Scholars and Diviners in the Court of the Later Sargonids

Hardly any correspondence of Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal with haruspices (bārû) is attested in the voluminous mass of documents from the reigns of these two monarchs. What correspondence there is[[64]] sheds little or no light on the practice of extispicy at the time. Yet this group of scholars, by virtue of its being in charge of a major branch of divination, was bound to play an important role in the policy-making decisions of Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal, one which finds expression in the corpus of oracular queries and reports edited here. The scarcity of haruspical letters indicates that queries and reports were the standard medium of written communication between haruspices and the king, and that the former wrote letters only exceptionally, for instance to submit a petition.[[65]] It may also be that the diviners had to be on hand close to the court (whether at Nineveh or Calah) to perform extispicies on demand, so that an extensive correspondence was unnecessary.[[66]]

While the queries and reports forming the present corpus were specifically tailored to the needs of Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal, the earlier Sargonids also availed themselves of the services of the diviners when the need arose. In the eighth campaign of Sargon II, for example, a haruspex was evidently present at the king's camp, and in an interesting text known as the "Sin of Sargon," Sennacherib commissioned diviners to discover the cause of his father's fate.[[67]] It should be noted, however, that this text is not an omen text but a literary work, perhaps of the kind described nowadays as a pseudo-autobiography. [[68]] The fact that hardly any divinatory texts from the reigns of Sargon and Sennacherib are available may be due to the fact that their archives have not yet been brought to light.[[69]]

FIG. 4. Camp scene with priests (reign of Sargon II). BOTTA AND FLANDIN, Monument de Ninive II, 146.

Haruspices were not the only group of specialists on whom the Sargonids relied for advice on matters affecting the safety of the king and country. A group of scholars prominent at the time in the Assyrian capital and throughout other major cities of Assyria and Babylonia consisted of specialists whose reports on astrological and other natural phenomena of ominous import had been published at the turn of the century by R. Campbell Thompson under the exotic title The Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon in the British Museum,[[70]] although it is clear now that these people were not strictly speaking astrologers, and certainly not magicians. To a large extent they interpreted the ominous significance of eclipses, meteoric and other natural phenomena, such as earthquakes for the person of the king and the safety of the country. In the period under discussion some of these scholars especially from among those working in the Assyrian capital, attained positions of great influence at the court. One of their number, the scholar Balasî, became tutor to the crown prince, Assurbanipal.[[71]]

I should like to point out here that I do not propose to deal in this study with the origins of these scholars, or their relationship, if any, with the authors of the so-called astronomical diaries. My concern is with the scholars and diviners of seventh century Assyria whose activities are described in the documents mentioned above.

The social and institutional position of these scholars under the Sargonid kings had been studied by Oppenheim in his article "Divination and Celestial Observation in the Last Assyrian Empire," Centaurus 14 (1969), 97-135, and more recently by Parpola.[[72]] In the period under discussion their reports to the king reflect, in the words of Oppenheim (ibid. 97 and 114), the working of a well-established institution whose members may be described as practitioners of a discipline. In practice, the scholars excerpted from the major astrological and related compendia those omens which appeared to them to have the closest bearing on observed natural phenomena of the gravest concern to the king such as eclipses, earthquakes, etc., and forwarded them, often with elaborate explanations and comments to support their conclusions. As for the manner of reporting, an interesting description is provided by ABL 1096 (= LAS 60), a letter from Nabû-ahhe-eriba to Assurbanipal detailing the procedure followed in the days of his father, Esarhaddon, when the reports of the scholars were read and explained to him on the river bank, in a qersu, the sacred enclosure known from the NA royal rituals.

