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Sibylline Sonnets for Advent

The sibyls were ecstatic prophetesses active from about 600 B.C. in the Greek coastlands of Asia Minor, and in Greek colonies on the west coast of Italy. A few apparent quotations from their verses exist; we know about them mostly from ancient writers who lived after sibylline prophecies had ceased. No chronology can be established with certainty, due to conflicting evidence. As well, sibyls were supposed to have thousand-year lifespans, and they claim to have prophesied events long in the past (having foreseen such things as the Trojan War when they were young). The Oracula Sibyllina found in libraries today are a 19th century compilation of texts from the Hellenistic period, and probably have little to do with sibyls in archaic Greece.

Early Christians became interested in the sibyls as Greek prophetesses to the Gentiles, corresponding to the Hebrew prophets to the Jews. When Saint Augustine (354–430) gave his opinion that sibyls, though pagan, did not support idolatry, the way was open for them to become exotic figures in the literature and art of Christian Europe. As there are twelve minor prophets in the Bible, there came to be a list of twelve sibyls who had prophesied the coming of Christ. In this group of sonnets, three sibyls make their particular prophecies, each using a different form of sonnet.

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The Libyan Sibyl

Called “Libyan” because, although she grew up in the Troad (the region around Troy) and on the Aegean island of Samos, she ultimately took charge of the oracle of Zeus-Amon at the Siwa Oasis in the western desert of Egypt. One intriguing thing about her is that her soul is supposed to be the face in the moon. “Prescious” is not a misspelling; for this poem I preferred the archaic English word to the currently used “prescient.” The Libyan sibyl’s iconographic attribute is a candle or torch, because she knew that Christ would be the Light of the World.

Sibylla Libyca is what I’m called.
My grove-nymph mother in Mount Ida’s shade
Concealed her charms when young grain-farmers strayed,
But at my father’s cottage lay enthralled.
They raised me on the Troad’s russet earth;
An island vineyard sloping toward a cove
Was ours; there muscat-drunk and shawled in mauve,
I first spoke oracles of girlish mirth.
The world aghast, I headed for the palms
Of Siwa, shadowing the prescious moon
Where smiles my soul, and slews of stars are strewn.
Along the way I heard the Hebrew psalms,
And saw a candle brighten by its flame
This darkened world, not knowing yet His Name.

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The Erythraean Sibyl

She knew about the Annunciation, in which a heavenly messenger would come to an earthly virgin with good news. Thus her attribute is a lily with a rose, symbolizing the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Erythrae on the coast of Asia Minor was the seat of the sibyl who in many ways held the primacy among them all. She is said to have prophesied that Troy would be defeated, and that Homer would tell falsehoods about the conflict. She delivered her oracles written on leaves. When the leaves were arranged correctly, the first letters on each leaf would spell out a meaningful acrostic. My sonnet spells out the Latin greeting at the Annunciation, “Ave Gratia Plena.” I could not adapt the Greek salutation to fourteen letters!

A rose and lily paint my prophecy,
Voiced now with Erythraea’s primacy,
Expressing how a virgin comes to hear
Great news a messenger will bring to cheer
Repentant men in need of reparation
Applied to sin and war’s abomination.
To tell of Troy’s destruction I was fain;
I said blind Homer fashioned falsehoods plain.
A lily, though, denotes a prominent
Prince of God’s court, requesting the consent
Life-giving of one maiden royal rose.
Engaging mystic flowers, these disclose
Noteworthy singular announcement of
A heavenly descent of wondrous love.

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The Cimmerian Sibyl

She lived on the dismal shores of Lake Averno in Italy, where the entrance to the underworld is said to be. Her attribute is a horn of milk, displaying her understanding that when Christ came, a virgin would nourish Him with milk. I focus this sonnet on both the miraculous milk and the symbolic horn, thinking of Jesus as the horn or sprout or bud of the shepherd-poet who would become King David, ancestor of Christ. “There will I bring forth a horn to David” (Psalm 131:17). David probably used doubled ram’s horns to make the frame of the stringed instrument he played so beautifully.

A bolt of energy dispels the gloom
Near Lake Averno’s atmosphere of doom,
For there a kingly sprout begins to bud.
From doubled horns, a shepherd makes a lyre,
Singing of plans to overcome hell’s fire;
My single flask secretes a milky flood,
Its virtue not inebriate quiescence,
But life and wisdom in rejuvenescence,
Nectar of healing strength and spirit’s growth,
A clarion pealing forth clear music heard
When silent earth dreamed, eager for the Word
To speak His advent’s promissory oath.
See how a virgin nourishes her Son
With milk restoring life to souls foredone.

