeys that are utterly special, the travels into the
Otherworld par excellence: these are travels that are performed not in a
mere vision, but in actual reality. With a man's physical body.
In the Western literary tradition, two are the most renowned places on Earth
where to initiate such a horrifying travel. Two 'hot spots'. Two crevices
pierced in the continuity of our ordinary world. Two fissures, dreadfully
opened to legendary physical visions of a subterranean, chthonian Hell.
The first is at Cumae, by the Lake Avernus, in southern Italy. And the
second is at the Purgatory of St. Patrick, Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, in
At those two sites, living men could be so fool as to make an attempt at
crossing the gates which must never be crossed. Two passageways to the
Otherworld. Two entryways to an afterlife inhabited by legendary demonic
The two traditional entrances were widely known throughout the Middle
Ages and across the entire Europe. They had been the subjects of many
literary works, from the Aeneid to the Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti
Patricii and the Legenda Aurea. People engaged themselves in difficult
journeys as far as the two listed locations with the aim to see, and cross, the
contact points between two worlds, which are normally separated: the
world of the living, and the realm of the dead.
Fig. 9 - The Lake of Avernus, Cumae, Italy
By an odd chance, not due to any specific, traceable reason, both sites were
indicated by the same pair of landmarks: a lake and a cave for both, two
landforms which fully identified the two sites on the surface of Earth, and
were known as such.
Why Cumae and Lough Derg? Why did passageways to the Otherworld
happen to settle exactly in those two locations? Caves were in the volcanic
soil of Cumae, that were filled to the vaulted ceilings with mephitic gases,
which induced dreams, and sometimes a horrible death. A cave was also to
be found at Lough Derg: on entering, sleep overwhelmed the already
exhausted pilgrims, who then dreamt and had nightmares, possibly out of
the lack of breathable air, and, maybe, owing to the presence of poisonous
gases arising from the marshy ground.
Fig. 10 - Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, Ireland
Lake Avernus and its cave at Cumae. Lough Derg and its cave in Ireland.
But a third set of landmarks, similarly made up by a Lake and a Cave, was
possibly present in central Italy as well. It was the Sibyl's Cave and the
Lake of Pilate in the Sibillini Mountain Range. Set only a few miles away
from each other.
The same geographical configuration, as at Cumae and Lough Derg. A
demonic presence registered and necromantic rituals being performed at
this third Italian site, too. Otherwordly traits, which marked the two
landforms amid the Apennines, too.
Many narrative resonances can be traced between the legendary tradition
which lives amid the peaks of the Sibillini Mountain Range and Cumae on
one side, and between the mountains of the Sibyl and Lough Derg on the
In the fifteenth-century romance Guerrino the Wretch, it is the Apennine
Sibyl herself, endowed with oracular powers as the Cumaean prophetess,
who proclaims her identification with the Cumaean Sibyl in front of the
valiant knight Guerrino: «I want you to know my name. I was called
'Cumaean' by the Romans for I was born in a town in the countryside
whose name is Cumae». And this legendary link to the Cumaean Sibyl
remains visible through the subsequent centuries: less than a hundred years
later, the Cumaean origin of the Apennine Sibyl is mentioned by Ludovico
Ariosto as well, with the following words included in his poem Orlando
Furioso: «[...] the Cumæan Sibyl [...] who fled, in antiquity, to a Cavern in
the territory of Norcia», with a further connection referenced in the same
poetical work («... be it at the Lake Avernus, or at the caves by Norcia...»).
A further, unequivocal links can be retrieved in the sixteenth-century
diagram found in manuscript Vat Lat 5241, in which the Lake set in the
Sibillini Mountain Range is called 'Lake Avernus'.
As to Lough Derg, narrative affinities can be manifestly found between
Henry of Saltrey's Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii, Jacobus de
Varagine's Legenda Aurea, which its account of a descent into the
Purgatory of St. Patrick, and Guerrino the Wretch with its visit to the
Sibyl's abode, with the same invocations raised by the respective heroes to
ask for divine protection, the same 'test bridge' staged by all three authors
(and by Antoine de la Sale as well) in the subterranean regions, and a full
section devoted by Andrea da Barberino to a journey into St. Patrick's
Purgatory made by his knight Guerrino, immediately following his
successful escape from the Sibyl's Cave. And another ghastly connection
can be found, as we read the words contained in Gerald of Wales'
Topographia Hibernica which describe the demons at the lake of St.
Patrick's Purgatory ravaging the bodies of the unwary visitors: the same
treatment that awaits the men that are cast into the Lake of Norcia as
depicted by Petrus Berchorius in his Reductorium morale.
