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CHAPTER III

THE CUMĘAN SIBYL

A part of the monotonous coast-line of Palestine extends into the Mediterranean considerably beyond the rest at Carmel. In this bluff promontory the Holy Land reaches out, as it were, towards the Western World; and like a tie-stone that projects from the gable of the first of a row of houses, indicating that other buildings are to be added, it shows that the inheritance of Israel was not meant to be always exclusive, but was destined to comprehend all the countries which its faith should annex. The remarkable geographical position of this long projecting ridge by the sea - itself a symbol and prophecy - and its peculiar physical features, differing from those of the rest of Palestine, and approximating to a European type of scenery, early marked it out as a religious spot. It was held sacred from time immemorial; an altar existed there long before Elijah's discomfiture of the priests of Baal; the people were accustomed to resort to the sanctuary of its "high place" during new moons and Sabbaths; and to its haunted strand came pilgrims from distant regions, to which the fame of its sanctity had spread. One of the great schools of the prophets of Israel, superintended by Elisha, was planted on one of its mountain prominences. The solitary Elijah found a refuge in its bosom, and came and went from it to the haunts of men like one of its own sudden storms; and in its rocky dells and dense thickets of oaks and ever[89]greens were uttered prophecies of a larger history and a grander salvation, which transcended the narrow circle of Jewish ideas as much as the excellency of Carmel transcended the other landscapes of Palestine.

To this instance of striking correspondence between the peculiar nature of a spot and its peculiar religious history in Asia, a parallel may be found in Europe. A part of the long uniform western coast-line of Italy stretches out into the Mediterranean at Cumę, near the city of Naples. Early colonists from Greece, in search of a new home, found in its bays, islands, and promontories a touching resemblance to the intricate coast scenery of their own country. On a solitary rock overlooking the sea they built their citadel and established their worship. In this rock was the traditional cave of the Cumęan Sibyl, where she gave utterance to the inspirations of pagan prophecy a thousand years before St. John received the visions of the Apocalypse on the lone heights of the Ęgean isle. The promontory of Cumę, like that of Carmel, typified the onward course of history and religion - a great advance in men's ideas upon those of the past. The western sea-board is the historic side of Italy. All its great cities and renowned sites are on the western side of the Apennines; the other side, looking eastward, with the exception of Venice and Ravenna, containing hardly any place that stands out prominently in the history of the world. And at Cumę this western tendency of Italy was most pronounced. On this westmost promontory of the beautiful land-the farthest point reached by the oldest civilisation of Egypt and Greece-the Sibyl stood on her watch-tower, and gazed with prophetic eye upon the distant horizon, seeing beyond the light of the setting sun and "the baths of all the western stars" the dawn of a more wonderful future, and dreamt of a—

"Vast brotherhood of hearts and hands,
Choir of a world in perfect tune."

Cumean SibylCumę is only five miles distant from Puteoli, and[90] about thirteen west of Naples. But it lies so much out of the way that it is difficult to combine it with the other famous localities in this classic neighbourhood in one day's excursion, and hence it is very often omitted. It amply, however, repays a special visit, not so much by what it reveals as by what it suggests. There are two ways by which it can be approached, either by the Via Cumana, which gradually ascends from Puteoli along the ridge of the low volcanic hills on the western side of Lake Avernus, and passes under the Arco Felice, a huge brick arch, evidently a fragment of an ancient Roman aqueduct, spanning a ravine at a great height; or directly from the western shore of Lake Avernus, by an ancient road paved with blocks of lava, and leading through an enormous tunnel, called the Grotta de Pietro Pace, about three-quarters of a mile long, lighted at intervals by shafts from above, said to have been excavated by Agrippa. Both ways are deeply interesting; but the latter is perhaps preferable because of the saving of time and trouble which it effects.

