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Science and Superstition: Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World

Organized by Amar Annus
The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
1155 East 58th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
March 6-7, 2009

The Aims of the Seminar

The concept of sign, a portent observed in the physical world, which indicates future events was first developed in ancient Mesopotamia. The collections of omens, interpreting the signs either in heaven or on earth, were first written down during the Old Babylonian period. Those collections grew into compendia of ominous phenomena, where the segments of original observations were expanded into very comprehensive omen series (for an overview, see Maul 2003). These series had either a written form or circulated orally as traditional knowledge of the Mesopotamian diviners. This branch of Babylonian science extensively influenced the other parts of the world. There is evidence in Hebrew, Syriac, Greek, Sanscrit, Sogdian and in other languages that knowledge of Mesopotamian omen compendia was widespread both in space and time in the ancient world (see Pingree 1992; Sims-Williams 1995). The wandering diviners, sometimes called the Chaldaeans in the Mediterranean sources, were often responsible for the dissemination of the Mesopotamian wisdom in the late Antique world. One goal of the symposium is to map the diffusion of the Mesopotamian omen lore in other parts of the world. The concept of divine signs is present in many ancient cultures – in Classical, Hebrew, Chinese, Indian and Arabian culture, and the symposium will investigate how such concepts in other parts of the world may have been influenced by ancient Mesopotamia. Among such interesting questions is the Mesopotamian influence on the Stoic theory of signs given the circumstance observed already by F. Cumont that all first masters of the Stoic school were Orientals (Cumont 1912: 69-71, 81-82). Ancient Jewish and Muslim traditions also enjoined believers to ‘ponder’ or ‘reflect’ on the natural world and its movements in order to discover the signs of God’s omnipotence and appreciate his majesty. There is considerable evidence of the diffusion of Mesopotamian omen literature in Aramaic and Arabic. Another important aim of the symposium is to investigate and to juxtapose the related concepts of divination, prophecy, ideology, evidence and inference as traceable in written sources of the ancient world.

The written texts versus oral lore

The omens were probably transmitted from one culture to others both by means of written texts and orally – because we know many incipits of smaller omen collections in ancient Mesopotamia of which we lack textual evidence (see Oppenheim 1974). In the secret lore of the Mandaean priests, the tradition of omen interpretation persisted orally until modern times, and only some parts of it were written. A Mandaean priest in Ahwaz, speaking of the secret knowledge transmitted from priest to priest, once vaunted this knowledge to Lady Drower as follows:

"If a raven croaks in a certain burj (= astrological house) I understand what it says, also the meaning when the fire crackles or the door creaks. When the sky is cloudy and there are shapes in the sky resembling a mare or a sheep, I can read their significance and message. When the moon is darkened by an eclipse, I understand the portent: when a dust-cloud arises, black, red, or white, I read these signs, and all this according to the hours and the aspects" (Drower 1937: 5).

The cry of a dealer of the secrets and magic, the fatahfāl in Arabic, was still heard in the market-places of Baghdad before the Second World War: “I count the stars and take omens!” (a’addad nejm, ākhudh khīra), as reported by the Lady Drower (Stevens 1931: 74). The oral background of the ancient Mesopotamian omen literature is also emphasized by many scholars:

“… not only the categorisation of celestial phenomena, but the establishment of a simple code and a series of rules, which enabled them to be interpreted, had taken place before the writing down of the first celestial omens took place. Some of these premises must, to a large extent, be understood to be given – or in other words recognised that they derive from an oral background, or are “traditional”. … It is, however, not without relevance that omens in Mesopotamia do not appear until a millennium after the invention of writing. When they do first appear some already demonstrate the effects of their literate production” (Brown 2000: 112).

Like the Mesopotamian law codes, the Babylonian omen texts never outline the principles behind the concrete “if … then” sentences and observations. The nature of principles behind the concrete statements should be reconstructed on the basis of written examples contained in the law codes and omen texts, but one should assume that these texts reveal only some parts of the knowledge they are based on.

Babylonian theory of signs

According to the ancient Mesopotamian view, practically everything in the universe could have an ominous import to mortals. In the written culture of ancient Mesopotamia, not all omens occurring in omen series were observed in the real world, because many examples describe phenomena that could never occur (Brown 2000: 109). This indicates that simple observation and recording was complemented by theorization and systematization. The original practical purpose of omen collections was later expanded, and even superseded, by theoretical aspirations (Oppenheim 1964: 212). But what do we know about these theoretic and hermeneutic principles underlying the interpretation of divine omens? What kind of thinking or the system of ideas connects protasis with apodosis? A. Oppenheim has written:

“Only exceptionally are we able to detect any logical relationship between portent and prediction, although often we find paronomastic associations and secondary computations based on changes in directions of numbers. In many cases, subconscious association seems to have been at work, provoked by certain words whose specific connotations imparted to them a favourable or an unfavourable character, which in turn determined the general nature of the prediction” (Oppenheim 1964: 211; see also Noegel 2002).

