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Seeking the Wisdom of the Ancestors:A Form of Indo-European Divination

The Irish tale Serglige Con Culainn describes a ritual, called the tarb feis, the “bull feast,” in a fair amount of detail. A white bull is killed. A man eats his fill of its meat, drinks its broth, and goes to sleep after a prayer is spoken over him by four druids. While he sleeps he has a dream of the man who will become king (MacCana, 91-92). In a similar story told in Togail Bruidne Da Derga, we are further told that the prayer was "an incantation of truth," and that the man will die if he lies about what he dreams (Gantz, 65).

These two stories contain most of the essential elements of a form of divination that may be found across a wide swath of the Indo-European domain, from Iceland to India. This paper will present the evidence for this technique and attempt to reconstruct its original form.

In another Irish tale, the Life of St. Berach, four druids lie on rowan hurdles that are covered with the hides of sacrificed bulls. They drink new ale, call on the gods, and wait for a revelation.

Other Celtic sources provide numerous, albeit fragmentary, examples. For instance, Scottish folklore prescribes that a seer be wrapped in the skin of freshly killed cattle. He is then to be taken to an isolated wild place to await his answer (Nagy, 1981/1982, 138). In a version from the Western Islands, from 1703 (related in Davidson, 1988, 143), a man is wrapped in a cow's hide and left in a wild place overnight. "Invisible friends" come to him to tell him what he wants to know.

In the Welsh tradition we find "The Dream of Rhonabwy," from The Mabinogi (Ford, 1977). The title character, while on a search for a renegade prince, is put up for the night in a pathetic excuse for a hall. It is warmed with a fire of chaff which throws up smoke and chokes everyone. A hag and her assistant serve Rhonabwy and his two men a dinner of barley bread, cheese, and watery milk. When it is time to sleep, they are given a pile of straw and sticks, infested with fleas. Rhonabwy understandably can't sleep, and goes to the far end of the hall, where there is a yellow ox-skin on a platform. He lies down on that, and has a dream in which a youth takes him to King Arthur's court. A parody, to be sure, but parodies must be based on something or they are simply not funny.

The Germanic realm provides some fragmentary versions. In the Mariu Saga (13th. cent.) a man sits on the hide of a freshly skinned (and presumably freshly killed) ox, with squares drawn around it. The devil comes to him to reveal the future (Davidson, 1988, 143). A divination described in the Icelandic Saga of Erik the Red involves a hood and a platform (Buchholz, 1987, 32). According to German folklore, those who went to a crossroads between eleven and midnight on Christmas or New Year's Eve and sat on an animal hide would learn the future.

So far the examples come from Christian era sources. That makes the Roman evidence all the more important. In The Aeneid (7.102 ff.) Latinus, troubled by omens, goes to the oracle of Faunus for advice. At this oracle, at a fountain deep in the woods, the priest performs divination by praying to Sleep and then sleeping on the hides of sacrificed sheep. Latinus serves as priest, and spirits come to him, including both the gods and the dead, which describe to him the future greatness of Rome.

Ovid describes a similar ritual (Fasti 4.649-672). To learn how to restore the land to its fertility, King Numa sacrifices two sheep in a sacred grove, one to Faunus and one to Sleep. The hides are laid on the ground and he is sprinkled with water and wine, and puts two beech wreaths on his head. He wraps himself in the fleeces, prays, and then dreams. Faunus appears to him in his sleep with an oracle. Before the ritual he must abstain from sex, meat, and the wearing of rings.

In the Zoroastrian Arda Wiraz Namag (Prologue 1-3, in Flattery and Schwartz, 1989, pp. 14-16), Wiraz is chosen by lot, as the most righteous of men, to conduct a divination to ask the departed souls whether Zoroastrianism is the true religion. In a thirty-step wide place, he washes himself and puts on a new garment. He lays a new blanket on some boards and, sitting on it, performs the dron ritual (a bread offering modeled on a sacrifice; Jamaspasa, 1985.) He prays to the dead and eats food, presumably the dron. He then drinks three cups of a mixture of wine and the drug mang. He says grace and falls asleep. While he sleeps priests chant prayers over him. In his sleep, he is taken on a tour of the land of the dead.

