Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The Sibyl

The Sibyl, an old woman who occupied the position of pythia, or oracle, at Delphi. She was given by her parents into the service of the Delphic god of prophecy, who, in this story, is a combination of Apollo (represented by serpents) and Dionysus (represented by goats). Having spent her adolescence and much of her young womanhood as the bride of the god, she violates her office by having sexual union with a man whom she loves. The man very shortly meets his death, and the Sibyl gives birth, not to his son, as she had expected, but to the son of the Delphic god. She listens to the story of a male visitor to her mountain hut and then relates her own story, while her son, now an aging idiot, sits silent and perpetually smiling in her presence.

The Sibyl’s visitor

The Sibyl’s visitor, a man with the features of early middle age who is recognizable in the story of himself that he relates to the Sibyl as Ahasuerus (ah-hah-sew-AY-ruhs), The Wandering Jew. He had had a wife and son in the city of his birth. One day, he refused to let a man, who was carrying a cross, rest against his house. The man, whom people later identified as God’s son, laid on Ahasuerus the curse of eternal life without rest. Ahasuerus seeks from the Sibyl advice and an answer to the mystery of life and the inscrutability of the deity. Her story impresses him but does not lessen his perplexity, and he departs...

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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The tale’s protagonists represent contrasting responses to life’s mystery. Lacking charity, Ahasuerus seeks a meaning for existence that is based solely on reason and justice; since no such answer can be revealed to him, he is doomed to search forever. Not even the whole of the world can deliver satisfaction, because he is ultimately inadequate within himself. That human limitation is the basis of his suffering—a kind of crucifixion akin to the human agony of Jesus on the Cross. The Sibyl, on the other hand, is wholly giving and makes herself completely vulnerable to the divine will. Nevertheless, her love is also not a final answer. At the end, she seems to understand that love is only the means for acceptance of the mystery.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Scandinavica. X, no. 1 (1971). Special Lagerkvist issue.

Spector, Robert Donald. Pär Lagerkvist, 1973.

Swanson, Roy A. “Evil and Love in Lagerkvist’s Crucifixion Cycle,” in Scandinavian Studies. XXXVIII (November, 1966), pp. 302-317.

Vowles, Richard B. “The Fiction of Pär Lagerkvist,” in Western Humanities Review. VIII (Spring, 1954), pp. 111-119.

Weathers, Winston. Pär Lagerkvist: A Critical Essay, 1968.