In Roman practice inherited from the Etruscans, a haruspex (plural haruspices) was a man trained to practice a form of divination called haruspicy, hepatoscopy or hepatomancy. Haruspicy is the inspection of the entrails of sacrificed animals, especially the livers of sacrificed sheep and poultry. The rites were paralleled by other rites of divination such as the interpretation of lightning strikes, of the flight of birds (augury), and of other natural omens.
Being a specific form of the general practice of extispicy, haruspicy is not original to Etruscans nor Romans. Rather, it is now considered to have originated from the Near East where one finds Hittites and Babylonians performing similar rites with entrails and producing comparable stylized models of the sheep's liver.
Babylonian haruspicyThe Babylonians were famous for hepatoscopy. The liver was considered the source of the blood and hence the base of life itself. From this belief, the Mesopotamians deemed the liver of special sheep the means to discover the will of the gods. The priest, called a bārû, was specially trained to interpret the 'signs' of the liver. The liver was divided into sections with each section representing a particular deity.
The Niniveh library texts name more than a dozen liver-related terms and before cuneiform writing was even deciphered, hints of the existence of Babylonian hepatoscopy were recorded in the Bible. One Babylonian clay model of a sheep's liver was found dated between 2050 and 1750 BC. The model was used for omen divination which was important to Mesopotamian medicine. This study was carried out by priests and seers who looked for signs in the stars, or in the organs of sacrificed animals, to tell them things about a patient’s illness. Wooden pegs were placed in the holes of the clay tablet to record features found in a sacrificed animal’s liver. The priest or seer then used these features to predict the course of a patient’s illness.
Haruspicy was part of a larger study of organs for the sake of divination, paying attention to the positioning of the organs. There are many records of different peoples using the liver and spleen of various domestic and wild animals to forecast weather. There are hundreds of ancient architectural objects, labyrinths composed of cobblestones in the northern countries that are considered to be a model of the intestines of the sacrificial animal, i.e. the colon of ruminants. The study of intestines was called "extispicy".
Etruscan haruspicyThe Etruscans were also well known for the practice of divining by the entrails of sheep. A bronze sculpture of a liver called the "Piacenza Liver" was discovered in 1877 — and dating to c. 100 BC — near the town of Piacenza in northern Italy, complete with the name of regions marked on it which were assigned to various gods. It has been connected to the practice of haruspicy. By 1900, a professor of anatomy, Ludwig Stieda, sought to compare this artifact with a Mesopotamian one dated to a millennium earlier.
Etruscan haruspicy probably reached Etruria via the Hittites, perhaps because the Etruscans originated in Asia Minor. The art of haruspicy was taught in the Libri Tagetici, a collection of texts attributed to Tages, a childlike being who figures in Etruscan mythology, and who was discovered in an open field by Tarchon.
Roman haruspicyHaruspicy continued to be practiced throughout the history of the Roman empire. The emperor Claudius was a student of Etruscan and opened a college to preserve and improve their art, which lasted until the reign of Theodosius I. In 408, the haruspices offered their services when the Goths under Alaric threatened Rome; Pope Innocent I reluctantly agreed to allow them to help so long as the rituals were kept secret. Further evidence has been found of haruspices in Bath, England where the base of a statue was inscribed to honour a god for a haruspex.
- Walter Burkert, 1992. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (Thames and Hudson), pp 46-51.
- Haruspices, article in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities
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