sibyl, in classical mythology and religion, prophetess. There were said to be as many as 10 sibyls, variously located and represented. The most famous was the Cumaean sibyl, described by Vergil in the Aeneid. When she offered Tarquin her prophetic writings, the so-called sibylline books, he refused to pay her high price. She kept burning the books until finally he bought the remaining three at the original price. Although the historical origins of the books are uncertain, they were actually kept at Rome in the Capitol and were consulted by the state in times of emergency. The books were destroyed in the burning of the Capitol in 83 B.C., but a new collection was made. This was burned in A.D. 405. The sibyls achieved a stature in Christian literature and art similar to that of the Old Testament prophets.

The word sibyl probably comes (via Latin) from the Greek word sibylla, meaning prophetess. (Other schools of thought suggest that the word may have come from Arabic.) The earlier oracular seeresses known as the sibyls of antiquity, "who admittedly are known only through legend" (Burkert 1985 p 117) prophesied at certain holy sites, probably all of pre-Indo-European origin, under the divine influence of a deity, originally one of the chthonic earth-goddesses. Later in antiquity, sibyls wandered from place to place.

Homer seems to have been unaware of a Sibyl. "Frenzied women from whose lips the god speaks are recorded very much earlier in the Near East, as in Mari in the second millennium and in Assyria in the first millennium" (Burkert 1985, p 116). The first Greek writer, so far as we know, who mentions a sibyl is Heraclitus, in the fifth century BC:

'The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.' (Heraclitus, fragment 12)

Until the literary elaborations of Roman writers, sibyls are not identified by a personal name, but by names that refer to the location of their temenos, or shrine.

In Pausanias, Description of Greece, the first Sibyl at Delphi mentioned ("the former" [earlier]) was of great antiquity, and was thought to have been given the name "sibyl" by the Libyans. Sir James Frazer calls this text defective. The second Sibyl, referred to by Pausanias, and named "Herophile", seems to have been based ultimately in Samos, but visited other shrines, Delphi, etc. and sang there, but that at the same time, Delphi had its own sibyl.

Sir James Frazer writes, in his translation and commentary on Pausanias, quoting Prof. E. Maass and his work in 1879, that only two of the Greek Sibyls were historical: Herophile of Erythrae, who is thought to have lived in the eighth century BC, and Phyto of Samos who lived somewhat later. He goes on to write that the Greeks at first seemed to have known only one Sibyl, and the first ancient writer to distinguish several Sibyls was Heraclides Ponticus, in the fourth century BC, in his book On Oracles, wherein he names at least three Sibyls, the Phrygian, the Erythraean, and the Hellespontine. The scholar David S. Potter writes, "In the late fifth century BC it does appear that 'Sibylla' was the name given to a single inspired prophetess".

The number of Sibyls

Like Heraclitus, Plato speaks of only one Sibyl, but in course of time the number increased to nine, with a tenth, the Tiburtine Sibyl, probably Etruscan in origin, added by the Romans. According to Lactantius' Divine Institutions (i.6, 4th century AD, quoting from a lost work of Varro, 1st century BC) these ten sibyls were those who follow. Of them, the three most famous sibyls throughout their long career were the Delphic, the Erythraean and the Cumaean. Not all the Sibyls in the following list were securely identified with an oracular shrine, and in the vague and shifting Christian picture there is some overlap.

The Persian Sibyl

The Persian Sibyl was said to be prophetic priestess presiding over the Apollonian Oracle; though her location remained vague enough so that she might be called the "Babylonian Sibyl", the Persian Sibyl is said to have foretold the exploits of Alexander the Great. The Persian Sibyl, by name Sambethe, was reported to be of the family of Noah.

The Libyan Sibyl

The so-called Libyan Sibyl was identified with prophetic priestess presiding over the ancient Zeus Amon (Zeus represented with the horns of Amon) oracle at the Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt (incorrectly placed in the map). The oracle here was consulted by Alexander after his conquest of Egypt. The mother of the Libyan Sibyl was Lamia, meaning "devourer". Euripides mentions the Libyan Sibyl in the prologue to his tragedy Lamia.

The Hebrew Sibyl

The Hebrew Sibyl was identified as the author of Sibylline oracles.

