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.

Much Ado ‘bout Bird Poo

birdpoop

People have long exploited birds, predominantly for their feathers, meat, and eggs. Among the least likely item on such lists includes something the average person today would consider to have little or no practical purpose—poop.

Yet, for centuries human ingenuity has discovered incredible ways to utilize this waste product, ranging from ingredients for generating munitions to creating skin care products. Here’s the scoop on just a few items, some still in use today.

The Obvious One—Fertilizer, of Course

Anyone who has parked his or her car near some trees only to return hours later and find the vehicle splattered with white, pasty dung has experienced the typical revulsion towards bird poop. The scorn of municipalities that’s frequently directed towards pigeons is due in large part to their unsightly feces on sidewalks and building walls (1). Similarly, the massive amounts of droppings left behind around walkways, parks, and statues by the common starling, a bird that roosts in large numbers, has in turn resulted in animosity toward the migrating creatures (2). In suburbia, larger birds are problematic. To maintain areas clear for human activity, officials now drive flocks of Canada geese away from public lakes, golf courses, and waterways (3). With this almost war-on-birds mentality, you’d think that for many folks, birds are more often than not a nuisance.

But not all poop is reviled (nor the birds that produce it). In some areas of the world, bird feces—known as guano—once fueled a lucrative fertilizer industry. The extensive layers of droppings left by Guanay cormorants, brown pelicans, Peruvian boobies, and other seabirds along Peru’s coast (4) have long been recognized by the native people there as a highly valued farming resource (5, 6). By the mid-19th century, outsiders had discovered that such areas in the Central Pacific and the Caribbean harbored what was colloquially called “white gold”, to be claimed, mined, and exported (7). The fertilizer craze of this period—growing populations require more food—resulted in naval skirmishes, piracy, forced slave labor, and island land-grabs (8). Since that time exploitative processes, from guano extraction to overfishing, have devastated this region’s bird populations (9, 10). The mountains of bird feces once deposited in these spots are no more.

An Explosive Combination

Doves are revered as symbols of peace; so, one may be surprised to learn that their droppings were once used by the British monarchy as a munitions ingredient (11, 12). Long before the marvels of modern chemistry, people relied instead on natural collections of potassium nitrate or saltpeter, a compound necessary for making gunpowder. Although not readily abundant, potassium nitrate turns out to be prevalent in… you guessed it… dried pigeon and dove feces. And since the citizenry’s dovecots were ideal sources for such dung, the British government laid claim to all saltpeter in those structures, making laws permitting agents of the crown to scrape and dig up the material (13). Bird droppings, thus, played an important, if oft forgotten, role in British history.

“No Fun” Beautifying Facials

Truth indeed is stranger than fiction, as yet another case clearly demonstrates. The bush warbler “nightingales” (uguisu) in Japan are known for their song, but the birds have quite a reputation, too, for what’s dispatched from their other end. Due to its moisturizing and restorative effects, their poop (uguisu no fun) has been used for centuries in that country as a skincare product. In particular, the droppings were applied to remove the white make-up worn by courtesans (geishas) and Kabuki actors. Such face paint traditionally contained lead and zinc, which were harsh on the skin, and the uguisu no fun’s urea and guanine helped combat the make-up’s damaging effects (14). Today, some spas in the United States charge more than $150 for a “Geisha facial”, and apparently, many celebrities are smitten with the treatments (15, 16, 17). Who knew that people would actually pay that kind of money to have sanitized bird poop applied to their face? I guess, as Alix Strauss of The New York Times says, “When it comes to fighting aging, many of us will try anything” (18).

A “Crappy”—but Popular—Form of Fundraising

And when it comes to the introduction of any new form of entertainment or fundraising, consider that folks will also line up to try a novel spin-off on an old game, especially if it involves bird feces—hence, the growing popularity of chicken-poop bingo. The rules are similar to the original game but in this version, of course, there are chickens and excrement. As the birds peck for food along a numbered grid, their droppings randomly fall, indicating the next spot to be called on players’ boards. The Wall Street Journal’s Stu Woo notes, “At least a few decades old, the chicken antics have become a popular staple at fairs, festivals and fundraisers in small-town America, and beyond.” (19) To the chagrin of animal rights activists, the game has made its way to New Orleans; Austin, Texas; Columbia, Illinois (20); Louisville, Kentucky (21); Durham, North Carolina (22); and other cities throughout the U.S.

