MESOPOTAMIAN OMENS, DEMONS, CURSES AND SUPERSTITIONS

MESOPOTAMIAN SUPERSTITIONS

20120208-Amulet_to_ward_off_plague.jpg
Amulet to ward off plague
Ancient Mesopotamians wore bell-shaped amulets to ward off the evil eye. Babylonian fortunetellers used astrology and haruspicy (searching for omens in the entrails of animals) to predict the future. A cuneiform calendar dated at 850 B.C., consisting of daily instructions for the 7th month of the year read: “Avoid eating garlic in the second day or risk a death in the family.”

Babylonians read the viscera of slaughtered animals to make state decisions about international trade and warfare. Psychological evaluations were often based the places of moles, the way a person walked, mannerisms and speech. Predictions were made based on the formations of bird flock in the sky and the patterns created when oil was added to water.

The superstition that spilling salt is bad luck and the custom of throwing salt over one's could cancel bad luck was practiced by the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Assyrians and later the Romans and Greeks. It is believed to have been practiced since 3500 B.C.

Categories with related articles in this website: Mesopotamian History and Religion (35 articles) factsanddetails.com; Mesopotamian Culture and Life (38 articles) factsanddetails.com; First Villages, Early Agriculture and Bronze, Copper and Late Stone Age Humans (50 articles) factsanddetails.com Ancient Persian, Arabian, Phoenician and Near East Cultures (26 articles) factsanddetails.com

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU etana.org/abzubib; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum oi.uchicago.edu/virtualtour ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org

Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Sumerian Eye Makeup, Conjunctivitis and the 'Evil Eye'

John Alan Halloran wrote in sumerian.org: “The Sumerian language has preserved a record of their battles against conjunctivitis, also known as 'pink eye', an eye condition which the Sumerians called igi-hulu, 'evil eye'. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the mucous membrane that covers the eyeball, which can be brought on by bacteria, viruses, or inadvertent soap in the eye. You can read about this potentially dangerous condition here: [Source: John Alan Halloran, sumerian.org January 27, 2014 ***]

“There is a Sumerian expression that indicates that this condition had already become a subject of fear and superstition in Sumerian times — igi-hul...dim2: to put the evil eye (on someone) ('eyes/face' + 'evil' + 'to fashion'). In most traditional cultures there is an extreme fear of the 'Evil Eye'. They recite incantations, give signs, and will do everything possible to avoid its fateful curse. ***


Evil eye charms

“The Sumerians were like many other peoples in having traditions about the medicinal use of different plants and herbs, some of which have antiseptic properties. These traditions are preserved in the vocabulary of their language. When Logogram Publishing publishes the English-Sumerian index to my Sumerian Lexicon (2006) book, it will be easier for researchers to look up what are these plants and herbs. But the Sumerian natural remedies were largely the same as are used today among the inhabitants of Iraq and Arabia. ***

“The Sumerian vocabulary confirms that the practice of eye makeup originated for eye protection, not for cosmetic reasons. It also shows that the practice of applying protective eye makeup was not limited to the ancient Egyptians. Here are two entries from my Sumerian Lexicon (2006) book: 1) šembi, šimbi: kohl, i.e., a cosmetic, mascara, or eye-protection paste originally made from charred frankincense resin and later from powdered antimony (stibium) or lead compounds (cf., šem-bi-zi-da, 'kohl'; šim, 'perfumed resin'; šim-gig, 'frankincense'; im-sig7-sig7, 'antimony paste'). 2) šem-bi-zi-da: kohl; a paste originally made from charred frankincense resin and later from powdered antimony (stibium) or lead compounds; a darkening eye cosmetic with antibacterial properties - used as a protection against eye disease as well as giving relief from the glare of the sun ('kohl' + 'good; true' + nominative; Akk., guhlu, 'kohl' - cf., igi-hulu, 'evil-eye'). ***

“The etymology shows that Akkadian guhlu is a loanword from Sumerian, where it evolved through vowel harmony from the Sumerian term for 'evil-eye' into our word 'kohl'. Furthermore, according to Stephan Guth, Professor of Arabic at the University of Oslo, our word 'alcohol' "is derived from the Arabic al-kuhl, which means 'kohl'. When the Europeans became familiar with this substance in Andalusia, which was also used for medical purposes, they referred to it and gradually all other fine powders, and subsequently all kinds of volatile essences, as alcohol." So the etymology of 'alcohol' can now be traced through a circuitous path all the way back to ancient Sumerian igi-hulu, 'evil-eye'. ***

“Frankincense resin has such strong antibiotic properties that the ancient Egyptians used its oil to clean the body and organs during mummification, helping to prevent putrefaction. A Google search for "charred frankincense" returns almost a thousand results. Frankincense, however, was rare and expensive, having to be imported from Arabia, which explains why the Sumerians learned to substitute powdered antimony or lead compounds for it in their eye makeup.” ***

Curses in Mesopotamia


cuse tablet from Jerusalem

The ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Jews, Christians, Gauls and Britons all dispensed curse tablets used placate "unquiet" graves and call up the spirits of the underworld to make trouble.

Greek curse objects were used to call ghosts from the underworld to bring suffering on one's enemies. They were often buried with the dead who were believed to have the power to pass them on to a party that could carry them out. Curses buried with people who died young were thought to be able to reach their destination quicker.

One Mesopotamian curse inscribed on a bowl read that it wishes the victim's "tongue may dry up in his mouth...that his legs may dry up, that sulfur and fire may burn him, that his body may be struck by scalding water that he may be chocked, estranged, and disturbed in the eyes of all who see him, and that he may be banned, broken, lost, finished, vanquished, and that he may die, and that a flame may seize him.”

The second tomb found under the Nimrud Palace contained a curse, threatening the person who opened the grave of Queen Yaba (wife of powerful Tiglthpilese II (744-727 B.C.) with eternal thirst and restlessness, with a specific warning about placing another corpse inside. The curse was written before the second corpse was placed inside.

Book: Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World by John Gager, professor or religion at Princeton (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Inana’s Blessing of Agade

Inana (Ishtar, Inanna) is known for blessing the city of Agade" (capital of Akkad and the Akkadian Empire of King Sargon) and then causing its fall. As the goddess of war and strife, she held the title Ninkur-ra-igi-ga, "the queen who eyes the highland" meaning that other lands feared her. Battle was called the "dance of Inanna, and she was at the very heart of it. She was "the star of the battle-cry, who can make brothers who have lived together in harmony fight each other". [Source: piney.com]

After Enlil had slaughtered the land of Unug in the dust as if it were a mighty bull, he gave the south as far as the highlands to Sargon, king of Agade. At that time, holy Inana established the sanctuary of Agade as her celebrated woman's domain; she set up her throne in Ulmac. Inanna got Ea drunk and got the power of the ME away from Ea. She would use such powers as that of "the eldership, musical worship and kissing the phallus" to enhance her own kingdom.


