Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Christmas Sybil...

Dies irae dies illa,
Solvet saeclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.

I have often wondered to whom Thomas of Celano referred with these staves, and why the Sybil ranks alongside King David in import to him. Does he mean the Cumaean Sybil, who foretold (according to a reading of Virgil's Fourth Eclogue) the coming of the Saviour? (My old Latin teacher, herself a practicing Roman Catholic, told me of this many years ago, and told me to reject such reading as revisionist and fanciful). However, he may have been familiar with the so-called Sibilline Oracles which were a set of Christian writings imitating the pagan Sibillline Books. It's interesting nonetheless, that something so familiar should go unnoticed by hosts of people who go to Masses of the Dead.

In ancient days, in temples and caves, there dwelt wise women, the legendary seeresses of antiquity, who lived under the influence of the gods, and to whom men came from far and wide for counsel and prophecy. We call these women Sibyls, from the Greek σίβυλλα which means ''prophetess.'' One such Sibyl dwelt at the ancient Etruscan town of Tibur (modern day Tivoli), about fifteen miles north east of Rome. Her temple (which still stands to this day) stood in the midst of a sacred grove, the streams of which flowed out into the Tiber.

Augustus Caesar met with the Tiburtine Sibyl on the very afternoon of our Lord's Nativity. The story is to be found in Jacobus de Voragine's 13th century Golden Legend, and goes:

'' is what Pope Innocent III tells us: in order to reward Octavian for having established peace in the world, the Senate wished to pay him the honours of a god. But the wise Emperor, knowing that he was mortal, was unwilling to assume the title of immortal before he had asked the Sibyl whether the world would some day see the birth of a greater man than he.

Now on the day of the Nativity the Sibyl was alone with the emperor, when at high noon, she saw a golden ring appear around the sun. In the middle of the circle stood a Virgin, of wondrous beauty, holding a Child upon her bosom. The Sibyl showed this wonder to Caesar; and a voice was heard which said: "This woman is the Ara Cæli!"

And the Sibyl said to him: "This Child will be greater than thou."

Thus the room where this miracle took place was consecrated to the Holy Virgin; and upon the site the church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli stands today. However, other historians recount the same event in a slightly different way. According to them, Augustus mounted the Capitol, and asked the gods to make known to him who would reign after him; and he heard a voice saying: "A heavenly Child, the Son of the living God, born of a spotless Virgin!" Whereupon Augustus erected the altar beneath which he placed the inscription: ''This is the altar of the Son of the living God.''


  1. As I'm sure you know, the Sybil is also referred to in the sequence of Christmas 'Laetabundus' - which never made the Tridentine missal, though is standard in Sarum and related usages.

    Given the politically incorrect nature of the sequence, I can't see it becoming popular again any time soon.

  2. Where did/are you going to Mass for Christmas Patricius?

  3. I've heard Laetabundus sung by the schola at Mass, not as a Sequentia, of course, but as an hymn to fill up empty space. I can't recall anything politically incorrect in it: what would that be?

  4. Thank you, Patrici, for this interesting posting on the Sybil. I own a fantastic book written in italian, by a journalist, an agnostic, who set out to investigate the claim that Jesus is God. In his book, he takes into account not only the prophecie of the hebrew prophets, but also those of the Sybil and of other Roman seers, those of the ancient Greek philosophers and of several other ancient peoples. It seems that the whole world was longing for the Saviour, not only the jews. That the original promise of His future birth was never forgotten by mankind, and, as a seminal proto-revelation was to be found in their writings, if one only looked. At the end of his research, the author had been thoroughly convinced by the evidence, and became a believer in the Incarnation of God: Jesus Christ. I have forgotten the book's title and the name of its author, but i do have the book somewhere here at home, and shall now try to find it.

  5. "Esaias cecinit,
    Synagoga meminit;
    Numquam tamen desinit
    Esse caeca.
    Si non suis vatibus,
    Credat vel gentilibus,
    Sibyllinis versibus
    Haec praedicta:
    Infelix, propera,
    Crede vel vetera:
    Cur damnaberis, gens misera?"

  6. Iuventutem London, I went to the church of Our Lady of the Rosary at Blackfen for Mass at Midnight.

  7. ''Synagoga meminit; Numquam tamen desinit
    Esse caeca.''
    David, i now see your point.

    ''Synagoga meminit; Numquam tamen desinit
    Esse caeca. Etc.'' I see your point now, David. I never pay as much attention to the sung word as to the written word. However politically incorrect since the Second Vatican Concil, the words still are true: the jews are blind to the messianic prophecies.