UNADORNED AND UNPERFUMED: Sibyls

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Prologue: Prophetess/Oracle

Writing around 500 BC, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus mentions certain female soothsayer or prognosticator:

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 Delphic Sibyl was a legendary figure who gave prophecies in the sacred precinct of Apollo at Delphi, located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. Pausanias claimed that the Sibyl was “born between man and goddess, daughter of sea monsters and an immortal nymph.”

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

After his conquest of Egypt, Alexander the Great consulted the Libyan sybil, a prophetic priestess presiding over the ancient Zeus-Amon oracle in the desert of Libya. She confirmed his divinity and declared him the legitimate Pharaoh.

In Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, the Cumaean sibyl, who lived in a cave north of the Greek city of Neapolis (Naples), foretells the coming of a savior:

Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung
Has come and gone, and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom
The iron shall cease, the golden age arise . . .

Christians saw in these lines a correct prediction of the coming of Christ. The As a result of this interpretation, sibylla came to be used as a cognate for ”prophetess” in medieval Latin, which paved the way for the inclusion of the sibyls in Christian art, where the are usually ranked with the Hebrew prophets.

The early Christian exegete Clement of Alexandria quotes several verses written by the epic poet, Serapion of Athens, concerning the Sibylline oracles:

The Sybil, even when dead, ceased not from divination, and what proceeded from her into the air after her death, was what gave oracular utterances in voices and omens; and on her body being changed into earth, and the grass as natural growing out of it, whatever beasts happening to be in that place fed on it exhibited to men an accurate knowledge of futurity by their entrails.

The lines concerning the Sibyl are all that survives of the entire corpus of Serapion’s epic poetry.

In the Satyricon, Petronius describes the sibyl as a small woman who lives in a bottle and invokes death in vain.

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