Ishtar (inanna) appears to Sargon

The story of “Ishtar’s Cursing of Agade” reads: “Like a young man building a house for the first time, like a girl establishing a woman's domain, holy Inana did not sleep as she ensured that the warehouses would be provisioned; that dwellings would be founded in the city; that its people would eat splendid food; that its people would drink splendid beverages; that those bathed for holidays would rejoice in the courtyards; that the people would throng the places of celebration; that acquaintances would dine together; that foreigners would cruise about like unusual birds in the sky; that even Marhaci would be re-entered on the tribute rolls; that monkeys, mighty elephants, water buffalo, exotic animals, as well as thoroughbred dogs, lions, mountain ibexes, and alum sheep with long wool would jostle each other in the public squares.

“She then filled Agade's stores for emmer wheat with gold, she filled its stores for white emmer wheat with silver; she delivered copper, tin, and blocks of lapis lazuli to its granaries and sealed its silos from outside. She endowed its old women with the gift of giving counsel, she endowed its old men with the gift of eloquence. She endowed its young women with the gift of entertaining, she endowed its young men with martial might, she endowed its little ones with joy.

“The nursemaids who cared for the general's children played the aljarsur instruments. Inside the city tigi drums sounded; outside it, flutes and zamzam instruments. Its harbour where ships moored was full of joy. All foreign lands rested contentedly, and their people experienced happiness. Its king, the shepherd Naram- Suen, rose as the daylight on the holy throne of Agade. Its city wall, like a mountain, reached the heavens. It was like the Tigris going to the sea as holy Inana opened the portals of its city-gates and made Sumer bring its own possessions upstream by boats. The highland Martu, people ignorant of agriculture, brought spirited cattle and kids for her. The Meluhans, the people of the black land, brought exotic wares up to her. Elam and Subir loaded themselves with goods for her as if they were packasses. All the governors, the temple administrators, and the accountants of the Gu-edina regularly supplied the monthly and New Year offerings.

“What a weariness all these caused at Agade's city gates! Holy Inana could hardly receive all these offerings. As if she were a citizen there, she could not restrain the desire to prepare the ground for a temple. But the statement coming from the E-kur was disquieting. Because of Enlil all Agade was reduced to trembling, and terror befell Inana in Ulmac. She left the city, returning to her home. Holy Inana abandoned the sanctuary of Agade like someone abandoning the young women of her woman's domain. Like a warrior hurrying to arms, she removed the gift of battle and fight from the city and handed them over to the enemy.”

Inana’s Cursing of Agade

The tone of the of “Ishtar’s Cursing of Agade” then changes: “ Not even five or ten days had passed and Ninurta brought the jewels of rulership, the royal crown, the emblem and the royal throne bestowed on Agade, back into his E-cumeca Utu took away the eloquence of the city. Enki took away its wisdom. Anu took up into the midst of heaven its fearsomeness that reaches heaven. Enki tore out its well-anchored holy mooring pole from the abzu. Inana took away its weapons. The life of Agade's sanctuary was brought to an end as if it had been only the life of a tiny carp in the deep waters, and all the cities were watching it. [Source: piney.com]

“Like a mighty elephant, it bent its neck to the ground while they all raised their horns like mighty bulls. Like a dying dragon, it dragged its head on the earth and they jointly deprived it of honour as in a battle. Naram- Suen saw in a nocturnal vision that Enlil would not let the kingdom of Agade occupy a pleasant, lasting residence, that he would make its future altogether unfavourable, that he would make its temples shake and would scatter its treasures. He realized what the dream was about, but did not put into words, and did not discuss it with anyone. Because of the E-kur, he put on mourning clothes, covered his chariot with a reed mat, tore the reed canopy off his ceremonial barge, and gave away his royal paraphernalia.

“Naram- Suen persisted for seven years! Who has ever seen a king burying his head in his hands for seven years? Then he went to perform extispicy on a kid regarding the temple, but the omen had nothing to say about the building of the temple. For a second time he went to perform extispicy on a kid regarding the temple, but the omen again had nothing to say about the building of the temple.

“In order to change what had been inflicted upon him, he tried to to alter Enlil's pronouncement. Because his subjects were dispersed, he now began a mobilization of his troops. Like a wrestler who is about to enter the great courtyard, he (lifted) his hands towards the E-kur. Like an athlete bent to start a contest, he treated the giguna as if it were worth only thirty shekels. Like a robber plundering the city, he set tall ladders against the temple. To demolish E-kur as if it were a huge ship, to break up its soil like the soil of mountains where precious metals are mined, to splinter it like the lapis lazuli mountain, to prostrate it, like a city inundated by Ickur.


Akkadian cylinder seal depicting Inanna and Ninshubur

“Though the temple was not a mountain where cedars are felled, he had large axes cast, he had double-edged agasilig axes sharpened to be used against it. He set spades against its roots and it sank as low as the foundation of the Land. He put axes against its top, and the temple, like a dead soldier, bowed its neck before him, and all the foreign lands bowed their necks before him. He ripped out its drain pipes, and all the rain went back to the heavens. He tore off its upper lintel and the Land was deprived of its ornament.

“From its "Gate from which grain is never diverted", he diverted grain, and the Land was deprived of grain. He struck the "Gate of Well-Being" with the pickaxe, and well-being was subverted in all the foreign lands. As if they were for great tracts of land with wide carp-filled waters, he cast large spades to be used against the E-kur. The people could see the bedchamber, its room which knows no daylight.

“The Akkadians could look into the holy treasure chest of the gods. Though they had committed no sacrilege, its lahama deities of the great pilasters standing at the temple were thrown into the fire by Naram- Suen. The cedar, cypress, juniper and boxwood, the woods of its giguna, were...... by him. He put its gold in containers and put its silver in leather bags. He filled the docks with its copper, as if it were a huge transport of grain. The silversmiths were re-shaping its silver, jewellers were re-shaping its precious stones, smiths were beating its copper. Large ships were moored at the temple, large ships were moored at Enlil's temple and its possessions were taken away from the city, though they were not the goods of a plundered city.

“With the possessions being taken away from the city, good sense left Agade. As the ships moved away from was removed. Enlil, the roaring storm that subjugates the entire land, the rising deluge that cannot be confronted, was considering what should be destroyed in return for the wrecking of his beloved E-kur. He lifted his gaze towards the Gubin mountains, and made all the inhabitants of the broad mountain ranges descend . Enlil brought out of the mountains those who do not resemble other people, who are not reckoned as part of the Land, the Gutians, an unbridled people, with human intelligence but canine instincts and monkeys' features. Like small birds they swooped on the ground in great flocks. Because of Enlil, they stretched their arms out across the plain like a net for animals.”

