The Sibyls in History, Literature, Theology and Art
This article was originally written as an appendix to Dion and the Sibyls (the greatest of Christian novels).
The Sibyls in Ancient History and Literature
The Sibyls were mysterious prophetesses of antiquity. They were believed to live much longer than the normal human lifespan and to be the depositaries of divine revelations. Their cryptic oracles set forth the future and made known religious truths to the pagan nations among whom they dwelled—particularly the one true God and the divine Saviour to be born in the East.
The Christian writer Lactantius († 325 A.D.), quoting from a lost work of the pagan Varro (116-28 B.C.), counts ten Sibyls: “the first of the Persians, the second the Libyan, the third the Delphian, the fourth the Cimmerian, the fifth the Erythræan, the sixth the Samian, the seventh the Cumæan, the eighth the Hellespontian, the ninth the Phrygian, the tenth the Tiburtine, who has the name of Albunea.”(1)
Varro distinguished three books written by the Cumæan Sibyl, containing the fates of the Romans and accounted sacred, one book of the Erythræan Sibyl and bearing her name, and books of almost all the others, mixed together and entitled, as though by one name, the Sibylline Books. He had not himself read the writings of the Cumæan Sibyl, for access to them was limited by the Roman authorities, but he affirms that all the other Sibyls bear witness that there is but one God, the ruler, the maker, the parent, not begotten of any, but sprung from Himself, who was from all ages, and will be to all ages; and therefore is alone worthy of being worshipped, alone of being feared, alone of being reverenced, by all living beings.
It is however the Cumæan Sibyl who figures largely in Dion and the Sibyls. The Roman historians, notably Livy, relate how in the reign of Rome’s last king, Tarquinius Superbus (expelled c. 510 B.C.), an aged and unknown seer from the region of Naples approached the profligate king offering him, sight unseen, nine books of vaticinations composed in Greek hexameters for the exorbitant price of one half of the contents of his treasury. The king refused, whereupon the Sibyl burned three of the books and offered him the six that remained for the original price of one half of his treasury. Tarquin again refused, whereupon a further three books were burned and the remaining three were offered, still at the unchanged price. Tarquin hesitated, and finally accepted. He adjured the Sibyl to rewrite the contents of the other six books, but she would not or could not, and, having been paid, returned to her grotto never to be seen again. The Romans guarded the sacred deposit of these three surviving Sibylline books, appointing first two, then ten and finally fifteen, guardians and official interpreters—the quindecemviri—to preserve them from harm, to prevent their being read by unauthorised persons and to bring them forth for consultation at times of great danger or calamity for Rome.
While doubt inevitably surrounds the origins of the books attributed to the Cumæan Sibyl, there is no doubt that they existed and were regularly consulted until their destruction during the conflagration of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in the social war in 83 B.C. The Sibyl of Cumæ and the Sibylline books are a commonplace of Roman history and literature. After the rebuilding of the temple by Sulla in 76 B.C., the Roman senate sent envoys throughout Rome and the world to different places claiming to possess Sibylline writings, with a view to restoringwhat had been lost. The new text, comprising some thousand verses, was kept in the new Capitol.(2) Hence the Senate continued to have recourse to the reconstituted sibylline books and the Roman people were more interested in them than ever. However, many spurious prophecies were passed off as sibylline and at length in 12 B.C. Augustus called in all unauthorised oracles, both Greek and Latin, and burned them: more than two thousand volumes.(3) He retained an increased selection of Sibylline and other prophetic books (libri fatales) considered worthy of credence, now derived not only from the Cumæan Sibyl but from other sources also, and he deposited these in the vaults of his new temple. Professor Joseph B. Mayor(4) has shown the strong grounds that exist for thinking that parts of the scriptures of the Jewish nation, in their Greek form, would have passed, via Alexandria, to Rome and were known to the Roman literary world. It is thus not unlikely that the prophecies of Isaias or texts derived from them were included among the libri fatales.
