I talked a lot last year about having an idea for something new to bring to the blog, and I never actually followed through on it (like a lot of things in 2018 sadly). I thought for this series I could “explore” a subject that is interesting to me, write about it, and write about why I am interested in it. I am not sure how frequently I will do these posts, but I do hope they are somewhat regular. I am also open to suggestions for ideas for topics that you might like to read about (and as always am happy to read your comments). I recently did some reading on Haruspicy, and I thought that it would be interesting to do my first of the exploring series on that.
A haruspex was a person (almost always women) trained to divine by using the entrails and bones of sacrificed animals. An animal would be ritually slaughtered, and the haruspex would examine various organs with the most focus on the liver and gall bladder. Lambs were the most commonly used, though different animals were used in the practice depending on what the diviners were trying to predict. Discoloration, spots, and other things were read and then interpreted by the haruspex. Like other forms of divining a haruspex also needed to make sure what they were seeing was interpreted correctly and applied to what knowledge someone might seek. Part of what makes the practice of haruspicy so fascinating to me is that a haruspex could not merely learn what a specific spot meant, they had to be able to determine the details of the organs for a variety of animals. A spot on a lamb’s liver might be natural while a similar spot on a different would be something else entirely. It was an involved study with lengthy texts.
Haruspicy was a practice of the Etruscan religion from the 7th century. During the 4th century most of the Etruscan civilization, like many others, assimilated with the Roman empire. This assimilation did not kill off all of the Etruscan religion, and in fact, even Haruspicy survived. There was a shift in the practice, however. Before the influence of Roman haruspex were important but not overly so. Each tribe chose their own, and it was not believed that they had strong religious authority, instead that they were merely interpreters of the will of the gods.
After assimilation with Rome Haruspicy was looked on with greater significance. For the first time a collegium was formed, and it roughly numbered 60 haruspices at all times. At one point the Senate even decreed that at all times there was to be a number of young people trained in the art. They were sought out not only by political leaders but also private citizens.
The art did start to fall out of popularity as more Romans became educated, though later political leaders would try to bring it back with varying degrees of success.
Aside from the Etruscan religion, Babylonians were also known for this practice. As well as in the Hittite religion, though most of my reading was related to haruspicy and Rome.
The art is largely considered, if not dead, nearly so, though mostly due to the means that predictions were made. Most people do not have access to freshly killed animals, thus making it hard to keep the practice of divining based on their organs alive. Some compare oomancy, which is the practice of using eggs for divining, a close modern version.
So what interested me about this subject? Well, I have always had a fascination with old mythology and religions, although I am not as well studied at as I would like to be. As a child, I became fascinated with Greek Mythology, and it grew from there. I had never heard much about Haruspicy, primarily due to my lack of knowledge of the Etruscan religion. While parts were assimilated into Roman Mythology, it is not something I had read about on its own nor knew much about in the context of Rome.
I specifically got interested in Haruspicy partly because I am a bit morbid, and partly because divination is interesting to me. There are so many different varieties, most of which have a rich and deep history. Studying the art of one form or another is a significant commitment and in ancient times a lifetime devotion. To be a haruspex seemed especially interesting because as said it was more than just studying the interpretation of one thing, but knowing the difference between what spots might mean on a lamb’s liver vs. a cow’s. It was rather involved with one of the books used being rather large. The idea that people studied the animals and then how different spots could be interpreted is something I find rather cool. Also, the liver models from various people’s that have practiced this over the years are rather appealing.
All in all, it’s something I am still not all that well versed on but would like to learn more about in the broader sense of the Etruscan religion, its role in Roman mythology, and more specifically Haruspicy. I am also rather curious to read more about different forms of divining throughout history and how they rose, fell out of popularity, or if they are even still practiced today.
I hope you enjoyed this blog piece, the next one likely won’t have the intro/outro to the broader idea of the Exploring series. Hopefully, people will enjoy them as I think it would be fun to research different topics as well as flex my writing skills. I hope in the future to be a bit more involved with them, but I wanted to get the series started. The following is the sites I used while writing this, as well as some others on the topic that I used less but have a decent amount of information.