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

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

In the Irish tale Serglige Con Culainn a ritual is described in which 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, pp. 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, p. 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 article 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 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, p. 138). In a version from the Western Islands, from 1703 (related in Davidson, p. 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.

A more complete example that is late (post 1200), but still recognizable, is the Welsh "The Dream of Rhonabwy," from The Mabinogion. 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 serves 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 oxskin on a platform. He lies down on that, and has a dream in which a youth dressed in yellow and green 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 more 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, p. 143). A divination described in the Icelandic Saga of Erik the Red involves a hood and a platform (Buchholz, p. 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 (7.80 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 sleeping on the hides of sacrificed sheep. Spirits come to him, including both the gods and the dead.

Ovid describes a similar ritual (Fasti 4.649-7). 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, pp. 14-16; also in Boyd, pp. 84-89 [Boyd spells it Arda Viraz Namag]), 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.) He honors 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.

When the details of these examples—Celtic, Germanic, Italic, and Indo-Iranian—are considered together, there is clearly a pattern to which each has made modifications. The form of the proto-ritual seems to have been that a milk-giving animal was sacrificed and its meat was most likely eaten by the diviner. (Consuming the majority of a sacrifice is a standard part of Indo- European sacrificial ritual.) The diviner also consumed a sacred drink, either the animal's broth, a substitutionary drink, or an intoxicating beverage. He then lay down on the animal's skin, which was most likely put on a low wooden platform. Prayers were said over him by priests (the ritual is public rather than private), and then he slept. A vision came to him in his sleep from the ancestors.

The public nature is important. The ritual 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 Upanishadic Hinduism replaced corporate sacrifice with individual mysticism.

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 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.

Leaving aside the Christianized versions, I would like to suggest that the knowledge sought is intended to come from the ancestors. 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.

The 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). And of course the later versions from Celtic and Germanic sources occur in a culture in which sacrifice is out of the question. In these versions the sacrificed animal has been reduced to a hide.

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.

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 divine target.

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.

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 not only have intercourse with a mare who represents the land, but must also eat her flesh, a double identification.

Before ending this article, I would like to discuss some side questions. The first involves the nature of the Gaulish god Ogmios. Palmer (p. 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 (p. 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 nondivinatory parallel comes an element of the Vedic funeral ritual as given in the Asvalayana Grhya Sutra 4.3.20-27 (in Panikkar, 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. And he is presumably on top of a cremation pyre. Is this latter the source of the elevated platform? And 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) (summarized, for example, by Sayers, pp. 173-174). He describes a funeral of 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 lies 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, pp. 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. Such elements as ritual intercourse and human sacrifice make me hesitant to put too much emphasis on this as a parallel. It is clear, though, that an investigation of Indo-European funeral rites is may lead to the origin of the divination ritual.

Funerals are themselves liminal rites, and there are strong elements of liminality throughout the Celtic and Germanic traditions. 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. 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 point toward 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.


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