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The Sibylline Oracles

H. N. Bate



In the Hellenic world, as in that of the Hebrews, the guidance and inspiration of prophecy was always sought and held in veneration. In the great days of Hellas the oracles played a part in the moulding of public policy no less than in the solution of private problems, and long after those days had passed away the popular religion drew a constant stream of enquirers to the places where the counsel of God was thought to be revealed. Oracles such as that of Claros enjoyed an enormous vogue as late as the second century a.d. -- never, indeed, had their popularity been greater : and it waned only with the decay of the cults which nurtured it.

In the main, it is clear the Greeks believed firmly that the inspiration of their oracles and seers was genuine. It is true that Aristophanes laughed at them and parodied their utterances, and that Lucian in his day found abundant material for satire in the charlatans who made large profit out of the superstitions of a nerve-ridden age, while Aristotle1treated inspiration as a form of melancholy ; yet the mind of Hellas was more truly represented by Plato 2 and Plutarch,3 both of whom spoke of the oracles and the Sibyl with genuine religious respect.

The oracles, strictly so called, were always consulted through the official medium of the priests who had charge of them; but there were also less official sources of revelation; voices to be heard in caverns where subterranean springs gave forth mysterious sounds, or from the rush of the wind through trees; in such places the earliest " Sibyls " had their home, and could be consulted by any who chose to approach them : or rather, through them the people could seek counsel of Apollo, to whom their inspiration was always ascribed.

The Sibylline tradition, then, took its origin from a side-stream of oracular inspiration. According to Rohde (Psyche, vol. ii. pp. 62 f.) one must also infer that between the eighth and sixth centuries b.c., when the enthusiastic cult of Dionysus was taking settled form, there were wandering prophets in Hellas, unattached to any local habitation; men and women subject to ecstatic possession, gifted with second sight, who played a part analogous to that of the prophets of early Christian history. The Cassandra of the Agamemnon is just such a figure. She corresponds closely to the earliest description of a Sibyl, found in a fragment of Heraclitus;4 her utterance is wild, harsh and uncouth : her message is full of unwelcome truths and forebodings of disaster ; it is like that of Micaiah the son of Imlah, or that of the seer in the Iliad 5 to whom it was said [Greek] It is with such soothsayers, [Greek] 6 and with casual utterances gradually collected and handed down in ever-increasing number, that the Sibylline tradition begins.

The first of the Sibyls, according to the general belief, was one Herophile, described now as the daughter, sister or wife of Apollo, now as the child of a fisherman and a nymph; she came from the Troad to Delphi before the Trojan war, "in wrath with her brother Apollo," 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 to the ears of men tidings of the future wrapped in dark enigmas.7

Two places claimed to be the birthplace of Herophile, namely Marpessos in the Troad and Erythrae. The Erythraeans based their claim on an alleged utterance of the Sibyl--[Greek] --while the Marpessians asserted that their rivals had suppressed a line of the true text, which ought to read thus : --


Marpessos proved to be too insignificant to uphold its claim, and thus the Erythraean Sibyl usurped and retained the first place in tradition as the earliest and greatest of all Sibyls. So, for instance, Lactantius says (de Ira Dei, 22, 4) that all ancient authorities "pręcipuam ac nobilem pręter ceteras Erythręam fuisse commemorant." 8

It is probable that Sibylline vaticination was practised in many localities ; by the time of Varro 9 ten Sibyls had been enumerated, and other authorities (see Alexandre, App. to Exc. I) give other lists and numbers : but the literary tradition of the Sibyl begins with only one. Heraclitus, Aristophanes, Plato and Plutarch refer to the Sibyl in the singular,10 and Tacitus (Ann. vi. 12) doubts whether the singular or the plural is the proper number to employ.

It is clear from Aristophanes that some sort of Sibylline literature was current in Greece in the fifth century B.C.11 But the Roman portion of the Sibylline story takes the literature back to a considerably earlier date. It was at the end of the sixth century b.c. that one of the Tarquins, probably Tarquinius Superbus, "canonized" such Sibylline oracles as he was wise enough to purchase, and had them laid up in the Capitol. Nine books, it is said,12 were offered to him by an old woman from Cumę, at the price of 300 gold pieces; at the end of the bargaining the vendor had burnt six out of the nine, and was able to secure the original price in full for the remaining three. Now these books were brought indeed from Cumę, where there was (in later times, at any rate) a Sibylline cave and oracle; but they were not of Cumęan origin: Cumę, tradition says, produced no written oracles. The "Cumęum carmen" was in fact simply the " Erythręan" collection, i. e. all that was believed in the sixth century to be the work of the chief and original Sibyl.

