Omens of War and the Promise of Prophecy

And to seal his prayer, farseeing Zeus sent down a sign.

He launched two eagles soaring high from a mountain ridge

...All were dumbstruck, watching the eagles trail from sight,

people brooding, deeply, what might come to pass...

Until the old warrior Halitherses,

Master's son, broke the silence for them:

the one who outperformed all men of his time

at reading bird-signs, sounding out the omens,

rose and spoke, distraught for each man there

– Homer, The Odyssey, 8th century BC.

Uncertainty is embedded in the practice of warfare. The potential rewards can be great, yet the cost of failure is incalculably grave. While war is a cooperative endeavor, often undertaken to benefit a larger social group, wars are fought by individual people with their own interests and motivations. The instinct of self-preservation, the anticipation of potentially disastrous consequences, and extreme feelings of fear may act as constraints on the engagement of aggressive conflict. To mitigate these limitations, cultures developed beliefs and practices to reduce the fear of warriors, and increase their willingness to fight on behalf of the group. Many such traditions purport to offer nothing less than protection and approval from the gods themselves.  

Societies throughout history have always played close attention to the clues offered by the divine. As archaeologist Bruce Trigger notes in his cross-cultural study of the kingdoms of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Shang China, the Aztecs, Maya, Inca, and the Yoruba: “Ascertaining the will of the gods through reading omens and practicing divination was highly elaborated in all the early civilizations.” The ubiquity of these beliefs and practices, and their association with powerful and long-lasting regimes, hints towards a functional component, particularly in the domain of warfare.

Rituals play an important role in warfare across numerous societies, as anthropologist Luke Glowacki notes in a recent commentary on the cultural evolution of war rituals. Glowacki writes that,

Although cultural systems contribute to incentivizing participation [in warfare] (Glowacki & Wrangham 2013; Zefferman & Mathew 2015), humans also adopt superstitious beliefs and behaviors to overcome anxiety and fear and increase self-confidence. Warriors in numerous societies carry amulets or use drugs and alcohol to mitigate fear (Goldschmidt 1994). With astonishing frequency, many of these interventions purport to make enemies unable to see or harm the warrior.

Importantly, such beliefs and practices can reduce the perceived cost of engaging in warfare. If you believe you cannot be harmed by conventional means you may be less hesitant about participating in a raid on a rival group.

Related to the practice of rituals that reduce fear, omens and prophecy can fulfill a similar function. The uncertainty of conflict is reduced substantially if one can foretell the outcome. Across many societies, dreams, the movement of animals, the position of stars, and the proclamations of prophets were believed to offer tantalizing hints of a momentous future.

Anthropologist George Murdock, who helped compile many of the large cross-cultural databases still in use today, such as the Ethnographic Atlas and the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, provides multiple examples across societies where omens and visions had an important role in the practice of warfare. Murdock writes that in native Samoa, before battle:

A feast is held, and the village gods are consulted by divination. If the auspices seem favorable, the war party starts out; it returns immediately, however, if any bad omen, like the squeaking of rats, is observed... By observing the behavior of the animal incarnations of the war gods, the success or failure of a military expedition can be predicted. If, for example, an owl, heron, kingfisher, or other fetish bird of a war god flies ahead of an advancing party, it is an omen of victory; if, however, it flies across the path or toward the rear, it is a bad omen, and the party immediately retreats (Murdock 81).

Often, the insight of specialized professionals is required to interpret or act on an omen. Among the Crow American Indians, Murdock writes that, “Any man may organize a war party. But he must first have a vision, or else purchase medicine and receive the details of a vision from a war shaman”. Murdock also notes that among the Haida hunter-fisher-gatherers of British Colombia, a shaman would always accompany war expeditions to read omens.

A ritual or divinatory specialist who plays a prominent role in preparing for battle is found in many societies. Anthropologists Mathies Osterle and Michael Bollig write of the importance of prophets in war planning among Pokot pastoralists of Kenya, “Before the men congregate in a huge final ritual (kokwö luk)…[they] consult a prophet (werkoyon), a ritual specialist who forecasts future events on the basis of his dreams. Only if his visions for the attack are promising will the raid go ahead.”

Among the Mursi pastoralists of Ethiopia, men with divinatory skills examine the intestines of a stock animal to predict the location and severity of future battles. Like the Samoan societies mentioned above, the flight patterns of specific birds are believed to convey information about upcoming battles. Anthropologist David Turton writes;

It is a common occurrence during the dry season for warnings to be sent to the cattle camps from the Omo by older men who “know about birds”, warnings which certainly have the effect of increasing the vigilance of the herders, and, in particular, of persuading them to engage in the irksome and generally unpopular task of scouting in the Mago Valley.

The intestines of a stock animal are examined during Mursi divination. From ‘War, Peace and Mursi Identity’ (1979) by David Turton.

The intestines of a stock animal are examined during Mursi divination. From ‘War, Peace and Mursi Identity’ (1979) by David Turton.

The way the bird omens are responded to by Mursi men, with their increased vigilance and scouting patrols, indicates how such beliefs may promote collective action in socially important domains, such as defense in war. Absent the increased threat hinted at by the omen, men may be more inclined to shirk on scouting duty.

When it comes to the professional prophets and seers, we might expect them to be particularly perceptive individuals—or, perhaps in some cases, persuasive charlatans—with a keen ability to anticipate future events. While repeated false predictions risk a loss of credibility or faith in the omens themselves, the literal accuracy of individual predictions is less important than their ability to induce confidence in potential recruits, increasing participation and a willingness of—perhaps unwitting—self-sacrifice on the part of warriors.

