Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria

Babylonian Liver Omens- The Chapters Manzazu, Padanu and Pan Takalti of the Babylonian Extispicy Series Mainly from Aššurbanipal’s Library (Ulla Koch-Westenholz CNI Publications 25)

The administration was determined to go to war, but it lacked the necessary public support. Fortunately there was timely intelligence, especially from southern Iraq, that victory was assured. Am I referring to the CIA and Washington in 2003 C.E.? No, this is Nineveh in 652–648 B.C.E., the administration was headed by King Ashurbanipal, and the intelligence came from a diviner who had studied the liver of an animal slaughtered for that purpose. This common practice is the subject of Danish Assyriologist Ulla Koch-Westenholz’s Babylonian Liver Omens, which is primarily a scholarly translation and presentation of cuneiform texts devoted to hepatoscopy, or divination by means of the liver, the favored organ for extispicy (divination from sheep entrails).

Here’s the diviner’s report- “[If the omen for] the decimation of the army is situated on the right side of the ‘head lift’ of the liver- It is an omen of Shamash-shum-ukkin who waged war against AsŠsŠurbanipal the beloved of the great gods and defeat seized him in the midst of battle and before AsŠsŠurbanipal the king of the world he […]- It is not favorable for Shamash-shum-ukkin” (CT 35-38-14–17) [a collection of cuneiform tablets in the British Museum]. According to Koch-Westenholz, the “if-clause” (known in Assyriology as the protasis) was realistic (based on the actual shape of the liver), but the prediction was fabricated to please the king of Assyria in his great war against his rebellious brother, who ruled Babylonia.

There are other parallels between ancient liver divination and modern intelligence. For one thing, it was expensive, involving not only the fee to the diviner but the sacrificial slaughter of possibly of two or even three animals so that the total number of omens obtained from their entrails would result in a decisive majority of answers on one side of the question or the other. As a result, the use of liver divinations was largely confined to the royal administration, which had at its disposal the necessary resources, while private persons mostly resorted to less expensive and less sophisticated methods. A second reason for the limited use of liver divination was that its predictions were never wrong- If events turned out other than foretold, the fault lay not with the prediction but with the protasis—that is, inadequate account had been taken of ancillary phenomena surrounding the actual taking of the omens and this would be duly considered in the future. As a result, increasingly elaborate handbooks of omens were produced to cover all possible (and many impossible) contingencies. Third, even if the king could at times encourage the production of omens favorable to his plans, more often he stood in awe of the learned specialists on whom he depended for the interpretation of their secret lore. So, for example, Esarhaddon, who extended the Assyrian Empire in the seventh century B.C.E. to its farthest limits, was nevertheless so much under the spell of his diviners (and physicians) that he left a whole dossier of inquiries to the Sun god Shamash and lived his whole life in fear of an early demise, which indeed came to pass. His son Ashurbanipal also followed his example.1

In ancient Israel, the Mesopotamian king was an object of ridicule for his dependence on divination. In Ezekiel 21-21–23, Jerusalem’s fate hangs in the balance as the king of Babylon halts his army on its westward march through Syria to await divination not only by the liver (hepatoscopy) but also by arrows (belomancy) and teraphim (perhaps, small household idols) before deciding which road to take for his next conquest. As it was expressed by Balaam, that quintessential Mesopotamian diviner from Petor on the Euphrates, “Lo, there is no augury in Jacob, no divining in Israel- Jacob is told at once, yea Israel, what God has wrought” (Numbers 23-23). For Israel, the place of the diviner was taken by the seer and then the prophet—though less to predict the future than, in Martin Buber’s terms, “to confront man with the alternatives of decision.” As the first of the literary prophets declared, “Indeed, my Lord God does nothing without having revealed His purpose to His servants the prophets” (Amos 3-7).

Not that all forms of divination were forbidden to Israel. The Urim and Thummim widely resorted to by both Saul and David represented a binary sort of psephomancy (from the Greek words meaning divining from pebbles) that essentially provided only yes-or-no answers, with Thummim probably standing for yes and Urim for no. (When Saul prays hava thammim [1 Samuel 14-41], the text should probably be emended to hava thummim—give a yes!)2 The cup that Joseph employed for divining (Genesis 44-5) constituted a form of lecanomancy—that is, interpretation by the shape of oil in water. The words that Jonathan used to determine whether God would deliver the Philistine garrison into his hands (1 Samuel 14-10), or earlier the words by which Abraham’s servant decided he would know the right bride for his master’s son (Genesis 24-12–14), represent legitimate forms of cledonomancy or divination by a (chance) word.

