December 10, 2002
Wrong Organ, Wrong Animal

I've had a sore throat since Sunday, but this cannot pass without notice:

A couple of bloggers on my blogroll -- unfortunately, I forgot to note their names -- have mentioned a Saskatchewan farmer who predicts the weather using pig spleens. The Classics mailing list was onto this years ago.

Every classicist knows that a pig spleen is the wrong organ: what you need is a sheep liver. That's what the ancient Etruscans used for their hepatoscopy or haruspicy or (one of my favorite words) extispicy (don't try to say that with a lisp).

There is even a surviving model, the so-called Bronze Liver of Piacenza (see below), which turned up in a farmer's field in Italy in the late 19th century. I'm told that it took quite some time before anyone figured out what it was supposed to be. It was apparently used by some ancient professor of extispicy. This site has pictures and diagrams. Doctors and biology teachers today save money with plastic models, and reserve the genuine cadavers for advanced students. I like to think that the owner of the bronze liver, which must have been expensive to make, reserved real sheep for his final exam, and perhaps kept the lamb chops as part of his fee. If the idea of a Ph.D. (or ancient equivalent) in Extispicy seems ridiculous, it's surely no more so than Mrs. Gorbachev's Ph.D. in Marxist-Leninist Philosophy.

The language of the liver is Etruscan, not Latin, so don't ask me to read it: it's not even Indo-European. I don't know whether the site's reconstruction has any value at all, though it does seem likely that the outer edge was intended to match up with the zodiac, so that the liver is a microcosm of the heavens, with disturbances in the order of the universe reflected in the liver of the individual sheep. I assume the teardrop-shaped lump is the gall bladder.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at December 10, 2002 11:29 PM

And the person who performed the extispicy was an extispex, an even better word! (Note to non-classicists: the stress in "extispicy" is on the -tis-; it bears no resemblance to "extra spicy.")

Posted by: language hat on December 11, 2002 01:26 PM

There's a a bit about the word "extispicy" here as well:

I'm fond of the word myself, and I just happened to have renamed my sporadic blog Extispicy (when I moved it from Blogger) a few weeks ago. I've been playing with some graphics for it, so that pesky bronze liver looked awfully familiar to me (although I did not actually end up using that image for any of my graphics yet). Still, it seems like I've had that liver and other visions of entrails dancing in my head too much lately. ('tis the season.)

I've been reading your blog for some time now and quite enjoy it. Just thought I'd actually drop a comment finally.

Posted by: m bat on December 11, 2002 11:53 PM

Legend has it that Etruscan sheep used to bleat, "What am I to you, chopped liver?"

(Sorry, couldn't help myself.)

Posted by: Mike Morley on December 13, 2002 09:14 AM

Liver reading? What about the three humors?

Posted by: Jack Klugman on December 13, 2002 12:17 PM

Were there not four humours?

Besides, that's medicine (such as it was), not divination (likewise).

Posted by: Sigivald on December 13, 2002 03:24 PM

ur post was facinating

Posted by: missy on October 24, 2004 05:42 PM