Go West, Young Mantis

Hepatoscopy in Greece and Rome (The continuity of magic from East to West, Part 2B)

The very fact that our words for reading omens from the innards, and specifically the livers of sacrificed sheep, are Greek and Latin attests, if nothing else, that these cultures had some familiarity with the practice. The fact that we have two pairs of such terms seems nearly excessive, especially as there is only the barest nuance separating their meanings. I’ve noted haruspex was the Latin term for the priest-practitioner, while in Ancient Greece it was a μάντις (mantis), whence of course the insect (thus “praying mantis” is pleonastic) but also all the -mancies (via the verbal form, μαντεία).

That the art was widespread is clear, even though the serious ick factor of fishing around in a pile of steaming viscera to learn the will of the gods is pretty large, especially given the generally high esteem in the West for these mother cultures, leading to a downplaying if not full-on expungement of the gory details. Historian and archaeologist Sir William Reginald Halliday writing near the turn of the last century certainly fit this pattern saying:¹

To attempt to classify or to enumerate exhaustively [divination as a part of animal sacrifice’s] almost unlimited possibilities of variation is a difficult and unprofitable task. Of the most important of them, however, extispication or the examination of entrails, something must be said. Into great detail or the discussion of technicalities it will fortunately be unnecessary to go.

Nonetheless, as a more recent scholar, Derek Collins, notes of the centrality of these rites that Halliday begrudges discussing:²

Next to the Delphic oracle, the most important form of divination in classical Greece was extispicy.

Indeed the importance of the rite can be gauged by the fact that it was also part of the preparation for a consultation with that oracle. Additionally, just as in the Ezekiel passage about Nabû-kudurri-usur I quoted in Part 2A, divination was most commonly performed before and during military campaigns where it was termed in Greek τα σφάγια (tà sphágia), governing weighty issues such as when to begin a march, who was to command, etc.

Halliday also notes that some form of extispicy has sprung up among many far-flung peoples, trying again to downplay these rites within Greek culture as well as to cast doubt as to their origin. But there is neither Greek literature nor iconography, let alone physical evidence, to support such an origin of the practice prior to 700 BC when it appears in the final version of the Homeric epics while older strata are devoid of such mentions. Art begins to present seers examining the liver from about 530 BC and not until following the Persian Wars (499–449 BC) does literature feature it as the dominant form of divination. Again, let’s recall that in 700 BC, we’re only 100 years past the Greek Dark Age, and that date is important for another reason as we’ll see later.

Halliday manages to hold his nose long enough to discuss the origins while still attempting to downplay it, by terming it a “sub-rite”:³

The Greeks themselves assigned the origin of extispication as of augury to mythical figures, to Delphos son of Poseidon, to Prometheus, to Sisyphos or Orpheus; and among the peoples supposed by antiquity to have invented the art are Etruscans, Egyptians, Cyprians, Cilicians, or Chaldeans.

The abovementioned Titan as the source of the art figures in Prometheus Bound as one of the gifts given to the mortals along with fire, which again reinforces its importance:⁴

[] σπλάγχνων τε λειότητα, καί χροιν τίνα
ἔχουσ᾽ ἂν εἴη δαίμοσιν προς ἡδονην
χολή, λοβοῦ τε ποικίλην εὐμορφίαν.

[…] the smoothness of animal entrails, what color the gallbladder must have to please the gods, and the dappled symmetry of the liver lobe.

Herodotus’ supposedly historical claim that extispicy originated in Egypt and moved thence to Greece has been fully debunked by modern archaeology as there is no attestation in Egypt prior to the Hellenistic period. As to the tradition pointing to Cilicia and Cyprus, the priest clan of the Tamiradae at Paphos claimed to have brought the art with them from Cilicia, and to have passed it on to the Cinyradae. This last term refers to the chief priests there, who were actually of Phoenician rather than Greek origin, and so ultimately trace back to the source I’ve suggested. Collins concludes:⁵

[E]xtispicy originated in Mesopotamia among Babylonians and Assyrians, from where it moved west to the Hittites in Asia Minor and from there to Greece.

So despite some confusion remaining in Halliday’s work near the turn of the last century as to where Graeco-Roman augury came from, Collins delivers the above statement as being “commonly accepted” as of a decade ago. Furthermore, many of the same terms of art are used in the East and West, with many of those in Ancient Greek appearing to be direct translations from Akkadian, referring to features of the liver such as the “gate”, “head”, “path”, and “river”.

Turning to Rome, the practice enjoyed similar ubiquity such that in the late Republican era (44 BC), Cicero wrote:⁶

extis enim omnes fere utuntur
nearly everyone uses entrails in divination

Indeed while in the Mesopotamian practice sheep were mainly used, though oxen and goats also sometimes provided the wiggly material, in the West the practice was extended to sacred chickens, and even the guts of frogs and dogs could be consulted on occasion.

As to Latin literature, Vergil mentions a famous seer, Asilas:⁷

[…] ille hominum divomque interpres Asilas,
cui pecudum fibrae, caeli cui sidera parent
et linguae volucrum et praesagi fulminis ignes […].

