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The word Sibyl comes (via Latin) from the ancient Greek word sibylla, meaning prophetess. The earlier oracular seeresses known as the sibyls of antiquity prophesied at certain holy sites, probably all of pre-Indo-European origin, under the divine influence of a deity, originally one of the chthonic earth-goddesses. Later in antiquity, sibyls wandered from place to place. Homer seems to have been unaware of a Sibyl. The first Greek writer, so far as we know, who mentions a sibyl is Heraclitus, in the 5th century BCE:
- 'The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.' (Heraclitus, fragment 12)
Sibyls are not identified by personal name, but by names that refer to the location of their temples, including one associated to an unnamed temple in Libya.
The three most famous sibyls throughout their long career were the Delphic, the Erythraean and the Cumaean.
The Sibyls were also represented in publicly available art. Michelangelo fixed our image of the sibyls forever, in his powerful representations of them, seated, both aged and ageless, beyond mere femininity, in the frescos of the Sistine Chapel. The library of Pope Julius II in the Vatican has images of sibyls and they are in the pavement of the Siena Cathedral.
Long after the oracles had been silenced by the Christians in the 4th century, the number of Sibyls was increased in the Middle Ages to as many as twelve, a magical number. See, for example, the Apennine Sibyl. Ten, for Franēois Rabelais, was the proverbial number: How know we but that she may be an eleventh Sibyl or a second Cassandra? (Gargantua and Pantagruel, iii. 16, noted in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1897.
The medieval, Christianized role for the Sibyls was as precursors, prophets of the New Dispensation, Christian allies in a Hellenistic world:
- Dies irae, dies illa
- Solvet saeclum in favilla
- Teste David cum Sibylla.
- ("Day of wrath, o day of mourning, when the world dissolves in the twinkling of an eye, as David foretold, and the Sibyl.")
Delphic Sibyl, the Pythia
The oracle at Delphi was commonly known as the Pythia, though her name was also Herophile. She was the Pythian priestess of Python, an archaic chthonic serpent. Later, Sibyl or Pythia became a title given to whichever priestess manned the oracle at the time. The Sibyl sat on a tripod over a cleft in the Sibylline Rock, gaining her often puzzling predictions from it. She sang her predictions, which she received from Gaia, in an ecstatic swoon; her utterings were interpreted by attendant priests during classical times, and rendered into hexameters of notoriously difficult interpretation. Pausanias claimed that the Sibyl was "born between man and goddess, daughter of sea monsters and an immortal nymph". Others said she was sister or daughter to Apollo. Still others claimed the Sibyl received her powers from Gaia originally, who passed the oracle to Themis, who passed it to Phoebe.
Much has been made of the Pythia's breathing in vapors from the ground and eating laurel leaves. Modern reductionists dismiss the archaic propensity for visions and sometimes attempt to account for the Pythia's swoon with toxic methane or ethylene hydrocarbon vapors — for example, in "Questioning the Delphic oracle," in Scientific American, October 2003. Secular mythographers doubt that the visions of Teresa of Avila would be linked in any comparable way to the effects of sacerdotal wine. As for the eating of laurel leaves, reported everywhere in modern retelling, this comes only from hostile Christian satirists, who were bent on denigrating the oracle, and is not reported in any pagan context. Before descending to the shrine, the Pythia did make a burnt offering of laurel leaves (sacred to Apollo) and barley flour (sacred to Demeter, the Earth Mother, whose presence at Delphi preceded Apollo's). The Pythia is depicted in vase-paintings holding a sprig of laurel, with a laurel-crowned interlocutor.
The Sibyl who most concerned the Romans was the Cumaean Sibyl near the Greek city of Naples, whom Aeneas consulted before his descent to the lower world (Aeneid book VI: 10). It was she who sold to Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome, the original Sibylline books (q.v.). Christians were especially impressed with the Cumaean Sibyl too, for in Vergil's Fourth Eclogue she foretells the coming of a savior, a flattering reference to the poet's patron, whom Christians identified as Jesus.
The Sibylline Books are not the same as the Sibylline Oracles. The Roman Sibylline Books were quite different in character from the preserved Sibylline Oracles, which typically predict disasters rather than prescribe solutions.
The oldest collection of written Sibylline Books appears to have been made about the time of Solon and Cyrus at Gergis on Mount Ida in the Troad. The sibyl, who was born near there, at Marpessus , and whose tomb was later marked by the temple of Apollo built upon the archaic site, appears on the coins of Gergis, ca 400–350 BCE. (cf. Phlegon, quoted in the 5th century geographical dictionary of Stephanus of Byzantium, under 'Gergis'). Other places claimed to have been her home. 'The sibylline collection at Gergis was attributed to the Hellespontine Sibyl and was preserved in the temple of Apollo at Gergis. Thence it passed to Erythrae, where it became famous. It was this very collection, it would appear, which found its way to Cumae and from Cumae to Rome. Gergis, a city of Dardania in Troas, a settlement of the ancient Teucri, and, consequently, a town of very great antiquity (Herodotus iv: 122). Gergis, according to Xenophon, was a place of much strength. It had a temple sacred to Apollo Gergithius , and was said to have given birth to the Sibyl, who is sometimes called Erythraea, from Erythrae, a small place on Mount Ida (Dionysius of Halicarnassus i. 55), and at others Gergithia ('of Gergis').
Some genuine Sibylline verses are preserved in the Book of Marvels of Phlegon of Tralles (2nd century CE)
- John Burnet Early Greek Philosophy, 63., 64. brief analysis, 65. the fragments
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Sibyl.
- The Sibyls
Medieval Christianizing Sibyls
Modern Sibyl Imagery
- Pjetėr Bogdani, "The Songs of the Ten Sibyls" modern poetry, translated from Albanian
- The Sibyl Gallery
Mystical Women in History
- [ Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911].
- [ Harry Thurston Peck, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquity, 1898]
- Lactantius, Divine Insitutions Book I, ch. vi http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-07/anf07-04.htm#P192_35160 (e-text, in English)]
- Hale, John R. and others (2003). Questioning the Delphic Oracle. Retrieved Jan. 7, 2005.
When Sibyl is taken for a woman's name, it is commonly spelled Sybil.
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