It turns out that Norcia and the Sibillini mountains are a much, much stranger place than I had thought at first. I've spent way too much time today entranced by reading about the very strange and tangled legends and fairy tales surrounding the Apennine Sibyl, the mysterious and extremely ancient stories of a magical "Lady of the Mountains," "Queen of Sibyls," an enchantress or oracle, that are all over the local area.
The stories about this mysterious figure, who was said to have lived in a magical labyrinth of caverns high up above Castellucio at the peak of Monte Sibilla, seem to have some possible connection to the stories of the Sibyl of Cumae and the story of Aeneas, but there are hints that they could possibly go back even to predate the neolithic.
A rather garbled series of legends about her and her magic, wisdom and natural knowledge go back at least as far as Suetonius and persist with remarkable consistency through the Middle Ages to the 16th century. And there are dolmens and man-made megalithic stone constructions in the higher mountains around here that indicate pre-Christian worship had been going on since before agriculture came here.
For centuries the Sibyl's cave or fairy cave was well known, located on the Monte Sibilla about 2150 m above sea level. It was regarded as a place to go to learn ancient wisdom and secrets. Magicians and sages would bring their books to have them "consecrated" in the lake below the cave by the magical Lady of the Mountain.
As you see above, the cave is still well known, but what is left of it at the surface is quite shallow and was mostly closed by landslides and earthquakes, by the 17th century, but is still called a path to the underworld. The story, that goes back to the 13th or 14th century, is that this cave is only the antechamber to the vast system of caverns that go very deep, where she and her followers lived. She wasthought at that time to be a "fata" which is basically the Italian word for "fairy". There are medieval stories of knights going into the cave system and living there with the fate (plural of "fata" pronounced "fah-tay") and coming out with fantastic stories of an underground paradise and a fairy queen.
Legends of the Sibyl and her magical kingdom were well known among learned men until the 1600s. Most of the stories of her show her to be a benevolent semi-supernatural person who dispensed advice, prophecies and natural knowledge.
Abraham Ortelius' 16th-century atlas, Cartographia Neerlandica, describes her realm:
The Mountain Apennine here looms over the country with exceedingly high cragged tops, in which one finds that huge cave called Sibylla's cave, (in their language Grotta de la Sibylla) and which the poets would have the Elysian Fields. For the common people dream about a certain Sibylla [supposed] to be in this cave, who [is claimed to] possess a large kingdom full of gorgeous buildings and Princely palaces, covered with pleasant gardens, abounding with many fine lecherous wenches and all kinds of pleasures and delights. All of these she will bestow on those who through this cave (which is always open) will come to her. And after they have been there for the period of one whole year, they have the freedom and liberty given to them by Sibylla to depart (if they please) and from that moment, having returned to us, they state that they live a most blessed and happy life ever after. This cave is also known to our countrymen by the name of VROU VENUS BERGH, that is, The Lady Venus mount.
Among the legends of the Sibyl and her maidens/witches/fate is that they came out of their caves and down to Norcia (which would be a heck of a journey on foot) and taught the local village girls secrets of spinning and weaving.
The stories of the Sibyl lasted for a few hundred more years into the 14th century, and then a series of earthquakes and landslides closed off the deeper sections of the caves and now you can only see the remains of the shallow antechamber. In the 19th century amateur archaeologists tried to use explosives to re-open the system, but succeeded only in collapsing more of the first cave. Later investigators claimed that the earlier descriptions of a vast network of caves, forming the "paradise of Queen Sibilla," were nothing more than fanciful tales. In 1946, Caesar Lippi Boncambi wrote in his book "The Sibillini Mountains,"
"Few are the caves, and which do not show any interest in caving. I was able to explore a single cave, barely worthy of the name, famous for the legends which gave rise to the huge literature and historical, romantic and poetic that has flourished around it in Italy and all 'foreign from the Middle Ages to the present day..."His diagram shows a drawing only of a single room a few meters high and deep.
But here's the kicker, modern geological technology has found that there really is a huge system of very deep caves up there, all interconnected with passages:
"Promotion Committee "Cave of the Sibyl Apennines", under the auspices of the Archaeological Survey of Marche (represented locally by Dr. Nora Lucentini responsible for the Province Picena), with the active participation of the Department of Earth Sciences of the ' University Camerino represented by prof. Gilberto Pambianchi and assisted by Dr. Angelo Beano, with funding of members and the Cassa di Risparmio di Ascoli Piceno, promotes the geological and geophysical surveys at the site "Cave of the Sibyl." The scientific report prepared by prof. Pambianchi and dr. Beano is kept in the records of the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of Camerino. From the results of the GPR prospecting confirms the existence of a vast underground complex at the depth of 15 meters below the ground surface, made of labyrinthine tunnels and cavities of the considerable length of about 150 m. The synthesis of the studies published in the Proceedings of the Conference (organized by Project Elissa) "Sibyl Shaman mountain and cave Apennine". The next phase of investigation, which would have provided the coring noninvasive points deemed most significant of the ground level facing the collapsed vestibule, was interrupted."
These legends are so ancient and so consistent that it seems impossible they weren't based on something real. But danged if I can imagine what it would be. It's really mind-boggling. It's hard to imagine how anyone at a neolithic level of technology could have survived for very long up there. The winter conditions are almost arctic with temperatures that can often go down to -40 C. Even now nothing much other than lentils and spelt can be grown in the short season on the Piano Grande at Castelluccio. But it could be remembered that Italy's mountains are all volcanic, and that caves up there could be geothermic, or perhaps could have been once upon a long time ago. Maybe...
Given that the legends of mysterious and magical wise women eventually gave way to more recent confirmed histories of saints and hermits who were mystics and visionaries, I can't help but think I may have come to a genuinely "magical" place. The world is stranger than we think, and while we may not understand it, there is a lot more going on out there than we usually imagine. There is certainly something that strikes you about the place immediately. I've spoken with an American who has lived here who agreed that it had struck him the same way, that it was a lot like living in Narnia or Shangri La. Of course, he only meant it poetically. But now that I'm thinking about it, all this has really got my "Ancient World was Stranger than we Think" antennae going all a-quiver.
At any rate, I'm completely captivated to find these stories right on my doorstep. All through my childhood, I was obsessed with the fairy stories about magical underworld fairy realms that you could get to through certain "weak or thin" spots in the world between our world and theirs. The Twelve Dancing Princesses, the fairy legends of Ireland, and Narnia itself, of course. I thought at that age that I really could find a magic door or stone, and if I just knew what to say or how to say it just right, I could go through. And now it seems I've found a real one, albeit abandoned by them a long time ago.
There's a book about the local Sibyl legends in the trekking book shop. It's in Italian, but that's getting to be less of a problem. There's bits and pieces here, but there's not very much else in English. Here's the Wiki page in Italian about the Sibyl's Cave or the "Grotta delle Fate".
"In the Museum of the Cave of the Sibyl at Montemonaco, is kept a dark stone, called "The Great Stone" which is engraved with mysterious letters and found near Lake. According to legend, this would be the lake Averno from which you enter the world of Underworld."
And the Lake of Pilate that was once called the Lake of the Sibyl and has long been associated with magic and necromancy. Here is a little article by some trekkers on their trip to the Grotta della Maga
When I said I had come here to look for the Door to Narnia, I was more or less speaking metaphorically. But it now occurs to me that I have come to one of the places in the world that are always described as "magical" for more reasons than the scenery and sunsets. If nothing else, I've already got stories and maybe a novel forming in my brain...