Empiricism in Babylonian Omen Texts and the Classification of Mesopotamian Divination as Science

By Rochberg, Francesca | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 1999 | Go to article overview

Empiricism in Babylonian Omen Texts and the Classification of Mesopotamian Divination as Science


Rochberg, Francesca, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


INTRODUCTION: THE CLASSIFICATION OF BABYLONIAN DIVINATION AS SCIENCE

THE STUDY OF ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIAN SCIENCE HAS been largely devoted to the reading and analysis of the many astronomical records, both observational and computational, found in the southern Mesopotamian cities of Babylon and Uruk, dating mostly from the period after 500 B.C.(1) Earlier texts of astronomical interest, found in Assyrian sites such as Nineveh and Assur, provide evidence of the incorporation of astronomical events within a vast system of divination that predicted the future on the basis of natural and other events of many kinds.(2) Such events were viewed as signs produced by the gods by means of which humans were forewarned of future events. Foreknowledge could therefore be obtained by systematic consideration and interpretation of the omens.(3)

Assyriologists have considered the omen texts a form of science in Mesopotamia primarily because many of the phenomena of interest in these texts are of the physical, natural, world.(4) Thus many of the omen protases of the celestial omen series Enuma Anu Enlil, parts of Summa alu dealing with fauna, of Summa izbu focusing on anomalous animal and human births, of Alamdimmu, that deal with the variable forms of the human anatomy, and even parts of the Ziqiqu dreambook, have come to be inspected as sources for understanding the Mesopotamian attempt to grasp the workings of nature. Because the diverse systems of Mesopotamian divination all stemmed from a belief in the gods' involvement in the physical, as well as the social worlds, and because of the close relationship of divination to apotropaic ritual magic, the body of knowledge represented by the omen texts has not always been classified as science, particularly by historians of science who prefer to see in this material a form of pre-or proto-science.(5)

Beginning in the 1960s, however, philosophers and anthropologists have argued about the similarities and differences that relate or distinguish traditional (religious/magical) and modern (scientific) thinking. As well, they have also discussed the implications of accepting a relativism of "modes of thought" for defining both science and the criteria of scientific truth.(6) Those disposed toward relativism extend the term science to divination and magic. This discussion becomes relevant to the study of magical, alchemical, and astrological sources in the history of Western science, with the result that the criteria defining science "in general" established by Boyle and the Royal Society of London in the seventeenth century have at long last been rejected, as Barnes, Bloor, and Henry put it, "not least because philosophers and historians have now demonstrated repeatedly that the contents of the accepted, authentic history of science are not capable of being demarcated by this criterion, or indeed by any other."(7)

For historians in the current post-positivistic climate, science has ceased to be the exclusively logical and empirical inquiry it once was, clearly and cleanly separable from theology, metaphysics, and other speculative or "mythic" forms of thought.(8) The impact of this historiography is such that many philosophers of science no longer exclude all but "matters of fact and ratiocination" from science and have even come so far as to call into question the old demarcation game itself.(9) Historical considerations aside, on purely epistemological grounds some have argued that "there is apparently no epistemic feature or set of such features which all and only the 'sciences' exhibit.... It is time me abandoned that lingering 'scientistic' prejudice which holds that 'the sciences' and sound knowledge are coextensive; they are not."(10)

Where ancient Mesopotamian traditions are concerned, it would seem that the "scientistic prejudice" does linger and old demarcations prevail. Otherwise, why do ideas persist such as that science begins only with the Greeks and continues to evolve to the present day? …

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