Sunday, September 25, 2011

Note on the Optics of History

This post is an addendum to my “Sibylline” posts, on the general subject (here) and on Saint Hildegard of Bingen (here). As I noted in the first, the original prophetess who probably lent her name to a long line of sibyls, Sibylla of Marpessos, lived in or before the sixth century BC. In my second post I write about a prophetess who lived in the twelfth century AD and was born more than 900 years ago. The big difference between these two figures is that Sibylla, while her name and fame survive, is by now very obscure; in contrast, we have masses of information about Hildegard. Mere phrases of almost equally obscure but famous writers refer to Sibylla. Thus (as I’ve already quoted earlier, Heraclites said of her: “With her maddened mouth … she reaches a thousand years with her voice by the power of the god”—much as Hildegard’s voice still reaches us today. The magical or spiritual powers of these women are explained in different ways depending on the culture that surrounded them. The ancients derived the sibyls from divine-human unions, as in this quote from the Sibylline oracles† I’ve chanced across:
[A]nd I am born between a mortal and a god,
Of an immortal nymph and a father who fed on bread;
From my mother Ida-born, but my fatherland is red
Marpessos, consecrated to my mother, and its river is the
By contrast Saint Hildegard’s gifts were attributed to divine inspiration. The ancient sibyls have become almost invisibly tiny owing to temporal distance, whereas Hildegard is still accessible to us today through many writings, not least her own.

Now writing these posts the obvious occurred to me. It is that those ancient women were doubtless as real and complex in their own times as Hildegard was in hers. That their fame rested on something more than just a “maddened mouth,” rested on real qualities and gifts as marvelous as Hildegard’s. These women often had long lives—certainly true of the Sibyl of Cumae in the early Roman era. If by some science fiction magic we could be transported to their own times, taught the language by some little Star Trek device plugged into the left ear, and by a “time distortion” so very common in SF series we could spend, say thirty years observing those times while not aging but ten minutes in our own—why then we would be as amazed and awed by the ancient sibyls as we are by a phenomenal figure like Hildegard of Bingen.

Through the incredible compression of time, however, the ancient sibyls appear small. Therefore the modern tendency is to display a half-sardonic little smile when stories of them surface. We belittle the past because it has become—tiny. This applies, of course, to all of the figures of the past. Despite our at best modest achievements, we feel superior to them, dismissing the past’s utter ignorance. “Can you imagine? They cut up goats, looked at their guts, and from that foretold the future? What a scam. Boy those people were gullible. Gullible!” Do we have social habits equally absurd? Of course we do. Do we notice our own silliness? Not in the least. But it will take two thousand years or so before the public then, enmeshed in yet other insanities, will look at us with those bemused smiles of superior wisdom with which we contemplate the benighted ancients.

†Jennifer Lynn Larson, Greek Heroine Cults, p. 126, available on the web (link).

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