14 Feb 2012

Flights of fancy and ornithomancy

Duane Smith over at Abnormal Interests makes mention of The birds in the Iliad - Identities, interactions and functions by Karin Johansson. This is an excellent and welcomed addition to educational resources on the net and I will be going through it to try to gain insight into the religious practice of ornithomancy in Etruria. It's worth learning everything we can about this ancient science made out of observing birds and their paths across the sky because it's a central component in life and faith in Etruria. Without knowing this, we can only understand Etruscan civilization at a distance.

While the author states "The methodologies in bird divination differed in different parts of the world, such as in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Etruria and Rome," I respectfully doubt that there is enough known about Etrurian religion to be secure with that claim. There is little way thus far to accurately gauge that "difference". More likely there are connections, many connections, that continue to be missed by Etruscanists who as yet still have a hard time deciphering much of the language and rely, perhaps too much, on the second-hand reports of Romans rather than reading the extant Etruscan-language works like the Liber Linteus or Tabula Capuana directly.


  1. I like you say about the importance of understanding ancient 'science', although I share your doubts about the extent of information available.
    This is not my field, and I wonder - do we have a better or less loaded word than 'science' to describe ancient rationalisation?
    [I am not sure there is].
    I recently wrote a post about Vitruvius's discussion of trees and timber; his observations on the properties of wood are fine, but his 'scientific' rational is clearly no longer valid.
    In archaeology we have archaeo-astronomy, but should we call this archaeo-astrology?
    Any thoughts?

  2. There are many ways of using the term "science" depending on the perspective because, when you get right down to it, it's a relative term, not absolute. We like to idealize modern science as being somehow the ultimate peak of rational thinking. Yet two thousand years from now, our "science" will undoubtedly appear a little absurd in comparison to a future, higher level of understanding.

    The same can be said for ancient sciences. When we look at the Babylonian science present in, say, the Summa alu, it's not "science" as we recognize it today surely. However in these long series of "if-then" statements, we see the beginnings of causal reasoning. Despite all its failings, it's one of humanity's first attempts at understanding the cosmos around us. It is, for all intents and purposes, a "science". The divinatory sciences (ie. predominantly haruspicy, brontoscopy and ornithomancy) were the Etruscan's answer to "physics" and "cosmology".

    It's the fact that this ancient science led to many *incorrect* answers (as we see from the advantage of our modern knowledge) that it may seem to us less a "science" than an "art", or even "tomfoolery". Nonetheless, from the mindset of the average ancient, this really was serious science at the time, even if it was riddled with their deities.

    It is from this ancient mindset that I employ the word "science", to encourage my history-loving readers to think in *their* terms, not ours. In other words, to approach history much as an ethnologist approaches a foreign culture, by checking one's own modern perspectives at the door and striving to perceive things through ancestral eyes.