Thus the many similarities which are manifestly found among the three
sites, Cumae, Lough Derg and the Sibillini Mountain Range, all including a
lake and a cave and a local otherwordly tradition, appear to have fostered
many narrative contaminations, mainly from the two most famous ones to
the less known Apennine site. Across many centuries, local residents,
wayfarers, oral storytellers and men of letters spread the word about this
amazing Lake and Cave concealed amid the ridges of the central
Apennines, in Italy, by adding to their wondrous accounts a number of
narrative elements taken from the famed legendary tales of the Cumaean
Sibyl and St. Patrick's Purgatory, also marked by lakes and caves.
The nature of this connection between the three sites is merely narrative, as
no actual, specific historical link has ever existed between the Sibyl's Cave
and the Lake of Pilate, on one side, and the legendary tales concerning
Cumae and the Purgatory of St. Patrick, on the other. The three locations
were too far from each other to develop any common, coordinated
legendary framework. Their respective lores were totally independent from
one another. Just an overall affinity, though patently manifest, linked the
three places together: presence of a lake, presence of a cave, and the
existence of a legendary physical passageway to an Otherworld, which
attracted visitors, be they pilgrims or necromancers.
So all the clues seem to indicate that in this third, specific location of
Europe, amid the Sibillini Mountain Range, by a Lake and a Cave, mortal
beings like Aeneas, like Owein, may have made actual attempts to access a
different world, normally forbidden to the living: a realm of dead souls, a
kingdom which was set under the rule of non-human entitities, of a divine,
terrifying nature. A chthonian, subterranean Otherworld.
In this promising research framework, a number of questions can be stated:
why should this Apennine site have been considered as a further entryway
to the Otherworld? If the above assumption were true, what kind of
Otherworld was this? What sort of dreadful dreams did men conceive by
the Lake and Cave set on the mountains of the Apennines, in central Italy?
A passageway to some sort of demonic presence. An access that was to be
unlocked by means of necromantic rituals. A point of contact with a
subterranean Otherworld. A 'hot spot', a crevice drilled into the mountains
to establish an appalling communication with the chthonian powers
beneath. A break in the continuum of our ordinary world, providing an
access to a forbidden, inhuman realm.
«Descendunt in infernum viventes»: «they descend alive into Hell», so
wrote Petrus Berchorius in his fourteenth-century Reductorium Morale,
quoting from the Book of Psalms. He was writing about the Lake of
Norcia, in the Sibillini Mountain Range9.
Fig. 11 - A descent into Hell, the Lake of Norcia, as taken from the Reductorium Morale by Petrus
Berchorius (manuscript Latin 16786, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, folium 301v)
So, the resulting, far-reaching assumption which arises from our research is
that a legendary passageway to some sort of Otherworld might have been
possibly situated, by an antique tradition that left faint traces in the known
literature, among the peaks of central Apennines.
This is the basis of our new supposition: the possible existence of a
legendary credence concerning an entryway to a mythical Otherworld in
central Italy. One of a most terrific, dreadful sort. A crevice in our world,
opened in the mountainous ridges out of sheer terror. Terror for one own's
life. Terror for the fate of one's family. Terror for the ruin of one's land.
Because according to the new conjecture proposed by the author of the
present paper, the nature of this sibilline Otherworld is closely linked to the
intrinsic nature of this Apennine territory, and to a very specific, blood-
curdling word. A word which has always unleashed the deepest fears of
human soul, since the earliest antiquity.
And this word is earthquake.
9 Sanvico M., The Lake of Pilatus in an antique manuscript: Pierre Bersuire and the fourteenth-century
dark renown of Norcia's lake (2018), doi: 10.5281/zenodo.4007806
8. Earthquakes as the key to legends
Following a thorough perusal of the available literary sources, a significant
connection can be established between earthquakes and the local legendary
tradition which inhabits the Sibillini Mountains, in the Italian Apennines10.
