“Haec Est Sybilla Cumana”
An Improvised Parlor Game by Jose Rizal
|A drawing of a frightened old woman was on the cover. The Latin title – Haec Est Sibylla Cumana and Jose Rizal’s signature intrigued me.
Choose a question. Remember the number. Twist the tiny top. Look at the Roman numeral. Match the number to the answer chart. Look it up. Think about it. If it makes sense, use it as a message. If it reveals more than you can handle, shrug it off. If you are young, laugh. If you are older and wiser, think twice and steel yourself for action.
On my way out of a cool and light filled house on my last Saturday in Manila, my friend approached me holding a silk covered box in her hands. “Here,” she said, “It was made by Jose Rizal, and was just released this Christmas.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“It a fortune telling game, an oracle. Only the Rizal family knew about it. They just published it,” she said.
I looked at the box on my way out the door. A drawing of a frightened old woman was on the cover. The Latin title—Haec Est Sibylla Cumana and Jose Rizal’s signature intrigued me.
I’m not a fan of fortune telling. I abstain for religious reasons and because it seems to me, from experience, that every person’s life is an epic. We just don’t talk about it.
I cry at weddings now because I know that for any bride and groom to get to the twenty year mark,they will have had to suffer upheavals and frights that would rival any telenovela writer’s imagination. Don’t believe me? Start asking strangers questions. You will be amazed!
I began to wonder if this box contained an adventure for me. I started reading and it began to unfold like a treasure within a treasure.
In 1892—the year Jose Rizal went into exile—the Philippines was on the brink of a revolution. Rizal, author of Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, novels critical of the Spanish church and government, was a fire burning brightly. In an attempt to silence him, the authorities banished him to rural Dapitan on the northern coast of Mindanao.
Rizal’s genius seemed to have no end. He was a polyglot who learned new languages by memorizing five root words of a language every day . He was a novelist whose imagination moved a nation to revolt. He was a gifted doctor, teacher, and agriculturist. His was a large and loving family that had suffered brutally under the Spanish friar rule.
|As the curtains of life were drawn on Rizal’s last and happiest year, he was trying to find a way to personal freedom. Josephine was living with him as a common-law spouse.
In 1872, Rizal’s mother, Teodora Alonso was imprisoned on trumped up charges. The charge was attempted murder, the alleged victim—her sister-in-law. She spent two and a half years in jail, while her case worked its way through the Spanish court system. She was acquitted of all wrongdoing.
Unbeknownst to many, Rizal’s one triviality was a love for the lottery. In 1892, he bought a share in a winning lottery ticket. With his windfall he bought beautiful acreage in Dapitan . He built three houses, one square, one hexagonal, one octagonal. He started a school where the boys were taught in English. He prospered in Dapitan. One day a boat sailed in carrying a blind man and his adopted daughter. Her name was Josephine Bracken. Rizal fell in love and wanted to marry her.
Rizal’s plans to marry in Dapitan were rejected by church authorities. His family did not approve of his love for Josephine. Stuck in an impossible situation, he appealed to the women in his family to be kind to Josephine. Anyone who has been involved in a Filipino family drama surrounding an unpopular potential in-law will empathize with Rizal’s situation. Perhaps this is why 19 of the 52 questions he created for the Sybilla Game set were about love and marriage in the 19th century Philippines.
As the curtains of life were drawn on Rizal’s last and happiest year, he was trying to find a way to personal freedom. Josephine was living with him as a common-law spouse.
He applied to be a volunteer doctor in the Spanish medical corps in Cuba. He left Dapitan, expecting to find his way to Cuba. Instead, he spent most of a year as a prisoner aboard ships as the governments in both Cuba and the Philippines dealt with the beginnings of their revolutions.
Rizal created the game in an atmosphere of great happiness. In a year’s time he would be dead—but at that moment under the coconut trees and cooled by the sea breezes in his own small kingdom, he looked forward to a happy future.
In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the sibyls were prophets, who dispensed guidance to pilgrims who travelled to consult them. Rizal’s Sibylla was based on the prophet who lived on the island of Cumae, near present day Naples. Sibylla of Cumae appears in Virgil’s Aenid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo.
When one plays Haec Est Sibylla Cumana, the player chooses a question, spins a small top and looks up an answer from a chart. Rizal wrote out 52 questions, and 416 answers for his oracle-game. The answer the player gets can be mysterious, banal, or funny. Like the I Ching, it speaks to the subconscious mind.
A spin of the top introduces the element of chance. For instance, if one chose Question #1 -“What will my future be?”, the answer might be:Answer 4, No. VIII“A vegetable is born, lives, multiplies and dies…and the uncultivated vegetable produces fruit inferior to its seed.
|When Rizal left Dapitan, he entrusted the game to his sister, Narcisa Rizal Lopez. The game was kept a secret within the family as the fate of the archipelago played out.
Question # 33 “Will My Mother Know?” might have this answer: Anwer 52, No IV. “She knows nothing but suspects something.”
Question #43 “Will Indiscretions be committed? The answer might be Answer 28, No. VI:“Certainly, you would have done better by keeping quiet.”
