OF THE GREEK SIBYLS
When almost the whole earth was filled with
oracles, there were old maids, who, without
belonging to any temple, thought proper to
prophesy upon their own account. They were
called Sibyls, a Greek word of the Laconian
dialect, which signified "The Council of
God." According to antiquity, there were ten
principal Sibyls in different countries.
The story of the woman, who came to Rome and
brought the elder Tarquin the nine books of
the ancient Sibyls of Cumaea, is well known.
As Tarquin bargained too much, the old woman
threw the first six books into the fire, and
insisted upon as much money for the three
remaining ones as she had asked for the nine
all together. Tarquin paid her. They were,
it is said, preserved at Rome, till the time
of Sylla, when they were consumed in the
conflagration of the Capitol.
But how could the prophecies of the Sibyls be
dispensed with? Three senators were dispatched
to Erythea, a city of Greece, where a thousand
bad Grecian verses were carefully kept, because
they were reputed to be the production of the
Sibyl of Erythea. Everyone was anxious to
obtain copies of them; the Sibyl of Erythea
had foretold every thing. Her prophecies were
considered in the same light as those of
Nostradamus with us. Upon every remarkable
event, some Greek verses were forged, which
were attributed to the Sibyl.
Augustus, who had just reason to fear that in
these rhapsodies some verses would be met with
that authorized conspiracies, forbade, upon
pain of death, any Roman to keep Sibylline
verses by him: a prohibition worthy of a
suspicious tyrant, who, by address, preserved
a power usurped by crimes.
The Sibylline verses were in greater esteem
than ever when the reading of them was forbidden.
They must needs have contained truth, as they
were concealed from the people.
Virgil, in his eclogue upon the birth of Pollio,
or Marcellus, or Drusus, failed not to cite the
authority of the Sibyl of Cumaea, who had fairly
foretold that the child, who should soon after
die, would restore the golden age. The Sibyl of
Erythea had, as it was then said, prophesied at
Cumaea. The prediction of the new-born infant
belonging to Augustus, or to his favorite, must
necessarily have taken place. Besides, predictions
are never made but for the great; the vulgar are
unworthy of them.
These oracles of the Sibyls, being then always
in great repute, the first Christians being too
much carried away by false zeal, imagined that
they might forge similar oracular predictions,
in order to defeat the Gentiles with their own
arms. Hermas and St. Justin are reputed the first
who supported this imposture. St. Justin cites
the oracles of the Sibyl of Cumaea, promulgated
by a Christian, who had taken the name of Istapus,
and pretended that his Sibyl had lived in the
time of the deluge. St. Clement of Alexandria,
in his Stromates, assures us that the apostle
St. Paul recommends in his Epistles, "the reading
of the Sibyls, who have manifestly foretold the
birth of the Son of God."
These epistles of St. Paul must necessarily be
lost; for none of these words, nor any like them,
are to be found in any of the epistles of St. Paul
now extant. An infinite number of books, which
we are now no longer possessed of, were then
dispersed amongst the Christians, such as the
prophecies of Jallabash, those of Seth, Enoch,
and Kamla; Adam's Penances; the History of
Zachariah, father to St. John; the evangelist
of the Egyptians, the evangelist of St. Peter,
of Andrew, of James, the evangelist, of Eve,
Apocalypse of Adam, the letters of Jesus Christ,
and a hundred other writings, of which scarce
any fragments remain; and these are buried in
books that are very rarely read.
The Christian religion was then divided into
a Jewish society, and a Non-jewish society.
These two were subdivided into many others.
Whoever was possessed of any degree of talents
wrote for his party. There were upwards of
fifty gospels till the Council of Nice; and
at present, there remain only those of the
Virgin, of the Infancy, and of Nicodemus.
Verses attributed to the Sibyls were frequently
forged. Such was the respect the people paid
to these Sibylline oracles, that this foreign
support was judged necessary to strengthen the
dawn of Christianity. Not only Greek Sibylline
verses were made, which foretold Jesus Christ;
but they were formed in acrostics, so that
the letters of these words, "Jesous Christos
ios Soter," followed each other at the beginning
of every verse. Among these poems we meet this
"With five loaves and two fishes,
He will feed five-thousand men in the desert,
And in gathering up the fragments that remain,
He will fill twelve baskets."