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Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others.  


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44 Responses

  1. Paul Freeman

    As always, jaw-droppingly talented work, Margaret.

    I visited Siwa in 1988, a very atmospheric oasis. One of my enduring memories is of Egyptian soldiers (Siwa’s on the border with Libya) sitting outside a coffee shop, smoking hubbly-bubblies fashioned out of glass plasma bottles.

    As for Homer being a purveyor of fake news – who would have guessed!

    Thanks for the reads.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Paul. I had no sense of Siwa as a real place, and I am glad to hear you say that it is in fact as atmospheric as my imagination of it, if in different ways. Having looked up the controversies over the Iliad’s historicity, I see that they began with skeptics in ancient times. By the late 18th century, the epic was considered all fable, until archeology demonstrated the realities of conflict between Mycenaean Greeks and whoever the Trojans were. I recall watching a TV program in which the presenter convinced me that he had discovered Agamemnon’s grave and seen his face. Still, the Erythraean sibyl did not say everything was a lie, but the story has plenty of probably fictional details and unprovable divine interventions. The sibyl has the distinction of having predicted them, rather than judged them fake after the fact, if we consider her own story to be historic!

      Reply
  2. C.B. Anderson

    Just amazing. In the first you kept mystery in suspension until finally revealing the concrete nature of the world. I can’t account for the second, except for a desire to compose an acrostic poem to baffle the ordinary reader. The third is even more mysterious, for with the milk I wondered at the absence of honey. I know what I’ve written sounds a bit hard, but I love the Augustan tone you maintain throughout, along with the excellent execution of the demands of form.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      C. B., I will take “amazing” and “Augustan tone” as compliments. I had not thought of it, but the Augustan writers do have a lofty confidence that can demand work from their readers. Perhaps that is my attitude when I make these sibylline poems mysterious and symbolic enough to function as prophecy, while trying to ground them in the good English diction the Augustan age required. Thanks for your attention!

      Reply
  3. Cynthia Erlandson

    These are so artfully done, Margaret — so many marvelous techniques, phrases, and insights, and perfect for Advent. The acrostic of the second one shows great grace in using the limitation to benefit the poem. I love the way you brought King David into the third one, and especially love the lines: “…clear music heard / When silent earth dreamed, eager for the Word / To speak….” And the final couplets of all three seem like perfect endings!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Cynthia. I do strive especially for my poems to end well, as that counts for a great deal to me as a reader. In the words you quote, I thought of both “Silent Night” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” insofar as these Christmas carols begin with the intense expectation that develops during Advent. Of the 12 sibyls who are said to prophesy Christ, many focus on the Passion and Resurrection, but this group of three definitely merits consideration during Advent, as does the sibyl in my recent group about Samos.

      Reply
  4. Brian Yapko

    Margaret, each of these sonnets about the sibyls is a triumph. All three are rigorous in form but the details vary significantly with the Libyan in an abba cddc effe gg rhyme scheme, the Erythraean entirely as an acrostic in couplets, and the Cimmerian in a most interesting rhyme scheme of aabccbddeffegg. As each sibyl is unique, so is her voice and message.

    I find it noteworthy that you have the most senior of sibyls speaking with the most complex acrostic form and couplets which, to me, provides the greatest gravity but also room for deep hidden meaning. I also find it noteworthy that the Cimmerian Sibyl’s form is the most complicated rhyme-scheme. This is fitting for what is (to me) the most complex prophecy with references to King David (in his heavily-significant capacity as a shepherd), the Word and Virgin and Son, all from the gates of hell and with a special plan to overcome hell’s fire. This is most powerful.

    With regard to all three, it is a great joy to read of advent from the viewpoint of pagan outsiders who nevertheless had access to Truth. Thank you for a very enjoyable and meaningful read.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Brian, I can count on you to take an interest in form! These three poems are all English sonnets concluding with a couplet. The first has what I call “closed quatrains,” to distinguish them from the standard Shakespearean form of open quatrains rhyming abab cdcd efef. Evan Mantyk recently used closed quatrains in his quartet of sonnets on classical dance.

      Couplet sonnets abound in English literature, but to be good ones, they must have the sonnet volta or turn, which often occurs at line 9 even in Shakespearean sonnets that could save it for the final couplet. My turn gives my second poem the octave/sestet proportions.

