Alternatively known as Orinthomancy, Orinthomantia, Ornithomancy, Orniscopy, Oionoscopy, and Oionoscopia.
A form of divination, in this case by the observation of birds' flight, songs, cries and behavior.
Ornithomancy was a common practice in ancient Rome where Augurs foretold future events by observing and interpreting bird omens, which ranged from the type of bird seen to the direction of its flight, their singing, and so forth.
Usually, the term Augury was applied to divination in general, but at first it was specifically indicative of bird divination.
Ephraim Chambers, in his Cyclopedia, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728), wrote:
"Ornithomancy, among the Greeks, was the same as Augury among the Romans".
Ornithomancy was also of the utmost importance in ancient Greece where, in addition, it was used for the practice of Mantike.
In his "Modern Greek folklore and Ancient Greek Religion' (1898), John Cuthbert Lawson states:
"The special aptitude of birds to carry divine messages to man was never questioned in ancient Greece; it was the very axiom of religion, without which the whole science of auspices would have been a baseless fabrication."
Greek Ornithomancy was primarily based on the observation of large predatory birds. According to French writer Auguste Bouché-Leclercq ('Histoire de la Divination', 1879) "The largest, the strongest, the most intelligent, and at the same time those whose solitary habits gave them more individual character."
Exact identification of bird species was paramount for accurate predictions, in view of the fact that different species had different characteristics. For example, distinction had to be made between a barn owl and a tawny owl, or between a saker falcon and a peregrine falcon. In addition, divinatory meanings were given to every aspect of bird behavior. The bird's flight, its cry, its posture when landed and settled, and any movements it made after settling were all of particular significance to the diviner.
Plutarch, the famous Greek biographer, said:
"Birds, by their quickness and intelligence and alertness in acting upon every thought, are a ready instrument for the use of God, who can prompt their movements, their cries and songs, their pauses and wind-like flights, thus bidding some men check, and others pursue to the end, their course of action or ambitions."
An alternate method of Orniscopia read omens from the colorful appearance of birds. It's suspected that, in the sixth century, philosopher Anaximander was able to predict an earthquake in Sparta due to his observation of the local birds appearance and behavior.
The crow or raven was of divinatory importance in many ancient cultures. The crow was a sun-bird and a trickster, devourer of corpses, and shape-shifter in cultures as diverse as those in Greece, China, and North America. If a crow flew on or toward his left, no Greek would continue a journey or an activity. In Tibet, the raven was the preferred divinatory bird. They were never killed, for they were regarded as the messengers of the Mahakala, the great protectors. People observed their movements and behavior, learning to understand their strange, piercing calls and cries.
Observation of domesticated birds, such as chickens, canaries and parakeets, was also extensively utilized for divinatory practices in antiquity. Romans and Greeks were inveterate practitioners of Alectromancy, divination by the observation of hens and chickens. Movements on the ground such as pluming, dust-bathing, scratching holes, or standing on one leg, all had divinatory meaning. In a popular method, the bird was placed inside a circle of grain around which were positioned letters of the alphabet. The letters close to where the animal pecked were then gathered and assembled to answer specific questions. If a simple 'yes' or 'no' was required then only two piles of grain would be used. According to occult tradition, this should be done when the Sun or the Moon were in Aries or Leo.
India, Africa, South America, and New Guinea were other places where bird divination was also widely practiced.
In present-day Bangladesh, Orniscopia is practiced on public places. Parrots are the birds of choice, acting as modern domestic birds oracles. The birds sit on their perch then flutter to pick up grain scattered on questions written on pieces of paper. The diviner then interprets the answers to their clients.
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Sources: (1) Spence, Lewis, An Encyclopedia of Occultism, Carol Publishing Group; (2) Dictionary of the Occult, Caxton Publishing; (3) Buckland, Raymond, The Fortune-Telling Book: The Encyclopedia of Divination and Soothsaying, Visible Ink Press.
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