Seers, Women of Action: The Sibyls of the Ancient World

Seers, Women of Action: The Sibyls of the Ancient World

Virgil, in his Aeneid, describes Deiphobe, better known as the Sibyl of Cumae, as coming from “a hundred perforations in the rock, a hundred mouths from which the many utterances rush” (43-5, 163). He further describes “her terrifying riddles” (98-99,164) conjuring the enduring image of a Sibyl as a mysterious prophetess sitting in a temple or a cave, uttering predictions in ecstatic frenzy. Nevertheless, the prophecies of the Sibyls were widely trusted – so trusted that many of their prophecies played key roles in determining the direction of important events.

However, “Sibyl” is actually a generic name which implies multiple seers, oracles and prophetess in the ancient world. Cassandra of Troy, who was not bound to a temple or a cave, and found herself in the middle of all the actions of the Trojan War, is also considered a sibylline figure. She was not the only Sibyl who took on a more hands-on role in the events around her. Many of these women rubbed shoulders with the greatest warriors and leaders of their ages, shaping the future instead of merely foretelling it.

The Proud King, the Old Woman and the Books of Prophecies

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in the Roman Antiquities, recounts the story of an old woman who visits the last king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, or Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. She brings with her nine books that she claims to contain sibylline prophecies. The old woman offers to sell the books to Tarquin for what seems to be an exorbitant amount of money and he laughs at her ridiculous price. In response, the woman burns three of the books and leaves without leaving a trace.

Tarquinius Superbus receiving the Sibylline books from a prophetess


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