Comparative Guts

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Clay tablet representing a conical model of tīrānū, sheep entrails. Yale Babylonian Collection, New Haven, Connecticut (Museum Number: YBC 3000; or CDLI no. P290764), side and top view.

Photos: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

The clay model YBC 3000 is a plastic rendering of tīrānū, sheep entrails, and shows one single coil spiraling in a way to create a conical shape. A number of three-dimensional renditions, as well as two-dimensional drawings and incisions, of the viscera have been found throughout Western Asia, dating as early as to the mid-3rd millennium site of Ebla, in northern Syria. These representations sometimes include an inscription, either on the same face of the tablet or on the back, that explains the meaning of the particular figure illustrated.

Models of entrails, such as this one, are generally understood to have served as instructional tools in the teaching of extispicy. Before and after a sacrifice, a diviner would examine the body of the sacrificed animal (usually a sheep) and note any peculiar or irregular aspect of its viscera, most often in the liver, but also in its lungs, stomach and intestines. Any of those irregularities, ultimately generated by the gods, was believed to carry special meaning, and could be interpreted to predict future events. It was the work of the diviner to study and interpret them in order to assist the king in the running of the country.