The Delphic Sibyl

The Delphic Sibyl was a legendary figure who gave prophecies in the sacred precinct of Apollo at Delphi, located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. The Delphic Sibyl was not involved in the operation of the Delphic Oracle and should be considered distinct from the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, also known as the "Oracle at Delphi." Pausanias claimed that the Sibyl was "born between man and goddess, daughter of sea monsters and an immortal nymph". Others said she was sister or daughter to Apollo. Still others claimed the Sibyl received her powers from Gaia originally, who passed the oracle to Themis, who passed it to Phoebe. The Delphic Sibyl has sometimes been confused with the Pythia, who gave prophecies at the Delphic Oracle. The two are not identical, and should be treated as separate figures.

The Cimmerian Sibyl

Naevius names the Cimmerian Sibyl in his books of the Punic War and Piso in his annals.

The Sibyl's son Evander founded in Rome the shrine of Pan which is called the Lupercal.

The Erythraean Sibyl

Main article Erythraean Sibyl.
The Erythraean Sibyl, the most famous of the sibyls (Burkert), was sited at Erythrae, a town in Ionia opposite Chios. Apollodorus of Erythrae affirms the Erythraean Sibyl to have been his own countrywoman and to have predicted the Trojan War and prophesised to the Greeks who were moving against Ilium both that Troy would be destroyed and that Homer would write falsehoods.

The word acrostic was first applied to the prophecies of the Erythraean Sibyl, which were written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters of the leaves always formed a word.

The Samian Sibyl

Main article Samian Sibyl.
The Samian sibyl's oracular site was at Samos.

The Cumaean Sibyl

The sibyl who most concerned the Romans was the Cumaean Sibyl near the Greek city of Naples, whom Virgil's Aeneas consults before his descent to the lower world (Aeneid book VI: 10). Burkert notes (1985, p 117) that the conquest of Cumae by the Oscans in the fifth century destroyed the tradition, but provides a terminus ante quem for a Cumaean sibyl. It was she who supposedly sold to Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome, the original Sibylline books (q.v.). Christians were especially impressed with the Cumaean Sibyl, for in Virgil's Fourth Eclogue she foretells the coming of a savior--possibly a flattering reference to the poet's patron--whom Christians identified as Jesus.

The Hellespontine Sibyl

The Hellespontine, or Trojan Sibyl presided over the Apollonian oracle at Dardania.

The Hellespontian Sibyl was born in the village of Marpessus near the small town of Gergitha, during the lifetimes of Solon and Cyrus the Great. Marpessus, according to Heraclides of Pontus, was formerly within the boundaries of the Troad. The sibylline collection at Gergis 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.

The Phrygian Sibyl

The Phrygian Sibyl appears to be a doublet of the Hellespontine Sibyl.

The Tiburtine Sibyl

To the classical sibyls of the Greeks, the Romans added a tenth, the Tiburtine Sibyl, whose seat was the ancient Etruscan town of Tibur (modern Tivoli). The mythic meeting of Caesar Augustus with the Sibyl, of whom he inquired whether he should be worshiped as a god, was a favored motif of Christian artists. Whether the sibyl in question was the Etruscan Sibyl of Tibur or the Greek Sibyl of Cumae is not always clear. The Christian author Lactantius had no hesitation in identifying the sibyl in question as the Tiburtine sibyl, nevertheless. He gave a circumstantial account of the pagan sibyls that is useful mostly as a guide to their identifications, as seen by 4th century Christians:

The Tiburtine Sibyl, by name Albunea, is worshiped at Tibur as a goddess, near the banks of the Anio, in which stream her image is said to have been found, holding a book in her hand. Her oracular responses the Senate transferred into the capitol.
(Divine Institutes

An apocalyptic pseudo-prophecy exists, attributed to the Tiburtine Sibyl, written c. 380 CE, but with revisions and interpolations added at later dates. It purports to prophesy the advent of a final Emperor named Constans, vanquishing the foes of Christianity, bringing about a period of great wealth and peace, ending paganism and converting the Jews. After vanquishing Gog and Magog, the Emperor is said to resign his crown to God. This would give way to the Antichrist. Ippolito d'Este rebuilt the Villa d'Este at Tibur, the modern Tivoli, from 1550 onward, and commissioned elaborate fresco murals in the Villa that celebrate the Tiburtine Sibyl, as prophesying the birth of Christ to the classical world.

