Ornithomancy

Divination by birds.

Author: * Jonus Hasdrubal
Date: Dec 8, 2003 – 19:44

Birds have always held a fascination for men, whether they are good or bad omens. Augur, which is another word for omen, comes from the Latin ‘augurium’ or, literally, ‘divinatory observation of birds’, which gave augur the meaning, ‘priest who provides favourable omens’.

Initially, the messages, predictions and divinations delivered by the augurs were systematically good. The word ‘august’ which means now ‘imposing and worthy of respect’ came to mean, in those days, ‘sanctioned by the augur’ in other words promised success by the gods.

From the word ‘august’ came the origin of our month of August, and the Christian name Augustus. Subsequently, ‘augur’ was to take on the meaning of good or bad prediction. But before that, the augur could only be good.

Although the Roman priests were great and renowned soothsayers, paying particular attention to the signs revealed by birds, the divinatory arts made up from compilations of omens relating to birds were in common use and highly prized by the Egyptians, Chaldeans, Greeks, Celts, Gauls, Indians, Arabs and Chinese. In Greece this divinatory art took the name of ornithomancy, that is, divination by birds. But it was in Rome that each of the gods was awarded a protecting bird: the eagle to Jupiter, the dove to Venus, the owl to Minerva, etc.

The bird as a reflection of the soul.

It is true that very early on the bird represented in men’s minds the most precious and important thing in him; his soul! Also, any man who, in the eyes of his fellow creatures, was divine or supernatural often had the power to talk to the birds, and these used to come to him as if he were one of them That is why someone who can talk to the birds and understand their song is a symbolic representation of the man who has succeeded in taming his soul, often depicted as a snake or bird which you cannot catch. Merlin, the sorcerer, and St. Francis of Assisi, for example, lived amongst the birds and seemed to understand their language and converse with them.

With regard to the relationship and associations which exist between the bird and the snake, in the world of myths and symbols of Antiquity, there is the Greek legend of Cassandra and her brother Helenus, she became a prophetess and he became a seer, that is, a visionary and a soothsayer, after some snakes had licked their eyes and ears while they were asleep. Another Greek legend, in similar vein, tells us how the visionary Melampus, having had his ears licked by the snakes which he had reared himself, could hear and understand the universal language, that is to say, the language of symbols, which was often likened to the songs of birds.

From then on, it really did seem that the relationship or relation between the snake and bird was established, if not scientifically, then at least intuitively and metaphorically, by our ancestors who had a liking for omens and knew how to detect the mysterious links between different forms or revelations of nature. Nowadays palaeontologists are inclined to think that birds could be the descendants of certain kinds of carnivorous dinosaurs. Recently, in an area north of Peking, the fossil of a carnivorous dinosaur with feathers, christened Sinosauropteryx, was discovered. Expert palaeontologists did not consider it to be the direct ancestor of the bird, but they saw enough similarities to reveal a likely connection between the huge reptile and the bird.

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