Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Liver Knows Best

March 25th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Of all the various methods that mankind has devised to foretell the future, none is quite as bizarre as the reading of entrails. We have no idea who first came up with the idea that a deceased animal’s innards could cast light on upcoming events, but the practice certainly dates back to the heyday of ancient Babylon. And though the Romans were the most celebrated users of haruspicy, this gruesome form of divination appears to have developed independently in several other corners of the globe. It is, in fact, still central to religious life on Sumba, as well as among the Me’en people of Ethiopia.

Although haruspicy “experts” have developed complex systems that give entrail readings the veneer of science, the practice really amounts to little more than prop-driven storytelling. History’s greatest readers can thus be thought of as among history’s greatest improv actors, taking lumps of tissue and turning them into coherent narratives—narratives which are tailored to an audience fixed in a particular place in time. A study of the Me’en’s use of haruspicy in the early 1990s gets to some more of the essence (albeit with a touch o’ jargon):

While it is obvious that entrail-reading obeys some basic rules, it would be fairly fruitless to interpret the practice as an instance of a well-structured language where the utterances would have a more or less predictable, translatable meaning. If the colours and form of the entrails had a standardized meaning, there would be no possibility of deducing a communicative intention of a reader…We have seen that certain physical traits of the intestines can receive different interpretations, depending not only upon their various combinations but also upon socio-historical changes within Me’en society and upon the quality of Me’en contacts with the wider society. These affect the assumptions about what they will see in the intestines. What the intestines reveal changes over time: they always reflect new problems which the community faces.

Or, in improv terms, you can’t keep telling Monica Lewinsky jokes forever.

Want to haruspicize, but don’t want to slaughter any livestock or pigeons? May we suggest an egg?


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One Comment so far ↓

  • Gramsci

    Entrail-reading resembles many other examples of a canon– a fixed set of combinations within whose limits a set of elite interpreters can claim to predict and make sense out of events. The I Ching is just a less messy form of the same thing. There’s an urge to make every text or artifact a manageable, simple key that yields an urgent contemporary message– Dan Brown understood this.

    Ironically, the fact that social context shapes prediction makes things like haruspicy more credible enterprises, in that at least the interpreter is working off some degree of empirical data.