Sibyls – The Women Behind Power

Virgil, in his Aeneid, describes Deiphobe, better known as the Sibyl of Cumae, as coming from “a hundred perforations in the rock, a hundred mouths from which the many utterances rush” (43-5, 163). He further describes “her terrifying riddles” (98-99,164) conjuring the enduring image of a Sibyl as a mysterious prophetess sitting in a temple or a cave, uttering predictions in ecstatic frenzy. Nevertheless, the prophecies of the Sibyls were widely trusted – so trusted that many of their prophecies played key roles in determining the direction of important events.

However, “Sibyl” is actually a generic name which implies multiple seers, oracles and prophetess in the ancient world. Cassandra of Troy, who was not bound to a temple or a cave, and found herself in the middle of all the actions of the Trojan War, is also considered a sibylline figure. She was not the only Sibyl who took on a more hands-on role in the events around her. Many of these women rubbed shoulders with the greatest warriors and leaders of their ages, shaping the future instead of merely foretelling it.

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 In front of the temple, formerly part of the acroterion , stands a big bust of a female. It seems to have been her that led to the conclusion the temple was dedicated to both Zeus and Sibyl.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in the Roman Antiquities, recounts the story of an old woman who visits the last king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, or Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. She brings with her nine books that she claims to contain sibylline prophecies. The old woman offers to sell the books to Tarquin for what seems to be an exorbitant amount of money and he laughs at her ridiculous price. In response, the woman burns three of the books and leaves without leaving a trace. Some time later, the same woman returns with the remaining six books and offers to sell them at the same price as the original nine. Again, Tarquin laughs at her, thinking that the old woman has lost her mind. Again, she burns three of the books and leaves.

The woman again returns some time later with the remaining three books, still offering them to Tarquin for the same price as the original nine. At last, this time the king does not laugh. Finally wondering at the woman’s purpose, Tarquin sent for the augurs, acquaints them with the problem and asks them what he should do. The augurs declared it to be a great misfortune that he had not purchased all the books. They directed him to pay the woman all the money she asked and to get the oracles that were left. After he begrudgingly pays the woman, the old woman disappears and Tarquin would never see her again for the rest of his life. This woman was Deiphobe, the Sibyl of Cumae, the very woman who accompanied the legendary Aeneas to the underworld and back.

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Sibyls (by Agostino di Duccio, 1454) on the pilasters of the chapel of the Pietà; Malatesta Temple, Rimini, Italy

Thus, Tarquin had the sibylline books laid up in the Capitol. This installation of the Sibylline books on the Capitol was an important event in the religious history of Rome. Tarquin became the first Roman ruler who solemnly consulted what the Greek had recognized as the Delphic oracle, and it proved to be, at least, an early and potent factor in the Hellenizing of Roman religion.

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 who mentions the Sibyl when he writes, “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.”

According to the general belief, the first of the Greek Sibyls was a woman named Herophile, sometimes described as the daughter, sister or wife of Apollo, other times as the child of a fisherman and a nymph. Herophile is said to have come from the Troad (Biga peninsula in the northwestern part of Anatolia, Turkey) to Delphi before the Trojan War, lingered for a time at Samos, visited Claros and Delos, and died in the Troad, after surviving nine generations of men. After her death she became a wandering voice which still brought tidings of the future wrapped in dark enigmas to those who heard her.

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The Sybil Portrait of Emperor Augustus’ sister, Octavia

A more popular story was that Deiphobe,  Marpessa and Cassandra was the object of Apollo’s lust. Apollo’s gift of prophecy was an expression of sexual interest. Marpessa, the first of these women to be given the gift of prophecy, received it when she was taken from her husband and taken to Mount Ida by Apollo. She then served as his prophetess, in which capacity she foretold the fate brought by Paris to the city of Troy. Marpessa became captive to Apollo in the sense that she was given an unalterable fate and given commands in a way that obliges her to obey.

Cassandra, the princess of Troy, rejected Apollo’s advances after accepting his gift of prophecy. Apollo then turns her gift into a curse by giving her forewarning of danger yet limiting her prophecies so they would be neither understood nor believed by the people around her in time to avert disaster, thus rendering her gift useless.  

