In Ancient Mesopotamia, omens were of importance for the lives of kings as well as of common people. It was believed that the gods send messages announcing future events. These messages or "signs," as they were called, could come from very different sources. One looked for them in everyday events like the behavior of animals, or in the entrails of sacrificed sheep, or in the sky, be it the weather or the movements of the stars and planets. If a remarkable event occurred shortly after such a sign, people assumed a connection between them: the sign had been sent to announce the event that followed it. Whenever the same sign occurred again, it was thought to predict the same event once more. From the early OB period on we have documents which record signs together with the events announced by them. As time went on, the signs and their consequences were collected and organized in a systematic fashion. Finally, "handbooks" on clay tablets were compiled so that one could look up a sign which had been observed and find what it predicted. The events predicted were frequently considered of importance for the king and the whole country, although omens could concern private persons too.

There were two types of signs: those simply occurring without any human action involved, and those provoked by the diviners in order to find an answer to a specific question. The latter mostly used the entrails of sacrificed sheep to find signs (extispicy); but there are also omens based on the shapes of smoke rising from an incense burner or of oil poured on water. The reports and queries of the extispicy experts (bārû) at the royal court in Nineveh have been edited recently by I. Starr (in SAA 4), and I refer the reader to his book for further information on this branch of omens.

Like other types of omens, celestial omens came to be organized into a systematic collection. It is called Enūma Anu Enlil from its incipit.[[1]] It contained thousands of such omens, all in the pattern "If A occurred (in the sky), then B will happen (on earth)." The signs are derived from the moon, the sun, the planets and stars, and the weather, in this order. The collection Enūma Anu Enlil is only partially preserved.[[2]] It had found a more or less final form by the 7th century B.C.[[3]]

It is an important aspect of Babylonian omens that the events announced by signs were not considered inevitable fate. Once an imminent danger was recognized one could try to avert it by offering sacrifices to the god whose anger was the cause of the approaching evil and by performing certain rituals. This topic is frequently found in letters of omen experts to the Assyrian king.[[4]] They first had to establish whether a given sign did actually announce danger for the king, and then propose actions appropriate to prevent the danger. These actions of course needed the approval of the king.

lt has been stated frequently that celestial divination gained importance only relatively late;[[5]] in earlier times extispicy was clearly dominant. However this statement needs to be qualified: there is an essential difference between the two. Extispicy can be performed whenever it is needed; for omens from the sky one has to wait until the gods send them. Even then, a sign in the sky may permit several interpretations; extispicy can then be conveniently used to decide among them. There is an example of such a case already from OB Mari.[[6]] In the time of Sargon II we have a passage in his letter to the god Aššur about his eighth campaign where a celestial omen is checked and confirmed by means of extispicy.[[7]]

As far as we know, more extispicy was put into writing in early periods than celestial divination; however, Old Babylonian eclipse omens have been preserved.[[8]]

1 For sources. see HKL III 91; much of it is published in ACh; some material concerning stars and planets was edited by E. Reiner and D. Pingree in BPO 1 and 2; the lunar eclipse omens were edited by F. Rochberg-Halton in ABCD; many more sources are still unpublished.

2 For an overview see E. Weidner, "Die astrologische Serie Enuma Anu Enlil," AfO 14 (1941/44) 172ff and 308ff, AfO 17 (1954/6) 71ff, AfO 22 (1968/9) 65ff; see also Rochberg-Halton. ABCD p. 8ff.

3 Cf. Weidner, AfO 14 181 for divergent recensions.

4 Edited in Parpola, LAS.

5 E.g. W. von Soden. Einführung in die Altorientalistik, p. 149; A. L. Oppenheim, Centaurus 14 (1969) 124f.

6 G. Dossin. CRRAI 2, 46-48: see now J.-M. Durand in ARM 26/1 no. 81 and p. 485ff.

7 See SAA 4 p. xxxii for references.

8 See F. Rochberg-Halton, ABCD 19ff.

Hermann Hunger

Hermann Hunger, 'Introduction', Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings, SAA 8. Original publication: Helsinki, Helsinki University Press, 1992; online contents: SAAo/SAA08 Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2020 []

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SAAo/SAA08, 2014-. Since 2015, SAAo is based at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Historisches Seminar (LMU Munich, History Department) - Alexander von Humboldt Chair for Ancient History of the Near and Middle East.. Content released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 [] license, 2007-20.
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