Tag Archives: Sibyl

Divine malice, or at least inscrutability

It has been said that Nobel Prize-winning (but now seemingly forgotten) Swedish writer Pär Lagerkvist’s 1956 novel, The Sibyl, is a “parable of divine love.” To me, it reads more like a parable of divine implacableness, malevolence, and wrath. The short (147-page) book has two narratives. The first and shorter one (one that Lagerkvist picked up again later) is the Wandering Jew, a Jerusalem store-owner who told Christ on his way to Calvary not to lean on his property. The enraged Messiah cursed him, forcing him to live forever. His wife takes their child away and the man outlives everyone he knew. Some centuries later, he has made his way to Delphi, where the oracle has not been able to tell him anything.


He learns that up in the hills there is a former pythia, the priestess of Apollo through whom the god spoke when she was overcome with toxic smoke (etc.) though what she raved had to be translated by priests to answer the questions posed to the god. She was highly regarded (even while being held in contempt as someone who gave herself to ecstatic possession). She began young and was a virgin until she fell in love with a neighbor who had returned from wars missing one arm. She did not give herself by half-measures either to him or to the god.


After a season of human bliss, she returned to being possessed. The god had not forsaken her, but one day seemed (to her) to rape her. She was pregnant, and when it became known that she was no longer a virgin, the people of Delphi (who depended on the revenue of those coming to consult the oracle) were outraged.

She was able to make a dash into the temple, where sanctuary was inviolate. Before the mod dispersed, she decided to leave. The sacred road also tabooed violence, though once she reached its end some who followed her threw stones at her.


(ruins of the oracle pit at Delphi and surrounding mountains)

She survived primarily by milking goats and goats protected her and licked the blood from the son to whom she gave birth. Eventually, she realized that her mute son could not have been conceived with her human lover.

While the Wandering Jew is hearing her story, the middle-aged (gray-haired) son wanders off and up a glacier. She does not provide any encouragement to her visitor, but he learns to resign himself to being a plaything of wrathful divinity, as she has.

It is Christ, the son of God, who is overtly implacable and wrathful. Whether Apolllo meant to make his priestess suffer for her infidelity to him is less certain. Possession was a diving gift, and if he impregnated her (as the Holy Ghost did the Virgin Mary) this is not obviously punishment. The ever-smiling, never-speaking son is a puzzle, his company a sort of blessing, whereas there is no upside to the fate of the Wandering Jew (though I know he will find the balm of death in Lagerkvist’s nextnovel, The Death of Ahasuerus, 1960). God or the gods is/are inscrutable, beyond human understanding and causes rather than relief of human suffering in Lagerkvist’s tale.

I found the flight from the angry mob part riveting and the accounts of possession fit with what I know about contemporary possession cults. Locating the novel in time is difficult. Delphi (and its oracle) were in eclipse by the time of Vespasian (69AD), which is not centuries after when Christ was supposedly crucified. Locating it in space is no problem; I have been to Delphi.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray