When Dr. Jose Rizal was exiled to Dapitan in Mindanao from 1892 to 1896, he busied himself in community development, a vocation vastly different from the role of political ideologue usually associated with him. He built a hospital, opened a school, organized a farmers’ cooperative, introduced the European style of brick-making, built the town’s first dam and irrigation system, and developed the community park. In all these, he harnessed the energy and resources of the local residents, demonstrating a model of community life founded on the people’s own initiative. On the side, his restless mind found time to invent a parlor game for young people.
Ironically, both his detractors and admirers thought that he was busy doing secret political work while on exile. It is not farfetched to think that if the manuscript “Haec est Sibylla Cumana” (“This is Sibylla Cumana”) had fallen into Spanish hands, his enemies would have tried to decipher it for hidden messages.
“Sybil” is the Greek word for priestess or prophetess who foretells the future. Sibylline books were books of oracles that were consulted during the early Greek and Roman period to determine the messages behind natural calamities and to learn how to appease the gods. The political leaders of the classical age also turned to these books for guidance when they needed to make crucial decisions. There were many such books that served the purpose, but the most famous were those that were reputed to have come from the Sybil of Cumae. Cumae was a Greek colony near Naples. Only someone steeped in classical literature, like Rizal, standing in the doorway of modern reason, could have thought of resurrecting the spirit of Sybilla Cumana for a parlor game.
Once a question is chosen, the player is asked to remember its number. The wooden top with eight sides is then spun. When it stumbles, the Roman numeral that appears face up indicates the number of the answer. With these two numbers, the player consults the table containing 52 rows and 8 columns. The number in the box where the first and second numbers intersect gives the page number in the book where the answer will be found. The answers lend themselves to all kinds of meanings. But one can imagine how a vague and silly answer to a general question can become the object of wild speculation, a source of anxiety, or the start of endless teasing by the rest of the group.
For instance, to the loaded question #51 – “Do I have to put up with a mother-in-law in my house?” – Rizal’s Sibylla offers a broad range of answers, always witty and unexpected: (I) “Love your spouse more and you will have less of a mother-in-law.” (II) “Yes, and she will be so good you will adore her afterwards.” (III) “Fortunately, because without her you will end up in hospital.” (IV) “No, because not even she will be able to stand you.” (V) “Yes, because you will choose the lesser evil.” (VI) “You will not meet her.” (VII) “If you want your spouse to respect your mother, you need to start adoring your mother-in-law.” (VIII) “A mother-in-law is not just a mother-in-law, she is also a mother: are you an enemy of mothers?”
Rizal must have had a great time composing the questions and answers, and embedding these in an elaborate table that preserves the element of chance. He himself pasted together sheets of onion-skin paper on which he wrote the questions and answers in Spanish, bound the pages into a beautifully handcrafted book using a sturdy recycled envelope as cover, and hand-carved the eight-sided top that came with the book. The exquisite craftsmanship is evident in the material qualities of the manuscript itself.
No wonder the descendants of Rizal’s sister Narcisa, to whom he gave the book when he closed down the house in Dapitan, took care of this heirloom as if it was the most important treasure in the world. Narcisa bequeathed it to her son Antonio Rizal Lopez who married Emiliana Rizal, the daughter of Paciano. Emiliana in turn entrusted it to her eldest son Francisco. It is one of the few Rizal mementos that survived the burning of Manila in World War II.
This Thursday, December 8, at 6 in the evening, at Auditorium 1 of the Ateneo Professional Schools in Rockwell Center, the Paciano Rizal Family Heritage, Inc. and Cruz Publishing are launching a beautiful replica of this unique parlor game. It shows a different facet in the personality of this genius of our race, Jose Rizal. The “Sibylla Rizaliana,” if I may call it that, comes in a finely crafted box that contains a replica of the original manuscript in Spanish, an English translation by Rizal’s relative, Gemma Cruz Araneta, and a Filipino translation by National Artist for Literature, Virgilio S. Almario. A German long-time resident, Konrad Woelhaf, created a faithful reproduction of the original top carved by Rizal. It is included in the box.
I salute the members of Rizal’s family for sharing this wonderful heirloom with today’s young Filipinos. The humor of Lolo Jose will not fail to come alive each time they consult his book of oracles and spin the top. I only hope the publishers have made enough copies to meet the demand from those who will be looking for a distinctive, stylish and meaningful gift this Christmas.