The sibyls were women that the ancient Greeks believed were oracles. The earliest sibyls, according to legend, prophesied at holy sites. Their prophecies were influenced by divine inspiration from a deity; originally at Delphi and Pessinos, the deities were chthonic deities. In Late Antiquity, various writers attested to the existence of sibyls in Greece, Italy, the Levant, and Asia Minor.
The English word sibyl (// or /ˈsɪbɪl/) comes — via the Old French sibile and the Latin sibylla — from the ancient Greek Σίβυλλα (Sibulla). Varro derived the name from theobule ("divine counsel"), but modern philologists mostly propose an Old Italic or alternatively a Semitic etymology.
The first known Greek writer to mention a sibyl is Heraclitus, in the 5th century BC:
Walter Burkert observes that "frenzied women from whose lips the god speaks" are recorded very much earlier in the Near East, as in Mari in the second millennium and in Assyria in the first millennium".
Until the literary elaborations of Roman writers, sibyls were not identified by a personal name, but by names that refer to the location of their temenos, or shrine.
In Pausanias, Description of Greece, the first sibyl at Delphi mentioned ("the former" [earlier]) was of great antiquity, and was thought, according to Pausanias, to have been given the name "sibyl" by the Libyans. Sir James Frazer calls the text defective. The second sibyl referred to by Pausanias, and named "Herophile", seems to have been based ultimately in Samos, but visited other shrines, at Clarus. Delos and Delphi and sang there, but that at the same time, Delphi had its own sibyl.
James Frazer writes, in his translation and commentary on Pausanias, that only two of the Greek sibyls were historical: Herophile of Erythrae, who is thought to have lived in the 8th century BC, and Phyto of Samos who lived somewhat later. He observes that the Greeks at first seemed to have known only one sibyl, and instances Heraclides Ponticus as the first ancient writer to distinguish several sibyls: Heraclides names at least three sibyls, the Phrygian, the Erythraean, and the Hellespontine. The scholar David S. Potter writes, "In the late fifth century BC it does appear that 'Sibylla' was the name given to a single inspired prophetess".
Like Heraclitus, Plato speaks of only one sibyl, but in course of time the number increased to nine, with a tenth, the Tiburtine Sibyl, probably Etruscan in origin, added by the Romans. According to Lactantius' Divine Institutions (Book 1, Ch. 6), Varro (1st century BC) lists these ten: the Persian, the Libyan, the Delphic, the Cimmerian, the Erythræan, the Samian, the Cumæan, the Hellespontine (in Trojan territory), the Phrygian (at Ancyra), and the Tiburtine (named Albunea).
The Persian Sibyl was said to be a prophetic priestess presiding over the Apollonian Oracle; though her location remained vague enough so that she might be called the "Babylonian Sibyl", the Persian Sibyl is said to have foretold the exploits of Alexander the Great. The Persian Sibyl, by name Sambethe, was reported to be of the family of Noah. The 2nd-century AD traveller Pausanias, pausing at Delphi to enumerate four sibyls, mentions the "Hebrew Sibyl" who was:
The so-called Libyan Sibyl was identified with prophetic priestess presiding over the ancient Zeus-Amon (Zeus represented with the horns of Amon) oracle at the Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt. The oracle here was consulted by Alexander after his conquest of Egypt. The mother of the Libyan Sibyl was Lamia, the daughter of Poseidon. Euripides mentions the Libyan Sibyl in the prologue to his tragedy Lamia.
The Delphic Sibyl was a mythical woman from before the Trojan Wars (c. 11th century BC) mentioned by Pausanias writing in the 2nd century AD about stories he had heard locally. The Sibyl would have predated the real Pythia, the oracle and priestess of Apollo, originating from around the 8th century BC.
Apollodorus of Erythrae affirms the Erythraean Sibyl to have been his own countrywoman and to have predicted the Trojan War and prophesied to the Greeks who were moving against Ilium both that Troy would be destroyed and that Homer would write falsehoods.
The word acrostic was first applied to the prophecies of the Erythraean Sibyl, which were written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters of the leaves always formed a word.
The Samian sibyl's oracular site was at Samos.
