Chap. XI.

Of the Pictures of the Sibyls.

THE Pictures of the Sibyls are very common, and for their Prophesies of Christ in high esteem with Christians; described commonly with youthful faces, and in a defined number. Common pieces making twelve, and many precisely ten; observing therein the account of Varro, that is, Sibylla Delphica, Erythræa, Samia, Cumana, Cumæa, or Cimmeria, Hellespontiaca, Lybica, Phrygia, Tiburtina, Persica. In which enumeration I perceive learned men are not satisfied, and many conclude an irreconcilable incertainty; some making more, others fewer, and not this certain number. For Suidas, though he affirm that in divers ages there were ten, yet the same denomination he affordeth unto more; Boysardus in his Tract of Divination hath set forth the Icons of these Ten, yet addeth two others, Epirotica, and Ægyptia; and some affirm that Prophesying women were generally named Sibyls.

Others make them fewer: Martianus Capella two, Pliny and Solinus three, Ælian four; and Salmasius in effect but seven. For discoursing hereof in his Plinian Exercitations, he thus determineth; Ridere licet hodiernos Pictores, qui tabulas proponunt Cumanæ, Cumeæ, & Erythrææ, quasi trium diversarum Sibyllarum; cum una eademque fuerit Cumana, Cumæa, & Erythræa, ex plurium et doctissimorum Authorum sententia; Boysardus gives us leave to opinion there was no more then one; for so doth he conclude, In tanta Scriptorum varietate liberum relinquimus Lectori credere, an una & eadem in diversis regionibus peregrinata, cognomen sortita sit ab iis locis ubi oracula redidisse comperitur, an plures extiterint: And therefore not discovering a resolution of their number from pens of the best Writers, we have not reason to determine the same from the hand and pencil of Painters.

As touching their age, that they are generally described as young women, History will not allow; for the Sibyl whereof Virgil speaketh is termed by him longæva sacerdos, and Servius in his Comment amplifieth the same. The other that sold the books unto Tarquin, and whose History is plainer than any, by Livie and Gellius is tearmed Anus; that is, properly no woman of ordinary age, but full of years, and in the dayes of dotage,[1] according to the Etymology of Festus;2 and consonant unto the History; wherein it is said, that Tarquin thought she doted with old age. Which duly perpended, the Licentia pictoria is very large; with the same reason they may delineate old Nestor like Adonis, Hecuba with Helens face, and Time with Absalons head. But this absurdity that eminent Artist Michael Angelo hath avoided, in the Pictures of the Cumean and Persian Sibyls, as they stand described from the printed sculptures of Adam Mantuanus.[3]


*My (or others') notes are in [brackets]; additional material by Browne from manuscripts or previous editions is in {braces}; Browne's original marginalia are not specially marked. Ross deals with this chapter in Arcana Microcosmi, II.11, but since he hasn't read what Browne wrote (as is often the case), his commentary is more entertaining than helpful.

1 [This does not seem to be in Livy; it is in Pliny NH xiii(88), but she is not called "old" (englished by Holland), who says 2 of 3 books were destroyed, and the third later by fire. Gellius, I.xix. Lactantius, Divine Institutes, I tells the story, but makes it Tarquinius Priscus and nine books, six of which were destroyed, the remaining three surviving and later added to. He says there were ten sibyls. Tacitus wavers on the number of Sibyls.]

2 Anus, quasi Ἀνοῦς, sine mente. [The etymology is absurd, but it does at least give some feeling for the connotations of the word; clearly it is (at least sometimes) pejorative.]

3 [But not in the portraits of the other sibyls.]

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