Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Sibyl

One of the last books that I read in college was The Sibyl, by Par Lagerkvist.  The book won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951.  I  remember loving it's power and challenging point of view.

It is a framed story, in which a man who is cursed by Jesus on his way to Calvary for not letting him rest his head on the side of his house, stumbles upon a hermit woman living with her mentally disabled son high on a mountain outside of Delphi.  The man bemoans the curse he is under, that of having to wander the earth, blessed with eternal life but cursed with being unable to be at peace.  He asks the woman whether she knows what it feels like to have the eyes of god fall upon you.

The woman replies that she does and that "There is no joy in seeing God."

The bulk of the book is the woman telling her story.  She was the sibyl (or oracle) of Delphi from the time she was a young girl to middle age.  During festivals and holy days, she would go down to the pit in the temple after fasting for three days, bathing, and chewing on laurel leaves, and her God, Apollo, would inhabit her body and speak to his worshipers through her.  The rest of the time, she lived be herself, only being cared for by servants of the temple.

After decades of living like this, on a rare visit to her family she meets a man, falls in love, and the God Apollo wreaks his vengeance on her for betraying her role as his bride.

It's a grim, but fascinating story. It reads like a parable--the write is clean and brisk and the mood is somber. It is unsettling.

The book closes with a comparison of the two Sons of God as they ascend to heaven - Jesus and the son of Apollo, the mentally-disabled man living with the sibyl.

I don't love the book the way I did 30 years ago--I guess I just can't accept the basic premise that the author lays out, that Jesus would curse someone.  Perhaps Lagerkvist's point is that the religion that became Christianity is neither kinder nor gentler than the one centered around the Oracle at Delphi.  Regardless of one's religious beliefs, it's safe to say that that action on the part of Jesus is completely inconsistent with any reading of the Gospels.

I'm glad I reread this book, but not sure I will tackle a third time.

This book was on my Back to the Classics for 2014 list and also counts in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. Huzzah!


  1. I wondered about this book, as I hadn't heard of it before, and I am interested in the sibyls. I might give this a try, though I am not sure about Jesus cursing anyone. That sounds so unlike what he teaches, doesn't it?

    Do you feel like you lost something in not loving the book as much this time, or do you think you have gained more - in wisdom, maturity, understanding, since you first read it? I enjoyed your review and the thoughtful approach you took to examining the book and what bothers you now about it. Thank you.

  2. Superb post Janet.

    Very interesting themes indeed. Very insightful take what what Par Lagerkvist might have been trying to say. I am not a believer, but I am enormously impressed at what the Gospels had to say especially in light of the time that they were written in.

    Indeed some people who call themselves Christians seem to espouse a belief system diametrically opposed to that of the Gospels as maybe the author was trying to say. He may have also been thinking about history which, in my opinion also was also a mixed bagged of terrible and noble acts committed in the name of Christianity.

    In my opinion, at least in the modern world, despite a few folks who have me scratching my head, most Christians employ their beliefs in an admirable way. Thus the author may be examining only one part of the puzzle.

  3. Great review! I've heard of this book before, but have never read it. It sounds fascinating. I also would have a hard time with Jesus cursing someone as it seems so opposed to the Jesus of the New Testament. I need to put this book o my "to read" list for the future.