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Ancient Mesopotamian Sheep Liver Magic Predicted Trump's Rise

The polls, models, and experts didn't know what was going to happen on Election Day, but Selena Wisnom did—she read it in a sheep's liver.
A sheep's liver. Sorry. Photo courtesy of Selena Wisnom

The polls, experts, pundits, and predictive models all got the 2016 election incredibly wrong. Few of the journalists covering Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump anticipated a Trump win, but a British woman named Selena Wisnom did. She read it in a sheep's liver.

Wisnom is an expert on ancient Mesopotamia's history and culture, and she looked at a sheep's liver shortly after the primaries because that's what people did back in those days. "You [didn't] make any political decisions without consulting the entrails," she recently told interviewers on a London radio show. As to why she decided to ask the livers about Trump, she told the interviewers, "It's just the kind of question the [paranoid, politically uncertain] Mesopotamians would have asked."


Ancient Mesopotamia is famous for god-kings who ruled over what is now the Middle East with apparently absolute power three to four millennia ago. But while some of these rulers thought of themselves as gods, they knew there were other deities about, not to mention ominous natural forces that could still mess them up. They could apparently get a little paranoid about what those powerful actors had in mind for them. So they devoted an incredible amount of time to consulting soothsayers and priests about the gods, sort of the way some of us refresh Twitter, or refuse to go anywhere without checking Yelp first.

"If there's an eclipse or some other ominous signs in the sky," said Wisnom of the Mesopotamian attitude toward signs, "they want to know if it's going to affect them."

Perhaps the most famous of the many classes of priests and magicians to come out of this milieu were the astrologers, whose obsession with stars and the influence of celestial bodies on mankind we inherited. But in Mesopotamia, the top-of-the-line future-predicting gizmo was a sheep's liver, an organ so bloody and distinctive folks assumed it was the house of the soul—and because of that spiritual connection, an ideal canvas upon which the gods could write their wills. It was a form of political prediction so valued it spawned a unique class of seers, the baru, who took precedent over astrologers, and an entire genre of literature. At least 99 of the clay tablets recovered from Mesopotamian dig sites deal with the omens to be found in livers—one of them, covered in esoteric, mystical annotations, is actually shaped like a liver.


"You didn't make any political decision without consulting the entrails," said Wisnom. "It's really one of the highest branches of academia in Babylon… The sheep have the final word."

Traditionally, to learn a community or individual's fate from the livers a seer would ask the gods a simple if-then, yes-no question, then invoke a deity and sacrifice an unblemished sheep. (Perfectly clean sheep were seen as blank slates for the gods to write upon, but also likely had no illnesses, which often leave troubling marks on the liver seers would likely have loathed.) They would then open up its liver—which indeed is pretty distinctive in the animal world, with numerous lines running across it. Each section of the liver carried special meaning and the marks found there communicated clear answers, which when added together would come out to a prediction. The length of one part of the liver—the "finger"—predicted when its judgment would come to pass.

When Wisnom checked her liver, here's what it had to say about Trump's campaign:

The army of the prince will go on a terrifying campaign.
An army will attack the prince in battle.
The god Adad will flood the enemy's land, or there will be confusion amongst the enemy.
Whatever his circumstances, the gods will protect him.
The prince will not return from the campaign he embarked upon.
The king's son or brother will flee.
His army will not reach its goal.
The days of the prince will be long.
Dogs will become rabid.


Although it's tempting to read some of these lines as ominous reflections of the way the Trump campaign played out, these predictions seem vague and even contradictory. Wisnom doubts that they were meant to be taken literally, though. Instead to get your yes-or-no answer, you were meant to tally the number of good or bad omens—and in this case, the numbers came up Trump.

In all fairness to the integrity of ancient Mesopotamian auguries, Wisnom would be the first to admit that although she's one of just a handful of people alive today who understand the basics of the craft, she's not a proper baru. Liver readers basically had the equivalent of a PhD in their art back in the day. And she didn't slaughter her own sheep—she gets visuals of livers from a colleague at Cambridge who has a deal with Armenian shepherds.

For her, reading Trump's victor in the liver of a sheep was a chance to engage with the long-dead culture she studies. Liver readers in cultures where the craft is still practiced in some form—from Peru to Siberia—probably could have done a more authentic and ritually coherent job. Still, she got it right, and her prediction is at least as valid as Geda, the "king of prophets" monkey in Changsha, China, who led a cadre of magical animals in picking Trump. Clinton, on the other hand, got the backing of a Scottish goat named Boots , a YouTuber's kitten, and the New York Times's Upshot election prediction model.

In a way it's appropriate that Trump got the backing of liver auguries, a system born of the paranoia of ancient autocrats who drew what they believed were intelligent but were actually spurious and ignorant conclusions from the world and acted accordingly. Meanwhile, our version of soothsayers will have to figure out how to rejigger their own methods of prediction in time for the 2018 midterms or the 2020 presidential election—and in the meantime, it would be nice if someone could figure out which part of the sheep predicts Trump's behavior.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.