      The third sonnet form is in tercets rather than quatrains. This is one of the experiments used by some Victorian sonnet writers. It’s easier to comprehend if you write the rhyme scheme with spaces, aab ccb dde ffe gg. Another possibility is abc abc def def gg. To truly take advantage of this form, there should be four elements of thought concluded by the couplet. My four tercets may be too linked in thought to be distinct, but the concluding turn is definitely at the couplet.

      You are right that the Cimmerian sibyl sonnet is the most complex. Her attribute is not just milk, but a horn of milk. I can be counted on to delve into symbolism, and I did that here with both horn and milk. I felt I could not treat the horn merely as something to carry liquid. It had to have Christological meaning, just as the Virgin’s milk shows she is a real mother, not just a body used by God to achieve the Incarnation. That’s where David, as both type of Christ and ancestor of Christ, comes in. I’m so glad you found this rich and powerful.

      Reply
  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    These are absolutely magnificent sonnets. The labor and learning that have gone into them are immense. I believe all three of these Sibyls are depicted in Michelangelo’s fresco at the Sistine Chapel, though the Cimmerian Sibyl is sometimes called the Cumaean Sibyl.

    Reply
    • Julian D. Woodruff

      In equating the Cimmerian sibyl with the Cumaean, Joseph, you may be referring to one of a few traditions. At least in the case of Lasso’s Prophetiae sibyllarum there are 12 sibyls, of which Cimmeria is no. 4 and Cumana no. 6. (If I ever knew, I’ve forgotten who composed the texts for this extraordinary set of motets.)

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Since Cumae is near Lake Avernus, the two are sometimes confused. But you are right — they are distinct Sibyls.

    • Margaret Coats

      Joseph, your high praise is deeply appreciated. Regarding the Cimmerian sibyl, modern scholar H. W. Parke believes she may have been invented by Naevius (poet and dramatist of the third century B.C.), because Naevius thought Aeneas preceded the Cumaean sibyl in time. Thus Naevius had to find another sibyl for Aeneas to consult when Aeneas wanted to descend to the underworld and speak to his deceased father. Although that may be the origin of the Cimmerian sibyl, she then took on a long life of her own, and in the Christian tradition of twelve sibyls, Cimmeria and Cumana are distinct.

      Reply
  6. Yael

    What a great way to brighten a dark and rainy day! I enjoyed reading these poems and the background history very much, thank you. The painting makes me wonder why the sybils are depicted with such gloomy facial expressions, even though the colors are bright and happy and they are wearing fancy clothing?

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Yael, I’m happy the poems and the history brightened your day! Although I found this illustration and suggested it to Evan, I do not have any idea why the women in it have unsmiling facial expressions. The painting is part of the elaborate decoration of the treasure room in the town hall of Goslar, near Hanover in Germany. It is dated 1501-1515. The large treasure room may have served as a municipal chapel, and perhaps the artist considered these expressions suitable for being in church. The woman on the right is the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, as we can see by the banner “Ave Sanctissima” (“Hail, most holy one”), and by the pearls that make her headdress richer than that of the sibyls following her. Of the four sibyls, the dark-skinned one can be identified as the Libyan sibyl. Libyca is often represented as black because of her residence in Africa, though her origin was Greek, as I said in the sonnet based on the little we know of her.

      Reply
      • Yael

        Very interesting, thank you for taking the time to provide all this info Margaret!

    • Margaret Coats

      Yael, I forgot the most obvious reason for sibyls to look gloomy. They foresee disasters, and often cannot persuade hearers to take appropriate action! This is also true of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Sorrowful Mother, and she acted as a prophet at Fatima in 1917, foretelling the end of the First World War, to be followed by a worse war, and the spread of Russia’s errors throughout the world. How much the world has suffered and is still suffering due to communism!

      Reply
  7. Julian D. Woodruff

    I love the variety of form, Margaret, and your inventiveness with words. “… souls foredone” is especially impressive. I hope there will be more.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Julian, I am fascinated to hear that Lasso composed a set of motets on the prophecies of the sibyls. I will have to try to find them and listen to them before I go on to write more sonnets. As I told Cynthia above, what each sibyl prophesied was a different aspect in the life of Christ, many of them having to do with the Passion and Resurrection. For the sonnet forms that I’ve used so far, see what I said to Brian above. My first sibylline sonnet (in “Three Perspectives from Samos,” posted November 22) was a standard Shakespearean sonnet. Thank you very much for the compliments on my artistry!

