Tuesday, August 30, 2011


The Sibyl came into my view again the other day when I was looking into the Tarquins (here). The prophetess known as the Cumaen Sibyl supposedly approached Tarquinius Superbus (that’s Tarquin the Proud) and offered to sell him nine Sibylline Books of prophecy. He didn’t want to pay the outrageous price that she demanded. She then burned three of the books—and renewed her offer. Once more The Proud hesitated. The Sibyl burned three more. At last Tarquin yielded—and bought the remaining three at the original price. It is such tales—and never mind their factual underpinnings—that draw temperaments like mine to the study of our cultural past.

I think the Sibyl first came into my view, curiously enough, while studying English Lit, specifically T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot used a quote from Petronius as the epigraph for that poem, rendered in Latin, but my good fortune had been to study English in an environment where teachers could render Latin—or Greek, for that matter—into English. The epigram contains two Greek pieces too. Here it is:

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Sibylla ti theleis; respondebat illa: apothanein thelo.

Now the Sibyl at Cumae I’ve seen with my eyes
She pended, she hung there in an ampule of glass.
And when boys who’d there gathered addressed her and asked:
“Sybil, what do you want?” She said “I want to die.”
     Petronius, Satyricon vii

What a weird picture. It left an impression. All early Sibyls as it happens were priestesses of Apollo, and Apollo truly loved the beautiful Sibyl of Cumae so much he offered her near immortality (another recent subject here). She could live as many years as there were particles in a presumably full handful of dust. But the Sibyl forgot to ask Apollo also to preserve her youth. Thus as the seemingly limitless years passed, she grew older, and smaller, and thinner—becoming a tiny shriveled old woman who could pend herself into an ampule, a longish sort of glass. The image stayed with me. The Waste Land (nice introduction to my times, by the way) did not. But cheerful Eliot did leave one quote firmly planted in my memories, if from another poem, also appropriate to this age:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.

All set for Modernity.

This post, however, while triggered by the associations I’ve just cited, is here to prepare for a future one, scheduled for September 17. That one will be, I promise, much more uplifting. In support of it I thought I’d put some notes here on Sibyls.

The name’s origin is unknown but dated by the Encyclopedia Britannica to the religious period (800-600 BC) predating the Greek classical era. Female prophets arose in that time. An early one must have been called Sibylla, and others took or were assigned the same name. The best-known ancient prophetess was Sibylla of Marpessos, a little place near Troy in what is now Western Turkey. She lived in a period overlapping the sixth and fifth centuries BC, thus at the dawn of the classical age. The EB quotes Heraclitus (535-475 BC) saying of her: “with her maddened mouth … she reaches a thousand years with her voice by the power of the god.”

In the times that followed, Sibyls arose everywhere—and each region claimed its own. The Romans had the Sibyl at Cumae, a place in southern Italy near Naples. Did this tradition die out in the centuries that followed. In a way, yes. After the classical came the Hellenistic (323 to 30 BC), after that the Imperial, and after that the Christian age. Prophecy thins as we advance—but is reborn again in the new religious age that took firm root after Constantine.... To be continued, God willing, in September.

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