The first glimpse of Cumę, though very impressive to the imagination, is not equally so to the eye. Crossing some cultivated fields, a bold eminence of trachytic tufa, covered with scanty grass and tufts of brushwood, rises between you and the sea, forming part of a range of low hills, which evidently mark the ancient coast-line. On this elevated plateau, commanding a most splendid view of the blue, sunlit Mediterranean as far as Gaeta and the Ponza Islands, stood the almost mythical city; and crowning its highest point, where a rocky escarpment, broken down on every side except on the south, by which it can be ascended, the massive foundations of the walls of the Acropolis may still be traced throughout their whole extent. Very few relics of the original Greek colony survive; and these have to be sought chiefly underneath the remains of Roman-Gothic and medieval dynasties, which successively occupied the place, and partially obliterated each other, like the different layers[91] of writing in a palimpsest. Time and the passions of man have dealt more ruthlessly with this than with almost any other of the renowned spots of Italy. Some fragments of the ancient fortifications, a confused and scattered heap of ruins within the line of the city walls, and a portion of a fluted column, and a single Doric capital of the grand old style, supposed to belong to the temple of Apollo, on the summit of the Acropolis, are all that meet the eye to remind us of this home of ancient faith and prophecy. In the plain at the foot of the rock is the Necropolis of Cumę, the most ancient burial-place in Italy, from whose rifled Greek graves a most valuable collection of archaic vases and personal ornaments were obtained and transferred to the museums of Naples, Paris, and St. Petersburg; but the tombs themselves have now been destroyed, and only a few marble fragments of Roman sepulchral decoration scattered around indicate the spot. And not far off, partially concealed by earth and underwood, may be seen the ruins of the amphitheatre, with its twenty-one tiers of seats leading down to the arena.

You look in vain for any trace of the sanctuary of the most celebrated of the Sibyls. Her tomb is pointed out as a vague ruin a short distance from the Necropolis, among the tombs which line the Via Domitiana; and Justin Martyr and Pausanias both describe a round cinerary urn found in this spot which was said to have contained her ashes. The tufa rock of the Acropolis is pierced with numerous dark caverns and labyrinthine passages, the work of prehistoric inhabitants, which have only been partially explored on account of the difficulty and danger, and any one of which might have been the abode of the prophetess. A larger excavation in the side of the hill facing the sea, with a flight of steps leading up from it into another smaller recess, and numerous lateral openings and subterranean passages, supposed to penetrate into the very heart of the mountain, and even to communicate with Lake Fusaro, is pointed out by the local[92] guides as the Sibyl's Cave, which, as Virgil tells us, had a hundred entrances and issues, from whence as many resounding voices echoed forth the oracles of the inspired priestess. But we are confused in our efforts at identification; for another cavern bore this name in former ages, which was destroyed by the explosion of the combustible materials with which Narses filled it in undermining the citadel. This, we have reason to believe, was the cave which Justin Martyr visited more than seventeen hundred years ago, and of which he has left behind a most interesting account. "We saw," he says, "when we were in Cumę, a place where a sanctuary is hollowed in the rock—a thing really wonderful and worthy of all admiration. Here the Sibyl delivered her oracles, we were told by those who had received them from their ancestors, and who kept them even as their patrimony. Also, in the middle of the sanctuary, they showed us three receptacles cut in the same rock, and in which, they being filled with water, she bathed, as they said, and when she resumed her garments, she retired into the inner part of the sanctuary, likewise cut in the same rock, and there being seated on a high place in the centre, she prophesied." But after all you do not care to fasten your attention upon any particular spot, for you feel that the whole place is overshadowed by the presence of this mysterious being; and rock, and hill, and bush are invested with an air of solemn majesty, and with the memory of an ancient sanctity.

Nature has taken back the ruins of Cumę so completely to her own bosom, that it is difficult to believe that on this desolate spot once stood one of the most powerful cities of antiquity, which colonised a large part of Southern Italy. A sad, lonely, fateful place it is, haunted for ever by the gods of old, the dreams of men. A silence, almost painful in its intensity, broods over its deserted fields; hardly a living thing disturbs the solitude; and the traces of man's occupancy are few and faint. The air seems heavy with the breath of the malaria; and[93] no one would care to run the risk of fever by lingering on the spot to watch the sunset gilding the gloom of the Acropolis with a halo of kindred radiance. Every breeze that stirs the tall grasses and the leaves of the brushwood of the dismantled citadel has a wail in it; the long-drawn murmur of the peaceful sea at the foot of the hill comes up with a melancholy cadence to the ear; and even on the beautiful cyclamens and veronicas that strive to enliven the ruins of the temples of Apollo and Serapis, emblems of the immortal youth and signs of the renewing power of Nature as they are, has fallen the gray shadow of the past. Each pathetic bit of ruin has about it the consciousness of an almost fabulous antiquity, and by its very vagueness appeals more powerfully to the imagination than any historical associations. "Time here seems to have folded its wings." In the immemorial calm that is in the air a thousand years seem as one day. Through all the dim ages no feature of its rugged face has changed; and all the potent spell of summer noons can only win from it a languid smile of faintest verdure. The sight of the scanty walls and scattered bits of Greek sculpture here take you back to the speechless ages that have left no other memorials of their activity. What is fact and what is fable it were difficult to tell in this far-away borderland where they seem to blend. And I do not envy the man who is not deeply moved at the thought of the simple, old-world piety that placed a holy presence in this solitary spot, and of the tender awe with which the mysterious divinity of Cumę was worshipped by generations of like passions and sorrows with ourselves—whose very graves under the shadow of this romantic hill had vanished long ages before our history had begun.

