Sibylline Oracles

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SIBYLLINE ORACLES . In Greek tradition (accepted by the Romans not later than the fourth century bce and by the Jews not later than the second) a sibyl is an old woman who utters ecstatic predictions of woe. The etymology of the name is unknown. In Greece the earliest mention of the term is found in the writings of the philosopher Heraclitus about 500 bce, though the figure of the sibyl and perhaps some kind of oracles attributed to her were probably known from the eighth century bce on. In the following years the tradition of sibylline oracles became well established (and was caricatured by Aristophanes in late-fifth-century bce Athens).

The sibyls were thought to wander through the world and to attain an extraordinary ageas much as a thousand years. But Delphi, Samos, Erythrae in Ionia, Marpessus in Troas, and Cumae and Tibur in Italy each had its own resident sibyl. Other individual sibyls were known respectively as Persian, Chaldean, Phrygian, and Egyptian, and there were less-famous sibyls elsewhere. According to the Christian apologist Lactantius, the Roman Varro (first century bce) gives a list of the ten aforementioned sibyls, which became the canon in the Middle Ages, enlarged to twelve in the Renaissance. The first mention of the Hebrew Sibyl in classical sources is in Pausanias (10.12.9) in the second century ce, but such a figure was associated with oracles long before then. Like other sibyls, she had a personal name, which Pausanias gives as Sabba (a variant is Sambethe). She is referred to in extant oracles as a pagan daughter-in-law of Noah.

Places in which sibyls were supposed to deliver their oracles, such as the cave in Cumae, were revered and visited by pilgrims. Few people, however, claimed to have seen a living sibyl. In Petronius's Satyricon (chap. 48), Trimalchio does, but he is not meant to be believed. In reality people were primarily acquainted with collections of ancient (or allegedly ancient) oracles that were attributed to individual sibyls and that seemed to be relevant or could be applied to given situations. In fact the origin of the Greek figure of the sibyl is more literary than real, based on the influence of the oriental tradition of ecstatic prophecy intermingled with the old epic characters of inspired women, such as Cassandra (a kind of prototype of the sibyls).

The oracles were written in Greek hexameters, and their content was often protected by acrostics. Latin sibylline oracles appear only late (for instance, in Procopius, concerning the Goths of the sixth century ce). The oracles of the Cumaean Sibyl were supposed to have been originally inscribed on palm leaves.

The Nature of Sibylline Inspiration

In Greece and Rome inspired (or natural) prophecy was considered the attribute of women, whereas technical and induced divination was a man's territory. Of course both were considered of divine origin (either from the god Apollo or the God of Jews or Christians), but the division is an interesting testimony of the assessment of gender roles.

Not all inspired women were reducible to a unique type, but sometimes the differences were blurred. So the first testimony of the performance of the sibyl (Heraclitus) describes her in a clear state of possession and domination by the god, uttering prophecies "with maddened mouth" in a rough and not embellished way (as opposed to elaborated inspired poetry). However, one must differentiate three types of inspired women: the Pythia, the sibyl, and other heroines whose characteristics are assimilated to the two first. The Pythia (and generally speaking all the priests and priestesses of Apollonean sanctuaries), as a mortal, is supposed to utter divine messages and be a mere voice of the god, responding to questions concerning the future. The sibyl (who sometimes introduces herself as half divine, half mortal) has a universal and omnitemporal knowledge, historical as well as eschatological, though she speaks as urged by divine pressure and even violence. Paradoxically, despite the frequent allusion to a verbal message, these prophecies are always transmitted as written poetical texts. As for the mantic heroines, they share some traits with the two former but are often amplified or even overdone.

