Augury: Lost Form of Divination

Augury is one of those misunderstood words, possibly because true augury has been largely lost in the shadows of ancient history. If a person knows or has heard the word at all, they generally believe it is another word for divination. That is close. Augury is an ancient word, and over time has come to be used as a word for divination. However, the original meaning of augury actually refereed to a specific type of divination: Reading the signs and omens in the activity of birds.

Roman Augury

Some sources broadly define augury as an act of divination that included watching the actions of various creatures and natural phenomena, as well as interpreting omens in the entrails of sacrificed animals.

augury divination

Ancient Augur of Rome

Augury may have grown to include these and other similar practices, but it started out, and always remained at its core, a practice concerned mostly with the flight and behavior of birds.

The word augury comes from the old Latin word augur. An augur was a religious official in ancient Rome who foretold of positive or negative outcomes to important evens based on the signs and omens provided by birds. Current research indicated that the word augur may actually be derived from the word avis which means ‘bird’ in Latin. The augurs of ancient Rome were powerful officials. It was generally considered a bad idea to ignore their counsel and advice. How good was their advice? Well, most of the Roman Empire was built following the advice of the augurs. It is difficult to argue with results.

It is from the ancient Roman the practice of augury divination would become well known. The flight and activity of birds, sometimes of particular birds, were seen as either favorable or unfavorable signs from the gods, usually the god Jupiter, king of the gods. Many important decisions in Rome were decided by first gazing up at the sky and seeing what the birds foretold. Even the founding of Rome itself was, according to legend, decided by augury. It was said that Remus and Romulus, the mythical founders of Rome, initially could not agree on where exactly the city of Rome should be built. To settle their dispute, the twins sat on the ground and looked up into the sky for birds. Romulus won the contest by seeing twelve birds to his brother’s six. The Roman Empire later went on to institutionalize augury, and even had a special class of priests known as augurs whose sole duty it was to watch, study, and interpret the activity of birds.

In ancient Rome, augury was use to determine if someone was favorable as a magistrate; when and where to go to war; for engagements and marriages; whether a particular law should be enacted; the list goes on. Although the Romans made augury famous (and made good use of this particular form of divination) the Romans did not create augury. Augury itself is far older than Rome.

Augury in Different Cultures Through History

Though little is known about the practice of augury before Roman times, every Roman source we do have testifies that augury preceded Roman civilization itself. Some scholars believe augury likely made its way to Rome from ancient Egypt, where many other ancient Greek and Roman practices, ideas, and philosophies have their roots. Interestingly, as the Roman Empire expanded, various styles of augury and divination began to be incorporated into Roman practice. For example, the original Roman augurs paid strict attention to the flight and actions of birds. Later augurs adopted listening to bird song and cries, an adaptation to augury likely learned from the Greeks. The Etruscans introduced haruspicy, or the reading of animal entrails, to the Roman augurs … which is how, unfortunately, the word augury became associated with that particular form of divination.

One of the oldest references to augury is around 700 BC in Homer’s Iliad: "Thy sacred bird, celestial augury." … "But, if god his augury denies, Suppress thy impulse, nor reject advice". It’s clear the use of birds as divine messengers was clearly in place in ancient Greek, well before the establishment of Rome, possibly long before.

Perhaps you have heard the expression, "a little bird told me"? This might actually trace back to the Bible. In the King James version of the Bible, in the book Ecclesiastes, it is written: "Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter". References to birds carrying divine or special messages is woven through literature including Shakespeare and Frederick Marryat’s line, "A little bird has whispered a secret to me". A line from the 6th century Scandinavia poem Beowulf says, "They slept until the black raven, the blithe hearted proclaimed the joy of heaven".

Indigenous cultures the world over likewise give birds a special place in their creation myths and mythology, seeing them as guides, protectors and messengers. Some Native Alaskan hunters believed that by closely watching the flights of crows they would be led to their prey. Most Native Americans felt owls could bring forewarnings of death, other tribes believed crows and/or ravens could bring messages from the spirit world, or even carry the spirit of a loved one from the afterlife to this world.

Augury Etymology

Augury may seem very disconnected from the modern world, but the impact that this ancient practice remains in the very language we speak today.