Fig. 12 - The hamlet of Castelluccio di Norcia sitting on hill before Mount Vettore, wrecked by the
earthquakes in 2016
The Sibillini Mountain Range is a land of mighty earthquakes. Its peculiar
seismic character, marked by the presence of active, colliding fault lines, is
prominent when compared to other areas in Italy. The region was struck by
destructive earthquakes in 2016; seismic devastations occurred in 1979,
1859, 1730, 1703 (one of the most powerful tremblors ever occurred in
Italy), 1328; references to earlier frightful blows are retrieved in Roman
literature. The effects of historical earthquakes can be seen today on the
very face of the Sibillini mountains, including the large scar that runs
10 Sanvico M., Sibillini Mountain Range, the chthonian legend (2020), doi: 10.5281/zenodo.4008263,
across the western side of Mount Vettore. And several physical effects were
produced on the land and patently made visible by the 2016 seismic shocks,
with the appearance of fractures, holes, displacements across the versants
and valleys. In addition, seismic tremors always accompany local people's
everyday life, with small shocks and short sequences of faint tremblors
occurring all year long, easily perceived in the stillness of the night. And
the acoustic effects of the most powerful earthquakes, like the one that
occurred in 2016, are utterly hair-raising: according to local witnesses, the
very mountains appear to scream and yell as a wounded, demonic beast.
Fig. 13 - The giant fault line which runs across Mount Vettore
In modern times scientific knowledge supports us in controlling our fears
of men living in the twenty-first century. On the contrary, across the Iron
Age, no rational knowledge, no scientific explanation was available to the
local populations of Sabines and Picenes to account for earthquakes and the
terror unleashed by land shaking. They could only resort to myth, with the
generation of appropriate legendary narratives. So a conjecture can be put
forth that some rituals might have been performed at the two geographical
landmarks, the Cave on the top of Mount Sibyl and the Lake set within the
glacial cirque of Mount Vettore, not far from one another, in a tentative —
and actually hopeless — effort carried out by local populations to establish
a dreadful communication link with the mighty chthonian potencies, of a
demonic nature, who were concealed beneath the ground: fiendish beings
who supposedly lived under the mountains and, in people's opinion,
possibly presided over the earthquakes.
Archeological campaigns carried out in the Italian provinces of Umbria,
Marche and Latium during the last thirty years have shown that Sabines
and Picenes used to dedicate highland shrines — small sites marked by the
presence of votive deposits and placed in selected locations on hilltops,
mountain-sides, water springs and along main trails — to the worship of
local deities: a specific mark of the culture and territorial presence of the
populations which inhabited the Apennines during the Iron Age.
Fig. 14 - Small bronze statues of warriors dating to the fifth century B.C. found in the votive deposit at
the highland shrine of Ancarano of Norcia (Vatican Museums)
So it can be conjecturally envisaged that highland shrines might have been
established at the Lake and Cave too, on the elevated locations where
Mount Sibyl and Mount Vettore raise their cliffs. Offerings and other rituals
could have been performed at both sites in ancient times.
Fig. 15 - The crowned peak of Mount Sibyl
It can be imagined that the elderly in local communities possibly used to
bequeath to the younger generations a collection of tales about their
forefathers, who had been struck by the earthquakes in earlier times and
had seen the mountains yell and rupture. They had ascended the cliffs to
implore the mercy of the mountains themselves, the abode where the
demons lived. They knew that some sort of fiendish being or beings resided
under the rocky peaks. And the Lake and Cave, both being impressive
landmarks set amid elevated crests, were possibly considered as suitable
points of access to the demonic Otherworld: locations where a supernatural
communication between human beings and vicious deities was reputed to
The whole set of religious credences concerning the earthquakes was
possibly wiped out from the region by the subsequent Roman conquest
(third century B.C.). Romans basically embraced Aristotle's prescientific
explanation on the origin of earthquakes, an antique vision that established
a connection between subterranean winds, storms and seismic waves.
According to Aristotles, and then Lucretius, Seneca and Pliny, winds
circulated in the hidden hollows of the earth. Sometimes, winds exerted a
mighty pressure on their subterranean abodes, and their oscillating motion
generated seismic effects on the surface; sometimes, they even succeeded
in escaping their underground prisons, so giving way to powerful storms
which contributed to the overall destruction of the land above.
Fig. 16 - Eerie scenery at today's Lakes of Pilate
So while the men of the Iron Age who lived amid the Apennines had
confronted with the frightful seismic waves which recurrently struck their
territory by possibly imagining a ghastly dream of demonic gods lurking
beneath their mountains, the Greeks and Romans followed an utterly
different path, impervious as it was in the lack of any solid scientific
foundations, and yet based on fully natural, worldly considerations, with no
need to introduce any god or demon: a path that will eventually lead the
culture of the Western world to modern science as we know it today. A path
that also led, in Roman and medieval times, to the total abandonment of
any previous mythical explanation of tremblors as possibly caused by
demonic gods supposedly living beneath the ground.
