DIVINATION IN MESOPOTAMIA

DIVINATION IN MESOPOTAMIA


a divination text

Morris Jastrow said: “There were various other methods of divination practised by Babylonians and Assyrians. Prominent among them is the pouring of oil into a basin of water, or of pouring water on oil, and then observing the bubbles and rings formed by the oil. References to this method are frequently found in ritualist texts, with allusions that point to its great antiquity. Besides an interesting allusion to the use of this method by a ruler of the Kassite period (c. 1700 B.C.), before undertaking an expedition to a distant land to bring back the statues of Marduk and his consort, which had been carried off by an enemy, we have two elaborate texts, dating from the Hammurabi period, forming a handbook for the guidance of the bârû priests, which expound a large number of signs to be observed in the mingling of oil and water, together with the interpretations thereof. From these examples we can reconstruct the system devised by the priests, which, as in the case of hepatoscopy, rested largely upon an association of ideas, but in part also upon the record of subsequent events. Divination by oil is, however, entirely overshadowed by the pre-eminence obtained by hepatoscopy, and does not appear to have formed, at least in the later periods, an integral part of the cult. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“The field of divination was still further enlarged by the inclusion of all unusual happenings in the life of man, or of animals or in nature, which, in any way, aroused attention. The suspense and anxiety created by such happenings could be relieved only through a bârû priest if happily he could ascertain, by virtue of his closer relations to the gods, what the latter intended by these ominous signs. Extensive collections of all kinds of these everyday omens were made by the priests (just like the liver divinations), the aim whereof is to set forth, in a systematic manner everything of an unusual character that followed the omen. The scope is boundless, embracing as it does strange movements among animals, such as the mysterious appearance and disappearance of serpents, which impart to them a peculiar position among all ancient nations; or the actions of dogs who to this day, in the Orient, enjoy some of the privileges accorded only to sacred animals. The flight of birds was regarded as fraught with significance; swarms of locusts were a momentous warning in every sense of the word; with ravens also the Babylonians, in common with many another nation, associated forebodings, though not always of a gloomy character. <>

“Monstrosities among men and brutes, and all manner of peculiarities among infants or the young of animals, or among those giving birth to them, form another large division in the extensive series of omens compiled by the Babylonian and Assyrian priests. The mystery of life, giving rise everywhere to certain customs observed at birth and death, would naturally fix attention on the conditions under which a new life was ushered into the world; yet many of the contingencies recorded in this division, as well as in others, are so remote and indeed so improbable as to leave on us the impression that, to some extent, at least, these collections may be purely academic exercises, devised to illustrate the application of the underlying principles of the whole system of interpretation. There can be no doubt, however, of the practical purpose also served by these collections, after making due allowance for their partially theoretical character. Their special interest for us lies in their representing a phase of divination wherein the private individual had a larger share. While the priests are in all cases the interpreters of omens and incidents, there is no reason to suppose that the consultation of them was limited to the rulers. <>

“Many of the interpretations of the signs in the miscellaneous omen collections bear directly on the private life of the individual and not, as we have seen in the case of hepatoscopy, on public events. The priests, when consulted by “the man in the street,” merely take the place of the magic workers of more primitive ages, of the medicine-men, of the rain-makers, or the wizards. No doubt, these priests were also paid for their services to individuals; and we may safely assume that the fees for answering questions furnished a considerable proportion of the income of the temple. <>

“Midway between an official and an unofficial phase of divination, is the interpretation of dreams; this was, likewise, a perquisite of the bârû priests. Almost as deep as the mystery of life and of death is the mystery of sleep. The visions during sleep have therefore a special significance. It is in a dream that Gudea receives the command to build a sanctuary to Ningirsu, and in the later period of Babylonian-Assyrian history, the great conqueror, Ashurbanapal, is, in a dream, bade to be of good cheer by Ishtar, who appears to him in flames of fire and armed with bow and arrow. Such direct and vivid dreams need no priest to interpret; but the signs ordinarily conveyed by dreams are of a character so indirect and mysterious that the average man fails to unravel them. The bârû priests here come to the aid of their fellow-men, of both noble and commoner. Armed with their exhaustless collections, which were not so very greatly above the level of modern “dream books” that still make their appeal to a large and willing public, the Babylonian and Assyrian dream interpreters were fortified for all emergencies. <>

“But all these phases of divination are found abundantly throughout antiquity and are not confined to Babylonia and Assyria. They may be dismissed, therefore, with a brief mention, nor would more examples, that might be furnished, add aught to what may be paralleled in almost any part of the ancient world. There is, however, one branch of divination, falling within the category of what we have designated as involuntary divination, which, like hepatoscopy, bears an exclusively official character, and in its bearing on the general welfare ranks in importance with divination through the liver. That branch is the observation of the phenomena of the heavens, to which we now turn. <>