There is no precise description of the way the sibylline inspiration was conceived. The discussions in Plutarch's Pythian dialogues concerning the inspiration of the Delphic prophetess are only partially appropriate for the sibylline predictions because of the different kind of prophetic performance. The most interesting coincidence would be the definition of the sibyl's role as an instrument (Greek, organon ) of Apollo and later of the God of Jews and Christians. As noted above, in some ancient descriptions the sibyl is assimilated to some mythical figures, Daphne, Manto, Cassandra, who are linked to Apollo and who suffered the violence of the god for having refused his sexual pursuits. In all theses cases the punishment is a transformation that implies either aphasia or the incredibility of the prophecies or, conversely, the transformation into a mere voice after her physical extinction. In the collection of Sibylline Oracles the sibyl complains of being incessantly urged by God to utter prophecies. Later, in the most genuinely Christian tradition, she is assimilated to the biblical prophets, and the theme of divine violence disappears.

History of the Oracular Texts

The Romans claimed to have received a partial collection of the prophecies of the Cumaean Sibyl under one of the two Tarquinian kings in the sixth century bce. What is certain is that a collection of such books (the so-called Libri sibyllini ) existed in Rome and was preserved in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus during the Republic. These books were entrusted to a special priestly commission, composed first of two, then of ten, then of fifteen members, who could consult them only when ordered to do so by the senate in times of recognized emergency. When the temple of Jupiter burned in 83 bce, the Sibylline Books were destroyed and were ultimately replaced by a new collection. Augustus transferred these oracles to the newly built temple of Apollo on the Palatine and ordered a severe pruning of the texts.

Rome seems to have been unique in making the sibylline oracles a monopoly of the state. However, though the text of these Libri is not known exactly, the references given by the sources indicate that they were mostly prescriptions regarding cultic practices and expiations in time of crisis and not properly prophecies of the kind known from other texts. Only the oldest examples cited by the historians contain a formulation similar to the ordinary sibylline prophecies. Most probably then the legend of the arrival of these books in Rome in the time of the Tarquinian kings, despite its (seemingly) late and fictitious nature, points to an influence in origin of the Greek tradition (via the contacts with the Greek settlers) but modified and amplified by important Etruscan ritual elements and finally mixed with their own Roman religious traditions and institutions.

Elsewhere sibylline books seem to have circulated openly. Being authoritative everywhere, the sibylline texts were of course controversial and often suspected to be forgeries. Unfortunately only scattered examples of pagan sibylline oracles exist. The most famous are perhaps those preserved by Phlegon of Tralles (early second century ce). One seems to belong to 125 bce, another perhaps to Sulla's time, and a third certainly refers to the celebration of the Secular Games under Augustus, though it may incorporate older texts. Roman tradition attributes, perhaps correctly, to sibylline oracles the initiative for building the first temple to Ceres, Liber, and Libera in Rome, for introducing the cult of Asklepios from Epidaurus, for the human sacrifices of 226 bce, for the consultation of Apollo at Delphi in 216 bce, and for the introduction of the cult of Magna Mater in 205 bce. In Rome there seems to have been steady collaboration between Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl; elsewhere Apollonian divination and sibylline prophecy did not always agree.

A Roman law against reading Sibylline Books is mentioned in an obscure context by Justin Martyr in his first Apology (44.12) from the middle of the second century ce. The sibylline texts remained authoritative in Rome until the fourth century ce, when they were still consulted by Julian. According to the contemporary account of Rutilius Namatianus, these texts were destroyed by Stilicho not later than 408 ce. But the authority of Vergil, who had given such prominence to the Cumaean Sibyl in his fourth Eclogue and in the Aeneid, saved the prestige of the sibyls among the Christians, as one can clearly see in the writings of Lactantius, Eusebius, and Emperor Constantine. The Christians found in Vergil and in other sibylline texts prophecies of the annunciation of Christ. Independently of the Christians, and in fact before Christianity existed, the Jews produced sibylline texts that purported to convey divine expectations and reactions from a Jewish point of view and invited recognition of the true God. The Christians accepted these Jewish texts, occasionally interpolated them, and added to them other texts of unequivocally Christian character. The collection of Sibylline Books that has reached survived is thus of mixed Jewish and Christian authorship, but the extant manuscripts are all of Christian origin. Collectively they are known as the Sibylline Oracles.