Finally, the Chandogya Upanishad (5.2, in Hume) preserves a complete ritual of this type, to be performed on the night of the full moon. The celebrant is to mix "all sorts of herbs with sour milk and honey." He is then to make four offerings of ghee into a fire, to "the chiefest and best," "the most excellent," "the firm basis," and "the abode." Crawling away from the fire, he takes up the herb, milk, and honey mixture in his hands and prays over it for preeminence and unity with everything. From the cup he then drinks four sips, praying to Savitr, god of magic and the sun when it is not in the sky, as he does so. He cleans the cup and lies down to the west of the fire on a skin or the ground. If he sees a vision of a woman, his ritual has been successful.

Divination by dreaming is widespread (indeed, Polymnia Athanassiadi went so far as to observe, regarding the Mediterranean world, that “[t]he evidence drawn from papyri, amulets, temple inscriptions, the historians and the hagiographers makes it overwhelming clear that the commonest method of divination in late antiquity was by dream oracles” (1993, 127), and if I were simply pointing out that all of these cultures practiced it there would be little point to this paper. However, the correspondence of details among these examples is striking. When they are considered together, as shown in the table, there is clearly a pattern which indicates a common Indo-European ritual. A milk-giving animal is sacrificed and its meat eaten by the diviner. The diviner also consumes a sacred drink, either the animal's broth, a substitutionary drink, or an intoxicating beverage. He lies down on the animal's skin, likely put on a wooden platform. Prayers are said over him by priests, and then he sleeps. A vision comes to him in his sleep from the dead. The ritual is performed for a public purpose, perhaps actually in public.

A major variation is the absence of sacrifice in some versions. This is easily explained by their cultural contexts. In both Iran and India animal sacrifice (particularly of cattle) came to be seen as abhorrent. These traditions have therefore replaced animal sacrifice in this ritual in the same way they replaced it in others, with bread (Iran) and dairy products (India). The later versions from Celtic and Germanic sources occur in a culture (a Christian one) in which sacrifice is out of the question. In these versions the sacrificed animal has therefore been reduced to a hide.

Some of the Celtic and Germanic examples, and one of the Roman, prescribe wrapping in the hide, rather than merely lying on it. In this way the seer is identified with the sacrificial animal; he is in its skin. This may be intended either as a liminal device – between human and animal, life and death – or so that by this identification with the sacrifice the seer might go with the animal to its intended target. That the second explanation was the original one is indicated by other details. In most versions, the sacrifice is consumed in some way, eating being a common form of identification. Compare, for instance, the horse sacrifice mentioned by Gerald of Wales (102), in which a king being inaugurated must eat the flesh and drink the broth of a sacrificed mare.

An interesting secondary detail is the wooden platform, which appears in Ireland, Wales, and Iran, and possibly in Iceland. This may be a liminal device – the seer is lifted up, but not high, putting him neither on the ground nor truly in the air.

The being(s) to whom the sacrifice is made is only rarely mentioned. In The Aeneid and Fasti it is Faunus (and Sleep), in the Chandogya Upanishad it is Savitr, and in the Arda Wiraz Namag the offering is made to the departed souls.

The public nature is an important identifying element of the ritual. It may be to determine the next king, or to find proof for Zoroastrianism, or the determine the significance of omens. The public nature may be indicated in the Scottish example by the fact that the seer is wrapped up in the hide first and must then carried to the site of the divination. That the ritual described in the Chandogya Upanishad is not public is easily explained by the fact that one of the major goals of Upanishadic Hinduism was interiorizing sacrifice, changing it from public performance to individual mysticism.

The beings that the vision comes from is more often given. In one Irish version it comes from demons, in the Scottish from "invisible friends," in the Icelandic from the devil. The Irish and Icelandic versions are obviously Christianized, and the source given for the vision indicates that the ritual was not considered properly Christian. In The Aeneid the revelation comes from gods and the dead, in the Chandogya Upanishad from a woman, and in the Arda Wiraz Namag from the souls of the dead. Rhonabwy's vision is of King Arthur's court, and thus of the past.

The knowledge sought, then, is intended to come from the dead. This is clear in the Aeneid (not only do the dead appear to Latinus, but Faunus is his father) and the Arda Wiraz Namag, and implied in "Rhonabwy." Since Savitr is god of the sun when it is not in the sky, it may be implied in the Chandogya Upanishad as well; he comes from the Underworld. Further, the Upanisadic vision is not of a divine being, but of a human; i. e., a mortal.

