Towards A Natural Explanation Of Divination

Walter Burkert writes,

It is striking how widespread the practice of bird-watching is in divination: observation of the flight of birds, especially birds of prey, is evident in the dominant practice of ancient ornithomanteia, as well as ancient poetry. To explain how this came about one might speculate about aboriginal humans or proto-hominids being scavengers: if so, it was helpful – indeed necessary – for them to observe birds of prey, especially vultures, in order to find food. In foundation legends, the hero is often instructed to follow an animal; this seems to recall a hunter’s practice. If so, we would be able to see a shift from practical to purely symbolic and hence much more generally applicable behavior in divination, to “superstition” in the full meaning of the word.

Now I have a few problems with this, too many “ifs” strung together for one thing. To be sure, Burkert clearly labels his speculation as such. I also wonder about the range of the “full meaning” of superstition. By the way, I’m not sure that Burkert’s speculation requires that our ancestors be scavengers. Birds of prey might also direct hunters to living game. While I’m not sure how to confirm any of this, I do like the attempt at a natural explanation of the origins of divination.
Burkert might have noted the association between birds and mortality and role of eagles as the massagers of Zeus. Although I’m not sure what to make of it, one might also want to check out the vulture carving from Neolithic Göbekli Tepe.

Burkert, Walter, “Signs, Command, and Knowledge” in Mantikê: Studies in Ancient Divination (S. Johnson and P. Struck, eds; Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 155; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2005) 29-49, here 33.

6 thoughts on “Towards A Natural Explanation Of Divination”

  1. I don’t think it’s merely idle speculation to suspect that ornithomancy was built on the foundation of practicality. That’s rather the only sensible explanation. Whether based on scavenger or hunter knowledge, ornithomancy could not have spontaneously arose out of nothing.
    In fact, we should also compare the origins of astrology and haruspicy. Astrology surely stems from the original farming need to tell the time of year. What more reliable way than the stars? From this a cult developed. Similarly the notion of ripping a liver out of a sheep isn’t terribly intuitive on its face. Again, surely this stems from practical hunting practices and know-how that in turn likewise developed into a cult. Since people were already gutting and eating animals, cults developed to give added meaning to it all (perhaps even to assuage the guilt of killing an animal). These are all similar developments, aren’t they? But now I have an added thought that I have to meditate on. You might have triggered a new blog rant in me. Thank you for the inspiration.

  2. Glen,
    Looking at Mesopotamian omens, Oppenheim speculated that omens developed from a different sort of observation. He guessed that people noted the coincidence of unusual events and otherwise unrelated outcomes and over time began to systematically collect them and then supplement them often by some sort of linguistic device like punning. I rather like Berkert’s explanation better but in one sense it doesn’t explain much that is in lengthy collections like Šumma Izbu, dealing with malformed birth omens; Šumma Izbu dealing with extispicy; and Ziqīqu, dealing with dreams and everything in Šumma Ālu dealing with terrestrial events ranging from animal behavior to the shapes of oil patterns on water and even water movement itself. Something like Berkert’s explanation may, as you suggest, explain the origin of Enuma Anu Enlil, dealing with meteorological and astrological omens and some parts of Šumma Ālu. Of course, the second phase of the development under Oppenheim’s suggestion could work with bird-divination and astrological omens even under Burkert view of how these things started but I’m not so how Burkert’s suggestion holds up for things like oil patterns or even etpispicy. It’s also the case that everything need not have the same origin. I need to think about this a little more.

  3. Judith,
    You are of course correct but, in terms of origins, only if one assumes that notions of sky gods predate the advent of attempts to learn something useful from watching birds.

  4. I should have been more precise and said ‘sky powers’ rather than ‘sky gods’: Thunder, lightning, rain, sun, moon, stars, and such like observable powers. Day birds, night birds, always closer. To put it in a nutshell, “up is up.”

  5. What a great focus. I’m so late to the party here.
    Duane, dig.
    There’s some controversial work in biology focusing on questions of group-select. Against the standard individual-select. DS Wilson makes a great riff on bird flocks (see his group-select bias). And bird callers in flocks. Compared to non-caller birds. Not every bird in a flock is a caller. Callers warn the flock. The flock flees predation. The caller is at risk. The flock benefits as a group from having callers. That’s the syllogism. But the theory is profoundly difficult for fit-to-data in the maths. I’m guessing you might see why.
    Okay, that’s context.
    Here’s for you.
    Any human individual (a naturalist aesthete – prolific adept) who is especially tuned in on bird flock movement in general (flight from predators) or on bird caller behavior specifically – could easily see the oracular value of bird watching. Non-professional ornithologists (e.g., Charles Hartshorne) who love bird watching have metricized bird song behaviors into aesthetic scales: stuff like song variation, intensity, duration, novelty, and other scalars (this is a faulty summary – from old memory – use what works – just to whet your appetite). So any ancient observer tuned into tonal variations in bird song would have yet another set of behaviors to observe for predatory or other (assortative mating) natural functions. The behavioral features of birds cut across virtually all biological categories. Including mimicry for deception. There’s no end. Again, fit-of-data to maths is – well, really hard! The ancients didn’t quite have Hilbert! Yet! So maybe prose or poetry was a way of metricizing birds – metered verse?
    Or look for Euclidean-like or proto-Euclidean metrics in observations of bird behaviors. If these exist.
    I’m telling ya! Work this! Work it, own it.
    And enjoy,

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