The Sibylline Oracles

This article discusses a section of the Sibylline Oracles which describes the fall of the Tower of Babel, the confusion of tongues, the dispersion, and the Titanic wars. The history comes from ancient Egyptian sources, but we will see how it is presented by Jacob Bryant and E. Richmond Hodges, authors of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Historians - Bryant and Hodges

Jacob Bryant (c.1718-1804) was a historian and mythographer who produced a six-volume work A New System or an Analysis of Ancient Mythology, first published in 1774. It is otherwise more commonly known as Bryant's Mythology. The edition used here is the third edition, published posthumously in 1807.

E. Richmond Hodges is the historian who expanded upon the work of Isaac Preston Cory who first published his Ancient Fragments in 1828. A second edition was published in 1832, and then in 1876, Hodges published his Cory's Ancient Fragments: A New and Enlarged Edition. This included some additional material that was not used by Cory, but it also excluded some material that was considered to be dubious and of uncertain origin.

The table below compares some complementary material used by these two historians. Bryant has a habit of quoting Greek and Latin text, sometimes without translation, in both his main text and footnotes, on the basis that most of his readers would understand it, which was probably true in his time. Some untranslated text is used in the footnotes below, and where possible I have substituted English translations, highlighted in red. Otherwise, I have simply indicated that some text is present, rather than deal with the complexities of displaying Greek characters in web pages. The text from Hodges in the right-hand column is part of his additional material, not present in Cory's original 1828 edition of the Ancient Fragments. (I don't know if it was in Cory's 1832 edition, I haven't seen it).

Bryant's Mythology (3rd edition, 1807) , Volume 4, pp.99-103.

E. Richmond Hodges: Cory's Ancient Fragments, (Enlarged edition, 1876), pp. 75-76.

The most full account of the Titans and their defeat, is to be found in some of the Sibylline poetry. The Sibyls were Amonian priestesses; and were possessed of antient memorials, which had been for a long time deposited in the temples where they presided. A great part of those compositions, which go under their name, is not worth being mentioned. But there are some things curious: and among these is part of an historic poem, to which I allude. It is undoubtedly a translation of an antient record, found by some Grecian in an Egyptian temple: and though the whole is not uniform, nor perhaps by the same hand, yet we may see in it some fragments of very curious history.

14 [Greek text corresponding to the English translation below]
15 [footnote marker within Greek text]


Concerning the Tower of Babel

"The Sibyl says, that when all men formerly spoke the same language, some among them undertook to erect a large and lofty tower, in order to climb into heaven. But God, (or the gods), sending forth a whirlwind, frustrated their design and gave to each tribe a particular language of its own, which (confusion of tongues) is the reason that the name of that city is called Babylon."

"After the Flood, Titan and Prometheus lived, and Titan undertook a war against Kronus." - Extracted from Syncellus, 44. Josephus' Antiq. of Jews, i. chap. 4; Euseb. Praep. Evang., 9.

But when the judgements of the almighty God
Were ripe for execution; when the Tower
Rose to the skies upon Assyria's plain,
And all mankind one language only knew:
A dread commission from on high was given
To the fell whirlwinds, which with dire alarm
Beat on the Tower, and to its lowest base
Shook it convuls'd. And now all intercourse,
By some occult, and over-ruling power,
Ceas'd among men: by utterance they strove
Perplex'd and anxious to disclose their mind;
But their lip fail'd them; and in lieu of words
Produc'd a painful babbling sound: the place
Was hence call'd Babel; by th' apostate crew
Nam'd from th' event. Then sever'd far away
They sped uncertain into realms unknown:
Thus kingdoms rose; and the glad world was fill'd.
'Twas the tenth age successive, since the flood
Ruin'd the former world: when foremost far
Amid the tribes of their descendants stood
Cronus, and 16 Titan, and Iapetus,
Offspring of Heaven, and Earth: hence in return
For their superior excellence they shar'd
High titles, taken from both Earth and Heaven.
For they were surely far supreme; and each
Rul'd o'er his portion of the vassal world,
Into three parts divided; for the earth
Into three parts had been by Heaven's decree
Sever'd; and each his portion held by lot.
No feuds as yet, no deadly fray arose:
For the good sire with providential care
Had bound them by an 17 oath: and each well knew
That all was done in equity, and truth.
But soon the man of justice left the world,
Matur'd by time, and full of years. He died:
And his three sons, the barrier now remov'd,
Rise in defiance of all human ties,
Nor heed their plighted faith. To arms they fly,
Eager and fierce: and now their bands complete,
Cronus and Titan join in horrid fray;
Rule the great object, and the world the prize.
This was the first sad overture to blood;
When war disclos'd its horrid front; and men
Inur'd their hands to slaughter. From that hour
The Gods wrought evil to the Titan race;
They never prospered.


"But when the judgements of Almighty God
Were ripe for execution; when the tower
Rose to the skies upon Assyria's plain,
And all mankind one language only knew:
A dread commission from on high was given
To the fell whirlwinds, which with dire alarms
Beat on the tower, and to its lowest base
Shook it convulsed. And now all intercourse,
By some occult and over-ruling power,
Ceased among men. By utterance they strove
Perplexed and anxious, to disclose their mind,
But their lip failed them; and in lieu of words
Produced a painful babbling sound: the place
Was thence called Babel; by the apostate crew
Named from the event. Then severed far away
They sped, uncertain, into realms unknown:
Thus kingdoms rose; and the glad world was filled."
This Sibylline history is of consequence. It has been borrowed by some Hellenistic Jew, or Gnostic, and inserted amid a deal of trash of his own composing. The superior antiquity of that part, which I have laid before the reader, is plain, from its being mentioned by 18 Josephus. Some lines are likewise quoted by 19 Athenagoras, and 20 Theolphilus Antiochenus.

