The sibyls were women that the ancient Greeks believed were oracles.
The earliest sibyls, according to legend, prophesied at holy sites.
Their prophecies were influenced by divine inspiration from a deity;
Delphi and Pessinos, the deities were chthonic deities.
In Late Antiquity, various writers attested to the existence of sibyls
in Greece, Italy, the Levant, and Asia Minor.
The English word sibyl (/ˈsɪbəl/ or /ˈsɪbɪl/) comes — via the
Old French sibile and the
Latin sibylla — from the ancient Greek
Varro derived the name from theobule
("divine counsel"), but modern philologists mostly propose an Old
Italic or alternatively a Semitic etymology.
2 Specific sibyls
2.1 Persian Sibyl
2.2 Libyan Sibyl
2.3 Delphic Sibyl
2.4 Cimmerian Sibyl
2.5 Erythraean Sibyl
2.6 Samian Sibyl
2.7 Cumaean Sibyl
2.8 Hellespontine Sibyl
2.9 Phrygian Sibyl
2.10 Tiburtine Sibyl
3 In Renaissance art and literature
4 Sibylline books
5 See also
8 External links
8.1 Classic sibyls
8.3 Medieval Christianizing sibyls
8.4 Modern sibyl imagery
The first known Greek writer to mention a sibyl is Heraclitus, in the
5th century BC:
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.'
Walter Burkert observes that "frenzied women from whose lips the god
speaks" are recorded very much earlier in the Near East, as in Mari in
the second millennium and in Assyria in the first millennium".
Until the literary elaborations of Roman writers, sibyls were not
identified by a personal name, but by names that refer to the location
of their temenos, or shrine.
In Pausanias, Description of Greece, the first sibyl at Delphi
mentioned ("the former" [earlier]) was of great antiquity, and was
thought, according to Pausanias, to have been given the name "sibyl"
by the Libyans. Sir
James Frazer calls the text defective. The
second sibyl referred to by Pausanias, and named "Herophile", seems to
have been based ultimately in Samos, but visited other shrines, at
Delphi and sang there, but that at the same time,
Delphi had its own sibyl.
James Frazer writes, in his translation and commentary on
Pausanias, that only two of the Greek sibyls were historical:
Herophile of Erythrae, who is thought to have lived in the 8th century
BC, and Phyto of Samos who lived somewhat later. He observes that the
Greeks at first seemed to have known only one sibyl, and instances
Heraclides Ponticus as the first ancient writer to distinguish
several sibyls: Heraclides names at least three sibyls, the Phrygian,
the Erythraean, and the Hellespontine. The scholar David S. Potter
writes, "In the late fifth century BC it does appear that 'Sibylla'
was the name given to a single inspired prophetess".
Plato speaks of only one sibyl, but in course of time
the number increased to nine, with a tenth, the Tiburtine Sibyl,
probably Etruscan in origin, added by the Romans. According to
Lactantius' Divine Institutions (Book 1, Ch. 6),
Varro (1st century
BC) lists these ten: the Persian, the Libyan, the Delphic, the
Cimmerian, the Erythræan, the Samian, the Cumæan, the Hellespontine
(in Trojan territory), the Phrygian (at Ancyra), and the Tiburtine
Persian Sibyl and Hebrew Sibyl
Persian Sibyl was said to be a prophetic priestess presiding over
the Apollonian Oracle; though her location remained vague enough so
that she might be called the "Babylonian Sibyl", the
Persian Sibyl is
said to have foretold the exploits of Alexander the Great.[citation
needed] The Persian Sibyl, by name Sambethe, was reported to be of the
family of Noah. The 2nd-century AD traveller Pausanias, pausing at
Delphi to enumerate four sibyls, 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 medieval Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda, credits the Hebrew
Sibyl as author of the Sibylline oracles.
Michelangelo's Libyan Sibyl, Sistine Chapel
Main article: Libyan Sibyl
Libyan Sibyl was identified with prophetic priestess
presiding over the ancient Zeus-Amon (
Zeus represented with the horns
of Amon) oracle at the
Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt. The
oracle here was consulted by Alexander after his conquest of Egypt.
