Ten Famous and Infamous Omens in the Ancient World
1. According to the Hittites, if a child were to be born in the first month, he will demolish his house.
The Hittite collection of omens is said to be derived entirely form the Mesopotamian tradition. These omens include those of an astronomical/celestial nature, dreams, signs obtained from divination, and those observed at the time of a person’s birth. Strangely, of the eight months listed, only two months are thought to be favourable for a child’s birth – the second month (the child will be healthy of heart) and the seventh month (a god will favour the child). All other months seemed to have negative bearings on a child’s future.
2. The use of dreams in ancient Egypt to foretell the future.
The Egyptian Book of Dreams (part of Papyrus No. III, Brit. Mus. 10683) is the earliest in existence, and may have been composed in the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 2000-1790 BC). In general, the format of the sentences is as follows: “If a man sees himself in a dream (doing such-and-such,) good (or bad); it means such-and-such a thing will happen.” One interesting feature of the interpretation of these dreams is the use of word play and puns. For instance, the words for "donkey" and "great" were homonyms (both words pronounced as “aa”), so a dream about eating donkey meat meant the individual would become great.
3. The appearance of a white elephant with six tusks in the dream of the Buddha’s mother on the night he was conceived.
The births of important historical figures are often said to be attended by wondrous signs. These signs were meant to be taken as an indication of the greatness awaiting these individuals. Whether these omens actually happened, however, is another question. The Buddha was no exception to this rule either, hence it is recorded that: “The same hour that spring was born, a dream came to Maya as she slept. She saw a young elephant descending from the sky. It had six great tusks; it was as white as the snow on mountain-tops. Maya saw it enter her womb, and thousands of Gods suddenly appeared before her. They praised her with immortal songs, and Maya understood that nevermore would she know disquietude or hatred or anger.”
The six-tusked elephant that was believed to have foretold the coming of Buddha. Photo source.
4. The conclusion of the Battle of Halys in 585 BC due to a solar eclipse.
In Book I of Herodotus’ Histories, is an investigation of the conflict between Croesus, the King of Lydia, and Cyrus, the King of Persia. In a typical ‘Herodotean’ fashion, he makes much digression and comes to the story of the Battle of Halys. Herodotus records that “In the sixth year a battle took place in which it happened, when the fight had begun, that suddenly the day became night. This change of the day Thales the Milesian had foretold to the Ionians laying down as a limit this very year in which the change took place. The Lydians however and the Medes, when they saw that it had become night instead of day, ceased from their fighting and were both much more eager that peace should be made between them.” Thus, a solar eclipse, which was seen as a sign from the gods, effectively ended the war between the Lydians and the Medes.
5. The foretelling of the fall of Tyre to Alexander the Great in 332 BC.
In Plutarch’s Life of Alexander , it is recorded that during the siege of Tyre by Alexander the Great, many Tyrians dreamt that Apollo, who had a statue in the city, was going away to Alexander. This omen was believed to signify that Tyre would fall to Alexander. The Tyrians were obviously not happy with that. What did they do about it? According to Plutarch, they “encircled his colossal figure with cords and nailed it down to its pedestal, calling him an Alexandrist.”
6. Alexander the Great’s death was predicted by several omens.
Ravens falling dead at his feet as he approached Babylon (the place where he would die), a sacrificed animal whose liver had no lobe, a lion in his menagerie being attacked and killed by a tame ass, and a prisoner, wearing the royal diadem and robes, seated on Alexander’s throne were the omens believed to have predicted Alexander’s death, according to Plutarch. However, it should be pointed out that Plutarch was using this as a tool to point out the dangers of superstitions, “So, you see, while it is a dire thing to be incredulous towards indications of the divine will and to have contempt for them, superstition is likewise a dire thing, which, after the manner of water ever seeking the lower levels, filled with folly the Alexander who was now become a prey to his fears.”