Apologia: The Fullness of Christian Truth


``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D


The Sibyls

Erythraean Sybil, by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel)  Cumean Sybil, by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel)
 
 
 

Long before the Savior was born of the Virgin, and up to around the time of His first Advent, there are said to have lived wise women who inhabited shrines, temples, and caves, and who, being blessed "by the gods" with the gift of prophecy, read the signs of nature in order to foretell the future. We call these seers "Sibyls," after the Greek word for prophetess ("sibulla").

Our knowledge of the origins of these women is obscured by the mists of myth and time, the first written record of them coming from Heraclitus, who wrote of one -- perhaps the only one at the time -- in a fragment dating to the 6th century before Christ. It reads:

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.

The number of these Sibyls is reckoned differently throughout the ages, with Heraclitus and Plato mentioning one, the Greeks mentioning nine, the Romans and early Christians mentioning ten, and medieval Christians enumerating up to twelve. Whatever their number, the Sibyls most often came to be referred to by the places they inhabited. The Christian apologist, Lactantius (b. ca. A.D. 250) listing ten Sibyls, describes them thus in Book I, Chapter VI of his "Divine Institutes" (link to full text below):
 

  • the Persian Sibyl: "of her Nicanor made mention, who wrote the exploits of Alexander of Macedon"
     
  • the Libyan Sibyl: "of her Euripides makes mention in the prologue of the Lamia"
     
  • the Delphic Sybil: "concerning whom Chrysippus speaks in that book which he composed concerning divination"
     
  • the Cimmerian Sibyl: "whom Naevius mentions in his books of the Punic war, and Piso in his annals"
       
  • the Samian Sibyl: "respecting whom Eratosthenes writes that he had found a written notice in the ancient annals of the Samians"
     
  • the Hellespontine Sibyl: "born in the Trojan territory, in the village of Marpessus, about the town of Gergithus; and Heraclides of Pontus writes that she lived in the times of Solon and Cyrus"
     
  • the Phrygian Sibyl: "who gave oracles at Ancyra"
     
  • the Tiburtine Sybil: "by name Albunea, who is worshipped at Tibur [modern Tivoli] as a goddess, near the banks of the river Anio, in the depths of which her statue is said to have been found, holding in her hand a book. The senate transferred her oracles into the Capitol."
     
  • the Erythraean Sybil: "whom Apollodorus of Erythraea affirms to have been his own country-woman, and that she foretold to the Greeks when they were setting but for Ilium, both that Troy was doomed to destruction, and that Homer would write falsehoods"
     
  • the Cumaean Sibyl: "by name Amalthaea, who is termed by some Herophile, or Demophile and they say that she brought nine books to the king Tarquinius Priscus, and asked for them three hundred philippics, and that the king refused so great a price, and derided the madness of the woman; that she, in the sight of the king, burnt three of the books, and demanded the same price for those which were left; that Tarquinias much more considered the woman to be mad; and that when she again, having burnt three other books, persisted in asking the same price, the king was moved, and bought the remaining books for the three hundred pieces of gold: and the number of these books was afterwards increased, after the rebuilding of the Capitol; because they were collected from all cities of Italy and Greece, and especially from those of Erythraea, and were brought to Rome, under the name of whatever Sibyl they were."

 
The prophecies of these pagan Sibyls -- most especially the Tiburtine, Erythraean, and Cumaean Sibyls, who are often confused with one another or referred to as one -- play interesting roles in Christian History. One sees depictions of the Sibyls in Catholic art -- from altar pieces to illuminated manuscripts, from sculpture to even the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the periphery of which is dominated by five Sybils (the Delphic, Cumaean, Libyan, Persian, and Erythraean) interspersed with seven Old Testament Prophet (Zacharias, Isaias, Daniel, Jonas, Jeremias, Ezechiel, and Joel). Michelangelo's Erythraean and Cumean Sibyls are shown at the top of this page in listed order, and Van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece depictions of those same women, in the same order, are shown below.

 

Erythraean Sibyl, by Van Eyck (Ghent altarpiece)Cumaean Sibyl, by Van Eyck (Ghent altarpiece)

 
These women are often depicted in medieval dramas, Jesse Trees and Nativity scenes. One hears of the Sibyls in Catholic chant and hymns, too: on Christmas Eve, after Matins and before Mass, the Song of the Sibyl was sung all over Europe until the Council of Trent (now this custom, restored in some places in the 17th c., remains mostly in Spain). 1 They are most famously mentioned in the "Dies Irae," sung at Masses for the dead. Its opening lines:  
 

Dies irae, dies illa,
solvet saeculum in favilla,
teste David cum Sibylla.
  That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,
as David and the Sybil say.