The mother of the
Libyan Sibyl was Lamia, the daughter of Poseidon.
Euripides mentions the
Libyan Sibyl in the prologue to his tragedy
Michelangelo's Delphic Sibyl, Sistine Chapel
Main article: Delphic Sibyl
Delphic Sibyl was a mythical woman from before the Trojan Wars (c.
11th century BC) mentioned by Pausanias writing in the 2nd century
AD about stories he had heard locally. The
Sibyl would have predated
the real Pythia, the oracle and priestess of Apollo, originating from
around the 8th century BC.
Main article: Cimmerian Sibyl
Naevius names the
Cimmerian Sibyl in his books of the
Punic War and
Piso in his annals.
The Sibyl's son Evander founded in
Rome the shrine of Pan which is
called the Lupercal.
Main article: Erythraean Sibyl
Erythraean Sibyl was sited at Erythrae, a town in
Erythrae affirms the
Erythraean Sibyl to have been his
own countrywoman and to have predicted the
Trojan War and 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, which were written on leaves and arranged so that
the initial letters of the leaves always formed a word.
Main article: Samian Sibyl
The Samian sibyl's oracular site was at Samos.
Main article: Cumaean Sibyl
The sibyl who most concerned the Romans was the Cumaean Sibyl, located
near the Greek city of Naples, whom Virgil's Aeneas consults before
his descent to the lower world (
Aeneid book VI: 10). Burkert notes
(1985, p 117) that the conquest of
Cumae by the
Oscans in the 5th
century destroyed the tradition, but provides a terminus ante quem for
a Cumaean sibyl. It was she who supposedly sold to Tarquinius
Superbus, the last king of Rome, the original Sibylline books. In
Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, the Cumaean sibyl foretells the coming of a
savior – possibly a flattering reference to the poet's patron,
Augustus. Christians later identified this saviour as
Main article: Hellespontine Sibyl
The Hellespontine, or Trojan
Sibyl presided over the Apollonian oracle
Sibyl was born in the village of Marpessus near the
small town of Gergitha, during the lifetimes of
Solon and Cyrus the
Great. Marpessus, according to Heraclides of Pontus, was formerly
within the boundaries of the Troad. The sibylline collection at Gergis
was attributed to the
Hellespontine Sibyl and was preserved in the
Apollo at Gergis. Thence it passed to Erythrae, where it
Main article: Phrygian Sibyl
Phrygian Sibyl is most well known for being conflated with
Cassandra, Priam's daughter in Homer's Iliad. The Phrygian Sibyl
appears to be a doublet of the Hellespontine Sibyl.
Main article: Tiburtine Sibyl
To the classical sibyls of the Greeks, the Romans added a tenth, the
Tiburtine Sibyl, whose seat was the ancient Sabino-
Latin town of Tibur
(modern Tivoli). The mythic meeting of
Augustus with the Sibyl, of
whom he inquired whether he should be worshiped as a god, was a
favored motif of Christian artists. Whether the sibyl in question was
Etruscan Sibyl of
Tibur or the Greek
Cumae is not always
clear. The Christian author
Lactantius had no hesitation in
identifying the sibyl in question as the Tiburtine Sibyl,
nevertheless. He gave a circumstantial account of the pagan sibyls
that is useful mostly as a guide to their identifications, as seen by
The Tiburtine Sibyl, by name Albunea, is worshiped at
Tibur as a
goddess, near the banks of the Anio, in which stream her image is said
to have been found, holding a book in her hand. Her oracular responses
the Senate transferred into the capitol. (Divine Institutes I.vi)
An apocalyptic pseudo-prophecy exists, attributed to the Tiburtine
Sibyl, written c. AD 380, but with revisions and interpolations
added at later dates. It 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. After vanquishing Gog and Magog, the Emperor is
said to resign his crown to God. This would give way to the
Antichrist. Ippolito d'Este rebuilt the
Villa d'Este at Tibur, the
modern Tivoli, from 1550 onward, and commissioned elaborate fresco
murals in the Villa that celebrate the Tiburtine Sibyl, as prophesying
the birth of Christ to the classical world.
