1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Omen

OMEN (a Latin word, either connected with os, mouth, or more probably with auris (Gr. οὖς, ear; apparently, meaning “a thing heard” or “spoken”), a sign in divination, favorable or unfavourable as the case may be (see Divination, Augurs and Oracle). The taking of omens may be said to be a part of all systems of divination, in which the future is predicted by means of indications of one sort or another; and tradition has thus gathered round many subjects—events, actions, colours, numbers, &c.—which are considered “ominous,” an adjective which generally connotes ill-fortune.

One of the oldest and most widespread methods of divining the future, both among primitive people and among several of the civilizations of antiquity, was the reading of omens in the signs noted on the liver of the animal offered as a sacrifice to some deity. The custom is vouched for by travellers as still observed in Borneo, Burma, Uganda and elsewhere, the animal chosen being a pig or a fowl. It constituted the most common form of divination in ancient Babylonia, where it can be traced back to the 3rd millennium B.C. Among the Etruscans the prominence of the rite led to the liver being looked upon as the trade-mark of the priest. From the Etruscans it made its way to the Romans, though as we shall see it was also modified by them. The evidence for the rite among the Greeks is sufficient to warrant the conclusion of its introduction at a very early period and its persistence to a late day.

The theory upon which the rite everywhere rests is clearly the belief, for which there is an abundance of concurrent testimony, that the liver was at one time regarded as the seat of vitality. This belief appears to be of a more primitive character than the view which places the seat of life in the heart, though we are accustomed to think that the latter was the prevailing view in antiquity. The fact, however, appears to be that the prominence given to the heart in popular beliefs dates from the time when in the course of the development of anatomical knowledge the important function of the heart in animal life came to be recognized, whereas the supposition that the liver is the seat of vitality rests upon other factors than anatomical knowledge, and, being independent of such knowledge, also antedates it. Among the reasons which led people to identify the liver with the very source of life, and hence as the seat of all affections and emotions, including what to us are intellectual functions, we may name the bloody appearance of that organ. Filled with blood, it was natural to regard it as the seat of the blood, and as a matter of fact one-sixth of the entire blood of man is in the liver, while in the case of some animals the proportion is even larger. Now blood was everywhere in antiquity associated with life, and the biblical passage. Genesis ix. 3, which identifies the blood with the soul of the animal and therefore prohibits its use fairly represents the current conception both among primitive peoples as well as among those who had advanced along the road of culture and civilization. The liver being regarded as the seat of the blood, it was a natural and short step to identify the liver with the soul as well as with the seat of life, and therefore as the centre of all manifestations of vitality and activity. In this stage of belief, therefore, the liver is the seat of all emotions and affections, as well as of intellectual functions, and it is only when with advancing anatomical knowledge the functions of the heart and then of the brain come to be recognized that a differentiation of functions takes place which had its outcome in the assignment of intellectual activity to the brain or head, of the higher emotions and affections (as love and courage) to the heart, while the liver was degraded to the rank of being regarded as the seat of the lower emotions and affections, such as jealousy, moroseness and the like.

Hepatoscopy, or divination through the liver, belongs therefore to the primitive period when that organ summed up all vitality and was regarded as the seat of all the emotions and affections the higher as well as the lower—and also as the seat of intellectual functions. The question, however, still remains to be answered how people came to the belief or to the assumption that through the soul, or the seat of life of the sacrificial animal, the intention of the gods could be divined. There are two theories that may be put forward. The one is that the animal sacrificed was looked upon as a deity, and that, therefore, the liver represented the soul of the god; the other theory is that the deity in accepting the sacrifice identified himself with the animal, and that, therefore, the liver as the soul of the animal was the counterpart of the soul of the god. It is true that the killing of the god plays a prominent part in primitive cults, as has been shown more particularly through the valuable researches of J. G. Frazer {The Golden Bough). On the other hand, serious difficulties arise if we assume that every animal sacrificed represents a deity; and even assuming that such a belief underlies the rite of animal sacrifice, a modification of the belief must have been introduced when such sacrifices became a common rite resorted to on every occasion when a deity was to be approached. It is manifestly impossible to assume, e.g. that the daily sacrifices which form a feature of advanced cults involved the belief of the daily slaughter of some deity, and even before this stage was reached the primitive belief of the actual identification of the god with the animal must have yielded to some such belief as that the deity in accepting the sacrifice assimilates the animal to his own being, precisely as man assimilates the food that enters into his body. The animal is in a certain sense, indeed, the food of the god.

