Rob M. Bullard
Ovid declares in the beginning of his Metamorphoses, “his mind brings him to speak about forms changed into new bodies” (in nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas/corpora, Ov. Meta., 1.1-2). Ovid then describes the strange and sudden transformations of gods, demigods, and humans into beasts, plants, and inanimate objects. However, in Book 14, we finally find the poet not keeping his word when he reveals the story of the Sibyl. The Sibyl is one of the most puzzling figures in the poem, because she is the least transformed character in the Metamorphoses. She is also the only character in the poem able to explain her own transformation to the audience. Furthermore, the Sibyl’s transformation is not a dazzling spectacle like the other transformations in the poem. The Sibyl does not fit snugly into Ovid’s catalog of transformed figures (mutatas formas). Like a worm still in its cocoon state, she undergoes an incomplete transformation, while her story straddles the line between tragedy and absurdity. However, Ovid must certainly have read the depiction of the Sibyl in Book 6 of Vergil’s Aeneid (Fathom 2004: 174). His portrayal of the Sibyl differs so dramatically from the Aeneid’s depiction. In a sense, he appears to transform Vergil’s Sibyl into a new and different character. Thus, it seems that Ovid may have constructed the Sibyl's metamorphosis between his Metamorphoses and Vergil’s Aeneid, rather than as an isolated transformation in his poem.
To set the stage for his Sibyl episode, Ovid describe Aeneas’ legendary journey from Troy to Italy, establishing a contextual link with the Aeneid. In Book 14, Ovid introduces the character of the Sibyl, and she guides the hero safely through the Underworld. Along their passage, they begin to converse. Aeneas casually asks the Sibyl whether she is a goddess or favored by the gods (seu dea tu praesens, seu dis gratissima, Ov. Meta. 14.123). After he offers her great honors for her assistance, she admits that she is neither a goddess nor even a mortal woman worthy of his sacred offerings (templa tibi statuam, tribuam tibi turis honores, Ov. Meta.14.130-31).
At this point, Ovid begins the Sibyl’s personal story. First, we learn that the god Apollo approached the Sibyl, then a young virgin, and offered her any gift of her choosing (‘elige,’ait ‘virgo Cumaea, quid optes, Ov. Meta.14.135-36). The Sibyl then asks for extended life. In exchange for sexual access to her, Phoebus bribes the maiden with the additional gift of perpetual youth (14.140-41). The Sibyl refuses his devious offer, and consequently, she is doomed to complete a millennium of increasingly decrepit old age. The Sibyl declares that she will eventually become unrecognizable even to Apollo, who would deny that he was passionate for her in the first place (nec...negabit, Ov. Meta. 14.150-51). Then, she says that her body will waste away to the point that only her voice will remain (nullique videnda/voce tamen noscar; vocem mihi fata relinquent, Ov. Meta.14.152-53). Finally, Ovid finishes her story when they return along the path to the mortal world.
Taking Ovid’s account of the Sibyl as a whole, we find an account of an extraordinarily old woman pays for the rash mistakes she makes in her youth. No sudden or spectacular change happens for the Sibyl. Instead, Apollo grants the Sibyl’s wish to live for a thousand years, as many as the specks of dust in a pile of cinder (ego...cumulum, Ov. Meta. 14.136-37). Therefore, her transformation is the extension of her corporeal existence, and this transformation must endure for a millennium. Unlike any other character in the Metamorphoses, the Sibyl is the only one whose metamorphosis is still in progression (Simpson 2001: 436). The Sibyl’s transformation does not come to completion, since she mentions how her age has only reached the seven hundredth year and is fated to continue three hundred more (nam iam mihi saecula semptem/acta vides; superest, numerosut pulveris aequem/ter centum messes, ter centum musta videre, Ov. Meta 14.144-46). The Sibyl never truly reaches the final stage of her transformation into a lingering voice. By Ovid’s standards, the story of the Sibyl does not qualify as a genuine metamorphosis, one by which a figure changes into a new body or form (in nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas/corpora, Ov. Meta 1.1-2). On the contrary, the Sibyl retains her human body, and she describes how her body has aged over her lengthy existence.