bust of JupiterEvery schoolboy is familiar with the picturesque Roman legend of the Sibyl. It is variously told in connection with the elder and the later Tarquin, the two Etruscan kings of Rome; and the scene of it is laid by some in Cumę - where Tarquinius Superbus spent the[94] last years of his life in exile - and by others in Rome. But the majority of writers associate it with the building of the great temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. Several prodigies, significant of the future fate of Rome and of the reigning dynasty, occurred when the foundations of this temple were dug and the walls of it built. A fresh human head, dripping gore, was found deep down beneath the earth, which implied that this spot was destined to become the head of the whole world; and hence the old name of the "Saturnine Hill" was changed to the "Capitoline." All the gods who had been worshipped from time immemorial on this hill, when consulted by auguries, gave permission for the removal of their shrines and altars in order that room might be provided for the gigantic temple of the great Ruler of the gods, save Terminus and Youth, who refused to abandon the sacred spot, and whose obstinacy was therefore regarded as a sign that the boundaries of the city should never be removed, and that her youth would be perpetually renewed. But a still more wonderful sign of the future of Rome was given on this occasion. A mysterious woman, endowed with preternatural longevity - believed to be no other than Deiphobe, the Cumęan Sibyl herself, the daughter of Circe and Gnostus, who had been the guide of Æneas into the world of the dead - appeared before Tarquin and offered him for a certain price nine books, which contained her prophecies in mystic rhyme. Tarquin, ignorant of the value of the books, refused to buy them. The Sibyl departed, and burned three of them. Coming back immediately, she offered the remaining six at the same price that she had asked for the nine. Tarquin again refused; whereupon the Sibyl burned three more volumes, and returning the third time, made the same demand for the reduced remnant. Struck with the singularity of the proceeding, the king consulted the augurs; and learning from them the inestimable preciousness of the books, he bought them, and the Sibyl forthwith vanished as mysteriously as she[95] had appeared. This legend reads like a moral apothegm on the increasing value of life as it passes away.

Whatever credence we may attach to this account of their origin - or rather, whatever sediment of historical truth may have been precipitated in the fable - there can be no doubt that the so-called Sibylline books of Rome did actually exist, and that for a very long period they were held in the highest veneration. They were concealed in a stone chest, buried under the ground, in the temple of Jupiter, on the Capitol. Two officers of the highest rank were appointed to guard them, whose punishment, if found unfaithful to their trust, was to be sewed up alive in a sack and thrown into the sea. The number of guardians was afterwards increased, at first to ten and then to fifteen, whose priesthood was for life, and who in consequence were exempted from the obligation of serving in the army and from other public offices in the city. Being regarded as the priests of Apollo, they had each in front of his house a brazen tripod, similar to that on which the priestess of Delphi sat.

The contents of the Sibylline books, being supposed to contain the fate of the Roman Empire, were kept a profound secret, and only on occasions of public danger or calamity, and by special order of the senate, were they allowed to be consulted. When the Capitol was burned in the Marsic war, eighty-two years before Christ, they perished in the flames: but so seriously was the loss regarded that ambassadors were sent to Greece, Asia Minor, and Cumę, wherever Sibylline inspiration was supposed to exist, to collect the prophetic oracles, and thus make up as far as possible for what had been lost. In Cumę nothing was discovered; but at Erythręa and Samos a large number of mystic verses, said to have been composed by the Sibyl, were found. Some of them were collected into a volume, after having been purged from all spurious or suspected elements; and the volume was brought to Rome, and deposited in two gilt cases at[96] the base of the statue of Apollo, in the temple of that god on the Palatine.

