Messengers of the Gods and Other Omens

An omen or portent can be an occurrence or object presaging good or evil. An omen is a prophetic sign or augury, which when interpreted, is a message about future events. Since ancient times, certain phenomena and unusual events were taken as a prediction of good or evil, from the belief that coming events cast their timely shadows before them. Omens and portents, throughout history, have been regarded as warnings of dangers to be avoided and opportunities to be seized.

Based on long-term observations, of the relationships of certain events and objects, omens were of great importance to the affairs of ancient rulers and every public or private activity first required a good omen, before being carried out. In the daily lives of the Greeks and the Romans, no public action or decision was ever taken without specifically requesting signs from the relevant divinities. The ancients were firmly convinced that the gods communicated with them by inscribing such signs or messages of things to come into the natural surroundings. The information given by the gods was thus abundantly available. However, the challenge for ancient diviners was to first recognise and define these signs, and then to correctly interpret them.

Omens could be read from signs in the heavens, such as celestial phenomena. Because the sky was seen as the orderly and regular procession of stars, any disruption such as an eclipse, a meteor, or a comet, was regarded as an omen. In King John, Shakespeare alludes to this belief: ‘But they will pluck away his natural cause, and call them meteors, prodigies and signs, abortives, presages and tongues of heaven’.113 Similarly, thunder and lightning were often viewed as expressing the anger of the gods. The ancient Greeks considered lightning a good omen when it was seen on their right side, and a bad omen when on the left. Those killed by lightning were thought of as obnoxious to the gods and either buried apart not to contaminate others or simply left to decay in the place where lightning had killed them. All omens coming from an easterly direction were regarded as positive in ancient Greece, as the life-giving force of the sun emanates from that direction.

Omens were also obtained from the blood, liver, or entrails of sacrificial animals or prisoners and from the behaviour of animals and insects. In ancient times, the behaviour of sacred fish or tame serpents was interpreted as a sign that could be applied to human actions. For instance, sluggish movements of these creatures were interpreted as indicating slow crop growth and, hence, a lean harvest. Alternately, if their movements were frenzied, a fast-growing crop and a plentiful harvest could be expected. If ants were seen fighting, the omen warned of an enemy approaching. But, to see a swarm of bees land in one’s garden was regarded as an omen of impending prosperity.

From the earliest times, birds have been regarded as the harbingers of good and evil, their behaviour carefully observed and auguries drawn from their flight and actions. Because birds have always been seen as having a close relationship with the various sky gods dwelling in the heavens, the belief arose that birds were the messengers of higher powers, and hence, the possessors of secret knowledge. The ancient Greek and Roman augurs were adept at interpreting the flight of birds, a practice called ornithomancy. Especially birds of prey, called oionoi in Greek, were thought to give important signs. Hence, legend tells us that twelve eagles appeared when Rome was to be founded and Homer’s Iliad, states that the Greek army was led to Troy through divination alone. Differing cultures worldwide followed the practice of bird watching for divination. For example, amongst African tribes from the south to the north of the continent, the flight or chirping of birds to the right or left of a specific point was seen as a specific omen in the same way as it was in ancient Greece and Rome. 

Throughout history, special meaning was given to the sighting of specific birds. The owl, abhorred by the Romans, has always been a particularly unlucky bird to see. Equally, the peacock was regarded in European countries as an ill-omened bird, and to bring a peacock feather into one’s house boded disaster and illness. In the South Pacific countries, hearing the scream of a night bird or a screeching crow flying overhead, was seen as an omen of misfortune requiring immediate appeasement of the appropriate deities. In Abyssinia, the colour of birds, if white or black, should they fly away or approach a traveller, indicated mishap or good fortune.

In northern Europe, various beliefs about the cuckoo’s call were widespread and gave rise to numerous omens. To hear the cuckoo for the first time, and not have any money in one’s pocket, boded ill for one’s finances in the year ahead. Whatever a person was doing when first hearing the cuckoo was thought to later be the action most frequently performed throughout that year. 

Traditionally, country people foretold the weather and the seasons by the behaviour of birds. For seagulls to fly low over the shore foretold foul weather, and a peacock’s harsh clamour or shrill call was seen as a sign of coming rain. Although the Christian Church tried to stamp out such superstitions, they persisted and exist even today in some rural areas. 

Certain birds were seen as omens of death, the strongest warnings coming from ravens, crows, and owls. Amongst Australian Aborigines, the crow was regarded as a ‘death bird’, especially when seen persistently hovering around a homestead, and night owls were linked with bad fortune. Similarly, in Europe, ravens croaking over a house boded evil, and a white pigeon settling on a house was viewed with great misgivings, as it was a certain omen of death. Similarly, cocks crowing at night or birds flying against windows were all considered ominous warnings that someone was about to die.

Besides all natural phenomena, the study of entrails, and the behaviour of animals, insects, and specific birds, there were various other omens to be carefully heeded. The mystery surrounding death has always instilled a sense of dread and fear amongst humans. An involuntary cold shudder, for example, is seen to be associated with someone walking over one’s future grave. Every culture has differing omens warning of imminent death. Not long ago, very little was known about the causes of various illnesses, with the result that people facing any serious malady became racked with fear and anxiety, thus becoming oversensitive to surrounding sights and sounds. Some animals were credited with the gift to see death coming, particularly dogs whose repeated howling was seen as an omen that someone in the house was about to die. The howling was interpreted as the dog being conscious of spirits hovering around the house, preparing to bear away the soul of the departed. Similarly, a dog behaving strangely and uncharacteristically while someone lay ill, or the persistent neighing of a horse at night, were seen as sure omens of death. 

Any change in a clock’s rhythm was viewed with foreboding, symbolising a corresponding disturbance in the human life cycle. Mirrors, framed photographs, or portraits falling from their hangings and breaking for no apparent reason or old trees falling over, all indicated an imminent death in the family. Persistent knocking heard at night in a house where someone lay ill meant that the Spirit of Death was on his way to claim the soul. The creaking and cracking of beams and furniture in houses was also generally regarded as a foreboding omen. When considering that most houses were formerly constructed of wood, and families tended to occupy the same house for generations, one can imagine the sense of foreboding felt at each creaking sound and all that went ‘bump’ in the middle of night. 


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