• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Auguries: Past And Present

December 2020

To ignore the omens issued by our beloved pets, in whom, on most every other occasion, we entrust such great quantities of confidence and blind faith, or to overlook those fearsome messages to which, outside the protection of our fence, wild animals deign to make us privy, would be an act of both immense impiety and grave unwisdom. For centuries prior to our own, through which the dancing rivers of guiltless superstition and crude belief more freely flowed, this was a fact widely acknowledged and strictly observed. The pronouncements to which so many beasts gave voice, communicated not by words intelligible to human ears, but by a natural impulse and a letterless tongue, were not only compelling, but deeply meaningful and consequential.

The movements of animal limbs, the curiosities of their behavior and the braying of their lips, the alacrity or slowness of their migration and the conduct of their flock, the folds of their entrails and the billowing smoke of their sacrifice, all counted as phenomena by which we humans, a species uniquely observant and delightfully suggestible, might be influenced, warned, or helped. The answers to our life’s most difficult questions, those problems to which, distressingly, good solutions are so often hesitant or unforthcoming, as well as the portents and promises of our future to come, were, more often than not, made readily evident in the gait of an ox, or the flight of a bird. The task was ours, simply, to pay attention to their display and to interpret the insight of their meaning, as nature might’ve intended.

The founding of Rome, still the greatest of all European cities to which, irrespective of the season, both cheerless monk and merry aesthete jointly repair, was in many ways dependent on the presence of birds. More specifically, it was an augury that was responsible for its origin. Romulus, the town’s eponymous and, in the opinion of some, legendary founder was assured of his choice of the hill atop which he sought to build the empire that would bear his name. Mind you, at the time, his choice wasn’t at all constrained; there wasn’t just one, but an inviting seven hills among which he might’ve chosen his home, by which that glorious region and ancient terrain continues, to this day, to be sumptuously dotted. Enticed by its natural fortifications and its easy access to trade, Romulus chose the Palatine Hill.

His brother, however, was of a different mind. Remus, with whom our impatient Romulus had endured so many trying hardships in his youth, thought the Aventine Hill the best. With the eye of a real estate surveyor, and the confidence of a settler desperate for a claim on new land, he thought the Aventine to be the most conducive to his fledgling nation’s success. He chose it as his preferred location, and each held his own hill as that position from which he wouldn’t budge, of which he’d not dare yield a single inch.

Identical in appearance (they were twins), Romulus and Remus were equally intransigent. Such is the plight of twin boys—never are they to get along, at least not so well as their tired mother might expect or hope. Frustrated, they sought the mediation of an unbiased third-party, a disinterested figure by whom this troublesome situation might be arbitrated and resolved. They chose for their purpose their regal grandfather, Numitor, an Italian king of Alba Longa to whom they’d previously committed not only their filial devotion, for what else could they do, but their military allegiance as well.

He, in his copious years and pious wisdom, with all his political experience and grandfatherly tact, stumbled upon a solution to the awful standstill in which the two brothers were enmeshed. He advised them both to perform a sacrifice to the gods, that borrowed group of Grecian deities by whose Olympian grandeur and lofty prowess, all Italians, much like all Greeks, were still convinced and overwhelmed. Having secured their attention with the burnt aroma of the recent kill, the brothers would then await the arrival of birds, be they one or many, to whose airy flight, a well-appeased Jupiter would surely give wind. The brother to whom the greater number of birds flew would be the one most favored by the gods, and thus permitted to establish his titular city on his preferred hill.

The brothers did as instructed, and received with unbridled excitement the arrival of their feather-coated friends. Remus, first to welcome the arrival of the birds, counted among them six. An undoubtedly propitious sign, he rejoiced at the thought that, given this half-dozen, the victory was his. Romulus, however, wasn’t yet willing to submit. Playing for time, he lied about the number of birds by whom he was visited, claiming there to have been not six, merely, but an astonishing twelve—double that of his more honest brother. Unconvinced by Romulus’ incredible report, Remus went to the Palatine Hill to confirm that which he was told. But, as it happens, upon mounting the Palatine and facing a brother whose mendacity was on the verge of being revealed, Remus noticed the presence of what he most feared: twelve birds. Statuesque in their posture, and stoic in their gaze, they stood as if they’d been there the entire time.

