An omen, also known as a portent, is a sign that is believed to foretell a future event, which may or may not be supernatural in nature. From earliest times, omens have been given credence in the world’s cultures and folklore. Although usually classified according to the generic terms “good” and “bad,” an omen is more likely referred to in the foreboding sense, to indicate something sinister that has yet to occur.
The first recorded omens are those of the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians. Both of these cultures believed that the future could be foretold and controlled. Because religion was integral in these ancients’ lives, and the omens were thought to be directly from the gods, appeasements could be made in an attempt to stave off the impending calamity. Priests skilled in the arts of omen reading and divination, known as baratu, would interpret the portents. These portents could be found in the sky, in animal entrails (known as extispicy), and in the weather, among other sources. The omen could be as simple as a lightning bolt hitting a tree or as complex as a pregnant snake circling a statue, laying her eggs, and dying right after. Each of these meant something different and required the baratu to interpret them, though the meaning may have been explicitly clear.
Ancient Greece and Rome also were filled with omens. In ancient Rome, before official state business was conducted, omens or the auspices (special omens observed in birds, either involving their flight in the sky or observations of the bird in general) were taken. One such auspice involved the observation of a sacred chicken’s choice of whether or not it would eat food placed in front of it by an augur (a priest specially trained in auspicy). The chicken would even accompany armies to battle in a cage and the auspices would be taken before battle. A famous omen from ancient Rome involves the consul Publius Claudius Pulcher before his attack against the Carthaginians. The chicken refused to eat the grain laid before it, which was interpreted as a bad omen, and consequently as it being an inopportune time to attack the Carthaginians. Knowing his crew would find this an unfavorable omen, Claudius threw the chicken overboard. Subsequently, the Romans suffered a terrible defeat, with almost all the ships under Pulcher’s command sunk.
A more popular category of omens are those concerning the weather. One such modern omen of this type is observed every year in the United States and Canada on February 2nd. It is colloquially known as “Groundhog Day” and involves the observation of a groundhog’s shadow. If the groundhog fails to see his shadow because it isn’t a bright day, winter will end very soon. If in fact, he does see his shadow, due to the sun being out in that particular moment, then the groundhog will be frightened, run back into his hole, and winter will continue for at least 6 more weeks. Although more of a tradition now than an actual example of a prophecy, it remains classified as a bad omen if the groundhog sees his shadow and a good one if he does not.
Supernatural and paranormal omens exist as well. These may be in the form of dreams, visions, or apparitions. One particularly frightening omen, found in the folklore of Ireland, involves the spectral banshee, or “otherworld woman,” that appears before certain Irish families, then weeps and wails to portend the impending death of one of the family members. Another popular omen in this category is visions seen in the sky. One such example of this is Constantine I’s legendary vision, in which he observed the Christian cross along with the words “by this sign you will be the victor.” Whether or not this truly happened is subject to debate, though it is interesting to note Constantine’s devotion to the Christian religion after his victory.
Another interesting omen category involves the appearance of astronomical occurrences that include, but are not limited to, comets, eclipses, and shooting stars. These particular omens sometimes signify notable births, deaths, and other significant events. A shooting star after a funeral may be confirmation that the deceased will be warmly accepted into an afterlife. A famous example, often referred to by astrologers, is the astrological chart of Princess Diana. She was married to Prince Charles on a solar eclipse date, and the day before her death was another day when a solar eclipse occurred.
Among the most frightening types of omens are those that are believed to signify the apocalypse, or the end of the world. Every culture seems to have some notion of this, and it usually has religious connotations. For example, in Christian literature, one is expected to see the sun go dark and the moon to not give off light. Another popular omen considered to foretell the end of the world, successfully adapted into the aptly named film The Omen, is the appearance of the Antichrist. The Y2K bug was the source of some fear for a while also, some believing it would result in a technological catastrophe that would ultimately lead to the end of the world.
It is important to note that omens can be culture dependent and not universal. For example, in the United States, it is considered that one will have bad luck if a black cat crosses his path, but in the United Kingdom, the effect is good luck. Likewise, there are certain omens that do seem to be universal. Omens that fall into the supernatural and paranormal category are almost always considered bad omens. Appearances of spectral warnings seem to be viewed with much anxiety and are considered to be signs of impending disaster.
Omens continue to be read and misread by people all over the world, in accordance with local traditions. The continuing fascination with omens may lie in humankind’s uneasiness with what is yet to come. Whereas skeptics will attribute to chance any bad events that may follow the appearance of an omen, others continue to view them with fear and dread.
Dustin B. Hummel
See also Apocalypse; Nostradamus; Prophecy
Buckland, R. (2003). Signs, symbols and omens: An illustrated guide to magical and spiritual symbolism. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.
Waring, P. (1998). A dictionary of omens and superstitions (New ed.). London: Souvenir Press.