Mesopotamian Demons

Ira Spar of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Demons were viewed as being either good or evil. Evil demons were thought to be agents of the gods sent to carry out divine orders, often as punishment for sins. They could attack at any moment by bringing disease, destitution, or death. Lamastu-demons were associated with the death of newborn babies; gala-demons could enter one's dreams. Demons could include the angry ghosts of the dead or spirits associated with storms. [Source: Spar, Ira. Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2009, metmuseum.org \^/]

“Some gods played a beneficent role to protect against demonic scourges. A deity depicted with the body of a lion and the head and arms of a bearded man was thought to ward off the attacks of lion-demons. Pazuzu, a demonic-looking god with a canine face and scaly body, possessing talons and wings, could bring evil, but could also act as a protector against evil winds or attacks by lamastu-demons. Rituals and magic were used to ward off both present and future demonic attacks and counter misfortune. Demons were also represented as hybrid human-animal creatures, some with birdlike characteristics. \^/

“Although the gods were said to be immortal, some slain in divine combat had to reside in the underworld along with demons. The "Land of No Return" was to be found beneath the earth and under the abzu, the freshwater ocean. There the spirits of the dead (gidim) dwelt in complete darkness with nothing to eat but dust and no water to drink. This underworld was ruled by Eresh-kigal, its queen, and her husband Nergal, together with their household of laborers and administrators.” \^/

Types of Demons in Mesopotamia


Demon Pazuzu

Morris Jastrow said: “The evil spirits, supposed to cause sickness and other ills, were of various kinds, and each class appears to have had its special function. Some clearly represent the shades of the departed, who return to earth to plague the living; others are personifications of certain diseases. The existence of special demons for consumption (or wasting disease), fever, ague, and headache forms a curious parallel to specialisation in the practice of modem medicine. There was even a “gynecological” demon, known as Labartu, whose special function it was to attack women in childbirth, and steal the offspring.[Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“Other demons appear to have been associated chiefly with the terrors of the storm, or with the night, while some seem to have been of a general character or, if they had a special function, it has not as yet been discovered. Their general dwelling place was in the nether world—the domain of Nergal, the god of pestilence and death. The names given to these demons, such as “pestilence,” the “seizer,” the “one lying in wait,” “destroyer,” “storm,” illustrate the uncompromisingly forbidding and gloomy views held of them, which is even further emphasised by the terrifying shapes given to them—leopards, dragons, serpents, etc. <>

“Not confined solely to the nether world, their presence was also seen in the angry clouds that rolled across the heavens, their voice was heard in the storms that swept over the land. They come up from their habitation and conceal themselves in dark holes and unsuspected crannies, ready to pounce upon their victims unawares. In short, like the modern “germs” of which they are the remote prototypes, they are universal and everywhere. <>

Textual References to Mesopotamian Demons

One ancient Mesopotamian texts describes how demons like to operate in groups of seven:
“Destructive storms and evil winds are they,
A storm of evil, presaging the baneful storm,
A storm of evil, forerunner of the baneful storm.
Mighty children, mighty sons are they,
Messengers of Namtar are they,
Throne-bearers of Ereshkigal.
The flood driving through the land are they.
Seven gods of the wide heavens,
Seven gods of the broad earth,
Seven robber gods are they.
Seven gods of universal sway,
Seven evil gods,
Seven evil demons,
Seven evil and violent demons,
Seven in heaven, seven on earth. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

One incantation describes them as: “Neither male nor female are they.
Destructive whirlwinds they,
Having neither wife nor offspring.
Compassion and mercy they do not know.
Prayer and supplication they do not hear.
Horses reared in the mountains, Hostile to Ea.
Throne-bearers of the gods are they.
Standing on the highway, befouling the street.
Evil are they, evil are they,
Seven they are, seven they are, Twice seven they are. <>

On their ability to penetrate everywhere: “The high enclosures, the broad enclosures like a flood they pass through.
From house to house they dash along.
No door can shut them out,
No bolt can turn them back.
Through the door, like a snake, they glide,
Through the hinge, like the wind, they storm.
Tearing the wife from the embrace of the man,
Snatching the child from the knees of a man,
Driving the freedman from his family home. <>

Seven Demons of Mesopotamia


demon Humbaba mask

“The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia” come from the sixteenth tablet of a series called the "Evil Demon Series," of which we have an Assyrian with a parallel Sumerian text, implying it was a very ancient legend. It goes: “Raging storms, evil gods are they, Ruthless demons, who in heaven's vault were created, are they, Workers of evil are they, They lift up the head to evil, every day to evil Destruction to work. Of these seven the first is the South wind...The second is a dragon, whose mouth is opened... That none can measure. The third is a grim leopard, which carries off the young ... The fourth is a terrible Shibbu ... The fifth is a furious Wolf, who knoweth not to flee. The sixth is a rampant ... which marches against god and king. The seventh is a storm, an evil wind, which takes vengeance. [Source: “Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia”, The seven demons or devil hostile to god. Evil Demon Series, translated by R.C. Thompson London 1903, piney.com]

“Seven are they, messengers to King Anu are they, From city to city darkness work they, A hurricane, which mightily hunts in the heavens, are they Thick clouds, that bring darkness in heaven, are they, Gusts of wind rising, which cast gloom over the bright day, are they, With the Imkhullu (1) the evil wind, forcing their way, are they, The overflowing of Adad mighty destroyers, are they, At the right of Adad stalking, are they, In the height of heaven, like lightning flashing, are they, To wreak destruction forward go they , In the broad heaven, the home of Anu, the King, evilly do they arise, and none to oppose. [(1) The Imkhullu (Imhullu) appears also in the Babylonian Creation Epic "The Enuma Elish"]

"Imhullu the atrocious wind, the tempest, the whirlwind, the hurricane, the wind of four and the wind of seven, the tumid wind, worst of all". When Enlil heard these tidings, a plan in his heart he pondered, With Ea, exalted Massu of the gods, he took counsel. Sin, Shamash, and Ishtar, whom he had set to order the vault of heaven, With Anu he divided the lordship of the whole heaven, To these three gods, his offspring Day and night, without ceasing, he ordained to stand,

“When the seven evil gods stormed the vault of heaven, Before the gleaming Sin, they set themselves angrily, The mighty Shamash, Adad the warrior, they brought on their side, Ishtar, with Anu the King, moved into a shining dwelling, exercising dominion over the heavens, ANU Son of the first pair of gods, Anshar and Kishar. Consort was Antu (Anatum) later replaced by Ishtar He was the son of Anshar and Kishar.

