Friday, January 28, 2011


Amar Annus (ed.), Divination and Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World. Oriental Institute Seminars, no 6. Chicago, IL: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2010. Pp. viii, 351. ISBN 9781885923684. $27.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Kim Beerden, Leiden University (

Version at BMCR home site

Available online (.pdf)

Table of Contents

Divination shows a different face in each of the many cultural systems in which it manifests itself. Modern scholarship reflects a strong interest in the subject: it covers virtually all cultural areas for which sources on divination are available. Consequently, there is a plethora of literature on the topic for almost every time and place imaginable. Amongst this large volume of work, Assyriologists stand out as very active in the field of divination studies – perhaps because of the relatively large amount of divinatory sources available to them. They have, however, always had some difficulty in connecting up with other students of divination because they mainly focused on providing (necessary) editions of their texts without providing much context (although there were, naturally, exceptions). Yet, this seems to be changing and new questions are addressed. The well-edited volume discussed here is important because it offers a good sample of recent Assyriological work on divination which is presented in a relatively accessible way.

This volume is also important for another reason. The papers proceed from a conference that took place at the Oriental Institute in Chicago, March 2009. There are contributions by distinguished Near Eastern scholars whom anyone would invite to an Assyriological conference on divination – most of them are established names in the field. However, the conference organizers have made some surprising choices as well. We find – to the ancient historian – more familiar names such as James Allen, Clifford Ando (who alas did not contribute to the proceedings), and John Jacobs, and an invitation also went out to Edward Shaughnessy, who is in Chinese studies. Although the introduction still hints at an old-fashioned diffusionist perspective, the way the papers by these 'outsiders' are embedded into the proceedings is laudable. There is not the usual separate part of the volume where those 'doing the Greeks' or 'doing the Chinese' can make their contribution: the articles on Greece, Rome, and China are placed side by side with those about the Near East.

Yet, this volume is still mainly focused on ancient Near Eastern divination (the 'ancient world' in the title is perhaps misleading: only about one sixth of the text deals with the world beyond the ancient Near East). Also, it is Near Eastern divination about which the editor writes in his introduction (pp. 1-18). This introduction is helpful for any ancient historian because past discussions are summed up and some of the current issues clearly stated, under headings that correspond to sections of the book. We have 'The form and use of an omen', corresponding to the first section of the book; 'Theories of divination and signs' (with contributions by Rochberg, Allen, Koch, Shaughnessy and Veldhuis); 'Is there a Babylonian theory of signs?', which corresponds to the second section; 'Hermeneutics of sign interpretation' (papers by Frahm, Noegel, Heeßel, Winitzer and Böck); 'Diffusion of Babylonian omens in East and West', corresponding to the third section; 'History of sign interpretation' (papers by Richardson, Jean, Scurlock and Jacobs); and 'Problems of definition', corresponding to the fourth and shortest section, a 'Response' by Nissinen. Yet, while the connection between introduction and articles is clear enough, the introduction fails to provide a firm definition of divination and one or more central research questions. The definition of divination as 'the study of signs' (p. 1) is rather too brief and can only confuse the issue. The book is in need of an overarching view of the subject; the four parts as they stand now do not contribute to a particular view of divination or to a research agenda that has been set out because no communal framework has been provided. The editor does not think this a flaw: 'In the end, the definitions are not as important as the content.' (p. 14) I beg to differ: the content of this volume is like the pieces of a puzzle. The pieces – although they are of much interest in themselves – cannot contribute to a coherent picture on their own, without a framework consisting of definitions and research questions that should help us put each piece in its place and into perspective. As it is, we gain a kaleidoscopic – high quality but fragmented – view of divination.

On account of the fact that I do not have the space to deal with every paper in detail here, I will discuss the five that I think most relevant to the average ancient historian, three from the first section, and one each from the second and third sections. I will then proceed to summarize the other articles very briefly.

Francesca Rochberg (pp. 19-27) makes a valuable contribution to a topic that keeps cropping up in many different contexts: whether or not omen texts should be categorized as scientific texts. Form and system play an important role: Rochberg argues that the relationship between the conditional statement in the protasis and the perceived consequence in the apodosis is non-empirical on the basis of the existence of impossible omens, wordplay in the omina, and so forth. The texts must therefore have been systematized on a theoretical basis and are not primarily based on empirical reasoning. Yet, she argues, if science 'reveals what for a particular community constitutes knowledge, skill in reasoning, and, in some relative way, truth [...]' (p. 25), divination should still be classified as a science. Enquiry into these matters enables us to improve our understanding of the way Babylonian and Assyrian scribes understood the world around them.

The article by James Allen (p. 29-42) concisely explains Greek philosophical thinking about signs, especially divinatory signs. On the one hand, his discussion explores the ways Aristotle, Sextus Empiricus, the Stoics and the Epicureans dealt with the idea of signs coming from the supernatural. His is one of the clearest introductions on this topic that I have read so far. On the other hand, the 'corners of ancient Greek thought' are discussed – those ideas that do not quite 'fit' the framework. These lead Allen to suggest that a reconsideration of existing theories about ancient philosophies of signs is necessary in order to appreciate these 'corners of thought' better.