The later Sibyls

The medieval, Christianized role for these augmented Sibyls was as precursors, prophets of the New Dispensation, Christian allies in a Hellenistic world:
Dies irae, dies illa
''Solvet saeclum in favilla
Teste David cum Sibylla.
("Day of wrath, that day, when the world will dissolve in ashes, as have foretold David and the Sibyl.")

In the Middle Ages the number of Sibyls was canonized as twelve, a symbolic number. See, for example, the Apennine Sibyl, though sometimes, e.g. for François Rabelais, ten was still the proverbial number: “How know we but that she may be an eleventh Sibyl or a second Cassandra?” (Gargantua and Pantagruel, iii. 16, noted in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1897. Late Gothic Sibyls, each with her emblem and a single line of prophecy, lettered on a fluttering banderole, were fixtures of Late Gothic illuminations, in 14th and 15th-century France and Germany.

From the early Renaissance, the Sibyls were also represented in publicly available art. Michelangelo fixed our image of the sibyls forever, in his powerful representations of them, seated, both aged and ageless, beyond mere femininity, in the frescos of the Sistine Chapel. Five sibyls were painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo; the Delphic Sibyl, Lybian Sibyl, Persian Sibyl, Cumaean Sibyl and the Erythraean Sibyl. The library of Pope Julius II in the Vatican has images of sibyls and they are in the pavement of the Siena Cathedral. The Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli crowning the Campidoglio, Rome, is particularly associated with the Sibyl, because a medieval tradition referred the origin of its name to an otherwise unattested altar, ARA PRIMOGENITI DEI said to have been raised to the "firstborn of God" by the emperor Augustus, who had been warned of his advent by the sibylline books: in the church the figures of Augustus and of the Tiburtine sibyl are painted on either side of the arch above the high altar. In the 19th century Rodolfo Lanciani recalled, at Christmas time the presepio included a carved and painted figure of the sibyl pointing out to Augustus the Virgin and Child, who appeared in the sky in a halo of light. "The two figures, carved in wood, have now [1896] disappeared; they were given away or sold thirty years ago, when a new set of images was offered to the Presepio by prince Alexander Torlonia." (Lanciani, 1896 ch 1) Like prophets, Renaissance sibyls forecasting the advent of Christ appear in monuments: modelled by Giacomo della Porta in the Santa Casa at Loreto, painted by Raphael in S. Maria della Pace, by Pinturicchio in the Borgia apartments of the Vatican, engraved by Baccio Baldini, a contemporary of Botticelli, and graffite" by Matteo di Giovanni in the pavement of the Duomo of Siena.

The nineteenth-century French historian Jules Michelet attributed the origins of European witchcraft to the religion of the sibyls. In his introduction to La Sorcière (1862) (A.R. Allinson's English translation, entitled Satanism and Witchcraft: The Classic Study of Medieval Superstition [ISBN 0-8065-0059-X], was reprinted in 1992 by Citadel Press and remains in print), Michelet wrote: "Une religion forte et vivace, comme fut le paganisme grec, commence par la sibylle, finit par la sorcière. La première, belle vierge, en pleine lumière, le berça, lui donna le charme et l'auréole. Plus tard, déchu, malade, aux ténèbres du moyen âge, aux landes et aux forêts, il fut caché par la sorcière..." ('A powerful, tenacious religion, as Greek paganism was, begins with the sibyl, ends with the witch. The former, a beautiful virgin, in the full light of day, rocked its cradle, gave it its charm and glory. Later, fallen, ill, in the darkness of the Middle Ages, on heaths and in forests, it was hidden by the witch...' —Translated by Mark K. Jensen)

Sibylline books

Main articles: Sibylline Books and Sibylline Oracles.
The sayings of sibyls and oracles were notoriously open to interpretation (compare Nostradamus) and were constantly used for both civil and cult propaganda. The Sibylline Books are not the same as the Sibylline Oracles. The Roman Sibylline Books were quite different in character from the preserved Sibylline Oracles, which typically predict disasters rather than prescribe solutions. Some genuine Sibylline verses are preserved in the Book of Marvels of Phlegon of Tralles (2nd century CE).

