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Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather

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Published by Sin Jones
A short essay on the origins and practices of Augury
A short essay on the origins and practices of Augury

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Published by: Sin Jones on Feb 29, 2012
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01/18/2014

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Birds of a feather 
Augury is the practice of divination through flight patterns of birds.
 
The augur was a priest andofficial in the classical world, especially ancient Rome and Etruria. His main role was to interpretthe will of the gods by studying the flight of birds: whether they are flying in groups/alone, whatnoises they make as they fly direction of flight and what kind of birds they are. This was knownas "taking the auspices." The ceremony and function of the augur was central to any majorundertaking in Roman society
public or private
including matters of war, commerce, andreligion.The Roman historian Livy stresses the importance of the augurs:
"Who does not know that this city was founded only after taking the auspices, that everything in war and in peace, at home and abroad, was done only after taking the auspices?" 
1
 
The derivation of the word augur is uncertain; ancient authors believed that it contained thewords avi and gero
Latin for "directing the birds"
but historical-linguistic evidence pointsinstead to the root aug-, "to increase, to prosper."
2
 
“'Come then,' Tarquin said angrily, 'Deduce when they make up in bed, if your augury can, whether what I have in my mind righ
now is possible.' And when Navius, expert in augury that he was, immediately said that it would happen, Tarquin replied: 'Well, I thought that you would cut a whetstone with a sharp knife. Here, take this and do what your birds have predicted would be possible.' And Navius, hardly delaying at all, took the whetsto 
ne and cut it. “ 
3
 
In biblical times, the observation of the flight of birds for the purpose of divination is shown inEcclesiastes 10:20: "...for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shalltell the matter." Among the Arabs the raven was a bird of omen. Josephus narrates that a bird(an owl) alighted on the tree against which Agrippa was leaning while a prisoner at Rome;whereupon a fellow prisoner, a German, prophesied that he would become king, but that if thebird appeared a second time, it would mean he would die. The Romans also understood thelanguage of the birds, since Judah was said not to dare, even in a whisper, to advise theEmperor Antoninus to proceed against the nobles of Rome, for the birds would carry his voiceonward. The Babylonians divined by flies. The belief in animal omens was also widely spreadamong the Babylonians, who also divined by the behavior of fish, as was well known. Thelanguage of trees, which the ancient peoples, especially the Babylonians, are said to haveunderstood, was probably known to the Babylonian Jews as early as the eighth century.Abraham learned from the sighing of the tamarisk-tree that his end was nigh. Omens indicatedby birds are still a concern for modern people.
1
 
Livy’s History of Rome
 
2
Douglas - Harper Etymology Dictionary,
Weekley's "An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English," Klein's "AComprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language," and the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd Edition)
 
3
 
Livy’s History of Rome
 
 
 Augury persisted in the early era of Roman Christianity, Constantine wasstill deferring to Augers during his reign. Even though he is oftenconsidered the first Christian Emperor, there is little evidence to supportthis during his life. There is more evidence, however to support that hewas still supporting pagan practices.As modern pagans attempt to reconstruct historical paganism, the art ofAugury is making a comeback. The last few decades have seen anumber of bird diviners toting caged birds to pagan events, or drawingattention to the innards of road kill, or odd flight patterns.I've always kept birds, from as early as I can remember. Observing birds, I can see wheresuperstition arises from watching animals in their natural environment.Birds can
appear 
ominous. I often find myself trying to interpret the strange mannerisms of mypet Cockatiel. It was a rescue from an abusive pet owner when it was just a baby;
I’ve had it for 
over 15 years now. It bonded to me as its only owner, and gives me
‘signs’ whe
n he feels Ineed to be alerted; such as when a person is about to knock at the door, or when something is
amiss in my home. Some days he sings to his little heart’s content as the rays of sunlight
beaminto his domestic habitat, just
being 
a bird.
 
 Augury is directly tied to ideas of the 'Left', this was seen asunfavorable omen in Rome, tied directly to Left-handedness, to be an unfavorable position to hold. Romewas infected with cross-culturalism, as they invaded andtook other cultures into their fold. Rome was they wereheavily influenced by the Greeks, but not exclusively.The cult of Augers arose as did the public need. In Romantradition, public rites were held by the Cult of Augers andwere performed zealously in spectacular ritual andpageantry. Haruspices (examination of entrails of a ritualsacrifice) were often in compliment. In addition to thesepractices, Augers were on hand to interpret dreams,interpret the movement of animals (birds among them),blood, fire, water, and dangerous colors approaching the dawn of day. Ritual bathing andpurification in animal sacrifice with prayers to appease the gods were thought to be the properrite in the face of omens. Many of these rites were included on the Roman Calendar of holydays. This guaranteed the prosperity of the Roman Empire. The night before the festivitieswere to commence, the Cult of Augers would meet to perform Veneficia
4,
legal ritual sorcery ofthe cult, vital to reversing bad omens. It was dedicated to the true Augurs, and was used as away to weed out any cynics and non-believers. The cult of Augurs would use it as a stratifyingmeasure and intimidation tactic, as the Veneficia required animal sacrifice and volumes ofblood, to invoke real-world results.The need for Augers fell to the wayside as the new diviners came forward looking to the cosmos
in ritual garments, offering a ‘cleaner’ method to the Royal Court for shooing away bad omens
by the Middle Ages.
4
 
Ovid’s Metamorphosis
 

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