Overall, who knew bird poop could serve so many functions? After researching this topic, I know I’ll never look at the unsightly mess on my car the same way again!

Sources:

  1. Blechman, A.D. Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird. New York: Grove Press, 2006. pp. 1-2.
  2. Squires, N. “Rome’s eternal problem – starling droppings”, 11/27/2008. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/wildlife/3531770/Romes-eternal-problem-starling-droppings.html.
  3. Saslow, L. “Canada Geese: It’s Love and Hate”, 7/14/2002. The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/14/nyregion/canada-geese-it-s-love-and-hate.html.
  4. Wilsdon, C. Smithsonian Q & A: Birds. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006. pp. 200-201.
  5. Vergano, D. “Bird Droppings Led to U.S. Possession of Newly Protected Pacific Islands”, 9/26/2014. National Geographic: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/09/140926-pacific-island-guano-national-monument-history/.
  6. Hager, T. The Alchemy of Air. New York: Broadway Books, Random House, Inc. 2008. p. 29.
  7. Vergano, D.
  8. Hager, T. pp. 25-36.
  9. Wilsdon, C. pp. 200-201.
  10. Vergano, D.
  11. Blechman, A.D. pp. 1-2.
  12. Cressy, D. Saltpeter: The Mother of Gunpowder. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. p. 132.
  13. Cressy, D. p. 132.
  14. Freeman, S. “Geisha Facials”, 1/11/2010. HowStuffWorks: http://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/beauty/skin-treatments/geisha-facial.htm.
  15. Freeman, S.
  16. Connell, C. “The most cringe inducing facial ever: The good news – it beats Botox. The bad news – it’s made from birds’ mess”, 5/28/2014: DailyMail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2641957/The-cringe-inducing-facial-The-good-news-beats-Botox-The-bad-news-birds-mess.html.
  17. Strauss, A. “Skin Deep: Fertilizer for the Face”, 7/4/2012. The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/05/fashion/fertilizer-for-the-face-beauty-industry-turns-to-animal-secretions-and-droppings-for-ingredients.html?_r=0.
  18. Strauss, A.
  19. Woo, S. “Bingo! Henny the Hen Just Made Her ‘Mark’ on No. 16”, 10/22/2012. The Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390443749204578048740198716834.
  20. Woo, S.
  21. Havens, S. “Lady cluck: Chicken poo bingo featured at this weekend’s Flea Off Market”, 11/6/2014. Insider, Louisville: http://insiderlouisville.com/uncategorized/chicken-shit-bingo/.
  22. Blythe, A. “Durham Farmers’ Market hosts chicken bingo fundraiser”, 12/20/2014. News & Observer: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/12/20/4419181_chickens-leave-their-mark-on-bingo.html?rh=1.

“Tweeting” Before Twitter

tweet

For more than two thousand years, birds have played a critical role in the conduit of human communications. People have used winged messengers for delivering notes to their lovers, relaying time-sensitive news to fellow reporters, and dispatching crucial strategic information to troops during wartime—saving perhaps thousands of lives in the process! One could say that long before instant messaging and social media, these were the original, old-school forms of “tweeting.”

A Little Bird Told Me…

Many of us today are acquainted with fictional accounts of bird messengers, such as the owls in the Harry Potter books and films or the ravens in the Game of Thrones TV series / A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Parrots feature prominently in Chinese folk tales. In one story from Szechwan province a talking parrot plays matchmaker between a beautiful servant girl and an unmarried aristocrat (1, 2). In other stories, such birds frequently divulge partners’ infidelities (3, 4). All in all, despite the fictional nature of these depictions, the idea of humans using avian messengers is not far-fetched.

Birds have long been known to report the goings-on of folks to others and at least thought to have the ability to do so. The author of one book in the Old Testament exhibits a wariness towards birds for this reason, stating that they could potentially disclose what one has said back to the powerful and affluent (Ecclesiastes 10:20). According to Norse mythology, the god Odin had two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who would return regularly to report back to him the news and events of the day (5). And the Greek god Apollo supposedly learned about his lover’s unfaithfulness from a raven (6).