The rest follows a history with which every Westerner, perhaps every inhabitant of this earth, is already acquainted. A fight ensued, which ultimately erupted into a fratricidal war. Brother bludgeoned brother, as the center of Italy—never an especially sturdy boot—quivered at its knee. Countless partisans of each side joined in the mêlée, and, at long last, a victor was decided. With but a glance at the name of the city which yet survives, it’s no mystery whom that might’ve been. There was but one brother upon whom the spoils of this terrible victory flowed, to whom the right of choosing a location for his youthful nation was granted. Romulus killed Remus, and, in the process, watered the soil of his nascent empire, forevermore named Rome, with a slain brother’s blood.

The story of Romulus and Remus and the founding of the former’s namesake city is rife with important lessons, but we mustn’t neglect that one, in particular, which reveals to us the importance of the messages of animals. Here, we speak of the birds. Their behavior was studied by the augurs, a priestly class of ancient divines on whose subtlety and interpretative expertise, countless fortunes hinged. Auguries were taken very seriously at that time and they could, more often than not, predict the future success or failure of administrations of kings and endeavors of states. When animals spoke, in other words, it would be well worth everyone’s time to listen.

That being said, I think it not only appropriate, but necessary to listen to the message proclaimed by president-elect Joe Biden’s lovable dog, whether it be his German Shepherd “Major” or “Champ” over whom he recently tripped. The incident resulted in the minute or hairline fracture of two of the elder statesman’s foot bones, the lateral and intermediate cuneiform bones around which, for at least the next few weeks, a walking boot will be placed. There’s no indication, much to our national comfort and collective relief, that this fall was anything more than an unhappy accident. We’re told it was the kind of tumble to which even the most athletic among us might just as easily succumb. Certainly, the likelihood of his injury wasn’t heightened by the number of his years, the fragility of his bones, or the unsteadiness of his tread. We’ve been assured, as his convalescence begins, that nothing of the sort should concern us. We’re told, time and again, of the resilient nature of his youthful vigor, and the juvenescent strength of his hoary form.

Yet based on the speed (or lack thereof) at which a near-octogenarian’s bones tend to heal, he might be in that boot for a duration of time longer than the optimistic podiatrist might expect and the cheering partisan might hope. And, based on the general neglect with which unflattering stories about the former vice president are treated, the media might never make known exactly how severe or debilitating the injury really is. With an unevenness of gait, if only to match the unpredictability of his thinking and the ineloquence of his speech, we might witness the aged Biden proceed awkwardly through his pre-inauguration duties into the first month of the new year.

Perhaps this “dog-tripping” incident, though seemingly trivial and easily dismissed, will carry with it some later import. Maybe Champ and Major, dutiful dogs as they may yet prove themselves, were trying to provide the country with a sign, a frightening indication of an inauspicious tenure to come. It’s possible that this event was a canine’s useful omen, a pooch-produced portent of which we all should take more careful note. After all, throughout this previous year’s campaign, we willfully ignored the daily signs of Biden’s mental infirmity and cognitive decline. We excused his inarticulate mutterings, behavioral swings, and geriatric gaffes as attributes characteristic of a passionate man simply ailed by a chronic impediment of speech. We ignored the obvious signs of a man ill-suited for the position to which he’ll soon ascend. Will we be so thoughtless as to ignore the omens of his dogs?

Let us take from antiquity a useful lesson, by which our current moment might be better informed. Ignore not the numbers of birds to which great cities, like Rome, still owe their distant founding. Romulus and Remus, and all those to whom the former’s majesty gave birth, would never do so irreverent a thing. We must regard the actions of our animals as not only significant, but prescient. That lesson in mind, we shouldn’t look beyond the clear proclamations of Joe Biden’s cherished dogs, a prophetic pair of canines by which an inauspicious future might just have been predicted.

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