Who were these women whom Christians group with King David and the great Old Covenant Prophets? Why did Tertullian (b. ca. A.D. 160) describe one Sibyl as "the true prophetess of Truth"? 2 Why would St. Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. A.D. 215) describe a Sibyl thus in Chapter VIII of his "Exhortation to the Heathens":

Let the Sibyl prophetess, then, be the first to sing to us the song of salvation --
"So He is all sure and unerring: Come, follow no longer darkness and gloom; See, the sun's sweet-glancing light shines gloriously. Know, and lay up wisdom in your hearts: There is one God, who sends rains, and winds, and earthquakes, Thunderbolts, famines, plagues, and dismal sorrows, And snows and ice. But why detail particulars? He reigns over heaven, He rules earth, He truly is."

-- where, in remarkable accordance with inspiration she compares delusion to darkness, and the knowledge of God to the sun and light, and subjecting both to comparison, shows the choice we ought to make. For falsehood is not dissipated by the bare presentation of the truth, but by the practical improvement of the truth it is ejected and put to flight.

Let's look, one at a time, at the three Sibyls who are most important to Christianity.

 
The Tiburtine Sibyl:
The Sibyl of Christmas

The Tiburtine Sibyl -- also known as Albunea -- lived in Tibur, the town now known as Tivoli and located about fifteen miles Northeast of Rome. Her temple, which still stands today, was surrounded by a "sacred" grove and by mineral springs which, poetically enough given the topic of this page, flowed into the Tiber. The reason for this Sibyl's importance to Christians is her meeting with Augustus. 3 The story as recounted in Archbishop Jacobus de Voragine's 13th c. "Golden Legend," in its section on the Feast of the Nativity:

...here is what Pope Innocent III tells us: in order to reward Octavian for having established peace in the world, the Senate wished to pay him the honours of a god. But the wise Emperor, knowing that he was mortal, was unwilling to assume the title of immortal before he had asked the Sibyl whether the world would some day see the birth of a greater man than he.

Now on the day of the Nativity the Sibyl was alone with the emperor, when at high noon, she saw a golden ring appear around the sun. In the middle of the circle stood a Virgin, of wondrous beauty, holding a Child upon her bosom. The Sibyl showed this wonder to Caesar; and a voice was heard which said: "This woman is the Altar of Heaven (Ara Coeli)!"

And the Sibyl said to him: "This Child will be greater than thou."

Thus the room where this miracle took place was consecrated to the holy Virgin; and upon the site the church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli stands today. However, other historians recount the same event in a slightly different way. According to them, Augustus mounted the Capitol, and asked the gods to make known to him who would reign after him; and he heard a voice saying: "A heavenly Child, the Son of the living God, born of a spotless Virgin!" Whereupon Augustus erected the altar beneath which he placed the inscription: This is the altar of the Son of the living God.

Click here to see a typical medieval depiction of the meeting of the Tiburtine Sibyl and Augustus (you can read more about this encounter and the church that sprang from it in the Il Santo Bambino section of the page on Devotion to the Child Jesus).

 
The Erythraean Sybil:
The Sibyl of the Acrostic

The Erythraean Sibyl is said to have been the daughter of a shepherd and a nymph. She lived in Erythrae, Ionia (Asia Minor), on the Aegean Sea, and is often confused with the Cumaean Sibyl (St. Augustine, in his "City of God," speaks of this).

What makes this woman important to Christians is her prediction of Christ, given in the form of an acrostic poem which formed the words, 'Ihsous Xristos Qeou uios spthr, which means, "Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour." See excerpts from "The City of God" below.

 
The Cumaean Sybil:
The Sibyl of the Underworld

The most fascinating of all Sibyls lived in Cumae (now called Cuma), the first Greek colony founded in Italy, located about twenty miles West of Naples in "the volcanic region near Vesuvius, where the whole country is cleft with chasms from which sulphurous flames arise, while the ground is shaken with pent-up vapors, and mysterious sounds issue from the bowels of the earth." 4 The Sibyl who was also known as Amalthaea made her home in a grotto in this tempestuous land -- a grotto that can be visited even today -- and there she would write her prognostications on leaves and spread them at one of the hundred mouths to her cave, allowing them to be picked up and read -- or scattered by the winds to be seen no more, whichever came first, as Virgil tells us in his Aeneid:

Arriv'd at Cumae, when you view the flood
Of black Avernus, and the sounding wood,
The mad prophetic Sibyl you shall find,
Dark in a cave, and on a rock reclin'd.
She sings the fates, and, in her frantic fits,
The notes and names, inscrib'd, to leafs commits.
What she commits to leafs, in order laid,
Before the cavern's entrance are display'd:
Unmov'd they lie; but, if a blast of wind
Without, or vapors issue from behind,
The leafs are borne aloft in liquid air,
And she resumes no more her museful care,
Nor gathers from the rocks her scatter'd verse,
Nor sets in order what the winds disperse.
Thus, many not succeeding, most upbraid
The madness of the visionary maid,
And with loud curses leave the mystic shade.