Deiphobe, who later became the Sibyl of Cumae, was also held captive by Apollo. Susan Skulsky, in The Sibyl’s Rage and the Marpessan Rock, compares Apollo’s violent intrusion into Deiphobe’s body to rape as she loses all control of her faculties and is forced to submit to Apollo’s needs. Although she resists the advances of Apollo, he finds another way to occupy her. She appears insane when Apollo fills her body and forces her to speak his messages. The words spoken are not hers and she does not have the choice of whether she would speak them or not. After possessing her, Apollo further abused her by cursing her to age despite also giving her immortality.

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Sibyl at the Bismarck-Nationaldenkmal

A Similar depiction is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses which also portrays the Cumaean Sibyl as a victim of imprisonment. Further, her role as a prophetess is a difficult and violent ordeal. Apart from her imprisonment by Apollo himself, the Cumaean Sibyl also becomes a prisoner in her own decaying body and, later, within her jar which T.S. Eliot refers to in the The Waste Land. According to Ovid and Petronius, she is cursed to live a long life of prophecy as her body withers away to the weight of a feather. Later in her life, her body was small enough to be hung in a jar in her cave, lamenting and wishing that a day will come when she will finally be allowed to die.

The Cumaean Sibyl was not the only prophetess who directly influenced the events around her. The Libyan Sibyl was identified as the prophetic priestess presiding over the ancient Zeus-amon oracle at the Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt – the same oracle consulted by Alexander after his conquest of Egypt. She was the daughter of Lamia who in turn was a daughter of Poseidon. The Libyan Sibyl was also credited with writing the Judeo-Christian Sibylline oracles, thus regarded by some Christians as a prophetic authority comparable to the Old Testament.

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Ludger tom Ring the Elder, “The Sibyl of Delphi” (16th Century)

The Cimmerian Sibyl evidently had enough freedom to be able to give birth to a son named Evander. Naevius mentions her in his books of the Punic War and Piso also acknowledges her in his annals. Apart from her capacity as a Sibyl, she was considered influential as her son Evander founded the shrine of Pan in Rome.

Albunea, also known as the Tiburtine Sibyl, whose seat was the ancient city of Tibur, was influential in the Roman government. She was worshiped at Tibur as a goddess, in which stream her image is said to have been found, holding a book in her hand. Her oracular responses the Senate was transferred into the capitol and she was consulted by the emperor Augustus himself who inquired whether he should be worshiped as a god.  She later became a favored motif of Christian artists in connection to an apocalyptic pseudo-prophecy c. 380 CE attributed to her in which she supposedly prophesy the advent of a final Emperor of Rome who would vanquish the enemies of Christianity, end paganism, converting the Jews and bring a period of great wealth and peace. Ippolito d’Este rebuilt the Villa d’Este at Tibur and commissioned elaborate fresco murals in the Villa that depicts the Tiburtine Sibyl prophesying the birth of Christ to the classical world.

Woman With Red Face Paint

Virgil’s Aeneid tells that, long before her encounter with the last king of Rome, the Cumaean Sibyl speaks to Aeneas before his descent to the underworld. She tells Aeneas that he has the ability to rise above his fate before escorting him to the underworld to see his dead father. In the underworld, Aeneas meets his father, Anchises who shows Aeneas his future and the future of his descendants which includes Romulus, the founder of Rome, and Augustus, the first Roman emperor (who was, of course, the patron of Virgil), extolling their greatness and victory as a proud grandfather would. Once his father’s prophecy is over, she accompanies him back to the land of the living.

Low angle side view of silhouette of serene long haired female standing alone under night sky with moon

Clearly, from her relationships with both Aeneas and Tarquin, the Cumaean Sibyl plays an important role in the founding and fortune of Rome. If it were not for her guidance, Aeneas would not have met his father and know the importance of his continued journey. If it weren’t for her, the Romans would not have had the guidance of the Sibylline Books. All these are achieved by her actually meeting and guiding the men she was supposed to influence.

The Sibylline Books became crucial in the ongoing decisions of Rome. The lecti viri, a group of two men, which eventually grew in number to fifteen, guarded the books. When the senate’s seers could not divine the meaning of extraordinary events, or when Rome needed direction in times of crisis, these men would be ordered to consult the Sibylline Books as the books often clarified the meaning of divine events or ordered particular sacrifices to avoid a disaster. According to Dionysius, dereliction of one’s duty to care for the books could have disastrous results. When someone reported that one of the guardians of the books had allowed someone else to borrow one of them, Tarquin “ordered him to be sowned up in a leather bag and thrown into the sea.”

Person Wearing Red Dress

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