Ancient divination took many forms, but according to Plato, the one thing we know for sure is that the ability to foretell the future originates in the liver.
Does this sound strange? Perhaps you were thinking it came from the brain or the heart? Nope, it’s all about the liver.
In the Timaeus, Plato has a lot to say about the physical body and how it works. In part of his discussion, he gets into divination: what it is, why it is, and where in the body it can be found.
According to Señor Plato, humans have prognosticatory abilities to make up for being stupid (71e). Damn you humans for being so stupid! Anyway, the soul has many different parts, and the part of the soul which hangs out near the liver (not to be confused with the part that hangs out in the brain) steps in when one sleeps to reveal what us silly humans miss while awake:
By exploiting the sweetness inherent throughout the liver for their own purposes, they [mild thoughts which pass though the body] straighten all its parts until they are free of distortions, wrinkle, and blockages and they make the part of the soul that has been housed in the same part of the body as the liver gracious and cheerful, so that at night it can indulge in the modest entertainment of divination by dreams, which it has to rely on since it lacks the ability to reason and apply intelligence. For the gods…organized even our base part so that it might have some contact with truth, and established the seat of divination in it. (71 c,d)
After saying some snarky things about those who read omens—namely, that they are not inspired by the gods, but rather mere interpreters of “riddling sayings”—he says the liver is placed where it is in the body for the benefit of divination. Also, the liver is the last stop on the train to soul-ville before material reality arrives. So, the liver’s got that going for it, too.
The connection between the liver and divination goes further in the ancient world, but in a bit different way. Whereas Plato held that the liver (or its location) caused individuals to experience prophetic inspiration, others turned to a more exterior process. In fact, according to Walter Burkert, “The liver in particular, with its complicated and changing form, seems to invite attempts at oracular interpretation” (48). Otherwise known as hepatoscopy, this process involves reading the liver of dead animals, usually those used in sacrifice, and was a common method of predicting the future in Etruria (modern-day Italy) and Mesopotamia as well as other places in the ancient Mediterranean (46).
Archaeological evidence of model livers suggests hepatoscopy was widespread. Burkert notes that:
Of course there are various ways to practice divination at sacrifice, but the observation of the liver is by far the most prominent…Greek iconography shows the seer examining the liver from about 530 B.C. [sic]; after the Persian Wars Greek literature has hepatoscopy fully developed as the dominant form of divination. From Plato we learn that hepatoscopy enjoyed greater prestige than bird augury (49).
Burkert suggests that the Assyrians had a rather formal process for assessing the future by reading the liver, indicating that certain parts of the liver were said to be more “auspicious” than others, and that the shape of certain parts could provide interpretational clues (50). It would be interesting to know if other ancient cultures made the locative connections between divination and the liver that Plato did, or if Plato’s idea that the liver was the seat of divinatory ability was widespread in the ancient world. Either way, the ancients seemed to make a definite connection between the liver and divination, both in terms of external use for readings and internally as the source of human prophecy.
Burkert, Walter. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the early Archaic Age. Harvard University Press. 1992
Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Translated by Robin Waterford. Oxford World Classics. 2008
Photo by Bruce M Walker.