Collections: Practical Polytheism, Part III: Polling the Gods

Last week as part II of our four part look at ancient polytheistic religious practice (I, II, IV), we looked at some of the basic functions of polytheistic practice, centered on the concept of do ut des, striking a bargain with the god. This week, we’re going to turn to another key set of rituals: divination. We’re mostly going to look into indirect forms of divining the will of the gods, rather than situations where a god speaks directly (as with an oracular pronouncement); indirect communications, transmitted through natural phenomenon are more common anyway. To be honest, things like oracles or the Sibylline Books are a complex enough topic to warrant their own treatment another day. But we’re also going to use this as an opportunity to talk about how rituals – including divination rituals – can move from one religious system to another.

Divination is often casually defined in English as ‘seeing into the future,’ but the root of the word gives a sense of its true meaning: divinare shares the same root as the word ‘divine’ (divinus, meaning ‘something of, pertaining or belonging to a god’); divination is more rightly the act of channeling the divine. If that gives a glimpse of the future, it is because the gods are thought to see that future more clearly.

But that distinction is crucial, because what you are actually doing in a ritual involving divination is not asking questions about the future, but asking questions of the gods. Divination is not an exercise in seeing, but in hearing – that is, it is a communication, a conversation, with the divine. To unpack that, we need to start thinking a bit more about how exactly the gods relate to human communities in these polytheistic religions.

Gods in My Community? It’s More Likely Than You Think!

Many current religions – especially monotheistic ones – tend to view God or the gods as a fundamentally distant, even alien being, decidedly outside of creation. The common metaphor is one where God is like a painter or an architect who creates a painting or a building, but cannot be in or part of that creation; the painter can paint himself, but cannot himself be in the painting and the architect may walk in the building but she cannot be a wall. Indeed, one of the mysteries – in the theological sense (one day, not in this series, we’ll come back and talk mystery cults, I promise) – of the Christian faith is how exactly a transcendent God made Himself part of creation, because this ought otherwise be inconceivable.

Polytheistic gods do not work this way. They exist within the world, and are typically created with it (as an aside: this is one point where, to get a sense of the religion, one must break with the philosophers; Plato waxes philosophic about his eternal demiurge, an ultimate creator-god, but no one in Greece actually practiced any kind of religion to the demiurge. Fundamentally, the demiurge, like so much fine Greek writing about the gods, was a philosophical construct rather than a religious reality). As we’ll get to next week, this makes the line between humans and gods a lot more fuzzy in really interesting ways. But for now, I want to focus on this basic idea: that the gods exist within creation and consequently can exist within communities of humans.

(Terminology sidenote: we’ve actually approached this distinction before, when we talked about polytheistic gods being immanent, meaning that they were active in shaping creation in a direct, observable way. In contrast, monotheistic God is often portrayed as transcendent, meaning that He sits fundamentally outside of creation, even if He still shapes it. Now, I don’t want to drive down the rabbit hole of the theological implications of these terms for modern faith (though I should note that while transcendence and immanence are typically presented as being opposed qualities, some gods are both transcendent and immanent; the resolution of an apparent contradiction of this sort in a divine act or being like this is what we call a mystery in the religious sense – ‘this should be impossible, but it becomes possible because of divine action’). But I do want to note the broad contrast between gods that exist within creation and the more common modern conception of a God whose existence supersedes the universe we know.)

Thus, to the polytheistic practitioner, the gods don’t exist outside of creation, or even outside of the community, but as very powerful – and sometimes inscrutable – members of the community. The exact nature of that membership varies culture to culture (for instance, the Roman view of the gods tends towards temperamental but generally benevolent guardians and partners of the state, whereas the Mesopotamian gods seem to have been more the harsh rulers set above human society; that distinction is reflected in the religious structure: in Rome, the final deciding body on religious matters was the Senate, whereas Mesopotamian cities had established, professional priesthoods). But gods do a lot of the things other powerful members of the community do: they own land (and even enslaved persons) within the community, they have homes in the community (this is how temples are typically imagined, as literal homes-away-from-home for the gods, when they’re not chilling in their normal digs), they may take part in civic or political life in their own unique way. As we’ll get to next week, some of these gods are even more tightly bound to a specific place within the community – a river, stream, hill, field.

And, like any other full member of the community (however ‘full membership’ is defined by a society), the gods expect to be consulted about important decisions.

This frame – seeing the gods as members of the community making their will known – is important. These rituals are not so much acts of observing a passive supernatural universe as a way of attuning oneself to the active communication of the gods. Indeed at times – we’ll get there in a moment – the gods can practically shout their opinion.