Avian Express Messaging Systems

While a few species of birds can be taught to speak human languages, training birds to carry written messages has been widely demonstrated as the most practical means of long-range communication. In the South Pacific, islanders have used frigatebirds to transmit attached messages between locations separated by sea (7, 8, 9). More than a century ago, a few folks in France explored the possibility of using swallows to carry letters and military-related notes (10). However, the most celebrated avian courier traditionally has been the dove or pigeon, with a history dating back to ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome (11).

Throughout centuries in Europe and the Middle East, people have employed pigeons for transferring information. The ancient Greek city-states used them for relaying results of Olympic events (12). In the twelfth century, the Sultan of Bagdad established communications via pigeons between territories in Syria, Egypt, and what is today Iraq (13). Later, in the 1800s, P.J. Reuters, founder of the news agency that bears his name, briefly relied on pigeons to pass stock price info from the European cities of Brussels and Aachen (14).

War Pigeons

Relaying wartime messages was perhaps the most important use of pigeons. The French utilized them extensively in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 (15). By the time of both World Wars, many countries, including the United States, either had a war pigeon program or were developing one. When other forms of communication could be easily compromised, these birds proved quite reliable and as a result prevented countless casualties. Of the WWI pigeons, Cher Ami is probably the most famous, completing his mission despite suffering several serious injuries from enemy fire, including losing one leg (16). G.I. Joe ranks as the most illustrious war pigeon of WWII. Arriving in just the nick of time, the bird’s message thwarted a planned U.S. bombardment of an Italian town recently held by the Germans, sparing the lives of allied soldiers and residents there (17).

As to the homing pigeons’ incredible ability to navigate to their “home” site, scientists have proposed several hypotheses. The birds may use a variety of “compass” and “mapping” methods (18). Some research indicates that pigeons find following the streets and highways below helpful for navigational purposes (19). And a study published in early 2013 suggests that the birds rely on low-frequency sound waves to “map” their way to their destination (20). As more research accumulates during the next few years, a greater understanding of this amazing skill is sure to emerge.

Sources:

  1. Yolen, J. (editor) Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. pp. 90-94.
  2. Roberts, M. Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979. pp. 9-14.
  3. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2004. p. 317.
  4. Tresidder, J. Dictionary of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997. p. 153.
  5. Hamilton, E. Mythology. New York: Mentor, Nal Penguin Inc., 1973. p. 308.
  6. Hamilton, E. pp. 279-280.
  7. Werness, H.B. p. 188.
  8. Brinkley, E., Humann, A. in The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. Elphick, C., Dunning Jr, J.B., and Sibley, D.A. (editors). New York: Alfred A. Knopf / Chanticleer Press, 2001. 167 ff.
  9. Terres, J.K. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Knopf, 1980. 402 f.
  10. Harting, J.E. “Training Swallows as Letter Carriers”. Zoologist: A Monthly Journal of Natural History. Third Series, Vol. XIII. London: West, Newman and Co., 1889. pp. 397-399.
  11. Greelis, J. “Pigeons in Military History”. The American Pigeon Museum: http://www.theamericanpigeonmuseum.org/military-pigeons.html.
  12. Allat, Capt. H.T.W. “The Use of Pigeons as Messengers in War and The Military Pigeon Systems of Europe”. Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Whitehall Yard. London: W. Mitchell and Co. 1886-1887. p. 111.
  13. Allat, Capt. H.T.W. p. 111.
  14. “Chronology: Reuters, from pigeons to multimedia merger”. Reuters (U.S. Edition): http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/02/19/us-reuters-thomson-chronology-idUSL1849100620080219.
  15. Dash, M. “Closing the Pigeon Gap”, 4/17/2012. Smithsonian Magazine: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/closing-the-pigeon-gap-68103438/?no-ist.
  16. Dash, M.
  17. Razes, J. “Pigeons of War”, August 2007. America in WWII magazine: http://www.americainwwii.com/articles/pigeons-of-war/.
  18. “All About Birds: Navigation”. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/studying/migration/navigation.
  19. Davies, C. “How do homing pigeons navigate? They follow roads”, 2/5/2004. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1453494/How-do-homing-pigeons-navigate-They-follow-roads.html.
  20. Ghose, T. “Mystery of Lost Homing Pigeons Finally Solved”, 1/30/2013. LiveScience: http://www.livescience.com/26714-how-homing-pigeons-navigate.html.