BMCR 2004.11.17

La Sibylle: Parole et représentation. Collection “Interférences”

, , Sibylle. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2004. 1 online resource. ISBN 9782868478795 €23.00 (pb).

“Day of Wrath! Upon that day, the world will melt in the twinkling of an eye, as David prophesied and the Sibyl!” ( Dies Irae! dies illa / Solvet saeclum in favilla / Teste David cum Sibylla!). Thus opens the often-quoted mid-13th-century Gregorian-derived sequence, a chiliastic Latin poem for the dead by Thomas of Celano (perhaps better known as St. Francis’ first biographer).1 The Sibyl’s name here seems quite natural, though perhaps surprising for moderns. What has a mythological priestess, prophetess and erstwhile sorceress to do with the dark days of the Last Judgment and Jesus’ forgiveness? How can Augustine’s world history ( De civ. Dei, xviii. 23) embrace the (Erythraean? Cumaean?) “sibylline testimonies,” or the prophecies of Christ’s coming referenced by Lactantius? Should Dante, writing after 1300, mention in the same breath ( Paradiso, xxxiii) St. Bernard, the Virgin Mary, the heavenly Beatrice and as well the sentenza di Sibilla (Sibyl’s oracles)? Who is this mysterious, seemingly sempiternal and ubiquitous personage?

Oracular pronouncements by a woman divinely possessed presumably occurred first in archaic times, somewhere in Asia Minor, and the emblematic figure of the all-knowing and mysterious Sibyl triumphs during the Italian Renaissance; she continued to provoke echoes and “reactualizations,” down to the Symbolist theater at end of the 19th century. Even her many names or designations beg for explanation — Amalthea, Deiphobe, Phemonoe, Amphrysia, Démophile, Hérophile, Sabbathion, Sambethes, Sabitu, and her numerous reincarnations range from a canonical ten to an early modern twelve (Cumana, Cymeria, Delphica, Erythraea, Hellespontia, Libyca, Persica, Phrygia, Samia, Tiburtina, and also Agrippa and Europaea).

These fascinating and successive metamorphoses — heathen seer born into antique polytheism, knowledge and wisdom keeper, “de-heathenized” diviner revived for monotheistic or millenarian ends — are tracked here by twenty-one scholars (all but four from France) who presented at a Université de Rennes conference on the subject in October 2001.2 Most of the papers are brief (between 8-14 pages), three run a bit longer, which suggests a lively meeting of literary, historical, and musical specialists willing to abbreviate their findings, yet the results remain mostly limpid.

I am listing below the titles and authors, adding my evaluative comments to each paper, seriatim and en passant, each grouped here arbitrarily in twos or threes.

Under prophetic speech, three essays reach back to the Etruscan era and the next ten point forward to texts of Apollonius, Virgil, Ovid, Statius, and Servius, among many others authors invoked, Hellenistic or otherwise. The Sibyl’s song, speech and image are covered in two other studies (transmission and interpretation of early medieval music, as well as Orlando de Lassus’s Christological exploitation of the image). Other papers concern themselves with the famed Sibylline Oracles, deal with the figure’s appropriation by Constantine, explore high medieval vernacular parody or dissection of the character, and also discuss the figure’s later exploitation (by Christine de Pizan or by Renaissance humanists).

The volume is introduced by the editors, who analyze the contents retrospectively, themselves surprised at the diversity and fecundity of the subject, and the book ends with a most useful and almost-exhaustive fifteen-page bibliography and discography.

C. Février, “Le Double language de la Sibylle: De l’oracle grec au rituel romain,” queries the ancient Sibylline Books in terms of their function as remedial or as oracular, whether politicized early on by the Tarquins or later by Caesar Augustus, and as genuine interpretations of wonders or as vindicating divinations. Charles Guittard, “Reflets Étrusques sur la Sibylle, “Libri Sibyllini” et “Libri Vegoici”, examines the possible links between the Etruscan nymph Vécu, Végoia or Bégoé (Servius, ad Aen. VI. 72) and Sibylline prophecy. The best example he offers arises from Servius’ use of the Libri fulgurales which predicted eternal glory and renown for whomever lightning would touch with its breath (Servius Auct., Aen. II. 649). Thus Iulus…

