Mathieu Guillaume Thérèse Villenave- A Notice About The Sibyls
Giovanni Domenico Cerrini-‘Apollo e la Sibilla Cumana‘, Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is a notice about the Sibyls from French Scholar Mathieu Guillaume Thérèse Villenave in his notes of his French translation of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ (Panckoucke Edition, 1839). Our translation from the original French.
‘’…Tum Phoebo et Triviae solido de marmore templum
Instituam, festosque dies de nomine Phoebi.
Te quoque magna manent regnis penetralia nostris:
Hic ego namque tuas sortes arcanaque fata,
Dicta meae genti, ponam, lectosque sacrabo,
Alma, viros. Foliis tantum ne carmina manda,
Ne turbata volent rapidis ludibria ventis;
Ipsa canas oro.” ‘Finem dedit ore loquendi.’
‘’Then unto Phoebus and his sister pale
A temple all of marble shall be given,
And festal days to Phoebus evermore.
Thee also in my realms a spacious shrine
Shall honor; thy dark books and holy songs
I there will keep, to be my people’s law;
And thee, benignant Sibyl for all time
A company of chosen priests shall serve.
O, not on leaves, light leaves, inscribe thy songs!
Lest, playthings of each breeze, they fly afar
In swift confusion! Sing thyself, I pray.”
John Dryden version.
Aeneid, Book VI, line 69 to 76.
This is an hint to the temple of Apollo, erected by Augustus on the Palatine Mount, after the battle of Actium, which gave him rule over the world, and to the Apollonian Games (Ludi Apollinares), which were since the first Punic war, and according to the Sibylline Books-still consulted during the great calamities- celebrated in Rome with great Pomp, under the guidance of the first Praetor, Urbanus.
In linking back to the Trojan War these obscures and sacred books in which Rome believed the secrets of destiny were concealed, the poet pets the pride of a people that showcased hegemonic ambitions, and were rewarded a providential master.
But no temple was dedicated to the Sibyl (see Aeneas’s promise above). According to Servius, the name Sibyl comes from two Greek words that mean ‘voice of God’. The ancient scholars agree about their existence, but not about their number. Plato seems to accept only one: When after having talked about the Pythia and priestess in Dodona, the oldest Hellenic oracle, and says he will not speak about the Sibyl he just mentioned. Martianus Capella, latin poet living during the fifth century c.e., accepts only two sibyls, the Erythrean, and the Phrygian. Pliny the Eleder and Gaius Julius Solinus reckon three, the Erythrean, the Samian, and the Cumaean. Decimius Magnus Ausonius says that there are three Gorgons, three Harpies, three Furies, and three Sibyls. ‘Et tres fatidicae nomen commune sibyllae’. Claudius Aelianus admits four: The Erythrean, the Samian, the Sardian, and the Egyptian. Pausanias, also accepts four. Finally, Marcus Terencius Varro, whose opinion is commonly followed (Lucius Caecilius Firmianus aka. Lactantius regards Varro as the leading scholar of the Classical times) reckons ten. He names them and the authors who spoke about them before him:
- The first, he writes, was from Persia, as Nicanor, Alexander the great’s historian tells us. ’Primam fuisse de Persis’
- The second, was the Libyan or from Libya. ‘Libycam, Libyssam’. Euripid speaks about her in the foreword of his play, ‘Lamia’.
- Chrysippus, in his ‘On Divination’ mention the third one, known as the Delphian. ‘Delphicam’.
- The fourth one is the Cumaean, or from Cumae in Italy. ‘Cumaeam in Italia’. Gnaeus Naevius mentions her in his ‘History of the Punic wars’ and Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi in his ‘Annales’.
- The Erythrean is the fifth. ‘Quintam Erythream’. She lived in Erythrae, a town in Ionia opposite Chios. Apollodorus of Athens says she foretold the Greek departing for Troy that they will destroy the city and also that Homer would weave much tales about it.
- The sixth was from Samos, ‘Samiam’ and her history according to Eratosthenes of Cyrene was found in the Annales of the old Samians.
- The seventh was from Cyme (Aliaga in the Izmir region in Modern Turkey-Note from HYGEIA), ‘Cumanam’ and her name was Amalthea. Others call her Demophilia or Herophilia. She is the sibyl who brought to Tarquin the Elder a collection of verse in nine volumes, willing to give them for the amount of three hundred golden coins.
- The eighth was the Hellespontian, ‘Hellesponticam’, from the Marpes village, near the city of Gergythos in the Trojan region. The Hellespont is the straits of Dardanelles. Heraclides Ponticus says that she lived at the time of Solon and Cyrus.
- The ninth, born in Phrygia (western central Anatolia), ‘Phrygiam‘ was living in Ancyra ( modern day Ankara).
- The tenth, named Albunea, was from Tivoli, ‘Tiburtem’. The inhabitants of the region of the river Antenus (modern day Aniene) were honoring her like a goddess: her statue, found in a deep pit, was representing her with a book in her hand.
The sibylline Books, name given to the collection of verse given by the Sibyls, are famous throughout Roman history. A college of priests was chosen for their safe-keeping them and consult them in times of trial and chaos. Their seat was at the Capitoline Jupiter temple. It is said that the books were destroyed in the fire in the temple at the time of Lucius Cornelius Sylla. The Roman hurried throughout all Anatolia and Africa to retrieve copies of sibylline books used in local sanctuaries. Aulus Gabinus, Marcus Octavius and Lucius Valerius Flaccus are known to have brought back many from their military campaigns. Augustus chose some and had them put into two chests placed at the feet of the Statue of Apollo in his freshly built temple on the Palatine Mount. In the year 399, the emperor Honorius had them burned.