In her work on the kingdom of Buganda in Uganda, anthropologist Lucy Mair describes the organizational role played by prophets and prophecy in assembling for battle. Mair writes that,

The one activity in which magic exercised a positive organizing force was warfare…[I]n the conduct of the war itself the prophet played a more influential part than the general. But it was not only over the course of the actual fighting that they predominated. The time and place of the war, the selection of the general, and probably also the districts whose inhabitants were to stay at home “to guard the king”, were decided by them in answer to inquiries.

The proclamations of prophets can also have significant propaganda value to affirm existing rulership and promise future success in conquest. Apolo Kagwa, former prime minister of the kingdom of Buganda, describes the grandiose assurances given to the new king by his obsequious priests,

Finally the king asked Kinyoro to ask all the gods to prophecy for him. The priests were brought and stood before the king. They said. “You will live longer than all the other kings. You will be the father and all your subjects will love you dearly. Love the gods. They will defend your cause. Love your kingdom and be just. You will be more prosperous than the other kings and whenever you wage war you will win.” This was the introduction of the prophets to the king. They were all given gifts and then the king left for Nakere’s for the final ceremonies.

A similar history can be found in classical Greece. Plutarch describes Alexander the Great hectoring the Oracle at Delphi until she proclaims him invincible. Afterwards, Plutarch writes that, “Alexander taking hold of what she spoke, declared he had received such an answer as he wished for, and that it was needless to consult the god any further.”

While omens and prophecies do seem to provide some social functions, they also likely come with a cost. The use of divination in making important policy or military decisions can—at least in some cases—compound uncertainty, lead to contradictory decision making, and promote an undue focus on details unrelated to making informed choices on the battlefield.

For example, classicist William Kendrick Pritchett notes in The Greek State at War (1974) that Spartan military decisions were not infrequently influenced by the capricious and contradictory whims of the gods. Pritchett writes that,

it is not difficult to find examples where an unsatisfactory omen held back [an expedition]... The project of erecting a fort on the Argive frontier in 388 B.C. was abandoned in consequence of unfavorable [sacrificial omens]. Moreover, there are three examples in Thucydides (5.54.2, 5.55.3, and 5.116) where the Spartans abandoned proposed military expeditions because the sacrifices were not right (Pritchett 113).

While this devotion to omens might seem unproductive, the fifth century BC Greek philosopher Xenophon offers a strong case for why omens should be taken seriously enough to inform decisions in times of war:

If anyone is surprised that I have so often prescribed that one should act 'with the gods', it is certain that he will be less surprised if he often comes into danger, and if he realizes that in a war enemies plot against one another but seldom know whether these plots are well-laid. It is impossible to find any other advisers in such matters except the gods. They know everything, and give signs to those they wish to through sacrifices, birds of omen, voices and dreams.

The explanation given by Xenophon points to the role of omens in dealing with uncertainty. The decision-making process in the ‘fog of war’ can be so chaotic that giving credence to the ambiguous whispers of the gods may not always harm—and in some circumstances perhaps improve—the outcome of conflict.

At the same time, the practice of interpreting omens can come with significant flexibility. Spartan kings seem to have had considerable latitude in the decision-making process, and may have sometimes used omens as a way of selectively confirming decisions that were already made. As historian Robert Parker writes in his work on Spartan religion,

Above all, if the omens from a first sacrifice were discouraging, it was the king's decision whether to perform it again in hope of something better or to abandon the enterprise. Unless there were unusually strict restrictions on the repetition of crossing-sacrifices, they would always have come right in the end for a sufficiently determined leader. Divination, therefore, left room for manoeuvre even to the pious. What mattered above all was the king's strength of will and confidence in his cause… If, therefore, a plan or expedition was abandoned because of the lesser obstacle of discouraging sacrifices, the king must either have been unusually timorous, or have felt genuine doubt whether the proposed action was wise (Parker 203).

In a recent paper illustrating how introducing some (but not too much) randomness in a network of people can actually improve coordination, sociologists Hirokazu Shirado and Nicholas Christakis describe some of the beneficial aspects of having some noise within complex systems;

Prior theoretical work has suggested a surprising, even paradoxical, solution to the coordination problem: adding “noise.”1315 Noise is usually defined as meaningless information, and it is often seen as problematic16. When it comes to optimization, however, noise can help a system to reach a global optimum. For example, mutation has an essential role in evolution17; error can facilitate search for information18; random fish schooling may enhance survival19; and cooperation may benefit from deviant behavior7

Similarly, economist Peter Leeson’s paper on oracles demonstrates how randomizing strategies that manage to coordinate individuals’ choices (through their acceptance of the oracles decision) can help solve ‘low grade’ interpersonal conflict. Analogously, perhaps the divine assurances of omens and prophecies help coordinate activity in war, where otherwise participants may have been more hesitant to join, or scattered in the midst battle.

In addition to acting as focal points for coordination, omens and prophecies can reduce the perceived risk of engaging in conflict, embolden participants in warfare, and confer increased legitimacy to existing rulers. While the amount of noise induced by giving undue credence to omens may lead to suboptimal decision making, in some circumstances—perhaps when access to information is quite poor, as in the ‘fog of war’—the randomness effect might in fact prove beneficial.