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From my Bookshelf: Divination and Oracles edited by Loewe and Blacker

cover of Divination and Oracles edited by Loewe and Blacker

Cards or entrails — which do you prefer for divination? From what I’ve read in this book, it seems we modern tarot readers have a lot in common with Mesopotamian entrail diviners.

The book is a compendium of scholarly but readable articles on divination techniques in various ancient cultures. I went straight to the chapter on Babylon, as I’m fascinated with ancient Mesopotamia, the oldest literate culture on earth, and the bedrock of Western civilization.

Divination in Mesopotamia

Mesopotamians believed the gods spoke to them through natural omens like bird song, or omens conjured up artificially, such as casting lots. It seemed perfectly logical to them that if you sacrifice an animal in honor of a god, the god will speak through the configuration of the internal organs. If you don’t like the fate decreed by the god (or the guts), you can always remedy it with incantations and ritual. This is just like prescribing spells and affirmations when you get a negative outcome card in a reading.

Reading sheep entrails was by far the most popular form of divination for 3,000 years until astrology took over about 600 BC. The Mesopotamian term for a professional diviner was literally “one who stretches his hand into the sacrificial animal.” Yuck!! Ordinary people who couldn’t spare a sheep used a popular folk divination technique that’s a lot like tea leaf reading. They sprinkled flour in a bowl of water and read the patterns.

Advice from a Mesopotamian entrail reader

Entrail readers worked very systematically, starting on one side of the liver and working their way around it area by area, much like reading a spread. They wrote up a detailed report listing each omen they found, along with its interpretation; then ended with a one sentence summary. It’s very similar to how I format my e-mail readings.

Clay model of liver from MesopotamiaArchaeologists have found clay models of teaching livers incised with inscriptions that say things like, “when there are two lines on the left near a bump, the king’s enemies will arrive from the east.” This sounds to me like the first LWB, or in their case, “little clay book,” with sample readings and divinatory meanings.

One treatise on divination advises asking very specific questions. Don’t ask, “will the battle tomorrow be successful?” That’s too ambiguous. It’s better to ask, “if the King masses his army on the eastern border at 3 PM tomorrow, will he destroy the Hurrians?” Another piece of advice that certainly applies today: don’t ask complex questions, because you won’t know which part of the question the sheep’s liver is addressing. It’s better to break the question down into several parts and do a divination on each one. Unfortunately, this requires a sheep for each question, which is rather messy and expensive.

I’m wondering:

Do the gods speak to you through your cards? Which ones?

When you do a reading, are you connecting to something divine or transcendent? Or are you tapping into your personal unconscious or intuition?

Before a reading, do you pray, meditate, or dedicate the reading to a higher power?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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