[…] Asilas, interpreter between gods and men, whom the victims’ entrails obey, and the stars of heaven, the tongues of birds, and prophetic lightning fires […].

He’s talking about the Etruscans, whose Disciplina Etrusca contains exactly these things: haruspicy as well as divination via the stars (astrologia), interpretation of bird cries (linguae volucrum), and lightning (fulguratura). Note that the Etruscan language and literature are largely lost, and now known only though Latin sources, just as with the above terms, though the term 𐌔𐌉𐌅𐌔𐌕𐌄𐌍 (nets’wis) is generally agreed to be the equivalent of haruspex. Etruscan, Hellenistic, and Roman archaeology specialist Nancy de Grummond notes:⁸

Etruscan ritual […] was informed by a constant preoccupation with fate and destiny, and centered on attempts to learn the will of the gods and somehow to affect their decisions and thus the outcome of human affairs. The well-known Etruscan science of haruspication, involving the scrutiny and interpretation of the entrails of a sacrificial animal, epitomizes Etruscan praxis […].

Sounding familiar? Now we can return to the liver model from Piacenza about which I’ll come clean: I’ve misled you slightly. While it is in fact “relating to the Roman culture” as I said, it’s actually Etruscan, as that was the dominant culture on the Italic peninsula during Rome’s formative years and therefore a huge cultural donor—the Greek influence was to come later. What struck me about the liver models naturally did not escape the notice of scholars:⁹

The correspondence between Etruscan and Assyrian hepatoscopy became evident as soon as the Etruscan bronze liver found at Piacenza was compared with the Assyrian clay model of a liver in the British Museum […].

And as in the Near East, this liver model isn’t unique in the Etruscan world—there are others in both bronze and terracotta, the Piacenza Liver is just an excellent example, which is unique in that it also attempts to relate the liver and the sky. I’ve also sneakily held back a bit of Collins’ tracing of the art from East to West:¹⁰

In the case of liver divination, the only exception to [the] pattern is that some of the technical information concerning the manufacture of model livers for instruction seems to have bypassed the Greek mainland and flowed by way of Lydia to Etruria.

However it seems he’s actually gotten it wrong. Remember when I said that the date of 700 BC when hepatoscopy entered Ancient Greek literature was important? It corresponds exactly to the Orientalizing period of Etruscan history:¹¹

[T]he internal tradition of the Etruscan disciplinae goes back to the seventh century […]—that is, to precisely that period whose glory is reflected in so many oriental imports.

That is to say that Collins should have cast a still wider net as it seems the entire art bypassed Greece, caught on in Etruria, and then doubled back from there. Indeed the exonym for the Etruscans that the Greeks invented and that we still use a form of—Tusci—may derive from θυοσκόος (thyoskoos), “sacrifice-diviner”. The Etruscans’ name for themselves was 𐌀𐌍𐌔𐌀𐌓 (rasna), which just means “people” as many autonyms do.

The source I’m quoting above, The Orientalizing Revolution, backs up at least this aspect of my hypothesis that much of Western magic stems from the Near East and I plan to read it further to see what else it reveals. The final verdict reached on this topic in the book is this:¹²

[T]o build a system specifically on the slaughter of sheep, to manufacture demonstration models of sheep livers from clay and metal and to provide them with inscriptions for the sake of explanation, is something peculiar found precisely along the corridor from the Euphrates via Syria and Cyprus to Etruria. It can even be shown that both the Assyrian and the Etruscan models diverge from nature in a similar way; that is, they are derived not directly from observation but from common traditional lore.

And, at least in Rome, the art continued to be Etruscan long after their hegemony of the area had elapsed; the art was passed from father to son. Thus when the Romans refer to haruspices they essentially mean this group of Etruscan specialists who continued to officiate in Rome.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 3A: Coda Etrusca

Part 3B: Devoted More Than All Others

Part 4A: Romancing the Hellenes

Part 4B: Chthonian Connection

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Griffin and the Phoenix

Part 2A: Hark, a Haruspex!


  1. W. R. Halliday, Greek Divination: A Study of its Methods and Principles, 1913.
  2. Derek Collins, “Mapping the Entrails: The Practice of Greek Hepatoscopy”, The American Journal of Philology, 2008.
  3. Halliday; by “sub-rite” he’s insinuating that animal sacrifice is the main rite with hepatoscopy being an adjunct thereto—contrary to all evidence.
  4. Lines 493–495. Προμηθευς Δεσμώτης was formerly attributed to Aeschylus; I’ve used M. L. West’s 1990 translation, finding no fault with it. Also this site doesn’t support all the Ancient Greek accents and breathing marks—my apologies to any readers thereof.
  5. Collins.
  6. Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Divinatione, 1.10.
  7. Pūblius Vergilius Marō, Aeneid,X.175, H. Rushton Fairclough’s 1918 just fine translation.
  8. Nancy de Grummond, “Etruscan Religion”, The Cambridge History of Religions in the Ancient World, 2013.
  9. Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, 1995.
  10. Collins.
  11. Burkert.
  12. Ibid.