Haruspicy image

How to seek a prediction: Consult a trained expert, either as royalty or as a commoner (who paid with a sacrificial sheep)

(Sample) Equipment: instruments to sacrifice a sheep and extract its liver, clay tablets with divination instructions/manuals

Personnel: Haruspex

[Note: this short description of Haruspicy is supplemented by a longer essay provided by Harvard expert Prof. Piotr Steinkeller.]

The peoples of Ancient Mesopotamia believed their futures to be largely predetermined by gods. Over the thousands of years that the Babylonian, Akkadian, Sumerian and other Mesopotamian cultures thrived, their priests and astrologers developed ever-more-sophisticated methods for peering into their predetermined futures. One of the most noteworthy of these prediction systems was “haruspicy,” divination by means of inspecting animal entrails. The animals, often sheep, were sacrificed in ceremonies where the Sun god could influence the appearance of the “exta,” or entrails. For a handsome fee, trained diviners (called “bārû” or “haruspex”) could answer a querent’s yes-or-no questions by looking for the Sun God’s answers in the entrails. Presumably, some features of the entrails were purely natural, and some were caused by #random mutations--but all were interpreted by a #human expert haruspex. Haruspicy, also known as “extispicy,” in various forms goes back to at least the third millennium BC, and it is still practiced in some parts of the world today.

Mesopotamians were also great observers of the sky, deeply interested Astrology. Often both haruspex and astrologers were asked for predictions about the same questions, and there may have been interesting interactions amongst these predictive traditions.

Training for a haruspex would have been highly specialized, as the actual process of divining was very elaborate. By the time the Bārûtu, or “Art of the Diviner” manual for extispicy was “published” (copies known date from about 600 BC and earlier), it took up 135 clay tablets written as 60 lines of cuneiform each. Like a modern medical manual,the Bārûtu and earlier, simpler instructions, often inscribed on clay models of organs (typically sheep’s livers), details various conditions that the diviner may find on extracted organs, indicating which of these conditions were positive (“auspicious”) or negative (“inauspicious”).

A haruspex examining an organ’s features would add up the positive against the negative signs, and depending on which of the two prevailed, he would judge the reading to be either favorable or unfavorable. But that was often not the end of the procedure. Since it is unlikely that an extispicy would ever yield 100% positive or negative results, a diviner might perform a second extispicy to reduce uncertainty. In this sense, the bārû acted like a modern scientist, seeking to replicate the results of an earlier experiment to assure veracity.

Haruspicy has unusual importance in PredictionX, as the Bārûtu manual mentioned above actually contains some purely "theoretical" predictions, in that they refer to anatomical oddities that had never been observed. This might be the first known example of a #deterministic system. In much the same way, Isaac Newton's theory of gravity can predict the behavior of moving objects without any observations of prior similar circumstances. As will be explained in more detail in the "Path to Newton" feature within Part 2 of PredictionX, Newton's theory of gravity was the culmination of a history that began with observation of the Sky, continued on to recording of observations, then to "empirical" theories that explain and predict what's observed (e.g. Kepler's Laws), and, then, finally, on to a truly predictive theory (Newton's).

Haruspicy, Part 1

Haruspicy, Part 2

Haruspicy, Part 3

Meet the Expert: Professor Piotr Steinkeller

Dr. Piotr Steinkeller is the Professor of Assyriology in the Department of Near Eastern Language & Civilizations at Harvard University. Professor Steinkeller's work focuses on the history, culture, and languages of Mesopotamia from about 3000 BCE to 1500 BCE. He also is actively involved in the archaeological project at the site of Tell Arbid, a Bronze Age settlement dating back to about 2900 BCE.

Additional Resources

Deeper Background (from Prof. Piotr Steinkeller)

The desire to know what the future holds in store for us is intrinsic to human nature. Ancient Babylonians were not different in that respect. They too tried to take a peek into the future, which, as they believed, had already been determined by the gods, and which, therefore, already existed, if only as a blueprint. To them, every physical manifestation of their world was a potential sign or portent of what was to come. Such signs or “unprovoked messages” were helpful hints or tips about the future events.

