Co-authored research by Patrick Hunt, Stanford University, and Whitney de Luna, Stanford Hospital Liver Clinic
Fig. 1 Etruscan Bronze Mirror of Chalchas the Seer Reading a Liver (Vatican: Gregorian Museum, Rome, cat # 12240)
Figure 2 Sheep’s liver in clay. 14.6 cm across. Old Babylonian, circa 1900-1600 BC. Provenance: likely Sippar in modern southern Iraq. British Museum, London, Western Asia Collection # ME 92668
Divination by interpreting livers in the ancient world from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean and from the Bronze Age to the Classical world is a fascinating topic for study of religion, magic and science. Complicated long-term traditions governed haruspicy or hepatoscopy, i.e., liver interpretation or examination. One primary question to be asked is why was a liver used for divination and why a sheep’s liver, as this appears to be the most common organ used across many cultures and periods?
Here are some tentative thoughts. 1) Although it is relative to how much wealth individuals might possess, sheep were more easily sacrificed as smaller animals than expensive cattle. 2) On sacrifice or autopsy, the sheep liver is very close to the abdominal surface, is centrally located (center right) and small enough to manipulate. 3) The natural smoothness of the liver makes any abnormality easy to identify (i.e. coarseness), a surface characteristic that makes the liver relatively easier to read than other organs. 4) The ancients viewed blood as the source of life. Given that the liver is composed of dense tissue full of blood, the ancients understood the liver as vital to life. Extrapolating from human life, a severe flesh-penetrating wound to that part of the abdomen was often quickly fatal, thus supporting their perception.
Greco-Roman, Hebrew and Indo-European connections and traditions
Classical references to the liver follow several possible directions. In Iliad 24.212 ff, after the slaughter of her son Hector by Achilles and describing what dogs do to corpses, Hecuba wishes to eat Achilles’ liver:
“I wish I could set teeth in the middle of his liver.
That would be vengeance for what he did to my son…”
Presumably her wish was partly because the liver was thought to be the most important of all human viscera and possessing it would certify Achilles was dead. It also reduces her to almost bestiality, since predatory animals instinctively attempt to quickly eat the livers of their dying or dead prey. Achilles had also split open Tros’ liver (Iliad 20.469-72) spilling bile and black blood and causing almost immediate death:
“Now Tros with his hands was reaching for the knees,
but he [Achilles] stabbed at the liver with his sword,
so that the liver was torn from its place
and from it the black blood drenched the fold of his tunic
and his eyes were shrouded in darkness as the life went.”
It may be only coincidental that the ancients read the “fold” of the liver, like the fold of Tros’ tunic, but the color reference to black blood is completely in keeping with the liver’s bile and its function of hemolysis or blood cleansing, although the ancient world would most likely not know or even guess this purpose. The focus on the liver in both texts, however, is more than merely metaphorical: we also “read” the text foreshadowing both the deaths of Achilles and Tros, one in the future (only prophesied rather than seen) and one immediate (fulfilled).
Other, Roman texts develop clear references to Greek traditions of hepatoscopy and Etruscan haruspicy. Perhaps similar due to ancient connections to Etruscan augury the Romans inherited in their divination practices, e.g. Etrusca disciplina, Vergil in the Aeneid registers some of the same ideas. In prophetic self-sacrifice, after sheep were also sacrificed, Dido in Aeneid 4.60 ff consults the entrails of an animal (in this case an alter-ego white cow sacred to Juno, her own goddess). These entrails are still quivering (4.64), suggesting how quickly augury takes place if the animal is in the state between passing life and imminent death, somewhat like Dido herself (in Lattimore’s translation):
“Dido…gazing into the open breasts of victims [animals = pecudum] consults the quivering entrails.”
The adjacent Latin word sequence here for “gazing” (inhians) and “quivering” (spirantia) suggests in a likely deliberate ambiguity that, like Dido in her own autosacrifice, the animal is still breathing while she – possibly trembling, also ambiguous – performs a royal haruspicy.
Vergil also mentions a famous seer, Asilas (Aeneid X.175 ff):
“Asilas, interpreter between gods and men, whom the victims’ (pecudum) entrails (fibrae) obey, and the stars of heaven, the tongues of birds, and prophetic lightning fires…”
This suggests Asilas not only reads but that he commands the entrails (and other omen-bearing entities) to reveal their meanings. S. J. Harrison (1991:116) comments that fibrae is a poetic terms for entrails, “usually involving a sheep’s liver” and that “Etruscan seers were still called to Rome in Vergil’s day.” The ancient Etruscan”manual” or tradition for divination, mentioned above, known as the Etrusca Disciplina, involved every known kind of diviner from stars (astrologer) and lightning (fulgurator) to those who interpreted bird cries (linguae volucrum ) but also bird flight (ornithomancy) and water (hydromancy), etc.
