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Philosophy before the GreeksThe Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia$

Marc Van De Mieroop

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780691157184

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691157184.001.0001

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Omen Lists in Babylonian Culture

Omen Lists in Babylonian Culture

(p.87) Chapter 4 Omen Lists in Babylonian Culture
Philosophy before the Greeks

Marc Van De Mieroop

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines Babylonian divinatory writings that guided the interpretation of the signs of the gods, with particular emphasis on the omen lists. These writings are overly abundant and highly systematized, and they fit perfectly within Babylonian philosophy in general. They can be interpreted as the height of Babylonian writings on epistemology, as they provide the most detailed evidence on the hermeneutical systems behind knowledge—albeit of something we do not consider knowable. The chapter first provides an overview of divination as practiced by ancient Babylonians before turning to the divination specialists in Assurbanipal’s court—scribes, haruspices, exorcists, physicians, and lamentation chanters—and their texts to show how highly educated they were and how literate the nature of their knowledge was.

Keywords:   divination, divinatory writings, gods, omen lists, epistemology, Assurbanipal, scribes, exorcists, physicians, lamentation chanters

THERE is an ancient belief, handed down to us even from mythical times and firmly established by the general agreement of the Roman people and of all nations, that divination of some kind exists among men; this the Greeks call mantiké—that is, the foresight and knowledge of future events. A really splendid and helpful thing it is—if only such a faculty exists—since by its means men may approach very near to the power of gods. And, just as we Romans have done many other things better than the Greeks, so have we excelled them in giving to this most extraordinary gift a name, which we have derived from divi, a word meaning “gods,” whereas, according to Plato’s interpretation, they have derived it from furor, a word meaning “frenzy.”

With these words the great Roman orator of the first century BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero, started the first book of his De Divinatione,1 reflecting a time-honored ambivalence about divination: while it is universally practiced, there are many who, like Plato, think it is madness. Cicero went on to mention as primary examples of those who believe in the signs of the gods Assyrians and Chaldeans, devoted readers of the stars and their constellations. For the second group he was careful to point out that he meant a people and not the members of a profession, because already in his time the term “Chaldean” had come to mean “astrologer” in the Graeco-Roman world, a connotation it kept for centuries until the recent decipherment of their writings reintroduced the knowledge of Chaldeans as ancient inhabitants of Babylonia. The conflation of meanings is easily understood: in antiquity Babylonians were the masters of divination, and they preserved, elaborated, and refined their techniques for centuries, holding on to them while all else seems to have collapsed around them. More than a hundred years after Cicero, (p.88) Pliny the Elder described Babylon as a forsaken city with nothing left but the temple of Jupiter Belus, that is, the Babylonian god Marduk, “the first inventor of the science of Astronomy.” The last datable cuneiform tablet known today is an almanac predicting astronomical phenomena, such as the visibility of planets, written at Uruk for the year 79–80 AD, the year of Pliny’s death in the Bay of Naples.2

There is an irony in the modern attitude toward Babylonian divinatory sciences, an attitude that reaches back to Classical Greece. On the one hand, these sciences are thought to provide the clearest evidence of a mistaken worldview in which the future is predictable, a sign of naiveté if not irrationality. In Roman times any charlatan who professed to read the future in the stars was called a Chaldean.3 On the other hand, celestial divination gave birth to the only scientific inquiry where the Babylonian influence on later European traditions is never denied: mathematical astronomy. A perhaps somewhat overenthusiastic assessment that “all western efforts in the exact sciences are descendants in direct line from the work of Late Babylonian astronomers”4 has a kernel of truth in it. Ptolemy’s second-century AD Almagest, the basis for all theoretical astronomical models in Christian and Muslim worlds until the sixteenth century, was fully rooted in Babylonian scholarship, which the Alexandrian author knew directly or through earlier Hellenistic writings.5 Ptolemy and other Classical authors were happy to acknowledge the debt they owed to the Babylonians as founders of the science of astronomy. For long historians of science tried to keep separate the two contradictory aspects of Babylonian thought—the irrational astrology and other divinatory techniques, and the rational astronomy—but most now realize that they belong to a common system of thought. Mathematical astronomy was as much part of Babylonian divination as the examination of the liver of a sacrificial lamb. Any attempt to separate the two is an imposition of modern criteria on ancient thought. We have to look at the whole of the divinatory sciences to study how the Babylonians understood their connection to reality.

Here I will not look at Babylonian divination as practiced, however, but at the writings that guided the interpretation of the signs of the gods. These are overly abundant and highly systematized, and they fit perfectly within Babylonian philosophy in general. We may see them as the height of Babylonian writings on epistemology, as they provide the most detailed evidence on the hermeneutical systems behind knowledge—albeit of something we do not consider knowable. The writings are not easy to understand or even to appreciate, partly because they (p.89) provide a worldview we, as post-Enlightenment scholars, have to reject as irrational. How can we take serious the Babylonians’ idea that a black cat presages good fortune? The format of divinatory writing can also be a deterrence to their study. Reading hundreds of sentences with exactly the same structure—if X, then Y—introducing what seem minor variants only, can be tedious, especially when the contents seems empty of meaning.6 For much of the twentieth century only a few devotees paid much attention to omen lists. Recently the subject has become very popular, but even today after two decades or so of intense publication and edition, many series of divinatory texts are not yet reconstructed in full. We do know enough, however, to investigate their system of reasoning.

The Divinatory Underpinnings

In the theocentric Babylonian worldview the gods knew the past, present, and future, whereas humans only knew the present and some of the past.7 The gods were willing to communicate what was to happen, however, and were open to changing it. Diviners worked hand in hand with exorcists and lamentation priests, who could sway the gods to turn a negative future into a positive one. The Babylonians were no fatalists, and believed that destiny could be altered through prayers, rituals, and offerings. Gods and humans were in a dialogue in which the gods used ominous signs that required proper interpretation, and that was the diviner’s task.8 The signs did not cause the future—the gods did—but they revealed what was to come, and the gods left them everywhere, writing messages as if they were texts. Certainly in the first millennium and probably also before, the Babylonians and Assyrians saw the patterns of celestial bodies in the sky as a heavenly writing, šiṭir šamê in Akkadian, that communicated the future. But the gods did not only write in the sky. The sun god Shamash, among others, was praised for communicating through the sheep’s liver. “You inscribe omens in sheep,” states a Neo-Assyrian incantation to him, while King Sargon II asserted in a military campaign account, “Shamash, the warrior, caused an unambiguous omen to be inscribed for me on the liver (of the sacrificial animal).” The signs were everywhere, and those in heaven paralleled those on earth, as the Babylonian Diviner’s Manual states: “heaven and earth bring us omens; they are not separate from one another; heaven and earth are interconnected.”9 In heaven, the moon and the sun provided the most detailed messages, but the planets and stars and (p.90) the weather were also ominous. On earth, diviners looked at the placement and all other features of houses and entire cities, at the behavior of humans, animals, and demons, at malformed births, and at every physical mark on a person. They analyzed dreams, and consulted calendars for propitious and inauspicious days. Those were all unprovoked omens, observable without any initiative on the diviners’ part. But they also solicited information by extispicy, cutting open sacrificial animals, mostly sheep, and examining livers, lungs, and intestines. They poured oil and flour on water to observe the patterns formed, they burned incense to see how the smoke rose, and prodded cattle to watch them move.

Divination was a massive industry. Individuals who wanted to know whether the coming year would be good could buy a lamb to be inspected by the local diviner. The diviner was not a priest attached to the temple but an independent entrepreneur, who could be engaged in other lucrative businesses as well. The reports we have of such private consultations always predict a positive outcome, so the cost must have been worth it, the animal doubling as an offering to the gods. People consulted the diviner regularly if they could afford it. The archive of a priest in late-seventeenth-century Sippar contains reports of thirteen extispicies over eight years, three of them in successive months.10 By far most of the information preserved deals with divination on behalf of the king, who represented the state. No expense was spared on his behalf. One account from the Mari palace dated to the year 1765 records the use of more than 4143 animals in nine months.11 The royal archives of Assyrian Nineveh contain some 600 reports from astrologers and astronomers; the observers were scattered throughout Assyria and especially Babylonia, not only in the imperial capital Nineveh, but also in Assur, Uruk, Borsippa, Dilbat, Cutha, and Babylon. This ensured that events in the skies could be seen even when clouds blocked visibility in a specific place.12 Divination experts and the people who worked to avert the predicted negative future belonged to the inner circle of the Assyrian king’s advisors. They included scribes who specialized in the interpretation of unprovoked celestial and terrestrial omens, haruspices who consulted animal intestines, exorcists who tried to avoid evil through rituals and spells, physicians who applied medical treatment, and lamentation chanters who sang for the gods. They were considered to be wise, and each group mastered a large corpus of written materials. A record from the court of Assurbanipal reports that around the year 650 it employed seven scribes, nine exorcists, five haruspices, nine physicians, (p.91) and six lamentation chanters. There were also three augurs of bird omens, three Egyptian scholars, and three Egyptian scribes.13

