Sunday, 3 May 2015

Divination in Antiquity

Much sacred practice in the ancient world can be understood as attempts either to understand the mind of the divine (to ‘divine’ it), or to understand more fully the nature and state of the mundane world through access to the gods, or, to have a more intimate communion with the divine through through its presence, becoming one with it, or its actual immanence*[1]. Thus a considerable amount of effort went into establishing something akin to windows into the soul of the world.

Divination falls into two principal categories: by omen, and by oracle. The former is less formal, and the insight may be unsolicited. Oracular divination is a formal process. Again the basic principle of both approaches is that reality lies beyond the world of appearance, and is the place where the gods reside,  their representations on earth notwithstanding. Here also is real knowledge and understanding, perfect in all respects. Gaining access to this realm, even for a short time and in a limited way, would enable real wisdom to be had here on earth*[2].

One of the characteristics of conceiving the world in teleological terms, with an ultimate reality at its apex, is that all facts in the mundane world have value – nothing is devoid of meaning. Meanings may be trivial and of little importance, but everything is conceivably significant, if only the meaning can be deduced and put into its proper context.*[3]

Thus, we find a whole range of beliefs and practices surrounding the idea that the intent and purpose of the divine can be found in the world of everyday reality. The cleidon (literally ‘the key') was a Greek idea, that meaning might be heard in words spoken by a passerby, with no connection and no interest in the preoccupations of the person who overhears. The scattering of bones (using objects belonging to the dead) might reveal in the patterns in which they fall something of the intentions of the divine. Divination or augury by birds might also reveal important things about the world and its masters, and their intentions. These things might also foretell the future.

In Rome this interest in mundane things which might have some bearing on the mind of the gods or the future led the priests to maintain whitened boards, maintained in a public place, which contained notable information, some of which has been transmitted to us by the historian Livy. This might include information such as monstrous births, strange behaviour by fauna, grain prices, notices of earthquakes and floods, and so on. In Babylonia records were kept of commodity prices, also for divinatory purposes.

Almost anything could be conceived as a way to understand the intentions of the divine. Ultimately the motions and relations of the planets and stars became part of this matrix of divinatory practice. We have records from Assyria which make it clear that the king, as representative of Ashur, king of the gods, who embraced the other gods, was concerned to express in the royal court, forms of behaviour consistent with the aspects of planetary behaviour.*[4]. The Assyrians also divined using the shadow of the earth on the moon. Each of the quarters of the moon held a geographic significance for the Assyrians, so that the way the shadow moved across the moon (not always the same, due to the inclination of the orbit of the moon to the plane of the ecliptic, plus the effect of various nutational movements) defined the meaning for the state of Assyria.*[5]

If we examine the Oracle of Delphi and the way it functioned, we can see that it fits within the same teleological model of the world. The questioner entered the oracle and was confronted by the Pythia, the priestess who delivered the responses, and an interpreter. The Pythia was seated on a tripod which sat above a rift in the earth from which gases emanated naturally. These were credited with being intoxicating, and an aid to the trance state in which the Pythia delivered her responses to questions. Trance by definition means that the individual is not acting in a normal way. The understanding of the questioner would be that the trancebound Pythia in some way possessed by the gods, who spoke through her.

The speech of the Pythia was wholly unintelligible to the inquirer, as might be expected by one who is conducting the speech of the gods.*[6] Hence the need for the interpreter. The questions were in fact submitted to the oracle in advance, so there was time to prepare an intelligent and suitably ambiguous response to the inquiry. But the form of the engagement between the inquirer and the diviner was a connection with the gods. The interpreter divined the meaning of the Pythia, who divined the meaning of the gods.*[7]

Again the same model underpins oracular divination as other forms of divination: it is possible for us to have contact and communication with the gods because there is something in us, for the majority of men and women mostly latent and not within our consciousness, which makes this communication possible. This is a consequence of the fact that we can have properties in common with the ground of Being, the home of the divine, such as perfection, completion, excellence, virtue, and so on. One would expect that the Pythia might be represented as in some way near at hand to the world of pure Being, through one of its metaphors. And indeed this is the case. The Pythia was always old, but was dressed in the clothes of a young girl. In Egyptian terms this would be understood as indicating her relationship to the horizon of existence, with its double doors of birth and death*[8].

