Game book reveals Rizal as comic oracle

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc () - December 30, 2011 - 12:00am

Published recently by his descendants is an unknown work of José Rizal. Entitled Haec Est Sibylla Cumana, it is not a novel or a collection of poems and essays. It is a game.

Inspired by the prophecies of The Sibyl of Cumae, as depicted by the Roman historian Livy and poets Ovid and Virgil, Sibylla Cumana consists of 52 questions about the future, each with eight possible answers. It doesn’t matter how many players join the game or turns they take. What’s important is to read aloud the question on what’s to come and the predictive answer.

Sample questions: Will I marry whom I please? Will I be lucky in business? Which shall I choose, the big one or the small one? Should I be hurt by what has happened to me? Is their lack of news deliberate?

For the answer to your question, you must spin an octagonal top, the sides Roman-numbered I to VIII. When the top stops and falls on its side, you then look up the number’s corresponding answer.

The questions and answers can be eerily prophetic  and hilarious. At the book launching this month the publishers demonstrated how to play Sibylla Cumana. An innocent lass was on hand to spin the top. Hypothetically Question 34 was asked by a very well known bachelor-President of the Philippines: “Does my family want me to marry?” The top was spun and landed on its side number VI. The hall burst into guffaws when the lass read the corresponding answer: “It will be a long wait.”

Again in imaginary jest Question No. 11 was asked by a notably wise, old Senate President: “Will I live long?” More laughter when the top pointed to the divination: “Not as much as you deserve.”

Of course, Question 14 just had to be asked  still hypothetically, so bato-bato sa langit, tamaan ay huwag magalit  by a famous hospital-detained ex-President whose tenure often was criticized as transactional: “What do they say about me?” The crowd turned silent; everyone could hear the top spin and drop. The Sybilla Cumana’s answer, side III, was for everyone’s delectation: “Yes, because these days everything is business, even politics.”

Rizal was so learned because well read in many European tongues. He knew that the Roman senators consulted the oracle Sibyl to divine the best options, or why the gods were sending calamities. He patterned his game after it.

It was 1895. Rizal was in exile in Dapitan, having incensed the Spanish authorities with the publication of his fiery novels. He kept himself busy teaching planting to the local boys, arts and crafts to the girls, and manners to all. He collected insects and plants, sending the specimen to research centers in Europe in exchange for books, and in the process getting two species named after him. Winning the lotto, he used the prize to erect a medical clinic. Josephine Bracken was by his side. His family often came to visit for grand reunions; he described in subsequent letters that Christmas of 1895 as his happiest ever.

But the news coming in from Luzon was troubling. The crackdown on dissent was getting worse. Revolution was in the air. Rizal was being mentioned as probably involved; he would in fact be accused of such and executed the following year. Filipinos were very uneasy about the outlook. That was the general situation when our great hero conceived Haec Est Sibylla Cumana. The venerable Carmen Guerrero Cruz Nakpil noted as its publisher, “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.”

The game reveals not only Rizal’s literary but also mathematical depth. He devised a chart (reproduced in the book) of eight columns representing the answer numbers and 52 lines for the questions, with each of the foci assigned a related topic number.

In Sibylla Cumana shows Rizal’s dexterity: he whittled the wooden top himself. And his humor: like, Question 38 is “Which of the two wears the pants?” And imagination: Answer V to Question 11 is: “A foreigner will ask for your hand. The day after he will ask for a thousand pesetas from your father, who will refuse and be accused of being miserly. Relationships will be broken.”

Sibylla Cumana tells us what was going on in the minds of our forebears at the time. Who would think that Pepe Pimentel jokes were already in vogue then, as Question 51 shows: “Do I have to put up with a mother-in-law in my house?”

Every Filipino would want to have a part of Rizal in the house, and Haec Est Sibylla Cumana is one of the best ways. The set, priced P950, features the main book in the original Spanish. There is an English translation, This Is Sibylla Cumana, by Gemma Cruz Araneta, descended from Rizal’s brother Paciano, the Katipunan general. And one in Filipino, Si Sibylla Cumana Ito, by national artist for literature Virgilio S. Almario.

They come in a box, a replica of the original container when Rizal turned it over to his sister Narcisa Rizal Lopez for safekeeping. (How her family guarded it with their lives through the Revolution, the Philippine-American War, and the Japanese invasion is retold in riveting detail in the foreword.) Completing the set is a repro of Rizal’s wooden top.

You can order from Cruz Publishing, 1006 Tower One & Exchange Plaza, Ayala Avenue, Makati; (+632) 8911945 or 8919191;

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ, (882-AM).

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