In Renaissance art and literature
In Medieval Latin, sibylla became simply the term for "prophetess",
and it became common in Late Gothic and Renaissance art to depict
female Sibyllae alongside male prophets. 
The number of sibyls so depicted could vary, sometimes they were
twelve (See, for example, the Apennine Sibyl), sometimes ten, e.g. for
François Rabelais, “How know we but that she may be an eleventh
sibyl or a second Cassandra?” Gargantua and Pantagruel, iii. 16,
noted in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1897.
Sibyl by Francesco Ubertini, c. 1525
The best known depiction is that of
Michelangelo who shows five sibyls
in the frescos of the
Sistine Chapel ceiling; the Delphic Sibyl,
Libyan Sibyl, Persian Sibyl,
Cumaean Sibyl and the Erythraean Sibyl.
The library of
Pope Julius II
Pope Julius II in the Vatican has images of sibyls and
they are in the pavement of the Siena Cathedral. The Basilica of Santa
Maria in Aracoeli crowning the Campidoglio, Rome, is particularly
associated with the Sibyl, because a medieval tradition referred the
origin of its name to an otherwise unattested 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: in
the church the figures of
Augustus and of the
Tiburtine Sibyl are
painted on either side of the arch above the high altar. In the
Rodolfo Lanciani recalled that at Christmas time the
presepio included a carved and painted figure of the sibyl pointing
Augustus the Virgin and Child, who appeared in the sky in a
halo of light. "The two figures, carved in wood, have now 
disappeared; they were given away or sold thirty years ago, when a new
set of images was offered to the
Presepio by prince Alexander
Torlonia." (Lanciani, 1896 ch 1) Like prophets, Renaissance sibyls
forecasting the advent of Christ appear in monuments: modelled by
Giacomo della Porta
Giacomo della Porta in the Santa Casa at Loreto, painted by Raphael in
Santa Maria della Pace, by Pinturicchio in the
Borgia apartments of
the Vatican, engraved by Baccio Baldini, a contemporary of Botticelli,
and graffites by Matteo di Giovanni in the pavement of the Duomo of
Shakespeare references the sibyls in his plays, including Othello,
Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, and especially Troilus and
Cressida. In the latter,
Shakespeare employed common Renaissance
Cassandra to a sibyl.
A collection of twelve motets by
Orlande de Lassus
Orlande de Lassus titled Prophetiae
Sibyllarum (pub. 1600) draw inspiration from the sibyl figures of
antiquity. The work —for four voices a cappella— consists of a
prologue and eleven prophecies, each once corresponding to an
individual Sibyl. While the text speaks of the coming of Jesus Christ,
the composer reflects the mystical aura of the prophecies by utilizing
chromaticism in an extreme manner, a compositional technique that
became very fashionable at the time. It is possible that Lassus not
only viewed Michelangelo's depictions, but also drew the chromatic
manière from a number of Italian composers, who experimented at the
Main article: Sibylline Books
The sayings of sibyls and oracles were notoriously open to
interpretation (compare Nostradamus) and were constantly used for both
civil and cult propaganda. These sayings and sibyls should not to be
confused with the extant 6th-century collection of Sibylline Oracles,
which typically predict disasters rather than prescribe solutions.
Some genuine Sibylline verses are preserved in the 2nd-century Book of
Marvels of Phlegon of Tralles. The oldest collection of written
Sibylline Books appears to have been made about the time of
Cyrus at Gergis on Mount Ida in the Troad. The sibyl, who was born
near there, at Marpessus, and whose tomb was later marked by the
Apollo built upon the archaic site, appears on the coins of
Gergis, c. 400–350 BCE. (cf. Phlegon, quoted in the 5th-century
geographical dictionary of Stephanus of Byzantium, under 'Gergis').