The sibyl who most concerned the Romans was the Cumaean Sibyl, located near the Greek city of Naples, whom Virgil's Aeneas consults before his descent to the lower world (Aeneid book VI: 10). Burkert notes (1985, p 117) that the conquest of Cumae by the Oscans in the 5th century destroyed the tradition, but provides a terminus ante quem for a Cumaean sibyl. It was she who supposedly sold to Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome, the original Sibylline books. In Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, the Cumaean sibyl foretells the coming of a savior – possibly a flattering reference to the poet's patron, Augustus. Christians later identified this saviour as Jesus.
The Hellespontian Sibyl was born in the village of Marpessus near the small town of Gergitha, during the lifetimes of Solon and Cyrus the Great. Marpessus, according to Heraclides of Pontus, was formerly within the boundaries of the Troad. 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.
To the classical sibyls of the Greeks, the Romans added a tenth, the Tiburtine Sibyl, whose seat was the ancient Sabino-Latin town of Tibur (modern Tivoli). The mythic meeting of Augustus with the Sibyl, of whom he inquired whether he should be worshiped as a god, was a favored motif of Christian artists. Whether the sibyl in question was the Etruscan Sibyl of Tibur or the Greek Sibyl of Cumae is not always clear. The Christian author Lactantius had no hesitation in identifying the sibyl in question as the Tiburtine Sibyl, nevertheless. He gave a circumstantial account of the pagan sibyls that is useful mostly as a guide to their identifications, as seen by 4th-century Christians:
The Tiburtine Sibyl, by name Albunea, is worshiped at Tibur as a goddess, near the banks of the Anio, in which stream her image is said to have been found, holding a book in her hand. Her oracular responses the Senate transferred into the capitol. (Divine Institutes I.vi)
An apocalyptic pseudo-prophecy exists, attributed to the Tiburtine Sibyl, written c. AD 380, but with revisions and interpolations added at later dates. It purports to prophesy the advent of a final emperor named Constans, vanquishing the foes of Christianity, bringing about a period of great wealth and peace, ending paganism and converting the Jews. After vanquishing Gog and Magog, the Emperor is said to resign his crown to God. This would give way to the Antichrist. Ippolito d'Este rebuilt the Villa d'Este at Tibur, the modern Tivoli, from 1550 onward, and commissioned elaborate fresco murals in the Villa that celebrate the Tiburtine Sibyl, as prophesying the birth of Christ to the classical world.
In Renaissance art and literature
In Medieval Latin, sibylla became simply the term for "prophetess", and it became common in Late Gothic and Renaissance art to depict female Sibyllae alongside male prophets.
The number of sibyls so depicted could vary, sometimes they were twelve (See, for example, the Apennine Sibyl), sometimes ten, e.g. for François Rabelais, “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 best known depiction is that of Michelangelo who shows five sibyls in the frescos of the Sistine Chapel ceiling; the Delphic Sibyl, Libyan Sibyl, Persian Sibyl, Cumaean Sibyl and the Erythraean Sibyl. The library of Pope Julius II in the Vatican has images of sibyls and they are in the pavement of the Siena Cathedral. The Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli crowning the Campidoglio, Rome, is particularly associated with the Sibyl, because a medieval tradition referred the origin of its name to an otherwise unattested altar, Ara Primogeniti Dei, said to have been raised to the "firstborn of God" by the emperor Augustus, who had been warned of his advent by the sibylline books: in the church the figures of Augustus and of the Tiburtine Sibyl are painted on either side of the arch above the high altar. In the 19th-century Rodolfo Lanciani recalled that at Christmas time the presepio included a carved and painted figure of the sibyl pointing out to Augustus the Virgin and Child, who appeared in the sky in a halo of light. "The two figures, carved in wood, have now  disappeared; they were given away or sold thirty years ago, when a new set of images was offered to the Presepio by prince Alexander Torlonia." (Lanciani, 1896 ch 1) Like prophets, Renaissance sibyls forecasting the advent of Christ appear in monuments: modelled by Giacomo della Porta in the Santa Casa at Loreto, painted by Raphael in Santa Maria della Pace, by Pinturicchio in the Borgia apartments of the Vatican, engraved by Baccio Baldini, a contemporary of Botticelli, and graffites by Matteo di Giovanni in the pavement of the Duomo of Siena.
