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Etruscan wall painting from Tomba degli Auguri (c. 530 BC) showing two augurs

Ornithomancy (modern term from Greek ornis "bird" and manteia "divination"; in Ancient Greek: οἰωνίζομαι "take omens from the flight and cries of birds") is the practice of reading omens from the actions of birds followed in many ancient cultures including the Greeks and is equivalent to the Augury employed by the ancient Romans. Although it was mainly the flights and songs of birds that were studied, any action could have been interpreted to either foretell the future or relate a message from the gods. These omens were considered with the utmost seriousness by Greeks and Romans alike. The word "inauguration" is derived from the Latin noun inauguratio derived from the verb inaugurare which was to "take omens from birds in flight." The Augurs were Roman priests who only looked at birds for their omens. There was also the Auspex (plural: Auspices) (or haruspex) who could interpret thunder, lightning, wind and other natural phenomena. The phrase "under the auspices" is derived from this need for a favourable reading of the omens by the Auspices.[1][2]

This form of divination became a branch of Roman national religion, which had its own priesthood and practice.[3] One notable example occurs in the Odyssey, when thrice an eagle appears, flying to the right, with a dead dove in its talons; this augury was interpreted as the coming of Odysseus, and the death of his wife's suitors.

Ornithomancy is mentioned several times in the Septuagint version of the Bible. Joseph claims that he practices it to frighten his brothers in the Septuagint Book of Genesis, but later in the Septuagint text the practice is expressly forbidden.[4] Texts on bird oracles written in Hittite are known from the 13th or 14th century.[5]


  1. ^ Mitchell, James (1908). Significant etymology. William Blackwood and Sons. pp. 16–17. 
  2. ^ Weekley, Ernest (1921). Etymological dictionary of modern English. London: John Murray. p. 90. 
  3. ^ Ingersoll, Ernest (1923). Birds in legend fable and folkore. Longmans, Green and Co. pp. 212–225. 
  4. ^ cf. Deut 18:10, Lev 19:26 LXX
  5. ^ Sakuma, Yasuhiko (2013). "Terms of Ornithomancy in Hittite" (PDF). Tokyo University Linguistc Papers 33: 219–238. 


  • Spence, Lewis, An Encyclopedia of Occultism, New York, Carl Publishing Group Edition, 1996. ISBN 0-8065-1401-9
  • Mandelbaum, Allen, The Odyssey of Homer, New York, Bantam Classic Edition, 1991. ISBN 0-553-21399-7