Learning to Divine

Much like rituals, the systems for divining the will of the gods are as diverse as the cultures and religions which practiced them. Obviously, we cannot discuss all of them in any depth, so instead I want to lay out some basic features that seem relatively common over a variety of systems, and then discuss divination as it worked in some of the ancient Mediterranean systems as examples of the system in function.

Now, much like with the practice of rituals, the core of divination practices is developed knowledge formed through generations of religious practice. There are certain prescribed ways in which the gods make their will known, and these have been – in the view of our ancient polytheists – documented by older generations and as such may be employed as a sure mechanism for ascertaining the will of the gods. Consequently, while sacrifices and vows might be done by amateurs, divination was often left to the professionals, or at least semi-professionals. In Rome, for instance, the priests responsible for reading the flights of birds, the augurs, selected the members of their exclusive college and served for life.

Augustus shown as an augur. His head is covered (capite velato) and he carries the lituus (the curved instrument) in his hand to show his office as one of the augurs and taking the auspices – in this case, the ritual in question looks to be ex tripudiis (from the dance [of birds]) whereby a favorable omen might be obtained from the motions of birds (in this case, sacred chickens) feeding – thus the bird at his feet.

Crucially, and I want to stress this, the interpretation of these signs (broadly called omens) was not an exercise in random guesswork, but the product of the application of quite sophisticated systems of knowledge. This is a system where there are right answers, and reaching those answers is of vital importance.

When in Rome…

Having laid out those basics, I think the best way to understand these systems is to simply discuss a few, in brief. I’m going to start with systems of divination common in Rome – if for no other reason than that’s where my knowledge is best – and then we’ll talk about the status of foreign rites.

Perhaps the most important form of divination in Rome was haruspicy (which spell-check insists is not a word, but is). Performed by a haruspex, haruspicy was the art of determining the will of the gods by examining the entrails of animals – particularly sacrificed animals and most commonly (but not exclusively) the liver. The most common thing haruspicy might tell you is if the sacrifice was accepted: a malformed or otherwise ill-omened liver might indicate that the ritual had failed and that the god had refused the sacrifice.

Via Wikipedia, The Liver of Piacenza (late second century), a haruspicy aid showing the various regions of the liver; the writing is a set of abbreviations of the names of individual deities, corresponding to regions of the liver.

Remember that the do ut des system is essentially one of bargaining with the gods, and the god you are bargaining with always has the option of simply refusing the bargain. This might mean some failure in the mechanics of the ritual (necessitating it be performed again), or that the god had been offended in some way, but it might also mean something more. A lot of sacrificial rituals were done at the outset of important tasks – before battles, political events, etc. What the god might be telling you then with a failed sacrifice is “DO NOT PROCEED.”

The practitioner is given a bit a wiggle room on how to interrupt a failed sacrifice in this way: it might mean “don’t attack at all,” but it might also mean “don’t attack now.” Roman generals, ready to attack, might repeat the same ritual over and over again, like a runner at the start of a race waiting for the ‘go’ signal.

But more information was potentially available, because the exact nature of the liver and its quality might signal more things. In Rome, it was understood that the very best knowledge in this regard came from the Etruscans (an example of how antiquity lends credibility to ritual – Etruscan religion was old even to the Romans, and thus had acquired a strong reputation). The reading of a liver could be complex: we find ‘liver models’ from both Italy and the Near East with guidance on how to interpret different parts of the liver of a sacrificed animal. This could be fairly specific: famously, it was haruspex who warned Caesar about the danger of the Ides of March (Seut. Caes. 81.2).

Another key system for divining the will of the gods in Rome was augury, the reading of the flights of birds (mostly, there are actually other categories of auspicia); doing so is called taking the auspices, and the men who do so are the augurs. Augurs were particularly important in political matters, taking the auspices for elections and the like. Unfavorable auspices could invalidate even a consular election: the gods get a vote too.

The rituals involved in divination follow many of the same rules as sacrifice in terms of the importance of precise performance. For augury, a platform would need to be set up so that the sections of the sky could be fixed relative to the viewer in four sections (right, left, front and back): it mattered if a sign occurred in a favorable space (typically rightward) or an unfavorable one (left).

