1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sibyls

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SIBYLS[1] (Sibyllae), the name given by the Greeks and Romans to certain women who prophesied under the inspiration of a deity. The inspiration manifested itself outwardly in distorted features, foaming mouth and frantic gestures. Homer does not refer to a Sibyl, nor does Herodotus. The first Greek writer, so far as we know, who does so is Heraclitus (c. 500 B.C.). As to the number and native countries of the Sibyls much diversity of opinion prevailed. Plato only speaks of one, but in course of time the number increased to ten according to Lactantius (quoting from Varro) : the Babylonian or Persian, the Libyan, the Cimmerian, the Delphian, the Erythraean, the Samian, the Cumaean, the Hellespontine, the Phrygian and the Tiburtine. The Sibyl of whom we hear most is the Erythraean, generally identified with the Cumaean, whom Aeneas consulted before his descent to the lower world (Aeneid, vi. 10); it was she who sold to Tarquin the Proud the Sibylline books. She first offered him nine; when he refused them, she burned three and offered him the remaining six at the same price; when he again refused them, she burned three more and offered him the remaining three still at the same price. Tarquin then bought them (Dion. Halic. iv. 62). He entrusted them to the care of two patricians; after 367 B.C. ten custodians were appointed, five patricians and five plebeians; subsequently (probably in the time of Sulla) their number was increased to fifteen. These officials, at the command of the senate, consulted the Sibylline books in order to discover, not exact predictions of definite future events, but the religious observances necessary to avert extraordinary calamities (pestilence, earthquake) and to expiate prodigies in cases where the national deities were unable, or unwilling, to help. Only the interpretation of the oracle which was considered suitable to the emergency was made known to the public, not the oracle itself. An important effect of these books was the grecizing of Roman religion by the introduction of foreign deities and rites (worshipped and practised in the Troad) and the amalgamation of national Italian deities with the corresponding Greek ones (fully discussed in J. Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, iii., 1885, pp. 42, 350, 382). They were written in hexameter verse and in Greek; hence the college of curators was always assisted by two Greek interpreters. The books were kept in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol and shared the destruction of the temple by fire in 83. After the restoration of the temple the senate sent ambassadors in 76 to Erythrae to collect the oracles afresh and they brought back about 1000 verses; others were collected in Ilium, Samos, Sicily, Italy and Africa. In the year 12 B.C. Augustus sought out and burned a great many spurious oracles and subjected the Sibylline books to a critical revision; they were then placed by him in the temple of Apollo Patroūs on the Palatine, where we hear of them still existing in A.D. 363. They seem to have been burned by Stilicho shortly after 400. According to the researches of R. H. Klaus (Aeneas und die Penaten, 1839), the oldest collection of Sibylline oracles appears to have been made about the time of Solon and Cyrus at Gergis on Mount Ida in the Troad; it was attributed to the Hellespontine Sibyl and was preserved in the temple of Apollo at Gergis. Thence it passed to Erythrae, where it became famous. It was this very collection, it would appear, which found its way to Cumae and from Cumae to Rome.

Some genuine Sibylline verses are preserved in the Book of Marvels (Περὶ θαυμασἰων) of Phlegon of Tralles (2nd century A.D.). See H. Diels, Sibyllinische Blätter (1890). On the subject generally see J. Marquardt as above; A. Bouché-Leclerq, La Divination dans l'antiqué (1879–1882); E. Maass, De Sibyllarum indicibus (1879); C. Schultess, Die sibyllinischen Bücher in Rom (1895; with references to authorities in notes).

  1. The word is usually derived from Σιο-βολλα, the Doric form θεοῦ βουλή (=will of God).