The Sibyl having named Kronus, Titan, and Iapetus (Japheth) as the three sons of the Patriarch (Noah), who governed the world in the tenth generation, after the Flood, and mentioned the division of the world into three parts, (viz, by Shem, Ham, and Japheth), over which each of the Patriarchs ruled in peace, then relates the death of Noah, and the war between Kronus and Titan.

N.B. - The translation given above is from Vol. IV. of Bryant's Ancient Mythology. The fragment above given is mentioned by Josephus; and some lines are quoted by the Christian Fathers, Athenagoras and Theophilus of Antioch.

14. Sib. Orac. l.3. p-223. Theoph. ad Autolyc. l.2. p.371.

15. Scilicet [alternative paragraph of Greek text]. Syncellus. p.80.

16. From a common notion, that Iapetus was Japhet, this name is assigned to one of the three brothers: and the two others are distinguished by the names of Cronus, and Titan. But they are all three indeterminate titles. Iapetus was a Titanian; and is mentioned as such by Diodorus. l.5. p.334. He was one the brood, which was banished to Tartarus, and condemned to darkness;
...the lowest depths beneath earth and sea, where Iapetos and Kronos dwell in lone Tartaros...
Homer, Iliad, 8,478.
Translation by Samuel Butler.

He is also mentioned as an earth-born Giant; one of the prime apostates.
Earth then in awful labour brought to light
Coeus, Iapetus, and Typhoeus fell,
And those sworn brethren banded to break down
The gates of heaven;

Virgil, Georgics, 1,279. Translation by J. B. Greenough.

The history of Iapetus has no relation to Japhet. [Greek text]. Schol. in Homer. supra. Iapetus was one of the Giants.

17. See Eusebii Chron. p.10. l.38.

18. Antiq. l.1.c.4.

19. Athenag. Leg. p.307. [Greek text].

20. Ad. Antol. l.2.p.371.


It is immediately apparent from these two passages is that Hodges has only quoted about a third of the Sibylline text that is used by Bryant. He uses the first part of the text, about the Tower of Babel, the confusion of tongues, and the dispersion, but then he misses out all the remaining text about the division of the world between the three sons, and the Titanic wars that were waged between them after their father had died. Instead, he gives a commentary, acknowledging that the text he has quoted is from Bryant, but he says nothing about it, and instead his commentary is about the text he has not quoted. For those who do not have the full text from Bryant, his reference to Kronus, Titan, and Iapetus (Japheth), might appear to be about the fragment from Alexander Polyhistor, given earlier, but then the reader would have to consider why Prometheus appears instead of his father Iapetus.

The question is, why should Hodges confuse his readers in that way? Did he assume that the scholars of his time were so familiar with the work of Bryant that they could immediately recall his complete passage from the Sibylline Oracles? Was it as familiar to them as the 23rd Psalm, or the Beatitudes, or the Lord's Prayer might have been to every schoolboy just a few generations ago?

A clue to this startling omission is given in his Preface, where Hodges says:

Lastly, it remains only for me to say in this place that I have omitted Cory's preface entirely, as resting chiefly upon the long-exploded learning of Jacob Bryant, Faber, and Parkhurst; and have dispensed altogether with the Neo-Platonic forgeries which Cory had placed at the end, bearing the titles respectively of, Oracles of Zoroaster, the Hermetic Creed, the Orphic, Pythagorean, and other fragments, of doubtful authenticity and of little value.

Thus, in a single paragraph, Hodges dismisses all the learning of Jacob Bryant and makes all his efforts appear as worthless as the collection of forgeries that he wishes to discard. We should also note that the latest editions of the works of Bryant and Cory were respectively published in 1807 and 1832, so they pre-dated Darwin's Origins of Species, published in 1859. The work of Hodges was post-Darwin, published in 1876, so do we see modernism at work here? Hodges uses the text about the Tower of Babel, the confusion of tongues, and the dispersion of the nations, which is supported by the Bible and would be difficult to discard without offending the church. But he omits the text about the Titanic wars that followed, because it depends more heavily on mythology and is easier to discard. Thus, at a stroke, he creates a gap in the history of the world, preventing us from tracing our heritage to our most ancient Biblical ancestors. This is, of course, exactly what Darwin and his friend Huxley would have wanted, because it's no good tracing our history to its sources if we are all supposed to be descended from ape-like hominids.

History is relentlessly buried by natural disasters, war, and the destruction of books. It can also be buried by inclusion and omission. If Hodges had never said anything about the Sibylline Oracles, nothing would have been lost, but by including a small part and omitting the text that follows, he has led his readers to believe that they know about the Sibylline Oracles, when in fact they don't.

Alternatively, it might be possible to prove that there is something wrong with the text given by Bryant, in which case Hodges would be vindicated, but if he believes there is something wrong with the text, why doesn't he say so?

Copyright 2004

Mike Gascoigne
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