According to the holistic world view of the ancient Mesopotamians, everything in the universe had its firm place according to divine will. According to the incipit of the celestial omen series Enuma Anu Enlil, the gods Anu, Enlil and Ea themselves designed the constellations and measured the year thereby establishing the heavenly signs. Thus, the Mesopotamian divination was an all-embracing semantic system designed to interpret the universe (Koch-Westenholz 1995: 13-19). The belief that “all of the universe are connected” is not an Ionian Greek invention (contra Scurlock 2003: 397), but a similar statement is already found in the Babylonian Diviner’s Manual (lines 38-42):

“The signs on earth just as those in the sky give us signals. Sky and earth both produce portents though appearing separately. They are not separate (because) sky and earth are related. A sign that portends evil in the sky is (also) evil in the earth, one that portends evil on earth is evil in the sky” (Oppenheim 1974: 204).

How much do we know about the ancient Babylonian theory of signs? The Babylonian omen compendia represent parts of ancient Mesopotamian world view and are by no means separated from other genres of the Mesopotamian literature. Thus, the observation of Anzu’s footprints in a house is an ill omen according to terrestrial omen series Shumma alu 2.155 and 19.38’, reminding us of Anzu’s sinister role in the Akkadian Epic of Anzu. Also, the city making noise is prone to dispersal, while the quiet city “will go on normally” (Shumma alu 1.8-13), reminding us of the Babylonian Epic of Atrahasis, where the noise of mankind was the reason of its destruction attempts by the disturbed gods. Accordingly, the omens and other Mesopotamian texts constitute representations of the same world view, as studies in the intertextuality indicate:

“As for subject matter and style, the apodoses of the omen literature are closely linked to literary texts of the late periods that describe the blessings of peace and prosperity or the horrors of war, famine, and rebellion as well as elaborate blessings and curses similar to those found in certain Mesopotamian royal inscriptions and public legal documents” (Oppenheim 1964: 211).

In the Mesopotamian interpretation system of signs, the portent which predicted, for example, the king’s death was not the cause of the king’s death, but only the sign for it. The apodosis was considered solely a warning that could be diverted by ritual measures provided by the series Namburbi. The Mesopotamian scribes never expressed general principles of sign interpretation in abstract terms, but they strove to cover the range of possibilities by means of systematic permutations in pairs – such as left and right, above and below – or in long rows (Oppenheim 1964: 212). The task of the symposium is to bring together specialists of the omen literature in order to learn how much do we know now and make prospects for the future.

How much do we know for certain?

In various branches of Mesopotamian divination, some more or less universal principles apply that already can be outlined. In general, the right side or part in Mesopotamian omen theory was considered to be related to good omens and the left side to negative ones. The signs were divided into good, bad and neutral. In some branches of divination, like Babylonian extispicy, signs were classified according to their intensity into stronger and weaker. Thus, a strong sign in the right side of the sacrificial animal was a favorable omen, but the same sign in the left side was unfavorable. The opposition of light and dark was also meaningful: a light color of the ominous organ conveyed favourable significance and dark color an unfavorable one. Dark color was essentially connected with the left side, and a light hue with the right side of the sacrificial animal’s parts under examination. These principles were universally applied (Starr 1983: 18-19).

It is striking, however, how often in the physiognomic omen series Alamdimmu the right side is ill-omened and the left side favorable, and cases also exist where both sides are equally good or bad. Why the usual pattern is reversed? J. Scurlock suggests:

“… there are in fact four types of signs, those that are good (and therefore good on either side, although usually somewhat less good on the left), those that are bad (and therefore bad on either side, although usually somewhat less bad on the right), those that are neutral (and become good only when placed on the right, and bad only when placed on the left), and those that are bad but not irreversibly so (that is, they are bad when placed on the right, but are transformed into good when placed on the left)” (Scurlock 2003: 398).

The basic problems of the Mesopotamian divination seem to be related to the motives for divine communication, its accuracy and inevitability. From our contemporary perspective, the Mesopotamian omen literature consists of a blend of science, superstition, and religion. The same can be said about the other parts of the ancient world. Superstitions need not have strict rules, but in the omen texts we also discover certain principles that may enlighten us regarding our understanding of the history of the human mind. Nevertheless, some transparent principles that scholars have identified in ancient omen texts, the interpretation of these texts is still often quite obscure. Mesopotamian theories of sign interpretation appear to be much more complex than was presumed. Thus the opposition of “right” and “left” are observed differently in omen texts and in scientific compendia. In physiognomic omen texts, the “right” and “left” of the body of the observed human being is measured from the observer’s point of view, but:

“… SA.GIG is a diagnostic series and insofar as arbitrary right and left distinctions are relevant, signs are influenced in a good or bad direction from the physician’s, not the patient’s, point of view. Thus a “normal” pattern is revealed. Alamdimmu, by contrast, is a collection of omens, and right and left are good or bad from client’s, and not the consultant’s, point of view. It follows that neutral signs are good on the observer’s left (which would be observed’s right) and bad on the observer’s right, which would be the observed’s left – apparently an inverted pattern but actually normal for Alamdimmu. Conversely, signs that are bad but not irreversibly so are good on the observer’s right (which would be the observed’s left) and bad on the observer’s left (which would be the observed’s right), apparently a normal pattern but actually inverted for Alamdimmu. It follows that the picture of the ideal woman should be modified to include only signs that are good on both sides, since … all other signs are either bad (i.e., undesirable) or neutral.” (Scurlock 2003: 398.)

