Jorge Guillermo's Sibyls examines the fascinating phenomenon of oracles and prophetesses in the ancient world. Beginning with an overview of prophecy from earlier times and mankind's fascination with predicting future events, the book moves on to examine the particular association women had with prophecy. The main body of the book covers an in-depth history of four prophetess oracles: the Erythraean, Cumaean, Delphic, and Tiburtine Sibyls. The book concludes with an examination of how these ancient institutions were fused with the later Christian tradition. Packed full of interesting facts and asides, and including references to later art, this is a very interesting addition to any general library on ancient Greece and Rome. It is especially welcome as this is a topic very often neglected in general works, and that despite the obvious importance of the Sibyls to the ancients themselves. This edition includes 10 colour photographs, a selected bibliography and an index.
About the Reviewer
Mark is a history writer based in Italy. His special interests include pottery, architecture, world mythology and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share in common. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the Publishing Director at WHE.
The sibyls were female prophets   or oracles in Ancient Greece. 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. In Late Antiquity, various writers attested to the existence of sibyls in Greece, Italy, the Levant, and Asia Minor.
The English word sibyl ( / ˈ s ɪ b əl / or /ˈsɪbɪl/ ) comes—via the Old French sibile and the Latin sibylla—from the ancient Greek Σίβυλλα (Sibylla).   Varro derived the name from theobule ("divine counsel"), but modern philologists mostly propose an Old Italic  or alternatively a Semitic etymology. 
The Sibyl’s Prophecy…a Curse? – The Great Enigma of Ancient Rome (Part 2)“Not foreign invaders, Italy, but your own sons will rape you, a brutal interminable gang-rape, punishing you, famous country, for all your many depravities, leaving you prostrated, stretched out among the burning ashes. Self-slaughterer! No longer the mother of upstanding men, but rather the nurse of savage, ravening beasts!”  “An empire will rise from beyond the western sea, white and many-headed, and its sway will be measureless, bringing ruin and terror to kings, looting gold and silver from city after city.” 
The Violent Intrusion of Apollo and the “Birth” of a Sibyl
The Sibyl or, at least, frenzied women from whom the god speaks, are recorded much earlier in the Near East, as in Mari in the second millennium and in Assyria in the first millennium. In 5 BC, the Greek writer Heraclitus became the first known writer to mention the Sibyl when he wrote, “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.”
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Top Image: Sibyl of Cumae, on the ceiling of the Carafa Chapel ( Public Domain )
The Neo-Sumerian Empire: 23rd – 21st Centuries BC
Mesopotamia is the birthplace of human advancement, stretching as far back as 10,000 BC. Traces of divination practices of this region correlate with the Akkadian Empire and the Neo-Sumerian Empire, or the Third Dynasty of Ur (‘Ur III’). The Cuthean Legend and the ancient poem The Curse of Akkad tell of the fabled Akkadian ruler Naram-Sin, who declared himself a deity.
Despite his success as a ruler, the texts recount this god-king refusing the help of priests and fortune tellers during an invasion that eventually led to his downfall. The literature appears to bend the truth about historic events in order to reinforce the authority of diviners and spiritual leaders.
The kingdom of Akkad fell in 2198 BC, and the Gutian people took over until the Third Dynasty of Ur began in 2100 BC. Within this dynasty, Gudea, ensi (or ‘Lord’) of Lagash emerged as a new god-emperor. Gudea placed himself at the center of an organized, prophetic religion that some scholars believe is tied to the origins of Biblical literature.
The next king of Ur III was Shulgi. He declared his divinity to reinforce political authority, as his god-king cult extended through the temples of his empire. Cultic literature from this time period mirrors descriptions of Hebrew prophets, and describes Shulgi’s ascent into the afterlife, portraying him as a prototypical messiah figure.
An ancient pagan prophecy of Christ?
All ancient societies — not just the biblical Hebrews — looked to prophecy and divination to insure that their beliefs and activities were consistent with the will of God, or the gods.
Among the Romans, no prophetess was more important or famous than the Sibyl, the title of a prophetic office always held by a woman. Throughout the ancient world at different times there were many women who were said to have been Sibyls, including a legendary Jewish Sibyl, the daughter-in-law of Noah who lived at the time of the Tower of Babel.
For the Romans, however, the most venerated Sibyl prophesied from a sacred temple-cave at Cumae, near the modern city of Naples.
The importance of Sibylline oracles in Roman society dates back to the very beginnings of Roman history.
According to legend, King Tarquinius Priscus (early sixth century B.C.) was approached by an old woman who brought with her nine scrolls. These scrolls contained the prophecies of the Sibyl, for which the old woman demanded 300 gold pieces. Tarquinius, thinking the woman a fraud and despising this gift of the gods, refused to pay the outrageous sum.
Thereupon the old woman burned three of the scrolls in a nearby fire, then turned again to the king and asked 300 gold pieces for the remaining six. Convinced that the old woman was mad, Tarquinius again refused, upon which the crone burned three more scrolls, again demanding the same 300 gold pieces for the final three. Suddenly realizing that the woman was the Sibyl herself, Tarquinius agreed to pay the sum.
The three surviving scrolls of the Sibyl were thereafter carefully preserved in the Capitoline temple of Rome as the most sacred books of the Romans.
These oracles were regularly consulted for prophetic guidance in major policy decisions by a quorum of 10 special priests. However, the Romans always realized that they lacked the original complete collection of oracles, and that their interpretations were, therefore, potentially fallible.
The pagan Sibyl of Cumae was thought to have prophesied under the inspiration of Apollo, the god of divination, whose priestess she was. She continued to prophesy at Cumae for many centuries — obviously, this was a succession of priestesses — and collections of her later oracles were added to the original three ancient scrolls purchased by Tarquinius.