These manuscripts can be roughly divided into two groups. Some, published as early as the sixteenth century, contain the first eight books. Others, made known chiefly by Cardinal Angelo Mai in the early nineteenth century, include books numbered from nine to fourteen, but books nine and ten contain material already included in the first eight books, whereas books eleven to fourteen add new material. In modern editions, beginning with that by Charles Alexandre (18411856), the two series are conflated, and therefore books nine and ten are not present. Books three, four, and five were already known in some form to Clement of Alexandria; books six, seven, and eight were known to Lactantius in about 300 ce. Some Christian fragments of sibylline oracles are to be found outside the present collection in quotations by ancient writers.

Content of the Sibylline Oracles

As is evident from Vergil's reference to the "final age" in his fourth Eclogue, the division of world history into periods was a feature of pagan sibylline prophecies. This is confirmed by a pagan literary test, Lycophron's Alexandra (third or second century bce), which is influenced by pagan sibylline texts. The authors of the Jewish and Christian Sibylline Books developed the universal aspect that distinguished them. The influence of the Book of Daniel is unmistakable. Like the Book of Daniel, the sibylline authors embraced the theory of the four monarchies. They combined with it the division of history into ten "generations." The note of hostility toward Rome (and toward the Hellenistic rulers as long as they existed) is quite clear but not ubiquitous. As such, these texts belong to the resistance literature of the Near East against foreign domination. As in the Book of Revelation, the return of Nero at the head of the Parthian army figures prominently in books four, five, and eight. The fate of people after death is reflected in the Christian texts of books two, seven, and eight but not in the Jewish texts. Given the poor knowledge of the Greek-speaking Jews in the Diaspora after the first century ce, these sibylline oracles are perhaps altogether more important for the history of the Jewish Diaspora than for early Christianity.

The order in which the Sibyllin Oracles have been preserved was established by a late compiler, and therefore it does not fit the chronology of each book. The oldest core of the collection is in book three, roughly dated between 163 and 145 (or 140) bce, but it was reworked and enlarged after 31 bce (and perhaps also in the first century ce).

The first two books (not clearly separated in the manuscripts) are Jewish in origin but were elaborated and reworked by Christians. The present text assumes the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce, and its curious interest in Phrygia may point to its place of origin. A Christian origin has been proposed for these books, because they are not mentioned before the speech attributed to Emperor Constantine entitled Oratio ad sanctorum coetum. Nevertheless a Jewish origin for some parts is unquestionable. Their position in the whole collection is based on the fact that book one describes the creation of the world and the succession of human generations, whereas book two has more apocalyptic and eschatological elements.

Book three, perhaps the most important historically, contains texts of ideological orientations dating from various periods. Lines 196 seem to be later than Cleopatra and the Battle of Actium (31 bce) and perhaps even later than Nero; lines 350380 seem to refer to anti-Roman movements of the first century bce; and lines 466469 seem to refer to the era of Sulla. The main corpus is a messianic prophecy involving Jews and Greeks with special attention given to Egypt. Three allusions to a seventh king of Egypt (ll. 193, 318, 608) in all likelihood refer to Ptolemy Philometor (180145 bce). There is a reference to the Book of Daniel in line 396, but its implications are doubtful. In lines 194195 there is a reference to the resurgence of the Jews after some catastrophe, possibly the reign of Antiochus IV. In lines 388400 and following a strange oracle about a king of Asia presents problems. Finally, in lines 653656 and following there is a prophecy about a savior from the East or from the sun. It is by no means obvious that this king should be identified with the seventh king of Egypt. The book as a whole, though at certain points strongly anti-Roman and anti-Macedonian, is not radical in its hostility and seems to hope for and to wish to foster good relations between Jews and Egyptian Greeks.

Book four seems to be based on pagan sibylline oracles of the end of the fourth century bce. The text (ll. 49101) knows of four empires and ten generations and identifies the tenth generation and the fourth empire with Macedon. This part, it has been suggested, belonged to an ancient chronological level (prior to the collection), perhaps the fourth century bce. The Jewish elaboration presupposes the rise of Rome and the end of the Temple of Jerusalem, the legend of Nero's flight to the Parthians, and the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 ce. It insists on baptism as a prerequisite of salvation and on the rejection of the Temple cult. This points to some Jewish sectarian groups, not necessarily to a Judeo-Christian sect.

