Omens in the Ancient World
In the ancient world, omens, especially bad omens, were not to be taken lightly. In ancient civilisations, the world was thought to be inhabited by supernatural forces. These forces were capable of affecting the lives of mortals, and omens were a manifestation of their will and the potential course of future events. So, how did the concept of omens start?
The earliest records of omens can be traced back to the ancient Mesopotamians. This can be seen in the cuneiform texts dating to the Old Babylonian period (2 nd millennium BC). However, the concept of omens may have taken shape even earlier than that, perhaps in the 3 rd millennium BC. This may be seen in the cylinders of King Gudea (c. 2144-2124 BC), who required an auspicious sign from his patron god, Ningirsu, as an approval for the building a new temple in his city state, Lagash. Therefore, it has been suggested that prior to the recording of omens in cuneiform, they were transmitted orally by the diviners of ancient Mesopotamia.
Figure 1: A dolerite statue of King Gudea in the British Museum (photo taken by author).
The format of omens was the same as those found in Mesopotamian knowledge texts or scientific handbooks. In these texts, sentences were divided into two parts – the “protasis” and the “apodosis”. While the “protasis” indicated an observation or a hypothesis, the “apodosis” expressed the outcome of the observation. In the case of omens, this meant the prediction of future events based on the signs revealed by supernatural forces. Hence, the formula of omens in ancient Mesopotamia may be said to be thus: “If P, then Q.” Using this formula, the Mesopotamians expanded their recordings of omens from simple observations and recordings to theorisation and systematisation. In addition, word play and puns also contributed to the interpretation of omens. Interestingly, these elements can also be seen in the interpretation of omens as recorded in the ancient Egypt Book of Dreams .
Although omens foretold future events, it may be pointed out that the concept of predestination probably did not exist in ancient Mesopotamian thought, and that one’s future was not set in stone. Therefore, omens were viewed as foretelling a conditional future, rather than one that was irrevocable. This is due to the Mesopotamian belief that there was an assembly of gods, similar to a modern parliament perhaps, that convened to decide on the course of worldly affairs and the fate of mortals. These decisions were then passed on to human beings in the form of omens, auspicious ones as signs of consent, and inauspicious ones as warnings of impending disaster. As these decisions were not irrevocable, one’s future could be changed through the performance of ritual measures provided by the Namburbi texts. Through these rituals, an appeal to the gods is made on behalf of the person affected by the ill omen, in the hope that his/her fate may be changed. The knowledge of these rituals probably brought about social stratification and the emergence of a class of priestly elites in ancient Mesopotamia. The effectiveness of these rituals, however, would be another issue to be considered.
From Mesopotamia, the concept of omens spread to various parts of the Old World. In the various cultures of the Old World, including that of the, Greeks, Hittites, Romans and Indians, the knowledge of the Mesopotamian omen tradition can be traced. For instance, it has been pointed out that haruspicy, a Roman method of divination through the inspection of the liver of a sacrificed animal, has its origins in Mesopotamia. Hence, it may be said that the influence of the Mesopotamian knowledge of omens extended in both space and time. Perhaps, the appeal of omens in ancient cultures had something to do with a part of our human nature, that is to say our desire to explain what is going on in the world. In the ancient world, the interpretation of omens could perhaps be said to be the state of the art method of explaining the universe.
Liver models used for the interpretation of omens.
TOP: Mesopotamian clay liver model with cuneiform inscriptions.
BOTTOM: Bronze liver model with Etruscan inscriptions. (Burkert, 1992, p. 47)
Featured image: A text describing omens based on eclipses, Assyria, 7th century BC. Photo source .
Part 2 (tomorrow): Famous Omens in History
Annus, A., 2010. On the Beginnings and Continuities of Omen Sciences in the Ancient World. In: A. Annus, ed. Divination and Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the Unversity of Chicago, pp. 1-18.