Liver Divination; OR Haruspicy

I briefly mentioned Etruscan divination practices before, but it was such a major thing for them, and it was so different from what we might think of as divination, that it deserves its own post. 

Pretty much every culture in the ancient world had divination practices (and so do we. This is just a human thing) but the Etruscans specialized in it. They

“were considered by the other people of antiquity to be masters in the art of divination. They excelled in the interpretation of omens and prodigies, and in drawing from the signs the necessary conclusions concerned the conduct of men” [Bloch, 59-60]

While they had a wide range of practices (in particular they were known for lightning divination)[Bloch, 60]they are most famous for what they did with the livers of sacrificed animals. 

Termed haruspicy, they were so known for it that their priests were called haruspices [Bloch, 60]. Think of it as palm reading, but for the liver.

figure of a sheeps liver with marks and symbols in Etruscan showing different regions as the relate to different deities

Lokilech, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

This is a model of a sheep’s liver, with Etruscan markings on it. We think it is a divination aid, or a teaching aid. Haruspicy was complicated; there were prescribed methods and practices. See those lines? They are basically demarcations showing which area applied to which god. Any deformations in those areas would have been considered a bad omen. 

“In the animal offered to the gods, the liver, the seat of life, reflects the state of the world at the moment of sacrifice. On its surface the priest distinguishes the seta of the gods and, according to the configuration of the parts connected with the god, he can foretell the future [Bloch, 146-47]”

Let’s be clear though: the Etruscans didn’t invent this. They just…went the farthest with it. As Bloch notes in The Etruscans (1958) 

“This is not to deny that  this technique of divining was known and applied in other countries. There is good evidence of it in Greece, for example. But nowhere else did it assume the overriding importance that it possessed in certain countries of the ancient near east and in Tuscany”

They also changed it, adding “the notion of the microcosm of the internal organ as an accurate reflection of the macrocosm of the heavens ”[Barker, 232]  

After the Romans took power in the Italian peninsula, they continued the practice, but due to the way religion and religious practices usually worked in Rome, their focus was more on appeasing any god that may have been angered rather than predicting the future. But it remained popular, being necessary before 


Grae Barker, Tom Rasmussen, The Etruscans, 1998, Blackwell

Raymond Bloch, The Etruscans, 1958, Thames and Hudson

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