The most famous description of the oracle of the Sibyl comes from Virgil’s “Aeneid” (6.35ff). After demanding the sacrifice of seven bulls and seven ewes from the hero Aeneas, Sibyl entered into an ecstatic state.
“As she spoke neither her face nor hue went untransformed, nor did her hair stay neatly bound: her breast heaved, her wild heart grew large with passion. She seemed taller to their eyes, sounding now no longer like a mortal, since she had felt the god’s power breathing near.” Thereupon, under the inspiration of Apollo, she prophesied of the future of Aeneas and the divinely ordained founding of Rome.
One would have expected this pagan prophetess to have been rejected and denounced by Christians and Jews. And many of them did, in fact, denounce and reject her. Many Christians regarded the pagan gods as demons, and their priests and priestesses as servants of the devil.
Other early Christians, however, interpreted some of the Sibylline oracles as inspired prophecies of the coming of Christ, especially Virgil’s fourth “Eclogue,” which was thought to have been a poetic prophecy based on a Sibylline oracle. The Christians quoted passages from these oracles to their pagan rivals as proof that even the pagans’ own sacred books prophesied of Christ.
The Sibylline oracles thus began to be seen by many Christians as having been, at least in part, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and they were quoted by many early Christian apologists and church fathers, including Augustine.
In this role, the Sibyl appears in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel murals side by side with the prophets of the Old Testament as an authentic prophet of Christ, illustrating the worldwide scope of his redemptive mission to all humankind.
This Christian acceptance of some of the Sibyl’s prophecies guaranteed their partial survival, although the extant books of the Sibylline oracles were heavily edited and interpolated by both Christians and Jews.
The remarkable history of the Sibyls is recounted in H. W. Parke, “Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy” (Routledge, 1988). The surviving 14 books of Christianized Sibylline oracles have been translated in James Charlesworth's, “The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” (1983), 1:317-472.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.
Ideas and Society
All ancient societies looked to prophecy and divination to insure that their beliefs and activities were consistent with the will of the gods. Among the Romans, no prophetess was more important or famous than the Sibyl. (The term is not a name, but is the title of a prophetic office always held by a woman.) Throughout the ancient world at different times there were many women who were said to have been Sibyls, including a legendary Jewish Sibyl, the daughter-in-law of Noah who lived at the time of the Tower of Babel. For the Romans, however, the most venerated Sibyl prophesied from a sacred temple-cave at Cumae, near modern Naples.
The appearance of Sibylline oracles in Roman society dates back to the beginning of Roman history. According to legends, King Tarquinius Priscus (early sixth century BC) was approached by an old woman who brought nine scrolls containing the prophecies of the Sibyl, for which she demanded three hundred gold pieces. Tarquinius, thinking the woman a fraud and despising this gift of the gods, refused to pay the outrageous sum. Thereupon the old woman burned three of the scrolls in the nearby fire, turned again to the king and asked three hundred gold pieces for the remaining six. Convinced that the old woman was mad, Tarquinius again refused, upon which the crone burned three more scrolls, again demanding the same three hundred gold pieces for the final three. Realizing that the woman was the Sibyl herself, Tarquinius agreed to pay the sum. The three surviving scrolls of the Sibyl were thereafter carefully preserved in the Capitoline temple of Rome as the most sacred books of the Romans. These oracles were regularly consulted by a body of ten special priests, seeking for prophetic guidance in major policy decisions. However, the Romans always recognized that they lacked the original complete collection of oracles and, consequently, that their interpretations were fallible.
The pagan Sibyl of Cumae was thought to have prophesied under the inspiration of Apollo, the god of divination, whose priestess she was. She continued to prophesy at Cumae for many centuries collections of her later oracles were added to the original three scrolls of Tarquinius. The most famous description of the oracular method of the Sibyl comes from the Roman national epic, Virgil’s Aeneid (6.35ff). After demanding the sacrifice of seven bulls and seven ewes from the hero Aeneas, the Sibyl entered into an ecstatic state. “As she spoke neither her face nor hue went untransformed, nor did her hair stay neatly bound: her breast heaved, her wild heart grew large with passion. She seemed taller to their eyes, sounding now no longer like a mortal, since she had felt the god’s power breathing near.” Thereupon, under the inspiration of Apollo, she prophesied of the future of Aeneas and Rome.
One would have expected Christians and Jews to reject and denounce this pagan prophetess. And many did so. Other early Christians, however, interpreted some of the Sibylline oracles as inspired prophecies of the coming of Christ-especially Virgil’s fourth Eclogue, which was thought to have been based on a Sibylline oracle. They quoted passages from these oracles to pagans as proof that even the pagans’ own sacred books prophesied of Christ. The Sibyl’s prophecies thus began to be seen by many Christians as having been inspired, at least in part, by the Holy Spirit, and they were quoted by many early Christian apologists and fathers, including St. Augustine. As such, she appears in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel murals along with the prophets of the Old Testament.
This Christian acceptance of some of the Sibyl’s prophecies guaranteed their survival, although the extant books of the Sibylline oracles were heavily edited and interpolated by both Christians and Jews. The remarkable history of the Sibyls is recounted in H. W. Parke, Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy (Routledge, 1988). The surviving fourteen books of Christianized Sibylline oracles have been translated in James Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (1983), 1:317-472.
Sibyls: Prophecy and Power in the Ancient World - History
``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D
Long before the Savior was born of the Virgin, and up to around the time of His first Advent, there are said to have lived wise women who inhabited shrines, temples, and caves, and who, being blessed "by the gods" with the gift of prophecy, read the signs of nature in order to foretell the future. We call these seers "Sibyls," after the Greek word for prophetess ("sibulla").
