The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
The Sibylline Books
Books of Magic and Witchcraft
The ancient prophetesses known as the Sibyls were once rivaled only by those from Delphi. Solitary prophetesses, the various Sibyls existed in various locations; the most famous, and the only one for whom archeological evidence currently exists, is known as the Cumaean Sibyl because she prophesied from a cave near the town of Cumae (now Cuma) overlooking the Bay of Naples. At some point, for whatever reason, the Cumaean Sibyl decided to close up shop, but apparently thought the king of Rome might wish to preserve her prophecies. In 525 BCE, the Cumaean Sibyl presented herself to Tarquin the Proud, last king of Rome, ruler from 534—510. Despite her modern acclaim, he was unfamiliar with her, or perhaps he was expecting someone more impressive. She offered to sell him nine books revealing the future destiny of the world for 300 pieces of gold. She was small, bent over, shabby, and extremely aged, a veritable hag and the king perceived her as senile. He laughed at her and dismissed her.
Sometime later, the Sibyl returned to the king, offering to sell him six books revealing the future of the world for the same price as the nine. Now Tarquin was convinced she was deranged; he mocked her and sent her away. Sometime later, the Sibyl returned for the third time, carrying only three books now, for which she demanded the same 300 gold pieces. Something about her finally impressed the king and he asked to see the books. When he looked them over, he immediately recognized their value, paid the asking price and demanded to buy the other six. The Sibyl had the last laugh; she told Tarquin that she had burned them and promptly disappeared and was never seen again.
Whether one believes that story or not, The Sibylline Books existed. We know this because documentation survives regarding how they were stored, edited and finally destroyed.
Three books came directly from the Sibyl. Tarquin tremendously regretted not purchasing all nine. He ordered the entire College of Priests to recreate the other six as closely as possible. Envoys were sent to other Sibyls in other areas to obtain information. They did the best they could; however an aura of doubt remained as to whether all the crucial information had been retrieved. According to legend, because of Tarquin’s failure Rome was fated to never know its future.
These books were once Rome’s most heavily guarded treasure. The Sibylline Books were kept in a closely guarded vault beneath the Capitoline Temple of Jupiter where they were consulted by the College of Priests. The senate decreed that The Sibylline Books could only be consulted in cases of dire national emergency or before any momentous decision. Even the high priests were not permitted to examine them without receiving special authorization from the Senate. Anyone who attempted to defy this decree was to be sewn into a sack and tossed into the Tiber River.
In 204 BCE, when the Romans found themselves unable to defeat Hannibal of Carthage, The Sibylline Books were consulted. The books foretold victory if the sacred meteor representing the goddess Kybele, then housed in what is now Turkey, be brought to Rome and installed in a temple built for Kybele. History proved this prophecy correct.
Some information as to what was contained in The Sibylline Books survives. Some of it was agricultural information, similar to a modern almanac. There were also instructions for ending plagues and a description of the apocalyptic end of the world, which sounds remarkably like a description of nuclear disaster.
In 83 BCE, a tremendous fire destroyed the Temple of Jupiter and The Sibylline Books burned with it. Once again envoys were sent to various oracles in order to reproduce the texts as closely as possible. The Roman hysteria that greeted Egyptian Queen Cleopatra’s love affairs with Roman leaders derived partly from rumors that The Sibylline Books had prophesied her eventual takeover of Rome. In 18 BCE, Cleopatra’s nemesis Augustus Caesar had a second copy of the books made to protect against loss. During the process, he had one or both copies of The Sibylline Books carefully edited to erase all passages he deemed unacceptable.
Magic, prophecy, and mystery religions were increasingly unpopular in Rome. In 13 BCE, Augustus Caesar burned two thousand magical scrolls. Owning a magical book became a capital offense. Those who wished to preserve their books as well as their lives hid their libraries. The Sibylline Books were preserved but they fell out of fashion and were rarely consulted. Eventually the Roman Emperor Claudius established laws protecting diviners and prophets, including the Etruscan priests known as haruspices. He persuaded the Roman Senate to establish a library housing various writings on Etruscan religion and spirituality. Among the texts preserved in this library were The Sibylline Books.
Magic, prophecy, and mystery religions became even less popular once Christianity became Rome’s official religion. However, for a while The Sibylline Books were tolerated, and even respected, because it was believed that the Cumaean Sibyl had foretold the birth of Christ. Attempts were also made to utilize the Sibylline prophecies to their best advantage. Thus we know of the apocalyptic prediction because Christians later wrote of it, explaining that although others would perish, they would survive to live forever in the Kingdom of God. However, The Sibylline Books were ultimately Pagan works and exceptions would not long be made for them.
In 405 CE, the Christian general and acting regent, Flavius Stilicho, burned The Sibylline Books as heretical texts offensive to Christianity, along with Claudius’ entire library of Etruscan books devoted to divination, magic, religion, and spirituality, only stopping to scrape the gold from the doors of the Temple of Jupiter.
Because there were at least two copies of The Sibylline Books and because near the end they weren’t as closely guarded as they had been in their heyday, rumors persist that a copy of The Sibylline Books is secretly kept in the Vatican Library of Forbidden Books.