Readers, please enjoy this guest blog post by Tess Dawson, author of The Horned Altar.
The primal nature of ancient divination texts 3,200 years old often strikes a modern reader with distress. In our sanitized environment we see rare but normal events as gory. Revolted, we turn a blind eye. Ancient people could not look away; deformed animal births heralded omens. We can learn still today from ancient wisdom, if we are willing to take a deep breath and examine nature’s horrors.
In 1928, archaeologists rediscovered Ugarit, a Canaanite city nestled near the turquoise Mediterranean in what today is Syria. Archaeologists uncovered about 2,000 tablets here. Ancient scribes wrote them in cuneiform, a system of writing where a scribe presses a wedge-shaped reed against moist clay.
Scholars have translated half of the tablets, and in those tablets we find stories of Canaanite deities, ritual “Cliff’s Notes,” holidays and civil celebrations, and rites of magic. The most complete and least scarred divinatory texts detail omens of malformed animal births. The city of Ugarit relied on livestock raised in small pockets of the city as well as in the outskirts and incorporated villages. As such, people found themselves closer to their food sources than we usually allow ourselves today.
We only hear about malformed animal births on television or in limited places where we encounter animals. Zoos and farms don’t publicize these events; if the general public finds itself dismayed by animal dung, it finds itself traumatized with these rare occurrences. However, in ancient times, these events made the headlines. Priests from city temples would examine the animal and, relying on a cause-and-effect system codified and preserved on the tablets, they would make predictions. The rarity of the event heightens its importance; an omen would affect the whole kingdom. These portents include famine, uprising, divisiveness, absolutism, divine disfavor, victory or defeat, and the wellbeing of livestock and crops.
We have options for practicing this divination: observing a malformed animal on television, at a farm or zoo, or even in seeing a specimen at a museum or an antique shop. Where you see the animal and from where it originated gives indicators to whom the omen applies. Alternatively, a modern charash, a practitioner of Canaanite magic, will create a system of cards for this oracle, and use them only in dire need.
Some ancient portents:
- A fetus with the shape, texture, or heft of stone means that many people will die.
- A fetus with the shape, texture, or heft of wood signifies the death of livestock.
- An animal lacking nostrils indicates famine.
- An animal without a spleen foretells of childless leader.
- A male animal without testicles predicts crop failure.
- An animal lacking its right ear warns of being conquered.
- An animal lacking its left ear heralds victory over enemies.
- An animal with two tongues signals divisiveness.
This uncomfortable method of divination gives a gritty reminder of the dangers faced often in the ancient world, and it reminds us of nature’s realities, of survival, community, life, and death in our world today.
Our thanks to Tess for her guest post! For more from Tess Dawson, read her article “Perfumed Dawn: Canaanite Magic Experiences a Revival.”