Before ending this paper, I would like to discuss some side questions. The first involves the nature of the Gaulish god Ogmios. Palmer (1974, 164) holds that the identification of the Ogmios with Hercules rested on the Gaulish god being represented with the skin of a sacrificial animal, which was confused with the lion skin Hercules was usually depicted wearing. I would like to suggest that it was the skin used in just the sort of oracular ritual I have been discussing. This would fit in better with other classical descriptions of Ogmios, and with the usual equation of him with the Irish Oghma, than would seeing him as a Gaulish from of Hercules. If Brunaux is right (1988, 72) in describing him as a god who carries off the dead, the divinatory ritual discussed here becomes even more appropriate to him.

An interesting non-divinatory parallel comes an element of the Vedic funeral ritual as given in the Asvalayana Grhya Sutra 4.3.20-27 (in Panikkar, 1977, p. 606). A goat or cow is sacrificed and its pieces are put on or next to the corresponding part of the corpse – heart on heart, limbs on limbs, etc. The corpse is finally covered with the animal's skin.

Now this is clearly primarily an example of equating the dead person and the sacrifice. That, however, makes it all the more interesting. The dead man, covered with the skin of the sacrifice, is conveyed to the land of the dead. He is presumably on top of a cremation pyre. Is this latter the source of the elevated platform? Could the divinatory ritual as a whole be an attempt to go to the land of the dead in the same way that dead men do?

The possibility of a connection between divination and funeral ritual is also raised by the famous funeral described by Ibn Fadlan (CE 921). He describes a funeral among the Rus, a Germanic people living in what is now Russia. The relevant portions are that a slave who is going to accompany her master into death drinks an intoxicating beverage and is later lifted over a "doorframe" and tells those attending of what she sees in the land of the dead. The dead man is lain in a ship, and after the rest of the ritual is performed the ship is set on fire. Since it requires approximately twenty-one square meters of wood to effectively cremate a human body (Barber, 1990, 379-380), unless accelerants were used a pyre must have been erected, either around the ship or inside it, making a platform for the dead man.

I tentatively put forward the suggestion that this funeral ritual may also be a parallel. If so, the elements have been separated. It is not the dead man (obviously) who performs the ritual; his role is to lie in his boat on a pyre, perhaps a substitute for the platform found in the divination ritual. The roles of drinking the intoxicating beverage and observing the land of the dead fall to the slave who is about to be killed to accompany her master. This ritual, and the divination ritual we are discussing, are using the same set of symbols Funerals are themselves liminal rites, and there are strong elements of liminality throughout the Celtic and Germanic versions of this ritual. The ritual may be performed at a crossroads, or new ale consumed, or it is specified that the hide must be from a freshly slain animal, and there is the platform mentioned earlier. These tend to be lacking in the other traditions, and even some Celtic and Germanic examples, which leads me to believe that, while liminality was not a crucial element of the original ritual, it either was part of it, or has migrated into the ritual from other ritual practice.

Whatever the origin of the ritual, its clear presence in separated but complete form in both the two Irish sources and the Indo-Iranian sphere, as well as its appearance in points between, indicate a shared common Indo-European heritage. The seer, identified with the dead animal, goes where it goes, to the ancestors. And from them the seer acquires knowledge to benefit the community.

                   Tarb Feis           Life of St.            Dream of           Aeneid           Fasti           Arda Wiraz           Chandogya
                                              Berach                Rhonabwy                                                     Namag                   Upanisad

Public           X                        X                           (X)                                                                   X

Animal        Bull                    Bull                                                   Sheep           Sheep        (Dron)                     (Ghee)

Diviner eats   X                                                    (X)                                                                (Dron)

Special drink   X                  X                             (X)                                                                 X                               X

Priests              X                  X                                                                                                   X

Prayer               X                  X                                                          X                  X                  X                               X

On or in                                  X                            X                           X                  X                 (X)                             X

Platform                                X                            X                                                                     X

Dreams            X                                                 X                            X                   X                 X                              X

Visions of Dead                                                 X                            X                   (X)               X                              X

Being(s) ritual                                                                                Faunus,         Faunus,      Dead                    Savitr
directed towards                                                                         (diviner's       Sleep


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