The communications by the gods were not unambiguous; they required careful and informed analysis. That is probably true for divination wherever it was and is practiced: diviners are specialists, although they do not have the same skills everywhere. In the ancient Greece, they interpreted messages without the help of manuals. In the biblical world, prophets orally reported the god’s will under his direct inspiration, and the challenge they faced was more a matter of getting people to listen to them than of interpreting the messages. In ancient China, there was a close connection between writing and divination, but the techniques of oracle bone interpretation, that is, the reading of the cracks made in bones and tortoise shells, inspired the formulation of the earliest signs in Shang dynasty script, not the other way around.14

In Babylonia, the text came before the divinatory act, and reading techniques used for the cuneiform script fully informed the interpretation of ominous signs. The ancient scholars themselves explicitly associated divine messages with writing, as the expression “heavenly writing” and other statements mentioned before show. Ominous signs were like logograms, the cuneiform elements that indicated an entire word and whose meanings the lexical lists explained and explored.15 As we saw earlier on, cuneiform signs have multiple readings. The sign of a foot, for example, can indicate the limb, but also, through logical inference, the verbs “to walk” and “to stand firm.” The reading of the sign required grammatological analysis on the basis of the other signs surrounding it. Likewise, the ominous sign had multiple meanings, and reading it was an act of interpretation. For example, the birth of a deformed animal with two heads did not have a single implication; other features determined the correct meaning:

If a malformed newborn has two heads, and the second one is on its back, and its eyes look in different directions—the king’s reign will end in exile.

If a malformed newborn has two heads, and the second one is on its back, and faces its tail—the crown prince will be in enmity with his father.16

Just as the correct reading of the foot-sign depended on the signs adjacent to it, the correct interpretation of the birth of a two-headed animal depended on other characteristics of its deformity. The diviner was thus a reader.

(p.92) The Divination Experts and Their Texts

All the specialists in Assurbanipal’s court just mentioned—scribes, haruspices, exorcists, physicians, and lamentation chanters—mastered a set of identifiable texts specific to their area of competence. I provide a brief survey here of these collections as they existed in Assurbanipal’s days to show how highly educated the people who used them were, as well how literate the nature of their knowledge was.17

The Scribe—ṭupšarru

In the divinatory world, the modestly named scribes, in Akkadian ṭupšarru—a title they shared with thousands of schooled men and women throughout Babylonian history—were actually immensely learned specialists of unprovoked omens both in heaven and on earth. Some were especially called ṭupšar Enūma Anu Enlil, “scribe of the (astrological) series Enūma Anu Enlil,” after a seventy-tablet-long work devoted to all visible and anticipated phenomena in the sky.18 Tablets 1–22 study the moon, 23–36 the sun, 37–49/5019 the weather personified by the storm god Adad, and 50/51–70 planets and stars. In total the series contained thousands of omens derived from celestial events that were both possible and impossible. Lunar eclipses, for example, were presented as progressing from all four cardinal directions, while in reality the shadow always travels across the moon from east to west. Because of the mass of material abbreviated versions existed and there were commentaries and other scholia to explain technical terms as well as treatises that provided the necessary astronomical knowledge (for example, MUL.APIN, which translates as “Plow Star”).

All the omens were thought to affect the king and the state, and the astrological observations were thus of special interest to the court, which explains the large number of preserved reports about astrological observations addressed to the king. Celestial divination gained in prominence in the first millennium and was also the area of scholarship that saw the most drastic change at that time, especially in the development of mathematical astronomy, which enabled accurate prediction. Its basis was unique in divination because the phenomena it studied are largely cyclical, and empirical observation made it possible to discover patterns. Some scholars argue that a true paradigm shift in Kuhnian terms occurred in the seventh century, when Assyrian kings began to sponsor the branch of learning. From a practice that interpreted celestial events based on the same principles that other diviners used, it (p.93) became a mathematically informed science that calculated the occurrences of such events sometimes years in advance.20 Not all specialists agree with this thesis, but it is clear that astrologers of the later first millennium had to learn significantly different materials and methods of analysis than their predecessors.

The scribes also mastered terrestrial divination, which involved even longer omen series. Compared to the astrological reports sent to the court of Assyria, those of terrestrial observations are pitiful in number, but the few that exist show that the same men were involved. For example, Nergal-eṭir, who from Babylon sent forty-three observations about the moon and planets, also wrote this one about an anomalous birth (unusually for divinatory observations, he was able to preserve the evidence by pickling the malformed animal):

If a malformed newborn has 8 feet and 2 tails—the ruler will seize the kingship of the world.

That archer—his name is Tamdanu—says as follows: “When a sow of mine gave birth, (the young) had 8 feet and 2 tails. I pickled it in salt and put it into the house.”21

To quote the relevant omen from the series šumma izbu (see below) he had to find the proper line to cite within a massive corpus—it was somewhere on tablet 6, now poorly preserved but known to treat the births of creatures with more than four legs.22

Various terrestrial omen series existed. The longest one was entitled “If a city,” šumma ālu, and contained 120 tablets and about 10,000 omens. The first 88 tablets treated primarily characteristics of houses and cities. For example:

If the threshold of a house is higher than the courtyard—the owner of the house will be put above the mistress of the house.

If the threshold of the courtyard is higher than the house—the mistress of the house will be put above the owner of the house.23

Many entries dealt with the behavior of humans and animals, but others discussed appearances of demons and supernatural beings. Later tablets in the series treated subjects like fire, the flight of birds, and the casting of lots. The series was so long that several excerpt texts circulated.

Scribes had to study shorter series as well, each one with a different focus. Nergal-eṭir, quoted above, cited a 24-tablet-long series that considered anomalous births. Modern scholarship usually refers to it as šumma izbu, “If a malformed newborn,” but the series combines four (p.94) main subdivisions that had separate titles: tablets 1–4 dealt with human births, tablet 5 with lambs, tablets 6–17 with both human and animal anomalies, and tablets 18–24 with animal births alone. The Babylonian Diviner’s Manual, also found in multiple copies in Assurbanipal’s library and addressed to the “scribes of the court,” makes clear that the timing of events determined their effect: “Check (then) the date of that sign and should no sign have occurred to counteract (that) sign, should no annulment have taken place, one cannot make (it) pass by, its evil (consequences) cannot be removed (and) it will happen.”24 Scholars thus also had to consult hemerologies and menologies, daily and monthly calendar tablets that identify good and bad moments for actions and divinatory signs. The texts indicated good and bad times for the building of a house or its repair, for planting crops, for weddings, and so on.

The Haruspex—bārû

Working alongside specialists in reading signs that appeared spontaneously were diviners who asked the gods explicitly to produce an ominous sign. The bārû, “haruspices,” slaughtered animals, especially sheep, after whispering a question in their ears and inviting the gods to write the answer into the body parts. Systematically they examined the slaughtered animals from top to bottom, right to left, and front to back, going through head, flank, vertebrae, lungs, liver, and gallbladder. The organs were considered to be the most informative, and divinatory texts devoted much attention to the liver, an especially suitable receptacle for divine messages. The guide to interpreting such signs in Assurbanipal’s library was the “series of divination,” iškar bārûti, some 100 tablets divided into ten chapters or sub-series. These focused on the gallbladder (šumma martu), the “path of the liver” (šumma padānu), the lungs (šumma ḫašû), and so on. The final chapter, Multābiltu, provided interpretative aids. Because of the series’ size and complexity, abbreviated versions existed, and commentaries on each chapter elucidated the specialized vocabulary of body parts and physical traits. Such commentaries did not follow the order of the omens in the series but combined topically related ones and could make explicit references to lexical lists. This example from a commentary text explains why the adjectives “contracted” and “short” appear side by side in a liver omen:

“If the Path is contracted and short—Your army will not reach its goal.” The reading nigin of the sign LAGAB means to concentrate, (p.95) the reading lugud of the sign LAGAB means to be short, to concentrate means to be short.25

Other scholia existed, such as what we call “orientation tablets” that divided the liver up into zones and indicated where signs are propitious and where not. It must have required a very long training to learn the meticulous process of examining the intestines and how to interpret the signs they presented. Every individual was allowed to consult an haruspex, not only the king, to whom celestial signs were communicated for his own benefit and that of the state. The diviner used the sheep as a de facto offering to the gods, and when readings were ambiguous or unfavorable more animals could be slaughtered to obtain new information and also to placate the gods. One could only repeat the procedure three times, however. When the message was still unfavorable it was best to wait until a later time when the gods reported that the circumstances for an action were good.26