They did not confine themselves to this: it was
imagined that the sense of the verses of the
fourth Eclogue of Virgil might be turned in favor
"Ultima Cumaei venit jam carminis aetas;
Jam nova progenies coelo demittitur alto."
"The time of Sibyls are at last arrived,
A new progeny descends from above the skies."
This opinion was so current in the first ages of
the church, that the emperor Constantine vehemently
supported it. When an emperor spoke he was surely
in the right. Virgil was, for a long time, considered
as a prophet. The oracles of the Sibyls were at
length so thoroughly believed, that in one of our
hymns, which is not very ancient, we have these
two remarkable verses:
"Solvet saeclum in favilla
Teste David cum Sibylla."
"The world to ashes he will reduce,
In proof -- David and the Sibyl we adduce."
Amongst the productions attributed to the Sibyls,
the Millennium was particularly esteemed, and
which was adopted by the fathers of the church,
till the time of Theodosius the Second.
This Millennium of Jesus Christ upon earth, was
at first founded on the prophecy of St. Luke
(chap. xxi.) a prophecy that has been misunderstood,
"that Jesus would come in the clouds with great
power and majesty, before the present generation
was gone." The generation had passed; but St. Paul
had also said in his first epistle to the Thessalonians,
chap. iv., "For this we say unto you, by the word
of the Lord, that we which are alive, and remain
unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent
them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall
descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice
of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and
the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we which
are alive and remain shall be caught up together
with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the
air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord."
It is very strange that Paul says that the Lord
himself spoke unto him; for Paul, so far from
having been one of the disciples of Christ, had
for a long time been one of his persecutors.
Though he might be one, the Apocalypse also
said, chap. xx. "that the just should reign upon
earth for a thousand years with Jesus Christ."
It was therefore every moment expected that
Jesus Christ would descend from heaven to
establish his reign, and rebuild Jerusalem,
wherein the Christians were to rejoice with
This new Jerusalem was foretold in the Apocalypse.
"I John, saw the new Jerusalem, which descended
from heaven, decked out like a bride. -- It had
a large and high wall, twelve gates, and an angel
at each gate -- twelve foundations. -- whereon
are to be inscribed the names of the apostles
of the lamb -- He that spake unto me had a golden
fathom to measure -- the city, the gates, and
the wall. The city is a square building, twelve
thousand furlongs in circumference; its length,
breadth, and height, are all equal. -- He also
measured with it the wall, which is a hundred
and forty-four cubits high -- this wall was
made of jasper, and the city was made of gold,
This prediction might have sufficed; but a
voucher was thought necessary, who was a Sibyl,
and made to say nearly the same things. This
belief was so strongly imprinted on the people's
minds, that St. Justin in his Dialogue against
Tryphon says, "he is convinced, and that Jesus
is to come into that Jerusalem, and drink and
eat with his disciples."
St. Irenaeus so completely adopted this opinion,
that he attributes these words to St. John the
Evangelist. "In the new Jerusalem every vine shall
produce ten thousand branches, and every branch
ten thousand buds, and every bud ten thousand
bunches, and every bunch ten thousand grapes,
and every grape ten thousand amphors of wine.
And when any of the holy vintagers shall gather
a grape, the next grape shall say to him, take
me, I am better than him."
It was not sufficient that the Sibyl had predicted
those miracles, -- there were witnesses of their
being fulfilled. Tertullian relates that the
new Jerusalem was seen forty successive nights
to descend from heaven.
Tertullian expresses himself thus: "We confess
that the kingdom is promised to us for a thousand
years upon earth, after the resurrection in the
city of Jerusalem brought down from heaven thither."
Thus has a love of the marvelous, and a desire
of hearing and relating extraordinary things,
at all times, perverted common sense, and banished
reason. Thus has fraud been brought into play,
when force could not be produced. The Christian
religion was, in other respects supported by such
solid reasons, that all this jumble of errors
could not shake it. The pure gold was extracted
from this alloy, and the church, by degrees,
arrived at the state where we now see it.