Interpreting celestial phenomena can hardly have been an easy task. Faulty observations by some of the king's correspondents on these matters are attested in the reports. The results of such celestial observations were called into question in no uncertain terms by other scholars. Nabû-ahhe-eriba writes to the king (ABL 1132 = LAS 65), "he who wrote to the king that Venus is visible in the month of Adar is despicable, a fool and a liar", and continues in the same vein, "if he does not know, he should shut up."[[73]] Similarly Akkulanu writes, RMA 235 rev.2f, "this omen is nonsense: the king should disregard it."[[74]] The frustration of these scholars with those they considered dilettantes who provided the king with false information, or to use a colloquialism, who gave the profession a bad name, are summed up by Ištar-šumu-ereš in the following proverb (ABL 37 = LAS 12 r.3ff.), "the inept can frustrate a judge; the ignorant can trouble even the mighty."

But even the more competent scholars could not always provide all the answers. Occasionally they had to admit, "there is no reference to it" (ABL 519 = LAS 13 rev. 12 and 22), or "there is absolutely no reference to it" (ibid. 27). It is not surprising therefore, that at times the king indicates growing impatience with his correspondents over the lack of unequivocal answers. On this score, the diviner appears to have been in a much more secure professional position than the scholar.

For the former, producing a balance-sheet of favorable and unfavorable protases was evidently sufficient for a prognosis. For the latter, excerpting the appropriate omen from the astrological compendia was not in itself sufficient to convince the king or allay his fears. An elaboration of the omen considered relevant to the portended sign was often necessary,[[75]] should the king ask: "Where did you see it? Tell me!" (ABL 1391+ = LAS 110+ r.5).

In fact, if the king chose to follow their advice, the activities of the scholars actually tended to curtail his mobility, forcing him on occasion to the subterfuge of a substitute king to avoid the unpropitious signs predicted by eclipses and other natural phenomena. Similar considerations affected the comings and goings of the crown prince, from leaving his residence (ABL 354 = LAS 46) to having an audience with the king (ABL 356 = LAS 45).[[76]] An example which concerns both Assurbanipal as crown prince and Šamaš-šumu-ukin speaks for itself: "Why did he (i.e. Adad-šumu-uṣur) say: The crown prince and Šamaš-šumu-ukin should not go outdoors before the 22nd of Tishri? Did he see any sign? ... He swore: I did not see any sign" (ABL 594 = LAS 249:6ff). The same may be said of other members of the royal family, notably Aššur- mukin-paleya, another son of Esarhaddon.[[77]]

The fact of the matter is that for some of the major concerns of the later Sargonids, the haruspices rather than any other group of specialists were called upon for help. It is doubtful whether any other branch of divination could have served this purpose. A case in point is the celebrated eighth campaign of Sargon II, in which both an astrologer and a haruspex appear to have been present in the royal camp, where an astrological omen had been confirmed, apparently, by means of extispicy.[[78]] This fact is neither surprising nor unique. It merely confirms evidence going back to Old Babylonian Mari, where similarly a lunar eclipse, as well as dreams and visions of mantics had to find confirmation by means of extispicy.[[79]]

While in the case of Mari it can be argued that no astrological compendia were available at the time, this was not the case in the days of Sargon II. The reason for the continued importance of extispicy lies in the nature of divination. Of the two types of divination, impetrita and oblativa, only the former could function at will. Oblativa were of more limited application, because they depend on the occurrence of natural phenomena, which could not be produced on demand. In fact, the only other way attested for inquiring about an impending eclipse without recourse to the scholars was by means of another type of oracular query from among the impetrita, discussed above. One of the very few tamītus published is a query concerning a lunar eclipse.[[80]] Since the corpus of tamītus as a whole has not yet been published, we do not know if this was common practice.

FIG. 5. Priests in camp (reign of Sennacherib). ORIGINAL DRAWING IV, 65.

Whatever the case, this brings us back to extispicy. Although no extispicy reports are attached to the extant tamītus, the two must have been closely related. We have noted above that references in the formulary of the tamītus to the sacrificial lamb and to the "performance of extispicy" (nēpešti bārûti) indicate that answers to the queries presented in them were determined by means of extispicies. In other words, there was no substitute for extispicy as a means of eliciting the divine will, because it alone could create on demand, as it were, the conditions necessary to receive the divine response.