Our knowledge of the origins of these women is obscured by the mists of myth and time, the first written record of them coming from Heraclitus, who wrote of one -- perhaps the only one at the time -- in a fragment dating to the 6th century before Christ. It reads:
The number of these Sibyls is reckoned differently throughout the ages, with Heraclitus and Plato mentioning one, the Greeks mentioning nine, the Romans and early Christians mentioning ten, and medieval Christians enumerating up to twelve. Whatever their number, the Sibyls most often came to be referred to by the places they inhabited. The Christian apologist, Lactantius (b. ca. A.D. 250) listing ten Sibyls, describes them thus in Book I, Chapter VI of his "Divine Institutes" (link to full text below):
- the Persian Sibyl: "of her Nicanor made mention, who wrote the exploits of Alexander of Macedon"
- the Libyan Sibyl: "of her Euripides makes mention in the prologue of the Lamia"
- the Delphic Sibyl: "concerning whom Chrysippus speaks in that book which he composed concerning divination"
- the Cimmerian Sibyl: "whom Naevius mentions in his books of the Punic war, and Piso in his annals"
- the Samian Sibyl: "respecting whom Eratosthenes writes that he had found a written notice in the ancient annals of the Samians"
- the Hellespontine Sibyl: "born in the Trojan territory, in the village of Marpessus, about the town of Gergithus and Heraclides of Pontus writes that she lived in the times of Solon and Cyrus"
- the Phrygian Sibyl: "who gave oracles at Ancyra"
- the Tiburtine Sybil: "by name Albunea, who is worshipped at Tibur [modern Tivoli] as a goddess, near the banks of the river Anio, in the depths of which her statue is said to have been found, holding in her hand a book. The senate transferred her oracles into the Capitol."
- the Erythraean Sybil: "whom Apollodorus of Erythraea affirms to have been his own country-woman, and that she foretold to the Greeks when they were setting but for Ilium, both that Troy was doomed to destruction, and that Homer would write falsehoods"
- the Cumaean Sibyl: "by name Amalthaea, who is termed by some Herophile, or Demophile and they say that she brought nine books to the king Tarquinius Priscus, and asked for them three hundred philippics, and that the king refused so great a price, and derided the madness of the woman that she, in the sight of the king, burnt three of the books, and demanded the same price for those which were left that Tarquinias much more considered the woman to be mad and that when she again, having burnt three other books, persisted in asking the same price, the king was moved, and bought the remaining books for the three hundred pieces of gold: and the number of these books was afterwards increased, after the rebuilding of the Capitol because they were collected from all cities of Italy and Greece, and especially from those of Erythraea, and were brought to Rome, under the name of whatever Sibyl they were."
The prophecies of these pagan Sibyls -- most especially the Tiburtine, Erythraean, and Cumaean Sibyls, who are often confused with one another or referred to as one -- play interesting roles in Christian History. One sees depictions of the Sibyls in Catholic art -- from altar pieces to illuminated manuscripts, from sculpture to even the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the periphery of which is dominated by five Sybils (the Delphic, Cumaean, Libyan, Persian, and Erythraean) interspersed with seven Old Testament Prophet (Zacharias, Isaias, Daniel, Jonas, Jeremias, Ezechiel, and Joel). Michelangelo's Erythraean and Cumean Sibyls are shown at the top of this page in listed order, and Van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece depictions of those same women, in the same order, are shown below.
These women are often depicted in medieval dramas, Jesse Trees and Nativity scenes. One hears of the Sibyls in Catholic chant and hymms, too: on Christmas Eve, after Matins and before Mass, the Song of the Sibyl was sung all over Europe until the Council of Trent (now this custom, restored in some places in the 17th c., remains mostly in Spain). 1 They are most famously mentioned in the "Dies Irae," sung at Masses for the dead. Its opening lines:
|Dies irae, dies illa, |
solvet saeculum in favilla,
teste David cum Sibylla.
|That day of wrath, that dreadful day, |
shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,
as David and the Sybil say.
Who were these women whom Christians group with King David and the great Old Covenant Prophets? Why did Tertullian (b. ca. A.D. 160) describe one Sibyl as "the true prophetess of Truth"? 2 Why would St. Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. A.D. 215) describe a Sibyl thus in Chapter VIII of his "Exhortation to the Heathens":
-- where, in remarkable accordance with inspiration she compares delusion to darkness, and the knowledge of God to the sun and light, and subjecting both to comparison, shows the choice we ought to make. For falsehood is not dissipated by the bare presentation of the truth, but by the practical improvement of the truth it is ejected and put to flight.
Let's look, one at a time, at the three Sibyls who are most important to Christianity.
The Tiburtine Sibyl:
The Sibyl of Christmas
The Tiburtine Sibyl -- also known as Albunea -- lived in Tibur, the town now known as Tivoli and located about fifteen miles Northeast of Rome. Her temple, which still stands today, was surrounded by a "sacred" grove and by mineral springs which, poetically enough given the topic of this page, flowed into the Tiber. The reason for this Sibyl's importance to Christians is her meeting with Augustus. 3 The story as recounted in Archbishop Jacobus de Voragine's 13th c. "Golden Legend," in its section on the Feast of the Nativity:
. here is what Pope Innocent III tells us: in order to reward Octavian for having established peace in the world, the Senate wished to pay him the honours of a god. But the wise Emperor, knowing that he was mortal, was unwilling to assume the title of immortal before he had asked the Sibyl whether the world would some day see the birth of a greater man than he.
Now on the day of the Nativity the Sibyl was alone with the emperor, when at high noon, she saw a golden ring appear around the sun. In the middle of the circle stood a Virgin, of wondrous beauty, holding a Child upon her bosom. The Sibyl showed this wonder to Caesar and a voice was heard which said: "This woman is the Altar of Heaven (Ara Coeli)!"
And the Sibyl said to him: "This Child will be greater than thou."
