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Friday, September 16, 2011

Such Cassandras!

Sibyl, oil by Bacchiacca, aka, Francesco Ubertini, circa 1525.

But I to Python and to Panopeus
Of goodly towers shall go; and then shall all
Declare that I am a true prophetess
Oracle-singing, yet a messenger
With maddened soul...
And when thou shalt come forward to the books
Thou shalt not tremble, and all things to come
And things that were ye shall know from our words;
Then none shall call the God-seized prophetess
An oracle-singer of necessity.

The Sibyl, Book XI

"Sibyl" is the name bestowed on a number of women who were prophetesses, which is what the word means in Greek.  Although Homer never mentioned them, Heraclitus did in the 5th century BCE.  There were other prophetesses in ancient times, with other names.  The first sibyls were known by the place where they practiced, such as Delphi. Later sibyls were wanderers.  Sibyls would answer questions, but their value depended on how the question was asked, whereas other prophets would answer in riddles or give answers seemingly unrelated to the questions.

The Prophet Hosea and the Delphic Sibyl from a fresco in the Borgia Apartments,
Hall of the Sibyls, circa 1492.

Plato spoke of only one sibyl.  Eventually there were nine, and then the Romans added a tenth.  By the Middle Ages there were twelve - a symbolic Christian number.  They were a favorite subject during the Renaissance.  Michelangelo painted five of them on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  These sibyls forecast the coming of Christ.  Later scholars claim the pagan religion(s) of the sibyl(s) led to witchcraft, as it was known and practiced in Europe.

The Sibyls, by Raphael, circa 1514, in the Santa Maria della Pace, Rome.

The Persian Sibyl, known as Sambethe, was supposedly descended from Noah - a neat biblical tie-in.  In fact, other oracles have identified her as a pagan daughter-in-law of Noah.  She was also known as the Palestinian Sibyl, the Hebrew Sibyl, or the Babylonian Sibyl.  She was the oracle of Apollo, and she prophesied about Alexander the Great and his deeds.

The Persian Sibyl by Michelangelo.

The second Sibyl is known as the Libyan Sibyl.  Named Phemonoe, or Lamia in classical mythology, she lived at the Siwa Oasis in a desert in Egypt.  She is most famous for having been consulted by Alexander the Great when he conquered Egypt.  She was devoted to Zeus Amon, which she assured Alexander was his father.  Interestingly, that would make them half-siblings, since her father was said to be Zeus, too.  When she died, the grass that grew from where she was buried caused the beasts that fed on it to accurately reveal the future by their entrails.  The face in the moon is considered to be her soul.

The Libyan Sibyl by Michelangelo

The Delphic Sibyl was another oracle of Apollo, and is often confused with Pythia, the priestess of Apollo who gave prophecies at the Delphic Oracle, a separate affair.  She was said to be the daughter of Lamia, who was the daughter of Poseidon.  Some myths say she was an immortal nymph; others the sister of Apollo.  She left Troy in anger with her brother, Apollo, traveled, then died in Troy after surviving nine generations of men.  Later legend has it that her last prediction was of the coming of Christ.

The Delphic Sibyl by Michelangelo.

Carmentis was also an oracle of Apollo, and is known as the Cimmerian Sibyl, a spot in Italy near Lake Avernus.  She was known in ancient times before Hellenism.  Her son Evander was said to have founded Rome in the Lupercal, a cave at the foot of the Palatine Hill in Rome.

The Cimmerian Sibyl by Giovanni Frencesco Barbieri, Il Guercino, 1510.

The Erythraean Sibyl predicted the Trojan War, and prophesied that Troy would be destroyed.  Her prophesies were written on leaves, arranged in an acrostic so the initial letters of the leaves formed a word.  Erhthrae was an Ionian town.  There was probably more than one woman who served as sibyl here; one is recorded by the name Herophile, another was said to be from Chaldea.  According to Christian thought, this sibyl prophesied the redemption of Christ.

The Erythraean Sibyl by Michelangelo.

Samos was a Greek colony and is an island in the eastern Aegean.  The Samian Sibyl was another oracle of Apollo, and she predicted the birth of Jesus in a stable. She lived in a cave of Panagia Spillani monastery, according to modern researchers.  She existed at the time when the city of Byzantium was built, which was later made capital of the empire by Constantine the Great, and called Constantinople.

A depiction of the Samian Sibyl published by Guillaume Rouille in 1553.

The Cumaean Sibyl was located near Naples, and was favored by the Romans. Aeneas consulted her before descending into the underworld.  Christians were impressed with her as well, as she foretells of the coming of a savior whom the Christians identified as Jesus.  She, too, was an oracle of Apollo.  She prophesied by singing and writing on oak leaves.  The leaves she would arrange near the entrance of her cave, but if the wind blew them she would not rearrange them into her original prophecy.  In the Middle Ages she was considered a prophet of Christ, along with Virgil, who was said to have left Messianic prophecy in his "Eclogues" attributed to her.  This is supposed to be why Dante Alighieri chose Virgil as his guide in The Divine Comedy.  Michelangelo featured her prominently, and with favor over the other sibyls.