Jacqueline Champeaux, “Figures romaines de la Sibylle,” suggests that the name became a kind of generic name for a curious figure or fanatical virgin, descending from the convulsive deliriums of the pythoness of Delphi, alluded to or described by writers as diverse as Varro, Tibullus, Livy, Lucan, Plutarch, and John Chrysostom. Citing the Cimmerian, Erythraean, Cumaean Sibyls, among others, Champeaux points out, “Virgil consolidated into one character with a strong identity, a multiform (and thus fragmentary) seer inherited from antiquity” (p. 47). Christophe Cusset, “Cassandre et/ou la Sibylle: Les Voix dans l’ Alexandra de Lycophron,” scrutinizes this hugely obscure and dark poem in which he perceives an assimilation of Priam’s virgin daughter, known for her enigmatic pronouncements, to the Sibyl, each associated with an underground dwelling. Irish scholar Damien P. Nelis, “La Sibylle et Médée: Virgile et la tradition argonautique,” peruses the Argonautica and, with cross-referencing from critics E. Norden and Hugh Lloyd-Jones, adduces striking verbal parallels between Jason’s Medea and Virgil’s Sibyl: each was a priestess of Hecate (Sibyl also of Apollo), each linked to catabatic traditions, and behind them both stand Homeric Circe and Calypso.

Albert Foulon, “Sibylles élégiaques,” surveys, with respect to the topic, the textual traditions of Tibullus and Ovid, preferring the inventiveness of the former, even though the poet only mentions four of the ten (or twelve) Sibyls known to Varro. Alain Deremetz, “La Sibylle dans la tradition épique à Rome: Virgile, Ovide et Silius Italicus,” depicts the priestess as she appears in three epic poems, the Aeneid, Metamorphoses and Punica. For this scholar, Virgil’s forecaster becomes merely a disembodied voice for Ovid, a rakish minx for Silius. Conclusion? The Sibyl plays a double role in poetry and prophecy: as augur of the hero’s destiny and as a poetic model that illustrates authorial textual ties (p. 82). Françoise Morzadec, “Stace et la Sibylle: Rivalité littéraire autour de la louange de Domitien, La Silve IV, 3,” delineates the elements that inspired Statius to embed imperial panegyric within a descriptive and visionary speech by the Sibyl ( Silvae, IV. 3, vv. 124-163), if only to conjoin realistic and imaginative elements in his “privileged praise space” (p. 93).

Sabina Crippa (U. Bologna) draws on the Sibyl’s unique character as emphasized by Heraclitus, Plato and Pausanius, but nevertheless stresses the priestess’s dual features of oral chant *and* written prophecies, supporting her argument with many occurrences noted of the former. Monique Bouquet, “La Sibylle servienne, guide de l’exégèse moderne?” delves into what she terms the “depoetized” famous commentary (p. 109). For Servius, she reports, the Sibyl can be “any girl whose heart receives divine inspiration” (p. 110). Bouquet argues that Servius functioned as a glossarist for Virgil, just as the Sibyl functioned as an interpreter for Apollo (p. 117), that the Servian commentary possibly drew on Aeolian sources, while hinting that the Sibyl served as a “bridle for Apollo’s prophecies” (p. 112). Servius apparently followed Cicero’s De divinatione in distinguishing furor-driven vaticinators from artful soothsayers and augurs able to read lightning, for example. In that context, Servius describes as well at least three phases of divination (ad Aen. VI. 46). From Erythraea, the Sibyl leaves for Cumae in order to gain her life’s wish from Apollo (longevity), but without a body, so that only her voice remains ( in sola voce. (Cf. also Ecl.. IV, 4.

Giuseppe Ramires, “Les Additions italiennes dans l’épisode de la Sibylle de Cumes: Servius ad Aen. VI, 37-135,” observes that 15th-century Italian supplements found in certain Humanist manuscripts of Servius (e.g., Parisinus Latinus 7965, from Ferrara, dated to 1469), contain earlier interpolations, attributed to an “expert Hellenist” (p. 120). Ramires effects a hermeneutic analysis of several of these Servian texts, including that of Petrarch (the Ambrosianus), and examines preliminarily several unique glosses pertaining to the Sibyl, to conclude that a comprehensive study will doubtless make them indispensable for any new edition of Servius. Ileana Chirassi Colombo, “La Bru de Noé,” takes up Book Three of the Sibylline Oracles, which connects the Sibyl, as a “prehistoric figure” alive “before the fall of the Tower of Babel” (pp. 134-135), to Noah’s family (his daughter-in-law!). This Jewish Sibyl etymologically, lexicographically and metaphorically is“la parole de Dieu.” Alternately the daughter of Eve or of Circe, she comes to personify the Sabbath in Hellenistic times (p. 140).

