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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.

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