The Ancient Art of Augury

auguryPatterns exist throughout nature. For people ages ago, such things were considered messages from the gods. Decoding these encrypted communications was at the heart of ancient divination, a common practice of early civilizations.

Divination methods in antiquity varied in scope. Nearly anything could be viewed as an expression of divine will and available for interpretation, including dreams (oneiromancy), heavenly bodies (astrology), and entrails of sacrificed animals (haruspicy). Ornithomancy or augury, as it’s more commonly known, covered the domain of avian activity.

Primarily associated today with the Roman Empire, ancient augural forms concentrated on certain types of birds, using their appearance, flight, calls, and feeding to anticipate the likelihood of favorable or unfavorable occurrences.1 An owl perching near a public square signaled ominous potential;2 chickens gobbling grain before a possible battle suggested divine support for a military incursion.3 (More about the chickens shortly.) Most signs were sought (impetrative), but some were not (oblative/prodigal). In the case of the latter, the gods were interpreted as making statements through extraordinary incidents, usually as a harbinger to some punitive calamity.4

Popularity and Possible Origins

Much of what is known about augury in the classical world comes from the writings of the ancient Romans. The subject played a critical role in that culture’s politics and religion. Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, was said to have selected the site of his city based on a sighting of twelve large raptors, either vultures or eagles. The story is recounted by Cicero, the first-century BCE Roman orator, in his On Divination (Book 1). Cicero’s contemporary Virgil relates several instances of augury in his Aeneid, the principal politico-literary work of the Roman Empire.

“Sacred chickens” were integral to the augural activities of the empire. Senior officials consulted their feeding habits (to eat = positive; to not eat = negative) for decisions involving military and administrative action. The birds even traveled in cages with armies, requiring a chicken-keeper (pullarius) to maintain and care for the fowl. The Roman historian Livy (64/59 BCE–17 CE) details aspects of this augural practice in Book 10 of his History of Rome. There he also provides an account of the capital punishment inflicted on an augor/auspex for relaying a false reading.5 The Romans took their augury and chickens seriously!

The use of birds for divining purposes however predates the rise of Rome. Thousands of years old, the practice appears to have developed earlier in Asia Minor (Turkey). The first-century Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder attributes augury’s origins to a single person, an ancient king of this region. While all-too convenient and simple, this dubious reference in his Natural History (Book 7) may hint at the practice’s long-venerated status in that area.6

Application and Eventual Demise

Reported instances of augury occurred throughout the Anatolian peninsula and in other places along or near the eastern Mediterranean. Some of the earliest writings on this form of divination come from this region’s ancient Hittites,7 more than a couple millennia prior to Pliny. Homer’s Iliad describes the practice among both the Greeks and Trojans. For example, an eagle sighted clutching a small fawn, released for sacrifice to Zeus, inspires valor in the Greek warriors (Iliad, Book 8). One of the oddest accounts from ancient sources regarding birds and divination is by Dionysios of Halikarnassos, a first-century BCE Greek historian. He writes of a temple where a woodpecker and doves serve as oracles.8

For the ancient Romans, though, conducting auspices was not about predicting the future. It was a formal system, more ceremonial than prognostic, developed for gauging whether the gods felt positively or negatively about a proposed action. 9, 10 In essence, think Magic 8 Ball rather than crystal ball. Before matters such as calling forth a public gathering or advancing troops in combat, consultations were routinely made.11, 12 The official then could either heed or ignore the assessment.13, 14 On the whole, since augury was sanctioned by the government, checking again later was advisable to simply disregarding the reading. After all, the gods could change their minds and circumstances turn favorable.

In time, major societal shifts and upheavals led the Romans to abandon their gods and ritualized augury practice. Only a few everyday reminders of that ancient pastime remain. One is through language, with words such as auspicious and inauguration.15 Another, though not directly related to Roman augury, exists in similar but less complicated avian divination forms in folklore (e.g., weather forecasting).

Sources:

  1. Adkins, L, Adkins, RA. Dictionary of Roman Religion. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1996. p. 23.
  2. Beard, M, North, J, Price, S. Religions of Rome (Volume 2). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. p. 174.
  3. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) An Introduction to Roman Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003. p. 116.
  4. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) pp. 113, 114, 117.
  5. Jaucourt, L. (Translator: Goodman, D.) “Poulets Sacrés (Sacred Chickens).” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert. Vol. 13 (1765), p. 203. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Publishing (University of Michigan Library): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/did2222.0000.865/–sacred-chickens?rgn=main;view=fulltext.
  6. Mouton, A, Rutherford I. “Luwian Religion, A Research Project: The Case of ‘Hittite’ Augury.” Luwian Identities: Culture, Language and Religion Between Anatolia and the Aegean. (Editors: Mouton, A, Rutherford, I, Yakubovich, I.) Boston, MA: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2013. pp. 338–339.
  7. Mouton, A, Rutherford I. pp. 329–330.
  8. British archeologist Sir William Halliday proposes that clerics in avian costume , rather than actual birds, at the Matiene temple as the “most plausible explanation” of these oracles in Dionysios’s report (from Book 1 of Roman Antiquities). For more information, please see Halliday, WR. Greek Divination: A Study of Its Methods and Principles. Chicago, IL: Argonaut, Inc., 1967. pp. 265–266, 268.
  9. Adkins, L, Adkins, RA. pp. 23–24.
  10. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) pp. 112–114.
  11. Beard, M, North, J, Price, S. p. 166.
  12. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) pp. 113–116.
  13. Adkins, L, Adkins, RA. p. 24.
  14. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) p. 113.
  15. Oxford Dictionaries. “Under the Auspices of White Elephants?!” OxfordWords blog: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/01/phrase-and-punctuation-origins.
Advertisements

13 thoughts on “The Ancient Art of Augury

  1. I had to smile at the reference to weather forecasting. I still depend on the rain raven. My grandmother taught me to watch for it as a sign of rain, and in the course of several decades, it’s been pretty darned dependable.

    This is a fascinating history. Once I got past a vision of people on the Washington Mall casting entrails on inauguration day, I did a little research. William Blake’s poem, “Auguries of Innocence,” came to mind as I was reading your post, but I didn’t remember it being particularly concerned with birds. My mistake. Re-reading it with this background in mind, it’s clear that he’s using the word in its precise meaning. Of course, he roams a little farther afield and includes other things, like the famous “grain of sand” in which we see the world, but the poem becomes much richer with the meaning of “augury” made clear.

    Thanks for this remarkably interesting post!

    1. Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” is a mesmerizing poem and among my favorites of the British Romantics. You’re right: he cites numerous birds but writes of many other animals and situations, evocative of the proverbs in his “Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Thanks, Linda, for mentioning this poem! It’s not only a nice a tie-in to the subject of augury but a true classic. I’d be interested in reading a post you may do it!

  2. Great post. My grandmother always taught me to be observant. Unfortunately, I have forgotten most of her weather tips. I do remember a ‘swallow test” 🙂 If the swallows fly very low in the evening, tomorrow will be raining.

    1. Thanks! The tip from your grandmother seems to have some truth to it. Birds will fly lower when barometric pressure decreases, and the latter usually indicates a greater chance of rain. So the “swallow test” can be helpful!

  3. Apparently when the Romans were fighting a naval battle and the sacred chickens refused to eat, the sailors threw the chickens overboard saying ‘let them drink, since they will not eat.’ The Romans thought this was a disaster for the war against Carthage!

    1. I’m glad you brought this up. I thought about including this bit of info in my post, but it was getting rather long. It was a command whose navy ended up getting decimated in battle, right? So much in this case for not heeding the chickens!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s