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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Omens are phenomena or occurrences that are believed to foretell the future. A popular element of ancient worldviews, they have largely dropped out of favor in the post-scientific West, and the concerted effort to banish “magical thinking” has led to a considerable demise in a belief in omens in all but the most isolated parts of the world.

Omens imply a real connection between seemingly unconnected events. For example, the fact that a groundhog has or does not have a shadow on a specific day is tied to the weather in the months ahead. The connection between a sign and future reality (which lacks any logical relationship) was explained as being a message from the gods (the omen being a supernatural means of communication), and/or the sign and future event were tied together magically.

Traditionally, there were two kinds of omens. Some were phenomena that were sought out (or even manufactured) as a means of answering a specific question. Thus, in ancient Rome a sheep could have been opened up so that the intestines could be read as a means of ascertaining the future. However, omens were generally thought of as events that occurred quite apart from human effort, especially when they involved events in the sky, the unusual flight of birds, an eclipse or comet, or the arrangement of the stars and planets. Any unusual event could be interpreted as a sign portending the future.

There are various speculations as to the origin of omens, but by the time written records appear, omens are very much a part of human thinking. They survived most recently in the various observations of farmers who have sought predictors of good and bad crops.

Omens might be interpreted as having a socially broad reference or merely of individual application. In the days in which omens were seen as being related to the larger community, government officials not only took an omen seriously, but would strive to outwit the predictions so as to avoid disasters. For example, should signs generally believed to negatively affect the ruler be seen, the ruler might change places with a commoner in the belief that any negative fate would fall upon the substitute ruler. There have been modern day political leaders who have been influenced by what they considered to be omens, as well. In one famous example, during World War II, Germany’s Adolf Hitler believed that the death of American President Franklin Roosevelt was an omen suggesting that the war would soon reverse itself and Germany would win.

Many omens have an impact that is limited to an individual, such as a broken mirror that portends seven years bad luck. These are of the essence of what is generally thought of as the realm of superstition. Such omens, often referred to as old wives tales, can maintain a subliminal hold on the human imagination. It is not uncommon to see a person who professes to not be superstitious avoid a path recently crossed by a black cat, refuse to walk under a ladder, or avoid stepping on a crack in the pavement.

Possibly the most persistent consideration of omens is found in the search for the signs of the time, the events believed by many conservative Christians to signal the end-time events foreseen in the Bible. Many conservative thinkers believe in a literal historical reading of millennial passages in the Bible and assume that the promised return of Jesus will be preceded by a specific set of events vaguely described in the New Testament. For example, many Evangelical Christians once believed that the founding of the state of Israel (1948) signaled that the last generation before the return of Christ had begun.


Bluestone, Sarvananda. How to Read Signs and Omens in Everyday Life. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2001.
Dunwich, Gerinda. The Wiccan’s Dictionary of Prophecy and Omens. New York: Citadel Press, 2000.
Waring, Philippa. Dictionary of Omens and Superstitions. London: Souvenir Press, 1998.
References in classic literature ?
The man turned, shook his brother by the hand, and went, bearing the words of evil omen.
Without in any way divining the count's project, his friends followed him, accompanied by a crowd of people whose acclamations and delight seemed a happy omen for the success of that project with which they were yet unacquainted.
On a day of such good omen, they shall sing as much as they like.
With such an omen, it is even more necessary than usual that I should be there before the Chancellor comes in," said she, "for he might mention my case the first thing.
1304a] a quarrel about a wedding was the beginning of all the seditions that afterwards arose amongst them; for the bridegroom, being terrified by some unlucky omen upon waiting upon the bride, went away without marrying her; which her relations resenting, contrived secretly to convey some sacred money into his pocket while he was sacrificing, and then killed him as an impious person.
The agreeable character of the trip by sea was regarded as a good omen of the probable issue of the trip through the air.
On the other hand, it seemed to Van Baerle an auspicious omen that this very cell was assigned to him, for according to his ideas, a jailer ought never to have given to a second pigeon the cage from which the first had so easily flown.
If I was superstitious, I should think that horrid darkness a bad omen for the future.
A CROW was jealous of the Raven, because he was considered a bird of good omen and always attracted the attention of men, who noted by his flight the good or evil course of future events.
THAT did ye devise when with me, that do I take as a good omen,--such things only the convalescents devise!
Instead of hastening from it as a place of ill omen, and one he had cause to shun, he sat down on some steps hard by, and resting his chin upon his hand, gazed upon its rough and frowning walls as though even they became a refuge in his jaded eyes.
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