Oracles and Sybils

Faith

To explain the existence of Greek Oracles and the Sybils that presided over them, it might help to explore the growth of religious ideas behind them. The confederation of states that made up the Hellenic nation were widely separated from each other, often by mountainous regions. Thus the individual  had grown with their own beliefs and deities. But let’s start with fundamentals.

Religion

What exactly does religion mean? Our word derives from the Latin words rem eligio, meaning ‘I choose the right thing’. Like many other Latin word pairs, they elided together to become relligio and some early Latin texts spell it this way.

‘Choosing the right thing’ had already provided great food for thought to the Greeks and it was by divination of all kinds that decisions were made. It was thought that the gods could be appealed to and induced to grant favours to humans in return for offerings and sacrifices. 

The superstitious Romans who overthrew the Greeks  learned much from this more sophisticated culture and they respected it highly. Roman culture is largely an extension of Greek culture.

The Greeks and later the Romans did almost nothing without observing omens in various ways. The word ‘superstition’ literally means something that stands over you. ‘Disaster’ means a bad aspect of the stars.

It’s the Time of the season

Much early religion concerned the yearly seasons and how the planets revolving around us might be influencing our earth. Being able to accurately predict when days would become longer or shorter, when to sow seeds and when to reap were of huge importance to any settled culture that relied on agriculture.

Everyone might agree that ‘choosing the right thing’ is a sensible approach to life, whether that choice comes from one’s own conscience or a set of rules from a religious cult of some kind.

The word cult today perhaps has a bad taste to it, but ‘cultus’ to the Romans simply meant a belief. One man’s religion is another man’s cult.

God in Heaven or a
Goddess in the Underworld

Unlike our western view of religion derived from the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the Greeks did not imagine their God to be a wrathful man, out there in the sky somewhere, surrounded by winged angels, looking sternly down at his creations and judging their conduct.

The Greeks, and indeed most European areas in the bronze age and before, had a very different view.

It was easy to observe that from the ground all life springs and to the ground it returns after death. It was quite obvious therefore that the source of life was underground, and that this life-giving creator was a female creatrix, as it is the female who bears the offspring.

Society was matriarchal and a queen reigned. A woman’s monthly cycles closely matched that of the moon and so naturally she was a moon Goddess and life was governed by a lunar calendar.

Most settled societies in the world, which have learned to grow crops and have domesticated farm animals tend toward this ‘mother earth’ idea.

Nomadic societies are constantly on the move to find new pastures and cannot survive without their herds. The leader of cattle is the dominant male bull and thus a nomadic society reflects this in a patriarchal male-dominated society.

Greek regions, originally a loose collection of settled Hellenic tribes, each with their own remote cities, generally accepted the female principle and various fertility rites in commemoration of these beliefs in an underworld, reigned over by their sole Goddess Hera, developed. They are generally referred to as ‘Chthonic’. Chthonic comes from the Greek word chthonios meaning “in, under, or beneath the earth”.

Nomadic Aryan tribes from the east conquered Hellenic territories, bringing their dominant male god beliefs with them. To unite and appease the various city states, a system of gods and goddesses, originally a balanced six of each, was instigated and became the famous Olympian Gods. Poor earth mother Hera was married off to the warrior god Zeus. The Apollonian male sun system triumphed.

Sky God versus Earth Goddess

The Abrahamic sky God view
God creating Adam – Michelangelo
The Abrahamic male sky god and his angels creating Adam – Michelangelo

The male Abrahamic tradition with its often-wrathful male sky-God and his angels watching over us is a tradition that contrasts with the nurturing female earth mother residing in the underworld beneath the earth’s surface.

The contrasting Hellenic Earth Goddess view
Persephone and Hades in their underworld abode
Persephone and Hades in their underworld abode

The Greek underworld tradition originally stemmed from notions of an earth Goddess, but later transformed after the Olympian god system was implemented.

The cults of Campania by Roy Merle Peterson.
The cults of Campania by Roy Merle Peterson.

A full description of Greek beliefs and a history of their various settlements in Italy would fill a very large book, but those wishing to read a good description of those operating in the more local region of Campania can do no better than read ‘The cults of Campania’ by Roy Merle Peterson.

The Pythia at Delphi, sitting on her tripod
The Pythia at Delphi, sitting on her tripod

Oracles

The term oracle can be used as both the place where oracular pronouncements were made, the person who made the pronouncement or the pronouncement itself.

The best known oracular sites are the Oracle of Zeus at Dodona and the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, but oracles operated in many Greek territories.