The Exorcist—āšipu

The āšipu not only exorcised, as our translation of the term suggests, but was an active diviner as well, who examined the signs present in human beings. A large series of medical-diagnostic omens entitled Sakikkû starts with the statement “When the exorcist goes to a patient’s house: If he sees a potsherd standing upright in the street—that patient is dangerously sick, one must not go near him.” The series followed the patient’s examination from head to toe over six chapters and 40 tablets in total. One chapter focused on epilepsy and another on pregnant women. Besides physical condition, the entries also mentioned extraneous circumstances, such as what to expect if animals crossed the path of the exorcist, at what time the illness occurred, and other matters. The symptoms were described as ominous signs: “If the sick man turns his neck constantly to the right, his hands and feet are rigid and his eyes close and roll back, saliva flows from his mouth and he makes a croaking sound—epilepsy.” The gods were the source of all illnesses, and the exorcist had to determine what caused their displeasure.27

A long colophon of a catalogue of medical texts, which credits the scholar Esagil-kīn-apli with reorganizing this material, also assigns physiognomic and behavioral omens to the exorcist’s literature. The primary series of that group is Alamdimmû, which, according to the colophon, “(concerns) external form and appearance.” It contained five chapters with a total of at least 23 tablets that survey form, appearance, (p.96) and utterance. Chapter 4 bears the title “If a woman’s head is large” and chapter 5 “If the spot.” In addition to Sakikkû and Alamdimmû, numerous other physiognomic omen series existed, and for all these texts scholars wrote commentaries and other scholia. The diagnostic literature exorcists had to master was thus vast.

But that was not all they had to consult: in addition exorcists worked with handbooks on how to appease the gods with apotropaic rituals (namburbû in Akkadian). Assurbanipal’s library contained a full edition of them: it contained at least 135 tablets and was one of the longest series ever assembled on cuneiform tablets. A mass of purifying rituals, whose close to a hundred titles appear in a catalogue, was also integral to the professional library of the exorcist, whose area of competence seems to have grown over time. In the last centuries of Babylonian antiquity exorcists were considered the most prominent of all scholars around.28

The Physician—asû—and the Lamentation Chanter—kalû

In addition to scribes, haruspices, and exorcists, the specialists in Assurbanipal’s court also included physicians and lamentation chanters, whose functions were subsidiary to divination. While exorcists healed through rituals by convincing the gods to remove the illness, their colleague physicians (Akkadian asû) applied medications made from plants and minerals. The corpus of Babylonian medical texts is also massive, but although its information is often phrased in the same manner as omens, we cannot really call it omen literature, as the texts prescribe treatments. For example:

If a man’s head burns with fever and the hair of his head falls out and he repeatedly suffers pulsating arteries in the temples—to cure him shave his head, pound one shekel of bat guano in oil, cool down his head and bind it on; do not untie it for three days.29

The final group of Assurbanipal’s scholars, the lamentation chanters (Akkadian kalû), relied on an essentially different genre of texts for their work, and I will not discuss them further. Physicians and lamentation chanters were highly trained professionals as well, and their presence in the court alongside scribes, haruspices, and exorcists reaffirms how not only predicting the future but also averting predicted danger was the objective of this scholarship.

(p.97) The division of labor used here and the assignment of scholarly oeuvres to particular groups of specialists is not to be taken too strictly. It is clear that these erudite men commanded more than one corpus of texts, as one Babylonian scholar, Marduk-šapik-zeri, proudly advertised to an unnamed Assyrian king, probably Esarhaddon:

I fully master my father’s profession, the discipline of lamentation; I have studied and chanted the Series. I am competent in […], the rituals of mouth-washing and of purification of the palace […]. I have examined healthy and sick bodies. I have read Enūma Anu Enlil […] and made astronomical observations. I have read the omen series šumma izbu, kataduqqû, alamdimmû, and nigdimdimmû, [and …] šumma ālu.30

Clearly, he knew the texts of the lamentation chanter and the exorcist as well as works of astrology and of terrestrial and physiognomic divination. This polymath may have exaggerated his skills—he was desperate to be reappointed after two years in prison—but his claims must have been credible enough not to sound like a charlatan.

The combination of all these scholarly works amounted to a vast library of texts, the extent of which baffles the mind when compared to other writings of high culture. More than half of Assurbanipal’s library, which is our best source of information on all works of erudition in ancient Mesopotamia, was devoted to divination and the consequent procedures to appease the gods. Exact figures do not exist, but an analysis of the Babylonian materials in the library and of the library acquisition catalogues of the year 648, when Assurbanipal’s troops plundered Babylonia, came up with these results. Close to 47 percent of the Babylonian literary and scholarly tablets in the library (746 manuscripts) and 82 percent of those taken from Babylonia (305 manuscripts) were divinatory series, while another 24 percent (383 manuscripts) and 5 percent (20 manuscripts) respectively were for use by exorcists and lamentation chanters. 48 percent of the actually preserved Babylonian divinatory tablets in the library were astrological (Enūma Anu Enlil), 14 percent extispicy series, and close to 10 percent terrestrial omens (šumma ālu), with negligible numbers of manuscripts for the other divinatory series. We have insufficient analyses of other state and private libraries to establish how these statistics compare, but the information available suggests that the dominance of divinatory manuscripts is not atypical, although the importance of celestial divination in the corpus is. Some modern authors see Assurbanipal’s library as a massive deposit (p.98) of scholarship for divinatory purposes alone, but that seems too restricted a view in my opinion. Yet there is no doubt that the reading and interpretation of divinatory signs was the foremost concern of literary and scholarly writings in Babylonia and Assyria, and that this enterprise received constant attention and official sponsorship.31 No real history of divinatory writings exists, and in what follows I will outline some of its developments.32

A History of Sorts

Divination most likely was practiced since time immemorial in Babylonia, with roots in prehistory, but the divinatory text, so dominant in the first-millennium libraries, was a relatively late creation compared to the other genres studied here. The first lexical texts were from the time of script invention, and law codes appeared in the twenty-first century BC; the earliest writings for use in omen interpretation date after 2000 BC, and omen series start to appear in the later part of the nineteenth century. The advent of the omen series is so sudden and its format so closely matches all later evidence of the genre that modern scholars tend to assume that precedents, now lost, existed, but the evidence is simply not there.33 The earliest textual documentation of specific omens is found on clay models of deformed livers with inscriptions, such as “omen of Ibbi-Sin of Ur, which Elam reduced to a ruin and a heap.” These models were never popular in Babylonia, it seems, but they also appeared in the western part of the Near East throughout the second millennium. Some models are very elaborate and divide the liver up into segments, indicating how to interpret the signs visible in them. They were probably used as teaching tools and may have inspired similar objects in the later Etruscan world. A handful of models of lungs and colons exist as well, dating from the early second millennium into the first millennium.34

In Babylonia the omen series with the boilerplate formulation “If X, then Y” became the absolute norm. The omens were always written in Akkadian, not in Sumerian (which dominated all other forms of literary and scholarly expression at the time). The first compendia came from the southern Babylonian kingdom of Larsa, and paleography suggests they dated to the late nineteenth and early eighteenth centuries.35 When that area was de-urbanized after its rebellion against Babylon in the late eighteenth century, the creative center for omen series moved north to the cities of Babylon and Sippar. The dated manuscripts (p.99) from there belonged to the reign of Samsuiluna (1749–1712); paleography suggests they continued to be written into the late seventeenth century.36 The Akkadian used in the earliest texts was similar to that of the Code of Hammurabi, explicit in its spelling by using syllabic signs rather than logograms, which were rooted in Sumerian. The format of the individual omens was also that of law paragraphs: the omen “If the apex of the heart is bright on the right—elation, my army will reach its destination” has the same structure as the law “If a man rents an ox for threshing, 20 liters of grain is its hire.”37 It is thus likely that laws written in Akkadian provided the paradigm for the formulation of omens. There were Sumerian-language antecedents for the laws going back to the twenty-first century, but none such existed for omens. On the contrary, Sumerian terminology entered that corpus only later on, as if to give it a more scholarly aura. While all terms but one to identify parts of the liver were at first spelled out syllabically, in the late Old Babylonian period all but one came to be written with Sumerian logograms.38 Remarkably, the idea of writing omens fully in Sumerian never seems to have caught on, although people outside Babylonia wrote down omens in other languages, such as Hittite, Hurrian, Ugaritic, and Elamite. We only know of two Sumerian monolingual texts from the late second and early first millennia, and less than a handful of late-period bilinguals, and all of those record omens otherwise unattested.39

Liver omens dominated the early textual record and by one estimate numbered nearly 10,000.40 Also attested are terrestrial omens that closely resemble those found in the later series šumma ālu and šumma izbu, and celestial ones, especially involving lunar eclipses. Some texts interpret the marks on the bodies of birds, both internal and external.41 Divination through the observation of patterns made by the smoke of burned incense, by flour scattered, or by oil poured on water is documented in a few lists of Old Babylonian date. Remarkably, these series did not outlast the period (only some oil omens appear outside Babylonia in the second half of the second millennium), although the divinatory practices survived, and not only for people who could not afford to sacrifice a lamb. Oil divination was much valued in Assyria’s royal court of the first millennium, so the disappearance of compendia dealing with it is mystifying.42 The sudden outpouring of omens in the eighteenth century was not limited to a select number of large towns, even if Larsa, Babylon, and Sippar dominated. People in very small settlements used omen compendia as well.43 A substantial number of (p.100) people were thus in touch with omen series and seem to have copied or composed them following the same rigid pattern, the details of which we will discuss in the next chapter.