The installation of the Sibyllines on the Capitol was an event of first-rate importance in the religious history of Rome. It was the work of the first Roman ruler who solemnly consulted the Delphic oracle, and it proved to be, if not the beginning and sole cause, at least an early and potent factor in the Hellenizing of Roman religion.13 New deities, new forms of old deities, new cults, new methods of propitiation, new festivals and observances were introduced on the authority of the sacred canon thus imported. A college of officials, Duumvirs at first, Quindecimvirs later, was appointed to have charge of the documents, and two assistants at least were always provided who had a knowledge of Greek.14 The oracles, it would seem, were constantly studied, but were never "consulted" or "approached" except by express order of the State, Their use appears to have been twofold: they were consulted in times of danger, for predictions and warnings,15 and on the occurrence of unprecedented portents or disasters, for the discovery of appropriate rituals of propitiation.

The existing Sibylline books, having passed through the hands of Jewish and Christian editors, naturally retain no traces of such ritual injunctions as it was the business of the Quindecimvirs to discover.16 Indeed it appears that even in the Roman books the expected answers were by no means found lying on the surface. The method of consultation was elaborate and artificial. One account of it avers that a line was chosen at random, and an acrostic was made, with the letters composing this line as the "lights": verses beginning with the appropriate letters were then discovered in the oracles and perhaps composed for the occasion. If this account is even approximately correct,17 it is clear that the Quindecimvirs were in a fortunate position. The Sibyl was venerated, and she could be made to say what they thought desirable. However, it is probable that a certain amount of ritual prescription was actually found in the text of the books. The god or goddess connected with a particular calamity would often be named, and in such cases it would be easy to find precedents to direct the Quindecimvirs towards the appropriate ceremony: moreover, Aristophanes certainly found ritual injunctions and political warnings in his text of the Sibyl, for these are the things that he parodies : his Sibyl declares when peace should and should not be made, and when it is proper to sacrifice a white ram to Pandora.18

In 81 b.c. the buildings on the Capitol, with their contents, were destroyed by fire; but so great was the importance attached to the sacred deposit of the libri fatales that five years after the fire a commission was sent out to renew the collection. The commissioners made enquiry for Sibylline verses in Italy and abroad, especially at Erythrae,19 and were able to bring together about 1000 lines as the genuine words of the Sibyl.

Thus from 76 b.c. onwards the Roman collection consisted of lines which had been found to be in general circulation; some of them were taken from public collections, and some copied down from popular oral tradition.20 No doubt many of these were accepted as having had a place in the books destroyed by the fire; but there is reason to think that on the one hand the work of the commission stimulated both the production of new and the adaptation of old Sibylline matter, and that on the other the Quindecimvirs had to sift out a considerable mass of spurious oracles;21 for, as will be seen, more than one collection was by this time in existence which owed its origin to propagandist literary efforts, Jewish and Pagan.

Further efforts were made both by Augustus and by Tiberius to secure the purity and the authority of the Sibylline canon. During the arrangements for the celebration of the Ludi Saeculares in 17 b.c. Augustus had the oracles re copied;22 and on assuming the dignity of Pontifex Maximus five years later he caused a large mass of spurious or unauthorized oracles to be burnt, retaining only those of the Sibyl: these he placed in gilded cases in the temple of Apollo on the Palatine.23 Tiberius, disturbed by a popular prophecy of the approaching end of the empire, set on foot a similar critical enquiry, which resulted apparently in some enlargement of the official collection as well as in the destruction of some spurious or worthless matter.24

It is needless to follow further the story of the Roman Sibylline canon,25 nor indeed is it directly connected with that of the Jewish-Christian books. But its indirect influence was considerable. The official adoption of the Sibyl by Rome herself, and the atmosphere of awe and secrecy with which her oracles were surrounded, lent to her name and words a prestige which it would be difficult to over-estimate; Rome completed and sealed with imperial authority the process of canonization which had begun in the folk-lore of Hellas. Hence came, in large measure, the temptation to utilize for purposes of propaganda a name so venerable. Since the Sibyl was a prophetess, any prophecy could safely be ascribed to her without fear of disproof; since she was so eminent and so ancient, any prophecy which could gain currency under her name was sure of eager and widespread acceptance.

It should be added also that the Roman tradition enriched the world with one poem which has had a higher and more enduring influence upon literary history than all the Sibylline verses taken together--the Fourth Eclogue of Vergil;26it was that prophecy of a new age and a blessed birth, inspired partly by the earlier Jewish Sibyllines (i. e. by part of our Book III.), partly also, it may be, by direct acquaintance with the Book of Isaiah, which won for Vergil his place in Christian thought as a herald of the Incarnation.