The word sibyl comes from the Greek term sibylla, meaning prophetess. Legends of the sibyls have been known since ancient times. In the beginning, their prophecies were foretold at holy sites, often under the influence of a particular deity. In later times sibyls lived like wanderlusts, traveling with their predictions and followers from one place to another.
The earliest Greek writer known to mention a sibyl is Heraclitus, who writes in fragment 92 of his work: “The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.”
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It is unclear how many women are labelled in history as just one sibyl. Roman writers usually refer to sibyls with names that refer to the location of their shrine. However, both Heraclitus and Plato speak of only one sibyl.
Over the course of time, the number of sibyls increased to ten. According to Lactantius’ Divine Institutions (which was written in the 4th century AD, quoting from a lost work of Varro from the 1st century BC) these ten sibyls were: The Persian, The Libyan, The Hebrew, The Delphic, The Cumaean, The Erythraean, The Samian, The Hellespontine, The Phrygian, and The Triburtine Sibyl.
Three of the most famous sibyls throughout their long career were the Delphic, the Cumaean, and the Erythraean. Nonetheless, not all of them were securely identified with an oracular shrine and hearth. In the vague and shifting Christian picture there is some overlap in the accounts of sibyls.
But for the Romans the most mysterious and impressive sibyl was the tenth – the Tiburtine Sibyl. She was probably Etruscan in origin and became one of the most legendary women of ancient Etruria.
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The Tenth Sibyl’s Famous Prediction
To the group of classical nine sibyls of the Hellenistic and Middle Eastern world, the Romans added a tenth one. She was called the Tiburtine Sibyl. Her seat was the ancient Sabino-Latin town of Tibur (modern Tivoli). Although the most famous monuments of Tivoli come from the 16th century, Tibur in her times was the same wonderful garden of beautiful buildings and landscapes. It was also the location of the legendary meeting of Augustus with the sibyl.
According to legend, the reason behind the encounter was that Augustus wanted her to answer whether he should be worshiped as a god, or not. Later the story of this meeting became a favored motif of Christian artists. Although it is not completely certain whether the sibyl in question was the Etruscan Sibyl of Tibur or the Greek Sibyl of Cumae, the Christian author Lactantius had no hesitation in identifying the sibyl in question as the Tiburtine Sibyl, and many scholars have concurred.
Lactantius gave a circumstantial account of the sibyls that is useful as a guide to their identification. According to him, The Tiburtine Sibyl’s name was Albunea. She was worshiped at Tibur as a goddess and her shrine was located near the banks of the Anio.
Legends say that she always held a book in her hand and her oracular responses were transferred by the Senate into the capitol. Her famous work was written circa 380 AD but it did not become widely known until there were revisions and interpolations added at later dates. The content of this text describe an Emperor named Constans vanquishing the foes of Christianity and bringing about a period of great wealth and peace, ending paganism, and converting the Jews. The prophecy became famous in ancient times, mostly because of a single sentence:The king of the Romans will claim the whole Christian empire for himself.
The Apocalypse Prophecy
Thus, the prophecy became a bestseller of its times. The ancient text is an interpretation of the Tiburtine Sibyl’s dream in which she foresees the downfall and apocalyptic end of the world. The content was so shocking that for centuries readers were scared of what they imagined to be the impending image of 9 suns appearing in the sky, with each one uglier and more bloodstained than the last. These suns were supposed to represent the 9 generations of mankind and their procession was thought to end with Judgment Day.