Shakespeare references the sibyls in his plays, including Othello, Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, and especially Troilus and Cressida. In the latter, Shakespeare employed common Renaissance comparison of Cassandra to a sibyl.
A collection of twelve motets by Orlande de Lassus titled Prophetiae Sibyllarum (pub. 1600) draw inspiration from the sibyl figures of antiquity. The work —for four voices a cappella— consists of a prologue and eleven prophecies, each once corresponding to an individual Sibyl. While the text speaks of the coming of Jesus Christ, the composer reflects the mystical aura of the prophecies by utilizing chromaticism in an extreme manner, a compositional technique that became very fashionable at the time. It is possible that Lassus not only viewed Michelangelo's depictions, but also drew the chromatic manière from a number of Italian composers, who experimented at the time.
The sayings of sibyls and oracles were notoriously open to interpretation (compare Nostradamus) and were constantly used for both civil and cult propaganda. These sayings and sibyls should not to be confused with the extant 6th-century collection of Sibylline Oracles, which typically predict disasters rather than prescribe solutions.
Some genuine Sibylline verses are preserved in the 2nd-century Book of Marvels of Phlegon of Tralles. 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, c. 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 the Troad, a settlement of the ancient Teucri, and, consequently, a town of very great antiquity. 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, and at others Gergithia ‘of Gergis’.
- Burkert 1985 p 117
- "Sibyl". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- "Rheinisches Museum," 1.110f.
- Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Sibyl". Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. "Since Lactantius expressly says (l.c. ["Divinarum Institutionum," i. 6]) that the sibyl is a native of Babylon, the name is probably Semitic in origin. The word may be resolved into the two components "sib" + "il," thus denoting "the ancient of god" (Krauss, in "Byzantinische Zeit." xi. 122)"
- Heraclitus, fragment 92.
- Burkert 1985, p 116
- See Pausanias, Description of Greece, x.12 edited with commentary and translated by Sir James Frazer, 1913 edition. Cf. v.5, p.288. Also see Pausanias, 10.12.1 at the Perseus Project.
- Frazer quotes Ernst Maass, De Sibyllarum Indicibus (Berlin, 1879).
- Heraclides Ponticus, On Oracles.
- Frazer, James, translation and commentary on Pausanias, Description of Greece, v.5, p.288, commentary and notes on Book X, Ch. 12, line 1, "Herophile surnamed Sibyl":
Prof. E. Maass (op cit., p.56) holds that two only of the Greek sibyls were historical, namely Herophile of Erythrae and Phyto of Samos; the former he thinks lived in the eighth century BC, the latter somewhat laterFrazer goes on:
At first, the Greeks seemed to have known only one sibyl. (Heraclitus, cited by Plutarch, De Pythiae Oraculis 6; Aristophanes, Peace 1095, 1116; Plato, Phaedrus, p.244b). The first writer who is known to have distinguished several sibyls is Heraclides Ponticus in his book On Oracles, in which he appears to have enumerated at least three, namely the Phrygian, the Erythraean, and the Hellespontine.
- David Stone Potter, Prophecy and history in the crisis of the Roman Empire: a historical commentary on the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle, Cf. Chapter 3, p.106.
- Fragments of the Sibylline Oracles. sacred-texts.com. Retrieved on June 20, 2008.
- Pausanias, x.12
- Sibyls and sibylline prophecy in classical antiquity, Herbert William Parke. Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-26.
- Seers, sibyls, and sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism, John Joseph Collins. Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-26.
- Pausanias 10.12.1
- Bowden, Hugh, Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle. Divination and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-521-53081-4. Cf. p.14. "They may learn about the mysterious Delphic Sibyl, a mythical prophetess unrelated to the traditions of the oracle itself."
- Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, University of Chicago Press, 1989. ISBN 0-226-65371-4. Cf. p.64
- Kiefer, Frederick, Writing on the Renaissance Stage: Written Words, Printed Pages, Metaphoric Books, University of Delaware Press, 1996. ISBN 0-87413-595-8. Cf. p.223.
