"Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis
Vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent:
Σιβυλλα τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.”

from T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land on Rap Genius

Meaning

The lines are from the Satyricon of Petronius. Eliot translates:

Indeed, I saw with my own eyes the Cumean Sibyl hanging in a cage, and when the boys were saying to her: “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered: “I want to die.”

The Sibyl’s famed immortality is a point of scholarly contention. Her immortal status is advocated by Richard A. Parker, who elaborates:

Deiphobe, the Sibyl of Cumae, was an oracle. She was granted long life by Apollo, as many years as grains of sand she held in her hand, but she had forgotten to ask to retain her youth. With her aging she withered away and she was suspended in a bottle in the temple of Hercules at Cumae (near Naples).

However, the above analysis disregards and contradicts the content of the three primary mythic accounts of the Sibyl at Cumae (Ovid’s Book XIV of Metamorphoses, Livy 5.1.16,* Virgil’s, Aeneid*: book VI) and conflates the Sibyl’s (albeit similar) mythic dilemma with that of Tythonis.

As she tells Aeneas in Book XIV of Metamorphoses:

Three centuries of sand remain my burden—eroding this body to nothingness. Already reduced, my trembling limbs suffer beneath the weight of long days. An age will come when Apollo, turning his back, will renounce me entirely. For it will seem impossible that I, growing faint and faded as the Fates foretold, could ever have caused passion to burn in a god’s chest. Then, fleeting from view, only my voice will be known."

She has already endured 700 years and has but 300 remaining in her sentence.

Parker also errs on the deity to which the temple at Cumae was devoted (the Sibyl resided in the temple of Phoebus Apollo at Cumae, the Greek colony that was both the reported location of the entrance to the underworld and the location of the labyrinth and its Minotaur), as well as in his claim that “she had forgotten to ask to retain her youth.” This is not quite right. The Sibyl was favored by Apollo and was offered years of non-aging life equal to the number of grains in a handful of sand she cast at Apollo’s feet—in exchange for her virginity.

When Apollo went to make good on the exchange, the Sibyl backed out and wouldn’t yield her virtue to him. Apollo punished her, making her live out the years agreed upon while aging as normal flesh. So the myth here is close to but not quite the same as Thithonis, who does forget to ask for eternal youth.

Another interpretation holds that the sibyl, being a prophet, wants to die because she knows the future. Eliot’s poem predicts an awful collapse of civilization and, terrified by this, the sibyl seeks suicide.

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