The theory underlying hepatoscopy therefore consists of these two factors: the belief (1) that the liver is the seat of life, or, to put it more succinctly, what was currently regarded as the soul of the animal; and (2) that the liver of the sacrificial animal, by virtue of its acceptance on the part of the god, took on the same character as the soul of the god to whom it was offered. The two souls acted in accord, the soul of the animal becoming a reflection, as it were, of the soul of the god. If, therefore, one understood the signs noted on a particular liver, one entered, as it were, into the mind—as one of the manifestations of soul-life—of the deity who had assimilated the being of the animal to his own being. To know the mind of the god was equivalent to knowing what the god in question proposed to do. Hence, when one approached a deity with an inquiry as to the outcome of some undertaking, the reading of the signs on the liver afforded a direct means of determining the course of future events, which was, according to current beliefs, in the control of the gods. That there are defects in the logical process as here outlined to account for the curious rite constitutes no valid objection to the theory advanced, for, in the first place, primitive logic in matters of belief is inherently defective and even contradictory, and, secondly, the strong desire to pierce the mysterious future, forming an impelling factor in all religions—even in the most advanced of our own day—would tend to obscure the weakness of any theory developed to explain a rite which represents merely one endeavour among many to divine the intention and plans of the gods, upon the knowledge of which so much of man's happiness and welfare depended.

Passing now to typical examples, the beginning must be made with Babylonia, which is also the richest source of our knowledge of the details of the rite. Hepatoscopy in the Euphrates valley can be traced back to the 3rd millennium before our era, which may be taken as sufficient evidence for its survival from the period of primitive culture, while the supreme importance attached to signs read on the livers of sacrificial animals—usually a sheep—follows from the care with which omens derived from such inspection on occasions of historical significance were preserved as guides to later generations of priests. Thus we have a collection of the signs noted during the career of Sargon I. of Agade (c. 2800 B.C.), which in some way were handed down till the days of the Assyrian king Assur-bani-pal (668–626 B.C.). One of the chief names for the priest was bārū—literally the “inspector”—which was given to him because of the prominence of his function as an inspector of livers for the purpose of divining the intention of the gods. It is to the collections formed by these bārū-priests as a guidance for themselves and as a basis of instruction for those in training for the priesthood that we owe our knowledge of the parts of the liver to which particular attention was directed, of the signs noted, and of the principles guiding the interpretation of the signs.

The inspection of the liver for purposes of divination led to the study of the anatomy of the liver, and there are indeed good reasons for believing that hepatoscopy represents the starting point for the study of animal anatomy in general. We find in the Babylonian-Assyrian omen-texts special designations for the three main lobes of the sheep's liver—the lobus dexter, the lobus sinister and the lobus caudatus; the first-named being called “the right wing of the liver,” the second “the left wing of the liver,” and the third “the middle of the liver.” Whether the division of the lobus dexter into two divisions—(1) lobus dexter proper and (2) lobus quadratus, as in modern anatomical nomenclature—was also assumed in Babylonian hepatoscopy, is not certain, but the groove separating the right lobe into two sections—the fossa venae umbilicalis—was recognized and distinguished by the designation of “river of the liver." The two appendixes attached to the upper lobe or lobus pyramidalis, and known in modern nomenclature as processus pyramidalis and processus papillaris, were described respectively as the “finger” of the liver and as the “offshoot.” The former of these two appendixes plays an especially important part in hepatoscopy, and, according to its shape and peculiarities, furnishes a good or bad omen. The gall-bladder, appropriately designated as “the bitter,” was regarded as a part of the liver, and the cystic duct (compared, apparently, to a “penis”) to which it is joined, as well as the hepatic duct (pictured as an “outlet”) and the ductus choleductus (described as a “yoke”), all had their special designations. The depression separating the two lower lobes from the lobus caudatus, and known as the porta hepatis, was appropriately designated as the “crucible” of the Liver. Lastly, to pass over unnecessary details, the markings of various kinds to be observed on the lobes of the livers of freshly-slaughtered animals, which are due mainly to the traces left by the subsidiary hepatic ducts and hepatic veins on the liver surface, were described as “holes,” “paths,” “clubs” and the like. The constantly varying character of these markings, no two livers being alike in this respect, furnished a particularly large field for the fancy of the bārū-priest.

In the interpretation of these signs the two chief factors were association of ideas and association of words. If, for example, the process us pyramidal is was abnormally small and the processus papillaris abnormally large, it pointed to a reversion of the natural order, to wit, that the servant should control the master or that the son would be above the father. A long cystic duct would point to a long reign of the king. If the gall-bladder was swollen, it pointed to an extension or enlargement of some kind. If the porta hepatis was torn it prognosticated a plundering of the enemy's land. As among most people, a sign on the right side was favourable, but the same sign on the left side unfavourable. If, for example, the porta hepatis was long on the right side and short on the left side, it was a good sign for the king's army, but if short on the right side and long on the left, it was unfavourable; and similarly for a whole series of phenomena connected with any one of the various subdivisions of the liver. Past experience constituted another important factor in establishing the interpretation of signs noted. If, for example, on a certain occasion when the liver of a sacrificial animal was examined, certain events of a favourable character followed, the conclusion was drawn that the signs observed were favourable, and hence the recurrence of these signs on another occasion suggested a favourable answer to the question put to the priests. With this in view, omens given in the reigns of prominent rulers were preserved with special care as guides to the priests.