In the Aeneid, too, she gives Aeneas a tour of the infernal regions which are entered into in the land she inhabited (this story is the reason for Dante's having chosen Virgil as his guide in "The Divine Comedy"). After this tour of the underworld, they ascend again, and the Sibyl tells the story of how she came to be hundreds of years old. From chapter 25 of Bullfinch's book:

As Aeneas and the Sibyl pursued their way back to earth, he said to her, "Whether thou be a goddess or a mortal beloved by the gods, by me thou shalt always be held in reverence. When I reach the upper air, I will cause a temple to be built to thy honor, and will myself bring offerings."

"I am no goddess," said the Sibyl; "I have no claim to sacrifice or offering. I am mortal; yet if I could have accepted the love of Apollo, I might have been immortal. He promised me the fulfilment of my wish, if I would consent to be his. I took a handful of sand, and holding it forth, said, 'Grant me to see as many birthdays as there are sand-grains in my hand.'

"Unluckily I forgot to ask for enduring youth. This also he would have granted, could I have accepted his love, but offended at my refusal, he allowed me to grow old. My youth and youthful strength fled long ago. I have lived seven hundred years, and to equal the number of the sand-grains, I have still to see three hundred springs and three hundred harvests. My body shrinks up as years increase, and in time, I shall be lost to sight, but my voice will remain, and future ages will respect my sayings."

An ancient woman doomed to live a thousand years, but without youth, shrinking with age each year until nothing is left of her but her voice -- a voice which some say is kept in a jar in the cave, and that others say one can still hear there in her Cumaean grotto.

Another great tale told of her, and mentioned by Lactantius above, is how she went to sell nine books to the King of the Tarquins, a story told well by Amy Friedman:

For many years, beneath the temple of Jupiter in Rome, the sibylline books were protected in a closely guarded vault. These were books that the priests consulted, especially during times of natural disaster, when earthquakes and floods and hurricanes swept down on their world, when disease struck and when hardship came. These books contained great wisdom and predictions of what the future held for their land and people. The sibylline books, the priests said, were precious beyond any treasure.

She was known as the Cumaean Sibyl, a woman who could change her features at will. She was wild-eyed, wild-haired and wild-tongued. One day, she came to see the king, Tarquin the Elder. She brought with her an offer.

"I have nine books to sell to you," she told the king.

"What books would those be?" the king asked. She was an odd-looking woman, and the king did not believe she was the prophetess she claimed to be.

"In these nine books," she said, "is contained the destiny of Rome."

Tarquin the Elder laughed at the old woman. He had heard of her, of course, but he did not believe she could predict the future, and he did not, for one moment, believe that these books she carried contained the destiny of the world. Her voice, after all, was more like a croak, and when she spoke, foam gathered on her lips.

Tarquin had heard that she wrote her predictions on oak leaves and that she laid these leaves at the edge of her cave. When the wind came and blew the leaves, they drifted this way and that, hither and yon, so that those who received the woman's messages often were confused by the words.

Tarquin did not believe she was as wise as she claimed, but he was curious about her offer. "How much money do you want for your books?" he asked.

"Nine bags of gold," she answered.

The king and his advisers roared with laughter. "Nine bags of gold? How could you ask such a fortune?"

"The future of your world lies within them," she repeated, but seeing that he did not wish to buy her books, she started a fire, and into this fire she hurled three of her books.

Within moments they were burned to ash, and the sibyl of Cumae set off for home, leaving behind the king and his advisers.

It was another year before the sibyl returned. This time, she arrived with six books.

"What do you want now?" Tarquin asked her.

"I offer six books for sale," she answered. "Six books that contain the rest of the destiny of Rome."

"How much?" the king asked her.

"Nine bags of gold," she said.

"What?" asked the king. "Nine bags for fewer books? Are you mad? You asked nine bags for nine books, but now you offer only six for the same price?"

"Think what they contain before you refuse," the sibyl said. "The rest of the future of Rome."

"Too much," Tarquin answered, and so, once again, the woman built a fire and tossed into it three more books. Then she turned and walked away, crossing the wide farmlands that separated Rome from Cumae.

