It has been suggested that those who seek to understand ancient forms of divination, or at the very least attempt to use ancient techniques of divination, are searching for a new way to connect to our world. “New” in the sense that it defies the modern sensibility of treating the world as strictly a material manifestation. The use of a divinatory technique presupposes a deeper connection to the world and the forces at work within it.
Currently, I am reading Jeremy Naydler’s book, The Future of the Ancient World in which he posits, through a collection of his essays, several conclusions about how ancient consciousness was far different than our conception of it today. In the essay entitled, Being Ancient in a Modern Way, he explores this topic of what drives moderns to reconnect to the ancient way of doing things through various divinatory techniques. He outlines that most today don’t practice extispicy, or divination by the entrails of animals, as such a practice is not practical and deemed inappropriate. Naydler does attempt to answer the question of why these questions are still asked today and carried out using similar techniques in light of how modern science has asserted a view of “…a philosophy of materialism that sees nature as intrinsically meaningless and without value.”
He goes on to point out the importance of extispicy within the context of ancient Mesopotamian culture. Naydler describes the rites by which the baru, or priest, would purify himself in order to prepare for the ritual. The animal was asked a specific question, because the question was to be asked of the divine forces in charge and the answer would appear within the exta or entrails of the sacrificial animal. The liver was deemed the most important for the Mesopotamians, as it was believed to be the seat of consciousness and a bridge between the worlds.
Naydler wants to educate the reader and point out that the practice of extispicy was, in fact, a scientific endeavor. “The interpretation of livers was an elaborate science,” he states, “based on detailed empirical observation.” He points out that the clay tablets and records from Mesopotamia point out an establishment of precedent and record keeping within the industry of extispicy.
Naydler goes further with this distinction. Not only was the practice of divination of the entrails, in particular the liver, a scientific establishment, but he distinguishes it as the most reliable form of communication with the divine. “…It was also a rigorous intellectual discipline antipathetic to any kind of exstatic procedure for knowing the will of the gods.” In this, Naydler suggests that this was a technique that, in theory, anyone could learn and replicate. It was not something left for the few, rare individuals with spiritual awareness that could communicate with the divine through known or even unknown means. Instead of the individual being the conduit, it was the ritual that detected the will of the gods.
Why was this important? For the king of these Mesopotamian cultures, it was his job as the earthly representative to understand the will of the god who was in charge of the city. Naydler summarizes it beautifully, “This, then, was the context of extispicy: the king was charged with interpreting the will of the god and the divine community to which the god belonged. His duty was perpetual observance of every form of communication from the spirit world. He did not act from his own will or initiative: his actions were performed on behalf of the god and the divine community.”
Acting out his own will was not to be in harmony with the divine. It was to fly in the face of it and this was the main concern of ancient cultures – that they are in accordance with the natural order of things. That natural order, however, was carried out by means of the gods or agents in charge of these forces at work.
Naydler goes on to describe other incidents of divination in Greece, Etruria, and Rome, both of which I am also steeped in and have presented papers on this very topic. I have examined the Etruscan practice and even linked it back to Mesopotamia as the practice seems to have been established there and migrated westward where the Etruscans used it regularly and taught it to the Romans. In fact, our very term sinister carries with it this loaded connotation about the left being a bad omen because in Latin, sinister, sinistra, sinistrum was the adjective which refers to the left. Also, in Etruria, the priest was known as a haruspex while in Mesopotamia the term is a baru – you can detect immediately the similarity between the word haru and baru.
More importantly, Naydler illustrates, as I have also sought to prove, that this is a form of science applied in the ancient world across cultures. It was an intellectual endeavor in the sense that it required interpretation – but not one that couldn’t be verified and proven by means of data and precedent. It wasn’t just some subjective form of interpretation, but one’s interpretation could have been scrutinized and compared with previous occurrences. We moderns are skeptical to this kind of institution, chalking it up to mere superstition, but we underestimate the activities of our ancient ancestors. If we were to see extispicy in this light, as an ancient science, we would understand that we are not all that far removed. In fact, Naydler concludes “that most people today would disagree with its premise: that valid associations can be made between the appearance of a sheep’s liver and human destiny.”
Other than that, it is a scientific endeavor – and maybe that is the reason why so many today still seek out ancient, and practical, forms of divination. Because they were founded on data that was, at one time, observable by people who had the ability to observe such phenomena. Maybe today, we are blind to it, just as peoples of the ancient past were blind to such modern marvels as atomic particles because they simply didn’t have the means to observe such things.