The Romans had great faith in the Sybilline books and this faith was not diminished by the destruction of the originals and their replacement by reconstituted versions to which others again were later added. The hard-headed Cicero discusses their credibility in book II of his de Divinatione and concludes in their favour. He adds the information that one of the chief characteristics of the Sibylline writings is that the verses form acrostics: (5)
That the poem cannot have been composed by an author in a state of frenzy is shown both by the verses themselves (as they display qualities proper rather to art and to careful labour than to inspiration and involuntary impulse) and by their acrostic content, i.e. the fact that the initial letters of each line together compose something, as for instance when in certain verses of Ennius the opening letters of each line read in sequence give, Q. ENNIUS WROTE THIS. Such compositions are certainly the work of a mind that is giving attention to its acts, not of one that is beside itself. Now in the Sibylline writings the initial letters of each sentence of an entire canto fit together in this way. The author therefore was not in an ecstatic fit or insane, but was taking great care. For this reason, let us keep the Sibyl’s work in safety, so that, as our forefathers laid down, these books may not even be read without the order of the senate... (6)
The greatest Roman poet, Virgil, was also profoundly influenced by the Cumæan Sibyl. In the sixth book of the Æneid, it is the Sibyl who guides Æneas on his journey to the underworld. But more significant still is Virgil’s fourth, and most beautiful, Eclogue. This poem describes a Messianic golden age, which Virgil expects to be already known to his readers, to be ushered in by a divine infant to be born to a virgin in the East and whose birth was considered imminent. The poem frequently appears to echo the prophecies of Isaias and was believed by Christians to constitute clear evidence that Divine Providence had not left the gentile world without light as to the expected coming of the divine Saviour to restore peace and virtue to mankind. The conversion of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, owed much to this Eclogue.(7)
The two great pagan historians of the first century, Tacitus (c. 55-120 A.D.) and Suetonius (75-160 A.D.), both refer to a widespread conviction of this sort based on prophetic texts referring to a golden age to be ushered in by the Jews. According to the former, “many were persuaded that according to the ancient writings of the priests at that time the East would become powerful and that the Jews would go forth and make conquest of the world.”(8) The latter declares that, “The whole East was abuzz with the ancient and unshakable conviction that prophecy destined the Jews in those days to go forth and make conquest of the world.”(9)
Early Christians and the Sibylline Oracles
By the first century A.D., we find in public circulation twelve books of Greek hexameters known as the Sibylline Oracles. Christian apologists(10) made extensive use of these works in their debates with pagans. Unfortunately, there were numerous textual variants. And as the centuries passed, new material was added to some of these works. It is impossible to affirm that the texts the learned world today possesses(11) consist exclusively of authentically ancient, pre-Christian works. On the other hand, there can be not the slightest doubt of the authenticity of a very large part of them. The Christian writers who quote them to convince their pagan opponents were clearly appealing to recognised, pre-existing and credible texts. No one doubts that the authentic pre-Christian Sibylline Oracles present a monotheistic tableau in which men must worship the Creator with appointed rituals and obey His laws, and in which a long-prophesied divine redeemer was to appear among men, born of a virgin and usher in a golden age—and that the world would in due course end in a terrible cataclysm of divine judgement. And no one doubts that these pre-Christian gentile texts bear close resemblance to the writings of the major Old Testament prophets. However certain of these Sibylline texts point so explicitly to Our Lord Jesus Christ that the doctrinaire scepticism of the learned world refuses even to consider the possibility that these passages might be authentic. They are rejected as spurious—pious forgeries interpolated by Christian writers in the hope of giving retroactive credibility to their faith. And many learned Catholic writers have been disedifyingly prompt to accept this explanation.
However, the Christian reader will not be convinced that a prophecy is spurious because it is too perfectly accomplished in the person of Our Divine Lord. Nor will he lightly imagine that Christian apologists readily had recourse to fraud to render credible the religion of truth. It is certainly possible that what in one papyrus appeared as marginal annotations and cross-references to Scriptural sources, were incorporated integrally into the next text by a mistake of the copyist. But this cannot explain away the entire phenomenon that the Sibylline Oracles appear to establish the existence of pre-Christian prophecies among the gentile nations which are marvellously fulfilled by the coming of Christ and the foundation of the Church.
