It’s Not Just About The Future

The Akkadian tablet K. 4730 + Sm 1816, commonly called “The Sin of Sargon,” is one of the strangest compositions I know of. The beginning and end are now lost but after a brief introduction the text features a speech of Sennacherib to himself. This is followed by a first person report of extispicies and then a report, also in the first person, of the erection of a statue of Aššur and a planned, but aborted, statue of Marduk. The text as we have it ends with instructions from Sennacherib to reconcile the gods of Babylonia with the gods of Assyria (“your gods”). The whole thing represents an attempt to get right with both the gods of Assyria and the gods of Babylonia.
Parpola, 47, and Weaver, 64, both date the text to the later years of the reign of Esarhaddon, Sennacherib’s youngest son. There is much of interest in this text and I may take up Weaver’s abnormally interesting interpretation in a future post. But for now, I want to focus on one aspect of the text, the speech of Sennacherib to himself. This section goes from line ‘10 to line ’13. The section begins,
īu ša mšarrukīnu abija bīr[i lubre-ma . . .]
Let (me [Sennacherib] examine) the sin of Sargon, my father, by divination.
Here’s the whole section in Tadmor’s translation (he is a little less literal than I am),

[Let me investigate] by means of expispicy the sin of Sargon, my father; let me then find out [the circumstances], le[arn the . . . .]; [let me make] the sin he committed against the god an abom[ination to myself], and with the god’s help let me save myself.

Sennacherib is interested in how he can avoid the fate of this father who died on campaign and who “was not interred in his house” (‘9). He needs to know what it was that Sargon did or didn’t do to cause this fate. So Sennacherib decides to determine where his father went wrong by divination.
Notice that in the case of this section of the text and that which immediately follows it, Sennacherib uses divination, extispicy, to determine something about the past not the future. I also know of other cases of divination, at least in Mesopotamia, where the temporal context is the present rather than the future. While the future is the most common temporal reference, time frame can not really be part of a meaningful definition of Mesopotamian divination (all divination?). Divination could do more than predict the future.
Other than its intrinsic interest, the reason I am thinking about this is that I am trying to decide on a definition of divination for paper I’m drafting. In my last two formal essays involving divination I was a little sloppy on this point. The exact nature of divination had little to do with my arguments. But I don’t think I can get away with definitional sloppiness in the case of this new essay. Am I approaching this task of defining divination via negativa? Yep, in part.
(In case you are worried, the reconstruction of line ‘10 is relatively secure. Bīru, “divination,” and barû, “to look upon, inspect,” are commonly used formulaically together in such contexts and other, readable, verbs in the section are in the precative. This, along with three other rather certain signs from the next clause, fits well into the broken remainder of the line on the tablet).

Livingstone, Alasdair, ed., Court Poetry and Literary Miscellanea, State Archives of Assyria, III (Robert M. Whiting ed.; Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1989) #33, 77-79.
Tadmor, Hayim, Benno Landsberger and Simo Parpola, “The Sin of Sargon and Sennacherib’s Last Will,” State Archives of Assyria Bulletin 3/1 (1989) 3-51.
Weaver, Ann M., “The ‘Sin of Sargon’ and Esarhaddon’s Reconception of Sennacherib: A Study in Divine Will, Human Politics and Royal Ideology,” Iraq, 66/1 (2004), 61-66