More than two thousand prophetic books, pretending to be Sibylline oracles, were found by Augustus in the possession of private persons; and these were condemned to be burned, and in future no private person was allowed to keep any writings of the kind. But in spite of every attempt to authenticate the books that were publicly accepted, the new collection was never regarded with the same veneration as the original volumes of Tarquin which it replaced. A certain suspicion of spuriousness continued to cling to it, and greatly diminished its authority. It was seldom consulted. The Roman emperors after Tiberius - who still further sifted it - utterly neglected the received collection; and not till shortly before the fatal battle of the Milvian Bridge, which overthrew paganism, was it again brought out, by Maxentius, for the purpose of indicating the fate of the enterprise. Julian the Apostate, in his attempt to galvanise the dead pagan religion into the semblance of life, sought to revive an interest in the Sibylline oracles, which were so closely identified with the political and religious fortunes of Rome. But his effort was vain: they fell into greater oblivion than before; and at last they were publicly burned by Stilicho, the father-in-law of the Emperor Honorius—called the Defender of Italy—whose own execution as a traitor at Ravenna shortly afterwards was considered by the pagan zealots as the just vengeance of the gods on his dreadful sacrilege.

Unlike the Jewish and Indian faiths, the Greek and Roman religions had no authoritative writings, and were not embodied in a system of elaborate dogmas. The Sibylline oracles may therefore be said to have formed their sacred scriptures, and to have served the purpose of a common religious creed in securing national unity. The original books of the Cumęan Sibyl were written in Greek, which was the language of the whole of the south of Italy at that time. The oracles were inscribed upon[97] palm leaves; to which circumstance Virgil alludes in his description of the sayings of the Cumęan Sibyl being written upon the leaves of the forest. They were in the form of acrostic verses; the letters of the first verse of each oracle containing in regular sequence the initial letters of all the subsequent verses. They were full of enigmas and mysterious analogies, founded upon the numerical value of the initial letters of certain names. It is supposed that they contained not so much predictions of future events, as directions regarding the means by which the wrath of the gods, as revealed by prodigies and calamities, might be appeased. They seemed to have been consulted in the same way as Eastern nations consult the Koran and Hafiz. There was no attempt made to find a passage suitable to the occasion, but one of the palm leaves after being shuffled was selected at random. To this custom of drawing fateful leaves from the Sibylline books-called in consequence sortes sibyllinæ—there is frequent allusion by classic authors. We know that the writings of Homer and Virgil were thus treated. The elevation of Septimius Severus to the throne of the Roman Empire was supposed to have been foretold by the circumstance that he opened by chance the writings of Lampridius at the verse, "Remember, Roman, with imperial sway to rule the people." The Bible itself was used by the early Christians for such purposes of divination. St. Augustine, though he condemned the practice as an abuse of the Divine Word, yet preferred that men should have recourse to the Gospels rather than to heathen works. Heraclius is reported by Cedrenus to have asked counsel of the New Testament, and to have been thereby persuaded to winter in Albania. Nicephorus Gregoras frequently opened his Psalter at random in order that there he might find support in the trial under which he laboured. And even in these enlightened days, it is by no means rare to find superstitious men and women using the sacred Scriptures as the old Greeks and Romans used the Sibylline[98] oracles—dipping into them by chance for indications of the Divine Will.

The Cumęan Sibyl was not the only prophetess of the kind. There were no less than ten females, endowed with the gift of prevision, and held in high repute, to whom the name of Sibyl was given. We read of the Persian Sibyl, the Libyan, the Delphic, the Erythræan, the Hellespontine, the Phrygian, and the Tiburtine. With the name of the last-mentioned Sibyl tourists make acquaintance at Tivoli. Two ancient temples in tolerable preservation are still standing on the very edge of the deep rocky ravine through which the Anio pours its foaming flood. The one is a small circular building, with ten pillars surrounding the broken-down cella, whose familiar appearance is often represented in plaster models and bronze and marble ornamental articles, taken home as souvenirs by travellers; and the other stands close by, and has been transformed into the present church of St. Giorgio. This latter temple is supposed, from a bas-relief found in it, representing the Sibyl sitting in the act of delivering an oracle, to be the ancient shrine of the Sibyl Albunea mentioned by Horace, Tibullus, and Lactantius. The earliest bronze statues at Rome were those of the three Sibyls, placed near the Rostra, in the middle of the Forum. No specimens of the literature of Rome precede the Sibylline books, except the rude hymn known as the Litany of the Arval Brothers, dating from the time of Romulus himself, which is simply an address to Mars, the Lares, and the Semones, praying for fair weather and for protection to the flocks. And it is thus most interesting to notice that the two compositions which lay at the foundation of all the splendid Latin literature of later ages were of an eminently religious character.