Other places claimed to have been her home. The sibylline collection
at Gergis was attributed to the
Hellespontine Sibyl and was preserved
in the temple of
Apollo at Gergis. Thence it passed to Erythrae, where
it became famous. It was this very collection, it would appear, which
found its way to
Cumae and from
Cumae to Rome. Gergis, a city of
Dardania in the Troad, a settlement of the ancient Teucri, and,
consequently, a town of very great antiquity. Gergis, according to
Xenophon, 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, and at others Gergithia ‘of Gergis’.
Oracle of Delphi
Temple of the Sibyl: 18th-century fanciful naming
The Golden Bough (mythology)
^ Burkert 1985 p 117
Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University
Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library
^ "Rheinisches Museum," 1.110f.
^ Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Sibyl". Jewish
Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. "Since
Lactantius expressly says (l.c. ["Divinarum Institutionum," i. 6])
that the sibyl is a native of Babylon, the name is probably Semitic in
origin. The word may be resolved into the two components "sib" + "il,"
thus denoting "the ancient of god" (Krauss, in "Byzantinische Zeit."
^ Heraclitus, fragment 92.
^ Burkert 1985, p 116
^ a b See Pausanias, Description of Greece, x.12 edited with
commentary and translated by Sir James Frazer, 1913 edition. Cf. v.5,
p.288. Also see Pausanias, 10.12.1 at the Perseus Project.
^ Frazer quotes Ernst Maass, De Sibyllarum Indicibus (Berlin, 1879).
^ Heraclides Ponticus, On Oracles.
^ Frazer, James, translation and commentary on Pausanias, Description
of Greece, v.5, p.288, commentary and notes on Book X, Ch. 12, line 1,
"Herophile surnamed Sibyl":
Prof. E. Maass (op cit., p.56) holds that two only of the Greek sibyls
were historical, namely Herophile of
Erythrae and Phyto of Samos; the
former he thinks lived in the eighth century BC, the latter somewhat
Frazer goes on:
At first, the Greeks seemed to have known only one sibyl. (Heraclitus,
cited by Plutarch, De Pythiae Oraculis 6; Aristophanes, Peace 1095,
1116; Plato, Phaedrus, p.244b). The first writer who is known to have
distinguished several sibyls is
Heraclides Ponticus in his book On
Oracles, in which he appears to have enumerated at least three, namely
the Phrygian, the Erythraean, and the Hellespontine.
^ David Stone Potter, Prophecy and history in the crisis of the Roman
Empire: a historical commentary on the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle,
Cf. Chapter 3, p.106.
^ Fragments of the Sibylline Oracles. sacred-texts.com. Retrieved on
June 20, 2008.
^ Pausanias, x.12
^ Sibyls and sibylline prophecy in classical antiquity, Herbert
William Parke. Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-26.
^ Seers, sibyls, and sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism, John Joseph
Collins. Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-26.
^ Pausanias 10.12.1
^ Bowden, Hugh, Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle. Divination
and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
ISBN 0-521-53081-4. Cf. p.14. "They may learn about the
mysterious Delphic Sibyl, a mythical prophetess unrelated to the
traditions of the oracle itself."
^ Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the
Development of Doctrine, University of Chicago Press, 1989.
ISBN 0-226-65371-4. Cf. p.64
^ Kiefer, Frederick, Writing on the Renaissance Stage: Written Words,
Printed Pages, Metaphoric Books, University of Delaware Press, 1996.
ISBN 0-87413-595-8. Cf. p.223.
^ Eliot, T. S.; Rainey, Lawrence S., The Annotated Waste Land with
Eliot's Contemporary Prose: Second Edition, Yale University Press,
2006 ISBN 0-300-11994-1. Cf. p.75
^ Guidacci, Margaret (1992). Landscape with Ruins: Selected Poetry of
Margherita Guidacci. Wayne State University Press. p. 121.
Tiburtine Sibyl Archived 2005-04-07 at the Wayback
Machine.. History 3850 Readings. Retrieved on June 20, 2008.
^ see e.g. "Sibyls" - Lancaster University, UK. (archived 2005)
^ Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1897 Archived 2005-04-05 at
the Wayback Machine.