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

Importance of the Liver in Mesopotamian Divination


real sheep's liver

Morris Jastrow said: “The reason why the liver should have been selected as the seat of life is not hard to discover. Blood was, naturally, and indeed by all peoples, identified with life; and the liver, being a noticeably bloody organ, containing about one sixth of the blood in the human body, and in the case of some animals even more than one sixth, was not unnaturally regarded as the source of the blood whence it was distributed throughout the body. The transfer of the locality of the soul from the liver to the heart, and later to the brain, follows, in fact, the course of progress in anatomical knowledge. In the history of medicine among the ancients we find the functions of the liver recognised earlier than those of the heart. When it is borne in mind that only a few centuries have passed since Harvey definitely established the circulation of the blood, it will not be surprising that for a long time the liver was held to be the seat of the blood and, therefore, of life. The Babylonians of a later period seem to have attained to a knowledge of the important part exerted by the heart in the human organism, as did also the Hebrews, who advanced to the stage of regarding the heart as the seat of the intellect. The Babylonian language retains traces, however, of the earlier view. We find the word “liver” used in hymns and other compositions, precisely as we use the word “heart,” though when both terms are employed, the heart generally precedes the liver. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“There are traces of this usage in Hebrew poetry, e.g., in the Book of Lamentations (ii., n), where, to express the grief of Jerusalem, personified as a mother robbed of her children, the poet makes her exclaim, “My liver is poured out on the ground,” to convey the view that her very life is crushed. In Proverbs vii., 23, the foolish, young man is described as caught in the net, spread by the worthless woman, “like a bird in trap,” and when he is struck by her arrows does not know that it is “his liver” which is in the hazard. In order to explain the meaning, the text adds as a synonym to “liver” the word “soul”—a further illustration of the synonymity of the two terms. <>

“The Arabic language also furnishes traces of this early conception of the liver as comprising the entire range of soul-life—the emotions and the intellectual functions. A tradition, recording Mohammed’s grief on hearing of the suspicion against the fidelity of his favourite wife, makes the prophet exclaim, “I cried for two days and one night until I thought that my liver would crack—precisely as we should say, “I thought my heart would break.” Similarly, in Greek poetry (which reveals archaic usage as does poetry everywhere,) the word “liver” is employed where prose would use “heart,” when indicating the essence of life. Theocritus, in describing the lover fatally wounded by the arrows of love, speaks of his being “hit in the liver,” where we should say that he was “struck to the heart”; and if, in the myth of Prometheus, the benefactor of mankind is punished by having his liver perpetually renewed and eaten by a vulture, it shows that the myth originated in the early period when the liver was still commonly regarded as the seat of life. The renewal of the liver is the renewal of life, and the tragic character of the punishment consists in enduring the tortures of death continually, and yet being condemned to live for ever. All this points unmistakably to the once generally prevailing view which assigned to the liver the preeminent place among the organs as the seat of the intellect, of all the emotions—both the higher and the lower,—and of the other qualities which we commonly associate with the soul. <>

“There is no indication that the Babylonians, or for that matter any branch of the ancient Semites, reached the third stage which placed the seat of the soul in the brain. This step, however, was taken by the school of Hippocrates and corresponds to the advance made in anatomical knowledge, which led to an understanding of the important function of the brain. A Greek word for “mind,” phren —surviving in many modern terms,such as “phrenology,” etc.,—remains, however, as a witness to the earlier view, since it originally designated the part of the body below the diaphragm and takes us back, therefore, to the period when the seat of the intellect and the emotions was placed in the region of the liver. It is interesting to note that Aristotle, while recognising the important part played by the brain, still clung to the second stage of belief which placed the centre of soul-life in the heart. He presents a variety of interesting arguments for this view. Plato, however, in the generation before Aristotle, adopts a compromise in order to recognise all three organs. He assigns one soul which is immortal to the brain, which together with the heart, the seat of the higher mortal soul, controls the intellect and gives rise to the higher emotions, stimulating men to courage, to virtue, and to noble deeds, but he locates a third or appetitive soul below the diaphragm, with the liver as the controlling organ, which is the seat of the passions and of the sensual appetites. <>

“Plato’s view is interesting as illustrative of the gradual decline which the liver was forced to endure in popular estimation. From being the seat of life, the centre of all intellectual functions and of all emotions, it is at first obliged to share this distinction with the heart, is then relegated to a still lower stage when the brain is accorded the first place, and finally sinks to the grade of an inferior organ, and is made the seat of anger, of the passions, of jealousy, and even of cowardice. To call a man “white-livered” became in Shakespearian usage an arrant coward, whereas in Babylonian speech it would designate the loftiest praise:—a man with a “white” soul. The modem popular usage still associating the chief qualities of man with the three organs—brain, heart, and liver—is well expressed in the advertisement of an English newspaper which commends itself to its readers by announcing that it is “all brain and heart, but no liver.” <>

“We must go all the way back to Babylonian divination to find the liver enthroned in all its pristine glory. In truth to the Babylonian and Assyrian the liver spelled life. Though even popular thought moved to some extent away from the primitive view which saw in the liver the entire soul, still the system of divination, perfected at a time when the primitive view was the prevailing one, retained its hold upon the popular imagination down to the latest period of Babylonian-Assyrian history; and accordingly, the inspection of the liver of the sacrificed animal, and of the liver alone, lies at the foundation of Babylonian-Assyrian divination and may be designated as the method of all others for determining what the gods had in mind. <>

