Pagan Paths

Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.

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On oiônoskopos, the oracles of birds

Divination is a gift from the Gods, a way to contact the Gods directly through oracles and seers. It was something heavily relied upon in ancient Hellas, and in its mythology: many war, quests, and epics started with a visit to Delphi. Especially in Hómēros, divination by way of birds features heavily, and it has had my interest for a long while. Almost a year ago, I wrote about oiônoskopos for the Pagan Blog Project, in a post about oracles, seers and divination, and from that point on, I've been teaching the art to myself. Today, I would like to share what I have discovered.

Oiônoskopos, like many of the divinatory practices, was considered a 'technical' or 'learned' art, opposed by 'natural' or 'unlearned' types of divination. Typically, natural divination was understood to include dreams and the reading of utterances of others or yourself, and to be the older and more reliable form of divination as these types were communicated more directly by the Gods. Aristotle and the Peripatetic philosophers found value only in natural divination. Technical means of divination was everything else; anything that depended on acquired human skills, such as the reading of entrails, the behavior of birds, or birthmarks. Most form of divination, called 'mantikē', playwright Aeschylus states in 'Prometheus Bound', were taught to us by Prometheus himself:
"And I marked out many ways by which they might read the future, and among dreams I first discerned which are destined to come true; and voices baffling interpretation I explained to them, and signs from chance meetings. The flight of crook-taloned birds I distinguished clearly—which by nature are auspicious, which sinister—their various modes of life, their mutual feuds and loves, and their consorting's; and the smoothness of their entrails, and what color the gall must have to please the gods, also the speckled symmetry of the liver-lobe; and the thigh-bones, wrapped in fat, and the long chine I burned and initiated mankind into an occult art. Also I cleared their vision to discern signs from flames, which were obscure before this." [477]

Birds have always perceived as one of the most important means of conveying information from the divine world to the mortal world. This could be because they literally occupy the space between earth and the realm of the Ouranic Gods spheres, or--as Walter Burkert puts it--that the presence of birds (especially birds of prey) meant food. Looking out for birds was considered prosperous and spotting them a good promise of food--a good omen, if you will. Many animals can perform this function, and our divinatory practices may have been derived from even older survival strategies where humanity learns from the natural world around them. Bird interpreters (ornithoskopoi) did not limit themselves to birds, although the avian realm was their main means of divination; they looked at all kinds of animals for omens.

Oiônoskopos was a skill when performed by a mantis, but anyone could watch what the birds did and draw his or her own conclusions. Hesiod expertly advises the reader to look up into the sky if they want happy lives:
"That man is happy and lucky in them who knows all these things and does his work without offending the deathless gods, who discerns the omens of birds and avoids transgressions." [828]

That said, if you wanted a good interpretation of your own sighting, or an expert answer to a question, you visited an ornithoskopoi. How, exactly, the ornithoskopoi performed a reading has been lost to us, but we do have some information to go on for reconstruction of the practice. Evidence from surrounding and later cultures has survived--most notably from the ancient Near East, Etruria and Rome--and from these accounts, it is clear that there were most likely detailed rules to the practice.

Roman accounts allude to special places the ornithoskopoi went to divine. Perhaps these spots simply proved good vantage points but there could have been more to it; perhaps the overlay of a grid-type structure on the sky that was easy to recall when the same spot was used over and over again. Roman bird diviners made use of such a grid and called the segments 'templa'. Sophocles and Aristotle do mention that the left section of the sky was considered negative, and the right section of the sky was considered positive. A divide like that, however, would not be tied to a specific location. For the eager practitioner, however, it is a place to start.

The type of bird one saw most likely made a difference. An eagle--Zeus' bird--would have had a huge impact, and any bird of prey would have been considered an especially strong omen. No listing of auspicious birds survives, as far as I am aware--if one was even ever made--but from a purely personal viewpoint, formed by years of modern divinatory practices as well as an understanding of ancient Hellas, I would say that most types of birds meant different things to different diviners, and that this choice was a personal one. That said, birds obviously tied to a specific location or profession would have served as good omens for a question related to those areas; the sparrow for questions about the household, for example, and a woodpecker for carpenters or even home renovation.

It seems that the behavior of the bird would have had  huge impact as well; a bird of prey swooping to catch another bird or a prey on the ground would perhaps have spelled victory for the ruler asking if going to war was a good idea, while the panicked cries of alarmed birds was perhaps a bad omen. I will give two examples of the interpretation of bird omens here, just to illustrate the frame of mind of the augurer: the first from Hómēros' Odysseia, the second from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.
"So Telemachus spoke, and Far-Seeing Zeus sent out two eagles from a high mountain peak. They flew for a while with outspread wings, side by side in the currents of air, but when they were above the voice-filled assembly they swiftly slanted their wings, circling round, gazing down on the heads below, and death was in their gaze. Then they clawed at each other’s head and neck with their talons, and soared away eastward over the roofs of the town. [...] "I say these words to the Suitors especially, since disaster approaches them. Odysseus will not be far from his friends much longer, and I believe even now he is near, sowing the seeds of dark death for all these men. Yes, and he will bring trouble to many another of us, who live in clear-skied Ithaca." [Bk II:85-128]