Thus the room where this miracle took place was consecrated to the holy Virgin and upon the site the church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli stands today. However, other historians recount the same event in a slightly different way. According to them, Augustus mounted the Capitol, and asked the gods to make known to him who would reign after him and he heard a voice saying: "A heavenly Child, the Son of the living God, born of a spotless Virgin!" Whereupon Augustus erected the altar beneath which he placed the inscription: This is the altar of the Son of the living God.
Click here to see a typical medieval depiction of the meeting of the Tiburtine Sibyl and Augustus (you can read more about this encounter and the church that sprang from it in the Il Santo Bambino section of the page on Devotion to the Child Jesus).
The Erythraean Sibyl:
The Sibyl of the Acrostic
The Erythraean Sibyl is said to have been the daughter of a shepherd and a nymph. She lived in Erythrae, Ionia (Asia Minor), on the Aegean Sea, and is often confused with the Cumaean Sibyl (St. Augustine, in his "City of God," speaks of this).
What makes this woman important to Christians is her prediction of Christ, given in the form of an acrostic poem which formed the words, 'Ihsous Xristos Qeou uios spthr, which means, "Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour." See excerpts from "The City of God" below.
The Cumaean Sibyl:
The Sibyl of the Underworld
The most fascinating of all Sibyls lived in Cumae (now called Cuma), the first Greek colony founded in Italy, located about twenty miles northwest of Naples in "the volcanic region near Vesuvius, where the whole country is cleft with chasms from which sulphurous flames arise, while the ground is shaken with pent-up vapors, and mysterious sounds issue from the bowels of the earth." 4 The Sibyl who was also known as Amalthaea made her home in a grotto in this tempestuous land -- a grotto that can be visited even today -- and there she would write her prognostications on leaves and spread them at one of the hundred mouths to her cave, allowing them to be picked up and read -- or scattered by the winds to be seen no more, whichever came first, as Virgil tells us in his Aeneid:
Arriv'd at Cumae, when you view the flood
Of black Avernus, and the sounding wood,
The mad prophetic Sibyl you shall find,
Dark in a cave, and on a rock reclin'd.
She sings the fates, and, in her frantic fits,
The notes and names, inscrib'd, to leafs commits.
What she commits to leafs, in order laid,
Before the cavern's entrance are display'd:
Unmov'd they lie but, if a blast of wind
Without, or vapors issue from behind,
The leafs are borne aloft in liquid air,
And she resumes no more her museful care,
Nor gathers from the rocks her scatter'd verse,
Nor sets in order what the winds disperse.
Thus, many not succeeding, most upbraid
The madness of the visionary maid,
And with loud curses leave the mystic shade.
In the Aeneid, too, she gives Aeneas a tour of the infernal regions which are entered into in the land she inhabited (this story is the reason for Dante's having chosen Virgil as his guide in "The Divine Comedy"). After this tour of the underworld, they ascend again, and the Sibyl tells the story of how she came to be hundreds of years old. From chapter 25 of Bullfinch's book:
As Aeneas and the Sibyl pursued their way back to earth, he said to her, "Whether thou be a goddess or a mortal beloved by the gods, by me thou shalt always be held in reverence. When I reach the upper air, I will cause a temple to be built to thy honor, and will myself bring offerings."
"I am no goddess," said the Sibyl "I have no claim to sacrifice or offering. I am mortal yet if I could have accepted the love of Apollo, I might have been immortal. He promised me the fulfilment of my wish, if I would consent to be his. I took a handful of sand, and holding it forth, said, 'Grant me to see as many birthdays as there are sand-grains in my hand.'
"Unluckily I forgot to ask for enduring youth. This also he would have granted, could I have accepted his love, but offended at my refusal, he allowed me to grow old. My youth and youthful strength fled long ago. I have lived seven hundred years, and to equal the number of the sand-grains, I have still to see three hundred springs and three hundred harvests. My body shrinks up as years increase, and in time, I shall be lost to sight, but my voice will remain, and future ages will respect my sayings."
An ancient woman doomed to live a thousand years, but without youth, shrinking with age each year until nothing is left of her but her voice -- a voice which some say is kept in a jar in the cave, and that others say one can still hear there in her Cumaean grotto.
Another great tale told of her, and mentioned by Lactantius above, is how she went to sell nine books to the King of the Tarquins, a story told well by Amy Friedman:
For many years, beneath the temple of Jupiter in Rome, the sibylline books were protected in a closely guarded vault. These were books that the priests consulted, especially during times of natural disaster, when earthquakes and floods and hurricanes swept down on their world, when disease struck and when hardship came. These books contained great wisdom and predictions of what the future held for their land and people. The sibylline books, the priests said, were precious beyond any treasure.
She was known as the Cumaean Sibyl, a woman who could change her features at will. She was wild-eyed, wild-haired and wild-tongued. One day, she came to see the king, Tarquin the Elder. She brought with her an offer.
"I have nine books to sell to you," she told the king.
"What books would those be?" the king asked. She was an odd-looking woman, and the king did not believe she was the prophetess she claimed to be.
"In these nine books," she said, "is contained the destiny of Rome."
Tarquin the Elder laughed at the old woman. He had heard of her, of course, but he did not believe she could predict the future, and he did not, for one moment, believe that these books she carried contained the destiny of the world. Her voice, after all, was more like a croak, and when she spoke, foam gathered on her lips.
Tarquin had heard that she wrote her predictions on oak leaves and that she laid these leaves at the edge of her cave. When the wind came and blew the leaves, they drifted this way and that, hither and yon, so that those who received the woman's messages often were confused by the words.
Tarquin did not believe she was as wise as she claimed, but he was curious about her offer. "How much money do you want for your books?" he asked.
"Nine bags of gold," she answered.