The roads between the two cities were long and treacherous in those days. The woman's journey was difficult. Still, the next year, she returned to see the king once again. This time she brought with her the three remaining books.

"Three books remain," she said, "and I will sell these to you for nine bags of gold."

Now the king's advisers gathered around, and they consulted among themselves. They were worried that the old sibyl would burn the very last of the predictions. What if what she said were true? What if they might know their future? What if they were throwing away their opportunity to read their destinies?

"You must buy these books," the advisers told their king, and so he did, paying the old sibyl nine bags of gold.

When the king and his advisers had read the three books that remained, they understood that this odd old woman was truly a great sibyl, prophetess of the future. The king sent at once for her and had her returned to his court. "Please," Tarquin begged her, "will you rewrite the other six books?"

"No," she said, refusing to discuss the matter. "You have chosen your destiny, and I cannot change that."

Rome did rise to be a great kingdom, and for years and years it flourished as a powerful republic, conquering Gaul under the famed Julius Caesar. But when the Roman Empire collapsed, people wondered what wisdom they might have learned in those six books burned by the sibyl of Cumae.

 
What Can Be Learned
from the Church's Honoring of the Sibyls

These women, albeit shrouded in mystery and wonderful, fantastical tales, remind us that the Church teaches that actual grace and the natural virtues exist outside of Her, and that Christians are to honor Truth no matter whence it comes in the temporal realm. That the majority of Church Fathers adopted a form of Platonism, considering the philosopher an ally against naturalism and materialism, that St. Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics who followed used the Truths spoken by Aristotle for the same, that medieval Catholic civilization revered the "Nine Worthies" 5 -- three of whom were pagan -- as the embodiment of chivalry -- these things remind us that arrogance and spiritual pride have no place in a Catholic's life. While there is an "us" and a "them" with regard to sanctifying grace, there is no "us" and "them" with regard to actual grace and the natural virtues. Further, we can't presume to know who's been blessed by sanctifying grace -- i.e., we can't know who the "them" is in that regard; we can only know who is formally outside of the Church and, therefore, whom we need to evangelize -- in all charity and prudence -- and pray for.

Treat all men with charity, honor Truth wherever it is, and live a deeply Catholic life. "Spread the Gospel and let God sort 'em out." Aside from fighting to restore honor for Christ's Kingship with regard to civil law, this is all we can do.

 

The Sibyls in Virgil's
and early Christians' Writings
 

 
Footnotes:

1 The Song of the Sibyl:

Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.

E caelo rex adveniet per saecla futurus
scilicet ut carnem praesens ut judicet orbem.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.

Unde deum cernent incredulus atque fidelis
celsum cum sanctis aevi jam termino in ipso.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.

Sic animae cum carne aderunt quas judicat ipse
cum jacet incultus densis in vepribus orbis.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.

Reicient simulacra viri cunctam quoque gazam
exuret terras ignis pontumque polumque.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.

Inquirens taetri portas effringet averni
sanctorum sed enim cunctae lux libera carni.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.

Tradetur sontes aeterna flamma cremabit
occultos actus retegens tunc quisque loquetur.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.

Secreta atque deus reserabit pectora luci
tunc erit et luctus stridebunt dentibus omnes.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.

Eripitur solis jubar et chorus interit astris
voluetur caelum lunaris splendor obibit.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.

Deiciet colles valles extollet ab imo
non erit in rebus hominum sublime vel altum.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.

Jam aequantur campis montes et caerula ponti
omnia cessabunt tellus confracta peribit.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.

Sic pariter fontes torrentur fluminaque igni
sed tuba tum sonitum tristem demittet ab alto.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.

Orbe gemens facinus miserum variosque labores tartareumque chaos monstrabit terra dehiscens.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.

Et coram hic domino reges sistentur ad unum
reccidet e caelo ignisque et sulphuris amnis.
Judicii signum tellus sudore madescet.

2 "Ad Nationes"

3 Augustus (d. A.D. 14) was born "Gaius Octavius," became known as "Julius Caesar Octavianus" when he became heir to Julius Caesar (his great-uncle), and is most often called "Octavian," "Augustus," or "Caesar Augustus" in literature and references.

4 "Bullfinch's Mythology, the Age of Fable" by Thomas Bullfinch

5 Jean de Longuyon first enumerated the "Nine Worthies" in the 14th c., in his work, Voeux du Paon ("Vows of the Peacock"). The Nine Worthies are: Hector, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joshua, David, Judas Maccabaeus, King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon.


Back to Being Catholic
Index

Quantcast