      Reply
      • Julian D. Woodruff

        Maybe I missed that earlier post, Margaret. In any case, I’m delighted to know there are more of these sonnets, and still more to come.
        If they weren’t so monumental, Lasso’s sibyline motets might be considered an aside in his output, their intense chromaticism distant from his normal (though individual) harmonic idiom.
        They come quite early in his career. At the end are his madrigals and motet on Tansillo’s Lagrime di San Pietro, which might also interest you. This collection is more typical of Lasso’s work, and a high point in the repertory of spiritual madrigals.

      • Margaret Coats

        Julian, as a supplement to your comments on the music by Orlando di Lasso (also known as Roland de Lassus), I’m letting it be known that the poems are in the Wikipedia article entitled “Prophetiae Sibyllarum.” There are also English translations of the Latin dactylic hexameters. No one seems to know who wrote the poems, but they look to me like the work of a Renaissance classical scholar. As the music is dated between 1550 and 1560, this makes sense.

  8. James Sale

    Margaret, these are very fine poems, and especially the first one: its last line is beautiful indeed. Today I am hosting a SCP zoom reading on Christmas; I hope next year I can do one themed on classical allusions – I would certainly want this poem to feature!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, James! I am honored by the suggestion that one of the sonnets might be part of a future reading. This gives me an opportunity to say that Susan Jarvis Bryant wrote half a line of it: “slews of stars are strewn” is from her poem, “Breathe,” which I saw as I was composing the sonnet. I have shown her my poem, and she was generous enough to be glad that her words could contribute to it. If that reading does happen, Susan might be willing to be the reader. I always miss the readings, as they begin at 11 am in my time zone. On Sundays, I am usually singing in church or socializing with church friends from 9 to 4! However, I have much enjoyed the videos when they come out, and I’m looking forward to the ones from today’s Christmas and New Year event.

      Reply
      • James Sale

        Well, the irrepressible SJB!! I ma sure I can ask her and also that she will do a fabulous job! She was on top form last night – the lion was roaring to get out. Thanks, Margaret. Let’s see if this can happen.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Margaret, this series of poems is an exquisite, educational delight. Each poem is beautiful read aloud and I am honored to have half a line placed in a series of perfect lines. Margaret, you have an amazing talent, and I would be more than happy to read your work at one of James’s remarkable SCP Zoom readings.

      • Margaret Coats

        Many thanks, Susan, both for your praise of my lines and for your willingness to read for me!

  9. Allegra Silberstein

    You are amazing. I had never heard of these sibylline poets and reading your translations made my day. Thank you…Allegra

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Allegra, I’m so glad you liked the poems. They are, however, imaginative originals rather than translations, because so few of any sibyl’s verses survive. The longest fragment we have is about five lines. It does tell of the sibyl herself before going on to her prophecy, and my first sonnet here is partly modeled on it. I have effectively joined the vast number of poets who, since antiquity, have been trying to re-create what the sibyls might have said!

      Reply
  10. Sally Cook

    Dear Margaret –
    Larger then life, rhey stretch the divisions thin between centuries and events. Wonderful to think they were able to perceive changes and events.
    The poems and their antecedents are magnificent.
    and of course referrence to the moon is of interestto me. I trust that you are at least a part time resident there !

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Sally! I am glad my poems give you a special view of the sibyls. I have never visited their part of the world, but about three years ago, I became interested in them and did some serious study. Evan thought introductory notes would be valuable. I put the moon in the Libyan sibyl’s sonnet because her soul is said to be the face in the moon, and because I have always been impressed with the idea of the moon over the desert, even though I have rarely seen it when I have been in the California desert. I could just imagine the moon at the Siwa Oasis taking up a huge portion of the sky, and of course stars are more numerous and more visible in isolated locations where there is less light from other sources. Hope my concept of moon and stars here may correspond in some way to yours.

      Reply
      • Sally Cook

        ******Dear Margaret –

        I believe we are fellow moon creatures. There is so much more to the moon than just a pile of dead rocks some future tourist or warlord may encounter one day. The moon, being ancient and of the earth, holds secrets, symbols, and who knows? Spirits?.

        After all, God has the whole universe to play with, and some Lunar functions have to do with plants, bodily functions and such.

        You and I could even be minor Sybils, placed at the lunar gates as guides, cautionary symbols or warnings !.

