Mesopotamian omen texts are fascinating. But they are also very remote. I think we can say that the modern way of looking at the world is not identical to that of the ancient Mesopotamian, even the elite literate scholar who read, copied or wrote comments on and redacted the omen tablets available to him. And this difference is not merely based on language and cultural difference. It is however possible to re-enact, with the analytical skills that are a common feature of our age, at least one aspect of how an omen tablet came to be formulated. The religious, mythical background is of course extremely important but one that we cannot experience with the same intensity and conviction and so I will leave this to the side.
Do you ever, dear reader, look up at the sky and try to read what the weather might be from the quality of temperature, humidity, cloud density and wind intensity? Sure you have! It is high summer and it is sticky humid. You look to the west and see a dark cloud bank quickly moving in your direction. You know out of experience that a thunder storm is on its way and that there will be a rain torrent accompanied by thunder and lightning. Now put on a pair of Mesopotamian sandals and imagine that the king has given you the duty of recording the weather and giving a prediction of what will happen when certain conditions arise. So you will write something like:
If in summer it is humid and dark clouds move quickly from the west; it will rain in torrents. There will be thunder and lightning.
Maybe you spend your lifetime as a weather scholar/diviner recording the weather and its results. You might modify your first text:
If in summer it is humid and dark clouds move quickly from the west; it will rain in torrents. There will be thunder and lightning and crops will be flattened. There will be hunger.
Perhaps a century later another scholar edits and simplifies your prediction as there are now hundreds that have been gathered and they need to have some sort of order. He might write:
If in summer it is humid and dark clouds move in quickly from the west; there will be hunger.
We actually have weather rhymes that have been handed down since the middle ages. One such is the well known:
Red sky at night; shepherds delight,
Red sky in the morning; shepherds warning
This rhyme has the same structure as an omen text:
Red sky at night – the indication
shepherds delight – the prediction
And what is more this isn’t just a nursery rhyme. It has a factual element. Of course we rely not only on weather rhymes for predicting weather, we also have a whole arsenal of instruments beginning with thermometers and ending with satellites. We have a science, meterology, that tries to understand and describe the whole complexity of weather. And there is a branch of mundane astrology that also tries to predict the weather. Our approach is very much different, but buried deep is a faint echo of a Mesopotamian weather omen…