The oldest collection of written Sibylline Books appears to have been made about the time of Solon and Cyrus at Gergis on Mount Ida in the Troad. The sibyl, who was born near there, at Marpessus, and whose tomb was later marked by the temple of Apollo built upon the archaic site, appears on the coins of Gergis, ca 400–350 BCE. (cf. Phlegon, quoted in the 5th century geographical dictionary of Stephanus of Byzantium, under 'Gergis'). Other places claimed to have been her home. The sibylline collection at Gergis 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. Gergis, a city of Dardania in the Troad, a settlement of the ancient Teucri, and, consequently, a town of very great antiquity (Herodotus iv: 122). Gergis, according to Xenophon, was a place of much strength. It had a temple sacred to Apollo Gergithius, and was said to have given birth to the Sibyl, who is sometimes called Erythraea, from Erythrae, a small place on Mount Ida (Dionysius of Halicarnassus i. 55), and at others Gergithia ('of Gergis').


  • Pausanias, Description of Greece, edited with commentary and translated by Sir James Frazer, 1913 edition. Cf. v.5, p.288. Also see Pausanias, 10.12.1 at the Perseus Project.
  • Frazer, James, translation and commentary on Pausanias, Description of Greece, v.5, p.288, commentary and notes on Book X, Ch. 12, line 1, Herophile surnamed Sibyl, "Prof. E. Maass (op cit., p.56) holds that two only of the Greek Sibyls were historical, namely Herophile of Erythrae and Phyto of Samos; the former he thinks lived in the eighth century BC, the latter somewhat later". Frazer goes on, "At first, the Greeks seemed to have known only one Sibyl. (Heraclitus, cited by Plutarch, De Pythiae Oraculis 6; Aristophanes, Peace 1095, 1116; Plato, Phaedrus, p.244b). The first writer who is known to have distinguished several Sibyls is Heraclitus Ponticus in his book, On Oracles, in which he appears to have enumerated at least three, namely the Phrygian, the Erythraean, and the Hellespontine.". Confer also, E. Maass, De Sibyllarum Indicibus, Berlin, 1879, pp.6, 56.
  • David Stone Potter, Prophecy and history in the crisis of the Roman Empire: a historical commentary on the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle, Cf. Chapter 3, p.106.



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  • Bouché-Leclercq, Auguste, Histoire de la divination dans l'Antiquité, I-IV volumes, Paris, 1879-1882.
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  • Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion (Harvard University Press, 1985) esp. pp 116-18.
  • Delcourt, M. L'oracle de Delphes, 1955.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911.
  • Fox, Robin Lane, Alexander the Great 1973. Chapter 14 gives the best modern account of Alexander's visit to the oasis at Siwah, with some background material on the Greek conception of Sibyls.
  • Goodrich, Norma Lorre, Priestesses, 1990.
  • Hale, John R. and others (2003). Questioning the Delphic Oracle Retrieved Jan. 7, 2005.
  • Hindrew, Vivian, The Sibyls: The First Prophetess of Mami (Wata) MWHS, 2007)
  • Jeanmaire, H. La sybille et la retour de l'âge d'or, 1939.
  • Lanciani, Rofolfo, Pagan and Christian Rome, 1896, ch. 1 on-line
  • Lactantius, Divine Institutions Book I, ch. vi (e-text, in English)
  • Maass, E., De Sibyllarum Indicibus, Berlin, 1879.
  • Middlesworth, Jennifer, Pythia, in Encyclopedia Mythica,
  • Parke, Herbert William, History of the Delphic Oracle, 1939.
  • Parke, Herbert William, Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy, 1988.
  • Pausanias, Description of Greece, ed. and translated by Sir James Frazer, 1913 edition. Cf. v.5
  • Peck, Harry Thurston, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquity, 1898.
  • Pitt-Kethley, Fiona, Journeys to the Underworld, 1988
  • Potter, David Stone, , Prophecy and history in the crisis of the Roman Empire: a historical commentary on the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle, 1990. Cf. Chapter 3. review of book
  • Potter, David Stone, Prophets and Emperors. Human and Divine Authority from Augustus to Theodosius, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. review of book
  • Smith, William, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, 1870, article on Sibylla,
  • West, Martin Litchfield, The Orphic Poems, Oxford, 1983.

External links

Classical sibyls

African Cultural History on the Sibyls

Medieval Christianizing sibyls

Modern sibyl imagery

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