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It has been a long time since Ferrebeekeeper presented a post about augury. Who could have foreseen this?

A wise equestrian reads the future from birds on a lack and red wine vessel from mid 5th century Greece

Seriously though, today’s post is a quick clarification about the real meaning of the term augury (particularly in relation to how we use the word here on this blog). In ancient Rome, “predicting” the future by means of charismatic quackery was a pastime of astonishing popularity. In fact the word “pastime” might not even be comprehensive enough, since serious, society-wide decisions involving battle, agriculture, politics, statecraft, and commerce were regularly made by soothsaying consultation (naturally all sorts of frivolous personal matters were decided by such means too, just as they are now). Since the Romans were so profoundly hooked on magical prediction of the future, they had a lot of different divination methodologies. The famous sibyls, like the ones at Cumae, Dodona, and Delos, were closely entwined with pantheistic cosmology and thus critical to state power. However, the internationally famous seers and oracles were hardly the only channel for divination. The classical word also featured a breathtaking suffusion of fortune-telling methodologies such as:

  • cleromancy–fortune-telling through casting of lots, stones, or dice
  • hydromancy–predicting the future based on the movement of water
  • necromancy–consulting the dead about hidden matters
  • haruspicy–divination through examination of entrails
  • geomancy–interpreting omens within rocks, mountains, or sand
  • pyromancy–seeing events to come within fire
  • stikhomanteia–reading the future through writings or books (opened at random or by number)
  • numeromancy–using numbers to predict the future
  • augury–scrying by watching the acts or appearances of birds

In contemporary English, this last word (which once was its own specialized practice) has come to mean trying to tell the future through any and all means. Most likely the future is opaque to all forms of meaningful prediction other than logical projection (if a person steps into the ocean they will soon be wet). And, despite my facile parenthetical example, reason itself is a limited tool for understanding the future (which is filled with unknowable unknowns).

Yet I have a special place for augury in my heart because, like all goodhearted people, I love birds…but also because birds base their movements and actions on meaningful stimuli in the hopes of certain outcomes. Birds have senses and sensibilities which are different than our own. Of course, in my book, such matters are best explored by the ornithologist rather than Zeus (although, according to myth, the latter explored the avian mind through direct experience and found that birds have desires similar to our own).

Most importantly, birds can teach us what the future holds, not via magic or divine influence, but by more corporeal means. Modern people do not base their decisions on whether a dove escaped a falcon or a swan attacked an eagle not because we have learned to throw off the yoke of superstitious thinking, but because we don’t often see doves, falcons, eagles, and swans. The birds are very much predicting the future–by vanishing! Unless we want to follow them to oblivion, we need to help them stay alive by curtailing our abuse of the planet.

There’s an augury for you.

“Pythia – the priestess at Delphi – making oracles at the new moon” (Emile Bayard, 1886) engraving

Here is a beautiful nineteenth century engraving which illustrates how Second Empire French artists imagined the pythia of Apollo. This image is particularly dramatic since the pythia is not only hopped up on divination fumes but is also wrestling with some rather alarming serpents (they don’t quite seem to be pythons, but I suppose when giant hissing snakes are wrapped around you, it is pointless to quibble about herpetology). Although the light falling on the pythia makes her pop out from the rest of the work to such an extent that, at first, she almost seems alone, my favorite part of the print are the interpreters/querents in the shadowy background who are pursing their lips and furrowing their brows as they try to parse out the divine meaning of the oracle’s presentation. This print was created by the master illustrator Émile Bayard who is still famous for his heart-wrenching image of Cosette from “Les Miserables.” Additionally, Bayard was one of the first-ever science fiction artists: he attempted to portray Jules Verne’s space travel novels based on scientific and natural sources (as opposed to basing heavenly imagery on myth and religion–as had been the norm up until the end of the 19th century).

