The Prophets: The Sibyl, Ezekiel, Tiresias



The Sibyl of Cumae

A sibyl is any female prophet capable of seeing the future. The Sibyl of Cumae in particular was the high priestess of Apollo in the town of Cumae, near modern day Naples. She gained her powers by attracting the attention of the sun god Apollo who offered her anything if she would spend a single night with him. She asked for as many years of life as grains of sand she could squeeze into her hand but forgot to wish for eternal youth and so she slowly shrivelled into a frail undying body, so tiny that she could fit into a jar. Her container was hung from a tree and children would stand beneath her urn and tease, "Sibyl, Sibyl, what do you wish?" To which she would faintly reply, "I wish to die."


The Sibyl was not only Aeneas’ guide through the underworld but more importantly she told him that in order to get back out of the underworld he would need to find a golden bough growing on a tree hidden in the forest near Cumae. If Eliot sees himself as our guide out of the Wasteland then this might explain why he opens his poem with an allusion to her.




Tiresias features in the legend of ‘Oedipus the King’ as told by the great Greek tragedian Sophocles. Tiresias is blind but although he cannot see the physical world he has a greater understanding of the spiritual world, an understanding that perhaps mirrors Eliot’s relationship with his readers. The readers can see only the immediate, sensuous, physical world which appears to be becoming more affluent and more free after the end of World War One while, in contrast, Eliot can see through this to the spiritual and emotional Wasteland underneath.


At the start of the play Oedipus has unwittingly killed his father and married his mother and as a result of this unnatural behaviour the Gods have set a plague on his home town of Thebes. In order to rid the land of the plague, Oedipus summons the prophet Tiresias to tell him what to do and, even though he knows why Oedipus is being punished, Tiresias refuses to tell him the truth for fear of the consequences. This evokes another image of the prophet that runs through the Wasteland: the idea of a visionary who can see the awful truth but is powerless to do anything about it.


Ultimately, Tiresias does tell Oedipus the truth at which point he is blinded and exiled from the city as punishment for his unnatural deeds. In the third of the trilogy Oedipus eventually finds a measure of peace at Colonus after wandering in exile for years. This echoes another theme that runs through the Wasteland, that of a difficult moment of realization followed by a painful journey towards a moment of final resolution.




Ezekiel was a prophet who was summoned by God to deliver a message to the Israelites, God’s chosen people, who has lost their way and no longer worshipped God as he wished. Note again the importance of prophecy to Eliot and the idea of a message coming from God to guide lost people back to the path of righteousness, all of which are ideas with clear relevance to Eliot’s view of himself and the Wasteland. Here are the most important extracts from the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel is visited by a vision of God, and God says to him:


"Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you." As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. He said: "Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says.' And whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are a rebellious house, they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you."


Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. And he said to me, "Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel." So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. Then he said to me, "Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it." So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.


He then said to me: "Son of man, go now to the house of Israel and speak my words to them. You are not being sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel, not to many peoples of obscure speech and difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely if I had sent you to them, they would have listened to you. But the house of Israel is not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for the whole house of Israel is hardened and obstinate. But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house."


And he said to me, "Son of man, listen carefully and take to heart all the words I speak to you. Go now to your countrymen in exile and speak to them. Say to them, 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says,' whether they listen or fail to listen."