I'm not always overjoyed to be upgraded to first class on airplanes, because the stories I hear are usually better in coach. But on my way home from a very short trip to England this week, I was delighted to be promoted to the front cabin, expecting nothing more than extra legroom, free drinks and edible food. My rewards proved to be greater than these.
The pleasant woman who took the seat next to me spoke in a soft Southern accent. When she told me she was from Mississippi. I could not resist telling her that within the past week, I had recorded a dream in which I was making my way to Grant, Mississippi. I noted that "Grant" seemed an unlikely name for a place in Mississippi, given its history with General Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War. "Oh, I don't know," she responded. "My daughter would like a grant for her research."
She explained that her daughter was majoring in Latin at the University of Mississippi, and had broader interests in archaeology and the religions of the ancient world. "She just wrote a paper on Etruscan divination that her professor thinks is wonderful. There were a special class of Etruscan priests who got messages by looking at the livers of animals. There's a term for that which I forget."
"Haruspicy," I suggested.
"That's it!" My neighbor's eyes widened a little. "What are the odds in meeting a stranger on a plane who would know about that?"
I started rattling off a few things I had learned about methods of divination in the ancient world. Haruspicy - which the Greeks called hepatoscopy, or hepatomancy - was the inspection of the liver of sacrificed animals. Extispicy was a broader term for examining the entrails, especially the intestines. Scapulomancy was the study of the shoulder blade of a slain animal. All these methods, probably first developed in early Mesopotamia, were regarded as critical in making major decisions. Babylonian kings and generals went to war with a baru priest in their entourage, ready to kill a sheep to check from the folds and color of the liver which side the gods were on. The supposedly rational Athenians behaved the same way. The Hittites looked at animal livers to get a second opinion on the meaning of royal dreams.
I noted that my first job was as a junior professor of ancient history at the Australian National University and that I had written on ancient divination in my book The Secret History of Dreaming. Since first reading about the history of Rome, I had been fascinated by the special role of the Etruscan priestly caste, under both the Republic and the Empire, in decisions of state. As I understood these things, the haruspex (literally "the reader of the victim") who examined livers was consulted on matters of high policy, such as war and peace, and was always an Etruscan. An interesting paradox, that Romans turned to an order of divination priests drawn from a people they had conquered.
"Oh, you have to talk to Juliana," my neighbor said. "I'll swap seats with her after lunch." It seemed that her two daughters, who had gone with her to London for a week of theater-going, were back in coach.
After the meal, the switch was made. Juliana proved to be a brilliant student with a searching mind, who introduced me to sources and aspects of the subject that were previously unknown to me. She had recently attended a seminar with Jean Mackintosh Turfa, the author of a recent scholarly book Divining the Etruscan World: The Brontoscopic Calendar and Religious Practice. It was my turn to receive an unusual word under unlikely circumstances. "Brontoscopic" refers to a method of divination by listening to the sound of thunder. The Etruscans kept a calendar that linked thunder and lightning to outbreaks of disease and social events, day by day, through a lunar year. The fulgurator was a specialist in divination by thunder and lightning.
I was soon scribbling notes. My new rowmate was very knowledgeable about Near Eastern parallels and precedents for the Etruscan diviners consulted by the Romans. She described an Etruscan bronze mirror that shows a haruspex with one foot on a rock and wings on his back as he inspects a liver, clearly depicted as a link between the worlds of men and gods. She compared models of livers, made in clay by the Babylonians and in bronze by the Etruscans, used to guide the diviner on what to look for in a liver. An Etruscan model, intricately divided by many crisscrossing lines, appears to have the name of a deity inscribed in each section.
My young mentor had fascinating views on why the liver was regarded as so important for people wishing to know what was going on and whether the deities were on their side. A sacrificial animal may have been exposed to similar ailments and parasites as humans in the same environment, and may have consumed some of the same foodstuffs.
The liver was understood to be a vital organ, not least for its role in cleansing the blood. It was seen as a seat of emotions and even of the soul.
We laughed over Cicero's comments about divination by animal innards. The Etruscans, he noted, were "raving mad about entrails." Yet while his equestrian nose twitched over superstitious mumbo jumbo, Cicero allowed that since "the gods are real", they may choose to make their wishes known even through the state of a slaughtered animal's entrails. He spoke of the Etrusca Disciplina - the name the Romans gave to Etruscan divination - with respect and narrated the myth of its founder, Tages, in his essay "On Divination." Well might Cicero treat the craft of the haruspex with caution and respect. It was a haruspex, Vestrinius Spurinnia, who delivered the famous warning to Julius Caesar to beware the ides of March.
I have a fresh list of reading and research assignments that I will happily pursue, though maybe at a comfortable remove from future meal times. I see that the best liver for haruspicy was one that had been just carved from the animal victim, still warm and quivering in the diviner's hand. As I embark on fresh research, I find that the Hittites also liked to observe the spasms of the dying animal as its organs were removed. I won't be eating liver, with or without onions, any time soon.
For more on travel synchronicity: My book The Three "Only" Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence and Imagination opens with narratives of what flowed from five chance encounters on airplanes, typically after an original plan got changed.
Graphic: 4th century BCE Etruscan bronze mirror showing a haruspex identified as Calchas, a diviner mentioned in the Iliad, in the Gregorian museum at the Vatican.