Ulla Susanne Koch, Secrets of Extispicy. The Chapter Multābiltu of the Babylonian Extispicy Series and NiṢirti bārîti Texts mainly from Aššurbanipal’s Library.
(AOAT, 326; Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2005). Pp. x + 630 + 54 plates. Cloth, €119.00, US$154.00. ISBN: 3-934628-67-2.
Reviewed by Scott Noegel
University of Washington

The primary aim of this magisterial tome is to make available a critical edition of the Multābiltu (i.e., “The One Who Interprets”), a seventeen tablet series that comprises the tenth chapter of the first millennium extispicy opus known in Babylonian as Bārûtu (i.e., “The Art of the Diviner”). Though the great bulk of the monograph is devoted to these tablets, the author has generously included critical editions of a number of texts relevant to the study of the Multābiltu tablets, including the Multābiltu catalogue (pp. 85–89); seven Mukallimtu “commentaries” to the Multābiltu (pp. 233–272); the Niṣirti bārûti tablets (i.e., “The Secrets of the Diviners,” pp. 273–446); the dub a.la tablets (i.e., observations derived from scholarly debates relating to the behavior of sacrificial lambs, pp. 447–479); the “orientation tables” (i.e., extispicy models and interpretive grids, pp. 480–544); and several fragments that might belong either to the Multābiltu or other Niṣirti bārûti materials (pp. 545–562). Though the Niṣirti bārûti tablets likely represent the periphery of esoteric learning since they were not part of the extispicy series, were not connected to its commentaries, and did not achieve the quasi-canonical form that the other texts did, they are still of critical importance for shedding light on the other tablets and the learning they contain. Indeed, together these tablet collections represent the supplementary learning required of diviners familiar with the Bārûtu.

Since most readers, including many Assyriologists, will be unfamiliar with details of extispicy, Koch introduces the subject by discussing the contents and compositional structures of the texts and the relationship of the texts to one another (pp. 1–72). Also surveyed are the relevant Akkadian terms for the various parts of the liver, lungs, heart, and other exta found in the omens, for which helpful diagrams also are provided (pp. 73–83). The remainder of the book consists of the critical editions (pp. 85–232), useful indices of texts (both by registration number and publication) and words (pp. 563–623), a representative bibliography (pp. 624–630), and a series of hand-drawn plates of the tablets (pp. i–liv).

This book contributes much to our knowledge of the details of the Mesopotamian divinatory profession and builds significantly upon the author’s previous well-known work.1 Many of the texts found in this volume have never before been published, and even those that have appeared before have received scant attention by Assyriologists. Nevertheless, the fact that most of the book is devoted to critical editions of Akkadian tablets means that the book will likely be of immediate interest only to Assyriologists whose work focuses on divination.

Still, the book’s general importance for the study of ancient intellectual thought should here be stressed. Though the tablets’ systematic cataloguing of omens situates them firmly within the Babylonian tradition of Listenwissenschaft, the exhaustiveness with which the ancient scholars interpreted the omens, coupled with the fact that they did not appear to use the tablets as extispicy manuals, suggests that the diviners were attempting to derive general theoretical principles from their observations. According to Koch these tablets

. . . represent an intellectual effort to grapple with the more esoteric aspects of the art of the diviner, and they illuminate the workings of some of the more obscure elements of this ancient method of inquiry . . . . These texts can be viewed as a step towards more abstract thinking, though still couched in traditional list form. They are an example of what may be called the scientific aspect of divination, a search for precision and clarity divorced from the everyday practice of extispicy (p. xi).

Thus, while the hermeneutics found in these tablets are grounded in, and informed by, a profoundly religious cosmology, they nonetheless represent a nascent form of “scientific” inquiry.2

In recent years the list of publications on ancient divination has grown significantly, demonstrating that scholarly interest in the ancient mantic arts in and across a number of disciplines is on the rise.3 The texts contained in this book have the potential for contributing a great deal to such interdisciplinary discussions, especially if they are studied as intellectual and religious artifacts and not merely as critical editions. These tablets have much to tell us about ancient Mesopotamian hermeneutics and the divinatory assumptions, preoccupations, anxieties, and ideologies that inform them. Of course, mining these tablets for such information represents the next step in the scholarly process, but we can thank the author for making accessible in an exhaustive and rigorous treatment the raw materials necessary to undertake such work.


[1] See, e.g., Ulla Susanne Koch, Babylonian Liver Omens. The Chapters Manzāzu, Padān, and Pān tākalti of the Extispicy Series, mainly from Aššurbanipal’s Library (Carsten Niebuhr Institute Publications, 25; Copenhagen: Carsten Niebuhr Institute of Near Eastern Studies, University of Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000).

[2] Note Francesca Rochberg’s similar observations with regard to Mesopotamian astronomy in her monograph, The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[3] See most recently, S. Iles Johnston, P. T. Struck, eds., Mantikê: Studies in Ancient Divination (Leiden: Brill, 2005).