Divination in all parts of the ancient world included that by the investigation of animal entrails. The usual animals for this included sheep, pigs, goats, and sometimes birds. The reasons for the use of these animals in particular are likely due to interesting and suggestive phenomena and properties of their viscera. There has been little interest shown in this level of detail in the practice of divination shown by modern scholars.*[9] To my knowledge I know of only one modern experimental re-examination of the practice. This was conducted by Robert Temple as part of the research for his book ‘Conversations with Eternity', and it is discussed again in his later book ‘Netherworld’. He is conscious that this is strange territory:

‘What was at the bottom of this strange practice? At a casual glance it seems total madness. Were the ancients out of their minds? Who would want to plunge his hands into the steaming innards of a freshly killed animal, pull out some of its organs and study them with intense scrutiny? And more important, what possible connection could this disgusting activity be supposed to have with predicting the future? Was fate to be read in such a bloody place?

There is probably no better way to appreciate the chasm separating the ancient from the modern mind than by exploring this subject.’

Temple thinks there are perfectly sensible answers to be found however, and he is right. He is not looking to frame these answers within the technical language explored in The Sacred History of Being however, though he does argue for the ancient consensus view that aspects of the viscera reflect the world of the divine, in particular the Liver.  He quotes Morris Jastrow to this effect (from his essay 'On the Liver as the Seat of the Soul'):

‘The life or soul, as the seat of life, in the sacrificial animal, is, therefore, the divine element in the animal, and the god in accepting the animal, which is involved in the act of bringing it as an offering to the god, identifies himself with the animal – becomes, as it were, one with it.  The life in the animal is a reflection of his own life, and since the fate of men rests with the gods, if one can succeed in entering into the mind of a god, and thus ascertain what he purposes to do, the key for the solution of the problem as to what the future has in store will have been found. The liver being the center of vitality – the seat of the mind, therefore as well as the emotions – it becomes in the case of the sacrificial animal, either directly identical with the mind of the god who accepts the animal, or, at all events, a mirror in which the god’s mind is reflected; or to use another figure, a watch regulated to be in sympathetic and perfect accord with a second watch. If, therefore, one can read the liver of the sacrificial animal, one enters, as it were, into the workshop of the divine will.’

[Netherworld: Discovering the Oracle of the Dead. 2002. ch 6: Divination by Entrails, p193.]

[1] Hence the remark by Jesus that ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is within you’.
[2] Socrates argued that we already know many of the things that we think we don’t know, and his educational practice was tailored to show this. I would argue that Socrates reveals by this that he believed that all men have latent access to the divine condition, in that we are all connected with the transcendent reality which is the place of ideal knowledge. The divine is potentially immanent within us. 
[3] I first became acutely aware of the importance of this equation between fact and value in the teleologically-framed universe in class with one of my teachers of philosophy, Len Pinski, with whom I studied Plato’s Republic and the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle in 1988.
[4] This information can be found in Simo Parpola’s doctoral thesis from 1971 Letters from Assyrian Scholars (LAS), and concerns the planet Mars.
[5] Also discussed in Parpola’s LAS. Divination by the shadow of the earth on the face of the moon is also discussed in Michael Roaf’s Cultural Atlas of Assyria.
[6] It is likely to have been gibberish, but we are familiar with glossolalia or ‘speaking in tongues’ in the modern world, among evangelical Christian groups. The human brain has a facility for scrambling known language into something strange and foreign. This would have been the requirement here.
[7] In a similar manner to Moses and Aaron. Moses was in communication with Yahweh, but required an interpreter to translate his utterances into intelligible Hebrew.
[8] The Hebrew god spoke of himself as the ‘First and Last’, which is a poetic way of expressing the idea that the god embraces all things. Yahweh is at the limit of what is. The horizon for us represents the limit of what we can see, though we know that what we can see is not all there is. As a poetic metaphor however, it is perfect. The horizon marks the point where this world turns into something else, which has no dimension and transcends our own. It is interesting to speculate how the nature of the earth (being a sphere), conspires to validate this idea in the case of someone watching a ship reach the horizon, at which point it diminishes and appears to descend into it.
[9] The explanation for this is obvious: to us sacrifice is an irrational practice, which can have no meaning except in terms of how the conduct of sacrifice appeared and functioned within its social and anthropological context. Thus the detail is of very little interest, and nothing of importance will be discovered by looking closely at the phenomena. 

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