Research Showcases Divination

4.1. If a pig carries a reed and enters a man’s house… Observations on some structuring devices in Babylonian omen lists by Nicla de Zorzi

4.2 Stealing the Property of the Gods. Observations on a Top-Middle-Base Omen Sequence from an Old Babylonian Liver Model by Lucrezia Menicatti

4.1. If a pig carries a reed and enters a man’s house …

Observations on some structuring devices in Babylonian omen lists
Written by Nicla De Zorzi

How to cite:
De Zorzi, N. 2020, “If a pig carries a reed and enters a man’s house …Observations on some structuring devices in Babylonian omen lists,” Project REPAC (ERC Grant no. 803060), 2019-2024 at DOI: 10.25365/phaidra.230 (accessed day/month/year).

In second and first millennium BCE Mesopotamia, the texts most commonly associated with the practice of divination are omen lists written in Babylonian. These texts are a still largely unexplored source of information on ancient Mesopotamian scribal creativity and on scribal strategies of meaning and knowledge production.

Omens were formulated as conditional clauses whose protases or antecedents (A) describe a sign, and whose apodoses or consequents (C) give the pertinent prediction. Omen clauses draw on schematised sets of potential phenomena and match these as ominous signifiers with an equally selected set of signified predictions. The correspondence between sign and prediction is based on a likeness of some kind between them, on the semantic, phonemic or graphic level.

The scribes’ creativity was not limited to establishing connections between individual signs and individual predictions. In omen lists, this horizontal or syntagmatic level of omen production was interconnected with the vertical, paradigmatic axis, and we must still address major gaps in our knowledge here, since the sequencing of interdependent and partly repetitive omens has hitherto been studied only selectively, with a particular focus on sources from the Middle Bronze Age (Winitzer 2017). REPAC will offer a much-needed investigation of omen-organisation and omen-sequencing on the basis of Iron Age sources (WP 4).

One of REPAC’s main innovations is its focus on the micro-structure of Ancient Mesopotamian scholarly texts. In the following, a case-study based on a sequence of eleven interrelated omens dealing with the ominous behaviour of pigs will be presented. The omens are taken from Šumma izbu Tablet 22 (De Zorzi 2014). My aim is to demonstrate that the interplay of similarity and contrast between contiguous or near-contiguous textual elements is a significant operative principle in the process of text production in omen lists. Through a process of reverse engineering, a model for the development of this sequence over several stages can be proposed. These stages probably correspond to particular phases in the text’s history, as it gradually approached the stable form in which it was transmitted in the first millennium BCE:

22: 120) šumma šaḫû qanâ naši tibût nūnī u iṣṣūrī / iṣṣūrī nūnī / erbī nūnī ibbašši : tibûtu ibbašši
“If a pig carries a reed – there will be a swarming of fish and birds (var.: of locusts and fish); there will be a swarming (of animals)”
22: 121) šumma šaḫû qanâ našīma ana bīt amēli īrub bēlšu išarru
“If a pig carries a reed and enters a man’s house – (the house’s and the pig’s) owner will become rich.”
22: 122) šumma šaḫû qanâ našīma ištu bīt bēlišu ūṣi bēlšu mādūti ibissê / ibissâ immar
“If a pig carries a reed and exits from its owner’s house – its owner will suffer losses (var.: heavy losses).”
22: 123) šumma šaḫû rikis qanê našīma ana bīt bēlišu īrub bēlšu nēmelam immar
“If a pig carries a bundle of reeds and enters its owner’s house – its owner will make some profit.”
22: 124) šumma šaḫû rikis qanê našīma ištu bīt bēlišu ūṣi bēlšu ibissâ immar
“If a pig carries a bundle of reeds and exits its owner’s house – its owner will suffer losses.”
22: 125) šumma šaḫû ēri gišimmari naši meḫû itebbâm
“If a pig carries a palm frond – a storm will rise.”
22: 126) šumma šaḫû pitilta naši [su]nqu ina māti ibbašši
“If a pig carries a string plaited from date palm fibres – there will be a famine in the land.”
22: 127) šumma šaḫû kilibba našīma ina sūqi ittallak maḫīru ibbašši
“If a pig carries a large reed bundle and runs about in the street – there will be active trading.”
22: 128) šumma šaḫû kilibba našīma immelil tīb meḫê
“If a pig carries a large reed bundle and plays with it – there will be a storm.”
22: 129) šumma šaḫû kilibba našīma ištu bābi ana bīt bēlišu ūṣi bīt bēlišu išarru
“If a pig carries a large reed bundle and goes from the (city) gate towards its owner’s house – its owner’s household will become rich.”
22: 130) šumma šaḫû kilibba našīma ištu bīt bēlišu ana bābi ūṣi bīt bēlišu ibissâ immar
“If a pig carries a large reed bundle and goes from its owner’s house towards the (city) gate – its owner’s household will suffer losses.”