But potentiality is not the same as certainty. To know for sure what the future would bring, they needed to induce their deities somehow to reveal to them the exact shape of preordained destinies. This was done through recourse to various divinatory methods of inductive nature, among which extispicy — divination by means of inspecting the entrails of sacrificial animals (from Latin exta, “entrails”) — was by far the most important one. In the case of extispicy, the diviner would petition the gods on behalf of his client to give their answer to a particular inquiry. The procedure was envisioned as a divine trial over the client, at the conclusion of which the gods (primarily among them the Sun-God, deity in charge of justice) would inscribe their answer or verdict in the entrails of the sacrificial sheep. The answer, which was either positive or negative, and was known as kin-gi4-a in Sumerian or tertû in Akkadian, “message,” was an unequivocal statement about the things to come — or, to put it differently, the client’s destiny.

Mesopotamian extispicy had a strong theoretical foundation, which took the form of an internally cohesive and logical belief system. This theory explained how the humans may obtain the foreknowledge of future from the divine realm. Its basic assumptions were as follows:

  1. the future is born in the netherworld;
  2. when the Sun-God passes during the night through the netherworld, he learns what the future is going to bring.

Further, the theory said that, by following a special procedure, the Sun-God can be induced to share his insight into the course of future events. This was accomplished through the sacrifice of a sheep to the Sun-God and various other deities, which was accompanied by a query regarding some future event, such as a business trip under consideration or a military campaign. In response to the query, the Sun-God and his colleagues judged the case at hand, and then inscribed their answer in the entrails of the sacrificed sheep. The ability to read and to analyze such divine messages was limited to qualified practitioners called “bārû” (diviner) or “haruspex” (an examiner or reader of the entrails of the sacrificial sheep). For a handsome fee, the diviner sacrificed a sheep (always a white lamb) on behalf of his client, conveyed the client’s query to the gods, and, after the divine answer had been written down by the gods in the sheep’s entrails, he analyzed it, by using the tradition-sanctioned understanding of the various conditions and appearances of internal organs (as well as of the animal’s outside condition), i.e., what was “good “ (or “proper”) and “bad” (or “improper”) in them, according to the basic “left” = “right” organizing principle. This “code,” which was known to the diviners orally, is uniquely spelled out in great detail in an Old Babylonian (ca. 1700 BCE) diviner’s manual (see bonus video below). The diviner then added up the “positive” against the “negative” features found in the entrails, deciding whether or not the extispicy was propitious. Finally, we gave the result to the client, which took the form of a positive or a negative answer (“yes” or “no”). Since it came directly from the Sun-God, the answer was final.

This unique text is recorded on a cuneiform tablet dating to roughly 1700 BCE, the time of Hammurabi of Babylon. It presently belongs to the collections of the Harvard Semitic Museum. Although there exist a number of similar manuals from the first millennium BCE, this is the only surviving text of such an early date. Its place of origin is unknown, though it likely was one of the main urban centers of Babylonia (modern southern Iraq). Written in the Akkadian language, the Harvard manual bears eighty-three lines of writing on its front side, and fifty-nine lines of writing on its back side. It ends a postscript reading: 142 MU.BI, “its lines are 142.”

In brief, the manual is a list of the instructions for the diviner on how to analyze the intestines of a sacrificial sheep. The text begins with a description of the rituals that the diviner needs to perform in order to induce the Sun-God and his colleagues to attend the extispicy procedure and to offer an answer to his query. Thus, the diviner is instructed to say various prayers and to present food offerings to the gods, so that they will make their appearance and judge the case at hand. Finally, the diviner is to sacrifice a lamb. Having done so, the diviner should then present his question to the gods, asking them to judge the client’s case, and to write their answer in the lamb’s intestines (lines 1-22).

What follows is the manual proper, which is a detailed listing of the various conditions that the diviner may find in the entrails. As such, this part of the text functioned very much like the modern manuals used in medical autopsies.

The manual proper is divided into two parts, with the first part listing the conditions and appearances of the entrails that will signal a positive answer to the diviner’s question. Correspondingly, the second part enumerates the conditions and appearances indicating a negative answer. The basic organizing and logical principle by which features are judged to be either auspicious or inauspicious is the right/left opposition, with the right side being auspicious, and the left side being inauspicious. In fact, the two parts are identified as the “omens of the right side” and the “omens of the left side” respectively.

To illustrate it with a concrete example, in the first part of the manual, which examines the entrails from the right side or the auspicious perspective, one finds the following entry:

“The heart should be light-colored on the right; it should be dark on the left; the apex of the heart should be light-colored on the right; it be should dark on the left” (line 39).

