Divination and Omens in Mesopotamian Society

Ancient civilizations, throughout history, depended on the skill and intricacy of their diviners. Divination is the method of ritually foreseeing the future and the outcome of big events. In this way, ancient peoples could “predict” the outcome of their battles or see if their next crop year would be bountiful or not. One of the oldest practices of divination is recorded in Mesopotamia, considered by many as the cradle of civilization. How did divination work in Mesopotamian society, and what methods of divination were used?

Mesopotamians Believed Strongly in Gods, Omens and Divination

Mesopotamia, justly regarded as the cradle of civilization, fostered a complex society that sought guidance and insight from the divine through various means, including divination and omens. These practices played a crucial role in Mesopotamian culture, shaping decisions, predicting the future and offering a connection between the earthly realm and the divine. The people of Mesopotamia, residing in the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, believed that the gods influenced every aspect of their lives. This explains why divination became a vital tool for understanding and navigating this intricate relationship.

The Mesopotamians lived in a world imbued with the presence of numerous gods who, they believed, held sway over every aspect of their lives. The pantheon was expansive, with each city-state having its own patron deities and myths. The gods were considered both benevolent and capricious, influencing everything from the success of crops to the outcomes of wars.

In this deeply religious and polytheistic society, the Mesopotamians sought to maintain a harmonious relationship with their gods. Temples, ziggurats and rituals were integral components of city life, serving as physical manifestations of the connection between the mortal and divine realms. The people engaged in regular offerings, prayers and festivals to appease the gods and seek their favor.

The practice of divination, including several complex methods, was rooted in the Mesopotamians’ belief that the gods communicated their will through special signs and omens. The complex and meticulous nature of divination reflected the reverence with which the Mesopotamians approached their interactions with the divine.

Diviners were seen as intermediaries between mortals and gods, possessing the skills to decipher the messages woven into the fabric of nature. The questions posed during divination rituals were not arbitrary; they pertained to matters of great importance, such as the success of upcoming battles, the viability of agricultural endeavors or the overall well-being of the community. The accuracy of divination was believed to hinge on the gods’ willingness to reveal their intentions, making the diviners indispensable conduits of divine wisdom.

Model of sheep bowel used for divination instruction in ancient Mespotamia. (Louvre Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0 FR)

Model of sheep bowel used for divination instruction in ancient Mespotamia. (Louvre Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0 FR)

Divination as an Integral Part of an Ancient Society

The Mesopotamians integrated divination into their decision-making processes at various levels of society. Rulers consulted diviners before making strategic decisions in warfare, while farmers sought guidance for planting and harvesting seasons. The belief that the gods’ favor could be secured through accurate divination made these practices integral to governance, agriculture and individual lives.

However, the reliance on divination also had its challenges. The interpretation of omens and signs was subjective, and discrepancies in readings could arise. The Code of Hammurabi, with its provisions regarding the punishment of inaccurate diviners, reflected the importance attached to the precision and authenticity of divine guidance. This is why special methods of divining were so important.

Mesopotamian divination encompassed a diverse array of methods, each serving distinct purposes. One prevalent form involved examining the livers of sacrificial animals, known as hepatoscopy. Priests, skilled in interpreting the patterns and anomalies in the liver, believed they could discern the will of the gods and foresee impending events. Another method, extispicy, involved examining the entire entrails for divine messages. This meticulous process highlighted the Mesopotamians’ commitment to understanding the divine will through intricate observations of nature.

Additionally, the examination of celestial phenomena played a significant role in Mesopotamian divination. Astrology, a system that linked the movements of celestial bodies to earthly events, provided insights into the gods’ intentions. The Babylonians, in particular, excelled in celestial divination, developing an advanced understanding of the stars and their influence on human affairs. The Enuma Anu Enlil, a series of cuneiform tablets, documented celestial omens, showcasing the Mesopotamians’ meticulous observations of the night sky.

An inscribed clay model of a sheep liver or the training of diviners practicing divination by reading sheep livers (hepatoscopy), from the Old Babylonian Period circa 2000 to 1595 BC. (Zunkir / CC BY-SA 4.0)

An inscribed clay model of a sheep liver or the training of diviners practicing divination by reading sheep livers (hepatoscopy), from the Old Babylonian Period circa 2000 to 1595 BC. (Zunkir / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hepatoscopy, or Reading the Signs in Animal Liver

Hepatoscopy, the examination of animal livers or gall-bladders, was a widely practiced divination method in Mesopotamia. The liver was considered a particularly sacred organ, believed to be a locus of divine communication. The process involved sacrificing an animal, typically a sheep, and then carefully inspecting the liver for signs and anomalies.

Skilled priests, known as baru, undertook hepatoscopy, meticulously examining the liver’s size, shape, color, and texture. They paid special attention to specific regions of the liver, dividing it into sections with each having its own significance. The presence of nodules, discolorations or irregularities were interpreted as messages from the gods.

Hepatoscopy was not only a method of divination but also a form of communication with the divine. The priest would articulate questions to the gods before the sacrifice, seeking guidance on matters such as war, agriculture or governance. The answers were then believed to manifest in the patterns observed in the liver.