Let us look at single omens first: swarming birds, fish or locusts – we have different manuscript traditions for omen 120 – are a frequent prediction in omen lists. The reed-carrying pig may condition their appearance because of the habitat it shares with bird and fish at least – the reeds. “Swarming” is also conditioned by the semantic proximity between the words used for “to carry” (našû) and “to swarm” (tibûtu) – both involve the idea of “rising.”

The symmetrical pair 121 and 122 is based on 120 and add the dichotomy “entering” – “exiting:” in 121 the reed is being brought by the pig into the man’s house, while in 122 the reed is taken out of the house. The former suggests “getting rich,” the latter “impoverishment” (losses) – the underlying conventional analogy is intuitively intelligible. 123 und 124 are variations of 121 and 122. The “reed” is replaced by a “reed bundle,” and the dichotomy richness-losses is substituted by the dichotomy profit-losses.

The structure of 125 is that of 120: only we have a palm frond instead of a reed. The prediction refers to a topos also found in literature: date palms must face the wind and lose their fronds in a storm. The verb used, “rising” of the storm, itebbâm, is etymologically linked to the “swarming” of 120 (tibûtu). The structure of 126 follows that of 125: the string plaited from date palm fibres evokes a famine because palm fibres are eaten in extremis.

Omen 127 uses another word for “reed bundle” (kilibbu) and has the pig walk in the street. Street, sūqu, also means “market” in Akkadian, thus explaining the association with active trade. Omen 128 follows 127 structurally. The use of immelil “to play” in the protasis motivates the “storm” in the prediction: it is a topos in Babylonian to express the whirling of dust storms by this same word.

Finally, the couple 129 and 130, built around the binary opposition between the inward/outward movement of the pig, is a variation on 121-124: in this case, the “richness-losses” theme has a larger focus: it concerns not just the pig’s owner (121-124), but his whole household.

The following tables offer schematic presentations of this text’s structure with coloured graphs. Their purpose is to allow readers to follow the analysis more easily. In the first table, colours highlight the patterns of association between omens:

Let us now focus on the structure of the sequence. Starting with 120, the pig with the reed (120-122) begins a sequence of omens in which the pig carries a bundle of reeds (123-124), a palm frond (125), a string plaited from palm fibres (126), and a large reed bundle (127-130):

This vertical sequence is broken up at the beginning by the insertion of two binary pairs built around the dichotomy “entering” – “exiting” describing the pig’s movement: 121-122 and 123-124. These two pairs of omens are tightly interconnected: the underlying association is the same (“entering” – “richness/profit”, “exiting” – “losses”).

Omens 125-126 share the same structure of 120: the pig simply carries an item and no further action is taken into consideration. The tight connection between 120 and 125 becomes evident if one focuses on their respective apodoses: the apodosis of 125 repeats with a variation the “rising” (tebû) theme of 120.

Starting with omen 127, a differently structured vertical sequence is inserted (127-130). The element “If a pig carries a large reed bundle” does not form a protasis on its own as the two preceding elements do (125-126), but it is extended with different horizontal expansions describing various activities of the reed-carrying pig: running about in the street (127), playing with the reed bundle (128), going from the city gate towards the man’s house and the other way around (129-130).