Today is tax day here in America, so perhaps some readers may also feel as though they are wrestling with wrathful serpents of unnatural creation. Alternately some readers may feel that they need to ask a mystical oracle for special clarification (ed’s note: Don’t do any such thing! If you have tax-based questions, please consult a tax professional or contact the IRS). Although it has been a while since I refreshed the answers, you can always head over to The Great Flounder, to ask the piscine sage for secrets of the dark underwater depths! Good luck!

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In 1899 Wang Yirong, director of the Imperial Academy, noticed that Chinese pharmacists were selling dragon bones with strange mystical characters written on them (according to a fairly believable account, he was suffering from malaria and the ancient bones were prescribed to him as a quack remedy for his illness).   This began an investigation which ended with the discovery of an archaeological site near Anyang, just north of the Yellow River in modern Henan province.  The site is now known as Yinxu (literally “the ruins of Yin”) the capital of the Shang dynasty.  The Shang dynasty (ca.1600 to 1046 BC) was the first known Chinese dynasty to be supported by any historical or archaeological evidence (although there are stories an earlier dynasty, the Xie Dynasty, the Xie is believed to be a myth or a dream).  The City of Yin flourished from 1300 to 1046 BC.  It was a place of palaces, foundries, workshops, tombs, walls, and wonders. There are reasons to believe that, during its heyday it was the greatest city the world has thus far seen.

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We will talk more about Yinxu in later posts, but for right now let’s get back to those mysterious dragon bones or, as they are now called, “oracle bones.”  Oracle Bones were animal bones (mostly turtle shells & ox scapulaes) which were used by used by ancient Chinese shamans to predict the future. Querants would ask their questions which were then carved onto the bones.  The diviner would apply a hot metal rod to the bone which would cause it to crack apart.  Then the shaman would interpret the future through the cracks in the bone.

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The characters written on the oracle bones are the earliest known Chinese characters, and thus it is during the Shang that written history begins in China.  We have elaborate genealogies of the Shang Dynasty (and we know what sort of questions the rulers and the elite asked of their augurs).  The oracle bone script is certainly more pictographic in nature than “modern” Chinese script (which is coincidentally quite ancient) however it was already stylized and sophisticated–able to convey the full range of the Chinese language.  Considering its enormous complexity there must be earlier precursors, but they are still lost…as are too many of the precious ancient oracle bones.  Imagine how much ancient history was made into vile tasting “medicinal” broth that did nothing at all (just like the scales of the poor pangolins)!   Chinese culture is an ancient marvel, but ancient Chinese medicine is a monstrosity which needs to be stopped!

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It has been a little while since we featured a post about augury.  Here is a beautiful etching from the 18th century which shows an augur interpreting a flight of birds to the Latin King Numa Pompilius.  The etching was made by Bernhard Rode somewhere around 1768-1769.  Notice Numa Pompilius’ crown on the ground beside the king. Additionally you should take note of the augur’s lituus (a mysterious implement of prophecy which was the subject of a previous post).  I am told that the oracle found auspicious designs within the flight of the birds and greatly pleased the king.  Unfortunately I cannot interpret the future through such a fashion, however if you have questions about the future (or anything else) which require expert divination, you should head over to “The Great Flounder” and ask the magical psychic flatfish your innermost questions.

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Imagine that you are sitting in a great baroque theater filled with fashionable and cosmopolitan people from around the world.  A hush falls upon the crowd and the house lights go out, plunging you into darkness.  There is a palpable intake of breath from the audience, and then trumpets, oboes, French horns, violas, and that haunting musical saw (which is played like a violin but sounds like a warbling ghost) all launch into a dazzling overture which reminds you of the ocean.  The music deepens and becomes more ominous and yet more lovely too: it is as though you were sinking down into the briny deep to the nacreous halls of Poseidon. The spotlight shines on the shimmering blue velvet curtain which lifts and behold!

