Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The first woman who pronounced oracles at Delphos was called Sibylla. According to Pausanias, she was the daughter of Jupiter, and of Lamia, the daughter of Neptune, and she lived a long time before the siege of Troy. From her all women were distinguished by the name of sibyls, who, without being priestesses, or even attached to a particular oracle, announced the future, and called themselves inspired. Different ages and countries have had their sibyls, or preserved predictions which bear their name, and collections were formed of them.

The greatest embarrassment to the ancients was to explain by what happy privilege these sibyls had the gift of predicting the future. Platonists found the cause of it in the intimate union which the creature, arrived at a certain degree of perfection, might have with the Divinity. Others attribute this divine property of the sibyls to the vapors and exhalations of the caves which they inhabited. Finally others attributed the prophetic spirit of the sibyls to their sombre and melancholy humor, or to some singular malady.

St. Jerome maintained that this gift was to them a recompense for their chastity; but there was at least one very celebrated one who boasted of having had a thousand lovers without being married. It would have been much more sensible in St. Jerome and other fathers of the Church to have denied the prophetic spirit of the sibyls, and to have said that by means of hazarding predictions at a venture, they might sometimes have been fulfilled, particularly with the help of a favorable commentary, by which words, spoken by chance, have been turned into facts which it was impossible they could have predicted.

It is singular that their predictions were collected after the event. The first collection of sibylline leaves, bought by Tarquin, contained three books; the second was compiled after the fire of the capitol, but we are ignorant how many books it contained; and the third is that which we possess in eight books, and in which it is doubtful whether the author has not inserted several predictions of the second. This collection is the fruit of the pious fraud of some Platonic Christians, more zealous than clever, who in composing it thought to lend arms to the Christian religion, and to put those who defended it in a situation to combat paganism with the greatest advantage.

This confused compilation of different prophecies was printed for the first time in the year 1545 from manuscripts, and published several times after, with ample commentaries, burdened with an erudition often trivial, and almost always foreign to the text, which they seldom enlightened. The number of works composed for and against the authenticity of these sibylline books is very great, and some even very learned; but there prevails so little order and reasoning, and the authors are so devoid of all philosophic spirit that those who might have courage to read them would gain nothing but ennui and fatigue. The date of the publication is found clearly indicated in the fifth and eighth books. The sibyl is made to say that the Roman Empire will have only fifteen emperors, fourteen of which are designated by the numeral value of the first letter of their names in the Greek alphabet. She adds that the fifteenth, who would be a man with a white head, would bear the name of a sea near Rome. The fifteenth of the Roman emperors was Adrian, and the Asiatic gulf is the sea of which he bears the name.

From this prince, continues the sibyl, three others will proceed who will rule the empire at the same time; but finally one of them will remain the possessor. These three shoots were Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius, and Lucius Verus. The sibyl alludes to the adoptions and associations which united them. Marcus Aurelius found himself sole master of the empire at the death of Lucius Verus, at the commencement of the year 169; and he governed it without any colleague until the year 177, when he associated with his son Commodus. As there is nothing which can have any relation to this new colleague of Marcus Aurelius, it is evident that the collection must have been made between the years 169 and 177 of the vulgar era.

Josephus, the historian, quotes a work of the sibyl, in which the Tower of Babel and the confusion of tongues are spoken of nearly as in Genesis; which proves that the Christians are not the first authors of the supposition of the sibylline books. Josephus not relating the exact words of the sibyl, we cannot ascertain whether what is said of the same event in our collection was extracted from the work quoted by Josephus; but it is certain that several lines, attributed to the sibyl, in the exhortations found in the works of St. Justin, of Theophilus of Antioch, of Clement of Alexandria, and in some other fathers, are not in our collection; and as most of these lines bear no stamp of Christianity, they might be the work of some Platonic Jew.

In the time of Celsus, sibyls had already some credit among the Christians, as it appears by two passages of the answer of Origen. But in time sibylline prophecies appearing favorable to Christianity, they were commonly made use of in works of controversy with much more confidence than by the pagans themselves, who, acknowledging sibyls to be inspired women, confined themselves to saying that the Christians had falsified their writings, a fact which could only be decided by a comparison of the two manuscripts, which few people are in a situation to make.

Finally, it was from a poem of the sibyl of Cumea that the principal dogmas of Christianity were taken. Constantine, in the fine discourse which he pronounced before the assembly of the saints, shows that the fourth eclogue of Virgil is only a prophetic description of the Saviour; and if that was not the immediate object of the poet, it was that of the sibyl from whom he borrowed his ideas, who, being filled with the spirit of God, announced the birth of the Redeemer.

He believed that he saw in this poem the miracle of the birth of Jesus of a virgin, the abolition of sin by the preaching of the gospel, and the abolition of punishment by the grace of the Redeemer. He believed he saw the old serpent overthrown, and the mortal venom with which he poisoned human nature entirely deadened. He believed that he saw that the grace of the Lord, however powerful it might be, would nevertheless suffer the dregs and traces of sin to remain in the faithful; in a word, he believed that he saw Jesus Christ announced under the great character of the Son of God.

In this eclogue there are many other passages which might have been said to be copies of the Jewish prophets, who apply it themselves to Jesus Christ; it is at least the general opinion of the Church. St. Augustine, like others, has been persuaded of it, and has pretended that the lines of Virgil can only be applied to Jesus Christ. Finally, the most clever moderns maintain the same opinion.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01