(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

A prefatory scene emphasizes the tale’s timeless character. On the side of a wild mountain, high above the paths beaten by pilgrims on their visits to Delphi’s temple, an old woman lives in isolation with her feebleminded son. Every so often, the morning light reveals a girl, fresh from her bath in a sacred spring, being led by priests to a nuptial rendezvous with the god. The old woman knows the girl’s thoughts and sensations: In her youth, before being cursed by everyone and driven from the city, she had herself served as consort to Apollo.

The novel proper begins with a stranger’s ascent of the stony slope to the Sibyl’s hut. A pilgrim, he was turned away from the oracle because the question he brought was unanswerable. After roaming the city in despair, he was directed into the mountains by an old blind beggar to consult an ancient oracle “who can answer all that a man can ask.” Now that he has found her, he explains his mission by recounting an incident in the distant past “which had scored itself so deeply into his memory that he seemed not to recall anything besides; an event which left his soul no peace.”

The man (implicitly recognizable as Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew) had been enjoying a prosperous, easy life with his wife and young son in a house which faced the road to Calvary. The sight of criminals condemned to crucifixion being led past by the soldiers was a common one. One day, one such prisoner was so exhausted by the task of carrying his cross that he leaned against the house to rest. Ahasuerus, fearing that bad luck might descend on the house through the unfortunate man’s touch, chased him away, and thereby, ironically, earned the crossbearer’s curse: to wander the earth for eternity, never to find rest, even in death. Ahasuerus thought this a strange pronouncement, for mankind had always looked upon immortality as the most wonderful of gifts, not as a punishment; moreover, it seemed a simple matter to ignore the curse and go on living as he had before. His wife, however, immediately saw a terrible agedness in his eyes which began to irradiate their marriage, and she eventually fled with their child. Years later, Ahasuerus learned that the boy had been taken by the plague and that his wife had died after old age had exhausted all of her beauty. In having joylessly survived his family, and all the many subsequent generations, he says, he has carried the burden of the unique destiny of meaningless existence imposed on him by the criminal some now said was a god. He has also learned of a religion based on this god’s teaching of love, but the embittered man has rejected it as absurd.

After Ahasuerus has told his story, the Sibyl invites him into her hut, where, in the presence of her idiot son, she relates her own experience of encountering a god. Reared by pious parents who practiced the religion of nature in its most unsophisticated form, she had been one of the few virgins left in Delphi, a city grown corrupt from its commerce as a sacred site. Her innocence, combined with a susceptibility to suggestion, convinced the priests to select her as the temple’s new oracle. As soon as she was led into the holy cave to spread her legs over a fissure in the earth’s living rock and become the vessel of Apollo, her special affinity for her role was evident; at every festival thereafter, she ate laurel leaves to induce a trance and then received the god, who had taken the appearance of a goat.

The fulfillment the girl initially derived from her ecstasy began eluding her, however, when she understood that the...

(The entire section is 1466 words.)