This Paper Is For The Birds

My paper “Portentous Birds Flying West: On the Mesopotamian Origin of Homeric Bird-Divination,” (JANER 13:1 [2013], 49-85) is now out. It’s available if you’d like to see it.
Considering how long it has taken for this paper to see the light of day, I’m grateful that some life altering event like tenure did not depend on its timeliness. Still, it is great to see it out.
Here is the paper’s abstract,

Drawing on the Akkadian omen series Šumma Ālu and its predecessors, this essay argue for a Mesopotamian origin of Homeric bird-divination. Against the suggestion of Högemann and Oettinger that Greek bird-divination has its closest parallels with Hittite bird-divination, I argue that both in its function as a tool for divination and in its specific content, Homeric bird divination, if not all such ancient Greek divination, finds much closer parallels in Mesopotamian divination traditions than it does in Anatolian traditions. I suggest that the late 8th century B.C.E. and the decades before and after 1200 B.C.E. represent two periods when conditions were particularly ripe for the introduction of Mesopotamian bird-divination into the Aegean and that itinerant diviners, perhaps in the employment of armies, were the most likely conveyors of this particular form of divination.

Those abnormal readers who see the ancient world largely from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible may wonder what this has to do with our shared corner of that world. On the one hand, despite the fact that I cite the story of Noah releasing birds in a footnote, this paper has little to do with the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, in the context of the larger issue of cultural diffusion in the Ancient Near East and the eastern Mediterranean in the Iron Age (or is it in this case perhaps the Bronze Age?), I think this paper has a lot to say. If I am correct, a tradition of divination traveled from its Mesopotamian home across Syria or perhaps southern Anatolia arriving in Ionia no later than 7th century BCE and likely earlier. It is not at all difficult to image that this or similar traditions were available to the Biblical authors. But that question must wait for my paper on the snake in Genesis 3 to appear. I am in the process of consulting snakes and birds to determine just how long that will take.

2 thoughts on “This Paper Is For The Birds”

  1. I know a little about birds but far less about the ancient world.
    “…arriving in Ionia no later than 7th century BCE and likely earlier.”
    So are you of the opinion that the bird-diviners are an insertion that is contemporary with the composition of the Homeric poems (“7th century BCE”), and were not an actual element of the Trojan War landscape?
    Or does “likely earlier” cover that possibility — that the events of the Trojan War (ca. 1184 BC or whenever) that were artistically re-described in the Homeric poems did in fact include Greek bird-diviners?

  2. RJO,
    “Likely earlier” does cover quite a span of time. Actually, I’m somewhat agnostic about when these traditions came into the Homeric account. As I explain in my paper, I think there are two periods that are more likely than others. One of those periods is the Late Bronze Age; the other is c. the 7th century BCE. I do argue that the type of bird divination we see in Homer is quite different from want we know of Late Bronze Age. bird divination in (Hittite) Anatolia. It is also seemingly different than bird divination in Greek literature from the classical period (5th and 4th centuries).

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