At Dodona, the priests while under the effects of chewing leaves or by the tones of holy pigeons. Pigeons feature at number of oracular sites and one wonders whether many of their amazing feats of prediction were from news via information strapped to carrier pigeons.

At Delphi, the Priestess, called the Pythia, sat on a tripod over a volcanic fissure where the mephitic vapours allowed her visions of the divine through her expanded awareness and consciousness. Elsewhere, such as Eleusis, it is likely that other entheogens were used. Modern authors prefer now to talk of entheogens, substances that allow divine inspiration, as they are rather less loaded with connotations than terms like psychedelic or hallucinogen.

The oracles were consulted in all situations and their answers determined the strategies of war and revenge, affairs of the heart, mourning and anything else. Consultation was the preserve of the wealthy who could afford the fees

Private initiatory ceremonies called The Mysteries, where participants were sworn to secrecy, also feature as part of the picture and were observed at Eleusis and many volcanic regions.

Sybils

A Sybil takes her name from ancient Greek Σίβυλλα (Sibulla) and the Latin Sybilla, a possessor of divine inspiration. Sybils were those that presided at oracular sites. Of course over the centuries there were many ladies who would have held the title of Sybil.

Various Sybils are known, although many of them have very little information about them. Wikipedia offers the following Sybilline information.

The Persian Sibyl 

Said to be a 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. 

Also named Sambethe, she was reported to be of the family of Noah. The 2nd-century AD traveller Pausanias, pausing at Delphi to enumerate four sibyls, mentions the “Hebrew Sibyl” who was brought up in Palestine named Sabbe, whose father was Berosus and her mother Erymanthe. Some say she was a Babylonian, while others call her an Egyptian Sibyl.

The medieval Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda, credits the Hebrew Sibyl as author of the Sibylline oracles.

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. The oracle here was consulted by Alexander after his conquest of Egypt. The mother of the Libyan Sibyl was Lamia, the daughter of Poseidon. Euripides mentions the Libyan Sibyl in the prologue to his tragedy Lamia.

The Delphic Sibyl

The Delphic Sibyl was a mythical woman from before the Trojan Wars (c. 11th century BC) mentioned by Pausanias, writing in the 2nd century AD about stories he had heard locally. The Sibyl would have predated the real Pythia, the oracle and priestess of Apollo, originating from around the 8th century BC.

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

The Erythraean Sibyl 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 prophesied 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

The Samian sibyl’s oracular site was at Samos.

The Cumaean Sibyl

The sibyl who most concerned the Romans was the Cumaean Sibyl, located near the Greek city of Naples, whom Virgil’s Aeneas consults before his descent to the lower world. Burkert notes that the conquest of Cumae by the Oscans in the 5th 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. In Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, the Cumaean sibyl foretells the coming of a savior – possibly a flattering reference to the poet’s patron, Augustus. Christians later identified this saviour 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 is most well known for being conflated with Cassandra, Priam’s daughter in Homer’s Iliad. 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 Sabino-Latin town of Tibur (modern Tivoli). The mythic meeting of 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.

An apocalyptic pseudo-prophecy exists, attributed to the Tiburtine Sibyl, written c. AD 380, 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 Cumaean Sibyl by Domenichino, 1622
The Cumaean Sibyl by Domenichino, 1622

The Cumaean Sybil

The Cumaean Sibyl by Andrea del Castagno
The Cumaean Sibyl by Andrea del Castagno

The two Sybils that concern our story are the famous Cumaean Sybil, who operated for centuries at Cuma, north-west of Baia, and the more mysterious and lesser known Cimmerian Sybil said to preside over the Oracle of the Dead.

Maiuri discovered what is said to be the oracular site of the Cumaean Sybil in 1932. This Sybil predicted the future and operated well into Christian centuries.

The Cimmerian Sybil

The Cimmerian Sibyl by Guercino
The Cimmerian Sibyl by Guercino

However it was a different Sybil, the Cimmerian Sibyl, who presided over the Oracle of the Dead and was said to put people in touch with deceased ancestors, as described by Virgil in the Aeneid.

Naevius names the Cimmerian Sibyl in his books of the Punic War and Piso in his annals. If the tunnels at Baia have any connection with an Oracle of the Dead, it will be this Cimmerian Sybil who presided over it. History is hazy though and the two Sybils are often conflated into one and the same person.

Carmentis

In Vergil’s story Aeneas is accompanied by the Cumaean Sybil around the headland of Cape Miseno, the route over land being woody, marshy and more difficult, to journey to the underworld which was presided over by the Cimmerian Sybil, whose name is given as Carmentis.

The Reggio Emilia Cimmerian Sibyl, 1638
The Reggio Emilia Cimmerian Sibyl, 1638

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