The History and Significance of the goddess Sibyl

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Roman mythology was greatly influenced with the myths and legends that came from Greece; indeed, they adopted and adapted it wholesale to suit their needs, identifying many of their own Italian deities with the Greeks. Although the Roman heroes could not compete with the Greeks (such as Hercules and Jason for example), the adoption of Aeneas as a founder-hero made him of particular concern to the first emperor, Augustus.

It is here in the Aeneid, the epic poem written by Virgil during the 20’s BCE, that we can see the significance of the character Sibyl. Sibyl was a prophetess who lived near Cumae in southern Italy who was granted immortality.

The legend of Sibyl recalls how she offered a collection of oracular books that contained the details of Rome’s destiny to Rome during the rule of the Etruscan kings. These were rejected and so Sibyl burnt 3 of the books and re-offered the rest at the same price. Again, this offer was refused and again, Sibyl burnt another 3 books. She then offered the last 3 books to Rome at the original price. In haste, the Romans accepted before all the irreplaceable books concerning Rome’s destiny were totally lost.

Another myth concerns how Sibyl gained her immortality. The god Apollo offered to love her but she refused and in anger, the god cursed her to an endless old age. By the time that Aeneas consults her in the Aeneid, Sibyl was already ancient.

When looking at the history of Sibyl, it appears that she was not a native of Italy. Her name is probably Semitic and her earliest appearance in literature states that she utters her prophecies “with frenzied lips” (Coulter, p.65).One scholar believes that she was akin to the divine intoxicates who appeared in appeared among the Phoenicians and Canaanites in Old Testament times, and to the “prophets” of Israel in the days of King Saul and King Ahab, who, “garbed in flowing mantles of skin or goat’s-hair, . . . stepping to the wild music of psaltery, timbrel, pipe, and harp,… ‘Prophesied’ in divinely impassioned frenzy (Coulter, p.65).

It is probable that she was from Marpessos, in the Troad, and that from here her name and her fame spread to other parts of the ancient world. Her story was then carried to Cumae, where, probably about the close of the sixth century BCE, and probably through the mediation of Etruscans living in Campania, some utterances of the Sibyl were carried to Rome (Coulter, p.65).

To call Sibyl a goddess is not entirely correct; she became immortal but was not worshipped as a goddess. Instead, she was a powerful figure to the Romans and the study of her allows us to understand the Roman view in a much clearer light.

Bibliography:

Coulter, Cornelia C. (1950) The Transfiguration of the Sibyl, The Classical Journal, The Classical Association of the Middle West and South Inc.

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