The last couple of omens (129-130) are built around the binary opposition between the inward/outward movement of the pig, and, as already mentioned, are a variation on 121-124 with a larger focus (the household):

Let us now focus on the apodoses section of the sequence. On this level, there is significant repetition between the lines after the introductory omen (120): the dichotomy between richness-profit and loss is explored in 121-124, as well as in 129-130; both 125 and 128 deal with the rising of a storm and represent a variation on the “swarming”-theme of 120; 126-127 seem to introduce, with famine and active trading, a variant to the “richness/profit-losses” theme:

Importantly, the sequence generally avoids exact repetition. A theme is stated over and over, but with each appearance some aspect of it changes: the swarming of animals (120) turns into the rising of a storm (125 and, with variation, 128); richness (121) becomes first profit (123), then active trading (127); losses (122, 124) become famine (126). In the last couple of omens (129-130) the “richness-losses” theme has a larger focus: it concerns not just the pig’s owner (121-122; 123-124), but his whole household.

A closer look reveals that the apodoses create structures of thematic symmetry (ABB’A’B’’A’’B’’’):

Another pattern is inscribed within the sequence, as omens 121-125 and 128-130 can be shown to create a chiastic thematic structure: richness-losses (A) – rising of storm (B) – rising of a storm (B) – richness-losses (A). Interestingly, the two predictions inserted between the two components of this virtual chiasm, 126-127, are closely interconnected as they stand in a semantic opposition to each other: famine and active trade. In the highly repetitive sequence of the apodoses, they stand out, as their wording differs significantly from that displayed by the apodoses with which they share the general “richness-losses” theme (121-124, 129-130). If we now bring the protases back into the picture, we see that this opposition plays an important role in the structuring of the whole sequence: through this opposition the authors of these omens tie the second vertical sequence, 127-130, to the preceding one, 120-126:

The text achieves here (126-127) the linking of two separate vertical sequences by drawing on a binary opposition at the juncture. This technique, of which REPAC’s ongoing work is bringing to light numerous other cases, is revealing itself as an important structuring device in divinatory compendia.
A complex literary process is at work in this sequence: it involves textual expansion founded essentially on the use of similarity and analogy. There is a clear concentration in the vertical extension and the interconnections between the signs in the protases. This concentration on the level of the sign, however, implies a stronger schematisation of the predictions, which cannot keep up with the increasing complexity of the signs in the protases. The diviners’ hermeneutic code, their repertoire of analogical associations, was clearly not sufficiently elaborate. At the same time, our example demonstrates that Ancient Mesopotamian diviners did try to match the complexity of the protasis on the level of the apodosis by variation of single elements, and, particularly, through clever arrangement of relatively standard phrases.

In conclusion, we have seen how the authors of the omen sequence analysed here creatively operate with similarity and contrast between contiguous or near-contiguous textual elements, both on the horizontal, syntagmatic, and on the vertical, paradigmatic axis. Their modus operandi can be described as a creative process, as a construction of meaning principally based on analogical reasoning. Ancient Mesopotamian scribes conceived of this process as a matter of discovering pre-existent information written into the fabric of the world by the gods. In any case, this process, etically of creation, emically of discovery, is based on textual means and leads to knowledge of socially recognised validity.

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De Zorzi, N. 2014, La serie teratomantica Šumma izbu: testo, tradizione, orizzonti culturali (2 volumes). History of the Ancient Near East – Monographs 15, Padua.
Winitzer, A. 2017, Early Mesopotamian Divination Literature: its Organisational Framework and Generative and Paradigmatic Characteristics. Ancient Magic and Divination 12, Leiden/Boston.

