Portents and Prodigies

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PORTENTS AND PRODIGIES are signs that, if understood or interpreted correctly, can reveal personal destinies and the will of the gods. They may be observed and interpreted either by the person who witnessed them or, more usually, by a priest specializing in the science required.

Portents and prodigies are one of the sources of the art of divination (divinatio in Latin, mantikē technē in Greek). The diviner, who is capable of predicting the future, could have recourse either to the exegesis of observed signs or to prophetic inspiration, a kind of delirium (mania ) deriving from his possession by some divinity who comes into contact with diviners, sibyls, or Pythian priestesses.

Some of the words designating portent or prodigy in the languages of classical antiquity (Greek, Latin, and also Etruscan, which remains largely obscure to us) have a clear origin and significance; others have an original meaning that eludes us.

Sēmeion in Greek and signum in Latin correspond closely to the word sign. The ancients lived in a world where signs were ever present and were to be found in the most diverse parts of the universe: heaven, earth, and underworld. Portents and prodigies often appeared in everyday observation. Even today, popular belief often attributes favorable or unfavorable meanings to apparitions, no matter how natural: to animals of certain breeds, aspects, or colors, or to certain ecclesial phenomena such as a flash of lightning or a thunderclap in a peaceful sky.


The most universal portent is the word or phrase heard by chance. Although it is not intended for the listener, it is perceived to have some bearing on one's daily life. In antiquity, as today, people imagined that utterances spoken or heard fortuitously could foretell a dark future or a bright and happy one. The listener, of course, might fail to recognize the omen for what it was, and remain deaf to its warning.

The Roman had the right to accept a portentan omen by declaring it in a loud and clear voice. This was the meaning of the expression omen accipere ("to accept the omen"). But the Roman could just as easily strip the omen of its value and efficacy by declaring in a loud and clear voice that he or she refused to take it into account: omen exsecrari, abominari ("omen execrated, abominated"). The ancients also knew how to transform the omen's value and meaning by adroit wording that modified or transformed its scope. Celebrated narratives from Latin writers illustrate the efficacy of human speech in this regard, as in Ovid's Fasti (3.330ff.), in which the legendary king of Rome, the pious Numa Pompilius, avoided by clever replies Jupiter's cruel demand for human lives to expiate the stain left on the soil by a bolt of lightning.


As with all peoples of Indo-European origin, the most important and frequent portents for the Greeks and Romans were furnished by the flights, cries, and behavior of birds. The importance of birds as portents is clear in Aristophanes' comedy The Birds, which was performed at the festival of the Great Dionysia in Athens in 414 bce. In this play, in which distant memories are muted by the satiric medium, the birds proudly bestow upon themselves leading roles as true guides, not mere advisers of human beings. Although this might simply be poetic fancy, it must reflect the memory of a very ancient reality whose origins are lost in the mists of protohistory.

In the vast domain of portents conveyed by birds, ancient Italy deserves attention. From its origins, Rome had a very important priestly college, the augurs, whose responsibility was to preserve scrupulously and apply methodically the religious regulations pertaining to signs given by birds, that is, auspices. By their presence, advice, and collaboration, the augurs could ensure the propriety of the actions of the magistrates. They possessed the compilations of sacred precepts, the Libri augurales, which preserved in full detail the rules of auspication and the precise record of controversies over procedure.

Numerous Greek and Latin texts describe minutely the ritual capture of the auspices, a ceremony dating from the beginnings of Rome. The fratricidal rivalry of the twins Romulus and Remus was adjudicated and the founder of the city selected through precise augural interrogation of the divine will. Romulus's lituus, a curved stick, which he used to take the portents, became the characteristic emblem of the augural sacerdotia.

The object of augury was to obtain signs testifying to the agreement of the gods with the city in any political, religious, or military actions it wanted to undertake. The juridical and pragmatic Roman mind knew how to organize the ritual needed to obtain this assent in the most efficacious way possible. A sacred formula, which served as a veritable pact between humans and gods, was read in a loud and clear voice by the priest who was to perform the augury. The formula specified both the time and place in which the signs were to be observed. The augurs thus received certified, enabling signs that had legal force and value in themselves. But the ceremony could be marked also by accidental, unforeseen phenomena that had to be taken into account.

