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
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
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.

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