“To recapitulate the factors in the theory underlying Babylonian-Assyrian hepatoscopy—or liver divination,—the animal selected for sacrifice is identified with the god to whom it is offered. The soul of the animal is attuned to the soul of the god, becomes one with it. Therefore, if the signs on the liver of the sacrificial animal can be read, the mind of the god becomes clear. To read the deity’s mind is to know the future. Through the liver, therefore, we enter the workshop of the gods, can see them at work, forging future events and weaving the fabric of human fortunes. Strange as such reasoning may seem to us, let us remember that it still appealed to the learned and profound Plato, who in a significant passage declares the liver to be a mirror in which the power of thought is reflected.


clay model of a sheep's liver


Mesopotamian Liver Divination

Morris Jastrow said: “But how is the liver to be read? No one who has ever looked at a sheep’s liver—and it was invariably a sheep that was used in Babylonian-Assyrian divination—can fail to have been struck by its complicated appearance. In contrast with the heart, e.g., which is not only smaller but consists merely of a series of loops having no special marks to attract attention, the liver has many striking features. There is, first of all, the gall-bladder which lies on it and terminates in a long duct, known as the cystic duct. This duct connects in turn with a second duct, lying across the liver and known as the hepatic duct. From this duct smaller ducts pass out in various directions. Through these subsidiary ducts, gall is collected from various parts of the liver. Passing into the hepatic duct, and then through the cystic duct into the gall-bladder, it is there purified and prepared for further absorption. The lobes of the liver are also of striking appearance. The two lower ones—one on the right and one on the left—are sharply divided from one another, and the right lobe is further separated into two sections by the groove in which the gall-bladder lies. The third and upper lobe, known as lobus pyramidalis, is separated from the lower lobes by a narrow depression, still designated in modern anatomical nomenclature by a fanciful name, “the gate of the liver” (porta hepatis). [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“Attached to this upper lobe are two appendices, a smaller one on the left, known as the processus papillaris, and a larger one on the right, having the shape of a finger and known as the processus pyramidalis. At the upper terminus of the liver, there protrudes the large hepatic vein (vena cava) through which the blood from the liver is carried to the heart. To these features must be added the fissures on the surface and the markings which appear on the livers of freshly slaughtered sheep—as well as of other animals. Varying with each specimen, they present, especially in the lower lobes, the appearance of a map with cross lines and curves. These markings are, in fact, merely the traces on the liver surface of the subsidiary ducts above referred to. They gradually fade out, but when the liver is in a fresh state they are striking in appearance. Not only do these markings differ in each specimen, but the other features—the gallbladder, the various ducts, the lobes and appendices —are never exactly alike in any two livers; they are as little alike as are the leaves of a tree. <>

“The field thus offered for observation and careful inspection of the liver of the sacrificial animal was an extensive one; and it was this field that was thoroughly explored and cultivated by the priests whose special office it was to divine the future by means of the liver. The gall-bladder might in one instance be reduced in size, in another abnormally swollen, or it might be swollen on one side and not on the other. Again, it might be firmly attached to the liver surface, or hang loosely on it, or protrude beyond the liver, or not. The cystic duct might be long in some instances, and short in others; and the same possible variations would apply to the hepatic duct. The latter has a wavy appearance and the number and character of these waves differ considerably in different cases. So also the shapes and sizes of the lobes are subject to all kinds of variations; and even more significant would be the varying character of the two appendices attached to the upper lobes—the processus pyramidalis and the processus papillaris. <>

“Finally, as has been suggested, the fissures and markings extend the scope of the signs to be noted almost indefinitely. To all these variations in the case of healthy livers must be added the phenomena due to pathological conditions. The diseases most common to men and animals in marshy districts like the Euphrates Valley primarily affect the liver. Liver diseases are said to be particularly common among sheep; the result is that the livers of freshly slaughtered specimens exhibit all manner of peculiarities, swellings, and contractions in the ducts and lobes as well as perforations on the liver surface known as “liver flukes,” due apparently to bacteriological action. It will be seen, therefore, that the opportunity offered to the Babylonian diviners for developing an elaborate system of interpretations of the signs to be observed was a generous one. Hundreds, nay thousands, of fragments in Ashurbana-pal’s library bear witness to the activity displayed by the priests in embracing this opportunity. <>

“We have large collections of tablets more or less systematically arranged and grouped together into series, in which all the possible variations in connection with each part of the liver are noted and the interpretations given. Thus, in the case of the gall-bladder, among the many signs enumerated we find such as whether the right or left side was sunk, whether the gall-bladder was full of gall, whether there was a fissure in the gall-bladder running from right to left or from left to right, whether the fissure was long or short. The shade of the colour of the gall was also taken into consideration, whether greenish or whitish or bluish. For the cystic duct entries are made in case it is long, reaching up to the hepatic duct, or appears to be short. The gall-bladder and the cystic and hepatic ducts—as also the lobes—were divided into sections—basis, middle, and head—and according as peculiar phenomena were observed in the one division or the other, the interpretation would vary. Thus, the basis, middle, or top of the cystic duct might be choked up or sunk in, or choked up and also sunk in, or choked up and exhibiting one or more fissures. In the case of the hepatic duct we find entries noting whether it is divided into two or more parts, whether between the divisions there are fissures or markings, whether it contains a gall-stone at the top, whether the duct appears raised or sunken, whether it is swollen, whether it contains white or dark fluid, and so ad infinitum. Included in the collections are long series of observations on the character of the depression between the upper lobe and the lower lobes, whether it appears narrow on the left or on the right side or on both sides, whether it is ruptured on the right side or left side, whether it is bent back “like a goat’s horn,” whether it is hard and firm on the left or the right side, whether it is defective on the one side or the other, whether it contains fissures “like the teeth of a saw,” and so on again through an almost endless and very monotonous list of signs. <>