One thing to take note of us how the things observed sit within the realm of the gods. The organs of a sacrificed animal are made sacred by the act of tendering them over to the god. The animals and signs watched for in augury were often associated with the gods. Over time, a sort of hierarchy of signs within augury emerged, with signs ‘ex caelo‘ (from the sky) like lightning or thunder being the most important, followed by signs ex avibus from birds in flight, both of which were more important than other signs that might be observed in an augury. Of course many different types of birds were particularly sacred to this or that god – the eagle, particular to Jupiter, was also important for such portents – but also the flight of birds, like lightning, thunder (and as we’ll discuss in a minute, the movement of celestial bodies) put them in the sky, closer to the gods above.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the gods here are not impersonal natural forces, but cognizant, thinking beings who are essentially partners in the divination. While following the forms is thus crucially important, the god is also consciously working within the structure of the ritual. They may even subvert that structure if angered, by sending no sign, or even by sending a false sign. Herodotus, for instance, relates Apollo intentionally giving Cyme a false oracle about turning over the Lydian fugitive Pactyes (Hdt. 1.157-160) because he was angered that they would try to use the oracle to shirk their duty to protect a suppliant.

Moreover, in a crisis, the gods might act outside of the typical channels (in Latin, these were called auspicia oblativa auspices thrust upon the viewer, as opposed to auspicia impretrativa, auspices sought out in ritual fashion). In Roman divination, this might take the form of prodigies, unusual, strange events which were taken of signs of severe divine displeasure. These could be stellar phenomena like eclipses or comets, but also things like the animals or children born with – to the Romans – strange and inexplicable conditions (like conjoined twins or individuals with intersex characteristics). Inopportune thunder or lightning, for the Romans, was often a sign of divine displeasure a whatever was happening – a sign that an election should be stopped, or a piece of legislation dropped, or a chance for battle refused.

Such omens and portents might be meant for the whole community, but they might also be meant merely for an individual (the Roman term for this is auspicia privata – private auspices). Important Romans who think they have seen such an omen might have consulted the college of priests (the pontifices), but for the common Roman, Rome also abounded with private fortune tellers and the like, often lumped together under the (somewhat dismissive, particularly from elites involved in official state religion) heading of vates (meaning something like ‘fortuneteller’ or ‘soothsayer’). Of particular note in this regard were astrologers, which leads neatly into:

Foreign Rites

One of the key things about a religious system based on knowledge is that unlike belief, which is particular to a given religion, knowledge is fundamentally portable. That isn’t to say that distinctions in one culture’s practice to another’s were meaningless: there was always a preference for local rites, especially for local gods. Since the knowledge that polytheistic practice is based on is all about seeing and doing what works, there was also a strong tendency to adopt rituals from cultures that appeared successful. Success in this case, might mean that the culture is on top at the moment, but it might also mean a culture or practice viewed as being uncommonly ancient, since a practice continued for a long time clearly worked (because the society practicing it still existed).

You can see this attitude in the guarded respect that Herodotus affords Egyptian religious practice (Hdt. 2.35-64); even though Herodotus insists that no one knows more of the gods than any other (Hdt. 2.3), he concedes that Egyptian practice is some of the most ancient (Hdt. 2.4) and clearly more ancient than Greek practice (2.50-51) and consequently that the Egyptians are uncommonly religious (2.37).

Egyptian ‘Star Table’ used for astrology, c. 2000 B.C.

Perhaps the most influential form of divination to arrive in the Roman world from the East was astrology. Systems for divining the will of the gods and the course of the future emerged in both Egypt and Mesopotamia c. 2000 B.C. and were thus both very ancient when Alexander the Great conquered both in the late fourth century. From there, astrology, practiced by professional experts, moved into the Greek and then Roman world, though Roman elites were often deeply ambivalent about this foreign method of divination; both Cato and Cicero express doubts (of course, the Roman practice of haruspicy was also foreign in that it was Etruscan, but this adoption had been sanctified by long use in Roman tradition and was thus mostly beyond reproach). Nevertheless, it is clear that this form of divination become common, with the writer, geographer and astronomer Ptolemy (c. 100-170 A.D.) even producing a long explication of the practice of astrology in his Tetrabiblos.

This portability is not restricted merely to divination. Herodotus’ suspicion that quite a bit of Greek religion might have come from somewhere else has merit, though Anatolia, not Egypt, appears to be the main source (see: M.L. West, The East Face of Helicon (1999); and for the person already writing this comment, yes I am aware of Bernal’s Black Athena and no I am not convinced, nor are many specialists in the field). The Romans were open about importing gods from Greece and make a clear distinction between gods worshiped in traditional Roman manner and those imported from Greece (a quite small number) and thus whose rituals followed ritus graecus – rituals in Greek fashion.