In theory, of course, any impetrated omen could render such service. In practice, however, extispicy was the only major royal tool among the impetrita. None other (e.g., lecanomancy, libanomancy, etc.) is attested as having played a similar role in practice.

The astrological reports provide us with a wealth of information about internal conditions in Assyria and Babylonia in the reigns of the later Sargonids, their relationships with the scholars and other courtiers, and most important, about the personality of Esarhaddon, who was most receptive to the practices of the scholars and diviners, and relied on them heavily. We know now that this was not due entirely to superstition, but to his deteriorating state of health.[[81]] But to the student of Assyrian diplomacy in that period, the importance of the reports as a source of history is, unlike that of the oracle queries, at best peripheral. Since most queries, aside from those dealing with illness in the royal family or loyalty of officials, are concerned with conditions on the frontiers of the Assyrian empire, especially those on the north and east, it is these which shed light on Assyrian diplomacy in these regions at the time.

In fact, the information they provide is, unlike that of the classical sources, a primary source for the history of these regions at that period. By way of contrast, in the entire corpus of astrological reports there are only a few which can be said to have made a contribution to our understanding of the foreign policy of Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal. An exception is the correspondence of Bel-ušezib, a Babylonian scholar who displayed, it is said, a greater interest in politics than in astronomy. One need only mention ABL 1237 and CT 54 22 to make the point. (We shall return to these two letters below).

The astrological omens which Bel-ušezib cites in most, if not all, of his letters, were merely meant, in Oppenheim's view,[[82]] to establish his academic credentials. This evaluation is sorely in need of modification in the light of recently published new letters of Bel-ušezib in CT 54,[[83]] and a better understanding of the significance of some long known letters by the same author. These show that when the need arose, Bel-ušezib displayed the same expertise in the use of astrological omens as did his colleagues. In ABL 1216, for example, he reminds Esarhaddon that it was he who correctly predicted from the celestial signs the latter's succession to the throne of Sennacherib.[[84]] In CT 54 22 he likewise brings celestial omens to bear on a prediction for a victory over the Manneans. This report, together with ABL 1237, is in fact our most informative source for Esarhaddon's Mannean war of 675 B.C. Whether things in reality turned out as Bel-ušezib predicted for this campaign is another matter.

From the reign of Assurbanipal one should mention ABL 1391 (= LAS 110). The historical significance of this letter, which can now be positively dated May 15, 657 B.C., has been greatly enhanced by its join to ABL 679 (= LAS 300), a letter from Akkulanu to the king. It not only sheds light on the extent of Cimmerian expansion into Syria, but also on the economic hardship in Assyria that year due to crop failure.[[85]]

The opposite is the case with the oracle queries. They reveal nothing about the relations of the diviners with the court. We can only speculate about the king's reaction to the pronouncements of the diviners. Not that there is any shortage of information about liver divination in ancient Mesopotamia, but with the exception of the Mari letters it is to be found almost entirely in impersonal contexts, such as omen texts, extispicy reports, models, etc. The haruspices, unlike the other classes of scholarly experts, apparently were not required to offer elaborate explanations other than the bare results of their extispicies in the form of a balance-sheet of favorable and unfavorable protases. Admittedly, this practice is explicitly stated only in the Neo-Assyrian compendia and reports, but the process is observable already in reports from Mari,[[86]] and remained consistent throughout. To be sure, instances of unusual abnormalities on the exta meriting the attention of the court are not unknown, but they appear to have been treated outside the context of extispicy. An early example comes from a Mari letter (ARM 4 54), where the correspondents, Išme-Dagan and Yasmah-Adad, discuss some abnormalities on the exta.[[87]] Similarly, several instances concerning kidneys of sacrificial animals are recorded in the Sargonid correspondence. The most explicit is ABL 975, where such a kidney was to be sent to the court, to be examined "by the scholars" (ummānu, rev.14).

