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Sybil is a title used to designate a lineage of prophetesses, venerated for centuries. At least two Sybils are traditionally venerated as goddesses. Others serve as spirit guides. They may also be approached in dreams and visualizations in order to obtain specific information not available from other sources or standard channels.

The Sybils were seers whose prophecies were written down and stored. Sybils lived in different locations and prophesied in different languages, although they seem to have been part of a linked international sisterhood. Predictions were written in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and hieroglyphics—and possibly other languages, too. Sometimes prophecies were written in real books; sometimes they were written on palm leaves, which would be blown about by winds. The Sybils’ prophecies were oblique, sometimes featuring word games.

The name Sybil is etymologically related to Kybele, an oracular goddess whose name is sometimes pronounced Sib-ill-ee. The earliest Sybils may have been her priestesses. The names Sybil and Kybele both refer to caves or caverns. The Cumaean Sybil, most famous of the Sybils, did, in fact, inhabit a cave.

Very little information survives regarding the Sybils. We know what they did, but we don’t know what they believed or even whether Sybils in different locations shared the same spiritual orientation.The earliest reference to a Sybil dates from approximately 1200 BCE from what is now modern Turkey. Their prophetic texts are now almost entirely lost: Rome’s Sibylline Books were deliberately destroyed during the transition to Christianity as state religion.

Michelangelo included five Sybils among the figures he painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, although he used men as models for their bodies.

At least ten historical Sybils and their locations have been identified, among them:

• The Apennine Sybil

• The Cimmerian Sybil

• The Cumaean Sybil

• The Eritrean Sybil

• The Sybil of the Hellespont

• The Libyan Sybil

• The Persian Sybil

• The Samian Sybil

• The Tiburtine Sybil


The Cumaean Sybil is the only one for whom archaeological evidence currently exists and also the one with the most mythic information. In approximately 525 BCE, an elderly woman appeared in Rome requesting to see King Tarquin. She offered to sell him nine books containing the world’s destiny for three hundred pieces of silver. He dismissed her as a crank. She returned later, offering to sell him six books for the same price. Again, he dismissed her. When she returned the third time, offering three books for three hundred pieces of silver, Tarquin finally took a look at her wares. He realized that they were the real thing, immediately paid the asking price and asked for the other books, too. She laughed at him, told him that she had burned them, and vanished into thin air.

The three surviving books, known as the Sibylline Books or Sibylline Prophecies became Rome’s most heavily guarded treasure. Stored in a stone chest beneath the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, they were consulted only in emergencies and before momentous decisions. Even high priests were forbidden to read them without express permission from the Senate. Anyone who attempted was sewn into a sack, and thrown into the Tiber River. The Romans sent messengers to Sybils in other locations in attempts to reproduce the information contained in the six lost books.

The mysterious book-seller eventually re-emerged in Cumae (now modern Cuma) near the Bay of Naples. She lived and prophesied in a cave on a red volcanic hill overlooking the sea. Her cave was cut into a trapezoidal form, a shape now acknowledged as most earthquake resistant. Windows were cut into the rock. The Sybil purified and prepared herself via bathing. She then dressed in ceremonial clothing, sat on her throne in her cave, and prophesied. She became famous and the subject of a pilgrimage. Visitors were admitted to see and inquire of her. Coins in the area were engraved with her emblem: a mussel shell.

Scholars theorize that over centuries, a series of women fulfilled the role of Sybil of Cumae although others consider that the Sybil who sold King Tarquin the books was immortal and thus the only Cumaean Sybil. Early Christians honored the Cumaean Sybil because it was rumored that she had foretold the birth of Christ but this tolerance was short-lived: the prophetess was eventually considered a witch. The Cumaean Sybil evolved into the witch-goddess Sibilla who engendered the wrath of the Inquisition. In 1912, archaeologists excavating caverns corresponding to her legend discovered an ancient tunnel nearly five hundred feet long drilled through solid rock. (

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The Sybil Herophile derives from what is now modern Turkey, Kybele’s country. She was the daughter of a mountain Nymph and a mortal father. Sybil Herophile was worshipped in conjunction with her mother in a tomb-shrine in a grotto with a spring. She was venerated alongside Hermes, Apollo, Demeter and various other Nymphs. Dedicatory inscriptions date from as late as the second century CE.

See Also:

Apollo; Ceres; Demeter; Hermes; Kybele; Nymph; Sibilla; Spirit Guides


Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by :Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.