The Cumaean Sibyl by Michelangelo.

Troy had its own sibyl, known as the Hellespontine Sibyl, who lived during the time of Cyrus the Great of Persia and Solon.  She was a priestess of Apollo, and prophesied the crucifixion of Christ.  The sibylline collection, a series of books, was attributed to her and was originally kept at the her temple of Apollo.

The Hellespontine Sibyl, engraving by Philip Galle,
after a design by Antonius Bloclandt, 1575.

The Phyrgian Sibyl presided over another oracle of Apollo at Phyrgia, in west central Anatolia.  She is often associated with both the Hellespontine and Erythraean Sibyls, and may have been distinguished to later arrive at the all-important number of twelve sibyls.  All of these sibyls were used in Christian mythology to foretell the coming of Christ and important events in his life.

Drawing that was a study for the Phyrgian Sibyl
by Raphael, 1511-1512.

The Romans added the tenth sibyl to the classical ones of Greece, the Tiburtine Sibyl, who lived in the ancient Etruscan town of Tibur, now Tivoli.  Augustus met with her to ask if he should be worshipped as a god, and this meeting was a favorite motif of Christian artists later.  She prophesied that a king named Constans would arise and vanquish the foes of Christianity.

The Tiburtine Sybil by the Master of the Tiburtine Sibyl, circa 1480.
This depicts her meeting with the Emperor Augustus.

The aforementioned books of the Hellespontine Sibyl were preserved in the temple of Apollo.  The collection was then taken to Erythrae, where it became known as the oracles of the Erythraean Sybil.  The collection then travelled to Cumae, then finally to Rome.  One of the great legends of Rome is the acquisition of this collection by the last king of Rome, Targuinius Superbus, who ruled from 535 to 509 BCE.

Tarquinius Superbus, published by Guillaume Rouille, 1553.

As the story goes, the Cumaean Sibyl offered him nine books of the prophesies at an exorbitant price.  He declined, so she burnt three of them and offered the remaining six at the same price.  Again he refused, so she burned three more, and offered him the last three at the same original price.  He bought them and had them preserved in a vault.  The Roman Senate kept tight control over these books, first entrusting them to the care of two patricians, then appoint 10 custodians in 367 BCE - five patricians and five plebians - known as the decemviri sacris faciundis. This was later increased to fifteen - the quindecimviri saris faciundis.  Both of these groups functioned as a collegium with priestly duties, not only guarding but consulting and interpreting the books.  They also oversaw the worship of foreign gods introduced to Rome.  Eventually they were elected.  They were known as flamens.

Marble bust of a "flamen", or priest,  ca. 250-260 CE.

Since only their interpretations of the oracles were made public, that gave them a lot of latitude.  One important change the books brought to Roman civilization was the introduction of Greek concepts to Rome's indigenous religion (which was influenced by the Etruscans).  Since the books originated in Anatolia, they also included concepts of gods and rites from that area.  What resulted was a fusion of deities all across the ancient world, and some significant modifications of Roman religion.  Since the books were written in Greek hexameter, there were always two Greek interpreters for assistance.  When the temple the books were kept in burned down, they were lost, although some scholars think this may have been intentional.  The Roman Senate sent envoys in 76 BCE to seek oracles to replace the ones in the books.  This new collection was kept in the same, now restored, temple.  The priests then culled these and selected only those that appeared "true".  These were also burned in 405 CE.

Ceiling of the right-side nave of the "Sacred Heart" chapel of the
Sant'Allesandro church in Milan, by Guglielmo Caccia, circa 1600 CE.
Called "Angels and Sibyl", you can see sibyls, the pagan seers,
were by then so assimilated by Christianity they are on a par with angels.

The Sibylline Oracles (not to be confused with the books), sometimes called the pseudo-Sibylline Oracles, are a collection of divine revelations given by the sibyls in a frenzied state, later written in Greek hexameters.  Fourteen books and eight fragments of these utterances survived.  These were composed and edited under various circumstances over the 700 years between the middle of the 2nd century BCE and the 5th century CE.  They are a chaotic compilation of various authors, dates, and concepts.  The final arrangement, thought to be the work of an unknown editor from the 6th century, doesn't even try to identify who or why they were assembled.

A treatise published in 1661, available at Open Library

If one can handle reading them, chaotic being a nice description of them, they give valuable information about not only classical mythology, but early Church, Jewish, and gnostic beliefs.  As vehicles for the exploitation of ideas, they have endured countless edits and rewrites.  Christians became so fond of inventing and using oracles that the Greek philosopher, and opponent of early Christianity, Celsus, called them sibyl-mongers.  They have an interesting and involved history.

A Sibyl by Domenichino, circa 1616.

Little did the original sibyls know that they would be lending credence to religious claims for centuries.  Or did they?  Perhaps they should be considered one of the first franchises of early religions, as their words and identities would serve to advertise and legitimize all the new flavors of religious thought.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.
Images by Michelangelo were painted between 1508 - 1512 CE.
Click here for English translations of the Sibylline Oracles.

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