“The great vein of the liver (vena cava) is similarly treated, and here much depends upon the varying shape of the vein, whether it is separated from the liver, or partly separated, whether there is a marking above it or below it or whether it is surrounded by markings, whether its colour is black or green, whether it contains fissures, the colour of the fissures, and the like. The lower surface of the large finger-shaped appendix was fantastically designated as its “palace,” and note was taken whether the top, middle, or basis was tom away and whether the rent was on the right or the left side, or again whether the hind part of the appendix was torn, and in what section,—at the top, middle, or at the base. The relationship of one part of the liver to other parts also furnished a large number of variations which were entered in the collections of signs, and, lastly, the markings on the liver were subjected to a careful scrutiny and all kinds of variations registered. According to their shape, they were known as “weapons,” “paths,” or “feet.” Those resembling weapons were further fantastically compared to the weapons that formed symbols of the gods, while “paths” and “feet,” as will be evident, suggested all manner of associations of ideas that entered into the interpretation of the signs noted. <>

“The field of observation being almost boundless, it is evident that no collection of signs, however large, could exhaust the variations to be noted and the peculiarities that every specimen afforded. It was, however, the aim of the priests in making these collections to bring together in the case of each part of the liver as large a number of signs as possible so that, with the interpretations added, these collections might serve as handbooks to be consulted by priests, entrusted with this branch of priestly service. It is from these collections of signs with their interpretations, that we are able to reconstruct the system of liver divination devised by the uninterrupted activity of many successive generations of priests.

Mesopotamian Priests and Liver Divination

Morris Jastrow said: “The name given to the class of priests whose special function it was to divine the future was baru , which means literally “inspector.” It corresponds to “seer,” but in the literal sense, as one who “looks” at something. That is, also, the original force of our term “seer,” which is a translation of a Hebrew term, the equivalent of the Babylonian term bârû , denoting, like the latter, the power of divining through an “inspection” of some kind. The bârû, as the diviner through the liver—the “inspector” of the signs on the liver,—is therefore the prototype of the modern meat inspector, and, in passing, it may be noted that midway between the ancient and the modern bârû we find among the officials of Talmudi-cal or Rabbinical Judaism an official inspector of the organs of the animal killed for food, whose duty is to determine whether the animal is ritualistically “clean”; upon this examination depended whether or not the meat could be eaten. There can be no doubt that this ritualistic inspection is merely a modification of the ancient examination for purposes of divination, just as the hygienic or semi-hygienic aspects of the dietary laws in the Pentateuchal codes represent the superstructures erected on the foundations of primitive “taboos.” [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“The high antiquity to which divination through the liver can be traced back in the Euphrates Valley justifies the conclusion that the application of the term bârû to the “inspector” of the signs on the liver represents the oldest usage, and that the term was subsequently employed to designate other forms of divination, all of which, however, involved the scrutiny and interpretation of signs. So he who gazed at the heavens and read the signs to be noted there was also called a bârû and, similarly, the name was given to the priest who divined the future through noting the action of drops of oil poured in a basin of water, or through observing clouds or the flight of birds or the actions of animals, or who could interpret any other phenomenon which because of its unusual or striking character aroused attention. The term bârû in this way became the general term for “diviner,” whose function it was to interpret omens of all kinds. <>


human liver


“In the days of Gudea the phrase “liver inspection” had acquired the technical sense of divining the future whereby that ruler determined the favourable moment for laying the foundations of a sacred edifice to his god Ningursu. Still earlier than Gudea, we find Sargon and Naram-Sin consulting a sheep’s liver before starting on a military expedition, before giving battle, on the occasion of an internal revolt, and before undertaking building operations. The evidence of the continuous employment of this method of divination is almost uninterrupted down to the end of the neo-Babylonian monarchy. We have tablets from the period of the first dynasty of Babylon and from the Kassite period, giving the results of examinations of the liver undertaken by the priests in connection with some important enterprise. These were forwarded to the rulers as official reports, accompanied not infrequently by illustrative drawings. A large number of such reports have come down to us from the Assyrian period which show that livers were consulted at the instance of the kings before treaties were made, before dispatching emissaries, before appointing officials to important posts, as well as in cases of illness of the king, of the king’s mother, or of any member of the royal household.” <>

