Ancient magicians as innovation consultants. Also birds

19.51, Monday 5 Oct 2020

I wonder if there’s a mapping from types of magician into types of people who, today, predict the future. e.g. innovation consultants. Bear with me on this.

There used to be many more birds.

The bird population is down 29% since 1970 in North America and likely Europe too.

In the ancient world…

The Mediterranean world of 2,500 years ago would have looked and sounded very different. Nightingales sang in the suburbs of Athens and Rome; wrynecks, hoopoes, cuckoos and orioles lived within city limits, along with a teeming host of warblers, buntings and finches; kites and ravens scavenged the city streets; owls, swifts and swallows nested on public buildings. In the countryside beyond, eagles and vultures soared overhead, while people could observe the migrations of cranes, storks and wildfowl.

And that article is a great read on the prevalence of birds in ancient literature and thought.

Birds were functional: In the ancient world, weather and seasonal changes were matters of vital consequence for agriculture, travel, trade and the rounds of domestic life, and birds served as a standard point of reference in calibrating and interpreting the cycles of the year.

Birds were magical: They crop up in all manner of figures of speech, proverbs, myths, fables, and in ritual and magical practices, some of which now seem very strange.


I’ve touched on this before so let me summarise: the Codex Justinianus (534 AD), being the book of law for ancient Rome at that time, banned magicians and, in doing so, itemised the types:

  • A haruspex is one who prognosticates from sacrificed animals and their internal organs;
  • a mathematicus, one who reads the course of the stars;
  • a hariolus, a soothsayer, inhaling vapors, as at Delphi;
  • augurs, who read the future by the flight and sound of birds;
  • a vates, an inspired person - prophet;
  • chaldeans and magus are general names for magicians;
  • maleficus means an enchanter or poisoner.

I’m not prepared to dismiss magicians as simply cold reading when they give their advice. I have to believe they actually have access to something that the rest of us don’t – knowledge, not the supernatural.

And it’s interesting to imagine what it means for an augur to tell the future.

I mean: birds migrate.

So let’s say a migration from the east is a little early. That means there’s poor climate to the east, possibly a famine. So the people there will be struggling. If it’s a province, that means the governor will be struggling and agitating. If it’s nomads on the Eurasian Steppes, they’ll be starting raids for food. So send legions to defend the Empire!

Or the birds from the south are looking particularly plump, for several years. Whoever’s looking after Egypt will be doing pretty well, feeling a bit big for their boots after that amount of time, perhaps they’ll cause trouble, so hey Emperor, why don’t you move a few people around to keep them on their toes.


I happen to have spent my career in a number of fields that promise to have some kind of claim to supernatural powers: design, innovation, startups…

It’s not hard to run through a few archetypes of the people in those worlds, and map them onto types of ancient magician.

  • Those like Steve Jobs (with his famous Reality Distortion Field) who can convincingly tell a story of the future, and by doing so, bring it about by getting others to follow them – prophets.
  • Inhaling the vapours and pronouncing gnomic truths? You’ll find all the thought leaders you want in Delphi, sorry, on LinkedIn.
  • Those with a good intuition about the future who bring it to life with theatre, and putting people in a state of great excitement so they respond – ad planners. Haruspex.
  • Those who have the golden mane of charisma: enchanters. Startup founders.
  • People with a great aptitude for systems and numbers, who can tell by intuition what will happen, from systems that stump the rest of us. We call them analysts now. MBAs. Perhaps the same aptitude drew them to read the stars before? Mathematicus.

Augurs being people who pay attention to the faint signals in the world, wherever they appear, continuously collating and integrating, waiting until something mysteriously precipitates out into a hunch, just a hunch, and saying it out loud, and occasionally - just occasionally - being right… or at least, provocatively useful.

I would be a middling sort of augur, of course.

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