A major question, of course, is why the Babylonians developed omen lists and at this moment in time. Scholars who think antecedents to the series existed centuries before the date of the preserved manuscripts—in lost written or oral formats—consider the genre an integral part of divinatory practice, with its origins clouded in the distant past. But if we accept a sudden emergence in a historically well-documented era, as I do here, we should ask what triggered this activity. Scholars who have addressed the issue explicitly connect it to the highly unsettled political and military conditions of the nineteenth–eighteenth centuries, when kings all over the Near East violently competed for power and the region was in a constant state of war. The famous Hammurabi of Babylon came out on top around 1755 after more than a decade of intense campaigning and Machiavellian diplomacy, habitually turning against allies who had helped him before. Backstabbing and intrigue were rife both between royal houses, including those related by marriage, and within them, and knowledge was the key to survival. Although omens proffered themselves as predictions of the future, they focused on presentist concerns, and diviners, who regularly represented their masters in foreign courts, communicated information through them. The predictions, with their warnings of rebellions and the like, were thus the real purpose of the messages communicated in writing.44

Ideologically we can perhaps associate the written articulation of omens with the decline of divine kingship at this time. Only a few kings in Babylonian history were considered living gods. The practice of divine kingship existed very briefly when the dynasty of Akkad ruled supreme in the twenty-third century and was revived in the twenty-first century by King Shulgi of Ur, all of whose dynastic successors maintained the status. In the subsequent period of fragmented political power, kings of Isin, Larsa, Eshnunna, and Babylon appeared as gods in some circumstances, but many scholars believe the exaltation was more a result of tradition than of true belief. Rim-Sin of Larsa and Hammurabi of Babylon were the last Babylonians to receive divine honors.45 As a living god, the divine king should have been able to see the future, but when, for reasons unknown to us, this status vanished, he needed help from the immortals. This is when omen readings became crucial.

This explanation of the entextualization (Verschriftlichung) of omens only partially addresses what happened in the eighteenth century, however. (p.101) The innovation was not just that individual omens were written down in the format “If X, then Y.” They also immediately became the subject matter of long lists that systematically analyzed potential signs of the gods by exploring minute details, and from the very start series elaborated new omens according to creative principles I will discuss in the next chapter. The omen series were not records of observations, but methodical explorations of all divine signs and their implications. They originated from a conviction that the universe contained messages about the future, whose meaning one could only grasp by probing every element in every possible way. The uncertainties of life for people surrounded by war and political instability and perhaps a loss of faith in the king’s divine status led people to find comfort in the belief that the gods were willing to reveal what was about to happen through ominous signs. Since they were part of a system of communication, the signs could be explored just as one investigated other such systems, especially writing. The creators of the omen series could thus base their methods of analysis on a scholarly genre that had existed for many centuries and that had been at the basis of their own education: the lexical lists, which investigated all forms and combinations of words and of cuneiform signs, real and fictional. The lexical lists underwent radical changes at this time too: after many centuries of repeating lexical lists created in the Uruk period, entirely new lists appeared, their focus expanded to consider the building blocks of words rather than vocabulary alone. The omen series used that approach from the very start; each divinatory sign was an element in a larger message and needed to be analyzed in all its potential forms, irrespective of whether the signs were possible or not.

The scarcity of written documentation throughout the Near East in the middle of the second millennium makes it difficult to determine what happened to the newly created genre of omen lists after the Old Babylonian period. Two problematic groups of tablets that have only very recently become known to scholars have started to fill the gap. Because they both derive from looted sites, their places of origin remain uncertain and their dates tentative. Internal evidence reveals that the earliest group comes from the palace of King Tunip-Teššub of Tigunānum, a city perhaps located on the Tigris River in southern Turkey close to the Syrian border. Tunip-Teššub ruled around 1630, when scribes in northern Babylonia still composed lists, but the materials in his palace are different. Although they investigate ominous signs of the same type as those studied in Babylonia, they include unusual techniques, (p.102) such as the dropping of a bird’s heart in water to see its effect on the organ. That local scribes composed the lists is clear from their distinct orthography and language use. About a century later scholars working for the so-called Sealand dynasty in central and southern Babylonia produced a small set of omen lists that were not unusual in what they consider in their investigation (mostly extispicy), but in their language, which shares peculiarities with later materials from Susa in western Iran. Creative interaction with omen lists thus continued and also involved scholars from outside Babylonia. As was the case with lexical lists, the so-called peripheral material may have provided the strongest links between the early and later halves of the second millennium.46

In the second half of the second millennium, we are confronted with the same situation for divinatory writings as for lexical and all other literary materials, in that the preserved manuscripts derive from the so-called periphery, while the record in Babylonia is virtually blank. The usual question arises: was the creativity we observe the work of Babylonian scholars whose writings have disappeared or of those in the cities where the manuscripts were found? Non-Babylonian scholars clearly were actively involved with the materials as, besides writing out omens in Akkadian, they also produced translations into local languages: Hittite, Hurrian, Ugaritic, and Elamite. At the same time, the basis for their work was certainly Babylonian, as the series discovered in the so-called peripheral sites were elaborations of those attested in Babylonia before 1600. But did the changes in contents, style, and even orthography take place in post-1600 Babylonia or in these other places?

The evidence recovered so far—future excavations certainly will reveal more—derives from all the cities where Babylonian writing was common: the Hittite capital Hattusas, the Syrian cities Alalakh, Emar, Qatna, and Ugarit, and Elamite Susa in western Iran. Smaller settlements also had people consulting divinatory series, as fragments found outside Susa in Elam attest. In Syria-Palestine, liver models, which were no longer popular in Babylonia, were widespread.47 As in earlier Babylonia, extispicy omens were most common, but there are also remains of omens regarding malformed births and human physiognomy. Manuscripts of dream omens were found at Susa and Hattusas, and at Hattusas oil omens, seemingly forgotten in Babylonia, survived.48 Celestial divinatory series, which were only sparsely attested in earlier Babylonia, were common in all “peripheral” sites with omen literature.49 At Hattusas there even appears a Hittite translation of the incipit of the later authoritative series Enūma Anu Enlil, “when the gods Anu and (p.103) Enlil.” The materials are very varied and often only preserved in single manuscripts, which suggests that there was no standardized corpus to be used in different places. The manuscripts were written over many centuries, with some at Hattusas predating 1500, while others derive from the late thirteenth century. Their languages are also diverse. Everywhere scholars wrote omens in Babylonian, but sometimes they translated them into the local language as well, although rarely on the same tablet50 and mostly as separate manuscripts. One liver model from Hattusas contains observations in Babylonian and predictions in Hittite. It is clear that the local divination scholars did not just copy and translate Babylonian products, but actively engaged with them; and sometimes their products found their way back to Babylonia. A manuscript of celestial omens found there reports in its colophon that it was based on an original from Susa.51 So a variety of attitudes toward the material existed in the so-called periphery, with multiple traditions even in the same city.

All the material just described is evidence of written scholarship about divination. It is unclear what divinatory practices, if any, the people outside Babylonia adopted together with these writings. Concerns about divine plans were certainly not Babylonian alone, but the nature of such preoccupations and the techniques to discover the divine plans differed regionally. The Hittites, for example, saw divination primarily as a means to explain misfortune, which they considered the result of divine displeasure. Many of their texts are requests for explanations of why things went wrong. In Syria-Palestine prophets received messages from the gods, which they transmitted to their rulers, a practice well attested in early-second-millennium Mari but rare or unreported in Babylonia until the first millennium. The Babylonian omen series were thus received in many different contexts and scholars adapted the material to local needs, which explains the heterogeneity of the material.52

The region that was geographically the closest to Babylonia and whose inhabitants spoke a dialect of the same language, northern Mesopotamia or Assyria, becomes very important for our knowledge of divinatory texts late in the second millennium. So far only one tablet from Assyria before the twelfth century is known, a fourteenth-century text from Nuzi that lists omens concerning earthquakes.53 Military events changed the situation. When King Tukulti-Ninurta I sacked Babylon in 1225 he carried off its literary heritage, including many texts connected to divination and exorcism. These may have formed the basis of the (p.104) twelfth-century so-called “library of Tiglath-Pileser I” in which omen texts figure very prominently, especially those involving extispicy. The library also included observations of the daily surroundings, dreams, animal behavior, malformed births, and celestial events.54

The Assyrian focus on extispicy is not surprising, as it suited the newly emerged idea of kingship there and its emphasis on the strong military leader. Prior to the twelfth century the Assyrians seem to have had their own divinatory practices, and it is likely that they adopted Babylonian techniques of divination together with the manuscripts. As was the case elsewhere, the scribes from Assur did not merely copy Babylonian originals, however. All scribes known to us were diviners themselves or members of such families, and they developed omen series with local characteristics. They devoted much attention to the physical appearance of their tablets, gave them a distinctive design, and wrote the texts with great care. All preserved tablets were baked at a high temperature, which suggests that their production was coordinated. The impact Assur’s scribes had on first-millennium scholarship is a complex question and depends on what type of divination was involved. They spent much effort organizing new extispicy series, but later Assyrian scholars rejected the structures they created, although not the individual omens, and turned to Babylonian sources for their inspiration. Yet, the work Assur scribes did on other types of omens became standard in first-millennium Assyria. The reasons for this distinction remain unclear.55

It is thus utterly frustrating that we know so little material from Babylonia of the second half of the second millennium. The practice of divination certainly did not go out of fashion, as a corpus of extispicy reports shows, and omen tablets were excavated at Babylon—they remain mostly unpublished—and at Nippur.56 A well-preserved list of gall-bladder omens with an unknown provenance shows much overlap with first-millennium manuscripts and suggests that the later organization of these omens had already been accomplished in the late second millennium.57

There are many indications that Babylonian scholars at the very end of the millennium reworked existing omen materials into standardized series that came to dominate the first-millennium record. One figure stands out in this respect, Esagil-kīn-apli, whose work was honored in the colophon of a first-millennium list of all 40 incipits of the medical series Sakikkû:

(p.105) Concerning that which from old time had not received an authorized edition and according to contradictory traditions for which no duplicates were available—to work it anew, in the reign of Adad-apla-iddina, King of Babylon, Esagil-kīn-apli, descendant of Asalluḫi-mansum, the sage of King Hammurabi, the mainstay of the gods Sin, Lisi and Nanai, a prominent citizen of Borsippa, the cupbearer of the Ezida-temple, the anointed of Nabû (who holds the gods’ Tablet of Fate and can reconcile conflicting things), the purification and cleansing priest of Ninzilzil (lady of loving trust, the favored sister of his loved one), the chief scholar of Sumer and Akkad, through the incisive intelligence that the gods Ea and Asalluḫi have bestowed on him, deliberated with himself, and produced the new edition for the omen series Sakikkû, from head to foot, and established it for teaching.

Take care! Pay attention! Do not neglect your knowledge! He who does not attain knowledge must not speak aloud the Sakikkû omens nor must he pronounce out loud the omen series Alamdimmû! Sakikkû concerns all diseases and all forms of distress; Alamdimmû concerns external form and appearance and therefore the fate of man, which the gods Ea and Asalluḫi ordained in Heaven. Regarding the twin series, their arrangement is the same (i.e., from head to foot).

Let the exorcist who makes the decisions, and who watches over people’s lives, who comprehensively knows Sakikkû and Alamdimmû, inspect the patient and check the appropriate series. Let him ponder, and let him put his diagnosis at the disposal of the king.58

The passage locates Esagil-kīn-apli firmly in place, time, and society. He lived in the city Borsippa in the reign of the eleventh-century Babylonian ruler Adad-apla-iddina (r. 1068–1047 BC) and descended from a line of scholars that went back to the days of Hammurabi in the eighteenth century. As a highly educated man he held multiple cult offices and benefited from the support of Ea and Asalluḫi, gods of wisdom. He used his intelligence to reorganize the diagnostic handbook Sakikkû and harmonized its structure with that of the physiognomic omen series Alamdimmû. Both are very difficult texts, the colophon continues, whose contents should not be quoted in vain. References elsewhere also point to Esagil-kīn-apli’s status as a great scholar. The catalogue of texts (p.106) in the Exorcist’s Manual mentioned above, a list known from seven first-millennium copies from Assyria and Babylonia, attributes a long string of titles to him with these words: “This is the total of the series regarding exorcism of Esagil-kīn-apli, descendant of Asalluḫi-mansum, who was the sage of King Hammurabi, the king of Babylon, the descendant of the goddess Lisia and the išippu-priest of the Ezida-temple.” The list of works Esagil-kīn-apli is supposed to have shaped is mind-boggling in its coverage and involves so many large-scale works in various fields of scholarship that it makes one skeptical about the reliability of the statement. We have to remember that it is only because people much later claimed that Esagil-kīn-apli did all these things that we know about his work. We have no way to determine whether their claims were true or false, nor does it really matter.

Considering that first-millennium Babylonians connected Esagil-kīn-apli to this large corpus of divinatory literature, it is no surprise that he appears in another late text that associates sages with kings. The name of his royal patron is illegible, but context suggests that he could well have been Adad-apla-iddina. According to the list, Esagilkīn-apli was one among only nine sages who lived after the flood and whose genealogy reached back into antediluvian times, when elements of culture first reached humanity. Only the Babylonians held him in such respect, however. Although the Assyrians acknowledged his existence and even his work, they were less enthralled by him. They claimed that the god Ea had composed the works that Exorcist’s Manual, cited above, credited to Esagil-kīn-apli.59

What was the work Esagil-kīn-apli supposedly did? Because of the colophon just quoted, we assume that he edited the series Sakkikû and Alamdimmû, creating the versions we know from first-millennium manuscripts. At that time Sakkikû was organized into six sub-series, such as “When the exorcist goes to a patient’s house” and “When you approach the ill person,” which altogether took up 40 tablets, and those tablets and their organization are reported in the texts to which the colophon was attached. Moreover, in its consideration of symptoms the Sakkikû series surveyed the body from head to toe, a system the colophon attributed to Esagil-kīn-apli. Through comparison with extant Old Babylonian medical and other texts, we can see that he reused existing entries, including some from the terrestrial omen series šumma ālu, but changed the ordering principle from a focus on the illnesses to the systematic survey of body parts. He was not the first to establish a set sequence of tablets for this series, however; scant traces from earlier (p.107) late-second-millennium texts suggest that a previous organization existed. So the extent of his work is still hard to gauge. Esagil-kīn-apli’s edition was also not accepted everywhere. The versions of series Sakkikû and Alamdimmû he allegedly created were current in Babylonia and in the Assyrian libraries of Kalhu and Nineveh, but scholars from Assur refused to use them. There even exists a tablet of Alamdimmû from Assur, which states explicitly that it reproduces an older version, one not altered by Esagil-kīn-apli.60

Esagil-kīn-apli is thus probably paradigmatic of a group of Babylonian scholars who in the very late second millennium edited existing materials of literate culture, gathering sources from various traditions and centers, and organizing them into a sequence that became authoritative in the first millennium, albeit not universally accepted. By all indications they were not the first to do so, but their work may have been more radical and influential than that of others, and later intellectuals celebrated some of them and probably gave them much more credit than they deserved. These men lived in a period that is very poorly documented in contemporary sources, so we have no direct access to their work and cannot evaluate the extent of it. But when the manuscript evidence reemerges in the early first millennium we see an abundance of standardized materials, which they and others had shaped.

The corpus of omen literature preserved from the first millennium BC is gigantic, and most scholarly libraries in Assyria and Babylonia contained divinatory texts. The preserved material on clay tablets is only a part of what existed in antiquity, of course, and we have to remember that divinatory series were also copied out on wooden and ivory tablets covered with wax. Those have almost all disappeared, but an exception shows how elaborate their text could be. At Kalhu was excavated an ivory board with sixteen panels onto which the Enūma Anu Enlil series had been written out in two columns of minuscule script. The board itself contained a carved inscription stating that the owner was King Sargon II and that this personal luxury edition was intended for use in his capital Dur-Sharrukin.61 The abundant evidence dominates our perceptions of almost every known omen series, although most of the texts have not yet been fully reconstructed and numerous individual manuscripts remain unpublished. Modern scholarly practice often refers to the format these series had in the first millennium as canonical, but that is misleading. Parallel versions existed, often in the same library, and although scribes seem to have pursued a (p.108) certain degree of standardization, they also preserved alternative versions and introduced innovations themselves.62

By far the greatest mass of the material derives from the so-called library of Assurbanipal, which in many respects has shaped our understanding of omen literature—this effect, at first due to the fact that it was the first major find of cuneiform tablets in modern times, has endured now that many other collections are known. Assurbanipal’s library did not set an absolute standard for others to follow, but it certainly provides us today with the most complete record of divinatory writings. Close to half of the Babylonian literary and scientific tablets in it—746 manuscripts—were omen series, and of those 48 percent were astronomical, 14 percent dealt with extispicy, and 10 percent contained terrestrial omens. A mere enumeration of the series and the number of tablets they contained, however tedious, shows the massive extent of the corpus: the series for celestial omens, Enūma Anu Enlil, had 70 tablets; for terrestrial ones, Šumma ālu, at least 120; for birth omens, Šumma izbu, 24; for diagnostic and physiognomic ones, Sakkikû and Alamdimmû, 40 and 23 respectively; for dream omens, Zaqīqu, 11; and for extispicy, Bārûtu, 99. Most of these series were present in multiple exemplars, and alongside the standard versions existed “extraneous ones” (identified as aḫû), excerpts, and commentaries.63 The number of omens recorded on a single tablet of a series could vary substantially—for example, šumma izbu’s sixth tablet had only 58 entries, while the fifth had slightly more than 12264—but the total number of omens recorded in the library must have been gigantic—no one has ventured a guess of exactly how many, to my knowledge. As they did for lexical lists, Assurbanipal’s scribes prepared standardized versions of the omen series with a distinctive ductus and layout, and identified them in the colophon as belonging to the king’s palace. These manuscripts provide by far the most extensive documentation of Mesopotamian omens.

We know from sources from his reign itself and from later accounts that Assurbanipal wanted his library to hold a complete record of the Akkadian-language literature and scholarship of his time and that he ordered Babylonians to provide him with copies of compositions it lacked,65 so it no surprise that the collection of omen literature found in it is so vast. Other official libraries, such as that of the Nabû temple at Kalhu, had a much more limited number of omen texts, perhaps because the majority had been carried off to Nineveh.66 Individual Assyrians owned omen series as well. Between the years 718 and 684 Nabû-zuqup-kēna, a scribe from Kalhu, whose library may have ended (p.109) up in Assurbanipal’s, personally copied many tablets of Enūma Anu Enlil and other astronomical series, as well as some terrestrial and extispicy omens. As I mentioned before in this chapter, the modest title of scribe, ṭupšarru, is misleading. Nabû-zuqup-kēna was a great scholar, although we have no proof that he was active as a diviner. Four private libraries excavated at Assur contained omen texts, but only in small numbers. The library discovered there in the “House of the Exorcists” held many incantations, but omen texts were few. Another library, of the priests Qurdi-Nergal and his son Mushallim-Baba and excavated in the provincial town of Huzurina, contained mainly exorcistic works, and only some twenty omen tablets. One can wonder about the usefulness of small selections of omen texts to a diviner—how could incomplete collections serve as reference works for them? It seems likely that when these and other men had to consult omen series, they used temple or palace libraries that had a full record. Their private collections had a different purpose.67

In Babylonia, temple libraries held the largest collections of divinatory series—although none of those preserved reached anywhere near the level of completeness of Assurbanipal’s palace library—at the same time that scholars had smaller collections. The production and consultation of divinatory texts there is documented throughout most of the first millennium BC, irrespective of who held political power: Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, or Parthians. The main temple of Marduk at Babylon, the Esagil, owned scholarly tablets that are explicitly dated from the mid-seventh to the first century BC and probably continued to be written into the first century AD. A large part of the collection dealt with celestial phenomena, not only continuing the existing divinatory approach as recorded in the Enūma Anu Enlil series, but also elaborating new models based on sustained observation—I will discuss the connections between the approaches presently. Other divinatory series are sparsely attested in the library. The Persian-era library of the Shamash temple at Sippar also contained a rich selection of omen texts, including those regarding extispicy and terrestrial and celestial phenomena, but the exact extent remains unknown. Libraries of individuals were discovered within the temple of Anu and in private houses in the city Uruk. The latter belonged to two families of exorcists (Akkadian āšipu), one named after the scholar Shangu-Ninurta (their tablets date to the early fourth century), the other named after Ekur-zakir (their tablets date to the late fourth and early third centuries). Although the largest groups of tablets in their libraries were related to exorcism, (p.110) both contained a set of divinatory series, with an emphasis on terrestrial omens. The Anu temple kept texts dated in the first half of the second century and of use by a family of lamentation chanters (Akkadian kalû) who claimed descent from Sîn-lēqe-unninni. These were predominantly of religious character, but also contained a sampling of divinatory lists. The Uruk families were thus active under Persian and Greek rulers and may even have thrived as guardians of traditional scholarship with the support of the foreign kings. They became increasingly isolated, however, although they showed great resilience. The most recent cuneiform tablet known today is astronomical and comes from Uruk—it dates to the year AD 79–80. Babylon’s scholarly activity related to astronomy persisted into the first century AD as well, and the last tablet written there is an almanac from the year AD 74–75. Even if these texts were not part of the traditional celestial omen series, they were closely related to their interests, as such almanacs provided data needed for horoscopes.68

The greater focus on astronomical phenomena is indeed one of the most important characteristics of the first-millennium BC divinatory material, both in Assyria and Babylonia. The traditional series regarding celestial phenomena, Enūma Anu Enlil, was part of every collection of divinatory texts of the period and often made up the largest number of tablets, and we know from reports sent to the court at Nineveh that specialists located in various Assyrian and Babylonian cities constantly watched the sky for ominous signs and quoted its entries. Other courts probably received the same information. Important changes in astronomical scholarship occurred in the first millennium. Because many phenomena are cyclical, scholars discovered patterns that enabled them to predict certain occurrences. Their observations are preserved in a record from Babylon that we call the “astronomical diaries.” The tablets on which they are found date from 652 to 61 BC, but the series very likely began in the mid-eighth century BC—this seven-century-long scholarly project has no parallel in world history, and in the first century AD Pliny may have been referring to it when he wrote that “Epigenes, an authority of the first rank, teaches that the Babylonians had astronomical observations for 730 years inscribed on baked bricks.”69 The diaries report on features such as the positions of the moon and planets, eclipses, equinoxes, and the behavior of individual stars, all based on nightly observation, which was sometimes impossible because of clouds. Storms and other meteorological occurrences are also mentioned. Alongside these celestial events the diaries record market (p.111) prices, the height of the Euphrates River, and miscellaneous political incidents. The purpose of these texts is much debated; they certainly are not omens, but they are the work of people who were very familiar with celestial divination.

Other major developments in the practice of Babylonian astronomy happened in the first millennium BC as well: the zodiac was invented, and scholars began to formulate mathematical models to calculate celestial phenomena, writing them out fully in number sequences. Whereas celestial divination as attested in Enūma Anu Enlil used ideal month lengths of 30 days, mathematical texts acknowledged the correct length of the lunar cycle and calculated that in advance. Another innovation occurred under Persian rule in the late fifth century BC, when horoscopes written for individuals emerged. Earlier on, the benefits of celestial divination had been a royal prerogative. Horoscopes never became widespread in cuneiform writings, but their appearance indicates a basic change in attitude. Mathematical astronomy was a complex science with deep roots in Babylonian celestial divination and mathematics. The Babylonians’ excellence in this field was the reason for their fame in the ancient world: Chaldeans, the inhabitants of Babylonia, were the greatest astronomers. Their contributions to this science had a profound impact on later cultures. A long trail of influence is clear both in western—Greek, Roman, later European—and eastern—Sanskrit, Pahlavi, Arabic—traditions.70

From this all-too-brief survey I hope it should be clear that the massive corpus of omen series was at the same time both unified and very diverse. While discrete omen series had different preoccupations and approaches, they could share entries. Some individual omens appear both in the diagnostic series Sakikkû, which identified existing conditions, and the terrestrial series šumma ālu, which predicted events, for example. The continuity of the corpus is again remarkable, although divinatory writings were not as much a constant in Babylonian literate culture as the lexical material. The omens series, with its phraseology “If X, then Y,” came into being only in the early second millennium, many centuries after the invention of writing and lexical series. Radical changes in the practice of astronomical observation happened sometime in the first millennium, but scribes continued to study and copy the old series. We have no clear indications how this material was passed on with such consistency over so many centuries. While lexical material was taught to every scribal student early on in the curriculum, omens do not appear as school exercises. Even if scholars have identified (p.112) certain manuscripts as student copies, the evidence is paltry.71 Although the repetitive phraseology would not have been that hard to master, the scribes displayed advanced knowledge of the multiple meanings of cuneiform signs, including very abstruse ones, and their skills cannot have been accessible to many. So Diodorus was probably correct when he described the education of Chaldeans, that is, Babylonian astronomers, in his Library of History:

The training which they receive in all these matters is not the same as that of the Greeks who follow such practices. For the Chaldeans inherit philosophy within the family. The son takes it over from his father, being relieved of all other services in the state. Since, therefore, they have their parents as teachers, they not only are taught everything ungrudgingly but also at the same time they give heed to the precepts of their teachers with a more unwavering trust. Furthermore, since they are bred in these teachings from childhood up, they attain a great skill in them, both because of the ease with which youth is taught and because of the great amount of time which is devoted to this study.72

For hundreds of years, generation after generation of young men received instruction in the practices of divination and the consultation of the series relevant to their arts from their fathers.73 They were highly qualified specialists whose knowledge was in demand by kings and commoners alike, and who must have felt part of age-old traditions, which they thought went back to primordial times when the gods communicated wisdom to humankind. Their survival into the Christian era surprised outside observers like Pliny the Elder. And even if most of the other elements of ancient Babylonian culture had vanished by then, they preserved an epistemology that was long paralleled by competing systems. How the massive omen corpus expressed the Babylonian approach toward knowledge is the subject of the next chapter.


(2.) Pliny’s quote is from Natural History VI 30 121/2. Hunger & de Jong 2014 publishes the last dated cuneiform tablet.

(7.) The scholarly literature on Mesopotamian divination is vast and has increased rapidly in the last two decades. Still seminal is the description and analysis of divinatory practices in the article Jean Bottéro contributed to an interdisciplinary analysis of divination and rationality in 1974. Most (p.236) discussions treat the subject according to the techniques used: extispicy, astrology, etc. Maul 2003–5 surveys all the materials, giving a bibliography of the modern editions; Maul 2007 is a less technical English summary. The recent book Maul 2013 contains a detailed examination of the most important divinatory practices. Rochberg 2004 surveys the so-called unprovoked omen techniques and analyzes celestial divination. Brown 2006 gives a clear overview of divinatory writings, with a good bibliography and explanations of basic Assyriological terminology; some of his remarks about what omens mean are not commonly accepted in scholarship, however. Koch 2011 and Rochberg 2011 provide very accessible analyses of the principles behind extispicy and astrology respectively. The useful survey of ancient Near Eastern divination practices written by the biblical scholar Cryer (1994: 124–228) strongly criticizes how Assyriologists have treated the material.

(9.) See Foster 2005: 744 and 807 for the quotes about Shamash. For other examples, see Reiner et al. 1992b: 121–22 and Rochberg 2004: 187 and note 67. For the Diviner’s Manual, see Oppenheim 1974. The translation here is from Rochberg 2004: 166.

(10.) See Koch-Westenholz 2002, Richardson 2002 and 2007, and George 2013: nos. 4–6 and Appendix no. I for Old Babylonian extispicy reports. Veldhuis 2006b remarks on the favorable outcome; the one Old Babylonian report that records negative results (George 2013: no. 6) seems to be a school exercise. The thirteen reports from one Sippar archive remain unpublished (Tanret 2004: 265); obviously many more consultations could have taken place in the eight years documented.

(11.) Durand 1988: 37. In one letter (ibid., pp. 258–59 no. 92) a diviner stated that he slaughtered three sheep to investigate one case.

(12.) Collected and edited in Hunger 1992 and Parpola 1993.

(14.) See Flower 2008 on Greece, Nissinen 2010 on the biblical world, and Vandermeersch 1974 on China.

(15.) Bottéro 1974: 161–65. Glassner 2008 stresses the parallelism between written and divinatory signs.

(17.) The association of corpora with specific classes of scholars I use here comes from Parpola 1971: 12–15.

(19.) Various ancient editions of the series assign different numbers to some tablets; see Hunger & Pingree 1999: 13 and note 62 of this chapter.

(21.) Hunger 1992: no. 287. Nergal-eṭir’s planetary observations are edited in the same volume as nos. 244–86.

(22.) Edited in Leichty 1970: 159. Line 19 considers the birth of two fetuses joined together with 8 feet and 2 tails (De Zorzi 2011: 65).

(26.) For the order of observations in extispicies, see Starr 1983. Koch 2005 provides an edition of Multābiltu and discusses orientation tablets. See Koch 2010 for the limit to three consultations.

(27.) The text is edited by Heeßel (2000). Heeßel (2004) argues that the text is not a divinatory series, and displays a distinct rationale. It uses the same system of exploration, however, and includes entries found in other omen series, so I follow the usual practice of discussing it with omen texts. For the lines quoted here, see George 1991: 143 and Rochberg 2004: 92.

(28.) For Alamdimmû, see Böck 2000 and the colophon mentioning Esagil-kīn-apli’s reorganization, pp. 104–7 in this chapter. The vast corpus of namburbû is only partly edited; Maul 1994 is a major contribution, however. For general discussions of the texts and their purposes, see Bottéro 1985: 29–64, Maul 1992 and 1999b, and Schwemer 2011: 421–23. A catalogue of purifying rituals appears in the so-called Exorcist’s Manual, known from a handful of first-millennium manuscripts and edited in Jean 2006: 62–82. The more than 100 titles mentioned in it did not yet constitute the entire corpus of the discipline (Bottéro 1985: 99–100).

(29.) After Worthington 2005: 19. On Babylonian medicine in general, see Geller 2010.

(30.) Parpola 1993: no. 160. For King Esarhaddon as the addressee, see Fincke 2003–4: 118. Verderame 2008: 60–61 lists other scholars expert in multiple disciplines. Maul 2013: 276–96 argues that the boundaries between different omen techniques disappeared in the first millennium.

(31.) See chapter 1, p. 24, for Assurbanipal’s acquisitions. Fincke 2003–4 provides the statistical analysis given here. Lieberman 1990 and Charpin 2010a: 199 see Assurbanipal’s library as a reference tool for the king to verify personally what diviners and other scholars told him.

(32.) Published surveys of divinatory writings in ancient Mesopotamia use the various practices of divination—observations of celestial signs, terrestrial signs, dreams, patterns made by oil poured on water, etc.—as their basis of organization and mention omen series as one source of information, alongside reports of divinatory practices in royal inscriptions and so on. In their treatment of the omen series they often utilize the richest and best preserved first millennium evidence as a starting point while indicating when and where earlier materials occur. This makes it hard to get a sense of the evolution of the divinatory genre as a whole, a full reconstruction of which taking all available evidence into account would require a monograph on its own. Rochberg 1999a discusses some of the challenges facing the writing of a literary history of Mesopotamian divination.

(33.) Falkenstein (1966) argued at length that there must have been precursors to the preserved omen series, but recently Richardson (2010b) systematically surveyed all the evidence Falkenstein adduced and rejected the idea. Glassner (2012a and 2012c) also stresses that the formulation of omens happened in the early second millennium and connects the activity to cultural and political events, such as the disappearance of Sumerian religion and the arrival of Amorites in Babylonia. He does argue, however, that the (p.238) elements used in the treatises have antecedents in the third millennium. Maul (2013: 200–17) discusses the intimate connection between divination and state power in the early second millennium and points out the innovative character of the omen lists. He sees their appearance as part of the greater range of subjects being recorded at that time.

(34.) The omen quoted is Rutten 1938: 43 no. 8. See Biggs 1980–83 and Meyer 1980–83 for liver models. More recently published are two models excavated in a private house at Meturan, one of them with an explicit reference to the eighteenth-century King Dadusha (al-Rawi 1994: 38–41). See also Leichty 1993 for lungs, and Veldhuis 1998b: 166 for colons. Meyer 1987 studies all the material in detail. See also Maul 2013: 220–27 for non-Babylonian evidence.

(35.) Goetze 1947a: 1–2. In the eighteenth-century archives at Mari appear two texts that contain full liver omens as well (Durand 1988: 63–68 nos. 2 and 3), which were local creations written following Mari’s indigenous scribal practices.

(36.) Jeyes 1989 edits the material (for the late-seventeenth-century date, see pp. 5–6).

(37.) The omen quoted is Jeyes 1989: 160 line 5, the law, Roth 1997: 130 Hammurabi § 268. For the formulation of laws, see chapter 7.

(39.) See Veldhuis 2000: 74 and Wiseman & Black 1996: no. 89 for monolingual Sumerian texts, and Cavigneaux 1996: 324, Hunger 1976: no. 85, and von Weiher 1988: no. 86 for bilingual ones. By the late eighteenth century a complete omen written in Sumerian appeared in a literary context, but this was a contrived translation of an Akkadian omen (Michalowski 2006). Surprisingly, a line from the bilingual omen Hunger 1976: no. 85 appears in the list of titles of terrestrial omen series in the Diviner’s Manual (Oppenheim 1974: 202), a text that enumerates unfamiliar series. Perhaps this indicates the existence of a different tradition, whose records are now mostly lost.

