Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.08.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.08.38

William Furley, Victor Gysembergh, Reading the Liver. Papyrological Texts on Ancient Greek Extispicy. Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum, 94.   Tübingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 2015.  Pp. x, 123.  ISBN 9783161538902.  €39.00.  

Reviewed by L. Bouke van der Meer, Leiden University (

Did Greek hepatoscopy originate from Mesopotamian practice? At first sight, this seems unlikely, as Greeks seers (after c. 530 BC) first checked for the presence or absence of the kephale (head; also called lobos). Etruscan haruspices did the same with the caput (head) according to Etruscan representations and classical authors.1 Absence was a negative sign. Head is the name of the processus caudatus on the visceral side of the anatomical lobus dexter. In the Babylonian bārûtu (divination/extispicy), the science of the bārû (seer), attested by terracotta liver models and thousands of omen texts (reports and compendia), it is called ubānu (finger/thumb), which does not have the same function. A bārû first studied the area of the manzāzu (ῑli) (station/presence (of the god)), also called naplastu (glance, look), a groove (impression) on the anatomical lobus sinister.

The question of origin has been dealt with by several scholars who did not pay attention to the contents of three papyri from Roman Egypt: P.Ross.Georg. I 21 in Moscow (2nd c. AD), P. Amh. 14 in New York (4th c. AD), and PSI 1178 in Florence (1st c. AD), all published in the first half of the 20th century. They contain fragments of Greek manuals of hieroscopy, judging by the word hypomnema (notice) mentioned in the Amherst text.

Now these texts are the focus of the fascinating book ‘Reading the Liver’ written by William Furley and Victor Gysembergh. In the Introduction they define Greek hieroscopy as a pseudo-science, probably acquired from Mesopotamia. According to Walter Burkert it was exported by wandering seers (via Cyprus), and according to Mary R. Bachvarova it was transmitted from Anatolia to Greeks in Cilicia (Telmessa) and Cyprus (see below). Then Homer’s thyoskooi, Attic vases (c. 530 – 490 BC) showing almost identical scenes of hepatoscopy,2 Aeschylus’ and Euridipes’ liver descriptions, Plato’s explanation of the human liver, the astrological (celestial and zodiacal) aspects of liver reading (Onosander (1st c. AD), and Hephaistion (5th c. AD)) get attention. The authors adduce liver reading among the Me’en Group in Ethiopia to suggest that during the practice as described in the papyri there may have been a dialogue between sacrifice and inquirer (18-19). This, however, cannot be deduced from the papyri. Further, the authors shed light upon the symbolic language of the papyri. The topographic metaphors mentioning gates (pylai and dochai are also mentioned by Euripides), ways, table, bastion, hearth and grave, which characterize the liver as house (better: palace) or urban landscape, have Mesopotamian roots.3 The terms head, heart, ears, hands, shoulders and chest characterizing the liver as a little human being show Greek medical influence. The authors hold that the term glykeia (sweetness) is the euphemistic name of the chole (gallbladder), in Akkadian called martu (bitter). The doche (receptacle/acceptance (by a god)), also called eye of a sleeping person, is perhaps identical with the naplastu (52-53). The trapeza (table) is the place from where the processus caudatus protrudes (50-51, 76, 92). Tylai are blisters, and atyla indicate their absence. Aira (hammer/tool) is comparable to kakku (club), the Akkadian term for the processus papillaris (21). However, the latter is called ṣibtu (increment) in the omen literature. Kakku is a v-shaped sign in the form of a weapon. The system of liver reading is binary. As in Mesopotamian practice the liver features have a pars familiaris (epi topou: in place; on the enquirer’s side), on the right, and a pars hostilis (epi xenes; ep’allopodes: on the enemy side), on the left.

Chapter 2 presents the papyrus texts with a translation and a thorough word-for-word commentary. The names of their authors are incomplete. No gods or astral elements are mentioned. The Moscow text is about ‘the auspiciousness or inauspiciousness of present/pending moments’ and ‘business’, the Amherst text about ‘friendship’, and the Florence text about ‘happiness’. The order of protasis and apodosis (if/when X, then Y) is sometimes reversed. The sequence of reading the liver parts is chaotic in comparison with the canonical, counter-clockwise (not clockwise as suggested on p. 94!) study of the manzāzu, padānu (path), bāb ekalli/abullu (palace-, city gate), martu (gallbladder), etc. in Akkadian texts. Only in the Amherst text (fr. 2) does the reading start around the head.

In the Conclusions the authors reject Bachvarova’s theory that Hittite/Hurrian hepatoscopy deviated from Mesopotamian practice and became much later the source of Greek practice. It appears, however, that several Hurrian terms are identical with Mesopotamian ones (78-80). The authors hold that liver reading as described in the papyri had its origin in Syria (77, 80-81) in the Hellenistic period, presuming that Mesopotamian practice was still in vogue there. In addition, some Stoic philosophers, who were in favour of divination (cf. Cic., Div.II, xvii, 41), lived in that region (95). Testifying Mesopotamian influence are liver terms in Hesychius’ lexicon (5th c. AD): desmos, dioptra, theos, machaira, potamos, pylai, taphos, which together with hodos, tyle, glykeia and eryma mentioned in the papyri have counterparts in Akkadian. Their place on the Greek liver, however, may differ from that on a Mesopotamian liver. The authors hold that Greek practice was also influenced by Greek philosophy and medical practice. The homunculus analogy points in that direction.

The book ends with Appendix A listing the words in the papyrus texts, with translation, and Appendix B has the original texts and translations of Plato, Timaeus 70d7-71d4, Onosander, On Military Command, and Hephaistion, On Auspicious and Inauspicious Days. The bibliography is short but efficient. New are the colour photos of the Amherst papyrus.

The main arguments of the authors, who start from rather late documents, seem attractive. The question remains, however, from where and when Mesopotamian liver reading became known and transformed in Greece and Etruria around c. 530 BC, or (long) before that date. The famous Etruscan mirror showing chalchas (Gr. Kalchas) studying liver and lungs does not date from the late 4th c. BC (17) but from the late 5th c. BC. It is a pity that fig. 1.2 does not show the Etruscan bronze liver of Piacenza but a very bad copy. Though some interpretations of terms mentioned in the papyri are hypothetical and some like the heart of the liver (71) cannot be localized, this mikron biblion is a mega kalon, not only for classicists but also for Ancient Near Eastern scholars.


1.   For the origins of Mesopotamian and Etruscan hepatoscopy, see V. Bellelli/ M. Mazzi, Extispicio. Una “scienza” divinatoria tra Mesopotamia ed Etruria. Roma 2013, reviewed by the present author in BABESCH 89 (2014) 246-247.
2.   Core of the images is a standing, nude pais holding an ox liver in both hands and opposite him a hoplite (not a mantis!). See J.-L. Durand et F. Lissarrague, “Les entrailles de la cité”, Hephaistos 1 (1979) 92-108.
3.   See also J.-J. Glassner, “La fabrique des présages en Mésopotamie: la sémiologie des devins”, in S. Georgoudi, R. Koch Piettre, and F. Schmidt (eds.), La Raison des signes. Présages, rites, destin dans les sociétés de la Méditerranée ancienne. Leiden/Boston 2012, 29-53.

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