“Day and night he was dark (Sin), in the dwelling of his dominion he sat not down, The evil gods, the messengers of Anu, the King, are they, Raising their evil heads, in the night shaking themselves, are they, Evil searching out, are they, From the heaven, like a wind, over the land rush they. Enlil saw the darkening of the hero Sin in heaven, The lord spoke to his minister Nusku, O My minister Nusku, my message unto the ocean bring, The tidings of my son Sin, who in heaven has been sadly darkened, Unto Ea, in the ocean, announce it."

“Nusku exalted the word of his lord, To Ea, in the ocean, he went quickly, To the prince, the exalted Massu the lord Nudimmud. Nusku, the word of his lord there announced Ea in the ocean heard that word, He bit his lip and filled his mouth with wailing; Ea called his son Marduk, and gave him the message: "Go, my son Marduk, Son of a prince, the gleaming Sin has been sadly darkened in heaven, His darkening is seen in the heavens, The seven evil gods, death-dealing, fearless are they, The seven evil gods, like a flood, rush on, the land they fall upon, do they, Against the land, like a storm, they rise, do they, Before the gleaming Sin, they set themselves angrily; The mighty Shamash, Adad the warrior, they brought on their side."

Description of the Seven Demons and the Charm Used Against Them


frog amulet

The description of the seven demons in “The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia” reads: I: Destructive storms and evil winds are they, A storm of evil, presaging the baneful storm, A storm of evil, forerunner of the baneful storm. Mighty children, mighty sons are they, Messengers of Namtar are they, Throne-bearers of Ereshkigal. The flood driving through the land are they. Seven gods of the wide heavens, Seven gods of the broad earth, Seven robber-gods are they. Seven gods of universal sway, Seven evil gods, Seven evil demons, Seven evil and violent demons, Seven in heaven, seven on earth.[Source: “Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia”, The seven demons or devil hostile to god. Evil Demon Series, translated by R.C. Thompson London 1903, piney.com]

“II: Neither male nor female are they. Destructive whirlwinds they, Having neither wife nor offspring. Compassion and mercy they do not know. Prayer and supplication they do not hear. Horses reared in the mountains, Hostile to Ea. Throne-bearers of the gods are they. Standing on the highway, befouling the street. Evil are they, evil are they, Seven they are, seven they are, Twice seven they are.

“III: The high enclosures, the broad enclosures like a flood they pass through. From house to house they dash along. No door can shut them out, No bolt can turn them back. Through the door, like a snake, they glide, Through the hinge, like the wind, they storm. Tearing the wife from the embrace of the man, Snatching the child from the knees of a man, Driving the freedman from his family home.

“Charm Against the Seven Evil Spirits: Seven are they, seven are they! In the channel of the deep seven are they! In the radiance of heaven seven are they! In the channel of the deep in a palace grew they up. Male they are not, female they are not. In the midst of the deep are their paths. Wife they have not, son they have not. Order and kindness know they not. Prayer and supplication hear they not. The cavern in the mountain they enter. Unto Ea are they hostile. The throne-bearers of the gods are they. Disturbing the lily in the torrents are they set. Baleful are they, baleful are they. Seven are they, seven are they, seven twice again are they. May the spirits of heaven remember, may the spirits of earth remember.”

Divination

Morris Jastrow said: “The longing to penetrate the future is one of the active, impelling motives in all religions, ancient and modern. The hourly needs of daily life, combined with an instinctive dread of the unknown, lead man to turn to the Powers, on which he knows himself dependent, for some signs which may indicate what these Powers have in mind to do. Divination at one end of the chain, and uplifting invocation at the other, are prompted by the longing to break the fetters, and tear the veil from the mysterious future. The chief function of the priest is to act as mediator or interpreter between the deity and the worshippers in order that the latter may obtain guidance in the affairs of daily life. Success in any undertaking being dependent upon the co-operation of the gods, it was all important to ascertain whether or not that co-operation be forthcoming. The constant, unforeseen changes in nature, in the varying appearance of the heavens, in the unstable phenomena on earth, thus found expression in man’s associating caprice and changeability with the arbiters of human destinies. One could never be sure of the mood of the higher Powers. They smiled one day only to frown the next. It: was, therefore, a matter of incalculable practical importance to learn if possible their disposition at any given' fnoment. The cult of Babylonia and Assyria, accordingly, revolves to a large extent around methods for divining the future, and we now proceed to inquire, what these methods were. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]


Kassite amulet with Kadashman Turgu

“In any general survey of the vast,.almost boundless, field of divination, we may distinguish 'two’divisions; one we may somewhat vaguely designate as voluntary divination, the other as involuntary divination. By voluntary divination is meant an act of deliberately seeking out some.object through which it is hoped to secure a sign indicative of future events. So, e.g., the common practice among ancient Arabs of marking arrows, and then throwing them before an image or symbol of some deity, and according to where they lodged or the side on which they fell, to draw a conclusion as to what the deity had in mind to do or what he desired of his worshippers; this would fall within the category of voluntary divination. All methods of deciding upon any course of action by lot belong to the same class, since the decision deliberately sought would be supposed to be an indication of the divine will. Sending forth birds and observing their flight, as the Etruscans were accustomed to do, would represent another means of voluntary divination, the conclusions drawn from the direction and character of the flight being based upon a system more or less artifically devised. When the ancient Hebrews consulted the Teraphim, which were probably images or symbols of Jahweh (or some other god), they were engaged in an act of voluntary divination, though the details of its method have escaped us. Similarly, the incident related in the Book of Samuel, (I., chap. xx.,) where Jonathan is portrayed as shooting arrows and announcing the result to his companion David, was in reality a species of voluntary divination, though no longer so interpreted by the later compilers. <>

“The field of involuntary divination, wherein signs indicating the purpose of the gods are not sought but forced upon our notice in spite of ourselves, is still larger. The phenomena in the heavens constitute the most conspicuous example of involuntary divination. The changes in the skies from night to night were supposed to correspond to variations in the dispositions of the gods, who were identified or associated with the planets and constellations. The signs were there and cried out, as it were, for an interpretation. All unusual incidents, whether in nature, such as sudden, unexpected storms, thunder out of a cloudless sky, cloud-bursts, unusually severe inundations, destructive tornadoes, swarms of locusts; or incidents in life that for one reason or another rivetted attention, such as dreams, snakes in the path, strange dogs of various colours, deformities or monstrosities in the young of animals, malformations of human offspring, the birth of twins and triplets, or a litter of pigs unusually large or unusually small—in short, anything which, whether really unusual or not, had any feature which gave it prominence, might be a sign sent by some god, and in any event demanded an interpretation by those who were supposed to possess the capacity to read in these signs the will and intention of the higher Powers. <>

