Binary Extispicy, Hepatoscopy

In the latest AJph (Fall 2008, Vol. 129 #3) is an article on Greek Hepatoscopy, by Derek Collins, author of Magic in the Ancient Greek World. Hepatoscopy is a division of extispicy. Extispicy is the study of animal entrails, and hepatoscopy focuses solely on the liver. Collins says that extispicy was important in the Mesopotamian area and spread from there to the Hittites and on to the Greeks, except for some information on how to read livers that skipped the Greeks, going instead to the Lydians and onto the Etruscans (whence it is relevant to the ongoing T. Cornell book chat). Livy mentions in 27.37.6 that Romans recruited haruspices from Etruria because they were better trained. Collins says that extispicy was second only to the Delphhic oracle in importance to the greeks and was, indeed used prior to consulation. He also says that Prometheus gave the art of dicination to mankind according to Prometheus Bound and that it is therefore ironic that Zeus punished him with a bird of prey eating his ever-regenerating liver. So much was an interesting review with some new highlights on ancient divination.

What bothered me was the idea that the yes/no answers garnered from a study of a liver should be referred to as “binary”. Yes, it is binary in a sense, but to use such a computer-age bit of jargon seems forced, as does the evidence for it, which to my reading comes only from modern anthropological studies. The data and anecdotes about the ancient world were great. I wish he’d left it at that.



  1. A question is asked and the answer is either yes or no, hence binary. There might be a black ball and a white ball to stand for the two possible answers. Ex.”Oh great prophet, are we headed for global depression?”


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