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The Myth of the Sibyls and the Production of Sibylline Oracles
Several ancient stories about the books of oracles attributed to the sibyl share a common feature: while they speak about the oracles, they tell precious little about the oracles’ contents. Instead, these stories are fascinated with the oracles’ origins, trustworthiness, curation, and survival. In fact, a persistent element in these myths is that the sibylline books are hidden away from popular view, making their text a mystery. However, alongside these stories, a separate tradition connected to the sibyl emerged. Here, the textless imagination of the sibyl’s oracles gives way to texts with which audiences could engage. Although the exact relationship between these published oracles and those spoken of in myth remains a matter of speculation and debate, oracular fragments, whole oracles, and even oracular anthologies begin to pop up and rapidly increase in the first centuries of the common era. This steady appearance of sibylline oracles and books continues through the middle ages and even into modernity, with the creation of critical editions. This paper both tells the story of the scrolls’ mythic origins and argues that these fantasies about the oracles open up the possibility and desire for the continued discovery of sibylline prophecy into the future. It thus suggests that archival desire to recover a lost and destroyed library leads ancient and modern tradents to produce and collect oracles in order to restore the sibylline library.
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