“Both voluntary and involuntary divination have a large share in the practical religion of Babylonia and Assyria. As examples of the former class we find the pouring of drops of oil in a bowl or goblet of water, and according to the number of bubbles, the side on which the bubbles were formed, the behaviour of the bubbles, as they first sank and then rose to the surface, and their line of formation, etc.,—from all these, conclusions were drawn as to their portents. In involuntary divination we find dreams, behaviour of animals, peculiar signs in or on new-born infants, or on the young of animals, strange phenomena in daily life, all carefully noted by the priests. These were interpreted according to a system, based in part upon observation of what in the past had actually followed any striking occurrence, with the assumption, resting on the illogical principle of post hoc , propter hoc, that the same circumstances would bring about a like result. <>

“There are, however, two methods of divination among the Babylonians and Assyrians which take so prominent a part in their religion and enter so closely into it, as to overshadow all others. One of these methods, involving the inspection of the liver of the sacrificial animal, falls within the category of voluntary divination, the other, based on the observation and study of the phenomena of the heavens,—including clouds and storms as well as the stars,— belongs to the category of involuntary divination. Of the two, the former is a direct outcome of popular beliefs, while the latter is the result of speculation in the temple schools. The two methods therefore illustrate the two phases to be noted in the religion, the beliefs and practice evolved among the people, though under the guidance of the priests as the mediators between the gods and their worshippers, and the more or less theoretical amplifications of these beliefs along lines of thought that represent early attempts at systems of theology.” <>

Sacrifices

Morris Jastrow said: “So deeply rooted is the belief that through a sacrificial animal a sign indicative of the divine purpose can be obtained, that the idea of tribute involved in offering an animal appears, so far as the Babylonian religion is concerned, to have been of a secondary character, if not indeed a later addition to the divina-tory aim. The theory upon which divination by the means of the liver rested is both curious and interesting. It was believed that the god to whom an animal was offered identified himself for the nonce with the proffered gift. The god in accepting the animal became, as it were, united to it, in much the same way as those who actually eat it. It lies beyond our scope to explain the origin of animal sacrifice, but in ancient religions the frequent association and identification of gods with animals suggest that the animal is sanctified by the sacrifice, acquiring the very attributes which were associated with the god to whom it is offered. Be this, however, as it may, it seems certain that in animal sacrifice an essential feature is the belief that the soul or spirit of the god becomes identical with the soul of the sacrificial animal. The two souls become attuned to one another, like two watches regulated to keep the same time. Through the soul of the animal, therefore, a visible means was obtained for studying the soul of the god, thus enabling mortals to peer, as it were, into the mental workshop of the gods and to surprise them at work, planning future events on earth—which were due, according to the current belief, to their direct initiative. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“But where was the soul of the god? Using the term soul in the popularly accepted sense, it is not surprising to find mankind, while in a state of primitive culture, making the attempt to localise what it conceived to be the soul or vital essence of an animate being. Nations, even in an advanced state of culture, speak in figurative language of the heart or brain as comprising the essence or soul of being; and even after that stage of mental development is passed, where the soul is sought for in any specific human organ, human speech still retains traces of the material views once commonly associated with the soul. A goodly part of mankind’s mental and physical efforts may be said to be engrossed with this search for the human soul. <>

“In most of the Aryan and Semitic languages, the word for soul means “breath,” and rests upon the notion that the actual breath, emitted through the mouth, represents the real soul. This is still a widespread popular belief. Antecedent to this stage we find three organs of the human body—liver, heart, and brain—receiving in turn the honour of being the seat of the soul. This order of enumeration represents the successive stages in these simple-minded endeavours. Among people of to-day still living in a state of primitive culture, we find traces of the belief which places the soul in the liver. The natives of Borneo before entering on a war are still in the habit of killing a pig, and of inspecting the liver as a means of ascertaining whether or not the moment chosen for the attack is propitious; and, similarly, when a chieftain is taken ill, it is believed that, through the liver of a pig offered to a deity, the intention of the god, as to whether the victim of the disease shall recover or succumb, will be revealed.” <>

Omens Reported by Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon, (c. 2500 - 670 B.C.)

According to excerpted “Reports of the Magicians & Astrologers of Nineveh & Babylon” (2500 - 670 B.C.): “XII. Omens from Storms: When a storm comes upon the land, the crops will be increased the market will be steady. When a storm prevails in the land, the "reign" of the land will rule great power. When a storm bursts in Sebat, an eclipse of Kasshi will take place. From Asharidu, the king's servant.[Source: R. Campbell Thompson, "The Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon," in Assyrian and Babylonian Literature: Selected Transactions, With a Critical Introduction by Robert Francis Harper (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1904), pp. 451-460, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia]

“XIII. Omens from Thunder: When it thunders on the day of the Moon's disappearance, the crops will prosper and the market will be steady. When it rains on the day of the Moon's disappearance, it will bring on the crops and the market will be steady. Long live the lord of kings! From Asharidu. When it thunders in Ab, the day is dark, heaven rains, lightning lightens, waters will be poured forth in the channels. When it thunders on a cloudless day, there will be darkness (or) famine in the land. When it thunders in Tishri, the day is dark, heaven reigns, the rainbow is divided, lightning lightens, the gods will have mercy on the land. From the Chief Scribe. When it thunders in Shebat, there will be an invasion of locusts. When it thunders in Shebat, heaven will rain with stones. (When) it thunders in Nisan, grain will be diminished.

“Concerning this sickness the king has not spoken from his heart. The sickness lasts a year: people that are ill recover. Do you grant, O king, my lord, that they pursue the worship of the gods and pray the gods day and night! Does truth ever reach the king and his family? A man should kill a calf without blemish, he should cut it in pieces; he himself should say as follows: "A man that is in full health, his days are short; he is sick, his days are long." From Ishtar-shum-eresh.

“XIV. Omens from Earthquakes: When the earth quakes in Nisan, the king's land will revolt from him. When the earth quakes during the night, harm will come to the land, or devastation to the land. From Apla. Last night there was an earthquake. When the earth quakes in Tebet, the king will sit in the city of his foe. When the earth quakes in Tebet, the palace of the prince will be smitten and go to ruins. When the earth quakes in the night, there will be harm to the land (or) devastation to the land. From the Chief Astrologer.”