"I have the power to proclaim the augury of triumph given on their way to princely men—since my age still breathes Persuasion upon me from the gods; [...] the inspiring omen appearing to the kings of the ships—kingly birds, one black, one white of tail, near the palace, on the spear-hand, in a conspicuous place, devouring a hare with offspring unborn caught in the last effort to escape. Sing the song of woe, the song of woe, but may the good prevail! [...] Then the wise seer of the host, noticing how the two warlike sons of Atreus were two in temper, recognized the devourers of the hare as the leaders of the army, and thus interpreted the portent and spoke: “In time those who here issue forth shall seize Priam's town, and fate shall violently ravage before its towered walls all the public store of cattle. Only may no jealous god-sent wrath cast its shadow upon the embattled host, the mighty bit forged for Troy's mouth, and strike it before it reaches its goal! For, in her pity, holy Artemis is angry at the winged hounds of her father, for they sacrifice a wretched timorous thing, together with her young, before she has brought them forth. An abomination to her is the eagles' feast.”" [104]

There were occasions that were more significant than others for divining, during which a bird could mean more or less than it otherwise would. Birds spotted at the start of a journey, or while on the road (hodion) were considered more important, as they pertained specifically to the journey at hand, and the ancient Hellenes really did not like to leave home to begin with. It's not inconceivable that prominent Hellenes invited ornithoskopoi to be present at the start of journeys, just to hear their thoughts on the journey ahead.

This leads me to the tricky part of oiônoskopos: you need birds. Ornithomancy was usually spontaneous in nature; you could patiently wait in the sacred spot and wait for birds to cross your line of vision, but it was up to the Theoi to send you birds if they pleased. The Roman way of solving this problem was by keeping birds especially for the occasion of a reading, but I have found zero evidence so far that the ancient Hellenes did this as well. My gut instinct is to say that forcing an oracular message in this way would have been considered hubris, and was not practiced, but I have no evidence at all to back this statement up with.

So now for my--ever evolving!--system: I don't have a special spot, although I have found that a good view of the open sky is n absolute must. An area away from the city helps, as you move away from domestic birds only. I live near a heath and there is a hill overlooking a large clearing; I tend to sit there. To divine, I raise my hands to the sky, pour a libation, and ask Apollon, Zeus, 'or other Theoi willing to grand me an answer' to send an omen. Then I sit and wait. I have found that you will know in your gut when it's time to pack up and leave; sometimes, there is no omen coming. I focus on one portion of the sky, and divide it into as many possible outcomes as there are; if it's a yes or no question (my favorite for this method of divination), I put 'yes' on the right, and 'no' to the left. If an answer has three or more choices, I divide the field into that many possibilities, not so much in a grid-like fashion, but like a pizza (see below on why). This happens, for example, with questions where waiting, acting now towards the goal, or abandoning the pursuit are all options.

I tend to just go by feel on which bird is the one to interpret, but as a general guideline, I go with the one who does not cross the boundary into the other section before leaving my field of vision. This is why I don't use a grid; the bird would have to fly through some of the other sections to get to their desired quadrant, mucking up the reading. If I know what type of bird eventually grants me a reading, I take that into account, going with what I know of the bird, or can later look up. I also look at what it does. If it just sails pleasantly through the 'yes' section, I know it's going to be an easy endeavor, if it fumbles through the same sector, swerving and diving, I know it's going to be a bumpy ride, but it will end positively.

Important to note is that I always keep my ears open; sometimes I will look away to a sound on the ground and find my answer there; a hare running through the sectors, or driven into a hole by a shadow overhead; these signs are just as important to me as the birds up high.

I'm not terribly good at ornithomancy yet, and at least half of the time, there is no omen at all, or I have missed it. What I have divined is usually true, though, although I realize looking back on them that I missed details I should have interpreted. Tarot, for me, is a much easier and less time consuming endeavor, but it's one absolutely foreign to the ancient Hellenes, so I would rather work on my skills as a bird interpreter for the rare instances where I require divination. If you have any tips or tricks, I welcome them; until then, I'll just keep my eye on the sky.
Image source: Swallow

NOTE: I am very happy and proud to announce that Elaion, the Hellenistic organization I am affiliated with, now has a presence on Facebook in the form of a group I would love to have you join; the list is open to all who are interested in our flavor of Reconstructionism, and it is a place to get help and in-depth discussion about Hellenismos. I hope to see you there!

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Elani Temperance is a twenty-seven year old woman, who lives with her partner in The Netherlands. She has been Pagan for a little over twelve years and has explored Neo-Wicca, Technopaganism, Hedge Witchery and Eclectic Religious Witchcraft before progressing to Hellenismos. Although her home practice is fully Hellenic, she has an online Neo-Pagan magazine called 'Little Witch magazine' ( in which she and several co-writers try to cover the whole gamut of Neo-Paganism. Baring the Aegis is also on Facebook:


  • Jamie
    Jamie Tuesday, 30 July 2013

    This is just great stuff! Many thanks again.

  • Suzanne Corbie
    Suzanne Corbie Wednesday, 31 July 2013

    Hello Elani, interesting blog as many moons ago, I read that the Athenians, in an attempt to galvanise and motivate their army, would take an owl secretly to battle and release it at the appropriate time so that the army would see it as an indication of favour from the Goddess Athene. Clearly the appropriate animal such as the eagle to Zeus would be seen as a favourable oracle unless it was killed and fell or some other misfortune came of it. Also I understand the direction the birds flew in was significant.

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Thursday, 01 August 2013

    This practice would not surprise me at all :D Thanks!

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