Cicero, at times cynical and generally critical, also mentions the haruspex (liver augur) on occasion, quoting poets and detailing tradition in On Divination XXXIII.72, XXXIX.85. 5). Cicero also asks, “What was the origin of the art of divination? Who discovered the significance of a cleft in an animal’s liver or interpreted the raven’s cry? (On the Nature of the Gods 3.15). In the ancient world, the liver was often understood as the seat of action that was sometimes even called the “heart” (as opposed to the mind) and very important in behavior and being as manifest by character. In Hebrew, for example, the word for liver was kabed, which can mean “weighty” or “gravity”, a physical characteristic of the liver relative to other organs, as it is generally the largest and heaviest, but this meaning also extended to “dignity” and “importance” if describing an individual (note: we still use the term “lightweight” derisively). The actual physical heart was rarely assigned such importance before humans understood the cardiovascular circulation system.
Sacrifice meant that the animal would not survive the experience, so the closer one was to the moment of death of the sacrificial animal, the more critical that moment of examining such a vital organ would become in its transition from life to death. Thus, the gods controlled the states of life and death but humans also controlled the means of transition through those states in the act of sacrifice. It is probably not coincidental that in Old Germanic liver-life (leber-leben and lebara) are more than mere homophones; they may also share older etymological roots.
In biblical Hebrew, several texts note hepatoscopy, including Ezekiel’s oracle that the King of Babylon inspects the liver (Ezekiel 21:21) as would be expected. Proverbs 7:23 also confirms the perception of substantial liver damage as presaging death in metaphor: “until an arrow pierces its liver…costing its life.”
Mesopotamian liver augury (extispicy-haruspicy)
In Mesopotamia, paralleling many people and cultures before and after, Babylonians throughout society from the kings and priests to the common people were mostly supernaturalists, concerned that gods and spirits controlled daily affairs and also knew the future as well as the past and present. As such, these divinities could be counted on to provide omens of what would occur in the immediate future. Consulting sheep livers was a common method for ascertaining what possible omens meant, especially to a trained priest called a baru. One of the most widespread means of prediction was the liver omen, in which a sheep was killed and its liver and lungs examined by a specialist priest, the baru. This augur priest often had a prearranged query to ask whose answer would be found located somewhere on the liver and possibly influenced by such aspects as shape, size, color and other physical details. The baru would ask a particular question and the answer would be supplied by the interpretation of individual markings (Fig. 2) or overall shape of the liver and lungs. When it was made thousands of years ago, the realistic British Museum liver model was carefully sectioned with squares and holes while the clay was fresh. Cuneiform texts alongside each grid mark suggest the meaning of a specific lesion, often most important to the king whom the baru auger priest especially served and without whom important decisions would not be undertaken. The act of barûtu: (extispicy as divination from entrails of sheep) was thus a high status function in Babylonian religious society. Other clay sheep liver models have been excavated from Mari and Hazor, to name a few loci.
Etruscan Piacenza Bronze Liver Model and Map
Geographically far from Mesopotamia and the Levant but in many ways parallel, the haruspex (Etruscan diviner), as seen from the late 5th c. BCE Etruscan Bronze Mirror from Vulci (Fig. 1) where the Vatican Gregorian Museum commentary suggests that Chalchas’ wings and his foot on the rock imply his mediation between heaven and earth. Also seen on the Piacenza bronze liver model below (Fig. 3), where the Etruscan haruspex understood liver divination (or hepatoscopy in Greek) with the domains of Etruscan deities carefully marked around its divisible parts. These gods controlled each location on the sheep liver delineated with the knowledge of what parts of human life these same deities maintained and for which they had to be regularly propitiated or worshipped.
Figures 3 & 4 Piacenza Bronze Liver Model, Piacenza Museo Civico, Hellenistic Period, and Map thereof
This Etruscan bronze model (Fig. 3) and the map shown here (Fig. 4) compartmentalized the territories of chief Etruscan gods, Tinia, Uni and Mnerva (later Jupiter, Juno and Minerva for the Romans) among them, where as mentioned these gods had locations belonging to their domains variously marked on this liver map. Tinia, for example, is seen at far right in different manifestations possibly including angry lightning casting (found in a section of possible malevolent or “bad” readings – Dirae – as opposed to another Tinia section below -Felicitas – where a benevolent or “happy” reading would be found).Thus, a lesion or blemish on a sheep liver would thus be read differently as a bad omen or some other sign as a good omen mostly depending on its location.
