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Emma Hardinge Britten: From ‘Art Magic’ – About The Cumaean Sibyl & The Pythia Of Delphi

‘Art magic’-1898 Chicago edition title page.


Et hop! Another sharing for the day from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA: the continuation and end of part II, section XVI of  Emma Hardinge Britten’s ‘Art Magic’, from the Progressive Thinker Publishing House 1898 Chicago edition 🤓


Emma Hardinge Britten in 1884.


Amidst all the temptations to linger in description which the graceful imagery, sparkling fancy and abundant Mythology of Greek Spiritism abounds with, we are only privileged to pause for one more notice, and that is of the famous Sibylline women by whom the Oracles of Greece were delivered for so many centuries, and for this purpose we select a few excerpts from a comprehensive and authentic sketch, taken from the ‘Western Star’ Magazine before quoted, and written by the fluent pen of Emma Hardinge Britten:

Some classical authors have limited the number of Sibyls to four, but the generality of ancient writers give a list of ten. to whom they assign names according to the countries of their birth. Varro thus enumerates them :

The Delphian,—elder and younger ; the Cimerian, and two Sibyls, both named Erythraen ; the Samian, the Cumaean ; the Hellespontian, the Phrygian, and the Tiburtine. Of all these, the Cumaean and the Delphian have been the most renowned. It is to the Cumaean Sibyl that is attributed the authorship of the famous Sibylline books, the sale of which to King Tarquinius, by an unknown old woman (supposed to have been the Sibyl herself) all classical historians have frequently mentioned. These books were nine in number when first tendered for sale to the king. When he refused to purchase them, the old woman threw three of them into the fire, and returning to the king, demanded the same price as before for the remaining six. The offer being still refused, the unknown destroyed three more of her singular wares, and again returning, demanded the same price for the three, which she had asked in the first instance for the whole nine. Struck with the oddity of this proceeding, Tarquinius paid the price demanded, but no sooner became possessed of the books, than the old woman who had sold them disappeared.

On examination, the contents of the volumes proved to be the vaticinations of the renowned Sibyls, and so great was the value set upon these writings, that Tarquinius appointed two officials, especially charged with the duty of guarding them, and only permitting them to be inspected and consulted by duly constituted authorities, in seasons of great national emergency. Notwithstanding the high respect with which the Sibylline writings were regarded, the original volumes purchased by Tarquinius were destroyed by fire. Other monarchs caused fresh collections to be made, and the most careful researches were instituted to gather up and preserve all the Sibylline writings extant.

Notwithstanding this, several succeeding collections shared the fate of their predecessor ; so it is fair to conclude that the voluminous mass of books attributed to the Sibyls, and quoted by the early Christian, as well as heathen authors, in support of their favorite dogmas, contained as many interpolations as genuine writings ; indeed, it is questionable whether any of the original Sibylline vaticinations survived the wreck of fire and revolution, which consumed the most valuable records of those stormy times. On the question of the number of those whom history has designated the Sibyls, there can be no doubt but that many prophetic women, who succeeded each other in the temple services of different districts, were called by the same name, so that, in fact, the classification of Varro, given above, applies rather to the places with which they were associated, than to the actual limitation of their numbers.

There seems to have been some points of difference between the Priestesses, the Pythia of Delphi, wandering Prophetesses, and the personages mentioned as Sibyls. The fact that so many women of antiquity manifested prophetic powers, and were so frequently endowed with the faculty of rendering oracular responses under the afflatus of what was deemed ‘Divine inspiration’, renders it a task of some difficulty to discriminate amongst the variety of powers from which they derived celebrity.

Virgil, in describing the Cumaean Sibyl, says she was born in the district of Troy, but went to Italy, where for a time she dwelt in a cavern in the vicinity of the Avernian lake. She sometimes wrote her oracles upon palm leaves, which she laid at the entrance of her cave, suffering the winds to scatter them, and bear them whither the Gods directed. At other times, she gave responses orally to those who came to consult her, and many chapters could be written on the marvelous accuracy of her prophecies, and the remarkable lucidity with which she delivered her descriptions of distant persons and things. In writing of this ‘Sacred Maid,’ as he styles her, Virgil gives the following well-known delineation of her ‘Corybantic’ modes of prophesying:

“Aloud she cries,’ This is the time ! inquire your destinies!
He comes ! Behold the god! ‘ Thus, while she said,
And shiv’ring at the sacred entry staid,
Her color changed, her face was not the same,
And hollow groans from her deep spirit came
Her hair stood up, convulsive rage possessed
Her trembling limbs, and heaved her laboring breast.
Greater than human kind she seemed to look,
And with an accent more than mortal spoke.
Her staring eyes with sparkling fury roll,
And all the God came rushing on her soul.
Struggling in vain, impatient of her load,
And laboring underneath the ponderous God,
The more she strove to shake him from her breast,
“With, more and far superior force he pressed,
Commands his entrance, and without contest
Usurps her organs, and inspires her soul.”

