The term Sibyl represents alleged prophetesses who were consulted in ancient Greece and Rome. They apparently prophecized in ecstasy, under the temporary possession of Apollo. The Oxford Classical Dictionary notes that
Originally the Sibyl seems to have been a single prophetic woman, but by the time of Heraclides (1) Ponticus… a number of places claimed to be the birthplace of Sibylla, traditions concerning a number of different Sibyls began to circulate, and the word came to be a generic term rather than a name.¹
Ten Sibylline oracles have been recorded by history. The best known Sibyl is said to have resided in a cave at Cumea, near Naples—The Cumean Sibyl.
These prophetic works were taken to Rome, where they were guarded by two nobles. Extended volumes of Sibylline books survived into the 4th century CE.
M. C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers relate a story about the Cumaean Sibyl where the god Apollo asks what she would want in return if he were to make love with her. She asks for a lifespan equal in years to the number of grains in a heap of sand. It turns out there are 1,000 grains of sand. She forgot, however, to ask for youthfulness, so grew wickedly old and miserable, wishing only to die.²
Another famous Sibyl lived in Erythia in Asia, “The Erythian Sibyl.”
Sibyls appear in Christian art and literature. Early Christian interest in the Sibylline oracles raised them to a status comparable to the Old Testament Prophets. As Celia E. Schultz puts it:
The fact that many of the Sibylline oracles touch on Christian and Jewish themes is a reflection of the popularity of the Sibyl as a prophet of the Messiah for early Christian writers.³
In 1973 a popular novel, Sibyl, was written by Flora Rheta Schreiber based on the life of Shirley Ardell Mason, a woman diagnosed with so-called multiple personality disorder (MPD). In 1976 the book was made into a film with Sally Field as Sibyl.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, at least two other novels have been entitled Sibyl.
¹ “Sibyl” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary: Oxford University Press 1996, 2000 CD ROM version.
² Concise Companion to Classical Literature, Oxford 1996, p. 493.
³ Schultz, Celia E. “Sibyls and the Sibylline Books.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. : Oxford University Press, 2010. Oxford Reference. 2010. Date Accessed 16 Nov. 2015 http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726-e-1162.
The plethora of images listed below shows that, although closed down as an institution, the idea of the Sibyls continues to fascinate and inspire through the centuries.