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Today, after a long development period I present the Great Flounder!  In your mind’s eye you can see the fish–a great behemoth lying on the bottom of the world ocean.  Its body is pockmarked like an ancient asteroid.  Its great fins are oddly transparent and yet occasionally they flicker to remind you the great sage is alive. Its eyes are huge glabrous pearls glistening in the watery depths—they are blank, yet they see all of the secrets of the ocean deep.   If you dared, you could ask the fish a question about the past…about the present…lo verily, about the future itself—that unknowable realm which mortals cannot kin.

Great Flounder

Or actually you don’t have to imagine this at all. Together with my friends (a team of brilliant computer programmers) and some books of forbidden lore (lure?) I have built this online oracle for you!  Now all of your questions will be answered! Now you will truly know all the secrets of the deep!*

[Timpani pound out a thunderous melody and a cymbal crashes at the crescendo!]

Of course, long-time readers will know that I am a humanist and a rational thinker, so it is possible that this great oracular fish is really a toy, like the magic eight ball, the Ouija board, or the oracle bones.  The Mermaid Parade on Saturday was the official launch (the parade was a huge success by the way).  I always liked the magical eight ball, fortune cookies, and the fortune telling machine that gives out cards, but their answers were never quite what I wanted to hear.  Instead of a bland platitude wouldn’t you prefer an enigmatic yet deep riddle of the sort one encounters in classical drama?  For a long time, I sought until I found an oracle which gives such answers.  Now you can ask all of your questions too.

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This is Great Flounder 1.0 so please, please let me know what you think in the comments below.  Perhaps, if your comment is trenchant enough, the great sagacious fish will magically change to be more like what you want! You know you want to click the link! Go on! It is destiny! [fading laughter]

*for novelty purposes only. Void where prohibited. Flounder is not affiliated with that stupid sidekick from “The Little Mermaid” or with the portly naif from “Animal House”

e4eeb04fefb451c33e4d67c16b322022.jpg Romulus and Remus, the mythological demigod twins who founded Rome were sons of the war god Mars. After being left to die, the infants were suckled by a she-wolf in a sacred cave and later raised in pastoral beauty by the shepherd Faustulus.  The twins experienced other exciting Tintin-style adventures with sundry bandits, rebels, exiled kings, grandfathers, and what-not.  Yet the part of their mythological story which is arguably of greatest interest is when the brothers decided to found the city of Rome.  Immediately the twins (who had been inseparable allies through battles, love affairs, tribal intrigues, and wolf-childhood) fell out over…urban planning.  Romulus wished to build on the Palatine Hill, (above the cave where they were reared); Remus, however, preferred the Aventine Hill.  They argued fiercely and finally decided to let the gods decide.

Messages from the gods can be also be divisive and the oracular battle between the brothers did not end their dispute.  Remus saw six birds flying above his hill and proclaimed that the gods favored the Aventine.  Romulus saw a full dozen birds over the Palantine and proclaimed that the deities wished for this hill to be the heart of their city.  The argument over the direction their society would take and what the gods were really trying to say about how the nation should be built and administered caused the brothers to fall out forever.  Soon Remus was dead (perhaps by one of Romulus’ supporters but maybe at the hands of Romulus himself) and the Palantine became the center of Rome.  Yet the dispute left its shadow and Rome was always torn between battling rulers (both hills became great, but the Palantine was always foremost).  The story is a myth, of course, but it is the Romans’ own myth about how their society came into existence.

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Thanks for bearing with me during last week when I took a much-needed break from blogging. Sadly, it does not seem like misinformation, social manipulation, distortion, and outright fabrication took a break during Ferrebeekeeper’s absence…they are more popular than ever! So I have decided to get with the program and add a new topic much in keeping with this trend. Well I say “new”, but this subject is profoundly ancient and originated before cities or even agriculture. This ancient practice has always given people exactly what they want…often to their terrible detriment. If one is looking for chicanery, mendacity, wish fulfillment, and showmanship untethered from life’s hard truths (and a cursory look at bet-sellers, infomercials, politics, and society itself indicate that a lot of people want exactly that) then here is a subject I predict will suit perfectly: I am speaking of the ancient and manipulative art of PROPHECY!
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Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884, oil on canvas)