Ulla Koch's article (pp. 43-59) is innovative in its use of theory. Koch uses theories from the field of cognitive religion in order to understand the workings of extispicy and explains why no apotropaic rituals took place after the extispicy ritual. In other words: 'why the only remedy for an unfavorable extispicy was to perform another' (p. 45). She argues that the nature of extispicy played a role: it served both in order to frame dangers into the social domain and also to control them. This happened during the same ritual. Extispicy was, then, apotropaic in itself: it was used to gather information and also to deal with negative outcomes. This paper is really an example of how a combination of detailed knowledge of the sources and application of theory develops our understanding of divination on the most fundamental and central level.

Divination and its relation to writing is discussed by Scott Noegel (pp. 143-162) – in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Israel. On a basic level the act of interpretation by the diviner with the aid of his text becomes an act of performative power. A superseding factor, according to Noegel, is the role 'writing systems play in shaping ancient Near Eastern conceptions of the divine sign' (p. 149). Mesopotamia and Egypt are in this sense contrasted to practices in Israel. In Israel, divine knowledge was not passed on by signs, but by means of the spoken and the written word: through dreams and texts coming from Yahweh. The author suggests that this may have to do with the difference between writing in pictographic signs (Mesopotamia, Egypt) and consonantal script (Israel). The comparative element in this paper clearly shows differences in practice in the three cultural areas, and this approach must be praised.

John Jacobs (pp. 317-339) argues that Romans were familiar with Near-Eastern materials. This is, among others, visible in the traces that the omen compendium Shumma izbu has left in Cicero's De divinatione. Jacobs focuses on one particular omen that has almost literally passed into Cicero's writings from Mesopotamian sources, perhaps with Greek sources as an intermediary. The argument is very intricate and thorough, and in my opinion convincing. Yet, in his contextualization of this omen, Cicero asserts that it is an omen of the past – it does not seem to be used in Rome anymore. Cicero's knowledge of this omen seems to have been gained in the process of getting his historical research right – something which he, more or less successfully, does about many aspects of Near-Eastern divination throughout his work. As it is, the result of this paper is not that we now understand Roman or Near Eastern divination any better – it merely confirms that Cicero had a detailed awareness of divinatory history. The most interesting part of this article, to me, then, consists of that part of the argument that seeks to show the way in which Cicero's knowledge may have passed from East to West. This is where the author shows that some hints in the sources can be used in order to construe possible movements of knowledge which would otherwise remain hidden.

The other articles can be only briefly summarized here. In the first section of the book – concerned with theories on divination –, Edward Shaughnessy (pp. 61-75) argues that, in early China, pyromancy and sortilege shared a common language of expression; and Niek Veldhuis (pp. 77-91) shows the importance of the commentaries and especially the explanatory series on Enūma Anu Enlil, shedding light on actual practices of celestial divination. In the second section, being concerned with emic theories of divination, Eckart Frahm (pp. 93-141) discusses different ways of interpreting a sign, focusing mainly on linguistic ambiguity arguments. In this way he shows the versatility inherent in the system. Nils Heeßel (pp. 163-175) explains how the so-called 'stipulated term', i.e. the set time in extispicy in which the event that was asked about would or would not take place, was calculated. Abraham Winitzer (pp. 177-197) discusses the question whether omen literature was more theological or more technical, using extispicy as a case study. There he sees a diachronic change from the first option towards the last. Barbara Böck (pp. 199-224) shows the development of the physiognomic tradition and especially the context in which its texts were used. For this context, she suggests a secular one: marriageability of a potential bride and suitability for a particular employment are instances where physiognomic omens could be used. The third section deals with historical developments. Seth Richardson (pp. 225-266) writes on how the omen compendia came to be. He sees a development from an oral tradition in the third millennium to an 'entextualisation' in the early second millennium, and places this development into the political context of the Old Babylonian period. Cynthia Jean (pp. 267-275) discusses science and superstition from an emic perspective: she argues that divination was, at least in Neo-Assyrian times, considered as a science because it was thought to work in political, social and psychological ways. Joann Scurlock (pp. 277-316) explores the varieties and similarities between biblical prophecy and Mesopotamian prophecy: she concludes that there are many similarities while the most important difference is the universal quality of the biblical prophecy and the more particular focus (on one city state) of the Mesopotamian prophecies. In the fourth section Nissinnen (pp. 341-351) touches upon a similar theme, when he argues that omen divination was text-based and prophecy was based on oral discourse – which can be seen as two parallel traditions.

Although the absence of a defining framework and of a proper research agenda diminishes the value of this volume, I still recommend this book. Individually, the articles make exciting contributions to scholarship, both in terms of their content and also on account of their relative accessibility for non-Near Eastern scholars. Any scholar of divination – and ancient divination in particular –, who would like to know about Near-Eastern thought and practice, should have this book on his shelf.

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