Monday, December 01, 2008

Foretelling the Future

Ancient Romans were heavily into foretelling of the future, just as many people are today. But whereas in the 21st century we usually do it using horoscopes, the Romans made use of so-called "divination." In the early days, this involved having an augur kill a chicken and examine its innards. So, for example, a slightly enlarged liver might be interpreted as: "It could be a bad day for joint finances. But chin up. Discuss things with your partner before making any rash decisions concerning money." Similarly, a slightly elongated spleen could mean: "You may have suspected for a while that someone at work has the hots for you. You may well be right! So now is the time to act. Remember, a faint heart never won a fair maiden." And so on.

Politicians such as Cato and, later, Cicero, soon began to mock such practices, however. In one of many orations on the subject to the Senate, Cicero demanded to know how the internal organs of just one chicken could possibly apply to each and every citizen of the Roman Empire. It was, he said, as ludicrous a concept as trying to predict tidal activity simply by studying the phases of the moon. Chicken wholesalers and their attendant augurs were stung by such criticisms and decided to take measures. Accordingly, every Roman citizen was thereafter supplied with a personalized chicken, delivered glued into his daily newspaper. The recipient could then slaughter it himself over breakfast or en route to work and examine its entrails and their meanings in privacy. Historians don't tell us whether or not this method was any more or less accurate than the previous "one size fits all" chicken, but it is worth noting that, in 44BC, Julius Caesar recklessly threw away the Ides of March edition of his Ludus Cotidie, having studied only the back page gladiatorial results and the picture of Venus on page 3. How might things have turned out had he had more patience that morning and read on until he'd reached the section with the attached chicken?

Whatever, inconvenient though all this undeniably was, I nevertheless feel that chicken evisceration was a far better method of foretelling the future than today's rather feeble newspaper horoscopes. In fact, were the technique still in use, modern technology could aid matters dramatically. Newsagents would be able to X-ray the chickens beforehand, thus determining the exact, pre-evisceration configuration of their innards. Customers could therefore specify, "I'd like to shag my secretary today, together with that girl with the big tits from Marketing." Thus (for slightly more money, no doubt) you'd have the opportunity to buy a newspaper whose chicken predicted exactly this.

Even if you didn't pre-screen your newspaper/chicken combination, though, it needn't be the end of the world, bad news notwithstanding. For instance, the Ides of March edition might suggest: "Your giblets are in the Ascendant today, which hints at tension in the workplace. You could well find yourself stabbed to death by colleagues and close friends. If so, try to take this for the constructive criticism that it actually is rather than any sort of personal attack. Besides, it's not all doom and gloom. Later, there's a strong possibility of being proclaimed a god and of your lineage founding a dynasty lasting five hundred years."

But so what? If you didn't like the prediction, you could at least console yourself by making a tasty soup or stock out of what was left of the chicken.

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