(Excerpt from Dryden’s translation of the ‘Aeneid’, Book VI.)

This Cumaean Sibyl declares of herself: ” I am entirely on the stretch, and my body is so stupefied that I do not know what I say, but the God commands me to speak : “Why must I publish my song to every one ? and when my spirit rests, after the divine hymn, the God commands me to ‘vaticinate’ (prophesy) again. I know the number of the grains of sand, and the measure of the sun. I know the height of the earth, and the number of men, stars, trees, and beasts.”

The Cumaean Sibyl, amongst other very important prophecies, foretold that terrific eruption of Vesuvius, in which Pliny, the naturalist, is said to have perished, and so many cites were destroyed. She wrote, besides, many books which were held in the highest veneration by the Romans, and is supposed to have been the original of the fine statue which was placed in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, representing her holding one of her famous Sibylline books in her hand.

Passing over the vivid descriptions rendered by Plutarch, Varro, Heraclides, and others, of the various Sibyls of other names, we must now draw a slight sketch of the famous Pythia of Delphi, who, whether one or many, has been more widely renowned for demonstrating the fact of prophetic power than any other name in history, the Cumaean Sibyl alone excepted.

The small town of Delphi, in Phocis, would never have attained any celebrity from its situation or commercial importance, had it not been the site of one of the most renowned of all the Grecian oracles—that of the Apollo of Delphi. The site of the once magnificent temple, so famed for its Pythian oracle, is at the northwestern extremity of the town, built on the slope of the beautiful mountain called Parnassus. Shutting in the crescent like in-closure which comprises the ancient site of Delphi, is a vast mountain, split asunder, apparently by volcanic action, and presenting two high peaks or cliffs, which the Greeks called ‘The Brothers.’ It is from this circumstance that the town is supposed to have derived the name of Delphi or Adelphus. From the cleft which divides these two gigantic peaks, flows out the far-famed Castalian Spring ; and here tradition asserts that Apollo and the nine Muses, to whom the spring was dedicated, endowed those who drank of, or bathed in its cool, translucent waters, with the gifts of prophecy, musical and poetical inspiration.

On the spot which subsequently became the centre of the gorgeous temple of Apollo, formerly yawned a deep cavern, from which issued those strange mephitic vapors which were supposed to exercise so powerful an influence in preparing the Pythia for the possession of the oracular god. All authors of the time declare that the cavern was charged with vapors of that peculiar quality which excited a species of frenzy in animals, and delirious ecstasy in the human beings who inhaled it. The discovery of these remarkable properties in the cavern was due, it is alleged, to a goat-herder, who, noticing how wild and frantically his flock leaped about after straying into the entrance, made his way into its recesses, and was afterwards found in the frenzied condition common to all who ventured within its charmed precincts.

After the spot had attracted general attention, and become in that superstitious age venerated for its mysterious power of evoking the spirit of ‘vaticination’ or prophecy, it was set apart as a hallowed place. The priests of Apollo declared it was the choice dwelling-place of the God, and that the utterance of those who resorted thither, and came under the influence of ‘the divine fury’, were henceforth to be regarded as prophetic, and their ravings received as oracular.

It must be remembered that it was the universal belief of the time, that the ravings of lunacy were prophetic, and denoted the possession of some God ; hence it is not surprising that a place capable of producing upon all comers the afflatus so highly reverenced should be regarded as holy, and become the scene of those superstitious rites common to the time and country. As it was found that little else than wild confusion and unintelligible ravings resulted from permitting the cavern to become a place of universal resort, the Phocian authorities commanded that a maiden of pure life and unspotted character should be selected, who was brought to the sacred spot, immersed in the waters of the Castalian Spring, arrayed in white, crowned with laurels, and required to perform divers other ceremonies of purification and preparation.

When this was done, the priests of Apollo held the ‘Pythia’, as she was termed, over the entrance of the cavern, and, provided she could endure the inhalation of the exhalations without permanent loss of reason, or, as it more than once happened, without yielding up life itself in the frantic convulsions which sometimes ensued, the novitiate was deemed the elect of the God, and duly installed as his priestess, by taking her seat on a tripod or basin, with three ears of gold, placed at the entrance to the cavern.

Plutarch alleges that the first and most celebrated Pythia who served the Delphic oracle was a beautiful young country girl named Sibylla, from the district of Libya. It is probable that from this ancient prophetess was derived the name of Sibyl, afterwards conferred on all her class. In later years it was found necessary to select women of mature, and sometimes of advanced age, to serve the oracle, the sacred character of their profession having been found insufficient to protect the Pythia from the licentiousness of the age. Plutarch, writing of this inspired woman, says:

”We derive immense advantages from the favor the Gods have conceded to her. She and the priestess of Dodona confer on mankind the greatest benefits, both public and private. It would be impossible to enumerate all the instances in which the Pythia proved her power of foretelling events, and the facts themselves are so well and generally known, that it would be useless to bring forth new evidences. She is second to no one in purity of morals and chastity of conduct. Brought up by her poor parents in the country, she brings with her neither art nor experience, nor any talent whatever, when she arrives at Delphi, to be the interpreter of the God. She is consulted on all accounts—marriage, travels, harvest, disease, etc., etc. Her answers, though submitted to the severest scrutiny, have never proved false or incorrect. On the contrary, the verification of them has filled the temple with gifts from all parts of Greece and foreign countries.”

