25 August 2018
‘This is he whom seers and sages
sang of old with one accord’ …
the Sibyls in an Athlone window
My discussion of the stained-glass windows from the Harry Clarke Studio in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Athlone last week [16 August 2018] attracted considerable attention and discussion.
But in recent days I also found I was reflecting on the symbolism of the Sibyls, portrayed vividly in the panels in the bottom right corner of the Virgin Mary window by Richard King, Clarke’s pupil.
Who were the sibyls? What did they symbolise? And why did King give them such an important place, contrasting one of the sibyls he portrays with an image of beautiful, elongated figure of the Virgin Mary?
The Song of the Sibyls was sung all over Europe on Christmas Eve, after Matins and before Mass, until the Council of Trent. This custom was restored in some places in the 17th century, and remains mostly in Spain. They are most famously mentioned in the Dies Irae, sung at Masses for the dead. Its opening lines say:
That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,
as David and the Sybil say.
They are also referred to the Latin poem Corde natus ex Parentis by the Roman poet Marcus Aurelius Prudentius (ca 343-413), a judge in the Roman imperial court, as a challenge to Arianism:
This is he, whom seer and sibyl
Sang in ages long gone by;
This is he of old revealed
In the page of prophecy;
Lo! He comes the promised Saviour;
Let the world his praises cry!
Evermore and evermore.
This poem became a popular hymn and Christmas carol, ‘Of the Father’s Heart Begotten’ or ‘Of the Father’s Love Begotten,’ when it was translated y the Revd John Mason Neale (1818-1866) and the Revd Sir Henry Williams Baker (1821-1877). It is the oldest hymn in the Church Hymnal of the Church of Ireland (No 175). However, in their translation, Neale and Baker altered the reference to sibyls to sages:
This is he whom seers and sages
sang of old with one accord,
whom the writings of the prophets
promised in their faithful word:
now he shines, the long expected,
let creation praise its Lord,
evermore and evermore.
The Sibyls, who varied in number from 10 to 12, were women believed by the ancient Greeks to be oracles and prophesied at holy sites. Six are named in this window as Cumaa (the Cumaean sibyl), Delphica (the Delphic sibyl), Samia (the sibyl of Samos), Libica (the Libyan sibyl), Tyburina (the Tiburtine Sibyl), and Persica (the Persian sibyl). The Persian sybil on the right is stepping on a serpent, drawing on a popular description in Catholic piety of the Virgin Mary portrayed in the next panel as the ‘second Eve,’ crushing the serpent beneath her feet (see Genesis 3: 15).
The ancient Greeks believed the sibyls were oracles. The earliest sibyls, according to legend, prophesied at holy sites. Their prophecies were influenced by divine inspiration from a deity. At first, they were found at Delphi and Pessinos, but by late antiquity we find accounts of sibyls in Greece, Italy, the Levant, and Asia Minor.
The English word sibyl comes through the Old French sibile, and in turn the Latin sibylla, from the ancient Greek Σίβυλλα (Sibulla).
Heraclitus, writing in the 5th century BC, is the first known Greek writer to mention a sibyl, when he says, ‘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.’
In his Description of Greece in the second century AD, Pausanias says the first sibyl was at Delphi, that she was of great antiquity, and that she was given the name ‘sibyl’ by the Libyans. He names the second sibyl as ‘Herophile,’ who was based in Samos, but who also visited other shrines, including the shrines at Delphi and Delos.
In his six-volume translation and commentary on Pausanias, James Frazer says only two of the Greek sibyls were historical: Herophile of Erythrae, thought to have lived in the 8th century BC, and Phyto of Samos, who lived later. He says Heraclides Ponticus (387-312 BC) was the first ancient writer to distinguish several sibyls, including the Phrygian, Erythraean, and Hellespontine sibyls.
Like Heraclitus, Plato speaks of only one sibyl, but over the course of time their number increased to nine, with a tenth, the Tiburtine Sibyl, probably Etruscan in origin, added by the Romans.
By the first century BC, the Sibyls were numbered as ten: the Persian, Libyan, Delphic, Cimmerian, Erythraean, Samian, Cumaean, Hellespontine, the Phrygian and Tiburtine sibyls.
Among Christians, sibyls were regarded as pagans yet when their prophecies coincided with those of biblical prophets their words tended to be acknowledged. The belief that Christ came for everyone – gentiles as well as Jews – led early Christians to interpret particular prophecies as signs, even when they were from non-Christian sources.
