Divination in the Ancient World

CASE 5:  Popular Belief in Ancient China

The desire to learn what will happen in the future is perhaps universal among human beings. Of course there are many ways to predict the future. For example, if one notices that spring always follows winter, and that summer always follows spring, then one can predict this will happen again every year. But often enough something important happens and there is no rational explanation for it. In such cases people might attribute the event to luck, fortune, or fate. In ancient times divination of various types may have arisen from a desire to explain what we otherwise can’t—and therefore to exercise some degree of rational control over human destiny. And so across the globe and throughout time people have developed methods of divination.


The Babylonians are the most famous exemplars of the arts of divination in the ancient world. They developed various modes of divination based on animal organs, dreams, portents, and natural phenomena. The basic assumption underlying their practice of divination is similar to that of the ancient Chinese, which is that the future could be revealed to people in various direct or indirect ways. Direct revelations include inspiration or divine communication. Indirect revelations, on the other hand, include a broad spectrum of portent signs that people must find a way to decipher or interpret.

The Babylonians produced a large number of written texts, the so-called “omen literature,” guidebooks compiled to instruct the reader about how to decipher omens. Such omens were interpreted by specialists. The following is an example of a Babylonian omen:

If on New Year’s Day, before a man gets out of bed, a snake comes up out of a hole and looks at him, before anyone has seen it, that man will die during the year. If he wants to stay alive, he must […] his head, shave his cheeks, he will be afflicted for three months, then he will get well.
Michael Loewe and Carmen Blacker, eds., Oracles and Divination (Boulder: Shambhala, 1981), 163.

This is reminiscent of the language in the Daybook, but unlike the Daybook, the Babylonian texts were not arranged according to the calendar. The texts were grouped according to type of omen and their meanings, and these omens could occur at any time. The Daybook on the other hand is organized according to a calendrical system, which allows for prediction. Therefore the type of divination based on the Daybook is not the same as that practiced by the Babylonians. The basic assumption of the Daybook is that the future need not be a mystery since what will happen is described in it. So whereas for the ancient Chinese the auspiciousness of future events might have been known in advance, in the Babylonian portent just cited the future was illuminated by the text only after an omen was encountered.


However, some Babylonian incantations also suggest that calendrical time could be connected to human fate:

Day, month, year, nubattu, eššešu. 7th day, 15th day, 19th day, 20th day, 25th day, day of disappearance of the moon, bathing day, evil day, 30th day, may your sin, your oath, your error, your crime, your invocation, your disease, your weariness, sorcery, spittle, dirt, the evil machinations of people which might occur, get in the way, or appear repeatedly to you or your family, your offspring, your progeny, be released for you, be absolved for you, be wiped off for you!
Tzvi Abusch & Karel van der Toorn, Mesopotamian Magic, Textual, Historical, and Interpretative Perspectives (Groningen: STYX Publications, 1999), p. 134

As in the Daybook then, certain days seem to have been thought of as potentially auspicious.

Because human destiny is understood in terms of the “future,” and because the future is a function of cosmological time—the revolutions of the sun, moon, and stars—ancient peoples often assumed that insight into human destiny could be obtained through observation of the heavens. A text dated to about the 17th century BCE states:

If, on the day of its disappearance, the god Sin [the Moon] slows down in the sky [instead of disappearing suddenly], there will be drought and famine in the country.
Tamsyn Barton, Ancient Astrology (London: Routledge, 1994), p.11.

Here we see that the movement of the heavenly bodies is connected to natural phenomenon and thus human fate. This belief was fundamental to the development of astrology, a practice originated by the Babylonians.

It was not until perhaps the early first millennium BCE that astrology based on the idea of the zodiac began to take shape in Babylonian culture. The use of horoscopes for predicting a person’s fate was developed during the second half of the first millennium BCE. These horoscopes were inseparable from the earlier omen literature, particularly that concerning birth omens. Here are some examples:

If a child is born when Jupiter has come forth, [then his life? will be] regular, well; he will become rich, he will grow old, [his] day[s] will be long.
If a child is born when Venus has come forth, [then his life will be] exceptionally [?] calm; wherever he may go, it will be favourable; [his] days will be long.

If a child is born when Mercury has come forth, [then his life will be] brave, lordly…

If a child is born when Saturn has come forth [then his life? will be] dark, obscure, sick and constrained.
Tamsyn Barton, Ancient Astrology (London: Routledge, 1994), pp.17-18.

The Babylonian belief that the positions of the heavenly bodies were a type of omen gave rise to the systematic study of the stars. In modern times this tradition developed into what we now call astronomy, a method of determining and predicting the motions of the stars and planets. This early “science” was the basis for maintaining a precise calendar, a predictive measure of time. Because astrology was inseparable from astronomy in many ancient civilizations, ancient astronomers saw no discrepancy in simultaneously serving the scientifically minded astronomer and the metaphysically minded astrologer divining the purposes of the heavens. Most often these would have been one and the same person. This is a pattern observed cross-culturally in many pre-modern societies, including Egypt, Greece, Babylonia, Assyria, South Asia and China. The two fields of astronomy and astrology became clearly delineated only in the modern era.

Today, of course, astronomy is thought of as a science with no relationship to astrology. Articles on astronomy are published in scientific journals, whereas pieces on astrology are published in newspapers or almanacs. In pre-modern times, however, our modern distinctions between science, religion, and superstition, were much less clear.

Read about The Almanac in the Modern Era.

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