These are the conditions of the sheep’s heart that will result in a favorable outcome.

Now, in the second part of the manual, which describes the inauspicious conditions of the entrails, the right/left order is reversed. In other words, the condition that earlier was on the right side now appears on the left side, and, correspondingly, what was on the left side now appears on the right side. In this way, the example I cited earlier now takes the following form:

“The heart should be light-colored on the left; it should be dark on the right; the apex of the heart should be light-colored on the left; it be should dark on the right” (line 95).

And these conditions of the sheep’s heart will result in an unfavorable outcome.

The manual concludes with another prayer to the Sun-God and the other deities in attendance, asking them to provide a positive answer to the diviner’s query.

What would happen in real life is that, having performed the autopsy of the sheep, the diviner would then add up the positive against the negative conditions, and depending on which of the two prevailed, he would judge the extispicy as being either favorable or unfavorable. But that was not the end of the procedure. Since there still remained some uncertainty as to the correctness of the extispicy’s result (it is unlikely that the extispicy would ever have been 100% positive or negative), the diviner would perform another, control extispicy (by slaughtering another sheep). In that he acted very much like a modern scientist, who seeks to replicate the results of an earlier experiment. It was only if the control extispicy confirmed the original result that the diviner would reach his final conclusion. At this final step, he would communicate his verdict to the client — either orally or via a written extispicy report — which described the most important findings of the autopsy, and specified the decision or prognosis (if one wishes to use a medical term).

Originally, the extispicy procedure was performed without any recourse to writing. It appears that, sometime toward the end of the third millennium BC, diviners began preparing and collecting clay models of especially interesting configurations of entrails (usually livers), which were associated with the particularly significant historical events, such as the sudden death of a king, the end of a dynasty, etc. As such, these models functioned as true empirical case studies — records of particular real-life observations. At some later point in time, an inscription, identifying the event in question would be inscribed on the model, for instance: “This is what the liver looked like when king Amar-Suen died of the ‘bite of a shoe’ (= blood poisoning).”

On the basis of such records, the diviners (or scholars more generally) began, sometime still later, to engage in theoretical speculation, producing generalizing conditional statements of the type “if a king dies of blood poisoning, the liver will look like this.” The final stage of this development was reached when the pattern of the prediction was reversed, assuming the following, purely theoretical form: “if such-and- such features appears on the liver, a king will die of blood poisoning.” This was a crucial development, since it made it possible for scholars to generate new, completely artificial predictions (“omens”) without any use of empirical observation. For example, if the original observation associated a particular historical event with one gate (an anatomical feature) on the right side of the liver, the scholar could now produce an omen for the theoretical “gate” on the left side of the liver, whose result would be the opposite of the result obtained for the right side. In this way, through the use of various “generative” principles (“right” / “left” opposition, positive/negative values associated with individual numbers, and so on) the scholar could produce new omens ad infinitum, for example, by multiplying the numbers of “gates” on the liver: “if there two gates, ... if there are three gates,” and so on. Beginning in the late Old Babylonian period, scholars began compiling huge (even enormous) collections of such omens, which, as far as we can tell, constituted purely theoretical speculation that was completely divorced from empirical observation (though there had been some real empirical basis for it at the beginning of this development, as I described it above). The longest known series of this type, which was put together during the first millennium BCE, was the compendium called Barûtu. This compendium contained some 8,000 omens, recorded on 135 separate tablets.

The development of theoretical divination underwent four stages:

  1. (1) clay models of entrails (usually livers) — records of specific cases / observations; 2,000 BCE;
  2. (2) clay models with written identifications of the events associated with those particular appearances of entrails, in the form: “this is what the entrails looked like when when x happened (the king Amar-Suen died) — annotated records of specific cases / observations; same as (1) but provided with a written identification; 1,900 BCE;
  3. (3) clay models with written identifications of the events associated with those particular appearance of entrails, in the form: “if x happens in the future (a king dies), the entrails will look like this (should x happen in the future, the entrails can be expected to look like this)” — generalized extrapolations; 1,900 BCE;
  4. (4) written collections of predictions in the form: “in the entrails look like y (description), x will happen in the future (a king will die)”; 1,800 — 500 BCE.