Omens Linked with the Moon

According to excerpted “Reports of the Magicians & Astrologers of Nineveh & Babylon” (2500 - 670 B.C.):“I. When the Moon Appears on the First Day of the Month: When the Moon appears on the first day, there will be silence, the land will be satisfied. When the day is long according to its calculation, there will be a long reign. From Bullutu. When the Moon appears on the first day, there will be silence, the land will be satisfied. This is for Nisan and ishri . When the Moon is regularly full, the crops of the land will prosper, the king will go to pre-eminence. May Ashur, Shamash, Nabu, and Marduk, day after day, month after month, year after year, grant happiness, health, joy, and exultation, a secure throne forever, for long days and many years to the king, my lord! From Nabu-iqbi. Two or three times during these days we have looked for Mars, but could not see it. If the king, my lord, should say, "Is it an omen that it is invisible?" it is not. From Ishtar-shum-eresh.[Source: R. Campbell Thompson, "The Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon," in Assyrian and Babylonian Literature(New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1904), pp. 451-460]

“II. Omens From the Horns of the Moon: When the Moon's horns face equally, there will be a secure dwelling for the land. When at the Moon's appearance (its horns) are pointed, the king wherever his face is set will rule the land, (or) wherever he presses on will overcome. From Irasshi-ilu, the king's servant, the greater. When at the Moon's appearance its right horn is long and its left horn is short, the king's hand will conquer a land other than this. When the Moon at its appearance is very large, an eclipse will take place. When the Moon at its appearance is very bright, the crops of the land will prosper. When the day is long according to its calculation, there will be a long reign. The thirtieth day completed the month. In Elul an eclipse of Elam. From Nergal-etir.

“When the Moon appears on the first of Kislev, the King of Akkad, wherever he goes, will ravage the land; (or) the King of Akkad, wherever his face is set, will rule the land. (On the fourteenth day the Moon was seen with the Sun.) There will be an overthrowing of fortresses and downfall of garrisons; there will be obedience and good-will in the land. As for the rest, the king (will see?) their good luck. May the king soon hear a happy report and greeting! From Asharidu. Concerning Mercury, of which the king, my lord, sent me, yesterday Ishtar-shum-eresh in the palace proclaimed its going forth to Nabu-ahi-eriba. The omens in the festival day came, they have all been observed and seen, they have passed off. From Balasi.

“III. When the Moon Appears on the Twenty-Eighth Day: When the Moon at its appearance appears on the twenty-eighth day as the first day, it is evil for Aharru. When the Moon appears on the twenty-eighth day, it is lucky for Akkad, unlucky for Aharru. From the Chief Physician. “IV. When the Moon Appears on the Thirtieth Day. When the Moon appears on the thirtieth of Nisan, Subartu Ahlamu will devour: a foreign tongue will gain the ascendency in Aharru. (We are Subartu.) When the Moon appears on the thirtieth day, there will be cold in the land. The Moon appeared without the Sun on the fourteenth of Tebet; the Moon completes the day in Shebat. On the fourteenth it appears without the Sun; the Moon completes the day in Adar. On the fourteenth it appears without the Sun; the Moon will complete the day in Nisan. From Nabu-ahi-eriba.

“When the Moon appears on the thirtieth of Sivan, the abundance of Aharru Ahlamu will devour. When the Moon appears on the thirtieth day, there will be cold, (or) there will be the clamour of the enemy in the land. When the Moon at its appearance appears low, the enemy will seize on the land. When the Moon at its appearance appears low, the submission of a far country will come to the king (or) a messenger will come. From Irasshi-ilu, the king's servant. When the Moon appears on the thirtieth of Ab, there will be a devastation of Akkad. Let not the all-powerful king leave me; it is I who daily beg of the king for my hunger; and now to brick-work he has set me, saying, "Make bricks." Let not the king, my lord, leave me and I shall not die. From Tabia.

“V. Various Omens From the Moon. When the Moon disappears, evil will befall the land. When the Moon disappears out of its reckoning, an eclipse will take place. (The Moon disappeared on the twenty-fourth day.) When a halo surrounds the Sun on the day of the Moon's disappearance, an eclipse of the left side of the Moon will take place. In Kislev a watch was kept for the eclipse, the halo surrounding the Sun and the disappearance of the Moon (being the causes of the watch for an eclipse in Kislev) having been observed. May the king, my lord, know, and may he rest happy! From Irasshi-ilu, the king's servant (the greater).

Omens Related to Eclipses and Moon Halos

According to excerpted “Reports of the Magicians & Astrologers of Nineveh & Babylon” (2500 - 670 B.C.): VI. Omens From Halos: “ Last night a halo surrounded the Moon, and Jupiter and Scorpio stood within it. When a halo surrounds the Moon and Jupiter stands within it, the King of Akkad will be besieged. When a halo surrounds the Moon and Jupiter stands within it, there will be a slaughter of cattle and beasts of the field. (Marduk is Umunpauddu at its appearance; when it has risen for two (or four?) hours it becomes Sagmigar; when it stands in the meridian it becomes Nibiru.) When a halo surrounds the Moon and Scorpio stands in it, it will cause men to marry princesses, (or) lions will die, and the traffic of the land will be hindered. From Nabu-mushesi. When a halo surrounds the Moon, and Regulus stands within it, women will bear male children. From Nergal-etir. [Source: R. Campbell Thompson, "The Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon," in Assyrian and Babylonian Literature(New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1904), pp. 451-460]

“When a halo surrounds the Moon and a planet stands within it, robbers will rage. (Saturn stood within the halo of the Moon.) When Jupiter draws near to Taurus, the good fortune of the land passes away, (or) the generation of cattle and sheep is not prosperous. (Jupiter has entered Taurus: let the king, my lord, keep himself from the storm-wind.) When Mars reaches the path of the Sun there will be a famine of cattle, there will be want. (Mars reached Saturn.) When a planet and Mars stand facing one another, there will be an invasion of the enemy. When Mars, its rising is dark _____, its light like _____.

“When the greater halo surrounds the Moon, that land will be enlarged, destructions will surround men. When it surrounds and Cancer stands within it, the King of Akkad will prolong life. When Regulus stands within it, women will bear male children. When the greater halo surrounds the moon and is thin, there will be a giving of years to the king. (A great halo has surrounded it, and has remained for many nights and is uninterrupted.) From Shapiku, of Borsippa.

“XV. Omens from Eclipses: On the fourteenth an eclipse will take place. It is evil for Elam and Aharru, lucky for the king, my lord; let the king, my lord, rest happy. It will be seen without Venus; to the king, my lord, I say, "There will be an eclipse." From Irasshi-ilu, the servant of the king (the greater). To the king of countries, my lord, thy servant, Bel-usur. May Bel, Nabu, and Shamash be gracious to the king, my lord! An eclipse has happened, but it was not visible in Asshur; this eclipse passed the city Asshur, wherein the king is dwelling; now there are clouds everywhere, so that whether it did or did not happen we do not know. Let the lord of kings send to Asshur, to all cities, to Babylon, Nippur, Erech, and Borsippa; whatever has been seen in those cities the king will hear for certain. The omens _____ the omen for an eclipse happened in Adar and Nisan; I send all to the king, my lord, and they shall make a nambulbi-ceremony for the eclipse. Without fail let not the king omit to act rightly. The great gods in the city wherein the king dwells have obscured the heaven and will not show the eclipse; so let the king know that this eclipse is not directed against the king, my lord, or his country. Let the king rejoice!”