In the course of time the collections of signs and their interpretation made by the bārū-priests grew in number until elaborate series were produced in which the endeavour was made to exhaust so far as possible all the varieties and modifications of the many signs, so as to furnish a complete handbook both for purposes of instruction and as a basis for the practical work of divination. Divination through the liver remained in force among the Assyrians and Babylonians down to the end of the Babylonian Empire.

Among the Greeks and Romans likewise it was the liver that continued throughout all periods to play the chief rôle in divination through the sacrificial animal. Blecher (De Extispicio Capita Tria, Giessen, 1905, pp. 3–22) has recently collected most of the references in Greek and Latin authors to animal divination, and an examination of these shows conclusively that, although the general term used for the inspection of the sacrificial animal was iera or iereia (i.e. “victims” or “sacred parts”) in Greek, and exta in Latin, when specific illustrations are introduced, the reference is almost invariably to some sign or signs on the liver; and we have an interesting statement in Pliny (Hist. Nat. xi. § 186), furnishing the date (274 B.C.) when the examination of the heart was for the first time introduced by the side of the liver as a means of divining the future, while the lungs are not mentioned till we reach the days of Cicero (de Divinatione, i. 85). We are justified in concluding, therefore, that among the Greeks and Romans likewise the examination of the liver was the basis of divination in the case of the sacrificial animal. It is well known that the Romans borrowed their methods of hepatoscopy from the Etruscans, and, apart from the direct evidence for this in Latin writings, we have, in the case of the bronze model of a liver found near Piacenza in 1877, and of Etruscan origin, the unmistakable proof that among the Etruscans the examination of the liver was the basis of animal divination. Besides this object dating from about the 3rd century B.C., according to the latest investigator, G. Körte (“Die Bronzeleber von Piacenza," in Mitt. d. K. D. Archaeol. Instituts, 1905, xx. pp. 348–379), there are other Etruscan monuments, e.g. the figure of an Etruscan augur holding a liver in his hand as his trade-mark (Körte, ib. pl. xiv.), which point in the same direction, and indicate that the model of the liver was used as an object lesson to illustrate the method of divination through the liver. For further details the reader is referred to Thulin's monograph, Die Etruskische Disciplin, II. Die Haruspicin (Gothenburg, 1906).

As for the Greeks, it is still an open question whether they perfected their method of hepatoscopy under Etruscan influence or through the Babylonians. In any case, since the Eastern origin of the Etruscans is now generally admitted, we may temporarily, at least, accept the conclusion that hepatoscopy as a method of divination owes its survival in advanced forms of culture to the elaborate system devised in the course of centuries by the Babylonian priests, and to the influence, direct and indirect, exerted by this system in the ancient world. But for this system hepatoscopy, the theoretic basis of which as above set forth falls within the sphere of ideas that belong to primitive culture, would have passed away as higher stages of civilization were reached; and as a matter of fact it plays no part in the Egyptian culture or in the civilization of India, while among the Hebrews only faint traces of the primitive idea of the liver as the seat of the soul are to be met with in the Old Testament, among which an allusion in the indirect form of a protest against the use of the sacrificial animal for purposes of divination in the ordinance (Exodus xxix. 13, 22; Leviticus iii. 4, 10, 15, &c.) to burn the processus pyramidalis of the liver, which played a particularly significant role in hepatoscopy, calls for special mention.

In modern times hepatoscopy still survives among primitive peoples in Borneo, Burma, Uganda, &c.

It but remains to call attention to the fact that the earlier view of the liver as the seat of the soul gave way among many ancient nations to the theory which, reflecting the growth of anatomical knowledge, assigned that function to the heart, while, with the further change which led to placing the seat of soul-life in the brain, an attempt was made to partition the various functions of manifestations of personality among the three organs, brain, heart and liver, the intellectual activity being assigned to the first-named; the higher emotions, as love and courage, to the second; while the liver, once the master of the entire domain of soul-life as understood in antiquity, was degraded to serve as the seat of the lower emotions, such as jealousy, anger and the like. This is substantially the view set forth in the Timaeus of Plato (§ 71 c). The addition of the heart to the liver as an organ of the revelation of the divine will, reflects the stage which assigned to the heart the position once occupied by the liver. By the time the third stage, which placed the seat of soul-life in the brain, was reached through the further advance of anatomical knowledge, the religious rites of Greece and Rome were too deeply incrusted to admit of further radical changes, and faith in the gods had already declined too far to bring new elements into the religion. In phrenology, however, as popularly carried on as an unofficial cult, we may recognize a modified form of divination, co-ordinate with the third stage in the development of beliefs regarding the seat of soul and based on the assumption that this organ is—as were its predecessors—a medium of revelation of otherwise hidden knowledge.  (M. Ja.)