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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Reading the Flights of Birds as I’m Reading the Classics

I am enjoying my readings in the classics of western civilization, and especially in finding material that connects between the various books, and to the book that has been the focus of much of my study – the Bible.  So far this year I have read The Iliad, The Odyssey by the Greek poet Homer (maybe…), and I am currently working my way through The Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil.  Next in the list is Civil War (also known as Pharsalia) by Lucan – though I may make a short detour to read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra as it relates somewhat to Lucan’s material, and is structured somewhat on the relationship between Aeneas and Dido in The Aeneid.

One of the things that I’ve notice in all three books so far is the use of Ornithomancy – that is, reading the flight of birds to divine the future.  Ornithomancy is the Greek word; in Latin this was known as augury.  The word was initially used specifically for the interpretation of bird flights, but over time became applied to divination in general.  Augury is the root for our English word “inaugural.”  Roman priests (called augurs) would observe the flights of birds in order to predict whether or not a new leader would have a good or a bad year

In The Iliad Polydamas encourages the Trojan warriors to not attack the Greek ships:

Seek not this day the Grecian ships to gain;
For sure, to warn us, Jove his omen sent,
And thus my mind explains its clear event:
The victor eagle, whose sinister flight
Retards our host, and fills our hearts with fright,
Dismiss’d his conquest in the middle skies,
Allow’d to seize, but not possess the prize;
Thus, though we gird with fires the Grecian fleet,
Though these proud bulwarks tumble at our feet,
Toils unforeseen, and fiercer, are decreed;
More woes shall follow, and more heroes bleed.
So bodes my soul, and bids me thus advise;
For thus a skillful seer would read the skies.
(7. 255 – 266)

But Hector, Prince of Troy wasn’t so impressed by Polydamas’ reading:

The leading sign, the irrevocable nod,
And happy thunders of the favoring god,
These shall I slight, and guide my wavering mind
by wandering birds that flit with every wind?
Ye vagrants of the sky! your wings extend,
Or where the suns arise, or where descend;
To right, to left, unheeded take your way,
While I the dictates of high heaven obey.
Without a sign his sword the brave man draws,
and asks no omen but his country’s cause.
(7. 275 – 284)

The reading of the flights of birds occurs also in The Odyssey:

Now Zeus who views the wide world, sent a sign to him,
launching a pair of eagles from a mountain crest
in gliding flight down the soft blowing wind,
wing-tip to wing-tip quivering taut, companions,
till high above the assembly of many voices
they wheeled , their dense wings beating, and in havoc
dropped on the heads of the crowd – a deathly omen -
wielding their talons, tearing cheeks and throats;
then veered away on the right hand through the city.
Astonished, gaping after the birds, the men
felt their hearts flood, foreboding things to come.
And now they heard the old lord Halitheres,
son of Mastor, keenest among the old
at reading birdflight into accurate speech;
in his anxiety for them, he rose and said:

“Hear me, Ithacans! Hear what I have to say,
and may I hope to open the suitor’s eyes
to the black wave towering over them. Odysseus
will not be absent from his family long…
I am old enough to know a sign when I see one”
(2. 153 – 171, 177)

The suitors probably should have listened to Halitheres…

Augury also appears in The Aeneid where the goddess Venus (disguised as a young Spartan girl) tells her recently shipwrecked son, Aeneus:

I have good news. Your friends are restored to you,
your fleet’s reclaimed.  The winds swerved from the North
and drove them safe to port.  True, unless my parents
taught me to read the flight of birds for nothing.
Look at those dozen swans triumphant in formation!
the eagle of Jove had just swooped down on them all
from heaven’s heights and scattere3d them into open sky,
but now you can see them flying trim in their long ranks,
landing or looking down where their friends have landed -
home, cavorting on ruffling wings and wheeling round
the sky in convoy, trumpeting in their glory.
So homeward bound, your ships and hardy shipmates
anchor in port now or approach the harbor’s mouth,
full sail ahead.  Now off you go, move on,
wherever the path leads you, steer your steps.
(2. 473 -487)

Moving closer to the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, we find that the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, makes mention of Ornithomancy in his book The Antiquities of the Jews:
Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea he came to the city Caesarea, which was formerly called Strato's Tower; and there he exhibited spectacles in honor of Caesar, for whose well-being he'd been informed that a certain festival was being celebrated. At this festival a great number were gathered together of the principal persons of dignity of his province. On the second day of the spectacles he put on a garment made wholly of silver, of a truly wonderful texture, and came into the theater early in the morning. There the silver of his garment, being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun's rays, shone out in a wonderful manner, and was so resplendent as to spread awe over those that looked intently upon him. Presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good) that he was a god; and they added, "Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature." Upon this the king neither rebuked them nor rejected their impious flattery. But he shortly afterward looked up and saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, just as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow.  (Antiquities 19.8.2 343-361)
Though several translations of the Bible use the word “augury” in passages about divination, it is usually in the more generalized sense, and not specifically about Ornithomancy.  There are a couple of references, however, that seem to be specifically about reading the flight of birds as omens of the future.

Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts,
or curse the rich, even in your bedroom;
for a bird of the air may carry your voice,
or some winged creature tell the matter.
(Ecclesiastes 10: 20)

And the Greek Septuagint translation of Leviticus 19: 26  reads,“Eat not on the mountains, nor shall ye employ auguries, nor divine by inspection of birds.”

Augury or Ornithomancy was practiced all across the ancient world – from Rome to Babylon, and it shouldn’t surprise us that it shows up, at least a little bit, in the bible.

In addition to Ornithomancy, the bible refers to the obscure practice of Lecanomancy - which is divination by reading patterns observed in oil floating on the surface of water in a bowl or dish.  Joseph seems to have used this form of divination. (Genesis 44: 4, 15)  And King Nebuchadnezzar used Belomancy - divination using arrows to predict the future. (Ezekiel 21: 21)

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