The Romans were not, to be sure, the only people in Italy who possessed such an augural law. The longest religious inscription left by classical antiquity, the Eugubine tablets, attest to the existence of augural law among other Italic peoples, especially the Umbrians. According to this well-known text, a sacerdotal college called the Attiedii Brotherhood practiced a system of explication very similar to that used by the Roman augers. In both cases, the observation and interpretation of portents was carried out with the same formalism and attention to minute detail in the ritual procedures. The question put to the gods was the same among both peoples: Were they in agreement with the proposed enterprise or not?


Among the series of portents that lent themselves to observation, those furnished by a sacrificial victim consecrated on the altar of a divinity held a major importance in classical antiquity and in other civilizations. The reason is clear. By virtue of its consecration, the sacrificial animal passes from the domain of the human to that of the god. The gods express their disposition by means of the victim itself in the moments preceding, accompanying, and following the sacrifice. It was important, then, to observe everything in the victim's behavior with the greatest attention: When it was led to the altar and when it received the mortal blow, the crackling of flesh on the brazier, the colors of the flame, and the speed of the smoke's ascent into the sky.

But the clearest and most decisive indications were provided by the examination of the entrails of the sacrificial animal by experienced specialists: in Greece, the Iamides, diviners at Olympia; in Etruria and Rome, the haruspices. The haruspices, according to the ancients, enjoyed an immense reputation and seemed to practice a science that was infallible. They can be compared only with the baru, Babylonian priests who in the second millennium bce had a veritable library of clay tablets at their disposal. These tablets detailed a complex doctrine based on minute observation of the organs of victims that was transmitted from one generation to the next.

For the haruspex, as for the baru, each fact noted at the sacrificei.e., form, color, presence or absence of specific parts of the visceraunfailingly foretold the approach of specific events, favorable or foreboding, in human society. Rome received its haruspicinal science primarily from Etruria, which, long before it was conquered, had entrusted its best diviners to Rome. But did Etruria develop this discipline independently, or did it borrow elements from the Greek world or even from regions of the Near East? The latter is more likely, although the paths such influences followed are difficult to determine.

In various lands of the Near East, numerous terra-cotta models have been discovered. These models represent organs of sacrificed sheep and bear inscriptions clearly indicating the portents foretold by anomalies in the organs. Etruria is the source of the famous bronze liver found in the Po plain in 1877 near the city of Piacenza. The convex surface of the Piacenza Liver is divided into two lobes bearing the names of the sun (Usil) and the moon (Tiur). The concave surface, admirably sculptured and engraved, is divided into a large number of compartments, on which can be read forty-two inscriptions and twenty-seven names of divinities. This is a graphic illustration of the haruspex's fundamental belief: that the gods actually occupy different parts of the sacrificed animal, and their places there correspond to those they occupy in the sky.

Other Portents

The sky, in antiquity, was the home of reigning gods and the place from which they launched comets, falling stars, lightning, and thunder (sources of joy or, more often, terror), considered in some places portents, in other places prodigies. Lightning and thunder were major phenomena, intended to warn humans, who noted with the keenest attention the path of meteorites and deep claps of thunder, foretelling, according to Cicero, the most serious perils for the city and state.

The Etruscans developed most fully the so-called science of interpretation of major celestial portents. Indeed, the master of thunder and lightning, the Etruscan Tinia, was the homologue of the Hellenic Zeus, undisputed master of meteorological phenomena, and of the Roman Jupiter, who hurled thunderbolts during the day (Summanus was master during the night). The Etruscans developed a complete methodology for the interpretation of thunderbolts, including directions for expiation if the portents were unfavorable.

The Greek historian Diodorus was not exaggerating when he wrote, "Etruscan keraunoscopia [keraunos was the Greek word for thunder and lightning] was renowned throughout nearly the whole earth" (5.40.2). Seneca, in Natural Questions (2.32ff.), discourses knowingly on the differences between Roman and Etruscan approaches to portents, and on the importance the Etruscans placed on thunder portents. He wrote, "Since the Etruscans relate everything to divinity, they are persuaded not that thunderclaps foretell the future because they have been formed, but that they take form because they must foretell the future."