Although the duration of her life is unnatural, the fact that her body ages over time is very natural. Aging seems to be a quite natural process in a poem filled with premature deaths and sudden transformations. Concerning the Sibyl, a genuine transformation would have occurred if she had accepted Apollo’s offer of perpetual youth: she would have become a kind of semi-divine figure with perennial age, wisdom and youth. Then, the story of the Sibyl would have represented her own deification. In lieu of this transformation, Ovid’s Sibyl remains a human figure, which the Sibyl explains to Aeneas (nec dea sum, Ov. Meta. 14.130-31). Her story is not so different from those rare cases of people who have reached a phenomenal age in life. Hence, the Sibyl retains the humanity and mortality given to her by nature. She grows increasingly older over the seven centuries in her lifetime. With this in mind, we are left to scratch our heads and ask the poet, “Where is the metamorphosis in this story?” The answer is simpler than expected: there is no dramatic or remarkable metamorphosis in Ovid’s episode.
Strangely, the Aeneas in the Metamorphoses cannot tell whether the Sibyl is a goddess or not. Surely, a goddess would not be in the degenerating and decrepit state tha the Sibyl claims to be. He not only guesses her to be a goddess but also fails to react to her decrepitly old physical state. In the presence of a 700-year-old woman, it is almost absurd for Aeneas to assume that she is a goddess! It is even more absurd for him to offer to a temple and religious honors to her. Aeneas does not know the Sibyl's peculiar predicament until she informs him. Thus, the audience is left to think that Aeneas would have never known about the Sibyl's abnormal condition, had she not told him.
Another point confirms whether that the Sibyl does not undergo a genuine transformation in the Metamorphoses. Ovid establishes an outside narrator to describe the story of transformed characters. For example, in the transformations of Io and Echo in Book 1, the narrator takes on the burden of explaining all the physical, mental, and emotional details of their transformations. Io and Echo never find an opportunity to explain their remarkable stories in any speech. Without the capacity of her voice, Io can only scratch a resemblance of her name into the ground, so that her father could guess at her transformation; it is equally clear that Echo can never explain her own transformation into an echoing voice. This is also the case for nearly all other transformed figures of the Metamorphoses, with the noticeable exception of the Sibyl. The Sibyl is the only character that recounts her own metamorphosis articulately to the audience. Thus, the Sibyl's explanation of her own transformation distinguishes her from the majority of characters of the Metamorphoses.
Furthermore, even more doubt arises in the reader’s mind as to whether the Sibyl undergoes a genuine transformation after a closer examination of Ovid’s episode. This is not the typical story of virgin maiden transformed by a god in the matter of a love affair.
First, the Sibyl invites her own "metamorphosis" when she asks Apollo for long-lasting life. Like a mischievous genie, Apollo grants her wish. The Sibyl’s forgetfulness is the cause of her plight as a perpetually aging, ever-degenerating character. Finally, she seals her fate by rejecting Apollo's offer of perpetual youth, albeit one from a dirty dealer (Simpson 2001: 435). Unlike other characters in the Metamorphoses, the Sibyl actually has multiple opportunities to avoid an undesired transformation. She could have refused Apollo's first offer in the beginning; she could have been more prudent with her wish; and she could have even sacrificed her virginity for Apollo's second gift. No other transformed character in Ovid's poem experiences the same predicament of having chosen their poison and then rejected the antidote afterwards, metaphorically speaking. Thus, the Sibyl is a unique figure in the Metamorphoses, and her case stands apart from the others. Standing alone, the Sibyl's account draws more questions than answers, and it is at this point that Vergil’s depiction of the Sibyl helps to clarify the purpose of Ovid’s own depiction in his poem.