Images of Mesopotamian Divination include: 1) Drawing of Sheep’s Liver with Latin and Babylonian Terms for Chief Part; 2) Omen School—Tablet from Ashurbanapal’s Library, showing Finger-shaped Appendix to Upper Lobe of Liver. Jastrow said: A Clay Model of Sheep’s Liver now in the British Museum is a model of a sheep’s liver, used as an object of instruction in hepatoscopy in some temple school. The chief parts of the liver are shown. The object is covered with inscriptions which give the prognostications derived from signs on the liver, each prognostication referring to some sign near the part of the liver where the words stand. The characters point to the time of Hammurabi (c. 2000 b.c) as the date of the model.” <>

Liver Divination Ritual

Morris Jastrow said: “In the course of time there grew up also in connection with the inspection of livers an elaborate ceremonial. The officiating bârû had to wash and anoint himself in order to be ritually “pure” before approaching the gods. Special garments were donned for the ceremony. A prayer was offered to Shamash, or to Shamash and Adad, who were addressed as “lords of divination,” and in their names the inspection was invariably made. The question to which an answer was desired was specifically stated,— whether, or not, within the next one hundred days the enemy would advance to an attack; whether or not the sick person would recover; whether or not a treaty should be made; whether or not an official would be faithful to his charge, and the like. The sacrificial sheep had to be acceptable to the gods of the divination. It must be without blemish, and care had to be taken that in slaughtering it and in the examination of the liver no smallest misstep or error whatever should be made, else the entire rite would be vitiated. Prayers were offered for divine assistance to avoid all such errors. Then the examination was made, the signs all noted, and the conclusion drawn. A single inspection, it would appear, was regarded as conclusive if all the signs or a majority of them at least were favourable. If all the signs were unfavourable or so considerable a number as to leave doubtful the purpose and will of the gods, a second sheep was offered and the entire ceremony repeated, and if this, too, proved unfavourable, a third and final attempt would be made. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“The last king of Babylonia, Nabonnedos (555539 B.C.), whose religious scrupulosity is one of his significant traits, shows how down to the advent of Cyrus, the method of ascertaining the will of the gods employed by Sargon and Gudea was still commonly resorted to. The king wishes to restore a temple to the moon-god at Harran and to carry back the images of the gods to their proper seats. In order to ascertain whether this is agreeable to Marduk, the chief deity, he consults the liver of a sheep and gives us the result of the examination, which proved to be favourable. On another occasion he proposes to make a certain symbol of the sun-god and is anxious that it should be made in accordance with an ancient pattern. He has a model of the symbol made, places it before Shamash, and consults a liver in order to ascertain whether the god approves of the pious offering. To his surprise three times the signs turn out to be unfavourable. <>


Sheep liver digarm with Babylonian terms


“The king is dismayed and concludes that the model was not a correct reproduction of the ancient symbol. He has another prepared and again calls upon the bârû to make an examination of a liver. This time the signs, which he furnishes in detail, are favourable. In order, however, to make assurance doubly sure, possibly suspecting his priests of manipulating the observations, he tells us that he sought among the archives for the result of a liver inspection on a former occasion when the subsequent events proved the correctness of the favourable decision; then placing the two series of omens side by side, he convinced himself that it was safe to proceed with the making of the symbol. The evident sincerity and conscientiousness of the king should make us charitably inclined to his superstitious regard for the primitive rite, which, as the official cult, had all the authority of a time-honoured faith and custom. <>

“Another indication of the vast importance attached to liver inspection is to be discovered in the care with which ancient records thereof were preserved and handed down as guides for later generations of priests. In the foregoing enumeration of liver omens, there are frequent references to the fact that a particular sign had been observed in the consultation of a liver, undertaken on behalf of some important personage. Thus, we are told that a certain sign was the one noted at a time when a ruler of Kish, known as Urumush, was killed by his courtiers in an uprising. Another sign is entered as having been observed at a liver inspection made on behalf of Ibe-Sin, the last king of the Ur dynasty (ca., 2200 B.C .). A number of omens are associated with Gilgamesh, the semi-mythical hero of the Babylonian epic, indicating that underlying the myth there is a basis of historical tradition. In these associations Gilgamesh is termed a “mighty king.” Such references lead to the conclusion that, because of the importance which the traditions concerning significant personages assumed, the omens which accompanied certain events in their careers were embodied in the collections, and it may-well be that special collections of such historical omens were made by the priests.

Mesopotamian Divination Indicators

Here are several examples of Mesopotamian divination indicators: Jastrow said: “1) If the cystic duct is long, the days of the ruler will be long; 2) If the cystic duct is long, and in the middle there is an extended subsidiary duct, the days of the ruler will soon end; 3) If the base of cystic duct is long, and there is a fissure on the right side, the enemy will maintain his demand against the ruler, or the enemy will bring glory from out of the land; 4) If the base of the cystic duct is long, and there is a fissure on the left side, the ruler will maintain his demand against the enemy, or my army will bring glory out of the enemy’s land; 5) If the base of the cystic duct is long, lying to the right of the hepatic duct, the gods will come to the aid of the enemy’s army, the enemy will kill me in warfare; 6) If the base of the cystic duct is long, lying to the left of the hepatic duct, the gods will come to the aid of my army, and I shall kill the enemy in warfare. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“In the same way we have a long series of omens detailing the various possibilities in connection with fissures in the gall-bladder: 1) If the gall-bladder is split from right to left, and the split portion hangs loose, thy power will vanquish the approaching enemy; 2) If the gall-bladder is split from left to right, and the split portion hangs loose, the weapon of the enemy will prevail; 3) If the gall-bladder is split from right to left, and the split portion is firm, thine army will not prevail in spite of its power; 4) If the gall-bladder is split from left to right, and the split portion is firm, the enemy’s army will not prevail, in spite of its power; 5) If the gall-bladder is split from right to left, and there is a gallstone at the top of the fissure, thy general will capture the enemy; 6) If the gall-bladder is split from left to right, and there is a gallstone at the top of the fissure, the general of the enemy will capture thee. <>


