Sibyls : In Greek and Roman cult, name given to women endowed with prophetic gifts under the god Apollo. Their number varied from one to 10 to 12, and various sites were chosen for their abode. The most famous Sibyl was that of Cumae in Campania, Italy. This Sibyl led Aeneas in the underworld after he broke off the Golden Bough.

According to some accounts the Cumaean Sibyl was once the mistress of Apollo. She tells Aeneas that she has lived seven generations already because Apollo granted her wish that she have as many years as their were grains in a handful of dust. The Sibyl, however, forgot to ask the god for perpetual youth and thus aged and shrank.

In Petronius’s novel Satyricon the Sibyl has shrunk to a tiny being, all shriveled up, who is kept in a cage and asks only to die. In another myth associated with the Sibyl, she offered King Tarquinius Priscus nine books of sibylline oracles. The king, however, refused to buy them at the price she set, so she burned three and again offered the remaining six. Again, he refused, and she burned three more, still asking the full price.

Realizing that all of the books would be destroyed, Tarquinius agreed to buy the remaining three for the price of the original nine. The sacred books were kept under the charge of Roman priests and could only be consulted by order of the Senate.

In 83 b.c.e. they were destroyed by fire, and another set was produced. Eventually the Christians and Jews began producing sets of sibylline books, and 14 such books appeared that are still extant. During the Middle Ages the Sibyls along with the Hebrew Prophets were said to have predicted the coming of Christ. In the Dies Irae, the great medieval hymn for the dead, the Sibyl is cited along with King David.

Michelangelo painted five Sibyls on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael, Mantegna, Rembrandt, and Turner also painted Sibyls. The Sibyl’s most famous role is in Vergil’s Aeneid (book 6).


Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow
Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante