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Prophecy in the Ancient World

Oracles, Divination, Prophets, and Foretelling the Future


We'd be hypocrites if we thought the ancients were superstitious, but we're not. Not only do we touch wood, avoid walking under ladders, and get bent out of shape when a mirror breaks, but we even try to learn about what will happen to us. Although the ancients' practices with regards to prophecy about what the future holds are different from ours, on an everyday basis we still read horoscopes and consult tea leaves, Tarot, or the ancient I Ching, as well as undergoing genetic tests to see the odds of future ailments. Here you'll read about ancient ways of foretelling the future and divination.

Cicero on Divination

CC Flickr User antmoose.

The Roman orator and statesman Cicero wrote a work on divination that contains many insights into the ancient practices. The following quotation follows the same sort of logic we use. If we see that the daily horoscopes [substitute your favorite divination method here] are borne out by events, we gain confidence in using them to help us reach decisions. If and when the horoscopes start failing, we no longer trust them.

"[T]he oracle at Delphi never would have been so much frequented, so famous, and so crowded with offerings from peoples and kings of every land, if all ages had not tested the truth of its prophecies. For a long time now that has not been the case. Therefore, as at present its glory has waned because it is no longer noted for the truth of its prophecies, so formerly it would not have enjoyed so exalted a reputation if it had not been trustworthy in the highest degree."
Cicero On Divination Book I.19
We think our methods of prognostication (a wonderful English word that simply means knowledge about what is going to happen) are better than those of the ancient world since at least some are based on our revered sciences. This sense of superiority is not new. From the same source as above, Cicero claims Roman divination is superior to Greek:
"[J]ust 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.'"

Review of Ancient Greek Divination, by Sarah Iles Johnston

Ancient Greek Divination

Sarah Iles Johnston's book on Greek divination makes the point that diviners look for signs, just as other practitioners of crafts, like doctors. She also describes the locations of oracles and cult centers, types of divine inspiration, and the road to ignominy that fortune telling has traveled.

I Ching

Confucius Presenting the Young Gautama Buddha to Laozi.
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
The I Ching is an ancient Chinese philosophical and divinatory technique with a set of explanatory commentaries ascribed to the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius.

Oracle Bones

Oracle Bone
CC Denn on Flickr.com
The very early Chinese Shang Dynasty rulers consulted oracle bones about many aspects of daily life, including weather, health, farming, and fortune. The prophetic bones were tortoise shells heated with rods to produce cracks that could be "read."

Etruscan Prophecy

Piacenza Liver - A Bronze Model of an Etruscan Sheep Liver With Markings for the Haruspex
PD Courtesy of Wikipedia
The Romans learned about prophecy from the Etruscans. An Haruspex was the priest who performed the extispicium. This involved looking at the liver of a sacrificed sheep to tell the will of the gods. A bronze model of the liver, with notes for haruspicy, from the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., was found in and named for Piacenza, Italy.


Similar to Etruscan haruspicy was augury, but whereas haruspices performed exstipicia of sheep entrails, Roman augurs looked at omens from birds.

The practice of looking at omens was called an augurium or auspicium. The Romans believed the will of the gods was revealed by the actions of the birds.

An infamous example comes from the story of Romulus and Remus. Rome's founding fratricide was brought about by an inability to decide which augur was better.

Cicero says that in the period of kings, augury was important, the arts of the Etruscans adapted, but even during the Republic, augury was part of everyday business: "after the expulsion of the kings, no public business was ever transacted at home or abroad without first taking the auspices."

Roman divination included looking at portents/prodigies, unusual occurrences that show divine disapproval and can be expiated. This was accomplished (with or without the Senate's order) by consulting the Sibylline Books [see below], or by taking the auspices, according to BMCR 1998.11.42.

Sibylline Books

The Roman Senate ordered that the Sibylline Books be consulted for advice in times of crisis. Such consultation resulted in the Romans bringing the cult of the Great Mother to Rome to defeat Hannibal in the Second Punic War. They were also consulted when there were prodigious signs of divine disapproval.

The originally Greek or Etruscan Sibylline books, considered words on how to appease the gods, and so, to restore the pax deum [Temples, religion, and politics in the Roman Republic, by Eric M. Orlin (2002)], were not all that clearly written. They required a body of 10 (in the time of Cicero) special men who would interpret. Cicero writes the following in section 43 of the same book mentioned earlier, On Divination Book I:

"How many times the Senate has ordered the decemvirs to consult the Sibylline books! How often in matters of grave concern it has obeyed the responses of the soothsayers! Take the following examples: When at one time, two suns and, at another, three moons, were seen; when meteors appeared; when the sun shone at night; when rumblings were heard in the heavens; when the sky seemed to divide, showing balls of fire enclosed within; again, on the occasion of the landslip in Privernum, report of which was made to the Senate; and when Apulia was shaken by a most violent earthquake and the land sank to an incredible depth - in all these cases of portents which warned the Roman people of mighty wars and deadly revolutions, the responses of the soothsayers were in agreement with the Sibylline verses."

Portents and Prophecies

A handy way of distinguishing portents and prophecies is that the former deals with events in the physical world, like eclipses and comets, and prodigies are extraordinary animal and human forms. Both are types of omens.

Delphic Oracle

The Delphic Oracle was the most famous shrine in the ancient world where people would go for answers to serious problems. Answers came in often puzzling and misinterpretable form. Alexander the Great (a great believer in omens) and King Croesus were among the many who consulted the oracle.

Oracle at Dodona

The oldest Greek oracle was at Dodona where priests made prophecies by interpreting the rustling of oak leaves, thought to be the words of Zeus. Later there were priestesses and later interpretations were made by lots.

Before the Battle of Leuctra, the Spartans consulted the oracle at Dodona. Cicero reports the following:

"But the most significant warning received by the Spartans was this: they sent to consult the oracle of Jupiter at Dodona as to the chances of victory. After their messengers had duly set up the vessel in which were the lots, an ape, kept by the king of Molossia for his amusement, disarranged the lots and everything else used in consulting the oracle, and scattered them in all directions. Then, so we are told, the priestess who had charge of the oracle said that the Spartans must think of safety and not of victory."
On Divination I.34

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