Poetry and the Kenotic Word
Edited By Malgorzata Grzegorzewska, Jean Ward and Mark Burrows
“That true word … shal be felt withall”. The Incarnation of the Word in Sibilline Oracles as a Theme of Renaissance Poetry and Iconography
In modern English literature the figure of the Sibyl invariably calls to mind the brief passage from the Satyricon of Petronius that T. S. Eliot chose as the epigraph to The Waste Land: “Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σιβυλλα τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω” (Eliot 27). This passage, in translation, is rendered as follows: “I saw [the Sibyl] with my own eyes at Cumae suspended in a bottle, and when the boys asked her: ‘Sibyl, what is your wish?’, she would reply: ‘I want to die’” (the source of Eliot’s Latin text is the Satyricon of Petronius (“Dinner at Trimalchio’s”), qtd. here after Petronius 39). In Eliot’s symbolic and deeply pessimistic vision of Western culture shortly after one World War and on the brink of another, the aged Cumaean Sibyl represents, one might argue, an aged relic that perhaps once had, but evidently no longer has, a higher purpose. When this exchange takes place, the Sibyl is reduced to a shrivelled human time-capsule. She is still “hanging around” (in this case literally so), but pining for death and utterly lacking in relevance. This is by no means the portrait of a figure that one would expect to bring a life-changing message to the world.
And yet the Sibyls of antiquity and of the medieval and early-modern period were anything but what Eliot’s masterpiece made them out to be. To the Romans, they were...
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