One of the most remarkable things connected with the pagan Sibyls were the apocryphal Jewish and Christian prophecies to which they gave rise. When the sacred oak of Dodona perished down to the ground, out of its roots sprang up a fresh growth of fictitious prophetic[99] literature. This literature emanated from different nationalities and different schools of thought. It combined classical story and Scripture tradition. Most of it was the product of pre-Christian Judaism, and seemed to have been composed in times of great national excitement. The misery of the present, the prospect still more gloomy beyond, impelled its authors to anxious inquiries into the future. The books were written, like the genuine Sibylline books, in the metrical form, which the old Greek tradition had consecrated to religious use; and their style so closely resembled that of the Apocalypse and the Old Testament prophecies, that some pagan writers who accepted them as genuine did not hesitate to say that the writers of the Bible had plagiarised parts of their prophecies from the oracles of the Sibyls.

Few fragments of the genuine Sibylline books remain to us, and these are to be found chiefly in the writings of Ovid and Virgil, whose "Golden Age" and well-known "Fourth Eclogue" were greatly indebted for their materials to them. But we possess a large collection of the Judæo-Christian oracles, which were probably gathered together by some unknown editor in the seventh century. Originally there were fourteen books of unequal antiquity and value, but some of them have been lost. Cardinal Angelo Mai discovered in the Ambrosian Library at Milan a manuscript which contained the eleventh book entire, besides a portion of the sixth and eighth books; and a few years later, among the secret stores of the Vatican Library, he found two other manuscripts which contained entire the last four books of the collection. These were published in Rome in 1828. The best edition of all the extant books is that which M. Alexandre issued in Paris, under the name of Oracula Sibyllina. This editor exaggerates the extent of the Christian element in the Sibylline prophecies; but his dissertation on the origin and value of the several portions of the books is exceedingly interesting. The oldest book is undoubtedly the third, part of which is preserved in the writings of[100] Theophilus of Antioch, and originally consisted of one thousand verses, most of which we possess. It was probably composed at the beginning of the Maccabean period, about 146 B.C., when Ptolemy VII. (Physcon) had become king of Egypt, and the bitter enemy of the Jews in Alexandria, and when the Jewish nation in Palestine had been rejoicing in their independence, through the overthrow of the empire of the Seleucidæ by the usurper Tryphon. The fourth book was written soon after the eruption of Vesuvius in the year of our era 79, and is a most interesting record of Jewish Essenism. It contains the first anticipation of the return of Nero, but in a Jewish form, without Nero's death and resuscitation. The last of the Sibylline books seems to have been written about the beginning of the seventh century, and was directed against the new creed of Islam, which had suddenly sprung up, and in its fierce fanaticism was carrying everything before it. In this apocalyptic literature—the last growth of Judaism—the voice of paganism itself was employed to witness for the supremacy of the Jewish religion. It embraces all history in one great theocratic view, and completes the picture of the Jewish triumph by the prophecy of a great Deliverer, who shall establish the Jewish law as the rule of the whole earth, and shall destroy with a fiery flood all that is corrupt and perishable. In these respects the Jewish Sibylline oracles have an interesting connection with other apocryphal Jewish writings, such as the Fourth Book of Esdras, the Apocalypse of Henoch, and the Book of Jubilees; and they may all be regarded as attempts to carry down the spirit of prophecy beyond the canonical Scriptures, and to furnish a supplement to them.