The play between the questions and the possible answers will provide endless fun or grave warning depending on the mood of the fortune seekers. It was meant to be to provide hours of levity.
The original Sibylla Cumana consisted of a small top and a booklet made by Rizal handwritten on thin pieces of paper and glued together. He made the cover out of a recycled envelope from New York and bound the booklet by hand.
When Rizal left Dapitan, he entrusted the game to his sister, Narcisa Rizal Lopez. The game was kept a secret within the family as the fate of the archipelago played out. From its incarnation as Las Islas Filipinas, to the Philippine Islands, to the Republic of the Philippines, through People Power, and Pinatubo, through devastating typhoons and natural disasters, through the diaspora and the millennium, the Rizal family descendants watched over the game and kept it concealed.
Narcisa kept it for years and then bequeathed it to her son, Antonio Rizal Lopez. Antoniomarried Emiliana,the daughter of Rizal’s brother Paciano. During World War II, when the family evacuated from Manila, Emiliana entrusted the book to her youngest son, Jose Rizal Lopez.The family in flight sought refuge in Los Banos, Laguna. The heirloom was kept in a leather portfolio, wrapped in green cloth and then in a burlap bag as the family climbed Mt. Makiling to safety. Afterwards, the family was going to travel by banca (canoe) to Cabuyao, on the banks of Laguna de Bay. There was not enough room for everyone, so Jose handed the treasure back to his mother. She kept it for years and bequeathed it to her oldest son, Francisco R. Lopez. This original Sibylla Cumana remains in the custody of the family.
Thanks to modern printing techniques, digital scanning and the wonders of technology, the original oracle has been made into a gift from the Rizal family to Filipinos of our generation and beyond.
|The game is a fascinating slice of Filipino personality and Rizal’s keen perception of Filipino ways during this time.
In honor of Jose Rizal’s 150th birth anniversary, Paciano Rizal Family Heritage, Inc. and Cruz Publishing cooperated to produce this special edition of Haec Est Sibylla Cumana. It comes in a silk covered box with of two booklets and a small carved top with small eight sided top carved with Roman numerals. The original handwritten manuscript of Rizal is reproduced in its quirky entirety in the first booklet. All the details of the original are there to enjoy, from the folding clasp of the envelope, to the ink blot on the interior cover. There is a Rizal family tree on the inside back cover, and faint scribbles in pencil, as well as an inkblot on the interior cover.
The second booklet in the boxed set—the one used to play the game—has 145 pages and contains the English and Tagalog translations by Gemma Cruz Araneta, and Virgilio S. Almario.
The foreword provided by Serafin D. Quiason, Ph.D gives a pithy background on the relationship between Rizal and the “Sibyls” of Greek mythology, as well as the historical context of this creation.
The game is a fascinating slice of Filipino personality and Rizal’s keen perception of Filipino ways during this time. As publisher Carmen Guerrero Nakpil notes, “Maybe, with this final gesture, Rizal was telling us not to be afraid of the future, and was wishing us joy, a light heart, and companionable group fun.”
I tried the game, in order to write about it properly, quietly harboring the hope of a good answer. I chose Question 11. “Will I live long?”
The top gave me the Roman numeral VII with the answer on page 5.
“It is up to you to lengthen it, by being methodical in the way you live, otherwise, it will be very brief and death will surprise you when you still have done nothing.”
Coming from a three week extravaganza of food and fun in the Philippines, this was a sobering reminder of what I had to do. I began my nutritional plan again in earnest.
Interested customers can order the book from Cruz Publishing. Written inquiries can be sent to:
Cruz Publishing, 1006 Tower One and Exchange Plaza, Ayala Avenue, Makati City, Philippines. The phone number is 011-632-891-1945 and the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Zaide, Gregorio ,”Jose Rizal: Life, Works, and Writings of a Genius, Writer, Scientist, and National Hero.”pp.25, 220 All Nations Publishing Company
Lisa, Luis and de Pedro, Javier, “Romance and Revolution” p. 43, University of Asia and the Pacific
Official Jose Rizal Website, http://www.joserizal.ph/dp03.html
 Official Jose Rizal Website, http://www.joserizal.ph/dp03.html
 Zaide, Gregorio ,”Jose Rizal: Life, Works, and Writings of a Genius, Writer, Scientist, and National Hero.”pp.25, All Nations Publishing Company
 Zaide, Gregorio ,”Jose Rizal: Life, Works, and Writings of a Genius, Writer, Scientist, and National Hero.”pp.220, All Nations Publishing Company
 Official Jose Rizal Website, http://www.joserizal.ph/dp03.html
 Lisa, Luis and de Pedro, Javier, “Romance and Revolution” p. 43, University of Asia and the Pacific
© Kathleen Joaquin Burkhalter
top | about the author
Interview with Ivy Alvarez,
OOV Resident Poet 2012
by Aileen Ibardaloza-Cassinetto
A Poet’s Journey – The American Story of Luisa Aguilar Igloria
by Kathleen Joaquin Burkhalter
Discourse for The Loyola Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities
by Nonon Padilla
“Haec Est Sybilla Cumana” An Improvised Parlor Game by Jose Rizal
by Kathleen Joaquin Burkhalter