Unlike Ovid’s depiction, the portrayal of the Sibyl in Vergil’s Aeneid is serious and dignified. The Vergilian Sibyl is worthy of sacred offerings that Ovid’s Sibyl declares herself unworthy of (nec sacri turis honore/humanum dignare caput, Ov. Met. 14.130-31). Vergil’s Sibyl plays the role of extraordinary communicant to Apollo, and she is empowered by the very privilege that Ovid’s Sibyl sees as her perpetual curse. She is also coldly authoritative and aloof to human emotion.
When the Sibyl spots Aeneas marveling at the ekphrasis engraved upon her cavern doors, she immediately chides him for looking at the images (non hoc ista sibi tempus spectacula poscit, Vg. Aen.6.37). The readers get the impression that the Sibyl does not care for human emotions, even from great man like Aeneas. Moreover, she only interrupts him after the hero has passed the most emotional part of the ekphrasis, the story Daedalus and Icarus. Without any greeting to the Trojan leader, the Sibyl in Vergil grows ominous and grills Aeneas for not offering prayers and offerings to the god, literally sending a chill down Aeneas’ spine (‘cessa in vota precesque/Tros’ait ‘Aenea? Cessas?’ Vg. Aen 6.50-51). We continue to see how detachedly the Sibyl operates in directing Aeneas to the golden bough and afterward through the Underworld. Neither her actions nor her speech reveal any human quality to her personality. Instead, she operates as though no personal interaction need exist between herself and Aeneas for him to complete his mission.
After reading the Sibyl episode of his predecessor Vergil, Ovid must have found something empty or lacking in her character. Indeed, the Sibyl plays a critical role in the plot of Vergil’s epic, but the obscurity of her character lends itself to a perception of shallowness and chilliness. Vergil does not bestow his Sibyl with an individual human identity, aside from her role as the priestess of Apollo. Vergil only mentions that she is Deiphobe, the daughter of Glaucus, but he then ceases to explain her background beyond that point (Deipobe Glauci, Vg. Aen. 6. 35). Even the Sibyl’s name, Deiphobe, seems to reveal the inseparable identity she shares with the god Phoebus. Although the nature of her character in the Aeneid is dual (in that she is a mortal woman who takes on a divine presence), Ovid may have thought that the human side of her character lacked severely enough to make a change in his own Metamorphoses.
An interesting description of the Sibyl in Vergil occurs as she struggles to cope with the god in her body. Apollo not only takes control of her body in Vergil’s episode, he also meshes his very identity with her own. Vergil describes how large the Sibyl seems and how inhuman her voice sounds, when she takes the god into her body (maiorque videri/nec mortale sonans, Vg. Aen. 6.49-50). We are left with the impression that she has no unique identity of her own but is rather a kind of automaton, through on the god can exercise his will. Vergil’s Sibyl lacks a convincing story behind her very existence as a priestess of Apollo. At the point, Ovid steps in to offer his own version of the Sibyl, a new figure with a revamped personality and character traits. Hence, the metamorphosis that we fail to find in Ovid’s Sibyl episode occurs when Ovid changes Vergil’s character into a new one in the Metamorphoses.
Ovid’s first step in transforming the Sibyl from Vergil’s epic is to instill her with a strong dose of humanity. He practically “divests the prophetess of the aura attached with her Vergilian portrayal” (Simpson 2001: 48). By no coincidence, Ovid skips over the Sibyl’s prophecy to Aeneas with rapid speed. While Vergil describes her gripping trance masterly, Ovid devotes a single sentence to the subject: “but for a long time, she held her face fixed to the earth, becoming filled with rage as she received the god” (at illa diu vultum tellure moratum/erexit tandemque deo furibunda recepto, Ov. Meta. 14.106-107). The brevity of her state of ecstasy is a striking change from the Aeneid’s Sibyl, whose convulsions and writhing are all too noticeable for Vergil to pass over.