      • Margaret Coats

        I’ll identify as a moon creature in any phase, but most happily during the full moon. I see we have the Moon Before Yule coming up on Saturday, December 18. Maybe I’ll take a little more time to watch it, and look for inspiration. Hope the weather at your place is good enough for you to do the same!

  11. R M Moore

    I agree with your second response to Yael, which bears repeating:
    Yael, I forgot the most obvious reason for sibyls to look gloomy. They foresee disasters, and often cannot persuade hearers to take appropriate action! This is also true of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Sorrowful Mother, and she acted as a prophet at Fatima in 1917, foretelling the end of the First World War, to be followed by a worse war, and the spread of Russia’s errors throughout the world. How much the world has suffered and is still suffering due to communism!
    God love you,
    R

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      And you, Mrs. Moore! Thanks for taking a look at the poem and reading the commentary.

      Reply
    • Sally Cook

      Dear Margaret —
      Thanks for reminding me of the coming full moon; that also is my favorite phase. I will be watching for it, and if it is clear, as I believe at the moment it will be, will be watching for you as well. Happy Yule to all !

      Reply
  12. David Watt

    Margaret, the sibyls make wonderful themes for sonnets. However, I don’t think anyone but you could have blended learning, technique, and feeling into such shining gems.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      You are very kind, David! The sibyls are one topic in which history, mythology, art, and culture overlap, but which has not had a great deal of attention from poets. It’s an opportunity, and I’m glad to know that in your opinion I’m using it well.

      Reply
  13. Mia

    Dear Margaret,
    I scarcely know what to write about your wonderful poems and knowledge.
    Thank you for teaching me so much about Classical Greek Culture and poetry.
    As someone who was born in Cyprus and not far from Salamis, I feel truly
    indebted to you.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Mia, I was a little worried that I had written more words in explanatory notes than in poems. But since classical education has been largely abandoned, we need some information. I am glad my studies have benefited you and others. At the time of Christ, and for some time before and after, almost everyone knew about sibyls, and prophecy was so popular that people would eagerly seek out anything sibyls were supposed to have said. After the Sibylline Books carefully guarded in Rome were lost to two temple fires, the Roman government sent an embassy to Erythrae to buy or copy whatever books they could. Prophecies in Greek seemed more valuable, even if more difficult to interpret. It is too bad so little survives of the poetry actually written by the sibyls. Trying to reproduce anything similar today is a challenge involving some guesswork, but I am glad you find my efforts worthwhile.

      Reply
  14. Tom Rimer

    Dear Margaret — coming on these poems late, I had the privilege of not only encountering the texts themselves but the pleasure of reading the various comments by your many readers as well. And it goes without saying that the historical commentary is essential, since few of us know much about the sibyls.

    The poems are strikingly effective; each sibyl has her own different personality, rendered so naturally within the discreet frameworks of these complex verse forms you have selected.

    I was also excited to learn about the musical settings by Orlando de Lassus. I immediately checked around and found at amazon and elsewhere listings for several recordings. I only hope the texts are included as well.

    All in all, what a rich connection between the classical and Christian world you have shown us. That’s a grand holiday gift in itself!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Tom, I am very glad you found the poems with notes, and this long comment thread, to be of interest. I’m especially glad each sibyl seems to have her own personality. That is one thing I wanted to do, but with all the information and local atmosphere for each poem as well, it’s difficult to say how I managed it in fourteen lines each! And as I move forward with this project, I’ll have music to hear, too. As you say, there is much cultural discovery (or perhaps I should say “recovery”) to be done when we are thinking of the interweaving of classical and Christian.

      Reply
  15. Jonicis Bulalacao

    Thanks, Margaret, for these beautiful poems that really help us get into the spirit of the season.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      And thank you, Joni. The sibyls, with the place they have gained in art and literature, emphasize the idea of Jesus as the “Desire of Nations,” so important in Advent.

      Reply
  16. Tamara Beryl Latham

    Margaret, I, like Allegra, had never heard of the sibyls, but you certainly do them justice with your sonnets. Initially I was going to reply with “It’s Greek to me”; however, your explanation, associated with each of them, was extremely enlightening. Thank you.

    You are truly a great poet. Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you for reading and commenting! This group of poems does need explanation. The sibyls themselves are unfamiliar, and prophetic style tends to be obscure even when we know what is being predicted. You give me encouragement to keep on writing poems and whatever is needed to go with them!

      Reply

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