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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 865

The Sibyl tells the story of a certain Pythia, or high priestess, a chosen Greek virgin through whom Apollo, the god of light (and darkness), spoke when she entered into an ecstatic state in the dark and smoking holy of holies beneath the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The priests' interpretations of her divinely inspired utterances constituted the Oracles of Delphi, among the most famous of the ancient world.

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In her advanced age, the Sibyl is living with her mute son in a tiny hovel in the mountains far above Delphi when the wandering Jew comes to inquire about his fate. The wandering Jew had a happy life until, one day, a condemned criminal in his native town was passing by on his way to his execution. The wandering Jew had denied the condemned man the right to rest his head on the wall of his house and thus was cursed to never again find rest in this world and to never die. The wandering Jew later finds out that some believe that the condemned man was the son of god. He wonders how god (spelled with a lower-case "g" in The Sibyl) could be so cruel. He simply didn't wish to attract any negative attention from the authorities and certainly had no idea he was dealing with the son of god.

The Sibyl responds by telling her life story. She was a peasant girl from a simple but devout rural family, raised away from the corruptions of human life in Delphi, a town dependent on income from the pilgrims to the Temple of Apollo. She had always been different from others and attracted to the divine.

When she is called to be the new Pythias, she is greatly honored. She is a natural and the priesthood and the god are greatly pleased with her. The Townspeople are afraid of her, and her life as an outsider is reinforced by her service to the god. When he inhabits her, it is overwhelming, frightening, and powerful, rather than satisfying or comforting, as she had hoped. She does not get the feeling of safety she is seeking from the experience.

The Sibyl in the offseason falls in love with a one-armed former soldier and experiences human love for the first time. Her passion, combined with her desire for safety, in the end, spoils their love, as she becomes too attached to him. Eventually, he draws back, though he still cares for her. The Sibyl returns to temple service, where her crime of love is eventually found out. The god exacts his revenge on her lover, who is found dead in the river by which they first consummated their love. His bloodless body is grasping a laurel branch, the tree sacred to the god. In the holy of holies, she is again ravaged by the god but in a particularly fierce and frightening manner. The Townspeople seek to stone her for her earthly love, and she is driven from the temple precinct, but not before her truest friend from the temple saves her life. Standing in the light of the magnificent inner colonnades of the upper temple, the Sibyl feels safety and the protection of the god of light as she has always desired to feel it.

This gives her the inner strength to defy the mob and leave by the sacred road for her exile in the mountains, where, in a thunderstorm, she gives birth to a child, attended by wild goats that have led her to a mountain cave. She later figures out that her mute child could not have been the child of her human lover. She had always wished that his death would be overcome by this new life through their son. Instead, it is the son of the god. He remains silent and smiles an enigmatic smile.

During the Sibyl's story to her guest, the Sibyl's son is discovered to have left the dwelling, and the two go in search of him, following his footsteps high up on a peak. He has left his garments and sandals behind, and his footsteps gradually disappear from the snow, as he was taken up by his father.

The wandering Jew asks about his fate, and the Sibyl sees the despair in his eyes. She replies that it is clear that he is not free, because his fate is bound up with god, who doesn't mean to let him go. He can hate, mock, and revile god, but through his curse, he still lives a life with god. His soul is filled with him. His red-hot hatred of god is his experience of the divine. Perhaps one day, god will bless him instead of cursing him. Perhaps one day, he will let god rest his head on his house. Perhaps he won't. Whatever happens, his fate will be forever bound up with god.

The wandering Jew climbs down the mountain with a new perspective, and the Sibyl greets the sunrise alone, watching a young man sweep the temple and garnish it with fresh laurels, as a young girl walks the sacred way, in anticipation and fear of being newly chosen by god to serve in his temple.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1466

A prefatory scene emphasizes the tale’s timeless character. On the side of a wild mountain, high above the paths beaten by pilgrims on their visits to Delphi’s temple, an old woman lives in isolation with her feebleminded son. Every so often, the morning light reveals a girl, fresh from her bath in a sacred spring, being led by priests to a nuptial rendezvous with the god. The old woman knows the girl’s thoughts and sensations: In her youth, before being cursed by everyone and driven from the city, she had herself served as consort to Apollo.

The novel proper begins with a stranger’s ascent of the stony slope to the Sibyl’s hut. A pilgrim, he was turned away from the oracle because the question he brought was unanswerable. After roaming the city in despair, he was directed into the mountains by an old blind beggar to consult an ancient oracle “who can answer all that a man can ask.” Now that he has found her, he explains his mission by recounting an incident in the distant past “which had scored itself so deeply into his memory that he seemed not to recall anything besides; an event which left his soul no peace.”

