The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed…

2 Jun

The Sibyls were oracular women believed to possess prophetic powers in ancient Greece, The earliest Sibyls, ‘who admittedly are known only through legend,’[1] prophesied at certain holy sites, under the divine influence of a deity, originally—at Delphi and Pessinos—one of the chthonic deities. Later in antiquity, a number of sibyls are attested in various writers, in Greece and Italy, but also in the Levante and Asia Minor.

The English word Sibyl (/ˈsɪbəl/ or /ˈsɪbɪl/) comes — via the Old French Sibile and the Latin Sibylla — from the ancient Greek σίβυλλα (sibulla, plural σίβυλλαι sibullai),[2]

Varro derived the name from theobule (“divine counsel”), but modern philologists mostly propose an Old Italic[3] or alternatively a Semitic etymology.[4]

The first known Greek writer to mention a sibyl is Heraclitus, in the 5th 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.’[5]

Walter Burkert observes that “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”.[6]

Until the literary elaborations of Roman writers, sibyls were 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, according to Pausanias, to have been given the name “sibyl” by the Libyans.[7] Sir James Frazer calls the text defective. The second Sibyl referred to by Pausanias, and named “Herophile”, seems to have been based ultimately in Samos, but visited other shrines, at Clarus. Delos and Delphi and sang there, but that at the same time, Delphi had its own sibyl.[7]

James Frazer writes, in his translation and commentary on Pausanias,[8] that only two of the Greek Sibyls were historical: Herophile of Erythrae, who is thought to have lived in the 8th century BC, and Phyto of Samos who lived somewhat later. He observes that the Greeks at first seemed to have known only one Sibyl, and instances Heraclides Ponticus[9] as the first ancient writer to distinguish several Sibyls: Heraclitus names at least three Sibyls, the Phrygian, the Erythraean, and the Hellespontine.[10] 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”.[11]

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 LactantiusDivine Institutions (i.6, 4th century AD, quoting from a lost work of Varro, 1st century BC) these ten sibyls were those in the following list. Of them, the three most famous sibyls throughout their long career were the Delphic, the Erythraean and the Cumaean. Not all the following Sibyls were securely identified with an oracular shrine, and in the vague and shifting Christian picture there is some overlap.

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