Lily-Livered Coward

Extispicy and hepatoscopy were two important forms of divination, enabling the diviner to make predictions concerning future events. Both forms of divination, originated from the ancient Babylonians, and were practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans, in Celtic and Germanic societies, in Asia, Africa, and by cultures indigenous to Central and South America. 

Extispicy refers to the scrupulous examination of the entrails of sacrificed animals or prisoners. Signs seen as predicting instant disaster included excessive ‘bloodiness’, malformations, or discolouration. The Greek historian and geographer, Strabo, reports: ‘They […] cut open the prisoners’ bellies and read the omens from their entrails, proclaiming victory in the battle to come’.95 

Divination by means of hepatoscopy was very popular in the ancient world. Babylonian clay models of sheep’s livers used for omen divination date from circa 2050 BCE. Similarly, the Etruscans fashioned models of the liver out of clay, as well as bronze, hundreds of which have been unearthed by archaeologists. The liver was seen as a reflection of the macrocosm, the ‘mirror of heaven’ as it were, reflecting the will of the gods in the same way the zodiac was perceived as doing. The liver was also seen as the source of blood in the body, hence, the life force. This gave the organ special occult significance. All those wanting a prediction had to bring a sheep to the temple for sacrifice. The question the person wished answered, was written on clay and laid at the feet of the god’s statue. The priest’s assistant would then kill the animal, deftly remove the liver, lay it out before him and inspect it carefully. For the purpose of divination it was considered important that the liver be freshly plucked from the sacrificed animal or victim. Any discoloration, malformation, deficiency, or depression, especially on the left side of the liver, was seen as an ominous sign, linked with bad tidings. When royal diviners were at work, armies consisting of thousands of battle-ready men literally stood for days until diviners could report favourable omens. This is vividly described by a student of Socrates (469–399 BCE) named Xenaphon, historian, essayist and soldier, who functioned as a mercenary in the Greek army for a time.

From the custom of hepatoscopy derives the notion that the liver of a coward was as light as a lily, hence we still use the term lily-livered to describe cowardice. 


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