During a recent lunch at a Chinese restaurant, a friend read her fortune cookie, jumped up and ran next door to Publix to buy a lottery based on the numbers printed on the back of the fortune. I was surprised because those “lucky” numbers appear on all fortune cookies, and she knew that.
However, she said that the Chinese word of the day on the other side of the fortune, “turtle,” was an omen. That was her nickname, she explained. It was sign that the lottery numbers were going to win.
That’s the problems with such “omens.” They are so hard to read. That hasn’t stopped anyone of course. We all see omens – those intangible hints of the future. Science be damned: a snake that slithered across my path this morning definitely foreshadows a problem at work.
Reading omens – a word of uncertain origin – is not a new idea. Babylonian and Assyrian priests once predicted the future by looking at the entrails of sacrificial victims. They checked the “appearance of human and animal offspring at birth” as well as the condition of “various members of the human body,” according to a British Museum report.
In their day, Romans also faithfully checked for omens in the entrails of animals and in the flight of birds. They called such indicators “auspices.” They supposedly forecast the results of a coming war. Generals would not go into battle if the auspices were not good and often sacrificed more animals to get better results.
Occasionally, a priest who didn’t find good auspices prior to some important event also ended up being sacrificed.
Seutonius, a Roman author who is best known for his biographies of the first 12 emperors, carefully recorded all the omens when one of them was born, the first indication that the child was destined to wear the purple.
Such ideas became widespread as the Roman Empire overshadowed western civilization. Jews were not exempt. The appearance of an owl at games presided over by Jewish King Herod Antipas forecast his death, according to a report by Jewish historian Josephus. Supposedly, Antipas had seen an owl while held in a Roman prison and was warned he would die five days after seeing another one. In a mind over matter episode, Agrippa did exactly that.
The belief in omens hasn’t vanished. For example, a black cat is supposedly an omen for impending troubles throughout the Western world.
These superstitions linger because omens are more than just an idle thought. They supposedly represent divine interference in human life. As was noted in the 1875 Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities: “All the nations of antiquity were impressed with the firm belief, that the will of the gods and future events were revealed to men by certain signs, which were sent by the gods as marks of their favor to their sincere worshipers. Hence, the arguments of the Stoics that if there are gods, they care for men, and that if they care for men they must send them signs of their will.”
That’s why people predicting the immediate end of the world now point to such ominous omens as the recent massive fish kills. The death of 200 cows in Wisconsin prompted similar claims, all based on a biblical prophecy in Hosea:
"Therefore shall the land mourn, and every one that dwelleth therein shall languish, with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven; yea, the fishes of the sea also shall be taken away."
Of course, the book of Revelation in the Bible is regularly mined for more hints of the coming apocalypse.
Fortunately, not all omens presage disaster. A sneeze was seen as a good omen in Greece, for example. A bright sun suddenly appearing amid the clouds today often is seen as a sign that the heavens are looking down favorably.
Regardless, all omens good or bad are merely superstitions.
My friend didn’t win the lottery. None of the six numbers came up. She joins the legions disappointed by the failure of omens.
As Roman poet Lucretius noted more than 2,000 years ago: there is nothing to create omens. People “observed how the array of heaven and the various seasons of the year came round in due order and could not discover by what causes all that came about. Therefore, their refuge was to leave all in the hands of the gods and to suppose that by their nod all things are done."
The truth is that life is not ominous – in more ways than one.
Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. Many of his essays are posted at www.williamplazarus.blogspot.com.