Omens When the Moon and Sun are Seen Together

According to excerpted “Reports of the Magicians & Astrologers of Nineveh & Babylon” (2500 - 670 B.C.): “VII. When the Moon and Sun are Seen with One Another. (1) On the Twelfth Day. When the Moon appears out of its expected time, the market will be low. (It was seen with the Sun on the twelfth.) When the Moon and Sun are seen with one another out of their expected time, a strong enemy will overcome the land; the King of Akkad will accomplish the defeat of his foe. [Source: R. Campbell Thompson, "The Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon," in Assyrian and Babylonian Literature(New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1904), pp. 451-460]

“(2) On the Fourteenth Day: When the Moon reaches the Sun and with it fades out of sight, its horns being dim, there will be truth in the land, and the son will speak the truth with his father. (On the fourteenth the Moon was seen with the Sun.) When the Moon and the Sun are invisible, the king will increase wisdom; the king of the land, the foundation of his throne will be secure. (On the fourteenth day the Moon was seen with the Sun.) When the Moon and Sun are seen with one another on the fourteenth, there will be silence, the land will be satisfied; the gods intend Akkad for happiness. Joy in the heart of the people. The cattle of Akkad will lie down securely in the pasture-places. When a dark halo surrounds the Moon, it gathers clouds; that month will bring rain. When its horns are dim, a flood will come. (On the fourteenth the Moon was seen with the Sun). About the people concerning whom I sent to the king my lord, the king does not say, "Why?" but has said, "Let them bring them hither." Now the king knows I hold no land in Assyria: I, what is my family to them, or what my life? Who is my god, who is my lord, to whom and how are my eyes turned? Now let my lord, the king, for whose life I pray Shamash, send it unto Ahisha, by royal authority, and let his messenger bring the people: let the governor of Babylon cause him to leave. Let Nabu-etir-napshati, my son, the king's servant, come, that with me he may visit the king.

“On the fourteenth the Moon and Sun were seen with one another. Last night a halo surrounded the Moon, Saturn stood within it near the Moon. They shall bring in that tablet of the Day of Bel which we have written for the king, my lord, to see, and they shall give us the Akkadian tablet of the king. They shall inclose three "stars" therein on the front, and shall direct the officer that whoever opens the document shall close it in his presence.

“When the Moon stops in its course the market will be low. On the fifteenth it was seen with the Sun. Last night a halo surrounded the Moon, and Virgo and Spica stood within it. When a halo surrounds the Moon, and Spica (Pan) stands within it, brigands will be rampant, and there will be much robbery in the land. When a "river" surrounds the Moon, there will be great rains and showers. A-edin stood within the halo of the Moon. From Nabu-iqisha, of Borsippa.

“(3) On the Fifteenth Day. When Jupiter goes with Venus, the prayer of the land will reach the heart of the gods. Marduk and Sarpanit will hear the prayer of their people, and will have mercy on my people. Let them send me an ass, that it may ease my feet. From Nergal-etir.

“(4) On the Sixteenth Day: When the Moon and Sun are seen with one another on the sixteenth day, king to king will send hostility. The king will be besieged in his palace for the space of a month. The feet of the enemy will be against the land; the enemy will march triumphantly in his land. When the Moon on the fourteenth or fifteenth of Tammuz is not seen with the Sun, the king will be besieged in his palace. When it is seen on the sixteenth day, it is lucky for Subartu, evil for Akkad and Aharru. From Akkullanu.

Omens Regarding the Sun and Stars

According to excerpted “Reports of the Magicians & Astrologers of Nineveh & Babylon” (2500 - 670 B.C.): “VIII. Omens from the Sun: When the Sun stands in the place of the Moon, the king of the land will be secure on his throne. When the Sun stands above or below the Moon, the foundation of the throne will be secure; the king will stand in his justice. When the Sun and Moon are invisible, the king of the land will increase wisdom. (Last night Saturn drew near to the Moon. Saturn is the star of the Sun. This is its interpretation; it is lucky for the king. The Sun is the king's star.) [Source: R. Campbell Thompson, "The Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon," in Assyrian and Babylonian Literature(New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1904), pp. 451-460]

“IX. Omens from Stars: When the Moon occults Jupiter, that year a king will die, (or) an eclipse of the Moon and Sun will take place. A great king will die. When Jupiter enters the midst of the Moon, there will be want in Aharru. The King of Elam will be slain with the sword: in Subarti _____ will revolt. When Jupiter enters the midst of the Moon, the market of the land will be low. When Jupiter goes out from behind the Moon, there will be hostility in the land. After two hours of the night had passed, a great star shone from north to south. Its omens are propitious for the king's desire. The King of Akkad will accomplish his mission. From Asharidu (the greater), the king's servant.

“Venus is appearing at sunset in the Tropic of Cancer: this is its interpretation. When Venus appears in Sivar; there will be a slaughter of the enemy. When Venus appears in the Tropic of Cancer the King of Akkad will have no rival. Five or Six days ago it reached Cancer. This is its interpretation. When Venus approaches Cancer there will be obedience and welfare in the land: the gods will have mercy on the land. Empty _____ will be full and the crops of the land will prosper; the sick in the land will recover. Pregnant women will perfect their offspring. The great gods will show favor to the sanctuaries of the land, the houses of the great gods will be renewed. From Shumai.

“When Venus in Kislev from the first to the thirtieth day disappears at sunrise, there will be famine of corn and straw in the land. The lord of kings has spoken thus: "Why have you not (observed?) the month, and sent the lucky and unlucky?" The prince of the kingdom has been neglected, has not been obeyed. May the lord of kings when his face is favourable lift up my head that I may make my decisions and tell the king, my lord! From Asharidu.

“When Mercury is seen in Iyyar, a flood will come and benefit the fields and meadow lands. When Jupiter reaches Mars (Mulmul), it will rain. On the fourteenth the Moon and Sun were not seen with one another: on fifteenth god was seen with god. The King of Subarti will have no rival. (I have heard from my father.) From Bel-ahi-eribi. Mercury is visible with Mars at sunset; it is ascending to Shugi. There will be rains and floods. When Jupiter appears at the beginning of the year, in that year its crops will prosper. From Nadinu.