We also find the Sibyl of the Metamorphoses to have qualities of kindness and approachability, as could be expected of mortal behavior. The character in the Aeneid is imposing and standoffish, never offering Aeneas a kind word in the least. When Aeneas earnestly asks the Sibyl to pity him and show him the way to see his father in the Underworld, the Sibyl ultimately consents. However, any semblances of her kindness vanishes when she mentions that she thinks his journey is insane (...et insano iuvat indulgere labori,.Vg. Aen.6.135). She offers no encouraging or comforting words to accompany his difficult mission. As she counsels Aeneas to remove the golden bough from its branches, she tells him that he will only cut it down if the Fates allow him to (nameque ipse volens facilisque sequetur, si te fata vocant; aliter non viribus ullis/vincere nec duro poteris convellere ferro, Vg. Aen.6.146-148). Considering the auspicious greatness of Aeneas in the epic, the priestess’ statement strikes a rather dispiriting tone. The Sibyl in the Metamorphoses, on the other hand, does offer Aeneas some words of encouragement, as she tells him to place his fear aside concerning his destiny (pone tamen, Troiane, metum, Ov. Meta. 14.110-113). She even refers to Aeneas’ father as “the dear ghost of your parent” (simulacraque cara parentis, Ov. Meta. 14.112). The Sibyl’s use of the word cara gives her character a quality of sympathy for others, which appears to be lacking in Vergil’s character. Thus, Ovid transforms her character from a cold and intimidating mistress into a comforting friend to Aeneas.
Moreover, the Sibyl in the Metamorphoses does not stop at just speaking a few comforting words to Aeneas. In lieu of the somber, frosty interaction between Vergil’s Sibyl and Aeneas, Ovid devises a relationship that resembles an “intimate and sincere private talk between two individuals who are also very close friends” (Simpson 2001: 45). When the Aeneas in Ovid asks the Sibyl whether she is a goddess or not, she does not reply coldly or angrily, as we might expect with Vergil’s character. Instead, the Ovidian Sibyl divulges her life story to him, as in a casual chat between familiars. On the one hand, Sibyl in the Aeneid never tolerates digressions; she gets straight to the point. On the contrary, Ovid not only adds human qualities of kindness and sympathy to the Sibyl’s personality, he also makes her an amicable, if not garrulous, character.
Thus, when Aeneas asks Ovid’s Sibyl whether she is a goddess or not, the Sibyl answers his question and then proceeds to give him her autobiography. She moves from one reflection to another. First, she recalls her ill-fated decision; she moves on to reflect on her lengthy thousand-year lifetime; then she becomes distracted by the notion that she may never be recognized in her old age; and she finishes her musing with a pessimistic prediction that she will dissolve into a voice. Surely, Aeneas does not ask for all the information the Sibyls talks about. Hence, Ovid changes the cold severity of Vergil’s Sibyl into friendliness and an almost absurd chattiness. The Sibyl in the Metamorphoses uses her words so casually for a figure whose words are invested with such great power and significance by Vergil.
On top of this, Ovid changes the Sibyl from the powerful religious authority we find in the Aeneid to a powerless mortal imprisoned in her own withering body. In Vergil’s epic, the Sibyl is a figure of certainty and gravity. She is the sanctioned representative of Apollo and the herald of his unwavering prophecy, as she confirms the destiny of Aeneas’ people (Simpson 2001: 45). On the contrary, Ovid’s character bears a persona burdened by regret, anxiety, and woeful self-reflection. Rather than weighty prophecies, she reveals to Aeneas the most intimate thoughts that dwell in her heart. Unlike in the Aeneid, her statements reveal no convincing insight on Aeneas’ destiny or the fate of the Roman state.
Furthermore, Ovid’s Sibyl surrenders all of her gravitas in an opportunity to expresses the emotions and worries of a dispirited woman. First, she mentions how she remains an unwed virgin (innuba permaneo, Ov. Meta., 14.141). In self-reflection unimaginable with the Sibyl of the Aeneid, Ovid’s Sibyl focuses on her own virginity. She focuses on her physical appearance, because she is concerned that Apollo will never claim to have loved her in her current state (nec amata videbor/nec placuisse deo, Ov. Meta. 149-50).