A prophecy is a sort of supernatural prediction about what will happen in the future (or a pretense of access to some otherwise inaccessible truth). The trappings of prophecy are many—entrails, crystals, special numbers, magical talismans, star signs, geomancy, demons, ghosts, gods and goddesses, etcetera etcetera. I hardly need to tell you that empiricists have never found any statistically meaningful evidence that such things work beyond the level of general platitudes (discounting inside knowledge and deception). Yet magical predictions endure and flourish in all societies. From the rudest hunter gatherer tribe, to the greatest globe-spanning empire, this “magic” has been present. Throughout history, oracles, scryers, prophets, augers, diviners, and astrologers have proliferated like, well, like human wishes.
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So why am I writing about this? Why do we need to look again at (sigh) astronomy and “The Secret” [spits] and at the ridiculous chickens of Publius Claudius Pulcher? First of all, as Freud knew, our wishes reveal so much about us—they provide a true dark mirror where we can see who we are with terrible clarity if we have the courage to really look. If prophecy does not necessarily have empirical merit, it often possesses immense artistic value. The essential dramatic truth of literature or scripture is frequently revealed in augury. The witch of Endor, the Delphic oracle, John the Baptist, and the witches in Macbeth set the action going (while at the same time foreshadowing/explaining how things will ultimately work out).
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But beyond the artistic merit of oracular truth, augury is related to prediction—the ability to think abstractly about the future and to shape outcomes by making intelligent choices based of guesses. I said that prophecy predated cities or agriculture (a breezy claim for which I naturally have no written evidence…although there are plenty of artifacts that are probably scrying tools and enormous amounts of similar circumstantial evidence): perhaps prophecy was a necessary step on the way to those things. Without being able to imagine the future, there is no need for seed corn or brickyards. The seeds to real inquiry can often be found in fantasy inquiry. Looking back across the breadth of history we see how religion became philosophy; geomancy became geology; astrology graduated to astonomy; even psychics and physicists have something in common. So follow along in this new topic. I confidently predict you will be surprised and delighted (and even if I am wrong we will at least have learned something).
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Let’s talk about the First Punic War, the great contest for the Mediterranean between Rome and Carthage with rulership of the known world as the prize.   The Punic war was a battle between a lion and a whale—the Romans were peerless at fighting on land, whereas the Carthaginians had unrivaled skill as sailors.  To win the war, the Romans had to learn to sail, and they spent enormous sums of money building a fleet. Unfortunately, having a fleet is not the same as knowing how to sail and, in 255 BC, after an unsuccesful invasion of Africa, the whole war fleet was sent to the bottom by an enormous storm (along with the 90,000 sailors and soldiers aboard).  This was a disheartening setback, but the Romans weren’t going to give in so easily: they built a second fleet and placed it under the command of Publius Claudius Pulcher.

Pulcher decided to launch a sneak attack on the Carthaginian fleet which was at anchor in the harbor of Drepana.  He had the element of surprise on his side, but he also had a problem—chickens!

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The Romans were great believers in reading auspices before battles.  The most important of these auspices came from the sacred chickens which were kept aboard the fleet flagship.  If the sacred chickens ate their grain on the morning of combat, the day would be a martial success.  On the morning in 249 BC when Pulcher was moving his ships into position to sweep unexpectedly into Drepana the chickens were decidedly not peckish. To the frustration of Pulcher (and to the superstitious horror of the crews of his 120 quinqueremes), the chickens refused to eat anything at all.  Pulchher’s augurs suggested he abort the battle.

But Pulcher was not about to let some poultry ruin his chance for everlasting glory.  He took fate in hand and he took the chickens in hand too…and then he threw them overboard.  “If they will not eat, let them drink!” he said.  The sacred chickens drowned and Pulcher’s fleet proceeded to take the Carthaginians unaware…except the Carthaginians were not unaware.  They were expecting something and they weighed anchor in record time and escaped the harbor.  Pulcher ordered his fleet into battle formation, but the Carthaginian navy of 100 boats was better at maneuvering, and the sharp rocks of Sicily were behind him.  By the end of the day, the Romans lost 93 of their 120 ships.  The Carthaginians did not lose a single ship in the Battle of Drepana.  Forty thousand Romans perished. It is one of history’s most lopsided naval disasters.

