Krzysztof Ulanowski (University of Gdansk, Poland) “Communication with Gods: The Case of Divination in Mesopotamian Civilization”


Divination was a salient characteristic of Mesopotamian civilization. It was based on the idea that to some extent the future is pre-determined, but the gods, especially Shamash and Adad (“Shamash, lord of the judgment, Adad, lord of the inspection”), have made available to man certain indications of the future (omens and portents) in the world around him, which can be interpreted (divined) by experts with specialist knowledge. The future, as crystallized in the present, was not considered by the Babylonians as created solely by gods but rather as the result of a dialogue between man and god. The first and basic assumption of the Mesopotamian civilization is that the gods communicate their intentions through signs, and that the universe works according to certain principles, the decoding of which requires only knowledge and expertise. The Mesopotamians believed that the gods wrote into the universe, and that is why the world could be read by those who were wise enough (some kind of priests and scholars). The organic body was seen as a text. The specially prepared priests could explain the signs sent down by the gods (in Akkadian the word pašāru means a multilayered reading or decipherment of texts).

Divination was divided for many groups and specializations. Extispicy was a reading of sacrificial animal’s entrails because the liver was considered to be a choice recipient of supernatural messages. The very popular way of divination, especially in the NA period, was astrology and meteoromancy, the days of calendar (hemerologies and menologies, to the extent that the coincidental or accidental nature of a specific event on a specific moment of the calendar could be ominous, as it would be a singular occurrence in itself). Constant respect and recognition were given to the birth of creatures and their form when leaving the womb (tocomancy and teratomancy); the disposition of the human body and the behaviour of men (physiognomy); the contents of dreams (oneiromancy); accidents and their occurrences and especially unexpected noises that strike the ear (cledonomancy); the examination of the configurations presented by drops of oil (lecanomancy) or of pinches of flour (aleuromancy). There were also the less popular practices as ornithomancy and necromancy.

The question is how popular and how often used as a way of communication was the divination and how seriously was it handled by the ancients?