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.”
7. The Roman emperor Galba took the birth of a foal by a mule as a good omen.
Whether an omen was regarded as auspicious or not depended on its interpreter. This can be seen in the case of the Roman emperor, Galba. Suetonius wrote that: “Again, when Galba’s grandfather was busy with a sacrifice for a stroke of lightning, and an eagle snatched the intestines from his hand and carried them to an oak full of acorns, the prediction was made that the highest dignity would come to the family, but late; whereupon he said with a laugh: “Very likely, when a mule has a foal.” Afterwards when Galba was beginning his revolt, nothing gave him so much encouragement as the foaling of a mule, and while the rest were horrified and looked on it as an unfavourable omen, he alone regarded it as most propitious, remembering the sacrifice and his grandfather saying. It may be pointed out that the birth of a foal by a mule was seen as an “unnatural birth”, as recorded in Herodotus’ account of the ill omens accompanying Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 BC. Thus, as Galba’s understanding of the incident was different from his associates, so too was the interpretation.
8. Xerxes’s ignorance of bad omens led to a disastrous military expedition in Greece.
Apart from the birth of the foal by a mule, other omens foretold the failure of Xerxes’ expedition. These included another unnatural birth – supposedly that of a hare by a horse, and several dreams. Instead of heeding the omens, however, Xerxes ignored them, and invaded Greece. The rest, as they say, is history. Interestingly, in Herodotus’ Histories, it was the Persians, and never the Greeks who did not heed the omens, which inevitably led to disaster. In this respect, The Histories may be seen as a victor’s version of the events that happened, and that the omens were used as a dramatic tool to highlight the predestined failure of the Persian campaign.
Figure 2: Not quite Xerxes, picture taken from 300 (s9.com Biographical Dictionary , 2010) .
Figure 1: Xerxes, picture taken from Persepolis Palace (Zirnevis, 2007).
9. Nine sparrows that were devoured by a serpent foretold the ten years that will be spent by the Greeks before conquering Troy.
The Iliad is filled with omens, as the gods regularly interfered with the affairs of mortals. The said omen took place in Aulis while the Greeks were making sacrifices before setting out for Troy. This can be found in Book II of the Iliad: “A snake, and his back streak red with blood,… He slid from under the altar, glided up the tree and there the brood of a sparrow, helpless young ones, teetered high on the topmost branch-tips, cowering under the leaves there, eight they were all told and the mother made the ninth,…. As the snake devoured the sparrow with her brood,… so we will fight in Troy that many years and then, then in the tenth we’ll take her broad streets.”
10. The fire in the sky that frightened one ruler and inspired another
Like solar and lunar eclipses, ancient military leaders also pondered the meaning of comets when they appeared in the heavens. That was certainly the case for Harold II, ruler of England on the eve of the Norman invasion of 1066. When Halley’s comet arrived in the night sky, which was reportedly nearly as bright as the moon, the Anglo Saxon leader and his army believed it was a bad omen. Harold had assumed the throne after the death of Edward the Confessor, much to the outrage of William the Duke of Normandy, who had also claimed the title. The comet’s appearance left Harold with the sinking feeling that the inevitable showdown would end in defeat for his army. On the other side of the channel, William saw the same comet. Instead of being frightened by it, he believed it was a good omen and a message from God to press on with his attack, leading to Harold’s eventual death and William’s control of England. Halley’s Comet appears on the famous Bayeux Tapestry, the 230-foot-long embroidery that chronicles the famous battle.
Featured image: The famous Bayeux Tapestry depicting Halley’s comet, which was seen as a bad omen by Harold II and a good omen by William the Conqueror. Photo source: Wikipedia
Bryce, T., 2002. Life and Society in the Hittite World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
British Museum, Dept. of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, Gardiner, A. H. (ed.), 1935. Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum, Series III, Vol. I . London: British Museum.
Homer, The Iliad,
[Fagles, R. (trans.), 1990, Homer’s Iliad. London: Penguin.]
Herodotus, The Histories ,
[Waterfield, R. (trans.), 1998. Herodotus’ The Histories . Oxford: Oxford University Press.]
Internet Sacred Text Archive, 2011. The Life of the Buddha, Part One: 2. Maya's Dream. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/lob/lob04.htm [Accessed 3 March 2014].
Mikalson, J. D., 2003. Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars. Chapel Hill; London: The University of North Carolina Press.
Plutarch, Life of Alexander ,
[Perrin, B. (trans.), 1919. Plutarch's Lives: Vol. VII. London: William Heinemann.]
s9.com Biographical Dictionary , 2010. Xerxes I (Xerxes the Great; also Khsayarsha, Ahasuerus). [Online]
Available at: http://www.s9.com/Biography/Xerxes-I
[Accessed 9 March 2014].
Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Galba,
[Rolfe, J. C. (trans.), 1970. The Lives of the Caesars, Vol. I . London: William Heinemann Ltd.]
Stratos, A., 2013. Egypt: Perchance to Dream: Dreams and Their Meaning in Ancient Egypt. [Online]
Available at: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/dream.htm
[Accessed 3 March 2014].
Thayer, B., 2008. Cicero on Divination. [Online]
Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cicero/de_Divinatione/home.html
[Accessed 3 March 2014]
Zirnevis, 2007. File:Xerxes Persepolis.jpg. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Xerxes_Persepolis.jpg
[Accessed 9 March 2014].