The Sibylline Tradition in Medieval and Early Modern Orthodox Slavdom

My paper examines the transmission and dissemination of the Sibylline prophetic literature in the Orthodox Slavic world. Unlike in the medieval and early modern West, where the prophetic tales of the famous female seers of ancient Greece and Rome were widely popular and highly regarded, their history among the Orthodox Slavs was rather slow in developing. While a well-known legend associated with the Tiburtine Sibyl entered Orthodox Slavdom from Byzantium relatively early (in the 13th century), a more complete corpus of Sibylline legends and prophecies came to the Eastern Slavs from the West only in the second half of the sixteenth century, with the Ruthenian (and later, Russian) translation of the Kronika świata of the Polish Renaissance historian Marcin Bielski. Included in Bielski’s “Tale of the Sibyls,” is a Sibylline legend that represents an excellent example of a new kind of text beginning to appear in the East Slavic literary community in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: a text originating in the Byzantine East, migrating to (and being significantly transformed in) the Latin West, and then coming back to the East Slavs from the West in this markedly altered state.

Once Bielski’s “Tale of the Sibyls” was incorporated into the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Russian Chronographs (“West-Russian,” “Second,” and “Third” redactions) the reputation of the Sibyls throughout the Eastern Slavic lands was assured. And indeed, in the seventeenth century there appeared numerous (more or less similar) copies of the “Tale of the Sibyls” in various Russian and Ruthenian miscellanies. The “Tale” seems to have also been popular among the Russian Old Believers, who no doubt found the Sibyls’ eschatology close to their heart (ignorant, it would seem, of the “Tale’s” Western provenance!).

The culmination of the Sibyls’ popularity in Russia occurred in the second half of the seventeenth century, when Nikolaj Milescu Spafarij, a Moldavian writer and translator working in Moscow at the “posol′skij prikaz” who was in charge of producing books for the Tsarist court, found it worthwhile to compile a richly decorated and bound Book of the Sibyls (Kniga o Sivilljax) for presentation to Car′ Alexej Mixajlovič in 1672. An encyclopedic work, gleaned from a variety of Greek and Latin sources in the best tradition of Western scholasticism, it provided everything one ever wanted to know about the history and prophecies of the twelve Sibyls. In addition, as was popular in the medieval and early modern West, Spafarij used the Sibyls as his mouthpiece for promoting a particular political agenda, namely a strong anti-Turkish and pro-Russian stand at a time of conflict between the two nations.

Thus, the appearance of the Sibylline prophecies in Russia coincided with the opening of its literary culture to the West. Byzantine Sibylline writings, with one significant exception, did not migrate to the Orthodox Slavs directly, but rather did so long after the fall of Constantinople through Western sources compiled by Bielski and collected by him together with the Sibylline tales from the medieval West. Spafarij greatly expanded upon Bielski’s work, providing an exhaustive Muscovite survey of the Sibyls’ lives and deeds that rivaled the best of the Western scholastic tradition. Although the Sibylline writings did not have a long career in Slavia Orthodoxa (certainly not as long or as distinguished as they had in the Latin West), their flourishing in seventeenth-century Russia argues for a closer look at their history on the Orthodox Slavic literary scene.