The king and his advisers roared with laughter. "Nine bags of gold? How could you ask such a fortune?"
"The future of your world lies within them," she repeated, but seeing that he did not wish to buy her books, she started a fire, and into this fire she hurled three of her books.
Within moments they were burned to ash, and the sibyl of Cumae set off for home, leaving behind the king and his advisers.
It was another year before the sibyl returned. This time, she arrived with six books.
"What do you want now?" Tarquin asked her.
"I offer six books for sale," she answered. "Six books that contain the rest of the destiny of Rome."
"How much?" the king asked her.
"Nine bags of gold," she said.
"What?" asked the king. "Nine bags for fewer books? Are you mad? You asked nine bags for nine books, but now you offer only six for the same price?"
"Think what they contain before you refuse," the sibyl said. "The rest of the future of Rome."
"Too much," Tarquin answered, and so, once again, the woman built a fire and tossed into it three more books. Then she turned and walked away, crossing the wide farmlands that separated Rome from Cumae.
The roads between the two cities were long and treacherous in those days. The woman's journey was difficult. Still, the next year, she returned to see the king once again. This time she brought with her the three remaining books.
"Three books remain," she said, "and I will sell these to you for nine bags of gold."
Now the king's advisers gathered around, and they consulted among themselves. They were worried that the old sibyl would burn the very last of the predictions. What if what she said were true? What if they might know their future? What if they were throwing away their opportunity to read their destinies?
"You must buy these books," the advisers told their king, and so he did, paying the old sibyl nine bags of gold.
When the king and his advisers had read the three books that remained, they understood that this odd old woman was truly a great sibyl, prophetess of the future. The king sent at once for her and had her returned to his court. "Please," Tarquin begged her, "will you rewrite the other six books?"
"No," she said, refusing to discuss the matter. "You have chosen your destiny, and I cannot change that."
Rome did rise to be a great kingdom, and for years and years it flourished as a powerful republic, conquering Gaul under the famed Julius Caesar. But when the Roman Empire collapsed, people wondered what wisdom they might have learned in those six books burned by the sibyl of Cumae.
What Can Be Learned from the Church's Honoring of the Sibyls
These women, albeit shrouded in mystery and wonderful, fantastical tales, remind us that the Church teaches that actual grace and the natural virtues exist outside of Her, and that Christians are to honor Truth no matter whence it comes in the temporal realm. That the majority of Church Fathers adopted a form of Platonism, considering the philosopher an ally against naturalism and materiaism, that St. Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics who followed used the Truths spoken by Aristotle for the same, that medieval Catholic civilization revered the "Nine Worthies" 5 -- three of whom were pagan, three of whom were Old Testament Jewish -- as the embodiment of chivalry -- these things remind us that arrogance and spiritual pride have no place in a Catholic's life. While there is an "us" and a "them" with regard to sanctifying grace, there is no "us" and "them" with regard to actual grace and the natural virtues. Further, we can't presume to know who's been blessed by sanctifying grace -- i.e., we can't know who the "them" is in that regard we can only know who is formally outside of the Church and, therefore, whom we need to evangelize -- in all charity and prudence -- and pray for.
Treat all men with charity, honor Truth wherever it is, and live a deeply Catholic life. "Spread the Gospel and let God sort 'em out." This is all we can do.
The Sibyls in Virgil's
and early Christians' Writings
- The Eclogues, by Virgil (b. 70 B.C.) See also his "Aeneid."
- Hortatory Address to the Greeks, by St. Justin Martyr (b. ca. 100)
- To Aucolytus, by Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch (ca. 169)
- Exhortation to the Heathen, by St. Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215)
- Divine Institutes, by Lactantius (b. ca. 250)
- On the Anger of God, by Lactantius
- Oration of Constantine, by Eusebius (b. ca. 260)
- City of God, by St. Augustine (b. 354)
- Prophecy of the Tiburtine Sybil, Author Unknown (written ca. 380)
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.
E caelo rex adveniet per saecla futurus
scilicet ut carnem praesens ut judicet orbem.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.
Unde deum cernent incredulus atque fidelis
celsum cum sanctis aevi jam termino in ipso.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.
Sic animae cum carne aderunt quas judicat ipse
cum jacet incultus densis in vepribus orbis.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.
Reicient simulacra viri cunctam quoque gazam
exuret terras ignis pontumque polumque.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.
Inquirens taetri portas effringet averni
sanctorum sed enim cunctae lux libera carni.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.
Tradetur sontes aeterna flamma cremabit
occultos actus retegens tunc quisque loquetur.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.
Secreta atque deus reserabit pectora luci
tunc erit et luctus stridebunt dentibus omnes.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.
Eripitur solis jubar et chorus interit astris
voluetur caelum lunaris splendor obibit.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.
Deiciet colles valles extollet ab imo
non erit in rebus hominum sublime vel altum.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.
Jam aequantur campis montes et caerula ponti
omnia cessabunt tellus confracta peribit.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.
Sic pariter fontes torrentur fluminaque igni
sed tuba tum sonitum tristem demittet ab alto.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.
Orbe gemens facinus miserum variosque labores tartareumque chaos monstrabit terra dehiscens.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.
Et coram hic domino reges sistentur ad unum
reccidet e caelo ignisque et sulphuris amnis.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.
3 Augustus (d. A.D. 14) was born "Gaius Octavius," became known as "Julius Caesar Octavianus" when he became heir to Julius Caesar (his great-uncle), and is most often called "Octavian," "Augustus," or "Caesar Augustus" in literature and references.
4 "Bullfinch's Mythology, the Age of Fable" by Thomas Bullfinch
5 Jean de Longuyon first enumerated the "Nine Worthies" in the 14th c., in his work, Voeux du Paon ("Vows of the Peacock"). The Nine Worthies are: Hector, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joshua, David, Judas Maccabaeus, King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon.
