When do you first recall becoming interested in the topic of the sibyls?
The sibyls initially piqued my curiosity as a young man of eighteen when I visited the Sistine Chapel for the first time. I must have known the images from reproductions in books but coming face to face with the originals on the ceiling of a hallowed papal chapel was an entirely different matter. The women were not identified as saints and my immediate reaction was to wonder why they had been placed next to biblical prophets. Although I asked various people and consulted all the guidebooks at my disposal, I could not find an explanation for their presence in the Vatican. I thought about them on and off over the years but it was only recently that I decided to study them in earnest.
Female prophecy is a significant theme in the book. Do you think the feminine aspect of the sibyls was a big part of their power and appeal?
Over the centuries the sibyls’ femininity has always been as integral to their image as Samson’s masculinity has been to his. It was their very condition as women that fundamentally shaped their prophetic genius as much as it did their physical presence. Almost certainly the appeal of one aspect of their nature must have been as strong as the power of the other. This does not mean that the sibyls were all great beauties whose looks alone could keep vast crowds enthralled but, much more significantly, that their physical appearance and their visionary ability jointly contributed to the recognition they earned, deserved and ultimately received.
Do you have a favourite sibyl for any reason out of those discussed in the book? And why?
Of the four sibyls discussed in the book it would have to be the Cumaean who is my favourite. I once had the chance to visit her cave and I was bowled over by it. Her image as painted by Michelangelo is one of the most intense representations of human strength and concentrated dynamism ever created. Many people might be surprised that it shows a woman and not a man. And then she won my admiration by her clever handling of King Tarquin.
Why do you think pagans and Christians both embraced the sibyls as part of their respective cultures?
Human nature has not changed all that much over time so it should not surprise anyone that we remain tantalised by the possibility that someone might just be able to look into the future and tell us what it holds in store for us. The sibyls were admired and respected in pagan antiquity because they could alert people to what could happen to them while there was still time to do something about it and, if not, at least to offer them reassurance that whatever had already happened to them had not happened merely by chance. In addition, and possibly more than for any other reason, the sibyls were embraced because they suggested that their prophetic knowledge might have been gained through human intuition, divinely sparked but human nonetheless. That idea has never ceased to intrigue us.
Do you think any sibyl’s location has retained a special aura in modern times and think a reader would enjoy visiting?
Both Cumae and Delphi are most definitely worth a visit. Delphi is much grander but Cumae is more evocative.