Michelangelo depicts five sibyls intermingled with Old Testament prophets on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican: the Persian, Erythraean, Delphic, Cumaean and Libyan sibyls.
Shakespeare refers to the sibyls in his plays, including Othello, Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, and especially Troilus and Cressida.
The Christian apologist, Lactantius, writing in the late third or early fourth century lists ten Sibyls. Of these, six are depicted in the church windows in Athlone are: Cumaa, the Cumaean sibyl; Delphica, the Delphic sibyl; Samia, the sibyl of Samos; Libica, the Libyan sibyl; Tyburina, the Tiburtine sibyl; and Persica, the Persian sibyl.
Who were they? And why were they chosen to complement the prophets in the other corner of this window?
1, The Cumaean Sibyl:
The Cumaean Sibyl was the sibyl who most concerned the Romans and was located near the Greek city of Naples. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas consults her before his descent to the lower world.
In Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, the Cumaean Sibyl foretells the coming of a saviour. This may have been a flattering reference to the poet’s patron, Augustus, but Christian writers later identified this saviour as Christ. She was said to have sold the original Sibylline books to Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome.
2, The Delphic Sibyl:
In Greek mythology, Gaia or mother earth assigned a very large serpent called Python (Πύθων) to guard the shrine at Delphi. The shrine’s location was believed to be the Omphalos, the navel of the earth.
This python was slain by Apollo (Ἀπόλλων), who claimed the shrine as his own. And so Python became one of the names of Apollo, the Greek god of light and the sun, the fine arts, music, poetry, medicine, eloquence and prophecy, the patron of shepherds and the guardian of truth. He is the son of Zeus, and in Greek mythology he dies and rises again.
The celebrated oracle at Delphi, the priestess of Apollo, was said to be inspired by Apollo. She became violently agitated during the periods of supposed inspiration and gave responses about the future that were regarded as the oracles of the god.
The prophetesses at Apollo’s shrine were called Pythia. The Delphic Sibyl was a mythical woman from before the Trojan Wars in the 11th century BC. She is mentioned by Pausanias, who recalls stories he heard about her in Delphi. He said she survived nine generations of men, and that after her death she became a wandering voice, bringing to the ears of men tidings of the future wrapped in dark riddles.
The Acts of the Apostles recalls how in Asia Minor Saint Paul encounters a fortune telling slave girl who is described as having ‘a spirit of Python’ (εχουσαν πνευμα πυθωνος, she ‘has the spirit of Python’). This is translated in the NRSV and the KJV as merely ‘a spirit of divination’ and in the NIV as simply ‘a spirit’; the New Jerusalem Bible says she was ‘a slave-girl who was a soothsayer.’ But the original New Testament Greek serves to compare her with the Sibyl of Delphi, and makes her part of the rituals associated with the cult of Apollo.
Saint Paul is challenging the cult of Apollo and turning a sibyl into a Christian prophet. The encounter leads to Paul and Silas being held in prison (see Acts 16: 16-40).
3, The Samian Sibyl:
The Lion Monument in Pythagoras Square in Vathy, the capital of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Samian Sibyl presided over the Apollonian oracle near the Temple of Hera on the island of Samos. She is said to have prophesied the birth of Jesus in the stable. The Samian Sibyl had the name Phemonoe.
The Samian Sibyl was known as Phyto, or Foito, from the Greek world foitos, which indicates wandering, especially the wandering of the mind. Modern research suggests her home was in the cave of the Panagia Spiliani monastery which was probably also the cavern of Pythagoras.
Saint John’s concept of the cosmos can be traced to the original thinking of Pythagoras. But legends aside, we can be sure Samos was visited by the Apostle Paul around 58 AD. Ever since, the island has had a rich heritage of churches, monasteries and convents. Four years after the island was resettled by Greeks in the 16th century, two monks, Iocovos and Makarios, built the Monastery of the Panayia of Vrontiani, or Our Lady of Thunder, the oldest monastery on the island, 3 km from the village of Vourliotes. The Monastery of Our Lady of Spiliani was built over the cave that was once the home of the Samian oracle Photo, while pillars from the classical city of Miletus in Anatolia were used to build Aghia Zoni, which has outstanding wall paintings.
4, The Libyan Sibyl:
The Libyan Sibyl was identified with prophetic priestess presiding over the oracle of Zeus Amon at the Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt. The oracle there was consulted by Alexander the Great after his conquest of Egypt.
