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Science and Superstition: Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World

January 4, 2009

Organized by Amar Annus
The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
1155 East 58th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
March 6-7, 2009
The Aims of the Seminar
The concept of sign, a portent observed in the physical world, which indicates future events was first developed in ancient Mesopotamia. The collections of omens, interpreting the signs either in heaven or on earth, were first written down during the Old Babylonian period. Those collections grew into compendia of ominous phenomena, where the segments of original observations were expanded into very comprehensive omen series (for an overview, see Maul 2003). These series had either a written form or circulated orally as traditional knowledge of the Mesopotamian diviners. This branch of Babylonian science extensively influenced the other parts of the world. There is evidence in Hebrew, Syriac, Greek, Sanscrit, Sogdian and in other languages that knowledge of Mesopotamian omen compendia was widespread both in space and time in the ancient world (see Pingree 1992; Sims-Williams 1995). The wandering diviners, sometimes called the Chaldaeans in the Mediterranean sources, were often responsible for the dissemination of the Mesopotamian wisdom in the late Antique world. One goal of the symposium is to map the diffusion of the Mesopotamian omen lore in other parts of the world. The concept of divine signs is present in many ancient cultures – in Classical, Hebrew, Chinese, Indian and Arabian culture, and the symposium will investigate how such concepts in other parts of the world may have been influenced by ancient Mesopotamia. Among such interesting questions is the Mesopotamian influence on the Stoic theory of signs given the circumstance observed already by F. Cumont that all first masters of the Stoic school were Orientals (Cumont 1912: 69-71, 81-82). Ancient Jewish and Muslim traditions also enjoined believers to ‘ponder’ or ‘reflect’ on the natural world and its movements in order to discover the signs of God’s omnipotence and appreciate his majesty. There is considerable evidence of the diffusion of Mesopotamian omen literature in Aramaic and Arabic. Another important aim of the symposium is to investigate and to juxtapose the related concepts of divination, prophecy, ideology, evidence and inference as traceable in written sources of the ancient world.

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