In the cultural traditions of the ancient Greeks and Romans, an omen was a predictor of a future event—good or bad. A sneeze, a dream, a stumble, a lightning strike, the appearance of a comet, and the flight patterns of birds were regarded as omens. The ancients believed that omens were sent by the gods and that they should be taken seriously. Major decisions and battles might be postponed if an omen indicated disaster ahead. When the Greek military commander Xenophon felt an urge to sneeze while addressing his troops before a battle, everyone assumed that the gods were on their side. The Greeks regarded the sneeze as a sign of good luck.
In Greece the behavior of birds was especially important as an omen. Certain species of birds were believed to be messengers of the gods. For example, the eagle was associated with Zeus, the falcon with Apollo, and the owl with Athena. The direction from which birds appeared was also important. Anything coming from the right side was good; anything from the left meant danger. Omens had greater significance if the viewer was facing north. The appearance of birds also signaled seasonal changes. In Works and Days, the Greek poet Hesiod advises farmers to “pay heed when you hear the voice of the crane, crying every year from the clouds on high: for she brings the sign to plow and shows forth the season of rainy winter.” Sacrifices were fraught with omens. A victim who approached the altar willingly was a positive sign, whereas an unwilling victim signalled disaster. Seers* examined the entrails* (especially the liver) of the sacrificed animal for omens too. The opinion of a seer was highly valued by military commanders, who were always on the lookout for an advantage in battle. Every army had a seer for this purpose. A good seer was a valuable asset to an army.
Simple objects were also used to predict the future. The ancient Greeks and Romans peered into bowls of water, drew lots, threw dice, and observed statues of the gods for signs of impending doom or good fortune.
The Romans regarded birds, lightning, and sacrificial victims as important omens. Like the Greeks, they also placed importance on a random word or phrase. When Rome’s leaders were debating whether to abandon their city after its capture by the Gauls, it was the chance remark of a soldier marching his men through the forum that turned the tide of flight. The soldier had remarked casually, “We might as well stop here.”
Not all the ancient peoples believed in omens. The followers of the philosopher Epicurus expressed doubt, and the writer Aristophanes poked fun at Athenians’ belief in omens. In the late A.D. 300s, the emperor Theodosius forbade all forms of divination.* (See also Augur; Divination; Oracles.)
* seer person who foresees future events; a prophet
* entrails internal organs, including the intestines
* divination art or practice of foretelling the future