These enigmatic Sumerian divinatory livers – Sciences et Avenir

This article is from the magazine Sciences et Avenir n°827, dated January 2016. You can get it via a link at the bottom of this article.

DIVINATION. No one is a prophet in his own country. This has not always been true! One of the main practices of the populations of the first civilization of the world, which appeared in southern Mesopotamia (4th-3rd millennium BC) is none other than divination. There, between the Tigris and the Euphrates where imposing cities prospered, oracles tried to predict the future by leaning on… sheep’s livers, as evidenced by exceptional clay models. These 3,800-year-old Sumerian “divinatory livers” are the oldest traces of these practices that have come down to us. Directly fashioned from the organs of sacrificed animals, they reproduced malformations or abnormalities of the liver. To better study these unique pieces kept at the Louvre Museum, researchers are digitizing them in 3D, as part of a vast international campaign to digitize the Sumerian tablets kept in the largest institutions in the world. This large-scale project is in line with the “Fifty French proposals for the protection of the heritage of humanity“, report presented on November 17 to the President of the Republic, by Jean-Luc Martinez, the current director of the Louvre Museum.

In Mesopotamia, no decision was made without consulting a diviner

On this sunny morning, Julien Curie rotates these models in all directions on the screen of his computer. “In Mesopotamia, the liver was considered the organ of the soul. A discipline, called hepatoscopy, thus set itself the goal of predicting the future through its observation., explains this young researcher from the ArScAn laboratory (Archaeology and Ancient Sciences) -UMR 7041, in Nanterre (Hauts de Seine). It thus analyzes in detail the 16 clay models preserved in Paris out of the 32 discovered on the famous site of Mari (Tell Harriri), in present-day Syria, by André Parrot between 1935 and 1936. They were exhumed from the rubble of the former palace of ruler Zimrilim, destroyed by fire in 1759 BCE. These casts bore cuneiform inscriptions in Akkadian, the Semitic language used by the Sumerians between the 3rd and 1st millennia BCE. “We are trying to unravel the mystery regarding the role that these models may have played and the omens associated with them”, continues the archaeologist. In Mesopotamia, divination was indeed one of the central elements of political, social and religious life. No decision was taken without consulting a diviner, called bârû, whether one was a simple trader or a sovereign. The latter resorted to it systematically before any foundation of a palace or a public building or any military enterprise. “These omens were in the form of recipes centered around a conditional proposition, called “protasis”, and a response to this proposition, called “apodose”., explains Laurent Colonna d’Istria, epigraphist in the Department of Antiquity Sciences at the University of Liège (Belgium) and author of a thesis on the question. Thus, the diviner could say: “If the enemy takes the canal, do this…”; “If the king rebukes the country, such and such a thing will happen…

Models perhaps intended for teaching

In the cases of “Mari’s livers” – as the collection preserved in the Louvre is called -, it seems that the very shape of the livers was part of the protasis, while the inscriptions constituted the apodosis. “These sheep livers are indeed all differentexplains Julien Curie. We therefore wonder about the possible existence of a relationship between this diversity and the nature of the omens described..” Thus, according to the anomalies noted on the livers, the oracles could have predicted the nature of the events to come according to a simple formula which could be summed up as “if this part of the liver has this shape, this thing will happen“. The young researcher thus carries out morphometric analyzes intended to model these forms in order to make comparisons.

Refining all the translations undertaken from the 1930s, Laurent Colonna d’Istria managed to decipher, for example, predictions addressed to King Sargon (2334-2279 BC) or others related to battles, such as the capture of the city of Apisal by the ruler Naram-Sin, or the destruction of Ur, the most famous city of Mesopotamia, by Elam, a country of ancient Persia. Some are also historical omens, such as the announcement of possible rebellions or conquests to be made. However, one key question remains. Why did the Mesopotamians take care to make these elements in clay when divinations were made directly on living organs? “These clay replicas may have been intended for teaching hepatoscopy. Specialists could very well have used them to transmit their knowledge to disciples”, suggests Laurent Colonna d’Istria. Or to list all the predictions according to the forms of liver encountered.

An “encyclopedia” made by a single scribe

The epigraphist’s research has thus made it possible to establish that the models from Mari were the work… of a single scribe. “As if, at some point, a diviner had felt the need to compile information from traditions in different regions,” says Laurent Colonna d’Istria. A sort of “divinatory encyclopedia”, in a way. This could explain why they were all found in the same room of the destroyed palace. Anyway, these tablets testify to the universe in which the Mesopotamian populations evolved, then, later, the Greeks and Romans, also great adepts of this divinatory art.A world inventoried, indexed, where everything that was unclassifiable had to be interpreted.To ward off fear facing the unknown.

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These enigmatic Sumerian divinatory livers – Sciences et Avenir

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