^ Malay, Jessica (2010). Prophecy and Sibylline Imagery in the
Renaissance: Shakespeare’s Sibyls. routledge.
^ Herodotus iv: 122
Dionysius of Halicarnassus
Dionysius of Halicarnassus i. 55
Beyer, Jürgen, 'Sibyllen', "Enzyklopädie des Märchens.
Handwörterbuch zur historischen und vergleichenden Erzählforschung",
vol. 12 (Berlin & New York, Walter de Gruyter 2007), coll. 625-30
Bouché-Leclercq, Auguste, Histoire de la divination dans
l'Antiquité, I-IV volumes, Paris, 1879-1882.
Broad, William J., The Oracle: the Lost Secrets and Hidden Message of
Delphi (Penguin Press, 2006).
Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion (Harvard University Press, 1985) esp.
Delcourt, M. L'oracle de Delphes, 1955.
Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911.
Fox, Robin Lane,
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great 1973. Chapter 14 gives the best
modern account of Alexander's visit to the oasis at Siwah, with some
background material on the Greek conception of Sibyls.
Goodrich, Norma Lorre, Priestesses, 1990.
Hale, John R. and others (2003). Questioning the Delphic Oracle.
Retrieved Jan. 7, 2005.
Hindrew, Vivian, The Sibyls: The First Prophetess of Mami (Wata) MWHS,
Jeanmaire, H. La Sibylle et la retour de l'âge d'or, 1939.
Lanciani, Rofolfo, Pagan and Christian Rome, 1896, ch. 1 on-line
Lactantius, Divine Institutions Book I, ch. vi (e-text, in English)
Maass, E., De Sibyllarum Indicibus, Berlin, 1879.
Parke, Herbert William, History of the Delphic Oracle, 1939.
Parke, Herbert William, Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy, 1988.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, ed. and translated by Sir James
Frazer, 1913 edition. Cf. v.5
Peck, Harry Thurston, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquity,
Pitt-Kethley, Fiona, Journeys to the Underworld, 1988
Potter, David Stone, , Prophecy and history in the crisis of the
Roman Empire: a historical commentary on the Thirteenth Sibylline
Oracle, 1990. Cf. Chapter 3. review of book
Potter, David Stone, Prophets and Emperors. Human and Divine Authority
Augustus to Theodosius, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
1994. review of book
Smith, William, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology,
1870, article on Sibylla, 
West, Martin Litchfield, The Orphic Poems, Oxford, 1983.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sibyls.
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
John Burnet Early Greek Philosophy, 63., 64. brief analysis, 65. the
Jewish Encyclopedia: Sibyl.
El Cant de la Sibil-la / Mallorca / València (1400-1560) - Montserrat
Figueras, Jordi Savall - La Capella Reial de Catalunya - Alia Vox 9806
El Cant de la Sibil-la / Catalunya - Montserrat Figueras, Jordi Savall
- La Capella Reial de Catalunya - Alia Vox AVSA9879
The Song of the Sybil - Track 4 - 3:45 - Aion (1990) - Dead Can Dance
Medieval Christianizing sibyls
Late Gothic illustrations of twelve sibyls
Modern sibyl imagery
A sardonic sequence of 'Twelve Sibyls', accompanied by the artist
Leonard Baskin's woodcuts, revisits Sibyls and Others (1980). Ruth
Fainlight has written dozens of poems about these ambiguous figures,
bridging religion, classical and Biblical settings, femininity and
modernity. One of them concludes: 'I am no more conscious of the
prophecies / than I can understand the language of birds /…let the
simple folk praise you, / keep you safe as a caged bird, / and call
you a sibyl'.
Pjetër Bogdani, "The Songs of the Ten Sibyls" modern poetry,
translated from Albanian
T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land is prefaced by a quote from Petronius'
Satyricon (1st century AD) The passage translates roughly as "I saw
with my own eyes the
Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the
boys said to her 'Sibyl, what do you want?' that one replied 'I want
The SIBYLS beamline at the Advanced Light Source in B