- Eliot, T. S.; Rainey, Lawrence S., The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's Contemporary Prose: Second Edition, Yale University Press, 2006 ISBN 0-300-11994-1. Cf. p.75
- Guidacci, Margaret (1992). Landscape with Ruins: Selected Poetry of Margherita Guidacci. Wayne State University Press. p. 121.
- The Latin Tiburtine Sibyl Archived 2005-04-07 at the Wayback Machine.. History 3850 Readings. Retrieved on June 20, 2008.
- see e.g. "Sibyls" - Lancaster University, UK. (archived 2005)
- Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1897 Archived 2005-04-05 at the Wayback Machine.
- Malay, Jessica (2010). Prophecy and Sibylline Imagery in the Renaissance: Shakespeare’s Sibyls. routledge. pp. 115–120.
- Herodotus iv: 122
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus i. 55
- Beyer, Jürgen, 'Sibyllen', "Enzyklopädie des Märchens. Handwörterbuch zur historischen und vergleichenden Erzählforschung", vol. 12 (Berlin & New York, Walter de Gruyter 2007), coll. 625-30
- Bouché-Leclercq, Auguste, Histoire de la divination dans l'Antiquité, I-IV volumes, Paris, 1879-1882.
- Broad, William J., The Oracle: the Lost Secrets and Hidden Message of Ancient Delphi (Penguin Press, 2006).
- Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion (Harvard University Press, 1985) esp. pp 116–18.
- Delcourt, M. L'oracle de Delphes, 1955.
- Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911.
- Fox, Robin Lane, Alexander the Great 1973. Chapter 14 gives the best modern account of Alexander's visit to the oasis at Siwah, with some background material on the Greek conception of Sibyls.
- Goodrich, Norma Lorre, Priestesses, 1990.
- Hale, John R. and others (2003). Questioning the Delphic Oracle. Retrieved Jan. 7, 2005.
- Hindrew, Vivian, The Sibyls: The First Prophetess of Mami (Wata) MWHS, 2007
- Jeanmaire, H. La Sibylle et la retour de l'âge d'or, 1939.
- Lanciani, Rofolfo, Pagan and Christian Rome, 1896, ch. 1 on-line
- Lactantius, Divine Institutions Book I, ch. vi (e-text, in English)
- Maass, E., De Sibyllarum Indicibus, Berlin, 1879.
- Parke, Herbert William, History of the Delphic Oracle, 1939.
- Parke, Herbert William, Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy, 1988.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, ed. and translated by Sir James Frazer, 1913 edition. Cf. v.5
- Peck, Harry Thurston, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquity, 1898.
- Pitt-Kethley, Fiona, Journeys to the Underworld, 1988
- Potter, David Stone, , Prophecy and history in the crisis of the Roman Empire: a historical commentary on the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle, 1990. Cf. Chapter 3. review of book
- Potter, David Stone, Prophets and Emperors. Human and Divine Authority from Augustus to Theodosius, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. review of book
- Smith, William, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, 1870, article on Sibylla,
- West, Martin Litchfield, The Orphic Poems, Oxford, 1983.
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Medieval Christianizing sibyls
Modern sibyl imagery
- A sardonic sequence of 'Twelve Sibyls', accompanied by the artist Leonard Baskin's woodcuts, revisits Sibyls and Others (1980). Ruth Fainlight has written dozens of poems about these ambiguous figures, bridging religion, classical and Biblical settings, femininity and modernity. One of them concludes: 'I am no more conscious of the prophecies / than I can understand the language of birds /…let the simple folk praise you, / keep you safe as a caged bird, / and call you a sibyl'.
- Pjetër Bogdani, "The Songs of the Ten Sibyls" modern poetry, translated from Albanian
- T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land is prefaced by a quote from Petronius' Satyricon (1st century AD) The passage translates roughly as "I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her 'Sibyl, what do you want?' that one replied 'I want to die'.
- The SIBYLS beamline at the Advanced Light Source in Berkeley, CA.