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Work Model liver for divination

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Mesopotamia

Modèles de foies divinatoires

© 2007 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities
Mesopotamia

Author(s):
Benoit Nicolas

This model liver is one of 32 such livers found in Room 108 of the palace at Mari. In Mesopotamia, the liver was believed to be the essential organ of thought and feeling. Diviners predicted the future by the examination of viscera. Malformations or abnormalities of the liver are illustrated on the model, and inscriptions give the associated predictions. These model livers may have served as aide-mémoire for priests or been used in the training of diviners.

Ancient divination

In the course of Parrot's excavations at Mari in 1935-36, 32 inscribed clay livers were discovered among the tablets found in Room 108 of the palace. This piece comes from that group, which offers the earliest direct evidence of hepatoscopy (the examination of the liver of a sacrificed sheep), one of the branches of ancient divination. A practice proper to Mesopotamia, the art of divination produced a considerable body of specialized literature: haruspicy, the observation of animal entrails, and astrology, a later development, were the two most important forms. Dreams and birth abnormalities were also interpreted to yield predictions. Hepatoscopy developed in the early second millennium BC and became increasingly important. Although it is attested in the pre-Sargonic period (third millennium BC), the Mari livers are nonetheless the oldest known representations of omens.

Hepatoscopy

The role of the liver in the organism had attracted the attention of the ancients; in Mesopotamia it was believed to have been an essential organ, the seat of thought and feeling. The priests who examined the livers of a sacrificial sheep or kid had two kinds of document at their disposal: lists of predictions and the clay livers. Copied and recopied since earliest Antiquity, the lists rehearsed the predictions associated with changes in the liver phrased as: "If such a part of the liver shows such an anomaly, then such a thing will happen." Anomalies could be associated with a historical event they were believed to have predicted in the past, allowing the diviner to draw conclusions regarding the future. There was thus a list of "model events" warranting the truthfulness of predictions, well-known to the priests because they were recalled on the clay model with phrases such as: "prediction of (king) so-and-so." The liver models showed the alterations, and indicated the corresponding predictions. They would thus have acted as aide-mémoire to the specialist diviners, or may have been used in schools of augury.

Divination and royal power

This type of divination was rarely performed for ordinary people, being more often concerned with the destiny of kings and states. The Mari archives clearly demonstrate the importance of augury in the exercise of power: the king regularly consulted the augurs before acting. The foundation rites for towns and official buildings included the taking of auguries, and the same was done when a prince thought of destroying an enemy city. This model liver thus includes an "augury concerning the destruction of small towns" (three-line inscription on one side), "if a prince has gone out to the mountain or the plain..." (two lines on the reverse).

Bibliography

André Béatrice (notice), Naissance de l'écriture, cunéiformes et hiéroglyphes, catalogue de l'exposition au Grand Palais, 7 mai - 9 août 1982, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1982, p. 252, n 201.
André Béatrice (notice), L'Aventure des écritures : naissances, catalogue de l'exposition à la Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1997, p. 24, fig. 1.
Rutten, M, Trente-deux modèles de foies en argile inscrits provenant de Tell-Hariri (Mari), in Revue d'Assyriologie XXXV, 1938, pp. 36-70, n 18, pl. IX.

Technical description

  • Modèles de foies divinatoires

    19th-18th century BC

    Palace of Mari

  • Clay

  • A. Parrot excavations, 1935-36

    AO 19829, AO 19830, AO 19831, AO 19832, AO 19833, AO 19834, AO 19835, AO 19836, AO 19837, AO 19838, AO 19839, AO 19840, AO 19841, AO 19842, AO 19843, AO 19844

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Mesopotamia, 2nd and 1st millennia BC
    Room 3
    Display case 8: Amorrite kingdom of Mari (1st half of the 2nd millenium BC)

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