Pliny and Suetonius on Roman Haruspicy
Roman haruspicy was also predictive of “good” readings, as related by Pliny (Natural History XI.73.190) on one occasion where the Emperor Augustus was concerned:
“…On the first day he [Augustus] was in power, the livers of six victims were found with the bottom of their tissue folded back inward, and this was interpreted to mean that he would double his power within a year.”
Such a specific liver detail read and interpreted makes it clear how Roman haruspicy was a serious matter as Pliny credulously records. There must have been sufficient multiple occasions to continue hepatoscopy-haruspicy in many Classical societies because so many historical occasions are recorded where omens were taken seriously because these omens were perceived to have come true (whether interpreted beforehand or not), often having dire consequences to the leaders whose immediate futures were either consulted or merely observed after the fact. For example, Romans concluded that omens predicted the death (praesagia mortis) of the consul Marcus Marcellus in 208 BC while battling Hannibal (Pliny, Natural History XI.73.189), wherein a liver was missing from the sacrificial animal near his death and the day after his death in battle a double liver was found in the next animal sacrifice. Also bloody omens were horrible around the death of Caligula in CE 41 (Suetonius, Caligula 57) as well as circumstances considered ominous at the death of Claudius in CE 54 (Suetonius, Claudius 46) and where livers were missing respectively in the year before Caligula’s death and in the month of Claudius’ poisoning, as Pliny also relates (Nat. Hist XI.73.189). Cataclysms and unfortunate events were generally often preceded by malpredictive omens, including from haruspicy-hepatoscopy or other circumstances.
Finally, although the literary references are fascinating in themselves developing the tradition of liver reading in hepatoscopy-haruspicy or the more general entrail reading of extispicy, more compelling evidence exists in the actual clay or bronze liver models from various ancient cultures. Beyond omens where blood anomalies occurred, such as blood spattering an emperor at a sacrifice, liver and entrail reading was a more specific form of augury in the Mesopotamian, Levantine, and Classical world – especially the Babylonian and Etruscan cultures – so much so that some out of many likely teaching models have survived antiquity with exacting interpretive textual guidelines.
Anthony Barrett. Caligula: Corruption of Power. Yale University Press, 1990, 161-4.
Larissa Bonfante, ed. Etruscan Life and Afterlife. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986, esp. 222-6, 248.
________________. “Review of L. B.Van Der Meer, The Bronze Liver of Piacenza.” (Amsterdam: Gieben, 1987). Journal of Roman Studies (1988) 208-9.
Cicero. On the Nature of the Gods. Penguin Books, 1972, 3.15.
S. J. Harrison. Vergil: Aeneid 10. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991, notes 116.
R. J. Hilsden and E. A. Shaffer. First Principles of Gastroenterology. 2000, 462 on “liver”.
Sarah Iles Johnston, P. T. Struck, eds. Mantike: Studies in Ancient Divination. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2006.
Ulla Koch-Westenholz. Babylonian Liver Omens : The Chapters Manzazu, Padanu and Pan Takalti of the Babylonian Extispicy Series Mainly From Assurbanipal’s Library. Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000.
Pliny. Natural History XI.72.189.
Richmond Lattimore, tr. Iliad. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970 (20th printing).
L. B. Van Der Meer. The Bronze Liver of Piacenza: Analysis of a Polytheistic Structure. Dutch Monographs on Ancint history and Archaeiology ll. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1987.
Alex Nice. “Review of Johnston and Struck,eds. Mantike: Studies in Ancient Divination, Leiden: Brill, 2005″ in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.04.10.
Suetonius, Caligula 57 & Claudius 46.
C. Thulin. Die Etruskische Disciplin. Goteborgs, 1905-9. 3 volumes.
Images courtesy of: Fig. 2, British Museum, ostensibly from public domain sites; Fig. 3, Piacenza Museo Civico, ostensibly from public domain sites; Figs. 1 & 4 Gregorian Museum, Vatican, Rome, Wikipedia and http://users.tpg.com.au/er/etrusk/po/liver.html
copyright © 2007, Patrick Hunt,
and Whitney de Luna,
Stanford Hospital Liver Clinic