From beginning to end, the Sibyl in the Metamorphoses reveals an almost human fear of aging and death. The fact that the Sibyl chooses long-lasting life as her wish from Apollo exposes a deep aversion to death. She also predicts that she will eventually lose her own body. Although, the Sibyl does not truly perform a metamorphosis in Ovid’s poem, she is still concerned about the end of her corporeal existence. While Vergil’s Sibyl concentrates her mind on the beginning of the Roman state, the Sibyl narrows the scope of her attention to the frightful concept of the “end”: the end to her youthful beauty, her body, and most of all, her identity. She declares that the Fates will leave her voice behind (vocem mihi fata relinquent, Ov. Meta., 14.153). However, Ovid makes his Sibyl appear somewhat shortsighted in this declaration, since both the poet and the audience know that her voice already defines the essence of her identity, through prophecies.
Ovid further transforms the Vergilian character of the Sibyl by clouding her prophetic powers in his own poem. The Sibyl’s inability to foresee is one of her most distinct characteristics in the Metamorphoses. In the Aeneid, the Sibyl has indubitable claim to prophecy; Vergil definitely validates her power of foresight. On the contrary, Ovid’s account of the Sibyl abounds with examples of her lack of foresight. First, she tells Aeneas that when she made her wish to Apollo, she showed him a clump of dirt drawn up in her hand and then asked for her years to last how ever many existed in that clump (ego pulveris hausti/ostendi cumulum; quot haberet corpora pulvis/tot mihi natales contingere vana rogavi, Ov. Meta. 14.136-37). Ovid paints an image of a naive and shortsighted girl. The Sibyl neither thought her wish nor the consequences out carefully. As only a naive child would, the young virgin believes that the lump of dirt that she scoops up has enough specks to last her for an eternity. However, we know that the Sibyl will perish, at least corporeally, after a thousand year has passed! Even still, Ovid’s Sibyl would have to face the prospects of her inevitable death, even if she had remembered to wish for perpetual youth. Even as she speaks to Aeneas, the Sibyl does not seem to realize her real mistake: that she did not wish for eternal life.
Still, the Sibyl exposes another grievous lack of foresight when she chooses long-lasting life without the necessary component of perpetual youth. She uses a single word to describe her careless mistake: excidit (Ov. Meta. 14.139). Ovid captures the accidental and unforeseen nature of her blunder perfectly with this expression, which frames the situation as having “fallen down”. We get the impression that the Sibyl neither anticipated nor understood the consequences of her actions until it was too late.
Ovid’s Sibyl also reveals her uncertainty of the future when she considers how Apollo will react to her as a 700-year-old woman. In lines 150-51, she states that there is a possibility that Phoebus will either not recognize her or acknowledge her as a prior love interest. Noticeably, she uses the word fortisan (‘by chance, maybe’), a strong expression of uncertainty uncharacteristic of the all-seeing Vergilian character. She reveals the cloudiness of her foresight even further by framing her statement in an “either-or” (vel...vel) structure. Either Apollo will not recognize the Sibyl in her current decrepit state, or if he does, he will not boast of having loved her in the past. Thus, the Sibyl reveals that she does not know what will happen for sure when Apollo sees her. We find her merely guessing at the outcome of her peculiar scenario, rather than speaking out of foresight.
Ovid also alters the nature of the relationship between the Sibyl and her superior, Apollo. On the one hand, Vergil creates the image of a dutiful herald and servant in his rendition of the Sibyl. Vergil’s Sibyl beckons the god’s arrival (ait: ‘deus, ecce, deus...Vg. Aen. 6.46); demands prayers and offerings to the god; and becomes a human tool through which the god can speak. When she struggles to shake his presence from her body, Apollo calms her ravaging heart and allows his being to merge into her own (tanto magis ille fatigat/os rabidum fera corda domans fingit premendo, Vg. Aen. 6.79-80) . Accordingly, her role of submissiveness amplifies the omniscience and authority of Apollo. On the contrary, the Sibyl in the Metamorphoses reveals a much different dynamic between herself and Apollo. Her story frames Apollo as a lustful and cruel seducer and casts the priestess as a naive victim. Ovid puts the Sibyl and Apollo into a conflict of affection and personal interest, whereas Vergil keeps the relationship straightforward and professional.
