Sunday, June 12, 2005



Sauvage Noble reports a bird omen.

Servius (on Vergil's Aeneid 1.398) distinguishes between augurium and auspicium:
Augurium is intentional and is revealed by specific birds, auspicium is accidental and is shown by any bird.

augurium petitur et certis avibus ostenditur, auspicium qualibet avi demonstratur et non petitur.
Since Sauvage Noble didn't set out to find a bird omen and wasn't feeding the sacred chickens, his sighting comes under the heading of auspicium.

English augury is derived from Latin augurium, auspices and auspicious from auspicium. In Latin auspicium (bird divination) comes from auspex (bird seer), itself from avis (bird) and specio (look). Greek equivalents to auspex are oionistes, oionomantis, oionopolos, and oionoskopos, all from oionos (bird), and orneomantis and ornithoskopos, both from ornis (bird, cf. English ornithology = the study of birds).

There is much useful information on bird divination in William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (London: John Murray, 1875), pp. 174-179, s.v. augurium.

Bird omens fall into two categories, according to Cicero, On Divination 1.53.120 (tr. William Armistead Falconer, an aptronym in this context!):
The Divine Will accomplishes like results in the case of birds, and causes those known as alites, which give omens by their flight, to fly hither and thither and disappear now here and now there, and causes those known as oscines, which give omens by their cries, to sing now on the left and now on the right.

eademque efficit in avibus divina mens, ut tum huc, tum illuc volent alites, tum in hac, tum in illa parte se occultent, tum a dextra, tum a sinistra parte canant oscines.
Eagles and hawks are alites, crows and ravens oscines. What Sauvage Noble saw was one of the alites.

I recently came across a curious misprint for augur, in a translation of the Didache (3.4), from The Apostolic Fathers. Greek Texts and English Translations of Their Writings, 2nd edition. J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, Editors and Translators. Michael W. Holmes, Editor and Revisor (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), p. 253:
My child, do not be an auger [sic], since it leads to idolatry.
Sauvage Noble has been reading Ennius's Annals. There is a fragment on divination by birds from that poem, preserved in Cicero, On Divination 1.48.107.

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