The Lesson Of The Leaves
A Roman Legend
In a cave by the seashore lived an old, old woman. This very old woman was also very wise.
She remembered everything that had ever happened and she knew almost everything that was going to happen in her country.
She lived in Italy and was called the Sibyl.
One day a man named Aeneas came to her cave to question her. She was very kind to him. She even took him far down into the center of the earth, Pluto's kingdom, to see those whom Pluto had carried away.
When they came back, Aeneas said he would build a temple to her and have gifts brought to her. She had so much power and was so wise he felt sure she must be more than mortal. But she would not let Aeneas build the temple. Instead she told him her story. It was this:
"Apollo saw me when I was young, and told me to ask him for any gift I would have. We were standing on the seashore. I stooped down and filled my hand with the white sand at our feet.
"'Give me as many birthdays as there are grains of sand in my hand, O Apollo!' I said.
"'It is granted,' said Apollo. But, in my foolishness, I forgot to ask for everlasting youth.
"When one hundred grains of sand had slipped away from the glass in which I placed them all, I was old. My youth was gone.
"Seven hundred grains have slipped through now. I have counted the rest. I shall yet see three hundred springs and three hundred harvests; then the Sibyl will be no more. My body has shriveled. Soon I shall be only a warning voice to the children of men, but I shall live till the grains are gone from that glade. While my voice lasts men will respect my sayings. As long as I live, I will strive to help the human race."
Aeneas went with her into the cave. The leaves were thick on the floor. The Sibyl picked them up and wrote with an eagle's quill on each.
She let him read as many as he wished. He found some of them were warnings to his friends. Some were for people he had never seen. The Sibyl placed them in rows on the ledges of rock inside the cavern.
A fierce wind blew into the cave and carried the written leaves away.
"Save them, O Sibyl!" cried Aeneas.
"My work is to write, Aeneas. I am no man's slave. If he wishes his leaf, he must come for it before the wind takes it away. There are thousands of leaves not written upon yet. But no man may have a second leaf. He must be here on time."
"One leaf, one life!" said Aeneas. "I see your meaning, O Sibyl, and go about my work. My ship shall sail to-day. Each day shall bring me nearer my journey's end, and when I reach my home the leaves on my forest trees shall teach me your lesson over again. I will rise early each day and be the first in all things. Even the winds shall not be quicker than I am in the work it is my duty to do. Farewell."
Here is another story which is told of the Sibyl. It shows that she could write on something beside leaves.
She appeared one day at the king's palace gate with a heavy burden on her back. The keeper let her in.
With a guard on either side the Sibyl was shown into the presence of the king.
The burden proved to be nine large books closely written. She offered them for sale at an enormous price. The king refused to pay it. The Sibyl only smiled and threw three of the books into the open fire. The king had wished to own those three, for he knew that future events were written in them.
"I have now six books and the price is the same as for the nine. Does the king want them?" The king hesitated. While he was thinking what to do, the little old woman threw three more into the fire.
"I have now three books and the price is the same as for the nine. Does the king want them?" And the king said, "Yes," without a minute's waiting, and took the books.
The little old woman vanished. Her thousand years were nearly gone, but her voice was still heard when people visited her cave.
The king searched the three books and found that all things concerning his city, Rome, were foretold in them for hundreds of years. Perhaps many wars and troubles would have been saved if he had bought all the books instead of only three.
It is usually best to decide a matter quickly when one knows that nothing can be gained by waiting.
Sources And Further Reading
Project Gutenberg Classic Myths Retold by Mary Catherine Judd with drawings entirely from classic sources