In preparation for a mid-summer excursion Shirley and I are reading Herodotus. She’s quite a bit ahead of me. Last night she pointed out the following from 7:57:1-2.
When all had passed over and were ready for the road, a great portent appeared among them. Xerxes took no account of it, although it was easy to interpret: a mare gave birth to a hare. The meaning of it was easy to guess: Xerxes was to march his army to Hellas with great pomp and pride, but to come back to the same place fleeing for his life.
There was another portent that was shown to him at Sardis: a mule gave birth to a mule that had double genitals, both male and female, the male above the other. But he took no account of either sign and journeyed onward; the land army was with him.
Since I’ve read Herodotus before I should have known these omens but when she told me about them they seemed like new information.
Both have somewhat distant parallels in the Akkadian omen series Šumma Izbu. Šumma Izbu, which means “If malformed offspring,” deals the ominous portents of animal and human birth defects – fetomancy.
There are many omens in Šumma Izbu that have the form, “If a women/ewe/cow/mare/pig/dog/gazelle/gives birth to a lion/badger/dog/otter/fox/monkey/gazelle/ibex/cow/wild bull/calf/bear, then . . .” Not all combinations are extant and as far as I can tell none of them involve giving birth to a hare. Not all portents are negative. Herodotus applies a rather Greek hermeneutic to his omen of a mare giving birth to a hare. So, it is possible that Herodotus or his source might well have found the thought of a mare giving birth to a hare more analogous to Xerxes’ fate than what some precursor omen or omen tradition provided them.
Again, Šumma Izbu parallels with Herodotus’ second omen are no more than suggestive. In tablet 3:70 we read, “If a woman gives birth and (the child) has both a penis and a vulva – the land will experience unhappiness; a pregnant woman together with her unborn child will die. In tablet 7:142’ we read, “VII 142’ If an anomaly has two tails, a penis and a vulva – the lady [. . .].” And in tablet 24:34’ we read, “If a dog has both a penis and a vulva – that land will expand.” Note the positive portent in this last example. I follow Leighty’s translations.
Because all these parallels are no more than suggestive it might be wise to dismiss them as coincidence. But there is another omen in Herodotus, one that I have discussed before, that is almost certainly of Mesopotamian, indeed Akkadian, origin – Astyages dream of his daughter passing enough water “to fill his city and overflow all Asia. [1:107-108].” I think Oppenheim was the first to note this parallel with dreams involving urination in omen series dZiqīqu, The Assyrian Dream Book.
The other thing of note is that there are two omens, one confirming the other, in Herodotus’ account. As several scholars have pointed out, confirming omens are found in both Mesopotamian and Hittite traditions. See, for example, Anne Marie Kitz and, perhaps more salient to this discussion, Oppenheim’s “A Babylonian Diviner’s Manual.” To be sure Oppenheim’s text deals with omens from different realms confirming each other (terrestrial and celestial omens for example) while Herodotus’s omens are from the same realm – birth defects. But Kitz’ examples are from the same realm – lot like things. I don’t know how common the application of confirming omens are in other traditions. I guess, I should look into this.
There are a large number of problems that face anyone seeking to make connections between things Akkadian and things Greek. This is particularly true when it comes to divination. Among those problems is the question of mediation. Assuming we are dealing with a historical process as opposed to some psychological phenomenon or pure coincidence, one can think of several mediation vectors. The Persians themselves come first to mind but close behind them are the various late iron age Anatolian peoples.
Leichty, Erle, The Omen Series Šumma Izbu (Texts from Cuneiform Sources, 4; Locust Valley, N.Y., J.J. Augustin, 1970).
Oppenheim, A. Leo, “The interpretation of dreams in the ancient Near East, with a translation of an Assyrian dream-book”, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Volume 46:3; (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1956) 179-373
Oppenheim, A. Leo, “A Babylonian Diviner’s Manual,” JNES 33:2 (Arp. 1974), 197-220