Episode 110: Matthew Neujahr on the Sibylline Oracles
The Sibylline Oracles are a very influential, but largely-forgotten, oracular compendium probably redacted in more or less the form we know it in the sixth or seventh century in late antiquity, but containing material going back no-one-knows-how-far. Purporting to be the words of the Sibyl, a prophetic female figure of Hellenic origin and unbelievably ancient provenance, they preserve long swathes of hexameter verse (often metrically-bad hexameter verse) allegedly telling of future events, the rise and fall of different kingdoms according to God’s plan, the coming end times, and more.
The Sibyl herself is a complex and fascinating figure, who, originally a Greek idea, took on in the classical and Hellenistic periods an increasingly complex character – there are multiple Sibyls at different oracular sites, the Romans somehow get some Sibylline Books, which were to be consulted by a special class of specialists at times of dire state crisis, there are Græco-Roman Sibyls, Persian Sibyls, even a lunar Sibyl – unified by the fact that:
1: the Sibyl is female,
2: she serves as a kind of divine mouthpiece who can foretell the future in a frenzied mantic state, and seems to be either immortal or very long-lived,
3: her words are highly authoritative, so it pays to assimilate them to your tradition of choice, and
4: she is uncanny as hell.
Having discussed the basic state of our texts and some of the fascinating Sibyl-lore which lay behind the Oracles, we then explore some of the Oracles themselves, looking at Christian and pre-Christian strands in interaction within the sloppily-redacted text, and finally discuss some of the strong echoes of the Sibylline wisdom in early-modern European esotericism. Finally, Professor Neujahr shares some important reflections of the status of the Sibyl as the sole female representative of that important type represented by the Christianised Hermes Trismegistus – the vastly ancient traditional seer whose words bear witness to Christian truth.
Dr Matthew Neujahr has a PhD in the Hebrew Bible from Yale University. His research focuses on apocalyptic literature, Second Temple Judaism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Late Babylonian literature & religion, and cross-cultural knowledge transfer in the Near East in the latter half of the first millennium BCE. You can find a selection of his publications here.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- Lactantius cites the Sibyl: e.g. Inst. 1.6.7.
- Our earliest reference to the Sibyl is Heraclitus Β 92 DK, cited at Plut. De Pyth. orac. 6: Σίβυλλα δὲ μαινομένῳ στόματι καθ`Ἡράκλειτον ἀγέλαστα καὶ ἀκαλλώπιστα καὶ ἀμύριστα φθεγγομένη χιλίων ἐτῶν ἐξικνεῖται τῇ φωνῇ διὰ τὸν θεόν.
- Aristophanes: Knights 61; Peace 1095
- Plato Phædr. 244b: Δωδώνῃ ἱέρειαι μανεῖσαι μὲν πολλὰ δὴ καὶ καλὰ ἰδίᾳ τε καὶ δημοσίᾳ τὴν Ἑλλάδα ἠργάσαντο, σωφρονοῦσαι δὲ βραχέα ἢ οὐδέν: καὶ ἐὰν δὴ λέγωμεν Σίβυλλάν τε καὶ ἄλλους, ὅσοι μαντικῇ χρώμενοι ἐνθέῳ πολλὰ δὴ πολλοῖς προλέγοντες εἰς τὸ μέλλον ὤρθωσαν, μηκύνοιμεν ἂν δῆλα παντὶ λέγοντες. τόδε μὴν ἄξιον ἐπιμαρτύρασθαι, ὅτι καὶ τῶν παλαιῶν οἱ τὰ ὀνόματα τιθέμενοι οὐκ αἰσχρὸν ἡγοῦντο οὐδὲ ὄνειδος μανίαν.
- Virgil: see Æneid Book VI passim; also III.443-4: insanam vatem aspicies, quae rupe sub ima fata canit, foliisque notas et nomina mandat. Eclogue 4, where the Sibyl is called on to witness the rather cosmically-significant new world order of Augustan Rome.
- The Sibyl on the moon: Plutarch, De sera, which is found among his Moralia, 566d. Cf. De pythiae oraculis 398c-d, where it is suggested that the face visible in the moon is that of the Sibyl; Clem. Al. Strom. I.15.70.4.
- Petronius ‘Arbiter’, Satyricon 4.48: Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω.
- J. Opsopoeus. Sibylliakoi chresmoi, hoc est Sibyllina oracula ex vett. codd. aucta, renovata, et notis illustrata a D. Iohanne Opsopoeo Brettano … Paris, 1599.
For the modern scholars alluded to, see below.
- Buitenwerf, Rieuwerd. Book III of the Sibylline Oracles and its Social Setting. Leiden: Brill, 2003.
- Collins, John J. The Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism. SBLDS 13. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1974.
- Geffcken, Johannes. Komposition und Entstehungszeit der Oracula Sibyllina. Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs, 1902.
- Lightfoot, J.L. The Sibylline Oracles with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on the First and Second Books. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
- Parke, H.W. Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity. London: Routledge, 1988.
- Potter, David S. Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990.
- Stewart Lester, Olivia. Prophetic Rivalry, Gender, and Economics: A Study in Revelation and Sibylline Oracles 4-5. WUNT II. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018.
- Alexandre, Charles. Oracula Sibyllina. 2 vols. in 3 parts. Paris: Didot, 1841-1856.
- Geffcken, Johannes. Die Oracula Sibyllina. Der königl. Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaft. Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs, 1902.
- Rzach, Alois. Oracula Sibyllina. Leipzig: Freytag, 1891.
- Collins, John J. “Sibylline Oracles.” Pp. 1.317-472 in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. Edited by James H. Charlesworth. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983-1985.