So highly prized was this group of apocryphal Jewish oracles by the primitive Christians, that several new ones were added to them by Christian hands which have not come down to us in their original state. They were regarded as genuine productions, possessing an independent authority which, if not divine, was certainly[101] supernatural; and some did not hesitate even to place them by the side of the Old Testament prophecies. In the very earliest controversies between Christians and the advocates of paganism, they were appealed to frequently as authorities which both recognised. Christian apologists of the second century, such as Tatian, Athenagoras, and very specially Justin Martyr, implicitly relied upon them as indisputable. Even the oracles of the pagan Sibyl were regarded by Christian writers with an awe and reverence little short of that which they inspired in the minds of the heathen themselves. Clement of Alexandria does not scruple to call the Cumęan Sibyl a true prophetess, and her oracles saving canticles. And St. Augustine includes her among the number of those who belong to the "City of God." And this idea of the Sibyl's sacredness continued to a late age in the Christian Church. She had a place in the prophetic order beside the patriarchs and prophets of old, and joined in the great procession of the witnesses for the faith from Seth and Enoch down to the last Christian saint and martyr. In one of the grandest hymns of the Roman Catholic Church, composed by Tommaso di Celano at the beginning of the fourteenth century, there is an allusion to her, taken from the well-known acrostic in the last judgment scene in the eighth book of the Oracula Sibyllina

"Dies iræ, dies illa,
Solvet sæclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla."

The strange Italian mystic of the fifteenth century, Pico della Mirandola, who sought to reconcile the Christian sentiment with the imagery and legends of pagan religion, rehabilitated the Sibyl, and consecrated her as the servant of the Lord Jesus. And he was but a specimen of the many humanists of that age who believed that no oracle that had once spoken to living men and women could ever wholly lose its vitality. Like the Delphic Pythia, old, but clothed as a maiden, the ancient Sibyl appeared[102] to them in the garments of immortal youth, with the charm of her early prime.

The dim old church of Ara Coeli in Rome, which occupies the site of the celebrated temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, and in which Gibbon conceived the idea of his great work on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is said to have derived its name from an altar bearing the inscription, "Ara Primogeniti Dei," erected in this place by Augustus, to commemorate the Sibylline prophecy of the coming of our Saviour. She was a favourite subject of Christian art in the middle ages, and was introduced by almost every celebrated painter, along with the prophets and apostles, into the cyclical decorations of the Church. Every visitor to Rome knows the fine picture of the Sibyls by Pinturicchio, on the tribune behind the high altar of the Church of St. Onofrio, where Tasso was buried; and also the still grander head of the Cumęan Sibyl, with its flowing turban by Domenichino, in the great picture gallery of the Borghese Palace. But the highest honour ever conferred upon the Sibyls was that which Michael Angelo bestowed when he painted them on the spandrils of the wonderful roof of the Sistine Chapel. These mysterious beings formed most congenial subjects for the mystic pencil of the great Florentine, and therefore they are more characteristic of his genius than almost any other of his works. He has painted them along with the greater prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jonah, in throne-like niches surrounding the different incidents of the creation. They look like presiding deities, remote from all human weaknesses, and wearing on their faces an air of profound mystery. They are invested, not with the calm, superficial, unconscious beauty of pagan art, but with the solemn earnestness and travail of soul characteristic of the Christian creed, wrinkled and saddened with thought and worn out with vigils; and are striking examples of the truth, that while each human being can bear his own burden, the burden of the world's mystery and[103] pain crushes us to the earth. The Persian Sibyl, the oldest of the weird sisterhood, to whom the sunset of life had given mystical lore, holds a book close to her eyes, as if from dimness of vision; the Libyan Sibyl lifts a massive volume above her head on to her knees; the Cumęan Sibyl intently reads her book at a distance from her dilated eyes; the Erythræan Sibyl, bareheaded, is about to turn over the page of her book; while the Delphic Sibyl, like Cassandra the youngest and most human-looking of them all, holds a scroll in her hand, and gazes with a dreamy mournfulness into the far futurity. These splendid creations would abundantly reward the minute study of many days. They show how thoroughly the great painter had entered into the history and spirit of these mysterious prophetesses, who, while they bore the sins and sorrows of a corrupt world, had power to look for consolation into the secrets of the future.

