|The Romans would have wondered
why the gods were angry at them.
If thousands of birds had fallen from the sky in ancient Rome, everybody—from emperors, to warriors, to peasants and slaves—would have been in a state of complete and total panic.
Cries of “Bad omens! The gods are angry! Terrible, terrible things are about to happen!” would reverberate throughout the empire. Everyone would stay home and bar the doors. Lawmakers wouldn’t convene. Schools would shut down. And the streets would run with blood as priests offered animal sacrifice after sacrifice to appease the gods.
Today, some religious leaders are reacting in similar ways (sans the animal sacrifices, of course): trying to divine spiritual meaning from events in nature. “God is angry,” some claim about the thousands of birds falling from the sky in Arkansas. “We must change our behavior to appease him,” say others. Still others maintain that this is the first sign of the apocalypse or end of the world.
Biologists tell us that large numbers of animal “die-offs” are not uncommon. The fact that the birds in Arkansas died on New Year’s Day, however, seemed to have pressed our “primitive, ancient” reflex of trying to make sense of what we don’t understand. We wonder: what does it mean that so many died? And why on New Years Day, of all times? Surely it’s a sign!
The ancient Romans constantly looked for signs from nature to understand their world. This tendency grew more fervent when they felt particularly vulnerable. So, for example, when the Carthaginian general Hannibal rampaged through Italy in the early third century BCE, the Romans “saw” portents of doom at every turn. Birds falling from the sky would’ve been the least of them. Many claimed they saw:
|Victim of Pompeii, probably still wondering–at the
time of his death–what it “meant” that Vesuvius blew.
- Snakes jumping out of the sea
- Wheat stained with blood
- A talking cow
- Soldier’s spears bursting into flame
- Unlit cauldrons coming to boil
- A pig born with a human head
- A baby born with an elephant’s head
Even if we don’t want to admit it to ourselves, we are all, on some level, on “high alert” for other “signs” from nature. Because despite our scientific advances, we still have the legacy of the frightened ancient person inside of us asking, but what does it mean?
And will we survive it?
The more things change, the more they stay the same.