Omens, Astral magic and Divinatory practices, Mesopotamian Astrology

The Anunnaki Gods - pyramids


Parralels with beliefs and practices of the Hellenistic world, as mentioned in the latter post, strengthen the claim of the uses of the astral powers in astrology; Mespotamian sources not customarily adduced for the history of culture may thereby add their evidence to the history magic, especially astral magic.

Astral magic and the role of astral deities have been amply studied in connection with Hellenistic Egypt and the corpus of Hermetic texts and magical papyri originating in Egypt. The cuneiform evidence from Mesopotaima has been largely neglected by Assyriologists, and has been at second hand by other scholars who had to rely on often inexactly edited Babylonian sources. But even if comparison with neighboring civilizations had not so suggested, the power attributed to the heavenly bodies and their significance and impact accroding to the Babylonians conception in their comsology should have been evident from such Mesopotamian images as the poetic phrase ”writing in heaven” applied to the starry sky.

Poetic texts are also the first to adumbrate how the moon and the stars give signs and warning to men, even before the art of celestial divination had assumed the status of a scholardy discipline. The so-called ”King of Battle” relates how ‘the sun becam obscurred, the stars came forth for the enemy’ , a celestial portent that must refer to a solar eclipse during which the stars became visible, an event that was to be interpreted as the stars portending victory for Sargon against his enemy. Allusions to celestial portents given to Sargon appear in liver omens, the earliest recorded mode of divination, which is atested long before celestial omens were collected and codified. A particular configuration of the sheep’s liver is said to refer to King Sargon of Akkad as one who ”traversed darkness and light came out for him.” This description must record an eclipse occuring under Sargon, in spite of its paculiar phraseology ; indeed, omens from lunar eclipses were the first to be commited to writting.

Mesopotamian man sought to learn what the future holds from every conceivable event and manifestation of the world around him. Gods gave signs through such happenings, and these signs, the gods’ warnings, could be read, and the future that they predicted could be averted through penitence, prayer and appropriate apotropaic rituals.

Some signs came unprovoked, through fortuitous happenings in house and fold and in the sky ; others were speically requested as answers to question put to the gods through a variety of media. The fortuitous occurence and a subsequent good fortune or misfortune were linked in the mind of Mesopotamian man, as they were in many early cultures and still are in primitive societies, not so much as cause and effect, but as signals or forewarnings and events.

Such linked pairs, consisting of a protasis (if-clause) and an apodosis (forecast), a pair called by the technical term ”omen” were collected in lists, and these lists eventually developed into the large compendia that we call omen series.
Usually, topically connected lists in the cuneiform writing system are acrographic as well, that is, each item-each line begins with the same cuneiform sign or group of signs, a feature that articulates the ancient syllabaries and vocabularies, as we saw earlier.

Lists can therefore often be expanded indefinitely through the addition of items that repeat the protasis with further specifications, the forecasts connected with these additional omens are accordingly modified. For example, a phenomenon occuring on the right side of the liver was paired with the same on occuring on the lefts, with the opposite forecast. If one color occured in the omen, simmilar omens with other colors, five in all : white, black, red, green and variegated, always in this sequence-could be added.
Numbers were increased from one or two to three and more, even if the increase resulted in an absurdity, as for example in the enumeration of multiple births up to eight or nine.

The original practical purpose of such collections of omens was soon expanded, and even superseded, by theroretical aspirations. Instead of expressing general principles of interpretaion in abstract terms, the scribes strove to cover the range of posibilites by means of systematic permutations in pairs ( left-right, above-below, and so on) or in long rows. The babylonian omen series kept growing this way.

Omens could be provoked by observing the shapes taken by oil poured on water, a procedure called lecanomancy ( from Greek, lekane ‘basin’) and by observing the configurations of the smoke rising from an incense burner, libanomancy ( from Greek, libanos ‘frankincense’). These techniques were in vogue in the Old Babylonian period, in the first half of the second millenium B.C. but die out with it. A few later excerps of lecanomancy and libanomancy are extisant but their existance as a written tradition need no indicate that the techniques were still in use, even though J.Nougayrol, argues in favour of their survival.


Refference : Joan G. Westenholz, Legends of the Kings of Akkad, F. Rochberg-Halton, Aspects of Babylonian Celestial Divination : The Lunar Eclipse Tablets of Enuma Anu Enlil, Archiv for Orientforschung, Hermann Hunger, Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings (1992) E.Reiner Astral Magic in Babylonia, A.L. Oppenheim ”The Arts of the Diviner” in Ancient Mesopotamia, Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi, Erle Leichty, The Babylonian Omen Series, Texts rom Cuneiform Sources,

Categories: astrology

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