Euripides mentions the Libyan Sibyl in the prologue to his lost tragedy Lamia. The mother of the Libyan Sibyl was said to be Lamia, daughter of Poseidon. But the name Lamia also means Serpent or Medusa.
5, The Tiburtine Sibyl:
To the classical sibyls of the Greeks, the Romans added a tenth, the Tiburtine Sibyl, whose seat was at Tibur, modern Tivoli. The mythic meeting of Augustus with the Sibyl was a favourite motif of Christian artists, although it is not clear whether the sibyl in question was the Sibyl of Tibur or the Greek Sibyl of Cumae.
An apocalyptic pseudo-prophecy, attributed to the Tiburtine Sibyl, 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.
The Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli in Rome is associated with this Sibyl. A mediaeval tradition refers the origin of its name to an altar, Ara Primogeniti Dei, said to have been raised to the ‘firstborn of God’ by the Emperor Augustus, who had been warned of his advent by the sibylline books. The figures of Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl are painted on either side of the arch above the high altar in the church.
Ippolito d’Este rebuilt the Villa d’Este at Tibur, the modern Tivoli, from 1550, and commissioned elaborate frescoes in the villa that celebrate the Tiburtine Sibyl as prophesying the birth of Christ to the classical world.
6, The Persian Sibyl
The Persian Sibyl was said to be a prophetic priestess presiding over the Apollonian Oracle. Although her location was so vague enough that she was also known as the ‘Babylonian Sibyl,’ the Persian Sibyl is said to have foretold the exploits of Alexander the Great.
When Pausanias visits Delphi, he counts four sibyls, and 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 10th century Byzantine encyclopaedia, the Suda (Σοῦδα), says the Hebrew Sibyl is the author of the Sibylline oracles.
The Temple of Apollo in Didyma ... one of the most important shrines and temples in the classical world to Apollo and his twin sister Artemis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Four other sibyls not depicted in King’s window in Athlone are traditionally named in classical literature:
1, The Cimmerian Sibyl:
The name of the Cimmerian Sibyl was Carmenis. She presided over the Apollonian Oracle at Cimmerium in Italy, near Lake Avernus or Cumae. She may have been omitted from the Athlone window by King because many writers say she is the same as or confuse her with the Cumaean Sybil, since the designation Cimmerian refers to priestesses who lived underground near Lake Avernus.
As at Delphi, there was an oracular shrine dedicated to Apollo at the Acropolis of Cumae.
2, The Hellespontine Sibyl:
The Hellespontine or Trojan Sibyl presided over the oracle of Apollo at Dardania. She was born in the village of Marpessus, near Gergis, during the lifetimes of Solon of Athens and Cyrus the Great.
According to Xenophon, Gergis was a place of much strength. It had a temple sacred to Apollo Gergithius, and was said to have given birth to the sibyl, who is sometimes called Erythraea, ‘from Erythrae,’ a small place on Mount Ida
The Hellespontine Sibyl was known, particularly in the late Roman imperial period and the early Middle Ages, for a claim that she had predicted the crucifixion of Christ.
3, The Phrygian Sibyl:
The Phrygian Sibyl is best known for being conflated with Cassandra, Priam’s daughter in Homer’s Iliad.
The Phrygian Sibyl also appears to be a doublet of the Hellespontine Sibyl.
4, The Erythraean Sibyl:
The Erythraean Sibyl was based at Erythrae, a town on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor, across from the island of Chios. She may have been omitted from the Athlone window because the Suidas lexicon says the Erythraean Sibyl was also called Samian, and Pausanias confirms that the Erythraean Sibyl lived the greater part of her life in Samos.
Yet, she is the most interesting of the Sibyls when it comes to Christian prophecies. She is said to have predicted the Trojan War and to have 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, written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters of the leaves always formed a word.
Later, in Christian iconography, the Erythraean Sibyl is said to have foretold the coming of Christ in a prophesy in the form of an acrostic whose initial letters spelled out: Ιησόύς Χριστός Θεου Ύίος Σωτηρ Σταύρος (‘Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour, Cross). She is shown with this acrostic in a mediaeval painting in Salisbury Cathedral and by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.
The shape of the statue of Pythagoras by Nikolaos Ikaris in Pythagoreio … Pausanias says the Erythraean Sibyl lived the greater part of her life in Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)