Nicole Belayche, “Quand Apollon s’est tu, les Sibylles parlent encore,” surveys the challenging essentials in the Sibyl’s transformation from heathen seer to quasi-Christian prophet as her fanatical and trance-like utterances became more and more like sacred pronouncements (p. 158). The 10th-century Ripoll manuscript from St. Martial de Limoges (BNF, lat. 1154) serves as a point of departure for Marie-Noël Colette, “Le Chant de la Sibylle, composition, transmission et interprétation.” It contains “proto-aquitainian neumes” with notes on the Sibyl (p. 165), and while this particular music, however eschatological in nature, is not liturgical, Colette cites closely-linked Advent and Christmas sequences and tropes, as well as chanted Breviary prayers, devoted to the prophetess, most of which are based on a single melody — a sign of great antiquity (p. 171). Denis Hüe, “La Sibylle au théâtre,” by taking up the character as she appeared in Christmas processions of prophets (Rouen, 12th century), side by side with Isaiah and Daniel, demonstrates how Latin culture was revived and christianized in a kind of translatio fidei (p. 192), as the Sibyl’s prognosticating abilities foretold as well the Last Judgment in several 15th-century Mystery plays.

By examining the parodic elements in 13th-century Arthurian romances — the Lancelot en prose (1220-1225), Prophéties de Merlin (1276), and Livre d’Artus (1280) — Francine Mora, “La Sibylle séductrice dans les romans en prose du XIIIe siècle: une Sibylle parodique?” elucidates how the Sibyl loses her Virgilian, prophetic voice and her virginal quality (pp. 206-207). Mora begins with a telling discussion of Antoine de la Sale’s Paradis de la Reine Sibylle (mid-15th century), a curious, demonizing mockery of the character, in which her legendary and imaginative, courtly and enchanted mountain grotto on the Adriatic yields moralizing lessons; it is a fictional Eden of physical pleasures, utopic, but with an obvious palinode. Christine Ferlampin-Acher, “Sebille prophétesse et maternelle: Du monde antique au monde arthurien dans Perceforest,” shows how the Sibyl (in this 14th-century Arthurian romance), like a reborn Circe, becomes, through genealogical manipulations, converted into either King Arthur’s ancestral mother, fairy godmother, Morgan the Fay, or Lady of the Lake.

Fabienne Pomel, “La Sibylle, guide et double de Christine dans l’autre monde des lettres. Le Chemin de longue étude de Christine de Pizan,” investigates this brilliant 1403 re-working of Dante in an allegorico-feminine mode. Like Virgil for the Florentine, and as she did for Virgil in the Aeneid, Christine’s authoritative Sibyl functions subtlely, Pomel proposes, both as the author’s double, an image of bookish wisdom, writerly knowledge, and prophetic poetry, and as the ideal reader’s transcendent mirror. Emmanuel Buron, “Oracles humanistes et rumeurs de la cour: Sibyllarum duodecim oracula de Jean Rabel, Jean Dorat et Claude Binet (1586),” takes us into the Renaissance realm where poetry and prophecy became fused, the Sibyl’s iconographic attributes canonized, her number set at twelve (like the Apostles), and her prophecies co-opted by the monarchy for political propaganda.

Isabelle His, “La Sibylle en musique: D’Orlande de Lassus à Maurice Ohana,” covers musical works by Orlando de Lassus that interpret Christ’s birth, Passion and Resurrection. In this work, each of the Sibyls (now twelve — mid- to late 16th century) possesses an individual musical and iconographic mode. Three of Ohana’s 20th-century compositions include the Sibyl, now reduced to oracular “syllables or onomatopoeia,” just unintelligible vocalized shouts or murmurs (p. 263). His tells us the 1968 work is a “theatrical musical for soprano, percussion and tape recorder” (p. 262), and wonders if the French-Spanish-Moroccan composer borrowed from his polyphonic antecedent.

Anne Ducrey, “Sibylles fin de siècle,” provides several sobering final notes on a kind of resuscitation of the Sibyl in the Symbolist theater of Maurice Maeterlinck, Henri de Régnier, Alexandre Blok and Fernando Pessoa. These playwrights absorbed the incorporeal quality of Virgil’s guide, diluting the character into a “pale imitation, as if disembodied” (p. 274), who lives out a fragile and diminished life, lost in an alterity of the beyond. Such is the case particularly and typically of Les Aveugles by Maeterlinck (1890), in which none of the twelve characters possesses an identity.

One learns much in these pages about this chameleon of a mythological character, one who has survived so long in this melting world of wrath and chaos. I was delighted to see the Old French Roman d’Énéas cited a couple of times but disappointed that no paper focused on its curious “Sebille,” and no one mentioned the Livre de Sibile from ca. 1140, the oldest known vernacular (Anglo-Norman) rendering of the visionary Latin prose Tiburtine Sibyl. Nonetheless, this volume has been carefully edited and proofread. It is a quality paperback and highly recommended.


1. Online (retrieved 21 Oct. 2004).

2. “La Sibylle: parole et représentation.” Université de Rennes 2-Haute Bretagne ( online, retrieved 7 October 2004).