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Is it a cloud? Is it a symbol? It’s an omen!

In Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist, the protagonist Santiago gets recurring dreams about hidden treasures. Believing the boy’s dreams to be an omen, a gypsy fortune teller advises him to go to Egypt. While journeying through the Egyptian desert, Santiago gets fascinated by omens and strives to understand them better. Eventually, he learns to read omens himself and allows them to guide him on his journey. These omens help him meet an alchemist, recognise his true love, and eventually discover the hidden treasure.

Unlike Santiago, most of us may not believe in omens or read them just yet. But we certainly cannot deny we are fascinated with them. Be it through dreams, eclipses or inexplicable coincidences, omens intrigue us. Believed to be subtle affirmations when we are on the brink of doing something right or a foreboding warning when we are about to do something wrong, these ‘divine messages’ are believed to mark the advent of significant changes–good or bad. No wonder since time immemorial, omens have influenced kings, warriors and mystics alike. Soulveda explores some of the legends and historical events that were triggered or affected by a belief in omens:

The Battle of the Eclipse

It is common knowledge that the ancient Greeks were well versed in astronomy. However, a solar eclipse scared two powerful leaders enough to call a truce and make peace. According to historian Herodotus, the Medes and the Lydians had been warring against each other for over five years. They were, in fact, battling on the banks of the River Halys when the solar eclipse occurred. Considering the sudden blackout to be an omen, they decided that the gods were against the war. The two parties then buried the hatchet and became allies. To strengthen their relationship, the Lydian princess even married the Prince of the Medes.

Queen Maya’s Dream

A legend goes that Queen Maya and King Suddhodana of Sakya did not have children for 20 years. However, on a full moon night, Maya dreamt that she was carried by four devas to the top of the Himalayas. She was bathed in the waters of Lake Anotatta and was adorned with clothes and flowers. Soon after, a young white elephant with six tusks approached her, carrying a white lotus. It then entered Maya’s womb. Upon interpreting this dream, an astrologer prophesised that Maya would become a mother to a pure soul who would impart wisdom to the world. Ten months later, she birthed Siddhartha who indeed went on to become Gautama Buddha.

Whether or not we believe in omens, they have certainly influenced legends and rewritten the course of history. Many may dismiss them as superstition, but the fascination with omens persists.

The Battle of Drepana

A legend goes that before engaging in the Battle of Drepana (against a superior Carthaginian fleet), Roman navy commander Publius Claudius Pulcher invoked holy men to determine which side the gods were on. To gauge the odds, the holy men offered grains to a flock of chickens. They said if the birds devoured the food, it meant that the gods would ensure Roman victory. But, if they refused to eat, the outcome would be defeat. Unfortunately, the birds weren’t quite interested in food that day. Enraged, Pulcher then supposedly tossed the birds into the sea saying, “Let them drink, since they don’t wish to eat.” But that didn’t undo his fate. In the end, just like the omen suggested, his fleet was defeated.

The rise and fall of Alexander – the great

King Philip and Queen Olympias of Macedonia were Alexander’s parents. According to the book Life of Alexander, authored by a well-known Greek biographer Plutarch, the night before the consummation of their marriage, the queen dreamt that a thunderbolt struck her body, setting her on fire. Later, a while after the consummation of their marriage, King Philip dreamt that he sealed his wife’s body, and the seal had the impression of a lion. Interpreting their dreams, the diviner Aristander of Telmessus assured the king that his queen was with a child who would one day prove to be courageous as a lion. Indeed, Alexander grew worthy of his title ‘the Great’. During his reign, the kingdom never lost a battle, constantly expanding its boundaries.

Similarly, the fall of Alexander too was prophesised by diviners after interpreting a series of foreboding incidents. As per Plutarch’s accounts, when Alexander entered Babylon, a bunch of crows fell dead at his feet. Alexander’s very own lion was attacked and killed by a tame donkey on the way. And finally, upon entering his palace, he saw a convict wearing his royal robe and crown and sitting on his throne. Within 10 days, a fever took Alexander.

Whether or not we believe in omens, they have certainly influenced legends and rewritten the course of history. Many may dismiss them as superstition, but the fascination with omens persists. Amongst us are people who wish upon a shooting star to make their lives better. Others interpret their dreams to understand their lives more deeply. Whether or not omens are true harbingers of future, they continue to enchant believers amongst us. Who knows? Perhaps, omens can guide us.

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