Book five, which has a Christian allusion in lines 256259, knows of the destruction of the Temple and the legend of Nero, and Hadrian is still favorable to the Jews. A date before 132 ce seems probable, but line 51, with its reference to Marcus Aurelius, must be treated as a later interpolation. The text is strongly hostile to Rome and Egypt and contains a mysterious allusion to a temple in Egypt destroyed by the Ethiopians (ll. 501 and following).

Book six is a short Christian text known to Lactantius in the form of a hymn. Book seven is Christian in its present form, with possible but puzzling Jewish, Gnostic, and even Neoplatonic traits. Book eight seems to be a combination of Jewish and Christian texts with a puzzling reference to an eschatological queen (l. 194) in the Jewish section (ll. 1216), which is hostile to Rome and was probably written before 195 ce. The Christian part is, at any rate, earlier than 300 ce. It includes a famous acrostic (ll. 217243, with a later addition in ll. 244250), whose Latin translation is frequently quoted by Christian authors and was adopted into liturgical texts of the Middle Ages.

Books eleven through fourteen, taken together, are an apocalyptic outline of world history since the Flood. Book eleven is Jewish and may not be much later than Vergil's death in 19 ce, alluded to in line 171. Lines 160161, however, seem to point to a later date and are perhaps interpolations. It is not an anti-Roman book. Moreover the author seems to be familiar with the Augustan laudatory ideology. Book twelve is Jewish with Christian interpolations and was written not long after 235 ce (though it could also have been composed with the following book). It reflects a time and milieu (Egypt) in which Jews were inclined to accept the Roman Empire. Book thirteen is Jewish with Christian interpolations, is dated around 265 ce, and contains propaganda for Odenathus of Palmyra. Both books twelve and thirteen probably circulated independently, alongside book eleven, as a kind of imperial chronicle. Book fourteen, a confused text of Jewish origin that awaits satisfactory interpretation, seems to end with the Arab conquest of Alexandria and with Jewish collaboration in it in the middle of the seventh century ce. If this is correct, it shows Jews composing sibylline texts in Greek at a late date.

Christians maintained an interest in sibylline oracles and composed new ones throughout the Middle Ages. The queen of Sheba was sometimes identified with the sibyl Sabba. The Tiburtine Sibyl became especially popular both in the West and in the East. Some of her texts, though now in medieval redactions, probably go back to the fourth century ce. As late as the thirteenth century Thomas of Celano alludes to her in his Dies irae.

See Also



There is no satisfactory modern collection of the scattered pagan sibylline texts, although Hermann Diels's Sibyllinische Blätter (Berlin, 1890) can still be profitably consulted. The standard texts of the Jewish-Christian books are Charles Alexandre's Oracula sibyllina, 2 vols. (Paris, 18411856; 2d ed., Paris, 1869, which does not replace the first); Aloisius Rzach's Oracula sibyllina (Vienna, 1891); and Johannes Geffcken's Die Oracula sibyllina (Leipzig, Germany, 1902). The text of books 111 with a German translation and some parallel texts are in Alfons Kurfess, ed. and trans., Sibyllinische Weissagungen (Munich, 1951); and Jörg-Dieter Gauger, Sibyllinische Weissagungen (Düsseldorf and Zürich, 1998), which includes the most important texts illustrating the Nachleben of these oracles and a useful introduction and commentary. David S. Potter, Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire (Oxford, U.K., 1990), is a thorough study of book 13.

An English translation is James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments (Garden City, N.Y., 1983), pp. 317472. Paolo Sacchi, ed., Apocrifi dell'Antico Testamento, vol. 3, includes an annotated translation of books 3, 4, and 5 by Liliana Rosso Ubigli (Brescia, Italy, 1999), pp. 383535. Alejandro Díez Macho, ed., Apócrifos del Antiguo Testamento, vol. 3, Oráculos Sibilinos (Madrid, 2002), pp. 329612, includes a translation of the Sibylline Oracles by Emilio Suárez de la Torre and an exhaustive introduction. A good annotated French translation of some parts of the Christian books is Jean-Michel Roessli, "Les Oracles Sibyllins," in Écrits apochryphes chrétiens (Paris, 2004).