The Sibyls Oraculum: Oracle of the Black Doves of Africa, by Tayannah Lee McQuillar, artwork by Katelan V. Foisy
Destiny Books, 9781620556719, 44 cards, 2018
The Sibyls Oraculum is inspired by the Libyan sibyls, or “prophetesses,” who were reputed to have the power of prophecy, speaking the will of deity, and divination. Tayannah Lee McQuillar has infused this deck with a deep sense of history and place, and it makes for a remarkable oracle.
And this is where I should note that I’m probably the wrong person to review this deck. I’m a generic white Canadian lacking a background in ancient North African art and history. (My research focuses on early modern European art and history.) Yet, when the deck arrived unsolicited in my mailbox, I found myself enchanted by Katelan V. Foisey’s artwork, as it reminded me of Byzantine mosaics I had seen in Venice and Ravenna, Italy. Soon I would discover that there was a reason for this, as McQuillar explains that they were inspired by Libyan mosaics. Unfamiliar with this history, I’m looking forward to exploring it further, and McQuillar proves an informative guide.
Indeed, these kinds of antecedents run through the story of the deck and the oracles that inspired it. McQuillar writes that the oldest recorded oracle was in Kemet (Egypt), in a temple dedicated to Wadjet, a snake-headed goddess. She writes that Libyan oracles were the antecedent to later Greek and Roman oracles,1 and indeed there is a lot of shared symbolism between them. She highlights the syncretic nature of spiritual practices in the ancient Mediterranean. McQuillar also gives an account of the sibyl’s value to those in power, and how this was curbed with the advent of Christianity.2
McQuillar describes the oracle as “designed to advise seekers based on a traditional African worldview,” and she provides numerous examples of the way this philosophy is infused into the deck, emphasizing positive collectivity, reverence for one’s ancestors, and respect for mysticism and mystics, among other values.3 The deck is subtitled “Oracle of the Black Doves of Africa,” which refers to the two black doves the ancient Greek historian Herodotus described as giving prophecy for the location of two temples. McQuillar notes that the dove was a symbol of the soul among the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean.4 Doves have since garnered divine associations in Jewish and Christian traditions.5
As noted, the imagery on the cards resemble figurative mosaics, though no human beings are represented. McQuillar is quick to note that the meanings of the symbols given in the accompanying book only relate to this deck, and that they have a multiplicity of meanings outside of it.6 The cards and the descriptions given reflect the mythologies of several ancient Mediterranean cultures: Libyan, Nubian, Kemetian, Greek, Roman, Phonetician, Canaanite, and Etruscan, among others.7 She offers suggestions for how to “awaken” the symbols within oneself, particularly if one has no prior experience with that symbol.8 The example she gives is of an ox-drawn cart — one that’s not familiar to me in daily life, so I appreciate these suggestions for how to bring awareness to the physical reality behind the symbol.
In the ancient Mediterranean, McQuillar writes, “omens were not thought to foretell the future,” but rather to “reflect a conditional future that could be altered with proper rituals if the change was seen to be unfavourable. I like this approach, and it’s in line with my own thinking on this. In a personal tarot reading, after reading the advice in the cards, I’ll sometimes shift them around to suggest a more favourable outcome before putting them away. In this way, I leave the reading with a clearer sense of where I want things to rest. Here, McQuillar describes this type of oracle reading as more of a suggestion of the way things are now, so that you can change the things you need to for a better outcome.
Indeed, she stresses that the Sibyls Oraculum is not intended for fortune-telling, but rather for self-examination and decision making that focuses on root causes, rather than end results.10 The oracle comments on situations, it doesn’t provide solutions in the usual sense.
The backs of the cards are colour-coded: black for core issues, copper for projection, blue for “cool” action, and red for “hot” action.11 The cards are read as a set of four — one card from each category. Sample readings are offered, accompanied by advice based on a situation outlined, in order to provide a sense of how the oracle works. The result is straightforward practical advice you can use.
McQuillar recommends that one read the cards for major events, and not as an everyday tool. She further suggests that there’s nothing to be gained from doing a reading when you won’t be dissuaded from the result you want.
Don’t do a reading with a closed mind. If you are determined to do whatever you plan to do, exactly how you plan to do it, and with you whom you plan to do it no matter what, then admit that and just do it. Don’t play games.12
This leads into a lengthy quiz (121 questions) to determine your current outlook in 11 key areas in your make up, based on the core issue cards (black). It was an interesting exercise to determine empowering and disempowering habits of mind. The responses were cut and dry, but there were many instances where I wanted to challenge this, and offer equivocations, which was not permitted. There were other instances where I could say “not anymore,” which means I’m changing, and (mostly) for the better, and that was encouraging. It helped me to identify areas that I need to be more mindful of, and journalling helped me articulate fears I’d previously tried to bury. That was not something I expected to delve into with this oracle, but I’m glad for the opportunity for reflection.
After this, I did a reading for myself based on a major change upcoming in my life, in order to get a lay of the land. The results had more depth than I expected from a mere four cards, and it’s given me more to consider as I move forward.
The Sibyls Oraculum is more than just another oracle deck, it’s a guide to living your most fulfilling life for yourself, your family, and your community. The holistic approach it offers touches on many aspects of well-being, and the complex insights it offers are rewarding.
Sibyls: Prophecy and Power in the Ancient World - History
The feminist movement has raised the public's consciousness about the unfairness of gender discrimination. Modern-day secular society has responded by eliminating sexism in employment, education, accommodation, etc. A large portion of the public has accepted that women should be given the same career opportunities that men have long enjoyed.
