Libanomancy (Incense Divination)


1 Introduction

Ancient animal sacrifice was not just an offering, but also a mode of divination. For one thing, of course, there was haruspicy or excispicy, the inspection of the innards (exta), especially the liver of a sacrificial animal. We are not particularly well informed about the details of this practice in the Greco-Roman world, due to the loss of ancient handbooks on the subject, but there are extensive surviving materials on the art of extispicy (akk. bārûtu) in cuneiform – no doubt enough to revive the art, if one wished, once the extant material are made available in translations with good commentaries.

Aside from this highly technical mode of divination, there were also more casual observations made during sacrifice: “They used to trouble themselves further about the corpses of the victims, (observing) whether they would fall down to the right or the left; and in the former case, they would predict fortunate (events), in the latter, unfortunate ones.

“They would also observe the moment of the (final) spasm after the sacrifice: and if the victims immediately breathed their last, they would predict a fast resolution for themselves in the matters at hand, but if not, a drawn-out and troubled one” (Psellus, On the Sacrificial Science).

These two examples are both binary (left vs. right, fast vs. drawn out), and deliver an essentially binary answer: yes or no, auspicious or inauspicious. The same is ultimately true of extispicy, although the process to get to the binary answer is much more complicated (see Derek Collins, Mapping the Entrails: The Practice of Greek Hepatoscopy).

But why do I spell all this out in a page on divination from incense? My point is that, while animal slaughter was the primary means of divination through sacrifice, the basic method (of making binary observations) and result (of learning whether the offering was received auspiciously or not) is generalizable, and in principle could be applied to any kind of offering that involves events or effects outside human control.

After all, “those who would placate the gods with frankincense were heard (by the gods) no less than those who immolated animals. For in place of victims, it is also possible to make an auspicious offering to the gods with nothing but a good conscience” (Lactantius Placidus, On the Thebaid 2.247).

And whether in animal sacrifice or pure incense offerings, it is possible to read smoke and fumes. As Lactantius Placidus writes: “The art of haruspicy contains this, that it observes the movement and crackling of the (grains of) frankincense, and the movement and inclination of the smoke, because these signs first testify the promise of the innards, if they are good – or if they are contrary, it is obstructed, as the book On the Signs of Frankincense attests, which is ascribed to Tiresias himself” (On the Thebaid 4.468).

“This kind of haruspicy is called καπνομαντεία (kapno-manteía, ‘smoke-divination’), because future events are shown from the distribution of the smoke itself” (ibid. 10.599). “There is a certain art of foreseeing the truth from the smoke of the altar, because those who are called καπνομάντεις (kapno-mánteis, ‘smoke-diviners’) know what things are going to happen from the distribution of the smoke itself” (ibid. 4.412).

In the scholia on Homer, there is even an explicit distinction made between “those who make divination using innards (gr. splánkhna)” and “those who make divination using incenses (gr. epithyómena), the burnt-offering-diviners (gr. empyroskópoi); these they call frankincense-diviners (libanománteis)” (Scholia on Iliad 24.221). According to Porphyry, the first to use such vegetarian divination from frankincense was Pythagoras himself (Life of Pythagoras 11), the sage who enjoined us not to stain altars with blood but to offer honey-cakes, frankincense and hymns (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 1.1).

[Work in Progress: add Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 1.31]

What has been said should more than suffice to show the viability of divination from incense, but how can one actually practice it?

2 On Incense Offerings

First, however, I should say a word about incense offerings as such, which will be a prerequisite for putting the divinatory method into practice.

For Mesopotamia, there is an excellent paper in German by Ellen Rehm, Harz und Zeder mögen euch hervorrufen. Über die Räucherkultur im Alten Orient (May Resin and Cedar Call You Forth. On the Culture of Fumigation in the Ancient Near East). Incenses were usually offered on charcoal of camel thorn or juniper (but also other woods like acacia). The incenses were also woods – above all cedar, secondarily cornifers like juniper, but also cypressus, myrtle, myrrh, elder, etc. – and flour. The wood was split into small pieces or fibers; leaves were also used. The exact nature of the flour is now obscure.

These woods and different kinds of flour could also be mixed, and salt or sulphur added. Whatever made up the incense, it would be sprinkled from a vessel onto the charcoal held by a brazier, by itself or in combination with other substances, including meat, herbs, seeds, and so on. The purpose of such suffumigations usually lay in purification or offerings, to attract the gods. There seem to have been no rules on which incenses were offered to which deities, except for the purposes of any given individual ritual, although Compendium CBS 6060 interprets some fumigants as representing specific gods.

In the Greco-Roman sphere, by contrast, frankincense was by far the most popular fumigant, although the expense involved was not within everyone’s means. In its place, people typically used fragrant herbs or spices rather than woods. [Work in Progress]

3 How to practice incense divination?

From the Greco-Roman sphere, there is to my knowledge no precise information on how to interpret the incense, although we are given vectors by Lactantius Placidus:

  • Grains of incense (or what have you)
    • Movement
    • Crackling
  • Smoke
    • Movement
    • Inclination

I encourage others to develop an art from these principles, but will confine myself here to an Old Babylonian cuneiform text on the subject, which follows a somewhat different set of criteria. Firstly, the correct reading of smoke omens according to the Old Babylonian method requires the diviner to stand facing East, with the brazier or burner before them. As Maria Stella Cingolo (Some Remarks about the Old Babylonian Libanomancy Texts) observes, four steps are described, although it does not seem that the third and fourth must be involved:

  1. The moment the incense catches fire.
  2. The development of the smoke.
  3. ‘Fuelling’.
  4. Scattering flour over the already burning incense.

From the edition of Irving L. Finkel, A New Piece of Libanomancy, we get the following descriptions (where for the sake of simplicity I have replaced predictions about military matters etc. with simple positive/negative judgments):

  • If you sprinkle and the flame burns smokily: positive.
  • If you sprinkle and the incense stops short, but then the flame burns smokily: negative.
  • If the smoke goes right (south), not left (north): positive.
  • If the smoke goes left, not right: negative.
  • If the smoke goes east, not towards the crotch of the diviner (west): positive.
  • If the smoke goes toward the crotch of the diviner, not east: negative.
  • If the smoke goes all directions: neutral.
  • If the smoke clusters: positive.
  • If the top of the smoke is fragmented: negative.
  • If the top of the smoke is cleft: negative.
  • If the top of the smoke is cut off: negative.
  • If the top of the smoke looks like “the brickbasket of Šamaš”: negative.
  • If the top of the incense gathers like a date palm and is thin at its base: negative.
  • If the smoke after a while is constricted: negative.
  • If the smoke (is constricted but) after a while pushes through and gets out: positive outcome (after intervening negative events).
  • If the smoke pushes through to the east and gets out: ditto.

In short, if you intentionally set out to perform incense divination according to these methods, you want the fumigant to burn steadily, and for the smoke to go south or east (straight up is presumably neutral) and cluster rather than break apart.

Not every incense offering is for divination, of course, so do not become attached to this superstitiously or make it a source of anxiety; but any offering can be an occasion for divination, if you make it one deliberately.