Extispicy, When Entrails Carry Divine Omens

Extispicy, almost an extension of hepatoscopy, involved the examination of various organs, not just the liver. After sacrificing an animal, such as a sheep, goat, or even a bird, diviners inspected the entire set of entrails, including the heart, lungs, and gall bladder.

The interpretation of extispicy was complex, with different organs thought to have distinct connections to specific deities and aspects of life. For instance, the heart might be associated with emotions or divine will, while the lungs could be linked to breath and life force. The gall bladder might be scrutinized for indications of potential conflict or anger from the gods.

Extispicy practitioners were highly specialized and required extensive training to decipher the intricate patterns and symbols within the organs. The process was not only a means of divination but also a ritualistic act, reinforcing the sacred bond between the human and divine realms.

Both hepatoscopy and extispicy were integral to Mesopotamian culture, shaping important decisions and guiding the actions of rulers. However, these divination methods had their limitations. The accuracy of interpretations relied on the diviner’s skill and experience, leading to variations in results. The Code of Hammurabi reflected the societal importance of accurate divination, as false predictions could lead to severe consequences for the diviner. Still, these methods exemplify the intricate and spiritually rich nature of Mesopotamian divination. They not only provided glimpses into the future but also served as profound rituals connecting the earthly and divine realms in the quest for guidance and understanding.

A priest examining the entrails of an animal as part of an ancient Mesopotamian divination method known as extispicy. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A priest examining the entrails of an animal as part of an ancient Mesopotamian divination method known as extispicy. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Did Victory Only Depend on Studying Entrails?

As well as entrails, Mesopotamians considered natural events, such as eclipses, earthquakes and unusual animal behaviors, to be omens, and their interpretation was entrusted to skilled diviners. The presence of certain animals or unusual occurrences was thought to signify impending events, either positive or negative. For example, a bird flying from the right to the left might be seen as a positive omen, while the reverse could be ominous.

The Mesopotamians meticulously recorded these omens in compendiums, forming a comprehensive guide for understanding the divine language embedded in the world around them. They created rich, symbolic language that connected the mundane with the divine.

Mesopotamians were keen astronomers, and celestial events such as solar and lunar eclipses, the appearance of comets, and the positions of planets held significant meaning. These celestial occurrences were amongst the most potent omens.

Other natural occurrences like earthquakes, storms, or even the direction of the wind were also considered omens. An earthquake, for instance, might be seen as a warning or indication of impending change. The interpretation of these events required a deep understanding of the symbolic language believed to be embedded within the fabric of the natural world. That is why diviners held such a lofty position in this ancient society.

Often occupying esteemed positions, they were responsible for translating the divine messages into practical advice for rulers and individuals. The expertise of diviners was sought in crucial matters such as warfare, agriculture and governance.

The interpretation of dreams was an important form of divination in ancient Mesopotamia. The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli. (Tulip Hysteria / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The interpretation of dreams was an important form of divination in ancient Mesopotamia. The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli. (Tulip Hysteria / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Fringe-Divining within Ancient Mesopotamia

There existed other, less common divination methods, which – although uncommon – could still weigh heavily on the outcome of big matters. One such method was the interpretation of dreams.

Dream interpreters in Mesopotamia were known as ša’il

Another divining method that was somewhat on the fringe was the interpretation of physiognomy. Special diviners would study the human body and could even foretell one’s future and fate by observing their body. Physiognomic divination was documented as early as 2000 BC. These diviners would compile texts based on their skills and would pass them down the generations to be studied by new diviners.

There are also indications that Mesopotamians practiced a form of necromancy, whereupon they would summon the spirits of the dead in order to ask them for omens about the future. A necromancer was known as the Ša Etemmi. A number of surviving inscriptions mention that these men would summon and raise the spirits of the dead, which would “come forth as the wind” to inquire with them about future events. There were even female necromantic diviners as well. Alas, not much more is known about this ancient and dreadful practice of raising the spirits of the dead.

A World That Rested Upon Positive Omens

Ultimately, Mesopotamian divination and omens were integral components of a society deeply interconnected with the divine. The diverse methods employed, from hepatoscopy to celestial observations, reflected the Mesopotamians’ profound commitment to understanding the will of the gods.

The interpretation of omens and the role of diviners shaped decision-making processes, offering a bridge between the earthly realm and the divine sphere. Mesopotamian divination stands as a testament to the intricate and spiritual nature of this ancient civilization, where the search for divine guidance permeated every facet of life.

Top image: Divination was an important aspect of everyday life in ancient Mesopotamia. Source: breakermaximus / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Bottéro, J., and Bahrani, Z. 1995. Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods. University of Chicago Press.

Cryer, F. H. 1994. Divination in Ancient Israel and Its Near Eastern Environment: A Socio-historical Investigation. A&C Black.

Finkel, I. L. 1984. Necromancy in Ancient Mesopotamia. Archiv für Orientforschung (AfO) / Institut für Orientalistik.

Koch, U.S. 1995. Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination. Carsten Nieburh Institute Publications.

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