Etruscan liver model


“Among the many signs noted in the case of the hepatic duct in the collection, we find the following: 1) If the hepatic duct is twofold, and between the two parts there is a marking, Nergal will rage, Adad will cause overflow, Enlil’s word will cause general destruction; 2) If the hepatic duct is twofold, and between the two parts there is a “weapon”, visible above, the enemy will advance and destroy my army; 3) If the hepatic duct is twofold, and between the two parts there is a “weapon,” visible below, my army will advance and destroy the enemy; 4) If the hepatic duct is twofold, and between the two parts there is a “weapon,” visible on the right side, march of the enemy’s army against the land; 5) If the hepatic duct is doubled, and between the two parts there is a “weapon,” visible on the left side, march of my army against the enemy’s land. <>

“Out of an even larger number of symptoms associated with the depression between the upper and the lower lobes, known as “the liver-gate,” a few extracts will suffice: 1) If the liver-gate is long on the right side and short on the left, joy of my army; 2) If the liver-gate is long on the left side and short on the right, joy of the enemy’s army; 3) If the liver-gate is crushed on the right side and torn away, the ruler’s army will be in terror; 4) If the liver-gate is crushed on the left side and torn away, the enemy’s army will be in terror; 5) If the liver-gate is tom away on the right side, thine army will go into captivity; 6) If the liver-gate is torn away on the left side, the enemy’s army will go into captivity; 7) If, in the curvature of the liver-gate, there are fissures to the right of the hepatic duct, the enemy will advance to my dwelling-place; 8) If, in the curvature of the liver-gate, there are fissures to the left of the hepatic duct, I will advance against the enemy’s army; 9) If, in the curvature of the liver-gate, there is one fissure to the right of the hepatic duct, thine army will not prevail, despite its power; 10) If, in the curvature of the liver-gate, there is one fissure to the left of the hepatic duct, the enemy’s army will not prevail, despite its power; 11) Similarly, two fissures mean “captivity,” three fissures “enclosure,” and four fissures “devastation” —applying to the enemy or to the king’s side according to the appearance of the fissures to the right or to the left of the hepatic duct. <>

“Lastly, a brief extract from a text dealing with symptoms connected with the finger-shaped appendix: 1) If the finger is shaped like a crescent, the omen of Urumush, the king whom his servants put to death in his palace; 2) If the finger is shaped like a lion’s head, the servants of the ruler will oppose him; 3) If the finger is shaped like a lion’s ear, the ruler will be without a rival; 4) If the finger is shaped like a lion’s ear, and split at the top, the gods will desert thy army at the boundary; 5) If the finger is shaped like an ox’s tongue, the generals of the ruler will be rebellious; 6) If the finger is shaped like a sheep’s head, the ruler will exercise power; 7) If half of the finger is formed like a goat’s horn, the ruler will be enraged against his land; 8) If half of the finger is formed like a goat’s horn, and the top of it is split, a man’s protecting spirit will leave him; 9) If the finger is shaped like a dog’s tongue, a god will destroy; 10) If the finger is shaped like a serpent’s head, the ruler will be without a rival.” <>

Divinations by Mesopotamian Rulers

Morris Jastrow said:“In the official reports of liver examinations forwarded to the rulers, and at times embodied in their annals, all the signs, as observed, were recorded, and the interpretations added as quotations from these omen collections. It thus happened that, in many cases, these interpretations had no direct bearing on the character of the inquiry, but the interpretation showed whether or not the sign was favourable, which was the chief concern of both priests and applicants. On the basis of the extracts, therefore, a decision was rendered, and often a summary given at the end of the reports, indicating the number of favourable and unfavourable signs.The number of signs recorded on the liver varied considerably. Every part of the liver was scrutinised, but frequently no special marks were found on one part or the other. The minimum, however, of signs recorded, in any known instance, appears to have been ten, and from this number upward we have as many as fifteen and even twenty variations. <>

“To give an example from the days of the Assyrian empire, we find, in response to a question put to a bârû priest whether or not an uprising that had taken place would be successful, the following report of the results of the examination of the liver of a sacrificial sheep: 1) The cystic duct is normal; the hepatic duct double, and if the left part of the hepatic duct lies over the light part of the hepatic duct, the weapons of the enemy will prevail over the weapons of the ruler; 2) The hepatic vein is not normal—this means siege; 3) There is a depression to the right of the cystic duct—overthrow of my army; 4) The left side of the gall-bladder is firm, through thee,— conquest of the enemy. The “finger" and the papillary appendix are normal; 5) The lower part of the liver to the right is crushed—the leader will be crushed, or there will be confusion in my army; 6) The upper part is loose; 7) The curvature over the lower point is swollen, and the basis of the upper lobe is loose; 8) The liver “fluke” is destroyed, the network of the markings consists of fourteen [meshes], the inner parts of the sheep are otherwise normal; 9) The “inspector” then adds as a summary that five of the signs are unfavourable, specifying the five he has in mind, and closes with the decision “it is unfavourable.” The examination thus showed that the gods were not favourable to the king’s natural desire to quell the rebellion, and that more trouble was to be expected. <>