4.2. Stealing the Property of the Gods

Observations on a Top-Middle-Base Omen Sequence from an Old Babylonian Liver Model
Written by Lucrezia Menicatti

How to cite: Menicatti L., 2021, “´Stealing the Property of the Gods´ – Observations on a Top-Middle-Base Omen Sequence from an Old Babylonian Liver Model, Version 01,” Project REPAC (ERC Grant no. 803060), 2019-2024, at DOI: 10.25365/phaidra.303 (accessed day/month/year)

Bu 89-4-26, CT 6 Pll. 1-3
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The Mesopotamian divinatory corpus includes a variety of different sources, among which the most significant are the so-called divinatory compendia. These are lists of omens structured as conditional clauses, in which the protasis describes the ominous sign and the apodosis gives the appropriate interpretation. The earliest extensive omen compendia were committed to writing during the Old Babylonian period (1900-1600 BCE). The majority of these texts were written on clay tablets of various dimensions, but clay models of the sheep’s organs inspected during the extispicy ritual have also been recovered, and these are occasionally inscribed with series of omens.
This is the case with Bu 89-4-26, 238, first published as CT 6 Pll.1-3 (Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum VI, London 1896 ff.). This is a well-preserved model of the sheep’s liver from the Old Babylonian period, excavated in Sippar (modern Tell Abu Habbah) and now stored in the British Museum. Its surface is divided into cases and inscribed with liver omens. Among these, three omens form a sequence concerning the part of the liver named naplaštum, ‘the View’, which corresponds to a vertical groove on the left lobe of the sheep’s liver and was the first zone inspected by the diviner performing the extispicy.
This sequence of omens, which we will discuss here, was edited in Nougayrol 1950: 29 (entries 11-13). The sequence corresponds to obv. 7 and rev. 8-9 in the edition published on In this sequence, the View is divided into three sections, and the same condition is observed first in the Top, second in the Middle, and third in the Base of the View. Similar sequences of entries arranged on the Top-Middle-Base scheme are widespread in extispicy texts (Winitzer 2017: 290-329). In the sequence under analysis, each protasis corresponds to an apodosis which includes two separate predictions.
The following study reveals the textual connections that build the structure of this sequence, on two levels. On the horizontal (or syntagmatic) level, I investigate the analogical connections between protasis and apodosis in a single omen, and I focus on the association of a given section of the View in the protasis with a certain figure in the apodosis. On the vertical (or paradigmatic) level, I consider the structure of this sequence as a whole and I focus on the vertical connections between the omens. This is meant to show the overall system of interpretation of the Top-Middle-Base paradigm in the sequence of apodoses, and the role played by repetition in the make-up of this passage. Furthermore, I will provide evidence for a particular use of the middle entry’s apodosis, which functions as a ‘pivot line’. As will be shown, this line anticipates part of the following apodosis and repeats part of the preceding one, thus playing the role of a structural medium between the two external elements in the sequence of predictions. In the following, the sequence is presented in a tabular form:

As the table shows, the protases describe a deep perforation (pališ-ma šutēbrû) in the different sections of the View (Top, Middle, and Base). A parallel sequence of apodoses corresponds to this sequence of protases. Each of the apodoses includes two predictions, the second one introduced by the conjunction šumma, and the subjects mentioned are figures related to the temple – a high priestess, the chief temple administrator and his wife, and a temple visitor. The first sequence of predictions forecasts repeated robberies in the temple, committed by the ēnu-priestess in the first entry, and by the chief temple administrator’s wife (aššat šagî) in the second and third entries. The first prediction adds the punishment for this crime, stating that the priestess will be captured and burned (iṣabbatūšī-ma iqallûši).
The Top of the View in the first entry of this sequence is equated with the high priestess. The Base of the Presence in the protasis is associated with the chief temple administrator’s wife in the apodosis of the second entry, while the third entry repeats the same prediction as the preceding one.
The second sequence of apodoses presents an interesting sequence of subjects as well. These predictions include illicit sexual activities between a high priestess and a second figure who is also related to the temple in some way. In the first entry, the subject is the chief temple administrator (šagûm) – and the second entry repeats the second one. In the final entry, it is ‘a temple visitor’ (muttallik bīt ilim) who ‘will repeatedly have intercourse’ (i-ta-na-ia-ak Cf. CAD N/2: 198, s.v. nâku 2, ‘to have illicit intercourse repeatedly’,) with an ēnu-priestess. Unlike the first sequence, none of the predictions in this sequence add the punishment for this illegal act.
The two sequences of apodoses are linked by their similar message, since the two predictions – ‘stealing the property of the gods’ and ‘having intercourse with an ēnu-priestess’ – both describe illegal acts that involve ‘stealing’ something that belongs to the gods. The ēnu-priestess was considered the human wife of the god she served, and thus belonged to the god in every respect. Her behaviour was extremely important; she was to act like a married woman, and her misconduct was an offense to the god himself (Sallaberger and Huber-Vulliet 2005: 626-627). The mention of this priestess being involved in illicit sexual acts is thus not unexpected in this sequence, since this prediction, just like the preceding one, implies a serious act of impiety. The parallelism of the two predictions is reinforced by the use of the same verbal stem (Gtn).
In summary, in the two sequences, the Top is equated with the high priestess and chief temple administrator, while the Base corresponds to the chief temple administrator’s wife and the temple visitor.

