Babylonian-Assyrian Birth-Omens and Their Cultural Significance

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Their Cultural Significance


Morris Jastrow, jr.
Ph. D. (Leipzig) Professor of Semitic Languages in the University
of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia)



Gießen 1914
Verlag von Alfred Töpelmann (vormals J. Ricker)



Versuche und Vorarbeiten

begründet von
Albrecht Dieterich und Richard Wünsch
herausgegeben von
Richard Wünsch und Ludwig Deubner
in Münster i. W. in Königsberg i. Pr.
XIV. Band. 5. Heft





Regius Professor of Medicine
Oxford University

This volume is dedicated
as a mark of esteem and admiration.

“Most fine, most honour’d, most renown’d.”
(King Henry V, 2d Part, Act IV, 5, 164.)




Divination in Babylonia and Assyria1
Three chief methods: hepatoscopy, astrology and birth-omens1-6
Spread of Hepatoscopy and Astrology to Hittites, Etruscans, Greeks and Romans and to China3-4
The Transition motif in religious rites and popular customs5-6
Omen collections in Ashurbanapal’s Library6-7
Birth-omen reports9-12
Animal Birth-omens12-28
Double foetus13-16
Principles of interpretation14-15
Multiple births among ewes17-18
Malformation of ears19-22
Excess number of ears20-22
Ewe giving birth to young resembling lion23-26
Ewe giving birth to young resembling other animals27-28
Human Birth-omens28-41
Multiple births31
Malformation of ears32-33
Malformation of mouth, nostrils, jaws, arms, lips, hand33-34
Malformation of anus, genital member, thigh, feet35-36
Principles of interpretation36
Misshapen embryos37
Weaklings, cripples, deaf-mutes, still-births, dwarfs38-39
Talking infants, with bearded lips and teeth39
Infants with animal features32. 33. 35-36. 40-41
Study of Human Physiognomy among Greeks and Romans43-44
Resemblances between human and animal features45
Porta’s and Lavater’s Views45-48
Study of Human Physiognomy based on birth-omens49-50
Birth-omens in Julius Obsequens50-52
Birth-omens in Valerius Maximus52
Cicero on birth-omens53-54
Macrobius on birth-omens55
Birth-omens among Greeks and in Asia Minor56-58
Birth-omens as basis of belief in fabulous and hybrid beings59-62
Dragons, Hippocentaurs and hybrid creatures in Babylonian-Assyrian Literature and Art63-64
Fabulous creatures of Greek Mythology and Birth-omens64-66
Egyptian sphinxes67-70
Metamorphosis of human beings into animals and vice versa70-72
Talking animals in fairy tales71
History of monsters and persistency of belief in monsters72-78
Lycosthenes’ work73-75



“… they do observe
unfather’d heirs and loathly births of natures”
(King Henry V. 2nd part
Act IV, 4, 121-122).




As a result of researches in the field of Babylonian-Assyrian divination, now extending over a number of years[1], it may be definitely said that apart from the large class of miscellaneous omens[2], the Babylonians and Assyrians developed chiefly three methods of divination into more or less elaborate systems—divination through the inspection of the liver of a sacrificial animal or Hepatoscopy, through the observation of the movements in the heavens or Astrology, (chiefly directed to the moon and the planets but also to the sun and the prominent stars and constellations), and through the observance of signs noted at birth in infants and the young of animals or Birth-omens. Elsewhere[3], I have suggested a general division of the various forms of divination methods into two classes, voluntary and involuntary divination, meaning by the former the case in which a sign is deliberately selected and then observed, by the latter where the sign is not of your own choice but forced upon your attention and calling for an interpretation. Hepatoscopy falls within the former category[4], Astrology and Birth-omens in the latter.

Each one of these three methods rests on an underlying well-defined theory and is not the outcome of mere caprice or pure fancy, though of course these two factors are also prominent. In the case of Hepatoscopy, we find the underlying theory to have been the identification of the ‘soul’ or vital centre of the sacrificial victim—always a sheep—with the deity to whom the animal is offered,—at least to the extent that the two souls are attuned to one another. The liver being, according to the view prevalent among Babylonians and Assyrians as among other peoples of antiquity at a certain stage of culture, the seat of the soul[5], the inspection of the liver followed as the natural and obvious means of ascertaining the mind, i. e., the will and disposition of the deity to whom an inquiry has been put or whom one desired to consult. The signs on the liver—the size and shape of the lobes, and of the gall bladder, the character or peculiarities of the two appendices to the upper lobe, (the processus pyramidalis and the processus papillaris), and the various markings on the liver were noted, and on the basis of the two main principles conditioning all forms of divination (1) association of ideas and (2) noting the events that followed upon certain signs, a decision was reached as to whether the deity was favorably or unfavorably disposed or, what amounted to the same thing, whether the answer to the inquiry was favorable or unfavorable.

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