Divination by Horses


Divination in the ancient world took many forms. We’ve already talked about hepatoscopy, divination by means of the liver, as well as the fumes at Delphi. Most people are also familiar with augury, a popular form of divination which interpreted the calls and flights of birds. In the ancient world, nearly anything could be a source of prophecy. Hence, in addition to reading entrails and sussing out omens in the sky, we also have things like turomancy (τυρομάντεια), or divination by cheese, an especially delicious form of prophecy, if there ever was one.

As cultures encountered each other in the ancient world, divination could be used to distinguish the religious practices of one peoples from another. Case in point: the Germans, whose divination practices were seen (by Romans) as different from those of the Romans. I’ll be drawing here off the work of Tacitus, who provides a thorough (if biased) source on the Germanic tribes in his book Germany (a.k.a. de Origine et Situ Germanorum). Tacitus has a lot to say about the religious practices of the Germans. Sometimes they are similar to Roman beliefs and practices (e.g. the worship of Castor and Pollux in section 43), other times they are different (for example, the human sacrifice of the Semnones in section 39). Tacitus reports that divination with lots (e.g. runes) was the chief and most authoritative form of Germanic divination (Germany 10). But the Germans also seemed to have a method of divination that was peculiar to them (at least in the eyes of the Tacitus). They divined with horses.

Now, these were not just any horses, but sacred horses who lived in a sacred grove and were paid for by the Germans, who sought their pronouncement on important matters. Here’s what Tacitus has to say about it:

proprium gentis equorum quoque praesagia ac monitus experiri. publice aluntur isdem nemoribus ac lucis, candidi et nullo mortali opere contacti; quos pressos sacro curru sacerdos ac rex vel princeps civitatis comitantur hinnitusque ac fremitus observant. nec ulli auspicio maior fides, non solum apud plebem, sed apud proceres, apud sacerdotes; se enim ministros deorum, illos conscios putant.

– Tacitus, de Origine et Situ Germanorum, 10

Peculiar to this race is that prophecies and warnings are learned from horses. These horses are raised in sacred groves and forests by public expense. The horses are white and have been in contact with no mortal deed; when the horses have been burdened with the sacred chariot, the priest or king or chief of the city follows the horses and they observe their neighing and snorts. There is no truth greater than this sort of divination, not only for the general population, but also for the noble men and the priests. For they believe that they are ministers of the gods and the horses are the god’s witnesses.

– Tacitus, de Origine et Situ Germanorum, 10 (translation mine)

Tacitus seems to view divination by horse (a.k.a. hippomancy) as a practice that is a bit out of the ordinary—at least for Romans. Moreover, he attaches a significant importance to the ritual and prophecy of the horses, noting that the neighs of the horses hold supreme authority not just for the German people in general, but it is also important to those who would be seen by Tacitus as most able to judge the validity of a particular religious ritual: the noblemen and priests.

The discussion of hippomancy occurs during a discussion of Germanic divination practices in which Tacitus escalates the peculiarity of Germanic divination. First, he discusses the casting of lots, then the horses, and finally he describes a ritual used to divine the outcomes of wars which, like hippomancy, is portrayed as strange. By couching hippomancy among other strange and foreign practices, Tacitus highlights the peculiar nature of German divination. Nevertheless, he can’t fully dismiss divination with horses. It’s a practice that it has widespread support, and is taken as veridical by the Germanic priestly and upper-classes.

Although Roman historiographic/ethnographic writing often is laced with the views of their authors, records such as Tacitus’ can give us insight into the religious customs and practices of peoples outside of Rome. Like the Romans, the Germans had a complex body of divinatory ritual, and like the Romans, these methods were used to gauge the intents of the gods and goddesses on mortal affairs. Divination by horse, while just another of the many forms of divination which existed in the ancient world, is one that appears to be particular to the Germans, both in its composition and importance.

Cornelius Tacitus, de Origine et Situ Germanorum

Photo by Stanza.