Stele of Nabonidus

“As a second example of the recorded result of a liver examination let us take a report incorporated by king Nabonnedos in his annals, on the occasion of his consulting the priests in order to ascertain whether or not the deities approved of the king’s purpose to make a symbol of the sun-god as a pious offering; The first result, though favourable, did not quite satisfy the king; it showed the following signs, together with the interpretations as furnished by the omen collections: 1) The cystic duct is long—the days of the ruler will be long; 2) The compass of the hepatic duct is short—the path of man will be protected by his god; god will furnish nourishment to man, or waters will be increased; 3) The lymphatic gland is normal—good luck; 4) The lower part of the gall-bladder is firm on the right side, torn off on the left—the position of my army will be strong, the position of the enemy’s army endangered. The gall-bladder is crushed on the left side—the army of the enemy will be annihilated, the army of the ruler will gain in power; 5) The “finger” is well preserved—things will go well for the sacrificer, and he will enjoy a long life; 6) The papillary appendix is broad—happiness; 7) The upper surface wobbles—subjection, the man will prevail in court against his opponent; 8) The lower part of the “finger” is loose—my army will gain in power; 9) The network of markings consists of fourteen well developed meshes—my hands will prevail in the midst of my powerful army. <>

“Although, for reasons indicated, the interpretations have no bearing whatsoever on the inquiry, they are all favourable, and the king might have been satisfied with the result. In order, however, to remove all possible doubt as to the correctness of the conclusions, he selected from the archives a series of signs, noted on a former occasion, when the subsequent events proved that the signs were favourable, and compared the two lists; 11) This second series reads as follows: 1) The cystic duct is long,—the days of the ruler will be long; 2) The hepatic duct is double on the right,—the gods will assist; 3) The lymphatic gland is well formed, the lower part firm— peaceful habitations; 4) The hepatic duct is bent to the right of the gall-bladder, the gall-bladder itself normal—the army will be successful and return in safety; 5) The gall-bladder is long,—the days of the ruler will be long; 6) The left side of the gall-bladder is firm,—through thee, destruction of the enemy; 7) There is a “weapon” in the middle of the back surface of the “finger” with downward curve,—the weapon of Ishtar will grant me security, the attack of the enemy will be repulsed; 8) The upper part of the hind surface of the liver protrudes to the right, and a liver fluke has bored its way into the middle,— the protector of my lord will overthrow the army of the enemy by his power. The lower point rides over the ditch,—the protection of (his) god will be over the man. The angry god will become reconciled with man. <>

“The signs recorded in the two series are not the same throughout, but there are enough points of agreement to reassure the king that the decision of the priests in the case of the first series was correct; and, what is equally to the point, there are no signs and interpretations in the second series that contradiet the first. The king, no doubt, was anxious to have the judgment of his “inspector” confirmed, and rested content, therefore, with a proof that might possibly not have appealed to a spirit more critically disposed.” <>

Omens and Decisions Made Based on Mesopotamian Divination

Morris Jastrow said:“We know in fact of one such collection of omens referring to Sargon and Naram-Sin, extracted from chronicles of their reigns, in which the results of the liver investigations made at important epochs in their career were recorded. These extracts, whereof we are fortunate enough to possess fragments, were compiled, not from any historical motives but to serve as guides for the bârû priests and also as school exercises in training the young aspirants to the priesthood for their future task. The collection, furthermore, illustrates an important principle in the method adopted for interpreting the signs; it was argued, that if on a certain occasion, let us say before an attack on the ancient enemy, Elam, the gall-bladder, the various ducts and lobes, and markings showed certain features, and the result of the battle was a victory for Sargon, the proof was furnished de facto that these were favourable signs. On the natural though illogical principle, “once favourable, always favourable,” it served also in case of a recurrence of the signs to prognosticate a favourable disposition on the part of the gods invoked. The significant point was not so much the particular favourable event that ensued, but the fact that it was favourable. On this same principle we have as a second fundamental canon in liver divination, “favourable for one purpose, favourable for any other.” The signs noted being favourable, the application depended solely upon the nature of the inquiry and the conditions suggested by the inquiry. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]


bile ducts on a sheep liver

“But while actual experience thus constituted an important element in the system of interpretation, one can detect other factors at work in leading to favourable or unfavourable interpretations of a sign, or group of signs. Among these factors the association of ideas stands, perhaps, in the forefront. In common with all nations of antiquity, the Babylonians regarded the right side as lucky, and the left as unlucky. Applying this to the liver, a particular sign on the right side of the gall-bladder, or of one of the ducts, or lobes, or on one of the appendices to the upper lobe, was interpreted as referring to Babylonia or Assyria, to the king, or to his army, or to his household, or to the country in general; while the same sign on the left side referred to the enemy. A good sign on the right side was, therefore, favourable to the inquirer; as was also a bad sign on the left, because what is unfavourable to an enemy is favourable to one’s self. On the other hand, a good sign on the left side or a bad sign on the right side was just as distinctly unfavourable. <>

