10 Things You Might Not Know About Inaugurations

Trump's big day may look pomp-and-circumstantial, but it’s really all about the chicken dance.

Photo by carterdayne/iStock

Photo by carterdayne/iStock

We were pondering the implications of today’s inauguration of the Twitter King when our curiosity got the best of us: What, exactly, is an “inauguration,” and why do only presidents get inaugurated? We looked the word up in the Oxford Dictionary, which basically opened a bizarre-world Pandora’s box full of dancing chickens and thunderstorms and gigantic grapes. The whole trip, in fact, was so wild and weird that we just had to share the highlights with you. Here, 10 things about inauguration to help you ready yourself — or steady yourself — for January 20th.

1. The word “inauguration” is rooted in “augur,” the ancient Latin term for divining the will of the gods by — we’re not making this up — studying the flight of birds. The dude who did this was called an “augur,” and his job was to examine the types of birds flying at any given time, the direction[s] in which they flew, the noises they made while flying, etc., etc. This process was known as “taking the auspices” of a situation, and augury ceremonies accompanied every major undertaking in classical Rome, whether public or private.

2. The founding of Rome itself was accompanied by augury. Remember those fun twins, Romulus and Remus, who were left in the wilderness to die but instead were suckled by a she-wolf and became the patriarchs of Rome? At one point in their legend, they argue over whether to build their new city on the Palatine hill or the Avetine hill and agree to appeal to the gods to resolve their dispute via augury. Remus, proponent of the Avetine, sees six auspicious birds, but Romulus tops him with 12 lucky birds and wins. So he kills Remus and then founds the city of Rome on the Palatine. Talk about your sore winners, right?

3. Augurs carried a curved wand (it looks like a fern frond) known as a lituus that often appeared on Roman coins as a symbol of augury. The lituus was used ceremonially to divide the sky into four sacred spaces, or templa (singular templum), aligned with the cardinal points of heaven and earth; augury depended on interpreting the behavior of birds within the four templa.

4. A college of priests shared augury duties, taking turns leading rites to determine the divine opinion on any course of action, like a military campaign or the choice of a political leader, that would affect the peace, fortune and well-being of the Republic. The laws governing the rite were kept secret from the public (which, of course, made it easier for the priests to cheat).

5. Only the actions of certain kinds of birds were deemed relevant in augury, among them owls, eagles, ravens, woodpeckers and the bearded vulture. The signs taken from the birds could relate to their flight (alites) or the sounds they made (oscines). Alites included which templum birds appeared in, how high they flew, the type of flight, the birds’ behavior and where they landed. Oscines included different pitches and the directions the sounds came from. Because signs were often in conflict, a hierarchy was established; signs from eagles, for example, outranked those from woodpeckers.

6. The auspices in augury could either be requested by man (known as impetrativa) or spontaneously offered by the gods (oblativa). Over time, augurs figured out ways to fudge the reading of the signs, by, for example, pretending not to see them, or saying something had appeared that hadn’t; Cicero, the contemporary of Julius Caesar (his name is derived from the word for “chickpea”), bemoaned the lack of true knowledge of the art by the augurs of his day.

7. About those chickens: They were sacred, raised by priests and carried along on Roman military and naval campaigns for the purposes of augury. They were kept in cages, and when an action was being contemplated, they were uncaged and offered grain. Eager eating of the grain while stomping about in a “dance” was considered a favorable sign, whereas shunning the grain was deemed an unfavorable one. Before the famous naval Battle of Drepana between the Roman and Carthaginian forces in 249 B.C., the Roman chickens, when consulted, didn’t eat; the Roman dude in charge, Publius Claudius Pulcher, threw them overboard and said, “Let them drink, since they don’t wish to eat.” Pulcher then attacked the Carthaginians and was soundly defeated; he was later tried for sacrilege for defying the chickens.

8. Another famous Roman tale of augury is that of impoverished farmer Attus Navius, who one day lost one of his pigs. He promised the gods that if he found it, he would offer them the biggest grapes in his garden as thanks. Sure enough, the pig turned up. In his gratitude, Navius performed the augury ritual, dividing the sky into four templa and watching for birds. When they appeared, he walked toward them and discovered a bunch of gigantic grapes, which he offered to the gods. This story spread, and Attus Navius eventually became the official augur of the king.

9. Augury was practiced by other civilizations as well; it was known as “ornithomancy” by the ancient Greeks, and in the Bible, it’s forbidden in the books of Deuteronomy (“There shall not be found in thee one who purges his son or his daughter with fire, one who uses divination, who deals with omens and augury”) and Leviticus: (“Eat not on the mountains, nor shall ye employ auguries, nor divine by inspections of birds”).

10. Augury wasn’t the only ancient means of foretelling the future; there was also hepatoscopy, in which the entrails of sacrificed animals were examined; lecomancy, in which priests studied the ripples in a bowl of water; libanomancy, in which the smoke from burning incense was observed; cleromancy, in which groups of small stones or sticks were thrown and studied; chiromancy, or the reading of hands; necromancy, in which the spirits of the dead were summoned; alectromancy, in which a sacred rooster pointed out letters in the alphabet; rhabdomancy, which used a wand or stick to determine direction (as in dowsing); belomancy, which read darts or arrows; and bibliomancy, which studied the passages in a book allowed to randomly fall open. A more modern form of divination is known as “poll-taking,” which is now considered about as valid as aforementioned methods.