Telling the Future: Reflections on the Status of Divination in Ancient Near Eastern Politics

  • Stefan M. MaulEmail author
Part of the Knowledge and Space book series (KNAS, volume 7)


Cuneiform sources from two millennia show that in the Ancient Near East kings and their counselors did not rely exclusively on their own professional expertise when there were political decisions to be made. They held off, rather, on putting a plan into action until its feasibility had been examined and confirmed by an independent “expert advisory board.”

Yet the means by which such evaluations were made seem—at least from the perspective of our current worldview—wrongheaded and downright absurd, with the future prospects of political and military undertakings being regularly determined over the course of centuries from the color and shape of the liver of a sheep slaughtered for this very purpose.

Such an examination procedure, which developed into a form of “science,” baffles modern convention, above all because of its blatent lack of concern for the background and purpose of the decision in question. Nonetheless, Mesopotamians, as well as their neighbors, saw the mastery of such divinatory procedures as a decisive reason for the lasting cultural and geopolitical success of Babylonia and Assyria. Mesopotamia’s 3,000-year-long political and cultural domination of the entire Near East seems to prove the effectiveness of their form of political decision-making. In the present paper I examine why divination does not seem to have obstructed practical politics, even though the concept underlying the Mesopotamian divinatory evaluation procedure seems entirely unreasonable.


Ancient Near East Mesopotamia Politics Political decision making Political advice Divination Extispicy Astrology Early mathematical astronomy 


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© Springer Netherlands 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Languages and Cultures of the Near East – AssyriologyHeidelberg UniversityHeidelbergGermany

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