If portents are taken to include inanimate objects and the earth itself, they are even more numerous in the Greek, Roman, and Etruscan traditions. The importance of portents furnished by waters, especially the waters of springs, is attested by texts and archaeological data. These portents depended on the way the water spurted out from the depths of the earth, and also on the way that objects thrown into them were carried along or sank. They were attributed to nymphs reigning over these streams and to various female divinities who were objects of popular devotions in different parts of the ancient world.

Like the surface of water, the mirror was thought to present future events in its reflected images. Drawing lots by choosing among similar objects also appeared to translate either the will of the gods or the will of destiny. Thus, as a response to a question, the white bean drawn by the Greek diviner represented a positive answer, the black bean a negative answer. At Delphi, the center of divination in the ancient world, Apollo spoke through the mouth of his priestess, the Pythia, but she, too, in certain cases, had recourse to drawing lots.

In inspired divination, the priest or prophetess, after attaining the necessary precondition, entered into direct contact with the deity. The god then spoke through their voices and permitted them to prophesy the future, albeit in obscure terms that required professional exegesis.

The premonitory dream is the object of one of the most widespread human beliefs, and in antiquity it was connected with rituals of incubation. The believer, after carrying out certain rituals before induced sleep, sees in a dream what the priests interpret upon awakening.

The World of Prodigies

To move from portents to the world of prodigies is not really to change domains, because the prodigy, like the portent, is a sign, a warning the gods transmit to humans. Nevertheless, there is a serious difference between the two, which lies in the importance and gravity of the sign. The prodigy, wherever it appears, is a truly exceptional phenomenon that disrupts the normal course of things for a time.

The Greeks could call the prodigy sēmeion, but the proper term is teras, whose semantic field is the same as that of the archaic term pelōr. Both words lack an Indo-European etymology and undoubtedly represent loanwords derived perhaps from one of the Near Eastern civilizations. Despite their importance in Etruscan divination, the Etruscan word or words designating prodigies are not known. Although the word teras is found in one of two Etruscan inscriptions, the exact meaning of the word in this context cannot be confirmed.

In Latin, the numerous names for the prodigy reveal the importance the notion possessed in the Roman mind. It is called prodigium, monstrum, miraculum, ostentum, and portentum. It is not easy to distinguish among the usages of these different words. Prodigium is the most often used; its etymology is unclear. Monstrum and miraculum are applied to something unexplainable in a living creature, human or animal. Ostentum and portentum, properly speaking, designate what the gods present to humans. None of these terms implied, however, the idea of portent, in the sense of warning about the future. Finally it should be noted that the Roman term miraculum became specialized in modern languages to designate all events that ignored natural laws, particularly those associated with Christ. In the shift from paganism to Christianity, the word remained very much alive.

In Etruria, as well as in Rome and the rest of the Italic world, prodigies appeared in various forms. In Greece, as in many other countries, the prodigy could occur in any aspect of nature: earth, sea, sky, underground, in the realms of humans, animals, vegetables, and inanimate objects. The prodigy was attributed to one or another of the gods. The most diverse chthonian phenomenasubterranean rumbles, volcanic displays, earthquakes, and tidal wavesterribly feared in themselves, were also considered forewarnings of the most dire events. Sources of terror for the ancients, these phenomena required expiatory ceremonies intended to pacify the gods.

Prodigies in Etruscan Life

Etruria devoted a part of its sacred books to ostentaria, collections of rules for observing, explicating, and expiating prodigies. For this function, Rome called on the knowledge of the haruspices. For these priests, as for the Greeks, a prodigy could have a favorable or an evil and disastrous meaning. Presumably it was different in Rome, at least at the beginning of its history. The world of Etruscan prodigies is rather well known because Roman writings accord them considerable importance and familiarize researchers with the haruspices' behavior vis-à-vis the most extraordinary phenomena. The exegeses were often subtle, but usually based on a rather clear symbolism. A comet, a meteor, or a ringing that seemed to burst out of a serene sky could mark the end of a saeculum, one of those centuries that formed the history of Etruria. As in Greece, seismic activity on Tuscan soil foretold the most serious events. Conversely, however, certain prodigies could foretell the high destiny of humans, often divining in certain individuals the charisma necessary for kingship. Before the first two Etruscan kings of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus and Servius Tullius, acceded to the throne, they had been marked by prodigies announcing their elevated destiny. The former, upon arriving in Rome had his hat removed by an eagle, which then replaced it, uttering loud cries. Divine favor distinguished Servius Tullius during his childhood, for flames would surround his head for long periods, frightening those around him, and then flicker out.