Augur at work

Augur Practicing Divination

And, that impact is profound when you begin to examine it. The word "augur" itself meant "to look" or "to make a prediction." The root "aug" carries a connotation of "increasing" or "prospering". "Augur" and "aug" are very likely derived from the Latin word for bird, which is "avis". The Roman title "Augusts," which was conferred upon Roman emperors, took its root from these words. According to Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, "Augustus" signified that something had been either consecrated by the augurs or undertaken based on favorable auguries.

Many modern English words are derived from these Latin roots as well. Words such as "accrue," "augment," and "argument" all denote some sort of increase, or at least an attempt to increase an object or a situation by carefully looking at and studying it. The word "inauguration" really means that a person entering into a official position is doing so under the favorable signs and omens from birds. Then there is the word "auspicious," which literally means that good portents and favorable circumstances have been shown from the divine as interpreted by the augurs, or bird divination specialists. The fact that all of these modern words are ultimately derived from the Roman word for "bird" illustrates how important of a practice augury was.

The Practice of Augury

It is unlikely we will ever learn where the practice of augury began. Perhaps it began in many places in the world under various circumstance as if it were something in nature to be discovered. Maybe it began with the observation of bird migratory patterns that foretold of changing seasons, helping to determine when to plant or when game would return or depart. Then, gradually, the close observation of birds began to reveal more secrets.

Along with the practice of scrying, augury is perhaps one of the oldest known forms of divination. Scrying, though popularly thought of in connection with crystal balls, was practiced in the ancient world by gazing into almost any reflective surface. A ‘scryer’ would generally enter a trance state and endeavor to gain information from the spirits and/or by personal visions about important questions and decisions. Perhaps, over time, the same meditative state achieved in scrying began to be achieved by watching the sky and the activity of birds.

We do know from ancient Roman texts that augury was a bit different from scrying or other divination practices. The augurs were highly skilled at watching for omens and signs from the birds. With tarot or scrying one is looking for details on future events or unveiling what is hidden. Augury was about watching for signs that showed that an undertaking is viewed favorably or unfavorably. It was about seeking signs and omens that a marriage would be blessed or if a person was suited to authority.

Augury, Nature and Humanity

In the tens of thousands of years of human history, both recorded or hidden by time, nature and the spiritual world were one. Humanity and nature were inseparable. It has been only in the last few hundred years we have seen this accelerating separation between people and nature. It is not uncommon for someone to spend a day and never go outside. It is not uncommon for people to go a week or more not go outside except to travel, under the sky, for short periods of time (and during that time to be entirely surround by human structures).

Typically, people now go for thousands of hours and never spend more than a few minutes thinking about something that is NOT themselves, other people or human activities. This accelerating separation of humanity from nature has been fueled by the rise of religions which considered mankind separate and/or other than part of nature. Combine this with the spectacular success of science to manipulate and transform nature while denying it any spiritual significance and it’s easy to see where we might assume nature is something ‘other’ than us.

The ancients that practiced augury felt that nature, and therefore the divine will, could be deciphered by a patient method of watching, waiting, listening. Divine secrets could be known, but only by those who disciplined enough to allowed nature to willingly provide answers (and only to those humble enough to accept a power greater than themselves could be at work in the universe).

Today we hold a surface-oriented view of the universe, in which, for example, the flight of birds can signify nothing other than the physical speed and trajectory of the flight. To the ancients, however, a bird was not just a bird, and its flight was not just a flight.

Psychic Kay

Psychic Kay is well versed in a number of different forms of divination. Give her a call at: 1-866-407-7164 – Toll Free USA and Canada

The natural world was often seen as a reflection of the spiritual plane of existence, as a sort of hidden language of the Creator that could be divined if one knew where and how to look.

To be in nature, utterly apart from civilization, purely observing, is very rare. It is something people today are likely never to experience. So, it is not surprising that augury and similar methods of divination which only involve one’s interaction with nature have all but vanished. Now, here is an odd coincidence: Since 1500 AD, about the time augury began to vanish from the world, it is estimated that over 190 species of birds have become extinct. 1,300 more species of birds currently face extinction. Perhaps the birds are still trying to tell us something important. But, have we forgotten how to listen? …

Should you be interested in talking with a psychic with a great deal of experience with divination, give Psychic Kay a call at 1-866-407-7164, toll free USA and Canada. Kay was introducted to, and learned divination from, both her mother and grandmother. Got questions? Call Kay.

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