Extispicy (or Extispicium)

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Extispicy (or Extispicium)

Extispicy, divination by the reading of animal entrials, was a common practice in the ancient Mediterranean world. The history of the practice can be traced to ancient Chaldea and Babylonia and many incidents were recorded in the Greek and Roman literature. Across the region it rivaled and at times surpassed astrology as the primal means of fortune telling.

Among the most famous cases involving entrail reading involved Alexander the Great. Prior to his campaign in Babylonia, he was warned by his Chaldean soothsayers, following their readings, that he should not go. Upon his arrival at the gates of the city, he learned that the governor of Babylon had also sacrificed an animal whose signs confirmed Alexander's own diviners. Alexander is subsequently said to have degenerated mentally under a cloud of despair. He, of course, confirmed the direst warning of his soothsayers by catching a fever and dying. In the fourth century B.C.E., Xenophon recorded numerous incidents of extispicy in the Anabasis and even mentioned Socrates' making a joke concerning it as he lay dying.

The primary focus of extispicy was the liver. The Etruceans developed an elaborate understanding of the sheep's liver, it various parts being related to the heavens, and the outer edge of the liver was divided into the same 16 divisions as the sky. Special attention was paid to the lobe or head, the part described in modern anatomy books as the processus pyramidus, its absence or malformation was generally regarded as a bad omen.

The person doing the reading, called a bapu in Assyria, had to go through a lengthy process to complete the divinatory reading. Knowing the capricious nature of the Gods, and the manner in which a bored deity might play tricks and word games on humans, the question to be discerned had to be carefully constructed. The answer received might be literally true but otherwise leave a false impression. After the question was put, an appeal to the gods would b made. Prior to the process, an unblemished animal would have been selected for sacrifice. It would be killed with a knife and its intestines, gall bladder and liver extracted. These were the primary organs examined for irregularities.

Extispicy was an integral part of the divination process at Delphi and other oracle centers, even in those cases where mind-altering drugs or mediumship dominated. Modern discussions of the process have been limited, in spite of the extensive number of texts describing it, and its importance in the ancient world, due both to its having been abandoned and to negative reactions to the idea of the process in the modern world.


Temple, Robert K. G. Conversations with Eternity: Ancient Man's Attempt to Know the Future. London: Rider, 1984.

Xenophon. Anabasis; or Expedition to Cyprus. Trans. by J. S. Watson. London: Bohn's Librayr, 1891.

. Memorabilia (Recollections of Socrates). Trans. by Anna S. Benjamin. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.