As Boillat puts it, Ovid “pushes to absurdity the Sibyl’s quality of the heroine virgin” (Boillat 1976: 35). Ovid’s Sibyl makes a heroic, and tragic, stand to reject Apollo’s gift of long-lasting youth and protect her virginity. However, her heroic stance puts her at odds with Apollo. While Vergil’s Sibyl is capable of yield her independence and identity to Apollo, Ovid’s character refused to give ground to Apollo on the issue of her virginity. When Ovid’s Sibyl talks about her dissolution into a voice, she focuses attention on the loss of her physical identity, instead of the role this bodiless voice might serve in conveying Apollo’s messages.
Thus, Ovid greatly lengthens the distance between the Sibyl and Apollo in their relationship. She guess that, over time, Apollo himself might not even recognize her or admit to having lusted after her (Phoebus quoque fortisan ipse/ vel non cognoscet, vel dilexisse negabit, Ov. Meta. 130-31). Her prediction reveals the distance between the Sibyl and Apollo, mentally and emotionally. She can neither rely on the god’s knowledge of her nor her knowledge of the god. The fact that she thinks Apollo might not even recognize her speaks volume to their estrangement. How could Apollo not recognize her? Indeed, with the exception of the oracle at Delphi, the Sibyl is supposed to be the sole communicant of Apollo’s prophecies. Surely, the god of wisdom and knowledge would not be fooled by the physical appearance of such a memorable character as herself. She seems to give Apollo very little credit as an omniscient god.
Furthermore, the fact that she thinks Apollo might not confess to having desired her beforehand reveals an even wider gap between herself and Apollo. We should consider how Apollo continued to profess his love for Daphne, despite the fact that she lost her human body (hanc quoque Phoebus amat, Ov. Meta. 1.552). Yet, the Sibyl assumes that if Apollo recognizes the crotchety 700-year-old woman, he will automatically resolve himself to lying. Interestingly, Ovid transforms the Sibyl from the Vergilian character to the extent that she cannot even trust Apollo to tell the truth about their relationship. This leads the readers to question whether Ovid’s Sibyl has any confidence or trust in the very god that speaks prophecies through her! If Apollo would lie about his past desire for her, in the Sibyl’s own words, it is difficult to believe that he would not lie about more important matters at hand. Hence, she gives Apollo very little credit as a trustworthy god, one who can be trusted to speak the truth at all times.
In so many ways, Ovid changes the traditional Sibyl of the Aeneid into his own creation in his Metamorphoses While Ovid fails to depict a convincing metamorphosis in his story of the Sibyl alone, he does succeed at transforming Vergil’s character into his own work of art. Taken as an isolated incident, her story in Ovid’s poem contains no jarring or noticeable metamorphosis. She begins and ends her story in the Metamorphoses as a mortal changed only by the passage of time. Her story of metamorphosis does not become clear until we figure Vergil’s Sibyl into the equation. The Vergilian Sibyl has qualities of dignity and authority to accompany her foresight, but she seems to lacks a human side to her character. Knowing that Ovid read Vergil’s own episode very carefully, we see that the poet of the Metamorphoses does not simply cut the character of the Sibyl from the Aeneid and paste her into his own work. Instead, Ovid instills that missing quality of humanity into a new version of the Sibyl, transforming her convincing and vulnerable figure. Ovid transforms her very identity from the instinctively obedient priestess of Apollo we see in Vergil’s epic. Instead, we see a self-reflecting and even skeptical woman who realizes the true distance between herself and the god Apollo. At this level of analysis, we should marvel at Ovid’s attempt to transform Vergil’s Sibyl into a character with emotional depth, tragic flaws, and individuality. In his attempt, Ovid does not describe the metamorphosis of the Sibyl: he establishes a new metamorphosis, one that begins in the work of his great predecessor and blossoms into fruition in his own work of art.
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-Vergil. Aeneid. Ed. Centrangolo, Enzio. 1966: Sansoni Editore, Florence.