The roles of scholars and diviners in the Sargonid royal court should not be underestimated.[[88]] In spite of their total dependence on royal favor for their position and livelihood, the king depended on them to relieve him of his well attested fears and anxieties. The conclusions of the astrologers and haruspices derived from observations of celestial phenomena and the sheep's exta, respectively, provided the "scientific" basis for decision making. That Esarhaddon questioned, disputed, or simply misunderstood - and that was often the case - what had been explained to him by the scholars does not alter this view.

64 Parpola LAS 113-118, 340 and 353; ABL 1259 and 1261.

65 Cf. Parpola, LAS 2, pp. XVI and 365.

66 Cf. SAA 1, p.XVIf.

67 SAA 3 33. See Tadmor, Landsberger and Parpola, "The Sin of Sargon and Sennacherib's Last Will," SAAB 3 (1989) 1ff.

68 See Grayson, Babylonian Historical-Literary Texts, p. 8 n. 11.

69 See Oppenheim, Centaurus 14 (1969) 114. Cf. Parpola LAS 2, p. XII.

70 2 volumes, London 1900. Hereafter RMA.

71 So Parpola LAS 2, p. 38. The relevant passage where the scholar in question thanks the king for appointing him to be tutor to the crown prince is ABL 604 = LAS 34 r.6ff. Assurbanipal's tutor was previously thought to have been Nabû-ahhe-eriba, a close collaborator of Balasî. See, for example, Olmstead, History of Assyria, p. 789.

72 LAS 2 (1983) and Fs Reiner (1987), pp. 257ff.

73 See also ABL 618 = LAS 66 by the same author.

74 For this and other examples, see Oppenheim, op. cit. p. 118.

75 E.g. ABL 565 = LAS 14:9ff.

76 See also ABL 1383 = LAS 70, ABL 82 = LAS 69, etc.

77 Examples are numerous, e.g. ABL 82 = LAS 69 reverse; ABL 652 = LAS 145; Oppenheim Letters from Mesopotamia no. 96; ABL 406 = LAS 72 r.8ff; ABL 77 = LAS 52; ABL 354 = LAS 46 r.6ff.

78 See Oppenheim JNES 19 (1960) 138. However, the opposite can also be said, i.e. that the celestial bodies can influence an extispicy. See Reiner, "The Uses of Astrology," JAOS 105 (1985) 591f.

79 See Starr Rituals, p. 5. For the Mari text, see now Parpola LAS 2, p. 486.

80 AfO 11 plate III, p. 361. On the tamītus in general, see W.G. Lambert, CRRAI 14 (1965), 119ff.

81 For a discussion of the nature of Esarhaddon's illness, see Parpola LAS 2, pp. 230ff.

82 Centaurus 14 (1969) 105.

83 On the correspondence of Bel-ušezib, see also Dietrich, AOAT 7 (1970) 62-68 and WO 4 (1968) 233-242; Fales and Lanfranchi, "ABL 1237: The Role of the Cimmerians in a Letter to Esarhaddon," East and West 31 (1981) 9-33.

84 Cf. Parpola, CRRAI 26 (1980), 179 note 41. See also RMA 274 = ABL 895.

85 See Hartman, JNES 21 (1962) 25ff, and Parpola LAS 2, pp. 307ff and 375ff, for a full discussion and edition of the complete text.

86 E.g., "the haruspices tabulated the omens. In accordance with the favorable omens, will 150 men go out, and 150 return?" ARM 2 22:28ff.

87 Cf. Starr JCS 27 (1975) 242f.

88 Cf. Parpola LAS 2, p. XVIIIf.

Ivan Starr

Ivan Starr, 'Scholars and Diviners in the Court of the Later Sargonids', Queries to the Sungod: Divination and Politics in Sargonid Assyria, SAA 4. Original publication: Helsinki, Helsinki University Press, 1990; online contents: SAAo/SAA04 Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2020 []

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