A gentleman (the author of ‘Art Magic’), who once resided at the spot so venerated as the seat of divine inspiration, furnishes us with some descriptions of the wild region which was the scene of the Cumaean Sibyl’s vaticinations. He says :

“The Lake of Avernus was once the extinct crater of a mighty volcano, and the whole region, though now fertilized by its waters, bears the marks of being fire-scarred, and presents a most gloomy and repulsive appearance. The clefts in the savage rocks abound with caverns exhaling mephitic vapors and bituminous odors. It was in one of the wildest, grandest, yet most awe-inspiring gorges of these mountains, that the cavern existed which tradition affirms to have been the dwelling of the Cumaean Sibyl. The scattered inhabitants of the surrounding district believed that this gloomy grotto was the entrance to the nether world ; that the hammers of the Titans, working in the mighty laboratories of the Plutonic realms, might be heard, ever and anon, reverberating through the thick and sullen air. The dark waters of the gloomy lake were supposed to communicate directly with the silent flow of the river of death, the Lethean stream, made dreadful by the apparitions of un-blest spirits who floated from the Avernian shores to the realms of eternal night and torture.

Here dwelt the famous Cumaean Sibyl, and from the exhalations of those poisonous regions, fatal to the birds that attempted to wing their way through its burdened airs, or the living creatures that strayed amidst its savage wilds, this weird woman derived that fierce ecstasy in which she wrote and raved of the destiny of nations, the fate of armies, the downfall of kingdoms, and the decay of dynasties. Monarchs and statesmen shaped their acts by her sublime counsels. The secrets of the unwritten future were mapped out to her far seeing eyes, as on an open page. The purposes of the Gods were made known to her as if she had been their counselor, and the inexorable fates revealed, through her lips, the decrees in which thrones and empires crumbled into dust, as though she had been the mouthpiece of the Eternal One.

The mournful regions of the Avernian Lake were in strange contrast to the equally celebrated, but far more attractive scenes consecrated to the oracle of the Sun-God, in the delightful country of the Delphian Pythia. All travellers agree that the neighborhood of Mount Parnassus and the beautiful Castalian Spring is of a much more genial character, sparkling, as it is, with the sunlight, and fragrant with blooin, yet there is, to my mind, an evident connection between the influences of the exhalations derived from the Avernian and Delphic caverns.

The chasm, so famed as the scene of the Pythia’s utterances, is now no longer to be seen. The superb temple of Apollo was so built as to in-close, and secure it from the approach of the vulgar, and at this day no sign of such a chasm is visible ; but there are many clefts in the rocks, and one in especial, which forms a deep cavern, into which I have myself penetrated as far as I dared; but as I descended, clinging to its rugged sides, with the intention of exploring it, I noticed the exhalations which arose from it, and soon found that they were beginning to produce upon me the same effect as the inhalation of nitrous oxide (laughing) gas. The following day I visited that and two other caverns piercing the mountains in the same direction, and by applying chemical tests to the vapors exhaling from within, I found my suspicions confirmed, and am convinced there are chemicals in these regions which continually generate nitrous oxide gas.

The stately forms of the Sibyls have vanished from the earth. The white-robed priest and the vestal virgin no longer float through multitudes of adoring votaries, as mediums between a race of Gods and men. The altar fires of the temples are quenched, the colossal forms of marble deities overthrown ; the oracles are dumb, and the books of the Sibyls all consumed in the whelming flames of time and change.

The bowers of Grecian myrtle and rose are choked up with trailing weeds, and the voluptuous shade of the laurel groves are deepened into an unbroken night of rank vegetation. Faded beauty, and living ugliness, death, ruin, and decay, occupy the stately seats of ancient devotion, and the sunlight of inspiration seems to have gilded the purple and gold peaks of Parnassus for the last time ; but the cup of inspiration, run dry in classic Greece, is flowing full and abundantly in newer, happier lands.

The links which bind the mortal and immortal, torn asunder by the catastrophies of war and desolation, in ancient lands, have stretched out into telegraphic lines between the worlds of spirit and humanity ; and though the modern medium can never fill the place which the Sibyl of antiquity occupied in sublimity of inspiration, in romantic lore and heathen splendor, she is sufficient for the age she lives in ; sufficient to bring to a cold and materialistic world the undoubted proofs of the soul’s immortality, and the fatherhood of the one universal God who is a Spirit.”


More about Emma Hardinge Britten:
Emma Hardinge Britten: From ‘Art Magic’ – About The Cumaean Sibyl & The Pythia Of Delphi

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