Our author, the learned Mr Myles Keon, rightly draws special attention to one particularly remarkable text found in the Sibylline Oracles. It contains an acrostic of the name of Christ: a series of 27 Greek verses, the initial letters of each of which, read successively, give Ιησοῦς Χρειστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτὴρ, which is the Greek for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour—the same title represented by the very ancient Christian fish symbol.(12)
However astounding it may to find Our Lord’s Name, divinity and mission explicitly stated in a pre-Christian prophecy found among pagan nations, it is hard to a find a credible alternative explanation. This acrostic is ancient and is found in all the texts. It is referred to by our earliest Christian writers and invoked in writings adressed to learned pagans who would have been prompt to refute the imposture if the texte were inauthentic. Moreover Cicero (a former Pontifex Maximus, responsible for religious matters) explicitly refers to the acrostic feature of the Sibylline writings known to him and if he was not referring to this acrostic it would appear that whatever he was referring to has not survived. The Fathers of the Church were certainly convinced that this acrostic is authentic and was the one Cicero had in mind. Saint Augustine’s discussion and translation of the acrostic will be found in a separate appendix.(13)
Theological Status of the Sibylline Oracles
If the pagan Romans and other pagan nations possessed purportedly inspired writings which accurately prophecy divine truths, what has theology to say as to the origin of such oracles?
The available options are the following:
1. Just as the Holy Ghost inspired the prophets of the Old Testament, He may have inspired just and holy persons living in pagan nations to commit to writing religious truths for the benefit of those who surrounded them. In this case, the writings of the Sibyls may be as truly inspired as Holy Scripture itself, though of course its inspiration would be a natural opinion, not a Catholic doctrine, and there would be no guarantee (save the proofs of reason) of the authenticity and incorruption of any particular passage.
2. The contents of the Jewish Scriptures became known to pagans (the Babylonian captivity made this process inevitable and the conquests of Alexander accelerated it) and truths derived from the authentic Jewish revelation, mingled with extraneous matter, were incorporated into texts that were not themselves inspired.
3. Pagan prophets were abused by demons who fed them errors mingled with certain truths (which the demons had derived from the Jewish revelations) in order the better to deceive the pagans and maintain them in the worship of false Gods.
All three of these explanations have had their defenders, but the third seems hardly credible, for the Sibylline Oracles known to us represent by Christian standards a distinct improvement on paganism. As between the first two, since the prophecies themselves purport to be inspired, we should perhaps enquire whether there is any doctrinal reason for rejecting this explanation.
If the Sibyls themselves be classed as pagans, of course, their inspiration cannot be put in the same class as that of the inspired authors of our Scriptures. But Balaam’s ass is instanced by St. Peter as having been miraculously enabled to rebuke the madness of his master,(14) and Balaam himself, as mechanically as the beast he rode, had his own mouth opened.(15) Caiaphas too, who though not a pagan was certainly not a man of holiness, spoke prophetically, “not of himself.”(16) And St. Paul (Acts 17: 28) quotes an oracular heathen poet who aptly states a religious truth.(17) Lactantius, with his immense reverence for the Sybilline Oracles, attributes to them an “almost divine voice”, thereby distinguishing them from the canonical scriptures.
Saint Thomas Aquinas does not find it needful to settle the issue. Commenting on the question of whether explicit faith in Christ was necessary for the salvation of all even in Old Testament times, he writes:
Many of the gentiles received revelations of Christ, as is clear from their predictions. Thus we read (Job 19:25): “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” The Sibyl too foretold certain things about Christ, as Augustine states (Contra Faust. xiii, 15). Moreover, we read in the history of the Romans, that at the time of Constantine Augustus and his mother Irene a tomb was discovered, wherein lay a man on whose breast was a golden plate with the inscription: “Christ shall be born of a virgin, and in Him, I believe. O sun, during the lifetime of Irene and Constantine, thou shalt see me again.”(18) If, however, some were saved without receiving any revelation, they were not saved without faith in a Mediator, for, though they did not believe in Him explicitly, they did, nevertheless, have implicit faith through believing in Divine providence, since they believed that God would deliver mankind in whatever way was pleasing to Him, and according to the revelation of the Spirit to those who knew the truth, as stated in Job 35:11: “Who teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth.”(19)
And elsewhere he says:
The gentiles were not set as instructors of divine faith. Hence, however wise they may have been in secular wisdom, they must nevertheless be counted as lesser [than the chosen nation]. It was therefore sufficient for them to have faith in the redeemer implicitly, either by believing in the law and the prophets or by belief in divine providence itself. But it is probable that before the coming of Christ the mystery of our redemption was divinely revealed to many gentiles as is evident from the sibylline oracles.(20)
The Roman liturgy, that fountain of pure doctrine, also appeals to the Sibyls. From its first stanza the awe-inspiring sequence of the Requiem Mass announces “Dies iræ dies illa, solvet sæclum in favilla, teste David cum sibylla—Day of wrath, oh dreadful day, the world to ashes shall decay, as David and the Sibyl say.” And the Dominican sequence for Christmas, the exquisite Lætabundus, reproaches the Jews with having believed neither Isaias nor the Sibyls:
Si non suis vatibus,
credat vel gentilibus;
If her own she will not mark,
Let her to the gentiles hark;
For the Sybil’s verses dark
Tell of these things.