Fig. 17 - Earthquakes and winds from Pliny the Elder's Naturalis historia (from the first printed edition,
Venice, 1469), p. 20
Memory of all conjectural Sabine and Picene traditions got lost; however,
the mythical might of the Sibillini Mountains, fuelled by recursive
earthquakes, seems to have persisted across the centuries, attracting
extraneous legendary tales with a demonic penchant (Sibyl, Pilate) to these
remote peaks. And magical tempests, the classical explanation for
earthquakes as found in classical authors, and still associated with both the
Cave and the Lake in the renowned medieval legendary complex, might be
just the faint legacy of an Iron Age legendary structure which has gone
totally lost: the vanishing smoke of a gun that is no longer there.
9. Sibillini Mountain Range: through the narrative layers to the legend's
The fnal outcome of our investigation of the legendary tradition which lives
amid the cliffs of the Sibillini Mountain Range, a remote, craggy territory
set in the Italian central Apennines, is the identification of a potential
sedimentation of many different narrative layers.
Our primary starting point was the legendary tale about an Apennine Sibyl.
We saw that this Sibyl of the Apennines seems to have come out at the
beginning of the fifteenth century, as a shining, lonely star, from a sort of
echoing void, an impenetrable mist, from which she began her successful
travel into the subsequent ages. No mention of her dwelling amid the
Sibillini Mountain Range can be retrieved in earlier centuries.
Fig. 18 - The image we presented in the final paragraph of our previous article The Apennine Sibyl: a
journey into history in search of the oracle, with the Sibyl emerging from the mists of time at the
beginning of the fifteenth century (composite image by the author)
So the question was: has that Sibyl really journeyed a long way across the
centuries and through that inscrutable fog, after having started her travel in
ancient times and having remained unseen until she emerged in the
fifteenth century? Or, was she the more recent product of some strange
condensation of that thick, whirling mist, in which her myth took form not
in antiquity, but just very close to the beginning of the fifteenth century?
Did the Apennine Sibyl arise from the condensation of any sort of peculiar
nature of that place, the Sibillini Mountain Range, having been
subsequently clad with additional mythical themes taken from other tales
As our research progressed, we found out that we were on the right track.
In the light of a closer scrutiny, the true lineage of the Apennine Sibyl
started to appear: a Sibyl that comes out from a long, antique tradition
concerning Morgan le Fay and the chivalric tales which are part of the
Matter of Britain, with the character of 'Sebile', friend and companion to
Morgan, filling the void in the centuries which precede the fourteenth.
Fig. 19 - The previous image now completed with the footsteps left by the Sibyl as Morgan's companion
(composite image by the author)
So the metholodogy to be applied in the unfolding of the mysterious origin
of the Sibillini Mountain Range's legendary tradition became clear: all
literary additions conferred to Cave's and Lake's legendary tales
throughout the centuries were to be identified and removed, so as to take
off all the concentric layers and sheltering leaves that encircle and suffocate
the true mythical nucleus, with the aim of cleaning the original mythical
core by wiping out the narrative elements that have been added with time to
the real story: narrative elements that were borrowed from several different
mythical tales across the centuries and the millennia.
In the following diagram, we set out the amazing, fascinating superposition
of narrative layers that insists on the original legendary core which seems
to live in the Sibillini Mountain Range, a core which in our research is
conjecturally connected to the peculiar seismic character of this territory.
Fig. 20 - Sibillini Mountain Range, the superposition of legendary layers as identified and conjectured in
the research elaborated by Michele Sanvico in recent years
In our exploration of the legends of the Sibillini Mountain Range, we have
stumbled upon layers and layers of additional material: literary elements
pertaining to different legendary traditions and tales which seem to have
been superimposed to a basic mythical core connected to the presence of a
sinister Cave and Lake in the area of the Sibillini Mountains.
The first, top-level layer pertains to the local, naive folk tales concerning
dancing fairies with goat-like legs who used to dance at night with the local
peasants and shepherds: simple tales, not dissimilar from many other
narratives which can be found in the Italian Alps or other areas of the
Apennine ridge, and were reported to philologists Gaston Paris and Pio
Rajna during their visit to the Sibillini Mountain Range by the poor
inhabitants of Castelluccio di Norcia and Pretare in 1897.
Beneath this very simple sort of local tales, of more recent origin and
known to local residents even in our present age, we find the medieval
legendary layers concerning the presence of a dwelling for an Apennine
Sibyl and a burial place for Roman prefect Pontius Pilate.
