Rochberg on Omens
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Categories: Ancient

Rochberg on Omens

Your humble correspondent in the Central European blizzard of January 2019

One of the books which I would like to find time to read is Francesca Rochberg’s Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science (University of Chicago Press, 2016) {available from the publisher}. About a decade ago, she was puzzled why Mesopotamian omen lists include situations which can never occur, such as the appearance of the sun at midnight or a lunar eclipse which moves from west to east across the moon. The Mesopotamian literati were intimately familiar with the movements of the heavens, and had thousands of years of records, so they probably had a firm conviction that this was not the sort of thing which could happen in the ordinary course of events. Were these absurd? The result of block-heads mechanically multiplying omens to cover different combinations of left/right, the three watches of the night, the four directions, and so on regardless of whether that combination was possible? Violations of the order of the heavens on special command of the gods?

Perhaps this is where we step into the realm of the conceivable, or the conceptually possible, as differentiated from the possible, or at least the metaphysically possible … To say certain phenomena in the omen lists are “impossible” or “absurd” because they do not occur and cannot be observed is our judgement and occurs nowhere in the ancient sources. That is to say, our definition of impossible (not in accordance with real properties) is not expressed in the texts. It seems more consistent with the overall makeup of the omen lists that recording a phenomenon as an entry in a codified omen list is evidence that it was regarded as epistemically possible [something which a reasonable person may chose to believe]. That is, the list of statements (P) constitute data, or knowledge, on the basis of which the diviner makes judgements and draws conclusions about what will happen. The use of the terms possible and impossible are, among other things, relative to one’s accepted knowledge of how and what things are.

– Francesca Rochberg, “Conditionals, Inference, and Possibility in Ancient Mesopotamian Science,” Science in Context 22.1 (March 2009) pp. 5-25

Rochberg is saying that there are things we can imagine, like pigs growing wings, ships the size of a skyscraper which leap from star to star in a few hours, or the entire population of Earth standing on Zanzibar, which our ideas about how the world works tell us cannot actually happen. Philosophers have a variety of names for meaningless statements (“the red thought wyzorped”), things which might be true but we cannot prove or disprove (“there is a full glass of water on the desk behind me”), things which could conceivably happen but other structures would in practice prevent (“a self-identified Marxist is voted leader of the Conservative Party of Canada”), and things which we can imagine but break the laws of nature (“Elizabeth May walks on water from Gordon Head to Vancouver”). She suggests that the literati used these situations which had never occurred in history, and which their theories told them could not occur in the ordinary course of events, as excuses to apply general rules to a specific case without getting distracted by experience. However, in Mesopotamia it was customary to write down the results of calculations, not the general principles embodied in them.

Today wise and humble people who do this say they are writing exam questions (“imagine a spherical cow …”), scenarios, or science fiction, while the foolish and ambitious call their work futurism. We don’t know what Assyrians and Babylonians called it, because that was part of the oral teachings of the scholars. One of the big problems in interpreting scholarly cuneiform texts is deciding what was drawn from experience, or devised to solve problems in everyday life, and what was purely academic, deductive, and playful.

Further Reading:

  • Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible
  • Graeber, Debt, on the Old Irish law codes which cover ever-more-unlikely hypothetical situations
  • Someone on the set of a dozen word problems which teach the principles of planar geometry and lie behind the more ‘academic’ Old Babylonian problems with variables raised to the fifth power
  • Jo Walton, “SF Reading Protocols,” 18 January 2010

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