It is obvious that, early in the 21st century, the largest institutions in North America which will still deny equal rights to women are among conservative Christian denominations: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and many denominations within Protestantism, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Southern Baptist Convention. These groups interpret Bible passages as requiring women and men to follow defined, sexually determined roles. In opposite-sex marriage, for example, men are to lead and women are to be submissive to their husbands. In religion institutions women are not to be placed in a position of authority over men. A logical result of these beliefs is that women are not to be considered for ordination. There is no wiggle room here, unless their theologians take a different approach to biblical interpretation.
As gender discrimination becomes as abhorrent to the public as racism, these denominations may well be under increased pressure to conform to the non-sexist secular standard. Faith groups will be expected to evaluate candidates for ordination on the basis of the candidates knowledge, sense of calling from God, personality, commitment, ability, etc. -- but not on the basis of gender. Gender discrimination will be viewed by many as a millstone around the necks of conservative denominations. It will present a serious barrier to the evangelization of non-Christians. Whenever religious institutions are perceived by the general public as operating to a lower ethical standard than the rest of society, religious conversion becomes more difficult to achieve.
Many faith groups teach that women have very specific roles, both in the family and in religious organizations where positions of authority are reserved for males. This list includes the Roman Catholic Church, all Eastern Orthodox churches, a minority of provinces within the Anglican Communion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) and many Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Protestant denominations.
On the other hand, the Unitarian Universalist religion is the first major faith group which has a majority of female clergy. Women have had equal and sometimes superior roles within Wiccan and other Neopagan groups.
Since the issue seems to rest on the historical questions of women's roles in society, this article discusses the role of women in the development of religion and spirituality.
To begin, we must reach back into time beyond the Canonical Bible and the many dogmas as defined by the Orthodox Church Fathers and include in our historical studies Christian and Jewish Books excluded from the accepted Canon, namely the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha. We must also include in our studies the ancient writings of the Egyptians and Babylonians and particularly the writings of the Greeks and Romans, for it was in the context of these historic civilizations that the present day church doctrines and literature evolved and were defined. Analysis and study of these writings collectively suggest that although hidden from apparent view, women had an integral, elemental role in the development of Religions and the religious doctrines, they were leaders of the people and were both honored and revered. In this light, to exclude women from ordination on the basis of an historical precedent seems ludicrous, rather gender discrimination proves itself to be a product of society.
Women were at varying times in history revered as equal in station to men within the church. A simple and undeniable example of how women were once acknowledged as equals to men may be seen when we look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, where for all the world to see, Michelangelo painted five women Sibyls in equal station with the Prophets of the Old Testament.
Who were these Sibyls and why did the Church of Rome allow Michelangelo to incorporate these women into his masterpiece of religious history with such prominence? To answer this question, we must look the influence of women in the pre-historical period and during the days of the Greco-Roman Empire when women were looked to for both wisdom and guidance, when women as guardians of the Way and Truth were held in high esteem.
In the period prior to the development of cities, during the development of the agricultural societies, women were the mainstay of the communities. They farmed the land and cared for the children while men were away hunting. Later, women influenced the development of the city-state and religion. They alone tended the fires of the hearth and managed affairs at home while men went off to war. They were the teachers of the young and as the the first farmers, developed the agricultural knowledge of farming and investigated and developed the use of herbal medicines and knowledge of healing.
Even later, women impacted religious literature and philosophy. We may look to the myths and legends of the many Ancient Societies for numerous examples. In the Western World of the Greco-Romans , in the earliest period, women were accorded stations of equality with men . Themistoclea, played "a central role in the development of early Pythagorean philosophy. there exists a record that Pythagoras acquired the greater part of his ethical doctrines from Themistoclea, the Priestess of Delphi. "
Hypatia of Alexandria was one of the cities most renowned Neo-Platonic philosophers and also a mathematician. By the age 30, she was known in distant intellectual communities such as Libya and Turkey. During a period of religious persecution against the Jews and Pagans by the Christians, the government honored Hypatia with a paid, public position "as the head of the Neo-Platonic school of Plotinus. She taught geometry, mathematics, the works of Plato, Aristotle, Neo-Platonism, astronomy, and mechanics." She met an "early and gruesome death at the hands of a mob of monks who pulled her from her chariot, drug her into a church, stripped her of her clothing, hacked her body to pieces with sharp shells, then took her dismembered body to another location and burned it. her teachings and writings were virtually ignored by historians of philosophy for almost 1500 years." ( Women Philosophers of Ancient Times)
Christian Women included such as Makrina,
During the time of Christ, we may look to women for examples, especially in regard to Mary Magdalene who is sometimes called the Apostle to the Apostles because she is reported to have been the first to see Jesus Christ after the Resurrection. Other ancient views of Mary Magdalene as a teacher and companion of Christ are beginning to be more accepted today, although they remain unproven. These are made known to us primarily due to the Nag Hammadi Library. The Gospel of Philip states: "the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary (NHC II.3.59.6-11) (Robinson 1988: 145). The Gospel of Philip continues:
Women of the ancient world were instrumental in the development of both philosophy and the church. In the agricultural societies, an idea of God developed. God was seen as transcendent figure in female form and reflected the role of women as creators. Women in agricultural societies represented the mysteriousness of life in a threefold form: Virgin, Mother, and Ancient One or Maiden, Mother and Crone.
As Virgin, the development of women's bodies and their ability to bear and nurture children was perceived of as a magical event. The menstrual cycle of 28 days correlated with the 28 day cycle of the moon thus the moon became a powerful symbol for women . The moon, most always associated with night and the mysteriousness of darkness and sleep enhanced the mystery of women, for superstitious early man equated sleep with death and death with darkness.