Very beautiful was this reverence paid to the Sibyl amid all the idolatries of paganism and the corruptions of later Judaism. We may regard it as a relic of the early piety of the world. One who could pass over the interests and distractions of her own time, and fix her gaze upon the distant future, must have seemed far removed from the common order of mankind, who live exclusively in the present, and can imagine no other or higher state of things than they see around them. Standing as the heirs of all the ages on this elevated vantage-ground and looking back upon the long course of the centuries—upon the eventful future of the Sibyl, which is the past to us—it seems a matter of course that the world should have spun down the ringing grooves of change as it has done; and we fancy that this must have been obvious to the world's gray fathers. But though the age of the Sibyl seemed the very threshold of time, there was nothing to indicate this to her, nothing to show that she lived in the youth of the world, and that it was destined to ripen and expand with the process of the suns. The same horizon that bounds us in these last days, bound[104] her view in these early days; and things seemed as fully developed and stereotyped then as now, and to-morrow promised to be only a repetition of to-day. To realise, therefore, that the world had a future, and to take the trouble of thinking what would happen a thousand years off, indicated no common habit of mind.

And we are the more impressed by it when we consider the spots bewitched by the spell of Circe where it was exercised. That persons dwelling in lonely, northern isles, where the long wash of the waves upon the shore, and the wild wail of the wind in mountain corries stimulated the imagination, and seemed like voices from another world, should see visions and dream dreams, does not surprise us. The power of second sight may seem natural to spots where nature is mysterious and solemn, and full of change and sudden transitions from storm to calm and from sunshine to gloom. But at Cumę there is a perpetual peace, an unchanging monotony. The same cloudless sky overarches the earth day after day, and dyes to celestial blue the same placid sea that sleeps beside its shore. The fields are drowsy at noon with the same stagnant sunshine; and the same purple glory lies at sunset on the entranced hills; and the olive and the myrtle bloom through the even months with no fading or brightening tint on leaf or stem; and each day is the twin of that which has gone before. Nature in such a region is transparent. No mist, or cloud, or shadow hides her secrets. There is no subtle joy of despair and hope, of decay and growth, connected with the passing of the seasons. In this Arcadian clime we should expect Nature to lull the soul into the sleep of contentment on her lap; and in its perpetual summer happy shepherds might sing eclogues for ever, and, satisfied with the present, have no hope or wish for the future. How wonderful, then, that in such a charmed lotus-land we should meet with the mysterious unrest of soul, and the fixed onward look of the Sibyl to times widely different from her own.

[105]

And not only is this forward-looking gaze of the Sibyl contrary to what we should have expected in such a changeless land of beauty and ease; it is also contrary to what we should have expected from the paganism of the people. It is characteristic of the Greek religion, as indeed of all heathen religions, that its golden age should be in the past. It instinctively clings to the memory of a former happier time, and shrinks from the unknown future. Its piety ever looks backward, and aspires to present safety or enjoyment by a faithful imitation of an imaginary past. It is always "returning on the old well-worn path to the paradise of its childhood," and contrasting the gloom that overhangs the present with the radiance that shone on the morning lands. In every crisis of terror or disaster it turns with unutterable yearnings to the tradition of the happy age. Or, if it does look forward to the future, it always pictures "the restoration of the old Saturnian reign"; it has no standard of future excellence or future blessedness to attain to, and no yearnings for consummation and perfection hereafter. The very name given to the south of Italy was Hesperia, the "Land of the Evening Star," as if in token of its exhausted history; and it was regarded as the scene of the fabled golden age from which Saturn and the ancient deities had been expelled by Jupiter. But contrary to this pagan instinct, the Cumęan Sibyl stretched forward to a distant heaven of her aspirations and hopes—to a nobler future of the world, not sentimental and idyllic, but epic and heroic. She pictured the blessing or restoration of this earth itself as distinct from an invisible world of happiness. And in this respect she is more in sympathy with the Jewish and Christian religions than with her own. The golden age of the Hebrews was in the future, and was connected with the coming of the Messiah, who should restore the kingdom again unto Israel. And the characteristic of the Christian religion is hope, the expectation of the times of the restitution of all things, and the realisation of the "one far-off divine event to which the whole[106] creation moves." It is this hopeful element pervading them that gives to the lively oracles of Holy Scripture the triumphant tone which distinguishes them so markedly from the desponding spirit of all false religions, ancient and modern.