Left: Egyptian statue of Nen-kheft-ka and wife, dating to c. 2350 B.C. (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)
Right: kouros (youth) statue from archaic Athens (c. 590-580 B.C.) now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The influence from the Egyptian style of statuary – including the rigid posing and stylization of the hair (which continued to be the standard of Egyptian statuary into the iron age) show the clear Egyptian influences in this Greek artwork. Subsequent Greek sculptors would add more flexibility to the pose and greater detail to the anatomy, leading to the classical style of Greek sculpture you are likely familiar with.

In other cases, the foreign practice was modified to fit the culture it arrived in. The Romans adopted the cult of Cybele, an Anatolian goddess, during the dark days of the Second Punic War (the Senate made that decision based on a consultation with the Sibylline books, a written source of oracular prophecy we can talk about another day). Cybele was called Magna Mater (‘Great Mother’) in Rome, and it seems made some modifications to her rituals, in particular possibly limiting the role of the Galli (eunuch priests) whose rituals and style seemed decidedly ‘unRoman’ (though I should note that the scholarship here is contested and the issue and evidence complex).

The normal technical term for this kind of religious borrowing is syncretism, and it is a sort of interweaving of religious traditions that polytheisms both ancient and modern are exceptionally capable of. It is simply not hard to add one more god or one more ritual into a religious system that already assumes the existence of innumerable gods.


I want to repeat that most of this has focused on divination practices in Rome, but – as the example of astrology shows – practices might vary significantly from one culture to the next. For instance, important Roman matters were typically put to the test through the augurs, whereas similarly important questions in Greece would probably be addressed to an oracle for direct communication with the divine. It’s also worth noting how much these structures change in contexts – like Egypt or Mesopotamia – where there is a permanent, professional established priesthood who handles the details of posing the questions and gathering the answers.

Nevertheless, divination provides a good example both of the knowledge-based nature of ancient religious practice, but also of the position of the gods as existing as part of the community, rather than outside of it. The gods of these religions are not distant and impersonal, but much closer; close enough that you can ask them a question and – if you’ve asked it the right way, expect to receive an answer.

So to recap our key take-aways for this week:

  • Gods in a polytheistic system are often immanent and present in human society; they are (powerful, mysterous and sometimes difficult) members of the community.
  • Consequently, they expect to be consulted for their opinion on important matters, but they can also be a source of good information on matters both large and important, or small and personal.
  • This process is an act of communication, not passive observation: the gods can refuse to answer, or send conflicting signals or even lie, if it suits their ends, although for the most part, so long as the traditional forms are followed, the god consulted will render their advice faithfully.
  • There is a fantastic diversity of methods in consulting the gods. We’ve left out entire categories here – mostly oracular statements – but each culture has its own systems.
  • Because these systems of religious practice are based on knowledge and on repeating what works, they are readily capable of borrowing gods and rituals from foreign cultures which seem to work, including (but certainly not limited to) divination practices.

Next week, we’re going to take a deeper look at the nature of divinity itself, and the blurry line between the most powerful humans – heroes and emperors – and the gods.

8 thoughts on “Collections: Practical Polytheism, Part III: Polling the Gods

  1. I recall a story told by my Anthropology professor, of a New Guinea village worried that a local god might object to a road through his grove. After much discussion it was agreed that, since the god was a reasonable sort, he might be amenable to relocating, with compensation for the inconvenience. An elder who enjoyed a friendly relationship with the god was asked to put the proposition, did so, and reported that he had talked with the god, who had agreed provided that he was given time to move his things. I have always wondered what the emissary saw and heard.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I feel like I’m misunderstanding the opposition between immanence and transcendence. I can see why one might classify the concepts as opposites or contradictions, but it seems trivial to produce an example of something that is both. For example, a person can be said to be immanent in their own body, but even there are aspects of even the most banal person which transcend their body. Perhaps this is a matter of the scope of the words and/or concepts expanding over time, or is it just a false dichotomy?


  3. Thanks for this series. I was curious about how ancient polytheistic religions worked, but it’s difficult for the non-specialist to know which sources to read.

    This entry in particular has also given my ideas for a fantasy novel I’m working on. I’d wanted the gods to be both simultaneously remote and somewhat alien, but also intimately involved in human political and social events. This gave me a sense of how I might do, with the gods and mortals communicating with each other through divination and oracles.


  4. Only two proofreading correction this time:
    note of us how the things -> note of is how the things
    displeasure a whatever was happening -> displeasure at whatever was happening


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s