Women's ability to bleed and stop bleeding was a great source of wonder to men, who when wounded seriously, died from loss of blood. As Mothers, the women mysteriously bore children, bled monthly and survived, apparently by magic, and women independently provided the main sustenance for children through their milk. Women were also the ones who tilled the soil, prepared the food, made the clothing, built the homes, bore the children, and raised the children. Women, in pre-historic days, were the teachers: they taught children what they needed to know to survive as adults and were the mainstay of the agricultural community. From the viewpoint of men, women were autonomous creators and providers women could survive without men.
Women also preserved clan and family lineages. In ancient days descent was determined through the matriarchal line and the brother and sister relationship was dominant over the relationship of husband and wife, for brother and sister were children of the same mother and their lines could be traced. In the ancient matriarchal society women also defined the laws of behavior and inheritance because women defined the lineage. Women were also the lawmakers and judges. Matriarchs controlled inheritance and the distribution of goods and exchange.
As agricultural communities made the transition to an urban lifestyle they carried the concepts of their ancient traditional structure with them. At first these concepts manifested themselves in the sophisticated idea of the female goddess throughout the Mediterranean Civilizations including Egypt. Egyptian, Grecian, Babylonian, and Roman history abounds with examples of the female goddess in such forms as Isis, Ishtar, Venus and Aphrodite. Their attributes encompassed themes compatible with the ideas of fertility and autonomy, birth, death, and regeneration. Nurturing qualities included gentleness, wisdom and love, but there were also goddesses of War. The power of the destructive forces of nature was also acknowledged.
As people sought wisdom and guidance from the Ancient Ones, women became more and more powerful and priestesshoods evolved. As civilizations developed, the populace looked to the Ancient Ones for divine guidance. Because of their old age these women were considered as semi-divine and having special relationships with the gods and goddesses. Over time it became a specific duty for one in particular to have the sacred chore of being what was called a Sibyl , meaning oracle or prophetess. The Sibyl's duty was to sit in a sacred shrine and prophesy for those who sought answers to specific questions. According to the records, the most prominent of the Sibyls for the most part were well advanced in age.
Sibyls were well established figures in the Greek city-states by the 4th and 5th B.C. Hericlitus, a philosopher of 500 B.C., said t he office of Sibyl was older than Orpheus , meaning that the Sibyls were traditional priestesses whose roots stretched so far back in time that their origins were untraceable. Other Ancients also speak well of them. Sibyls are mentioned in the Books of Plato with great respect where they are referred to as sources of reputable wisdom Sophocles reported that the Sibyls were divinely inspired. Sibyls are also mentioned in many other writings of various cultures including those of Egypt, Italy, Asia Minor, Persia, Erythea and Africa.
Although it is not well-known, written records still exist of the Sibylline Oracles. As these Oracles spoke, scribes recorded what they said in the literary form of the day known as Greek hexameter verse. Greek hexameter verse is a form of rhythmic poetry with accents on particular syllables. In fact, the Bible is written after this same form, in emulation of the Sibylline writings. Few of the earliest writings of 500-300 B.C. exist intact and it is a fact that those that exist have been altered from the original text however, we can be assured that the altered content must have been consistent with the expectations and reflected beliefs of the day.
The surviving Sibylline Oracles are not the famous Sibylline Books of Roman history, which were lost not once, but twice, and thus there is very little knowledge of the actual contents. The collection of pseudo- Sibylline Oracles in twelve books, written in Greek hexameters, which have survived, contain a medley of pretended prophecies by various authors and of very various dates, from the middle of the second century B.C. at the earliest, to the fifth century A.D. They were composed partly by Alexandrian Jews and revised and enriched by Christian editors, who added similar texts, all in the interests of their respective religions and in part they refer to events of the later Roman Empire, often portraying Rome in a decidedly negative light.
Book I of the Sibylline Oracles
Beginning from the first generation
of articulate men,
Down to the last,
I will prophesy all in turn,
Such things as were before,
As are and as will come
Upon the world through the impiety of men.
First God bids me tell
Truly how the world came to be.
But you devious mortal,
So that you may never neglect my commands,
Attentively make known the most High King.
It was He who created the world,
Saying,"Let it come to Be."
We can see by the small amount of material presented here that the women of the pre-historic period and the later Sibyls were very important to the evolution of the Jewish and Christian religions. The most influential list of Sibyls consisted of ten. During the Middle Ages, the Church increased their number to twelve to correspond to the twelve apostles.
Mary eventually replaced the Sibylline Oracles, but her status in the Church may be largely ascribed in the Western Tradition to the reverence with which the Sibyls of the Ancient World were once held. Mary was included in the early church at the demand of the masses, for they required a female goddess and it seems would not accept Christianity without one. Books about Mary and other women in the church may be found in the Apocryphal Gospels. Her role as the revered Mother of Jesus Christ in the present day has been underplayed to the role of Virgin only, however, in the more ancient period, Mary must have certainly enjoyed the role of the three faces of Woman: Virgin, Mother and Wise Woman.
We have seen but a brief glimpse through the above that women have had a direct and indirect impact on history and biblical literature and thus the religion we practice today. We have seen how women, especially the Sibylline Oracles were perceived as mysterious and transcendent voices of the gods and of the Judaeo-Christian God. In the ancient world, women were held and raised up to positions of esteem and power. As voices of reason they influenced religious thought, morality, political history and Biblical literature and in the Ancient World, women became priestesses in their own right.
It seems that it was only in the last days of their service, when they preached against the expansion and excesses of the Roman Empire, that the Oracles lost their position as High Priestesses of the One God. Coincidentally, it is ironic to note, that both the monotheism of Judaism and the prophesy of a coming of a Savior were promulgated and advanced to a greater degree due to the Sibylline Oracles and their female ancestors.
The ideas that they put forth promoted Judaism, Christianity and in general Monotheism throughout the Western World. Surely the question of "should" women be ordained will be resolved as the general public becomes more aware of the real role of women and the impact of women in the development of the church and history in general.