The man (implicitly recognizable as Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew) had been enjoying a prosperous, easy life with his wife and young son in a house which faced the road to Calvary. The sight of criminals condemned to crucifixion being led past by the soldiers was a common one. One day, one such prisoner was so exhausted by the task of carrying his cross that he leaned against the house to rest. Ahasuerus, fearing that bad luck might descend on the house through the unfortunate man’s touch, chased him away, and thereby, ironically, earned the crossbearer’s curse: to wander the earth for eternity, never to find rest, even in death. Ahasuerus thought this a strange pronouncement, for mankind had always looked upon immortality as the most wonderful of gifts, not as a punishment; moreover, it seemed a simple matter to ignore the curse and go on living as he had before. His wife, however, immediately saw a terrible agedness in his eyes which began to irradiate their marriage, and she eventually fled with their child. Years later, Ahasuerus learned that the boy had been taken by the plague and that his wife had died after old age had exhausted all of her beauty. In having joylessly survived his family, and all the many subsequent generations, he says, he has carried the burden of the unique destiny of meaningless existence imposed on him by the criminal some now said was a god. He has also learned of a religion based on this god’s teaching of love, but the embittered man has rejected it as absurd.

After Ahasuerus has told his story, the Sibyl invites him into her hut, where, in the presence of her idiot son, she relates her own experience of encountering a god. Reared by pious parents who practiced the religion of nature in its most unsophisticated form, she had been one of the few virgins left in Delphi, a city grown corrupt from its commerce as a sacred site. Her innocence, combined with a susceptibility to suggestion, convinced the priests to select her as the temple’s new oracle. As soon as she was led into the holy cave to spread her legs over a fissure in the earth’s living rock and become the vessel of Apollo, her special affinity for her role was evident; at every festival thereafter, she ate laurel leaves to induce a trance and then received the god, who had taken the appearance of a goat.

The fulfillment the girl initially derived from her ecstasy began eluding her, however, when she understood that the priests were using her for their own venal purposes, and the realization that she meant nothing to the god other than as a means of spending his lust made her feel spiritually forsaken. A hag assigned to be her attendant deepened her misery by constantly speaking of human vileness; although the Sibyl tried to defend herself against this misanthropic instruction, her resistance gradually crumbled. The young woman who had accepted isolation as the price for the peace of oneness with the divine came to believe that she had been played for a fool. Thus, after being summoned to her dying mother’s bedside, she stayed behind to keep house for her father.

One day, while fetching water at a spring near her home, she saw a one-armed man, a childhood friend who, because he was just returning from war, knew nothing of her service as the Pythia. Each immediately fell in love with the other, and they soon consummated their passion. Although the Sibyl feared the consequences, she abandoned herself to this new form of happiness; nevertheless, when the priests commanded her to resume her office at the temple, she obeyed. The one-armed man’s curiosity caused him to follow. Later, she learned that he had violated the sanctuary and heard her screams in the intensity of her orgasmic union with the god. Her happiness with her human lover had come to an end: No mortal could bear the thought of competing with the passion of a god.

After some months had passed, she was again called to serve the god. At the very moment that her divine consort, who appeared to her in the form of a black goat, ravished her as never before, the one-armed man was drowned by the rising sacred river at precisely the spot where they had first made love. Because the man had died clutching a laurel branch that had broken off as he tried to pull himself up from the water, she was sure that his death was the god’s vengeance.

When the Sibyl realized that she was pregnant, she cherished the life she believed her human lover had planted within her body. This thought sustained her after the hag who attended her learned her secret and spread word of the scandal. As the Sibyl awaited punishment for infidelity to the god, the angry citizens of Delphi threatened to rip her apart. Only the kindness of a humble man who swept the temple saved her: While she hid in the sanctuary, he beat the crowd back with his broom. Strangely, in this moment of danger she experienced a new feeling of serenity with god and suddenly walked into the mob’s midst. Perhaps because they were taken aback by her audacity, her tormentors allowed her to escape into the mountains.

Throughout a long, hard winter, she foraged for food; then, in the spring, she noticed that she attracted animals, and she fed on goat’s milk. The child that grew within her, however, showed no sign of being ready to be born. Finally, during a furious lightning storm at the end of summer, a herd of goats led her to the mountain’s summit, where, on a carpet of goat dung that reminded her of the ritual cave at the temple, she gave birth. Only then did it occur to her that the child had been conceived by the god.

Now that she has finished her tale, the Sibyl wonders aloud over the cruel joke the god has played on her, whether the witless creature she has reared to manhood is indeed his child. Then, suddenly, she realizes that her son has disappeared, and she suspects that, despite his apparent insensibility, he has understood her lamentations. Frantically, she and Ahasuerus follow his footprints until, as though he had ascended bodily to Heaven, they vanish on the top of the mountain.

Observing her anguish, Ahasuerus speaks of her son’s departure as another terrible proof of divine malevolence, similar to his own curse, but the Sibyl rejects his conclusion. Life, she declares, can only be accepted; the ways of God lie beyond human comprehension. Ahasuerus refuses to be mollified, and, reminding her of the purpose that brought him to Delphi, he asks her to describe his destiny. Yet she can supply neither an explanation nor a prophecy. God, she says, is his destiny, and the hatred he feels may be merely his experience of the divine:“Perhaps one day he will bless you instead of cursing you.... Perhaps one day you will let him lean his head against your house. Perhaps you won’t. I know nothing about that. But whatever you may do, your fate will be forever bound up with god, your soul forever filled with god.”

As Ahasuerus treads down the mountainside to resume his unending journey, a girl clad for a nuptial ceremony with the god is seen walking the sacred path to the cave.

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