Orniscopy - Predicting the Future from the Behaviour of Birds

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Much before the use of complex astronomical positions and numerology, mankind depended upon observation of natural phenomena in order to get an inkling of the future. One such method depended upon reading the behavior of birds and animals as a way as signs of things to come and the form of divination which deals with the former is known as orniscopy.

Alternatively termed ornithoscopy, orniscopy is derived from Greek ornis which means bird and manteia which refers to prophecy. Orniscopy is a form of divination that uses behavior of birds like its movements, flight patterns and songs as a way of foreseeing the future. In ancient cultures, certain species of birds were revered greatly and considered as messengers of the gods, probably because of their ability to range far and wide in the skies. And although it was mainly the flights and songs of birds that were studied in orniscopy, any action could have been interpreted to either foretell the future or relate a message from the gods.

The practice of orniscopy as a way to foresee the future was especially widespread among the ancient Greeks and Romans. Among the Greeks, orniscopy was commonly used from mantike or a form of divination used specifically to seek advice concerning a future action. Among the ancient Romans, orniscopy was akin to augury where it became a branch of the state religion with its own priesthood and practice. Even though augury came to refer to the general the art and practice of divination, originally it covered those forms which were based on various signs and omens related to the appearance and behavior of birds. In classical Rome, augurs foretold future events by observation and interpretation of bird omens, which could range from the type of bird seen to its flight pattern and direction as well as to its singing. Over time augury became institutionalized in Roman religion and the augurs were gathered into a formal association known as the College of Augurs whose job it was to officiate at public ceremonies and divinations as well as to keep the Sibylline books. The importance of augury in ancient Rome can be gauged from the fact that the predictions of the augurs were recorded and stored, along with the subsequent outcomes, in secret archives. In fact a specific spot on the Capitol Hill in Rome was supposed to be particularly favourable for this kind of divination; standing here the veiled priests would face south and read omens from the flight of birds.

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Interpretation of signs in augury or the Roman tradition of orniscopy was a complex system. In general, signs seen on the right side of the augur were supposed to be unfavourable while the opposite was true of the signs on his left side. The exact readings depended on various factors, like the number of birds seen, the speed and direction of their flight, sounds made by them, the nature of their droppings and even whether any feathers were shed in it were all considered important in making interpretations for the future.

The Romans had developed augury into a highly complex practice. Evidence of this lies in the fact that according to their version of orniscopy, different birds were read in different ways by the diviner. Thus the voice of hens, crows and owls were supposed to reveal the wishes of the gods while in case of larger birds like eagles and vultures, their flight patterns and predatory actions were considered more significant.

Divination based on the interpretation of behavior of large predatory birds was especially common in ancient Greece and according to the French writer Auguste Bouche Leclercq in his book, Histoire de la Divination, 1879, the birds favored by the Greek diviners were the largest, the strongest, the most intelligent as well as those “…whose solitary habits gave them more individual character”. In fact different methods of divination were applicable to different species of birds, even if they belong to the same type; thus for instance the orniscopic rituals in case of a barn owl would differ from those to be performed in context of a tawny owl. Likewise a saker falcon and a peregrine falcon would each have a distinctive set of divinatory rituals. Then again, every aspect of the bird’s behaviour held separate significance in the context of divination – for instance the bird’s cry, its posture upon landing and other movements after it settled down could be all read separately by the diviner as omens of the future.

The behavior of domesticated birds like hens, chickens, parakeets and canaries was also extensively used by diviners in antiquity as omens for the future. In fact the movements and actions of hens and chickens formed the basis of a separate form of divination known as alectryomancy; according to the most popular form of alectryomancy, the seer would observe the pattern made by a rooster eating corn or grains from the ground and then read them as portents of the future. Along with this alectryomancy also involved interpretation of such movements of the hens and chicken as made while dustbathing, pluming, standing on one leg or scratching holes in the ground.

The most celebrated example perhaps of orniscopy occurs in the Odyssey, when thrice an eagle appears, flying to the right, with a dead dove in its talons; this augury was interpreted as the coming of Odysseus and the death of his wife's suitors. Even though less popular than Homer’s version of orniscopy, it is believed that the sixth century philosopher Anaximander successfully predicted an earthquake in Sparta based on the appearance and behavior of local birds.

With the emergence of the Christian church however, orniscopy like other practices of divination were banned as examples
of sorcery. For this reason ornithomancy is mentioned several times in the Septuagint version of the bible, where it is expressly forbidden.