Interestingly, in the first sequence of apodoses, the second and third predictions are repeated, while in the second sequence, the first and second predictions are repeated.

The middle entry occupies a special position in the make-up of this passage. The first prediction in the apodosis (aššat šagîm asakkam ištanarriq) anticipates the following entry, which repeats this prediction verbatim, while the second prediction (šagûm ēnam ittanajjak) repeats the same prediction from the preceding entry.
The first entry is the only one including the phrase iṣabbatūši-ma iqallûši, ‘they will catch her and burn her’ in the first sequence of apodoses and predicts the death of the subject stealing from the temple (in this case, the ēnu-priestess). The death of the high priestess marks the beginning of this sequence and seems to represent the peak constituted by the sequence of predictions concerning robberies in the temple. The fact that this first entry includes elements that are not repeated in the following entries, namely the ēnu-priestess (who is also the most important figure in the sequence) and the prediction of her death, supports the focal role of this prediction in the first sequence of apodoses.
If we consider these two sequences of predictions as a coherent whole, we notice that the Top-Middle-Base scheme in the sequence of protases is interpreted as a figurative spatial scheme of closeness in the sequence of apodoses, in which the different subjects mentioned represent different steps in a scale of distance from the divine world. The first element of the first sequence and the final term of the second one function as two contrastive terms in this scale. The ēnu-priestess, who is the spouse of a god, represents the closest figure to the divine sphere in this hierarchy, while the ‘temple visitor’ represents the furthest one. The position of these two figures, at the beginning and at the end of the passage, functions as an additional element that reinforces their opposition. Also, the alliteration of velar /k/ and /q/ and of liquid /l/, together with the assonance of /a/, /u/ and /i/ in the final verb of the first apodosis in the first sequence (iQaLLuši) and the first word of the final apodosis in the second sequence (mutaLLiK) strengthens the link between the two predictions.

The two contrastive elements placed at the beginning and at the end of the respective sequences are interchanged with the repeated predictions aššat šagî(m) asakkam ištanarriq, ‘the chief temple administrator’s wife will repeatedly steal the property of the gods’, in the middle and third entries of the first sequence, and šagûm ēnam ittanajiak, ‘the chief temple administrator will repeatedly have intercourse with an ēnu-priestess’ in the first and middle entries of the second sequence. The middle entry contains both the repeated elements, of the first and of the second sequence, and thus builds a climax involving the two non-repeated elements. This line functions therefore as a ‘pivot’ line and plays the role of a structural medium between the two external contrastive elements of the two sequences, binding them together in a coherent passage. This results in two parallel sequences linked by the similarity of the image they express, namely, the idea of ‘stealing’ something that belongs to the gods.

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Selected Bibliography

Nougayrol, J. 1950, ‘Textes hepatoscopiques d’epoque ancienne conserves au Musee du Louvre (III)’ in Revue d’Assyriologie 44, 1-40.
Sallaberger, W./F. Huber-Vulliet, 2005, ‘Priester I. A. Mesopotamien’ in Reallexikon der Assyriologie und vorderasiatischen Archäologie Bd. 10, 617-640.
Winitzer, A. 2017, Early Mesopotamian Divination Literature. Its Organizational Framework and Generative and Paradigmatic Characteristics. Ancient Magic and Divination 12, Leiden/Boston.