In the ancient Roman world, there were several different methods of divination. I know I’ve mentioned one of them before, in the post about haruspicy, and I may have touched on augury as well.
If not, that’s something for the future. And it’s a term in the dictionary up top of the page.
Brontoscopy (what a fun word to spell, BTW) is a form of divination that was introduced to the Romans by the Etruscans. It was, however, not originally a native Etruscan practice – in fact, it was introduced to the Etruscans by the people of Mesopotamia. And the practice of brontoscopy was still going on in Constantinople in the 5th century CE, but was outlawed shortly after.
As its name might suggest,
brontocoy brontscpy brontoscopy (OMG) is the use of examining thunder for divinatory purposes. The Etruscans were said to be extremely skilled at this, and were employed for this practice for a good 1,000 years.
Early on in the first millennium BCE, some enterprising Etruscan found a Near Eastern brontoscopic calendar and decided “Hey, this is pretty cool. I think I’ll tweak this a bit for use by my own people.” He (or she!) wrote down what thunder occurring on specific days of the year might mean for the people. Thus they created their own version of the calendar, and it has been passed down to us via the name “The Brontoscopic Calendar” and through translations into Latin, Greek, and then, for me, English.
So what, exactly, is brontoscopy?
Well, I said it before, but it is divination by thunder. And not just the thunder that comes from lightning – no, any noise that is heard in the sky qualifies as “thunder”. And it doesn’t even have to come from the sky, either: during the winter, the Etruscan god Satre has the ability to generate chthonic thunder – that is, thunder from deep in the ground.
No laughing, please, that was not a fart joke.
So, traditionally, if someone was out and about and they heard thunder, they would duly report it to the local fulguriator or, in Etruscan, the local trutnuth frontac.
God, I just love the Etruscan language.
Anyway. The trutnuth frontac would consult his or her copy of the Brontoscopic Calendar to find out what the thunder meant. If this happened on, say, February 3rd – the date of this post – it would be divined as “If it thunders, there will be civil unrest.”
Yikes. That doesn’t bode well.
A lot of the time, there is talk of “If it thunders, there will be an abundance of fish”, or “if it thunders, there will be a scorching, drying wind”.
Along with thunder, the Etruscans also used lightning for divinatory purposes – but I’ll save that for a later post, because there’s actually a lot that goes into it.
If you guys are interested in learning more about the brontoscopic tradition, I’d recommend “Diving the Etruscan World: The Brontoscopic Calendar and Religious Practice” by Jean MacIntosh Turfa. She is an outstanding scholar of the Etruscans, and this is a brand new book – it only came out last year!