The Sibyls and the Arts
Between 1988 and 1996 talented musician Mr Jordi Savall, accompanied by the extraordinary voice of his wife, Montserrat Figueras, recorded a series of widely-acclaimed musical presentations of Sibylline texts and songs in the Capella Reial De Catalunya under the title El Canto de la Sibila I and II.
Michelangelo’s ageless Sibyls may be seen in the Sistine Chapel, while not far away other Sibyls adorn the library of Pope Julius II. Perugino’s fresco in the guildhall of his hometown of Perugia is a fine blend in which the mediæval idea of the Sibyls has not too far yielded to Renaissance realism. But the finest mediæval depiction of the Sibyls is perhaps that of the ceiling of Albi cathedral.
Many painters, notably Antoine Caron, have depicted the Tiburtine Sibyl making known the birth of Christ to the reigning emperor Augustus. And Guercino (1591–1666) painted canvases of the Sibyls separately, among which his The Cumæan Sibyl with a Putto (1651), currently on loan to London’s National Gallery, is outstanding: the putto points to an inscription bearing a prediction of the Crucifixion from the Sibyl’s prophecies.
See Divine Institutes, Books 6 and 7 in which Lactantius quotes abundantly from the texts of the sibylline books known to him.
Tacitus, Annales, vi, 12.
Suetonius, Vita Octaviani, 31.
Virgil’s Messianic Eclogue: Its Meaning, Occasion and Sources, London, John Murray, 1907.
The same is also true of some of the Psalms and of the Lamentations of Jeremias.
“Non esse autem illud carmen furentis cum ipsum poema declarat (est enim magis artis et diligentiae quam incitationis et motus), tum vero ea, quae ἀκροστιχίς dicitur, cum deinceps ex primis versus litteris aliquid conectitur, ut in quibusdam Ennianis: Q. ENNIUS FECIT. Id certe magis est attenti animi quam furentis. Atque in Sibyllinis ex primo versu cuiusque sententiae primis litteris illius sententiae carmen omne praetexitur. Hoc scriptoris est, non furentis, adhibentis diligentiam, non insani. Quam ob rem Sibyllam quidem sepositam et conditam habeamus, ut, id quod proditum est a maioribus, iniussu senatus ne legantur quidem libri...” (De Divinatione, lib. II, n. liv.
See Constant. or. c. 18, Euseb. I, p. 179, GCS 1902.
“Pluribus persuasio inerat, antiquis sacerdotum literis contineri eo ipso tempore fore ut valesceret Oriens, profectique Judæi rerum potirentur.” (Tacitus, Historiæ, lib. V)
“Percrebuerat Oriente toto vetus et constans opinio, esse in fatis, ut eo tempore Judæi profecti rerum potirentur.” (Suetonius, Vita Vespasiani 4)
Athenagoras, Saint Justin Martyr, Theophilus, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius (a writer of high culture who makes very extensive use of the Sibylline writings), Saint Augustine. The first century Jewish writer Flavius Josephus also quotes them.
See the scholarly edition of J. Geffcken: Oracula Sybyllina (Leipzig, 1902).
The Greek for a fish is Ιχθυς, an acronym of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.
For an interesting comparison the reader is referred to the “Magic Square” of the very early Christians (one was found at Pompei) formed by the mysterious anagram ROTAS OPERA TENET AREPO SATOR. The incomparably learned study of the late Professor Alexis Curvers concerning it appeared in the French periodical Itinéraires, numbers 120-130, in 1968.
2 Peter 2:16.
John 11: 51, 52.
Acts 17:28. The quotation is from Aratus of Cilicia, the third century Greek poet and astronomist.
Cf. Baronius, Annales, A.D. 780.
Summa Theologiæ, II-II, q. 2, a. 7.
De Veritate q. 14, n. 11.
© Copyright John S. Daly