Haruspication - Predicting the Future by Inspecting the Entrails of an Animal


From earliest times, human beings have been curious about the future. Divination evolved as a means of satisfying that curiosity and included the discovery of things hidden in the past, the present, or the future by the interpretation of signs, symbols, and portents. Some of these practices were quite bizarre by modern standards and one of these would be haruspication.

Haruspication was a kind of divination that involved inspecting the entrails of an animal. The practice lent itself to a great deal of variation, depending on the exact organ or organs of the animal being examined by the seer. Thus haruspication is also known as haruspicy or hepatomancy, especially when the divination is based on the examination of liver for sign of what would happen in the future. According to this form of divination, animals sacrificed to please the gods would be cut open and their entrails examined by the seer, also known as haruspex in this case. He would inspect the organs like liver, intestines, stomach and spleen for shape, color and abnormalities and would then make prophecies according to his findings. Usually an organ which was of normal health and color would indicate a successful sacrifice while a diseased or abnormal organ would mean that the gods had not been pleased with the sacrifice and hence bad times were round the corner or the favor of the supplicant would be dismissed.

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Haruspication was one of the most commonly practiced forms of divination in ancient Rome but now it is believed that the practice goes back much further to around second millennium BC in the Near East where the ancient Hittites and Babylonians practiced rituals that comprised of studying animal entrails with the purpose of divining the future. However the Babylonians laid particular focus on the liver of the sacrificed animals which is more specifically the field of hepatomancy.

They believed that the liver was the source of the blood and hence the basis of life itself. Thus the Mesopotamians deemed the liver of special sheep to be the ideal way of discovering the will of the gods. The priest, called a bārû, was specially trained to interpret the "signs" of the liver. The liver was divided into sections with each section representing a particular deity. In fact the liver would even be copied into a stone tablet or into clay models so as to be able to study the specimen over longer periods of time. One such Babylonian clay model of a sheep's liver, is conserved in the British Museum, and dates between 2050 and 1750 BC. The model was used in Mesopotamian medicine as a way of studying patients and their diseases. This study was carried out by priests and seers who looked for in the organs of sacrificed animals, to tell them things about a patient’s illness. Wooden pegs were placed in the holes of the clay tablet to record features found in a sacrificed animal's liver. The priest or seer then used these features to predict the course of a patient's illness. The Nineveh library texts name more than a dozen liver-related terms which are ample evidence that Babylonian hepatoscopy existed well before the accounts of haruspicy in the Bible.

The Etruscans were among the most common practitioners of haruspication and laid particular emphasis on the examination of the entrails of sheep for the purposes of divination. A bronze sculpture of a liver called the "Piacenza Liver" was discovered in 1877 near the town of Piacenza in northern Italy and which was estimated to date back 100 BC. The sculpture was found to have various markings as a way of showing the regions of the liver that were associated with the influence of various gods according to the divination practices of the time. In around 1900, a professor of anatomy, Ludwig Stieda, sought to compare this artifact with a Mesopotamian one dated to a millennium earlier. This connection as well as archeological evidence revealed that the practice of haruspication was introduced to the Etruscans through the Hittites. This could have been possible due to the origins of the Etruscans in Asia Minor where the influence of Hittite culture was significant. Among the Etruscans, the art of haruspication was taught in the Libri Tagetici, a collection of texts attributed to Tages, a prophetic figure from Etruscan mythology who was supposed to be a grandson of Jupiter and have laid down correct methods of ascertaining divine will concerning events of public interest which in turn formed the chief concerns of divination.

Today however the art of divination by haruspication is mostly associated with the ancient Romans and the most famous example of this was the prophecy of the death of Julius Caesar which was supposed to have been made by a noted haruspex of the time, Spurinna. He had warned Caesar to beware of the Ides of March and based on the prophecy even Caesar’s wife Calphurnia had begged him not to go to the Senate on that fateful day. Another Roman emperor Claudius was believed to be a student of Etruscan culture and opened a college to preserve and improve their version of haruspication, which lasted until the reign of Theodosius I. In fact the practice of haruspication as a divinatory ritual seems to have flourished in all parts of the Roman Empire, evidence of which has been found in Bath, England where the base of a statue was inscribed to honor Memor who was supposed to be god in Roman haruspicy.

Haruspication or haruspicy was actually part of a larger study of organs for the sake of divination, called extispicy. This form of divination observed the positioning of the organs and their shape in the bodies of the sacrificed animals in order to read omens for the future. There are many records of different cultures using the liver and spleen of various domestic and wild animals to foretell a various things ranging from weather conditions to political events. In fact, labyrinths composed of cobblestones in the northern countries are now considered to be a model of the intestines of the sacrificial animals. in these times haruspication is rarely performed because of the slaughtering of animals and examination of its entrails is offensive to modern sensibilities. however a bit of the earlier practice may have survived in the performance of ooscopy which substitutes an egg for the sacrificial animal and inspection of the opened egg for examination of the entrails, thereby drawing inferences about the future.