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sign or augury believed to foreshadow the future. Almost any occurrence can be interpreted as an omen. The typical omen was a natural phenomenon, such as a meteor, an eclipse, or the flight of birds. Among the Greeks and Romans the interpretation of omens was a major part of religious life and required trained priests, such as the Roman augur, to explain the meaning of the signs. Belief in omens still survives in superstitions concerning such things as black cats, nightmares, unlucky days, and breaking mirrors.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

A sign or indication of forthcoming events; a portent of what is to come. One deeply held belief says that coming events can cast their shadows in front of them. They do this in the form of omens. As one example, when a black cat crosses your path, moving from right to left, it is said to foretell some ill luck that is coming your way. Some folklore, however, has it that it is ill luck if the cat proceeds from the left and crosses to the right. When a flock of birds flies across your path, usually from left to right, it signifies good luck coming. To see a spotted dog is good luck on its way, while to encounter a white horse and a red-headed woman is bad luck.

These are natural omens that may easily be recognized and noted. But many believers in the past made it a science to discover what is to be. Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians would sacrifice a sheep and study its liver for signs of future events. The coloring of the liver, its veins, and its blemishes were all indicative of certain things. The Romans would place a cockerel in the center of a circle of grain. Beneath the grain lay the letters of the alphabet. Note was made of which letters were beneath the grain that the cockerel chose to peck, and those letters were made to form a word or words.

The alighting of a white dove on the banner of Joan of Arc was seen as a favorable omen. Primitive peoples have interpreted rainbows, eclipses of the sun, comets, shooting stars, and other unusual events in the sky as omens. Seers and soothsayers made a living by interpreting omens and portents. Today, fortunetellers, card readers, astrologers, and other diviners carry on the tradition of foretelling future probabilities.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Omens are presages or prognostications, indications of something that is likely to happen in the future. They developed in a variety of ways, most of them through some unusual occurrence that was closely followed by a remarkable happening, good or bad. If there was a repetition of that combination, then the omen became established. Omens vary from the sighting of a particular bird in flight to the observation of a comet. The movement of cats, behavior of horses, the way a person laughs, the howling of a dog; these can all be taken as omens and, from them, the possible trend of future events may be gauged.

Thomas Carlyle, in Mrs. C’s Letter (1871), mentions, “. good or ill luck for the whole year being omened by your liking or otherwise of the first person that accosts you on New Year’s morning.” Also Sir Walter Scott, in Peveril of the Peak (1822), says, “These evil omenings do but point out conclusions … most unlikely to come to pass.” Yet many people do feel that the things omened will come to pass. One definition of the word is “an event or phenomenon believed to be a sign or warning of a future occurrence” (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

The sightings of comets and the experience of eclipses have been taken as signs that the world is coming to an end. At the trial of King Charles I in England in 1649, the head of his staff fell off. Many saw this as an ill omen. Charles was executed on January 30, 1649. William Shakespeare referred to many omens throughout his plays. In Julius Caesar, for example, a Soothsayer warns Caesar about the Ides of March, presumably based on omens he had observed. There is also a scene (Act 1, Sc. ii) where Casca meets with Cicero in a street, late at night, with a storm raging. Casca comments on the many strange omens that are occurring, “Against the Capitol I met a lion, who glared upon me and went surly by, without annoying me. And there were drawn upon a heap a hundred ghastly women, transformed with their fear; who swore they saw men, all in fire, walk up and down the streets. And yesterday the bird of night [owl] did sit, even at noon day, upon the market place, hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies do so conjointly meet, let not men say, ‘These are their reasons; they are natural.’ For I believe they are portentous things unto the climate that they point upon.” There were many more omens and portents, including dreams and the examination of the entrails of sacrificed animals, before Caesar was assassinated. As Calpurnia says in the play, “When beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

In Greece, there are many traditional portents of good and evil. For a potential bride to see a weasel is the worst omen. The weasel, it is said, was once a young girl about to be married (the name means “little bride"). In some way she was robbed of her happiness and transformed into an animal. To see a snake, however, is a very good omen. The spilling of oil is an evil omen but the spilling of wine is good. The upsetting of water is also good, especially if it happens while on a journey. If the logs of the fire crackle it means that good news is coming. But if sparks should fly, then trouble may be expected. The spluttering of a candle flame or lamp flame is also unlucky.


Buckland, Raymond: The Fortune–Telling Book: The Encyclopedia of Divination and Soothsaying. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2004
Lawson, John Cuthbert: Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion. New York: University Books, 1964
Oxford English Dictionary, The. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989
Shakespeare, William: The Complete Works. London: Odhams Press, 1938
The Spirit Book © 2006 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


See also Prophecy.
ring discarded ring turns up predicting Polycrates’ death. [Gk. Hist.: Benét, 28]
handwriting on the wall
Daniel interprets supernatural sign as Belshazzar’s doom. [O.T.: Daniel 5:25–28]
oriental bird; every head over which its shadow passes was believed destined to wear a crown. [Ind. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 472]
Ides of March
15 March; prophesied as fateful for Caesar. [Br. Lit.: Julius Caesar]
Irish mermaid; her appearance signifies coming storms. [Irish Folklore: Briggs, 290–294]
Mother Carey’s chickens
stormy petrels; believed by sailors to be harbingers of storms. [Marine Folklore: Wheeler, 251]
often presages death or catastrophe. [Animal Folklore: Jobes, 213]
wraith whose appearance portends death. [Br. Folklore: Briggs, 425]
white-winged crow
bird of evil omen. [Chinese Folklore: Jobes, 388]
Wotan’s ravens
of misfortune, usually fatal. [Ger. Opera: Wagner, Götterdämmerung, Westerman, 245]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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