(40.) Richardson 2010b: 235. Winitzer 2011: 78 mentions only 1,500 omens, still a large corpus.

(41.) See Weisberg 1969–70 and Joannès 1994 for šumma ālu, Leichty 1970: 201–7 for šumma izbu, Hunger & Pingree 1999: 7–8 for celestial omens, De Zorzi 2009: 88 for internal marks on birds, and Durand 1997 for external ones. Durand argues that bird divination derived from northern Syria. Maul 2013: 130–53 gives a detailed survey of the procedure as a less expensive alternative to sheep extispicy.

(43.) See Rouault & Saporetti 1985: 28–29 for Tell Yelkhi (ancient name unknown), Joannès 1994 for Haradum.

(44.) Richardson (2010b) discusses the presentist concerns of Old Babylonian omens in detail. Riemschneider 2004: xx–xxii also remarks that omen apodoses reflect the political concerns of the early second millennium. Maul 2013: 187–91 talks about a “political turn” that took place in the twenty-first century, but no omen series existed at that time yet.

(p.239) (45.) See Brisch 2008 for a recent investigation of Babylonian divine kingship in a comparative setting. The end of the practice is not really addressed there.

(46.) See George 2013: 101–258 and 285–319 for texts from both groups, published and unpublished.

(47.) See Riemschneider 2004 (Hattusas); Wiseman 1953 nos. 451–52 (Alalakh); Cohen 2009: 136–43 and 208–14 (Emar, Qatna, and liver models from Syria-Palestine); Rutz 2013: 219–63 (Emar); Xella 1999 and Dietrich & Loretz 1990: 5–16 and 87–204 (Ugarit); and Labat 1974, Biggs & Stolper 1983, and Daneshmand 2004 (Susa and neighboring sites).

(50.) For example, the Akkadian-Hittite bilingual Weidner 1922 no. 1.

(52.) Rochberg 2004: 243 suggests that Babylonian divinatory practices were widely borrowed in the Near East and beyond, but others disagree. Riemschneider 2004: xlvii–l argues at length that Babylonian divinatory texts had no use in Hittite practice; see also Van den Hout 2003–5. For Syro-Palestinian practices that were not Babylonian in character, see Nissinen 2003.

(53.) Lacheman 1937. Cohen’s reference to another omen list (2009: 208 n. 190) is a mistake.

(54.) See chapter 8, p. 203, for this so-called library. Surveys of the tablets appear in Weidner 1952–53 and Pedersén 1985: 31–42. A full publication of the omen materials is underway, with two volumes published so far (Heeßel 2007 and 2012).

(56.) For the reports, see Kraus 1985 and chapter 5, p. 131. Reuther 1926: 18 mentions that he excavated a diviner’s archive at Babylon, and Pedersén 2005: 78–82 gives a full catalogue of the tablets still traceable from it. They include some that ended up on the antiquities market, for example Clay 1923: nos. 15 and 16. Heeßel 2011b provides an edition of these two manuscripts, with an additional one from the Babylon collection in Berlin, and some other of these tablets have been edited. Pedersén also reports sundry omen texts from elsewhere in Babylon (e.g., 2005: 103 nos. 22 and 26). Koch-Westenholz 1995: 42 comments on two astrological texts from Nippur, while Rutz 2006 publishes one presumably from that site. A handful of Middle Babylonian omen lists are known from illicit digs and have thus no known provenance. George 2013: 229–57 publishes two of them and provides information on others, published and unpublished.

(58.) Translation after Finkel 1988: 149–50 and Heeßel 2010: 140–41 (I have placed in parentheses the epithets given to gods to simplify the text). The colophon is preserved in two manuscripts, one from seventh-century Assyria, the other from first-century Babylonia.

(59.) The Exorcist’s Manual states that Esagil-kīn-apli was the descendant of the astral deity Lisia or Lisin, a goddess closely connected to Esagil-kīn-apli’s (p.240) hometown, Borsippa. Jean 2006: 73–74 provides a list of the works associated with Esagil-kīn-apli. Of course, the passage merely states that the texts are “of Esagil-kīn-apli,” which could mean he owned rather than edited them. See Lenzi 2008b for a recent discussion and edition of the list of kings and sages, and Lambert 1962: 64–65 for Ea as the author of exorcistic works and omen texts.

(60.) Heeßel wrote several studies approaching Esagil-kīn-apli’s work from various angles, including 2000: 104–10, 2010, 2011a, and 2011b. See 2010: 160 for the rejection of his edition at Assur. Frahm 2011: 324–32 discusses him at length too, and suggests that he initiated the formulation of commentary texts.

(61.) Wiseman 1955. For some unknown reason the manuscript remained in Kalhu, where it was probably written, or was returned there after had Sargon II used it in Dur-Sharrukin.

(62.) See chapter 1, p. 26. The library of Assurbanipal, for example, contained manuscripts of two versions of the celestial omen series Enūma Anu Enlil: an Assyrian one with a total of 69 tablets, and a Babylonian one of 70 tablets. At the same time there existed another version in Assyria attested at Assur, with 63 tablets, and one in Babylonia attested at Babylon and Kish, with 68 tablets (Fincke 2001).

(63.) The information for these numbers comes from Maul 2003–5.

(64.) See the edition of the series, Leichty 1970.

(65.) See Frame & George 2005 and chapter 1, pp. 23–24.

(66.) The library at Dur-Sharrukin, the capital immediately before Nineveh, was found empty. The Nabû temple library at Kalhu yielded some 90 omen texts, a third of which were celestial; see Wiseman & Black 1996.

(67.) For Nabû-zuqup-kēna, see Lieberman 1987 esp. 204–17 and note 222. For omens at Assur, see Pedersén 1986: 145. For the “House of the Exorcists,” see ibid.: 41–76 and Maul 2010. For Huzirina, see Gurney & Hulin 1964: nos. 307–28.

(68.) For the Esagil at Babylon, see Clancier 2009: 210, 454–59. For Sippar, Starr & al-Rawi 1999 (extispicy) and al-Rawi & George 2006 (celestial). The existence of other omen series was reported in articles regarding this important library, whose publication was disastrously affected by the recent wars in Iraq. For Uruk, see Clancier 2009: 81–90, Beaulieu 2006, and Clancier 2011. The last datable tablet from Uruk is Hunger & de Jong 2014; from Babylon, Sachs 1976. For the connection between almanacs and horoscopes, see Rochberg 2004: 153–57.

(69.) Pliny Natural History VII 56.194. Some manuscripts add M and raise the number to 730,000 (Rackham 1969: 637), but this very high number has inspired interpreters to suggest various ways to reduce it.

(70.) The literature on astronomical/astrological materials of the first millennium is extensive and can be difficult to understand for someone unfamiliar with astronomy (as I am). Neugebauer 1969 is a classic still worth reading. Rochberg 2011 provides a recent survey on observation, while her 2004 book is a rich source of information on many questions. Hunger & Pingree 1999 is more technical. Steele 2008: 39–66 gives a very accessible review of the (p.241) innovations in the later first millennium, which Brown 2000 argues originated in the 8th–7th centuries.

(71.) Omen texts do not feature in the analyses of school curricula of the early second millennium, mentioned in the discussion of lexical texts here. Focusing on divinatory writings, scholars have identified certain manuscripts as deriving from a school context. Some reports of extispicy readings may be exercises (Goetze 1947a: no. 11, cf. Richter 1999; George 2013: nos. 5 and 6). Glassner (2009: 13–15) lists a different group of manuscripts as teaching tools, because of their format and the appearance of glosses in them. He ends that discussion, however, with a statement that the distinction between school exercises and records for the preservation of a text is vague. Winitzer (2013: 179 note 23) considers the case for omen collections as part of the curriculum unproven.

In the later second millennium a school text from Nippur contains an omen in the Sumerian language, by itself highly unusual (Veldhuis 2000: 74 no. 2.6). Its instructional purpose seems more language-related than to teach divinatory writings.

For the first millennium, Mauer (1997) suggests that a late Babylonian manuscript from a house in Uruk is a school excerpt, based on its awkward writing, while Gesche (2000: 216) states that extispicy and šumma ālu as well as Enūma Anu Enlil were taught in higher levels of curriculum, but her examples are not convincing.

Clearly, divinatory series were taught. In his colophon quoted before, Esagil-kīn-apli claims that he produced a new edition of the omen series Sakikkû for teaching. But we cannot easily identify the records of that instruction, while they are distinctive for the study of writing, literature, and mathematics.

(72.) Library of History Book II 29.4, translation from Oldfather 1933: 447, adjusted following Wirth & Veh 1992: 166.

(73.) See Verderame 2008 for sporadic references in Assyrian letters on how scholarship was passed on across generations. The so-called Enmeduranki text states that the disciplines of extispicy and oil divination should be taught only by a father to a healthy son (Lambert 1998).