So last week I was thinking about phrenology, and today I’m thinking about haruspicy. Last night I was reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s lovely collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth. In the final story one of the characters is studying the Etruscans, who practiced haruspicy, a sort of fortune telling that involved the entrails of sacred animals.
A little research uncovers that this practice goes back to the Babylonians. At the time the liver was believed to be the source of life, the source of blood, so examining the liver of a scared sheep, for example, was believed to provide insight into the will of the gods. The augury was conducted as close to the moment between life and death as possible – classical references have stated the organ was “quivering.” In Mesopotamia the baru, or augur priest, would ask a prearranged question prior to performing the ceremony. In that respect, the act truly was like tarot cards or tea leaves, just a little more bloody.
So why a sheep? Archaeologists at Stanford postulate that sheep were smaller and less expensive than cattle, making for an easier-on-the-pocketbook sacrifice. They also point out that a sheep’s liver is small (smaller than a cow’s, anyway) and easily accessible, and very smooth, which makes any oddness stand out.
The Etruscans continued the practice, though for them the organ was divided up into sections, only this time each area represented a specific deity. A mark on a particular area of the liver could mean good or bad depending in which god’s territory the blemish resided.
Roman haruspicy was alive and kicking well into the time of Christianity. Emperor Claudius even founded a college dedicated to the study. When the Goths threatened Rome in 408, Pope Innocent 1 was in on the fortune telling – as long as it wasn’t publicized.