The following works, listed in chronological order, include discussions of both pagan and Jewish-Christian texts: Ernst Sackur, Sybillinische Texte und Forschungen Pseudomethodius (Halle, Germany, 1898; reprint, Turin, Italy, 1963); Johannes Geffcken, Komposition und Entstehungszeit der Oracula Sibyllina (Leipzig, Germany, 1902); Aloisius Rzach, "Sibyllen" and "Sibyllinische Orakel," in Real-encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, vol. 2A, cols. 20732183 (Stuttgart, Germany, 1923); Wilhelm Hoffmann, Wandel und Herkunft der sibyllinischen Bücher in Rom (Leipzig, Germany, 1933); Harald Fuchs, Der geistige Widerstand gegen Rom in der antiken Welt (Berlin, 1938); Henri Jeanmaire, La sibylle et le retour de l'âge d'or (Paris, 1939); Aurelio Peretti, La sibilla babilonese nella propaganda ellenistica (Florence, 1943); Samuel Kennedy Eddy, The King Is Dead (Lincoln, Nebr., 1961); Raymond Bloch, "L'origine des livres sibyllins à Rome," Neue Beiträge zur Geschichte der Alten Welt 11 (1965): 281292; Paul J. Alexander, The Oracle of Baalbek: The Tiburtine Sibyl in Greek Dress (Washington, D.C., 1967); Valentin Nikiprowetzky, La troisième sibylle (Paris, 1970); Valentin Nikiprowetzky, "Ré-flexions sur quelques problèmes du quatrième et du cinquième livre," HUCA 43 (1972): 2976; John J. Collins, The Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism (Missoula, Mont., 1974); John J. Collins, "The Place of the Fourth Sibyl in the Development of the Jewish Sibyllina," Journal of Jewish Studies 25 (Winter 1974): 365380; Arnaldo Momigliano, "La portata storica dei vaticini sul Settimo Re nel Terzo Libro degli Oracoli Sibillini" (1975), in Sesto Contributo, vol. 2 (Rome, 1980), pp. 551559; Paul J. Alexander, "The Diffusion of Byzantine Apocalypses in the Medieval West and the Beginnings of Joachimism," in Prophecy and Millenarianism, edited by Ann Williams (Essex, U.K., 1980), pp. 53106; John J. Collins, Between Athens and Jerusalem (New York, 1983), pp. 6172, 148155; Luisa Breglia Pulci Doria, Oracoli Sibillini tra rituali e propaganda (Naples, Italy, 1983); John J. Collins, "The Sibylline Oracles," in Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, edited by Michael E. Stone (Assen, Netherlands, 1984), pp. 357381; John R. Bartlett, Jews in the Hellenistic World (Cambridge, U.K., 1985), pp. 3555; Emil Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, vol. 3.1 (Edinburgh, U.K., 1986), pp. 618653; Nazarena Valenza Mele, "Hera ed Apollo a Cuma e la mantica sibillina," Rivista dell'Istituto Nazionale d'Archeologia e Storia dell'Arte, ser. 3, 1415 (19911992): 572; Jesús-María Nieto Ibáñez, El hexámetro de los Oráculos Sibilinos (Amsterdam, 1992); David S. Potter, Prophets and Emperors (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1994); Emilio Suárez de la Torre, "Sibylles, mantique inspirée et collections oraculaires," Kernos 7 (1994): 179205; John J. Collins, Seers, Sibyls, and Sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism (Leiden, Netherlands, 1997); Ileana Chirassi Colombo and Tullio Seppilli, eds., Sibille e Linguaggio Oracolare: Mito, Storia, Tradizione (Pisa, Italy, 1998); Emilio Suárez de la Torre, "La sibila de Eritras: análisis de fuentes hasta el siglo II d. C.," in Epieikeia: Homenaje al Profesor Jesús Lens Tuero (Granada, 2000), pp. 439467; Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, "La sibilla, voce del dio per pagani, ebrei e cristiani: un modulo profetico al crocevia delle fedi," in Oracoli Profeti Sibille: Rivelazione e salvezza nel mondo antico (Rome, 2002), pp. 61112; Jean-Michel Roessli, "Augustin, les sibylles et les Oracles Sibyllins," in Augustinus Afer: Saint Augustin: africanité et universalité, edited by Pierre-Yves Fux, Jean-Michel Roessli, Otto Wermelinger (Fribourg, Switzerland, 2003), pp. 263286; Mariangela Monaca, La Sibilla a Roma: I Libri Sibillini tra religione e politica (Cosenza, Italy, 2004); Monique Bouquet and Françoise Morzadec, La Sibylle: Parole et représentation (Rennes, France, 2004).

