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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Sibyls as female authors of prophecy and myth

The Libyan Sibyl by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (after restoration)
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A friend asked me if I could point him in the right direction to study female writers of mythology in the ancient world.  I suggested he research the origins of the worship of the Great Mother (associated with Cybele) with a possible forerunner in the earliest Neolithic at Çatalhöyük. The Roman state adopted and developed a particular form of her cult after the Sibylline oracle in 205 BCE recommended her conscription as a key religious ally in Rome's second war against Carthage (218 to 201 BCE). Roman mythographers (that often included historians like Livy) reinvented her as a Trojan goddess, and thus an ancestral goddess of the Roman people by way of the Trojan prince Aeneas.

Although Roman religion did not have a basis in scriptures and exegesis, priestly literature was one of the earliest written forms of Latin prose. The books (libri) and commentaries (commentarii) of the College of Pontiffs and of the augurs contained religious procedures, prayers, and rulings and opinions on points of religious law. Although at least some of this archived material was available for consultation by the Roman senate, it was often occultum genus litterarum, an arcane form of literature to which by definition only priests (only males) had access. Prophecies pertaining to world history and to Rome's destiny turn up fortuitously at critical junctures in history, discovered suddenly in the nebulous Sibylline books, which Tarquin the Proud (according to legend) purchased in the late 6th century BCE from the Cumaean Sibyl.

Although there were many sibyls throughout the ancient world, three sibyls were deemed of particular importance in the Greco-Roman world, the Apollonian Sibyl at Cumae, the most famous among the Romans, the Erythraean Sibyl from Turkey, and the oldest Hellenic oracle, the Sibyl of Dodona whose prophecies may have reached back as far as the 2nd millenium BCE, at least according to Herodotus. The Cumaean Sibyl is supposedly the author of the famous Sibylline books.  If you consider prophecy directly related to myth, I would encourage the study of these sybils as ancient female authors. 

There are 14 books and eight fragments of so-called Sibylline Oracles that survive today although these are not the original Sibylline Books of the Romans which were burned on the orders of the Roman general Flavius Stilicho in the 4th century CE.  Although they are deemed an "odd pastiche" of Hellenistic and Roman mythology interspersed with Jewish, Gnostic and early Christian legend they are still considered a valuable source of information about classical mythology.

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