At Delphi it was the Pythia who spoke for the god Apollo – ‘prophet’ or prophetess’ originally meaning ‘spokesperson’. At Cumae it was the similarly Apollonian Sibyl and at Siwah in Egypt another sibyl, supposedly of the line of Poseidon and related to Nile, spoke for Zeus-Ammon. The first two were real women and, unusually for much of the ancient world, women who had power. They were actually a succession of women who filled the ‘office’ of Pythia or Sibyl ( although it is said that the most famous of the latter was granted extra long life and lived until very old, shrunken and wizened ). They certainly helped determine policy. As Cicero says of the Delphic Pythia, there wasn’t a important decision taken in the ancient Greek world without consulting her.
My temple guide in ‘Oracle’ explains, ‘All the peoples of the Mediterranean world made precious offerings here, even the Great Pharaoh of Egypt’. Many of the consultations were well documented – people poured over the Pythia’s previous declarations to see how accurate, or otherwise, she was. Anyone of a sceptical turn of mind might think this accounted for the especially ‘cryptic’ nature of her advice which could, therefore, be interpreted in many ways. Her most famous prediction was probably that given to King Croesus of Lydia ( the Croesus who was so rich that his name became a byword for wealth – ‘as rich as Croesus’ ). Croesus, who had clearly hoped to find favour with the Pythia by sending her vast quantities of gold, was pondering whether or not to invade the neighbouring kingdom of Persia, then ruled by Cyrus. She advised him that, should he do so, he would destroy a great empire. Croesus duly launched his campaign in 547 BCE. After some inconclusive fighting, Cyrus defeated Croesus at Thymbria in 546 and Croesus took refuge in his capital of Sardis. The Siege of Sardis resulted in his capture and the Persians went on to annex Lydia. It was then clear that the empire which the Pythia foresaw Croesus destroying was his own.
The Pythia was right to be circumspect. It was said that when she refused to answer Alexander the Great’s question about how he could conquer the world he dragged her from the temple by her hair and she screamed ‘Now you are invincible!’. He dropped her, saying ‘Now I have my answer.’ At least he did her no lasting damage – it would have been too great a sacrilege. In 67 CE, however, the Emperor Nero, already a matricide, visited the Oracle and was told to get out, his presence offended the God and that the number 73 would be his downfall. Nero had the Pythia burnt alive. He thought the prophecy meant he would have a long reign and die aged 73. In fact his reign was short and he was deposed by Galba who was, at that time, 73 years old, a rather neat fact given the Pythia’s prediction.
The Pythia’s fame was assured and she features in drama, poetry, histories and other writings from about the sixth century BCE onwards ( although there was a priestess of legend supposedly at Delphi before then ). The Sibyl of Cumae may not have been quite as well known, but she had her adherents too, especially in the Roman period, and legendary stories grew up around her. The most famous was probably that involving Tarquin, the supposed last king of Rome, and the Sybilline books. An unknown woman arrived in Rome and offered to sell the king nine books of prophesies. Given the enormous sum she asked for them Tarquin refused to buy. She burnt three of them and asked the same price for the remaining six. Again Tarquin refused and she burned another three. Only three books remained, but Tarquin relented and bought them, for the original asking price for the nine. At which point the woman disappeared and the books were stored in the temple of Capitoline Jove on the Capitol. They were burned in a subsequent fire.
The Cumaean Sibyl features in Virgil’s Aeniad and she was visited by the Emperor Augustus. After the fire on the Capitol Tacitus tells us that Augustus ordered that any Sybilline prophecies found elsewhere in the empire should be collected together and sent to Rome where they were held in honour. In legend the Sybil grew very old and, shrivelling in size, was eventually kept in a jar until only her voice remained.
The Sybil at Siwah is less well documented, more of a legendary figure and is sometimes called the Libyan Sybil, but the Oracle there is well known. Siwah too was visited by Alexander the Great after his conquest of Egypt and though history doesn’t record how he treated the people there, it does say he went away content. The Siwah Oracle, wisely, forbade its supplicants from discussing what the Oracle had said, which pre-empted the examination of its prophesies which other prophetic Oracles were subject to. Unfortunately this also means we don’t have the wonderful stories about this oracle that we have about the other two. The legendary Sybil at Siwah was supposedly the daughter of Lamia, herself the daughter of Poseidon, God of the sea ( and she appears in Euripides play, Lamia ).
These prophetic women were in a long tradition. There were originally nine Grecian sybils of legend ( as opposed to real ones ) and many other less formal prophetesses or seers, in Greece and everywhere else. One such was Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy, who, Homer says, foresaw the Trojan War and advised her fellow citizens not to bring the wooden horse inside Troy’s walls. She was, in legend, granted second sight by Apollo, but, when she refused his sexual advances was cursed with never being believed. She appears in drama and literature from ancient times to the present day and, it will not have gone unnoticed, shares a name with my heroine Cassandra Fortune. That Cassandra isn’t a prophetess, but, as a detective, can ‘see’ things which others miss. At least that’s my story.
The three matching images of sybils in this post are painted by Michaelangelo and can be found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.