It is clear that haruspices did not need uncommon wisdom to interpret correctly miraculous phenomena by means of transparent symbolism. But the priests were also masters of ritual as well as of the propitiatory expiations rendered necessary by any prodigy that they thought defiled the land or the city. The priests purified places that had been struck by lightning by interring all objects that it had touched. Compelled by a deep sense of cosmic order, they pitilessly eliminated abnormal creatures as products of the cruelty of nature. The appearance of monsters in the animal or human realm was a tangible sign of divine wrath, representing a disturbance of the rhythm and laws of the universe. Thus, the haruspices made monsters disappear from the face of the earth by fire or drowning, but without laying hands on them, lest they suffer contagion from the contamination.

Prodigies in Roman Life

In Rome, the prodigy went through a perceptible evolution; its characteristics were modified during the course of history. In the beginning, according to Greek and Roman historians, the prodigy was not a divinatory sign, not a simple presaging of an important event. An unforeseen event that appeared in some form of nature broke the course of natural laws and indicated the wrath of the gods, a rupture of the peace the gods maintained with Rome. A sudden disruption of the pax deum represented a terrible threat. Such a situation most often came about through the failure of either citizens or the state to fulfill religious duties. To obtain the reestablishment of the crucial pax deum, high authorities had at their disposal an arsenal of expiatory measures. They addressed the keepers of whatever religious traditions were indicatedthe pontiffs, the guardians of the Sibylline Books, or even the haruspicesto act without delay in restoring calm to a world momentarily threatened. This was known as procuratio prodigiorum ("prodigy management"), and it influenced greatly the evolution of Roman religion.

In the crises that characterized Roman religious history from the time of the Second Punic War, an anxious public felt new divinatory needs. Portents and prodigies became nearly indistinguishable, except for the force of the meaning they signified. To be sure, the expiation of contamination continued, but the search for divinatory meaning now intervened. At the end of the republic and the beginning of the empire, Hellenic mystery religions and religions of the Near East increased in popularity, and Christian monotheism made gradual inroads. The person of the emperor, now the center of religious life, was surrounded by an entire series of charismatic signs, portents, or prodigies. The belief in traditional prodigies, however, gave way gradually to other more complex and increasingly widespread beliefs that came from Greece and the East. Astrology and magic became more important, and it was only in great crises that the haruspices, the most ancient priests in Italy, dared to show their strength by calling attention to the prodigies whose secrets they had jealously guarded.

See Also

Divination; Etruscan Religion; Oracles; Sky.


Works on Portents

Bouché-Leclercq, Auguste. L'astrologie grecque. Paris, 1899.

Catalano, Pierangelo. Contributi allo studio del diritto augurale, vol. 1. Turin, 1960.

Nougayrol, Jean. "Les rapports des haruspicines étrusque et assyro-babylonienne, et le foie d'argile de Falerii veteres. " In Comptes rendus, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, pp. 509519. Paris, 1955.

Thulin, Carl O. Die etruskische Disciplin (19061909). 3 vols. Reprint, Darmstadt, 1968.

Works on Prodigies

Aumüller, Ernst. "Das Prodigium bei Tacitus." Ph.D. diss., University of Frankfurt, 1948.

Bloch, Raymond. Les prodiges dans l'Antiquité classique: Grèce, Etrurie et Rome. Paris, 1963.

Brassmann-Fischer, Brigitte. Die Prodigien in Vergils Aeneis. Munich, 1966.

Macbain, Bruce. Prodigy and Expiation: A Study in Religion and Politics in Republican Rome. Brussels, 1982.

Weinstock, Stefan. "Libri Fulgurales." Papers of the British School at Rome 19 (1951): 122153.

Raymond Bloch (1987)

Translated from French by Marilyn Gaddis Rose