Omens from King Sargon

Morris Jastrow said: “The collection of omens illustrative of events in the reigns of Sargon and Naram-Sin begins as follows: “If the gall-bladder spreads over the liver surface—an omen of Sargon, who on the basis of this omen proceeded against Elam, subjugated the Elamites, made an enclosure around them, and cut off their supplies.” “We must of course assume that these details represent extracts from a chronicle of what actually happened in the campaign against Elam, but arguing backwards from the event to the sign, it is reasonable to suppose that the priests saw in the extension of the gallbladder the grounds for the favourable character of the sign. The picture of the gall-bladder encompassing the liver surface would further suggest the enclosure around the enemy, shutting him in. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“Another sign in this collection reads: “If the liver surface, exclusive of the gall-bladder and the “finger of the liver,” is shaped like the lid of a pot, on the right side of the liver a “weapon” is interposed, and on the left side and in front there are seven fissures—an omen of Sargon. On the basis of this omen the inhabitants of the whole land rebelled against him, encompassed him in Agade, but Sargon went forth, defeated them, accomplished their overthrow, humbled their great host, captured them together with their possessions, and devoted [the booty] to Ishtar. <>

“In this case it is evident that the seven fissures— seven being a large round number—suggested a general disruption of the empire; but a marking associated with a weapon being interposed on the right side would naturally be regarded as pointing to a successful check of the uprising, while the circumstance of the liver being otherwise well-rounded and smooth was regarded as a sign of the ultimate disappearance of the difficulties with which Sargon found himself encumbered. The chief import, however, of the omen, it must be borne in mind, is that the subsequent events proved the signs in question to have been favourable; but at the same time it was the purpose of the priests, as is suggested above, in compiling, from the official chronicles, a series of omens dating from the reigns of Sargon and Naram-Sin, to preserve them as a guide for the future. The great name of King Sargon, whose fame as a successful conqueror gave rise to legends of his birth and origin, was assuredly one to conjure with. If on any occasion the examination of a liver revealed a “Sargon” sign, there could be no mistaking its import. Events showed what it meant and signs given to the great king—the favourite of the gods—would, necessarily, be trustworthy guides. <>

“These two factors, records,—or recollections of events following upon signs observed on specific occasions, and a natural, or artificial, association of ideas,—control the large collections of “liver” omens, which in the course of time were stored in the temples through the activity of priests. With the help of these collections, as guides and reference-books, all that was necessary was to observe every possible sign on the liver; note them down; refer them to the collection which would furnish the favourable or unfavourable interpretation; register these interpretations; and then, from a complete survey, draw a conclusion, if haply one could be formed. <>

“The interpretations themselves in these collections relate, almost exclusively, to the general welfare and not to individual needs or desires. They refer to warfare; to victory or defeat; to uprisings and devastations, pestilence and crops. Individuals are not infrequently referred to, but the reference is limited to the ruler or to members of his household, under the ancient view taken of royalty, that what happens to the king and his household affects the fortunes of the country for good or evil. This, of itself, does not exclude the possibility that private individuals consulted the bârû priests, and had liver examinations made on their own behalf. It must be remembered that our material consists of official records; but it may be said in general that the gods were supposed to concern themselves with public affairs only, and not with the needs of individuals. <>

“This is in keeping with what we know generally of Babylonian-Assyrian culture, which reveals the weak-I ness of the factor of individualism. The country and the community were all in all; the individual counted for little, in striking contrast, e.g., to Greek culture, where the individual almost overshadows the community. The circumstance that, in the large collections of omens, the interpretations deal with affairs of public and general import, thus turns out to be significant; and while, as we have seen, the important feature for those who resorted to divination was merely to ascertain whether the interpretation was favourable or unfavourable, the interpretations themselves in the collections are always explicit in referring to a specific prognostication as favourable, or unfavourable. <>

“The attempt to follow in detail the association of ideas which led to each specific interpretation would be a hopeless and also a futile task. We may well content ourselves with a recognition of the main factors involved in this association of ideas as above outlined. Thus, we can understand that a fissure on the right side of the gall-bladder should point to some disaster for the army, and a fissure on the left to disaster for the enemy’s army; or that a fissure on both right and left should prognosticate general defection; but why, where there are two ruptures at the point of the gall-bladder, a short one on the right side should indicate that the enemy will destroy the produce of the land, but if the left one is short the enemy’s produce will be destroyed, is not apparent, except on the basis of a most artificial association of ideas. We can understand why a double-waved hepatic duct, with the upper part defective, should point to a destruction of the king (the upper part representing, like the right side, the king and his army), and why, if the lower part is defective, the enemy’s army will be destroyed (the lower part, like the left side, representing the enemy); but any ordinary association of ideas fails to account for the prediction that a rupture between the two waves of the duct means specifically that a pestilence will rage, or that there will be an inundation and universal devastation. It seems reasonable to assume that many of these specific deductions rest, as in the case of the genuinely historical omens, upon actual experience, that on a certain occasion, when the sign in question was observed at a liver inspection, a pestilence followed, or an inundation, accompanied by great destruction, took place. <>

“The priests would naturally take note of all events of an unusual character which followed upon any examination, and record them in connection with the sign or signs; and it is easy to see how, in the course of time, an extensive series of such specific interpretations would have been gathered, resting not upon any association of ideas between a sign and a prognostication, but upon the rule of post hoc , proper hoc. In such cases, the guidance for the priests would be restricted, just as in the case of historical omens, to an indication whether the interpretation was favourable or unfavourable. If favourable, the repetition of the sign would likewise be favourable and could apply to any situation or to any inquiry, quite irrespective of the specific interpretation entered in the collections. The scope would be still further enlarged by logical deductions made from an actual record of what happened after the appearance of a certain sign or series of signs observed on a single former occasion. Thus, if a specific sign on the right side of a part of the liver was^ as a favourable symptom, followed by good crops, it was possible to add an entry that if the same sign occurred on the left side, it would point to bad crops. <>

“In all these various ways, and in others that need not be indicated, the collections would, in the course of ages, grow to colossal proportions. Each important temple would collect its own series, and the ambition of the priests would be to make these series as complete as possible, so as to provide for every possible contingency. A table of contents which we fortunately possess, of two such series of omen collections, enables us to estimate their size. The tables furnish the opening lines of each of the fourteen and seventeen tablets of which the series respectively consisted. In one case the number of lines on each tablet is also indicated, from which we may gather that the series consisted of about fifteen hundred lines, and, since each line contained some sign noted together with the interpretation, it follows that we have not less than fifteen hundred different signs in this one series. <>

“Considering that we have remains, or references, to over a dozen series of these liver omens in the preserved portions of Ashurbanapal’s library, it is safe to say that the recorded signs and interpretations mount high into the thousands.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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