“But the question may here be properly asked—what constituted good or bad signs? The natural association of ideas in many cases suggested an answer. Thus, e.g., the enlargement of any part of the liver was, by this association, regarded as pointing to an expansion of power, whereas contraction would mean a diminution thereof. A large gall-bladder would thus be a favourable symptom, but a distinction was made: if the enlargement was on the left side, the sign would be favourable to the enemy, if on the right side, favourable to the inquirer. Again, in the case of the gall-bladder, the left side is sometimes firmly attached to the liver while the right side hangs loose, or vice versa. The tight hold on the liver indicated a firm grasp of the enemy. Hence, if the left side was firmly attached, it indicated that the enemy would be in your grasp; whereas if it was the right side, the enemy would hold you in his grasp, and the sign would thus be unfavourable. This principle was applied to other parts of the liver, where firmness would be associated with strength, and with a tight grasp on the enemy, while a flabby character or loose adhesion would mean the reverse:—weakness and disaster. Here again, should the firmness or flabbiness be limited to one side, the right or the left would be applied to yourself or to the enemy respectively. <>

“Considerable attention was paid to the shape and appearance of the peculiar finger-shaped appendix which hangs from the upper lobe, and which was in fact called by the Babylonians the “finger of the liver.” It has two sides, an inner, broad surface which, as we have seen, was called the “palace,” and an outer side, designated by the Babylonian bârû priests as the “rear” side. By the same association of ideas which we have already noted, a marking on the right side of the “palace” indicated that the enemy would invade the land; a marking on the left side that the king’s army would invade the enemy’s land. The appendix, like the gall-bladder, lobes, and ducts, being divided into three sections, a marking at the base was regarded as favourable to the questioner, because the base represented the enemy. A marking at the top was unfavourable because, again by the association of ideas, the top represented the king or one’s own country. The relationship of the larger appendix to the smaller was also regarded as important. In the event of the larger being abnormally small and the smaller abnormally large, the sign was interpreted as a reversal of normal conditions, so that the small would be great and the weak would be strong, while the large would become small and the strong become weak. Specific interpretations of such signs in given instances are stated to be, that the son will be more powerful than the father, that the servant will be superior to the master, or that the maid will become the mistress—possibly hints that domestic troubles are not a modem invention, but that they vexed the souls of even Babylonian housewives, and that the servant-girl question ascends to an antiquity so remote as to be time-honoured and respectable. <>

“This same association of ideas was extended in other directions, and applied to the terms long and short. A long cystic or hepatic duct pointed to long life or to a long reign, a short duct to a short life or to a short reign. It has already been pointed out that the markings on the liver were frequently compared to weapons. Indeed this comparison was of all the most frequent, and, according to the shapes of the weapons, they were associated with Ishtar, Enlil, Ninib, Sin, and other deities. By a further extension of this association, an Ishtar “weapon” or marking was interpreted as indicating the protection or the hostility of this goddess, a Ninib “weapon” was associated with its namesake, and so on, through the list. Thus the system developed; and it can be easily seen how a few basic phases of association of ideas can be extended to endless ramifications. This may be best illustrated by a few examples.

Significance of Mesopotamian Liver Divination


Morris Jastrow said: “Childish as all these superstitious rites may appear to us, hepatoscopy had at least one important result in Babylonia. It led to a genuine study of the anatomy of the liver; and in view of the antiquity to which the observation and nomenclature of the various parts of the liver may be traced, there can be small doubt that to the bârû priests belongs the credit of having originated the study of anatomy; just as their associates, the astrologers of Babylonia, also known as bârû, i.e., “inspectors,” of the heavens, laid the elementary foundations of astronomy, though, as we shall see, astronomy worthy of the name did not develop in the Euphrates Valley until a very late period. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“In another respect the study of the liver divination in Babylonia and Assyria is fraught with significance. Through it, a definite link is established between the ancient civilisations of the East and those of the West. This primitive process of divining the future, gradually elaborated into a complicated system, spread far and wide through the influence shed on the ancient world by the Euphratean culture. For centuries, it must be borne in mind, the study of hepatoscopy was carried on in the schools attached to the temples of Babylonia and Assyria, the collections made by the priests serving the double purpose of handbooks for practical use, and text-books for instructing pupils in training for the priesthood. <>

“From the remote days of Hammurabi there has come down to us an eloquent witness to the prominence occupied by hepatoscopy in the religious life of Babylonia, in the form of a clay model of a sheep’s liver whereon the various divisions are carefully indicated, and in addition is covered with interpretations, applicable to signs noted in every portion of the organ. This model was unquestionably an object-lesson employed in a Babylonian temple school—probably in the very one attached to Marduk’s temple in Babylon itself—to illustrate the method of divination and to explain the principles underlying the interpretation of the signs.” <>

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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