Extispicy is a form of divination using the entrails of animals for divining future events. Organs, such as the liver, intestines, and the lungs, among other major organs were read to foretell the future. It is understood that the practice was very common in ancient Mesopotamia, and in the Hittite and Canaan temples. The origin of the practice can be traced back to ancient Babylonia. Extispicy reached the ancient Romans from Babylonia by way of the Etrurians, from whom Romulus – one of the founders of Rome – chose the Extispieces or the Auspieces, who were the officials who inspected the entrails of the animals for the purpose of divination.
Four distinct duties were attributed to the Roman auspieces:
• Examining the animal before it was sacrificed.
• Examining the entrails after the animal had been sacrificed.
• Examining the flames of the sacrificial fire.
• Examining the meat and the drinks offered during the sacrifice.
If the heat of the fire was found wanting, it was considered a fatal sign. This was supposed to have happened on the day Julius Caesar was killed. The animal entrails falling to the ground, more than usual bloodiness during the sacrifice, or the entrails found to be of a livid color, were signs of an impending disaster.
That extispicy was a popular and a significant form of augury during those times, and in those regions, was supported by the availability in cuneiform script of organ models and extispicy manuals.
Divination through extispicy focused mainly on the liver of the animal. The ancient Etruceans developed the art of reading the liver of the sheep. Their understanding of the liver of the sheep was quite elaborate, and they related it various parts to the heavens. They divided the outer edges of the liver into the same 16 divisions of the sky. The Etruceans paid special attention to the head and the lobe, the malformation of which was regarded as bad omen.
In Assyria, the reader - known as bapu – had to go through a lengthy process prior to reading. The questions had to be carefully constructed, and the answers received from the deities could be direct, or in the round about way. After the question was asked, an appeal was made to the gods. The animal selected for the sacrifice had to be free of all blemishes. Once killed, the gall bladder, intestines, and the liver were extracted and examined for irregularities, if any.
The Famous Prediction
One of the most famous cases involving extispicy was the case of Alexander the Great. His Chaldean soothsayers had warned him prior to his campaign in Babylonia. When his armies arrived at the gates of Babylon, the city’s governor sacrificed an animal, whose reading of the entrails confirmed what the Chaldean soothsayers foresaw – disaster. Alexander caught fever and died, confirming the divination through extispicy.
Even Socrates is known to have mocked at extispicy as he lay dying.
Extispicy, too, formed an important part of the process of divination at Delphi, as well as at the other oracle centers. Though an important method of divination in the ancient world, extispicy lies abandoned today, due to obvious reasons.