More generally, the symposium will address the issues of gaining and use of knowledge through observation of the various parts of physical world in antiquity. The results and inferences of such observations gained in the ancient world would not always count as scientific from our contemporary perspective, but as our own times will pass into an antiquity, the future scholars will look at our accomplishments in the field of intellectual culture with similar glasses – as a blend of science and superstition.

Symposium Program

Download the Program and Abstracts in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF)


Amar Annus (Organizer)
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
1155 E. 58th St.
Chicago, IL 60647
Tel. (773) 702-7497

Participants and Titles

  • James Allen (Pittsburgh) “Reason and Experience in ancient Greek conceptions of evidence and inference”
  • Clifford Ando (Chicago) “‘Everywhere is full of god’: tokens of presence in Roman cult”
  • Amar Annus (Chicago) “On the beginnings and continuities of the Mesopotamian omen sciences”
  • Ann Guinan (Philadelphia) “Paradox and Praxis: Mesopotamian Omen COmpendia from a Cognitive Perspective”
  • Eckart Frahm (Yale) “The Hermeneutics of Cuneiform Signs in Divination and Text Commentaries”
  • Nils Heessel (Heidelberg) “The Calculation of the Stipulated Term in Extispicy texts”
  • John Jacobs (Yale) “Traces of the omen series shumma izbu in Cicero’s De divinatione”
  • Cynthia Jean (Brussels) “Divination and oracles at the Neo-Assyrian palace: the importance of signs in royal ideology”
  • Ulla Susanne Koch (Copenhagen) “A cognitive approach to Mesopotamian divination”
  • Martti Nissinen (Helsinki): Respondent
  • Scott Noegel (Seattle) “‘Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign’: Script, Power, and Interpretation in the Ancient Near East”
  • Seth Richardson (Chicago) “Believing is Seeing: Historicism and a 'Created' Old Babylonian Divinatory Literature”
  • Francesca Rochberg (Berkeley) “'If P, then Q': Toward A Theory of Signs in Babylonian Divination”
  • JoAnn Scurlock (Chicago) “Prophecy as a form of divination; Divination as a form of prophecy: New light on Sennacherib at Jerusalem and Nahum”
  • Edward L. Shaughnessy (Chicago) “Arousing Images: The Poetry of Divination and the Divination of Poetry”
  • Abraham Winitzer (Notre Dame) “The Divine Presence and its Interpretation in Early Mesopotamian Divination”


Böck, Barbara.
2000. Die babylonisch-assyrische Morphoskopie. Archiv für Orientforschung, Beiheft 27. Vienna: Institut für Orientalistik der Universität Wien.
Brown, David
2000 Mesopotamian Planetary Astronomy-Astrology. Cuneiform Monographs 18. Groningen: Styx.
Cumont, Franz.
1912 Astrology and Religion among the Greeks and Romans. American Lectures on the History of Religions 8. New York, London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Drower, Ethel Stefana.
1937 The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran. Their cults, customs, magic, legends, and folklore. London: Clarendon Press.
Koch-Westenholz, U.
1995 Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination. Copenhagen: Munksgaard.
Maul, Stefan M.
“Omina und Orakel. A. Mesopotamien.” In: Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie, Vol. 10. cols 45-88.
Noegel, Scott B.
2002 “Dreaming and Ideology of Mantics. Homer and Ancient Near Eastern Oneiromancy.” In: A. Panaino and G. Pettinato (eds.). Ideologies as Intercultural Phenomena. Melammu Symposia 3. Milan: Universita di Bologna & IsIAO, pp. 167-81.
Oppenheim, A. L.
1964 Ancient Mesopotamia: portrait of a dead civilization. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.
Oppenheim, A. Leo.
1974 “A Babylonian Diviner’s Manual.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 33, pp. 197-220.
Pingree, David.
1992 “Mesopotamian Omens in Sanskrit.” In: Dominique Charpin, Francis Joannès (eds.). La circulation des biens, des personnes et des idées dans le Proche-Orient ancien. 38e Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale. Paris: Editions Reserche sur les Civilisations, 375-9.
Scurlock, Jo Ann.
2003. Review of Böck 2000. Journal of the American Oriental Society 123 (2003) 395-9.
Sims-Williams, Nicholas.
1995 “Christian Sogdian Texts from the Nachlass of Olaf Hansen. 2: Fragments of Polemic and Prognostics.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 58, 288-302.
Starr, Ivan
1983 The Rituals of the Diviner. Bibliotheca Mesopotamica 12. Malibu: Undena.
Stevens, Ethel S.
1931 Folk-Tales of ‘Iraq, set down and Translated from the Vernacular. Oxford: University Press.

Revised: March 10, 2009

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