The Art of Divination in the Ancient Near East

Reading the Signs of Heaven and Earth

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Stefan M. Maul
Brian McNeil
Alexander Johannes Edmonds
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , August
     359 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


From time-to-time within the study of religion, one encounters what Jonathan Z. Smith called “contrast” terms. He defined a contrast term as “a shadowy reality known only by looking at the reflection of its opposite” (Smith, “Trading Places,” Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, ed. Paul Mirecki and Marvin Meyer [Leiden: Brill, 2015], 16). The most notable example for religious studies is the function of “magic” as a contrast term for “religion.” On a narrower scale, “divination” has sometimes been treated as the contrast of “prophecy.” Within the discipline of biblical studies, this paradigm arose, in part, by scholars’ overreliance on the Bible’s own complex perspective on divination and prophecy and, more generally,the tendency to categorize divination as magical and prophecy as religious. Several scholars, including Martti Nissinen, Jonathan Stökl, and Esther Hamori, have begun to interrogate and revise this paradigm so that the phenomenological overlap between ancient Israelite prophecy and divination are clear. 

As one might imagine, the growing consensus that prophecy is not phenomenologically distinct from divination has been enormously useful. The benefits of this viewpoint nevertheless remain shrouded, in part, because the literature often focuses on the comparison of termini technici and does not usually consider the phenomenological aspects of prophecy and divination. To this point, Stefan M. Maul’s book, The Art of Divination in the Ancient Near East: Reading the Signs of Heaven and Earth, delivers a much-needed description of divinatory practices in Mesopotamian cultures. Biblical scholars, ancient historians, and other researchers of the ancient Near East will find this book helpful. So too will those who desire to understand the Mesopotamian influences on classical Greek and Roman divination, as well as those interested in the history of Western astrology. 

Translated into English by Brian McNeil and Alexander Johannes Edmonds, Maul’s book begins by outlining several features of his study. First, he demonstrates—through references to Strabo and Pliny the Elder—that Babylonian diviners were the crème de la crème of the divinatory arts in the ancient world, renowned for their traditions, collections, and abilities of divination. Second, Maul suggests that contemporary, Western divinatory arts continue to rely, even if unknowingly, on the practices and insights of the Babylonians. After all, modern astrology can trace its roots to the Babylonian system. Finally, far from a system of chance and foolery, Maul suggests that divination afforded the ancients a system of “scientifically” anticipating the future through an “interactive cosmos” governed by “benevolent gods” through “insightful taxonomy” utilized by experts (8). From the outset, Maul establishes that divination in the ancient world was a careful art, a way of knowing the unknown. As such, the tools of observation and inference followed careful patterns, rules, and interpretations. These tools could be learned, collected, organized, and passed on by specialists. Thus, the art of ancient divination was not guesswork, but a system akin to modern scientific principles of observation, measurement, collection, and testing.

Each chapter of The Art of Divination stands as an extended discussion on the topic while building on the premises of the previous chapter, but one can dip-in where one needs without much reference to the arguments made in other chapters. For instance, the chapter on extispicy, almost seventy pages long, is followed by a chapter entitled “The Fine Art of Asking Questions.” After carefully explicating the laborious task of liver-reading, Maul shows that asking the right question was understood to be as important and technical as knowing which blemishes meant what. In short, Maul’s book develops in a sophisticated, thematic, yet chronological way, leading readers through the development of the birth, evolution, and lasting impact of Mesopotamian divination. It is this tendency that makes the book a singularly important piece of scholarship for any interested in divination as a religious phenomenon or in ancient Israelite prophetic practices or prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible more specifically. 

One of the most enlightening features of the volume is Maul’s explanation of technical and miniscule aspects of divination. To return to the chapter on extispicy, for instance, Maul goes beyond the expected treatment of ancient clay liver models by including labeled photographs of actual sheep livers alongside clay livers (e.g., 49, 51). By doing so, he allows his reader to see the physical elements that relate to the clay models. From this presentation, one gains the ability to see the associative interpretation at work in extispicy. It is one thing to read that the orientation of the “weapon” (kakkum) indicated a positive (when lowered) or negative (when raised) reading, but it is another thing altogether to see its placement and (tiny) size of the “weapon” on a sheep’s liver (60). Throughout the discussion of the technical features of reading livers, Maul includes full and detailed analyses of the principles at work in the diviner’s task. Thus, he demonstrates that the art of divination was not ruled by chance, though an accurate reading required features of chance beyond the diviner’s control, but by careful, even scientific, attention to detail and interpretation by association. 

It is difficult to express the importance of each chapter in such a short review; however, readers interested generally in the topic at hand will likely find chapter 3 “Message in Livers and Entrails: Extispicy’s Essentials,” chapter 4 “The Fine Art of Asking Questions,” and chapter 8 “New Constellations: The Inexorable Rise of Babylonian Astral Divination” particularly striking. As mentioned, chapter 3 explores the system of Mesopotamian extispicy and offers erudite descriptions of how the system functioned. Chapter 4 explores the interrelationship between the inquirer, diviner, and tool to illustrate that to receive an answer, seekers had to pose a relevant and carefully crafted question that followed the rules of the method. As Maul makes clear, diviners often had a hand in negotiating the inquirer’s question so that the seeker could avoid an unreliable answer and gain clear insights. Finally, chapter 8 outlines the relationship between the development of the Babylonian zodiac, astrology, and more traditional forms of divination. While the relationship between diviners and astrologers was not always easy, Maul argues that they found a mutually beneficial middle ground relatively quickly. Maul’s final chapters, 9 “New Teachings on the Cosmos” and 10 “At the Center of Power,” consider the political significance of ancient divination. For instance, in the interest of national security, multiple, individual readers were often sought and then scrutinized by those closest to the king and familiar with his failings—moral and cultic (240–41). Finally, Maul concludes that the Babylonians’ systematic modes of divining hidden knowledge, making political decisions, and anticipating future difficulties are impressive in their own right. Of the belief that ancient diviners were charlatans and frauds, Maul writes: “(This) stance, the product of intellectual sloth ... is frankly indefensible” (254–55).  

Maul’s book will be of great service to those working on religious phenomenon categorized as divination as well as for those interested specifically in ancient Near Eastern and ancient Mediterranean religions and divination. Biblical scholars, especially those working on ancient Israelite prophecy and prophetic literature, would do well to take into account Maul’s work for any future consideration of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brady Alan Beard is a doctoral candidate in Hebrew Bible at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stefan M. Maul is Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies in the Department of Languages and Cultures of the Near East at the University of Heidelberg.


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