As we could see earlier in this same papers, the presence of a medieval
legendary layer enshrouding the narratives about the Sibyl's Cave and the
Lake of Pilate just cannot be denied: the touch of the characters belonging
to the Matter of Britain, Morgan le Fay and Sebile, is manifest on the
Sibyl's hidden realm, making it a superimposed narrative which is derived
from a northern-European legendary tradition concerning magical castles
and mountains, and featuring as main characters the necromantic figures of
King Arthur's half-sister and her companion Sebile; and, in a same way, the
main elements of Pontius Pilate's medieval tale are patently visible, being
manifestly this second legend an Italian version of the well-known
medieval narrative on Pontius Pilate and his cursed corpse, a tale which has
established an abode into a small Lake nested within the crests of Mount
Vettore. Both tales are to be considered as extraneous, overlaid legends of
foreign origin which found, for reasons connected to the necromantic traits
of the place, a suitable abode in this specific area.
When we stop focusing on the figures of the Apennine Sibyl and Pontius
Pilate, both belonging to a lore which is extraneous to this portion of the
Italian territory, we begin to be able to consider different aspects of the
legends of the Cave and Lake. Aspects that they have in common. Specific
traits that both of them seem to share. Following the identification of the
listed additional legendary layers, we could easily spot the subsequent
layer: a layer which seems to point to the original traits that, according to
the available sources, mark the tales of the Sibyl's Cave and Pilate's Lake.
Both legends feature a number of common aspects, including the
performance of necromantic rituals, the presence of legendary fiendish
beings, and devastations arising from both sites.
And another common trait marks both sites sitting in the middle of the
Sibillini Mountain Range: an otherwordly character, which is found in
literature when passageways to the a realm of dead or demons are
described, from Vergil's Aeneid to the Visio Sancti Pauli Apostoli, the
Dialogues written by Pope St. Gregory the Great, and up to the visits to the
Christian Hell elaborated by the Irish tradition, with the legend of St.
Patrick's Purgatory as the culminating point of a narrative path which has
lasted for more than a thousand years.
What is to be retrieved beneath this ghastly, obscure layer?
Fig. 21 - Italy and the Sibillini Mountain Range, a portion of the Apennine ridge
According to the original conjecture set out by Michele Sanvico, we
possibly find the primeval layer, the legendary core which was so powerful
as to attract to the peaks of the Sibillini Mountain Range a number of
different tales from various sources across Europe. As we explained earlier
in the present paper, this mighty core might be connected to the peculiar
seismic character of this portion of land, and with the conjectural presence,
in times as far in the past as the Iron Age, of a demonic worship linked to
earthquakes and the way to placate them. A founding layer that got lost
already in Roman times, with their prescientific explanations for the
tremblors of the earth, which were reputed to be caused by the pressure
exerted by subterranean winds, sometimes erupting on the surface in the
form of storms.
Layer by layer, leave by leave, we have unfolded the antique literary
envelope which for centuries has concealed the true likeness of the
Apennine Sibyl. A disentanglement process that started from the additional
layers of medieval origin which narrate of a Sibyl and a Roman prefect,
and then proceeded back in time, to the real, deepest core of the legend.
In the above framework, the goal to uncover the true essence of the myth of
the Apennine Sibyl, the inner core of her ancient legend, seems to have
been possibly achieved. We have removed all literary additions conferred to
her legendary tale across the centuries. We have taken off all the concentric
layers that encircle and suffocate her true mythical nucleus, the way a rose
is deprived of the outer petals which shelter the fragrant redolence of its
central heart. We have cleaned her figure by wiping out the narrative
elements that have been added with time to her story, borrowed from
several different mythical tales. We have stripped all her disguises off so as
to be able to see her true, antique semblance.
For the first time after centuries, through a cloudy and apparently
inscrutable fog, consisting of foreign tales which tell stories of Sibyls and
Roman prefects, we have started to get glimpses of the true, common core
of both legends. A core that is possibly connected to the deepest fears of
human soul: the fear of death, the fear of chthonian potencies, the fear of
In 2019, three years after a most destructive seismic wave which struck the
Sibillini Mountain Range and its inhabitants, a man was interviewed by
ANSA Italian news agency. He was an elderly man who used to live in
Castelluccio di Norcia, a settlement that was entirely demolished by the
And the words he uttered, though spoken by contemporary lips, were
«... Suddenly, a Fiend arrives from underneath», he said, «and tears down
everything» (in the original Italian words: «... poi arriva il Diavolo sotto, e
A Fiend arrives, from beneath. And devastates the whole land.
The Iron Age, in the Sibillini Mountain Range, suddenly seems to reach out
to us through an unfathomable span of time: on the eerie, divine, terrifying
waves of earthquakes.