All these simple and inexpensive methods were also known in Mesopotamia, but they were not deemed worthy of ancient scholarly attention, and no handbooks were created to catalogue their interpretations. Handbooks were reserved for divination by such phenomena as the heavenly bodies (astrology), freak births among humans and animals (teratoscopy) and dreams (oneiromancy). Particular attention was paid to the ingredients in a food offering to a deity- incense (libanomancy), flour (aleuromancy), oil (lecanomancy) and especially the entrails of sacrificial sheep (extispicy).3

It is to this last technique that Koch-Westenholz has dedicated her book, but so vast is the cuneiform literature devoted to this particular technique of divination that in nearly 600 pages and plates (the latter are expertly drawn hand copies of the cuneiform texts), she was able to cover only three of the ten “chapters,” comprising 27 of the estimated 100 tablets that once made up the canonical series, together with their commentaries, extract texts and other ancient scholarly apparatus. Between these chapters, more than 3,000 individual omens are presented, painstakingly reconstructed from more than 200 discrete cuneiform tablets and fragments of tablets (many of them published here for the first time).

All these omens are of the form- “if (the configuration of a given part of the liver is such and such), then this presages (such and such an outcome).” The “then-clause” is known in Assyriology as the apodosis. Since BAR readers are not exclusively veterinarians, they may be spared the protases, with their detailed descriptions of a dozen parts of sheep livers and gall bladders. Instead a brief overview of the predictions in the apodoses will suffice.

The great majority of the predictions deal with the royal house, the kingdom or the commonweal. There are references to the outcome of campaigns, battles or sieges, the health and welfare of the king (often referred to as “the prince”) and other members of the royal family and its entourage, to the weather, the success or otherwise of the harvest or the flocks, and the interactions between the monarchy and its subjects. Some omens refer specifically to great kings of the past. For example, “Omen of Sargon whose troops were shut in by rainstorm and exchanged weapons among themselves.” Or “Destruction- omen of Ibbi-Sin, king of Ur.” Private concerns are far rarer in the apodoses; examples include the prediction that “a snake will bite a man” and that “the patient will continue to waste away but will live.” There are also omens that have a double signification, one for the king and another for the “commoner” (Akkadian musŠke¯nu; compare Hebrew misken, Arabic miskin, French mesquin), as for example “If (the extispicy) concerns the campaign, the enemy will defeat me. If it is a commoner’s sacrifice- Attack.”4

Only a relatively few omens concern women, and then mainly in their relationships to children or husbands. For example- “The man’s wife will bear a son;” “A woman who does not [has not] give[n] birth easily will give birth easily;” or “A man’s wife will write again and again about killing her husband- ‘Kill my husband and marry me!’”

How can we explain the ancient Mesopotamian fascination with extispicy? I have long ago suggested an economic motive- It was inspired, at least in part, by an aversion to wastefulness. For the individual, offering up a sheep or ram from his own flock meant a true sacrifice, not only in the literal sense of “making holy” that which was to be offered to or at least shared with the deity, but also in the modern sense of giving up something dear and precious to oneself. The edible parts of the animal could be consumed by the deity in the form of its statue, and what the deity deigned to leave uneaten (in effect, everything) was available for the priest and ultimately for the worshiper. But the entrails and certain organs were considered inedible. So what better use to make of organs such as the lung and liver than for divination? The king was constrained by no such economies, but he took over the practice and extended it to decision-making in all realms of public policy, which explains the public character of the great majority of the liver omens. And if enough of them predicted a favorable outcome, for an impending battle, for instance, they tended to become a self-fulfilling prophecy- Armies became fired up with the enthusiasm imparted by the favorable prognosis.

And how to explain the Israelite disdain for extispicy? Sacrifice took an entirely different form in ancient Israel. The deity was not worshiped in the form of a statue, but was unseen. The meat sacrifice was divided among worshiper, priest and deity, with the deity’s portion “wholly burnt” so that it went up (hence Hebrew ‘olah, literally “that which goes up”; translated in the Greek Septuagint as holokaustos, literally “burnt whole”) in smoke whose odor was pleasant or soothing (rei’ach nichoach) to God. In Israel, there was no squeamishness about, nor prohibition against, eating the liver, hence no reason for withholding it from the sacrifice and no economic motive to use it instead for divination.

Babylonian Liver Omens provides a fascinating, panoramic look at a world and a worldview that shares the Biblical stage with Israel yet differs from it so fundamentally that it silhouettes the latter by contrast as vividly as other aspects of that world highlight it by positive comparison.

1. Compare Ivan Starr, Queries to the Sungod- Divination and Politic in Sargonid Assyria (State Archives of Assyria 4, 1990), especially pp. 187–199, 255–257; and Simo Parpola, Letters from Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars (State Archives of Assyria 10, 1993), pp. 253–270.

2. On the frequent references to receiving a “firm yes” (annu k¦¯nu) in extispicy, see Starr, Queries, p. xvi; for a different view, see Cornelis van Dam, Then Urim and Thummim- a Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, IN- Eisenbrauns, 1997), especially pp. 197–214.

3. Ulla Jeyes, “Divination as a Science in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Jaarbericht Ex Oriente Lux 32 (1991–1992), pp. 23–41, especially p. 23.

4. Found on p. 283, line 17 of the book under review; see also note 702 for a list of these from other divination series.