Sybils by Albany Poyntz

The existence of one or more Sybils in the ancient world has been distinctly proved. Classic authors are unanimous upon the subject. Suidas tells us that there were fourteen; Varro, ten. Œlian asserts that there were only four; while Martinus Capella reduces them to two.

Dr. Petit, however, the author of the Essay “De Sybilla,” reduces them to one. Let us grant that the Sybil of Cumæ was the only authentic Sybil, whether originating in Ionia, Syria, or Campania. Let us even establish that her name was Demo, according to Pausanias, though Virgil declares that she was called Deiphobe, and was the daughter of Glaucus. Suidas calls his fourteen by the common name of Eriphile; Aristotle styles the Sybil, Malanchrenes. After due consideration of these names, certain writers unanimously adopted that of Amalthea. Be it our business to inquire into the question upon the only reasonable grounds, namely, in a symbolical sense. A man had need to belong to Rome or Greece to entertain a due respect for the subject; where the existence of supernatural beings placed by the Gods between heaven and earth, and predominating over Kings and their subjects, was regarded as a blessing. In those times, such creations had a salutary influence of which we cannot now appreciate the value. The ancient social institutions, of so many centuries past, are scarcely to be understood from books; since those by which we are actually surrounded are not altogether comprehensible.

Great was the veneration conceded to the Sybils in Greece and Rome; in proof of which we need only cite the Sybilline volume—to discredit which in the olden time, would have been a matter of danger.

It is known to all that a venerable Sybil came to Tarquin, and offered to sell him nine volumes of her prophecies, when her price being taxed as exorbitant, she threw three volumes into the fire, still requiring the same price for the remaining six. Still denied her price by Tarquin, three more of the books shared the same fate; and on her adhering to her original demand for the remaining three; Tarquin assembled the Augurs, who advised the purchase, and the monarch was forced to submit to the terms of the Sybil.

From that moment, the Sybilline leaves became objects of veneration. They were made over to the custody of the priests, and consulted upon occasions of importance after a decree of the Senate. These volumes were destroyed in the conflagration of the Capitol, eighty-three years before Christ; a severe calamity to the Romans, who looked upon the Sybilline books as a sacred charta. It is remarkable, that after the destruction of these volumes, the Republic gradually declined, and fell under the yoke of the Emperors.

Immense as was the loss of the volumes, considering their influence over the minds of the people, the Augurs and Senate hoped to replace the loss. Zealous missionaries were sent to all the cities of Europe, Asia and Africa, which affected to possess Sybilline verses; and more than two thousand were brought back. But we are to conclude they were far from genuine, as the Sybilline oracles declined in credit. Augustus suppressed many of the verses, and the rest were burned by Stilicon, father-in-law of the Emperor Honorius.

In all countries of the ancient world, Virgins were objects of worship; and even as connected with Pagan idolatries, there is something beautiful and touching in the homage paid to virginal purity, more particularly in contrast with the ferocity of manners of the early Romans. The most abject corruption respected the worship of virginity. No virgin could be immolated by the Romans; and Octavia was reduced to infamy ere she could be lawfully sacrificed to the vengeance of Nero. The Sybils were sacred virgins, which accounted for the veneration paid to them and their oracles. St. Jerome expressly states that the gift of prophecy was bestowed upon them in honour of their purity. As to the Sybil of Cumæ, she was said to have rejected the advances of Apollo himself, though the God offered to endow her with eternal youth and beauty; to which she preferred the infirmities of mortal decrepitude in order to live and die in chastity.

As society is now constituted, nothing founded on error, or the frauds usually called pious, can be termed justifiable. Tarquin and the Augurs probably understood the inauthenticity of the Sybilline books; but it was their cue to create a deep veneration for them, and assign a divine origin to the laws, which in those days might not otherwise have been respected by the people.

In the time of Cicero, the Romans had learned to blush for their own credulity; and in the following centuries, were confounded at seeing the Fathers of the Christian Church return indirectly to ideas long fallen into desuetude. St. Ambrose, however, denounced such doctrines; declaring to the early Christians who were disposed to seek in the Sybilline books exposition of their faith, that they were the idle production of fanatical women.

The Sybils of old were apparently prophetesses after the manner of Joanna Southcote and Madame Krudener in the present century. The Sybilline books, as existent in the days of St. Ambrose, teemed with frauds and anachronisms, proving the ignorance of their authors, as much as the credulity of those who believed in them. The events of the Christian dispensation are as clearly announced in them as in the Holy Writ. The personages are even mentioned by their proper names. Isaiah wrote: “A virgin shall conceive.” The Sybil is made to say, “The Virgin Mary shall conceive, and shall bring forth Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem.” The Sybil also announces the Baptism of the Messiah in the Jordan; the coming of the Holy Ghost under the form of a dove; the circumstances of the Passion; and the preaching of the Gospel by the Apostles. She pretends to have witnessed events long after the coming of the Messiah; relates the second conflagration of the Temple of Vesta, which took place one hundred and seventy years after Jesus Christ, in the reign of Commodus, and affects to have been in Noah’s Ark; yet is so ignorant of the Holy Writings, that she supposes Noah to have sojourned therein only forty and one days; while Moses states him to have been an entire year. She also places Mount Ararat in Phrygia instead of Armenia.

Such was the value of the last edition of the Sybilline volumes; conceived, no doubt, with good intentions; but, as articles of faith, little better than a fiction.