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Pulcher survived the battle, but maybe he should have followed the chickens into the waves.  The Roman senate convicted him of blasphemy and sentenced him to exile.  Thus ended his political and military career.   The terrible losses at Drepana broke Roman naval morale utterly, and for seven years they stayed ashore, arguing about whether it was even worth it to rule the world.  But of course, in the end, the Romans were not quitters and they built a third fleet.  I guess the lesson of this story of ancient naval battle is to never give up.  However pantheists (or chicken lovers) might draw different conclusions.

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I apologize: I got sort of a late jump on writing my blog post today (it is already 2:00 AM tomorrow), so it is going to be predominantly visual…but that’s ok.  Explaining this business wouldn’t help anyway.  These are “magical” prophetic teacups.  Apparently as the querant (?) drinks his or her tea (or whatever mystical brew they favor) bits are left by atop the various symbols.  Gifted diviners (snicker) can use these portents to peer into the murky future.

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I’m, uh, not so sure about all of that, but the cups are beautiful in their own right and I really can’t stop looking at all the magnificent little animals and daggers and what have you.  Somebody should make a contemporary version…or, then again, maybe not…it would probably be little robots and carbon atoms and mushroom clouds and corporate brands.  Better to stick with snakes and spinning wheels.

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Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Here is an interesting and horrifying flower!  This is henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) which also goes by the name “stinking nightshade.”  It is one of the noteworthy poisons of classical antiquity.  Henbane is a member of the Solanaceae family—the nightshades—one of the most important of all plant families to humankind.  The Solanaceae family includes eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, but also nightshade, datura, and tobacco!

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane too is rich in psychoactive alkaloids.  Small doses result in dilated pupils, restlessness, flushed skin, and hallucinations.  Other symptoms of henbane poisoning include a racing heart, vomiting, extreme body temperature fluctuations, the inability to control one’s muscles, convulsions, coma, and, uh, death, so it’s probably well to steer clear of eating (or touching or taunting) this particular plant.  The ancient Greeks and Romans did not read my blog, so they sometimes ingested henbane.  In particular, Pliny documented its use by fortunetellers. The priestesses of Apollo would take the plant in order that they might fall into a hallucinogenic trance and then pronounce auguries. It should be noted that priestesses of Apollo tended not to last too well.  Henbane also had associations with the world hereafter, and dead souls wandering the margins of the underworld were said to wear henbane laurels.

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Henbane originated in southern Europe and western Asia, but classical civilization spread it widely across all of Europe (from whence it traveled to the rest of the world). Incompetent medieval pharmacists used it as an anesthetic and for other sundry “medicinal” uses.  It was also popular with poisoners (scholars think it is the most likely candidate to be “hebenon” the poison from Hamlet) and was the means of death for many murders even into contemporary times.  It also has a sad place in the witch panics that affected Europe during the dark ages and the early modern era.  Witches were said to use it in their potions.  Domestic animals would also sometimes eat it accidentally and run wild or perish. Thus witch-hunters would look for the plant and use it as evidence in their trials (although it grows wild as a weed).  Also, because of its powerful psychoactive properties, henbane could well give a user the impression of flying and of various supernatural happenings.

Witches' Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

Witches’ Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

On a more mundane level, brewers used henbane to flavor beer until this was recognized as a bad idea (which occurred much later than you might hope) and it was universally replaced with hops.  Evidence of henbane’s use as a flavoring agent for beer goes all the way back to the Neolithic era.  There is clearly evidence that henbane does something for (to?) humans, but there is even clearer evidence that it is tremendously dangerous and toxic.  Maybe it’s best to appreciate this ancient plant through reading about it and looking at pictures of the strange weedy flowers.

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