Arnaldo Momigliano (1987)

Emilio SuÁrez de la Torre (2005)

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A Sibylline oracle is synonymous with a rebus or riddle. The Sibyl, a prophetess, usually preferred, in fact, to give obscure responses or responses with double meanings. According to popular etymology (see Varro in Lactantius Inst. 1.6.7), the name signified "one who announces the counsels or plans of the gods" (ύθεοβύλη). Proper originally to a Sibyl in Asia Minor, the name passed to a whole class of female seers, the most famous being the Sibyls of Delphi and Cumae, two places in which there was a special worship of Apollo.

Pagan Sibylline Books. The Sibyl of Delphi had a rival in the Pythia. The Cumaean Sibyl, according to Pseudo-Aristotle (Mirab. 1188) was identical with the Sibyl of Erythrae. The collection of her oracles was given official recognition at Rome from the period of the monarchy, and was one of the most efficacious instruments in Hellenizing Roman religion. The Sibylline books were lost when the Capitol was destroyed by fire in 83 b.c.

Earlier than these two Sibyls, Cassandra, the daughter of Priam and the beloved of Apollo, had provoked Heraclitus to write: "With lips inspired, she utters words that were mirthless, without ornament, and without perfume, but through the power of the god her voice reaches down a thousand years." (Frg. 92, in H. Diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker: Griechisch und Deutsch.) Cassandra foretold the fall of Troy and the death of Agamemnon. In general, on the basis of the later tradition as found, e.g., in Vergil (Aen. 6), the Sibyl foretold an end and a new beginning. Interpretations respecting the date of the fatal day exhibited a constant and wide divergence, and on numerous occasions men believed that the end of the world was near.

Judeo-Christian Sibylline Books. The Judeo-Christian collection of Sibylline Oracles, which is extant, goes back, in its oldest part (bk. 3) at least, to the end of the Machabeean period (2d half of the 2d century b.c.). The Sibyl "foretells" post factum the history of the world from its origin to the present. Book 8, which is violently anti-Roman, predicts the fall of the Empire. The author of the great medieval sequence, the Dies irae, will place the Sibyl beside David (Teste David cum Sibylla ), and she will be honored, as numerous sculptures and paintings bear witness, for having foretold not only the Last Judgment, but also the coming of our Savior.

See Also: golden age.

Bibliography: Editions. j. geffcken, ed., Oracula sibyllina (Die Griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte 8; Leipzig 1902). a. kurfess, Sibyllinische Weissagungen (Munich 1951). Studies. j. quasten, Patrology, 3 v. (Westminster, MD 1950) 1:168170. f. l. cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London 1957) 125253, with good bibliography. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienneet de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq and h. i. marrou, 15v. (Paris 190753) 12.2:222044. e. bevan, Sibyls and Seers (London 1928). a. rzach, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa, et al. (Stuttgart 1893) 2.2:20732183.

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Sibylline Oracles. A collection of prophetic oracles in fourteen books by Jewish and Christian authors. Their dates are disputed, but probably range from the late 2nd to the 4th cents.

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Sibylline Oracles: see Pseudepigrapha.