All ancient societies — not just the biblical Hebrews — looked to prophecy and divination to insure that their beliefs and activities were consistent with the will of God, or the gods.
Among the Romans, no prophetess was more important or famous than the Sibyl, the title of a prophetic office always held by a woman. Throughout the ancient world at different times there were many women who were said to have been Sibyls, including a legendary Jewish Sibyl, the daughter-in-law of Noah who lived at the time of the Tower of Babel.
For the Romans, however, the most venerated Sibyl prophesied from a sacred temple-cave at Cumae, near the modern city of Naples.
The importance of Sibylline oracles in Roman society dates back to the very beginnings of Roman history.
According to legend, King Tarquinius Priscus (early sixth century B.C.) was approached by an old woman who brought with her nine scrolls. These scrolls contained the prophecies of the Sibyl, for which the old woman demanded 300 gold pieces. Tarquinius, thinking the woman a fraud and despising this gift of the gods, refused to pay the outrageous sum.
Thereupon the old woman burned three of the scrolls in a nearby fire, then turned again to the king and asked 300 gold pieces for the remaining six. Convinced that the old woman was mad, Tarquinius again refused, upon which the crone burned three more scrolls, again demanding the same 300 gold pieces for the final three. Suddenly realizing that the woman was the Sibyl herself, Tarquinius agreed to pay the sum.
The three surviving scrolls of the Sibyl were thereafter carefully preserved in the Capitoline temple of Rome as the most sacred books of the Romans.
These oracles were regularly consulted for prophetic guidance in major policy decisions by a quorum of 10 special priests. However, the Romans always realized that they lacked the original complete collection of oracles, and that their interpretations were, therefore, potentially fallible.
The pagan Sibyl of Cumae was thought to have prophesied under the inspiration of Apollo, the god of divination, whose priestess she was. She continued to prophesy at Cumae for many centuries — obviously, this was a succession of priestesses — and collections of her later oracles were added to the original three ancient scrolls purchased by Tarquinius.
The most famous description of the oracle of the Sibyl comes from Virgil’s “Aeneid” (6.35ff). After demanding the sacrifice of seven bulls and seven ewes from the hero Aeneas, Sibyl entered into an ecstatic state.
“As she spoke neither her face nor hue went untransformed, nor did her hair stay neatly bound: her breast heaved, her wild heart grew large with passion. She seemed taller to their eyes, sounding now no longer like a mortal, since she had felt the god’s power breathing near.” Thereupon, under the inspiration of Apollo, she prophesied of the future of Aeneas and the divinely ordained founding of Rome.
One would have expected this pagan prophetess to have been rejected and denounced by Christians and Jews. And many of them did, in fact, denounce and reject her. Many Christians regarded the pagan gods as demons, and their priests and priestesses as servants of the devil.
Other early Christians, however, interpreted some of the Sibylline oracles as inspired prophecies of the coming of Christ, especially Virgil’s fourth “Eclogue,” which was thought to have been a poetic prophecy based on a Sibylline oracle. The Christians quoted passages from these oracles to their pagan rivals as proof that even the pagans’ own sacred books prophesied of Christ.
The Sibylline oracles thus began to be seen by many Christians as having been, at least in part, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and they were quoted by many early Christian apologists and church fathers, including Augustine.
In this role, the Sibyl appears in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel murals side by side with the prophets of the Old Testament as an authentic prophet of Christ, illustrating the worldwide scope of his redemptive mission to all humankind.
This Christian acceptance of some of the Sibyl’s prophecies guaranteed their partial survival, although the extant books of the Sibylline oracles were heavily edited and interpolated by both Christians and Jews.
The remarkable history of the Sibyls is recounted in H. W. Parke, “Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy” (Routledge, 1988). The surviving 14 books of Christianized Sibylline oracles have been translated in James Charlesworth's, “The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” (1983), 1:317-472.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.