March 5, 2009
Vol. 28 No. 11

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    Scholars to interpret signs and omens of the ancient world

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Leading scholars from around the world will gather at the Oriental Institute to discuss the role of signs and omens in the ancient world. “Science and Superstition: Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World” is a public symposium scheduled for Friday, March 6 and Saturday, March 7. Amar Annus, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Oriental Institute, organized the event.

    All kinds of worldly phenomena were taken as signs that communicate divine messages about future events in ancient Mesopotamian civilization. The first references to diviners in written sources came from the third millennium B.C.

    “The study of signs from gods was vitally important for ancient Mesopotamians throughout their history,” Annus said. That study and the literature associated with signs spread throughout the ancient world, as far as Rome and India.

    “The concept of sign is found in all ancient cultures, but was first described in ancient Mesopotamian texts. This branch of Babylonian scientific knowledge had great influence, as witnessed by similar texts written in the Aramaic, Sanskrit and Sogdian, among other languages,” Annus said. Ancient Mesopotamians viewed potentially everything in the universe as signs from the gods.

    Omens were apparently part of the oral tradition from earliest times in Mesopotamia and first appeared in the written texts of the Old Babylonian period. Different bodies of omens may be of heterogeneous origin, deriving from wisdom literature genres, such as proverbs like. “If the king does not heed justice, his people will become confused and the country will be destroyed.”

    Some of the ancient Mesopotamian omens or proverbs resonate with stories found in the Bible. “The introductory statement of the parable of the Rich Fool in Luke, the person who does not know where to store his crops, finds a forerunner in a Babylonian omen,” Annus said.

    The sessions for the symposium begin at
    9 a.m. Friday, March 6, with remarks from Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. They continue through 5:45 p.m. The session resumes at 9 a.m. on Saturday, March 7, and concludes at 12:30 p.m.

    Speakers from Chicago include Edward Shaughnessy, the Lorraine J. & Herrlee G. Creel Distinguished Service Professor in Early Chinese Studies and Chair of East Asian Languages & Civilizations, and Seth Richardson, Assistant Professor in the Oriental Institute.

    This event is the fifth in a series of annual conferences that postdoctoral fellows organize to look at important themes in ancient Near Eastern studies. The proceedings of the conference will be published online and printed in the “Oriental Institute Seminars” series.