The subject of the Sibyl brings us to the vexed question of the connection between pagan and Hebrew prophecy. How are we to regard the vaticinations of the heathen oracle? That the great mass of the Sibylline books is spurious is glaringly obvious. But there is a primitive residuum which seems to remind us that the spirit of early prophecy still retained its hold over human nature amid all the corruptions of heathendom, and secured for the Sibyl a sacred rank and authority. We have seen with what reverence the greatest fathers of the Christian Church regarded her. While there was undoubtedly much delusion and deception, conscious or unconscious, mixed up with it, we are constrained at the same time to acknowledge that there was some reality in this prophetic element of paganism, which cannot be explained away as the result of mere political or intellectual foresight or accidental coincidence. It was not all imposture. As a ray of light is contained in all that shines, so a ray of God's truth was reflected in what was best in this pagan prophecy. The fulfilment of many of the ancient oracles cannot be denied without a perversion of all history. There was no doubt an immense difference between the Hebrew prophets and the pagan Sibyl. The predictions of the Sibyl were accompanied by strange fantastic circumstances, and wore the appearance of a blind caprice or arbitrary fate; whereas the announcements of the Hebrew prophets, founded upon the denunciation of moral evil and the reign of sacred and peremptory principles of righteousness in the world, were calm, dignified, and self-consistent. But we cannot, notwithstanding, deny to pagan prophecy some share in the higher influence which inspired and moulded Hebrew prophecy. The apostle of the Gentiles took this view when he called[107] Epimenides the Cretan a prophet. The Bible recognises the existence of true prophets outside the pale of the Jewish Church. Balaam, the son of Beor, was a heathen living in the mountains beyond the Euphrates; and yet the form as well as the substance of his prophecy was cast into the same mould as that of the Hebrew prophets. He is called in the Book of Numbers "the man whose eyes are open;" and God used this power as His organ of intercourse with and influence upon the world. The grand record of his vision is the first example of prophetic utterance respecting the destinies of the world at large; and we see how the base and grovelling nature of the man was overpowered by the irresistible force of the prophetic impulse within him, so that he was constrained to bless the enemies he was hired to curse. And in this respect he represents the purest of the ancient heathen oracles; and his answer to Balak breathes the very essence of prophetic inspiration, and is far in advance of the spirit and thought of the time, reminding us of the noble rebuke of the Cumęan Sibyl to Aristodicus, and of the oracle of Delphi to Glaucus.

God did not leave the Gentile nations without some glimpses of the truth which He had revealed so fully and brightly to His own chosen people. While He was the glory of His people Israel, we must not forget that He was a light to lighten the Gentiles. He gave to them oracles and sibyls, who had the "open eye," and saw the vision of the years, and witnessed to a light shining in the darkness, and brought God nearer to a faithless world. Beneath the gross external polytheism of the multitude there were deep, primitive springs of godliness, pure and undefiled, working out their manifestation in noble lives; and those who have ears to hear can listen to the sound of these ancient streams as they flow into the river of life that makes glad the city of our God. We gain immensely by considering the prophetical spirit of Israel as a typical endowment, and the training of the Jews in the household of God, and under His own im[108]mediate eye, as the key to the right apprehension of the training of Greece and Rome. The unconscious prophecies of heathendom pointed in their own way, as well as the articulate divine prophecies of Israel, to the coming of Him who is the Desire of all nations, and the true Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. The wise men of Greece saw the sign of the Son of Man in some such way as the Magi saw the star in the East. They were, according to Hegel's beautiful comparison, "Memnons waiting for the day." And not without deep significance did the female soothsayer from the oracle of Dionysius, the prophet-god of the Macedonians, whom Paul and Silas met when they first landed on European soil, greet them with the words, "These men are the servants of the most high God, which show unto us the way of salvation." In that wonderful confession we recognise the last utterance of the oracle of Delphi and the Sibyl of Cumę, as they were cast out by a higher and truer faith. Their mission was accomplished and their shrine deserted when God's way was known upon the earth, and His saving health among all nations.

"And now another Canaan yields
To thine all-conquering ark;
Fly from the 'old poetic fields,'
Ye Paynim shadows dark!
Immortal Greece, dear land of glorious lays,
Lo! here the unknown God of thine unconscious praise.
"The olive wreath, the ivied wand,
'The sword in myrtles drest,'
Each legend of the shadowy strand
Now wakes a vision blest;
As little children lisp, and tell of heaven,
So thoughts beyond their thoughts to those high bards were given."


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