Commentary by Hovak Najarian
The Delphic Sibyl (detail from the Sistine Chapel), fresco, 1509, Michelangelo, 1475-1564
In Greek mythology, Gaia (mother earth) assigned a very large serpent called Python to guard the shrine at Delphi; the shrine’s location was believed to be the navel of the earth. Apollo killed the serpent and claimed the shrine as his own. The serpent rotted and the place became known as Pytho (Greek: meaning “rot”). The prophetesses at Apollo’s shrine were called, “Pythia” and there was a prevalent belief that the spirit of the dead serpent, Python, was still there and spoke through them. In Acts (16:16), a fortune telling slave girl was described as having “…a spirit of Python.” This was to say she was like the prophetesses at Delphi.
In the ancient world, a sibyl (Greek: meaning “prophetess”) was a woman who was believed to have the ability to foretell the future. Sibyls were the subject of legends and myths, and stories about them varied. Their origins were obscure. The Delphic Sibyl was said to have been the daughter of an immortal nymph and a sea monster. Other sources say she was thought to be a sister or daughter of Apollo. She was known to make her prophecies in the precinct of Apollo but she was not the same as Pythia, the priestess at the oracle. Sibyls sometimes remained in a particular locale but others were known to wander from place to place and live in caves.
Among Christians, sibyls were regarded as pagans yet when their prophecies coincided with those of biblical prophets their words tended to be acknowledged. The belief that Jesus came for everyone – gentiles as well as Jews – led early Christians to interpret particular prophecies as signs, even when they were from non-Christian sources. Also, events that a non-believer might regard circumstantial were interpreted as part of God’s plan; e.g. Because Roman Emperor Augustus called for a census, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as was prophesied. The Magi (pagan foreigners) brought gifts for the infant Jesus, thus supporting the belief that Christ came for everyone.
Among the sibyls, five of them made prophecies that were interpreted as having a connection to the coming of Christ. Michelangelo included these five among the prophets pictured on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. One of them, the youthful Delphic Sibyl, is holding the scroll on which her prophecy has been written and she has turned her head in what seems to be anticipation or expectation. Perhaps she is responding to a prophetic voice that will speak through her. Like the other sibyls, the Delphic Sibyl is placed in a painted architectural setting. Behind her on either side are caryatids; figures that serve as columns. A youth is directly behind her reading prophecies.
Sibyls may seem inappropriate among biblical images but their inclusion on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel reflects the teaching that God works through many sources. The five sibyls on the ceiling represent a diverse geographic area. They are from Africa, Asia, Greece and Ionia.
Hovak Najarian © 2013