Liver Reading for Dummies

Just when you thought it was safe to visit a museum, the Getty Villa in Malibu, California turned a bunch of Haruspices loose on an unsuspecting public.  A Haruspex, in case your mind has temporarily gone blank, is a person trained to divine the will of the gods in entrails — particularly sheep entrails.  In other words, a Haruspex is a liver reader.  (Kongo knows you knew that, right?)  Indeed, the word haruspex is a combination of two pretty old words:  haru, which means entrails and spec, which means to observe or to look at.  (spectacles — get it?)  You should remember these terms in case you find yourself on national TV in a Jeopardy episode.


The best liver readers in Roman times were Etruscan, those mysterious people who lived north of Rome in an area that people today know as Tuscany.  Long before the Etruscans, the Babylonians were expert liver readers.  And the Assyrians and Sumerians.  A lot of ancient folks were into liver reading.  Roman liver readers wore pointy hats and fancy robes and went to school for a long time.  To help them master the nuances of reading a sheep’s liver they created training aids like the bronze Piacenza Liver (shown above) which was found in a farmers field near the village of Piacenza in Italy in the 1870s.  The Etruscans divided the liver into 16 different parts that corresponded to the Roman Zodiac to help determine which gods in which part of the cosmos were sending messages.  The Emperor Claudius, an Etruscan aficionado, actually founded a liver reading university to train Etruscan wannabe haruspices.


Sheep livers were particularly popular items of study.  The gods demanded that animals sacrificed be docile and at least appear to willingly accept their fate.  And sheep?  well, sheep are sheep after all and are pretty docile.  A stubborn donkey would not do at all and a goats are notorious for running around butting people.  Sheep were also common in the ancient world and even people of modest means could afford to spring for a sheep when those super important, once in a lifetime type decisions came along.

Ewe, me?

Ancient Romans consulted a haruspex on all significant questions like, is now a good time to start a new wine shop, should I take that journey to Capua this week, and is Marcela really the right girl for me?  If you were a Roman general you would never consider launching a battle without dragging a sheep out for a consultation with the duty haruspex.

You crossed a haruspex at great peril.  Remember Julius Caesar?  Before going to the forum on that fateful Ides of March, a liver reading by a a haruspex named Spurinna warned of a disastrous day at work.  Julius, being Caesar, blew it off and met his fate at the hands of 23 cranky senators with knives.  The forum was never the same afterward and neither was Rome as the assassination  launched a civil war, gave us some terrific plots for Shakespearian plays and Hollywood movies, and eventually ushered in the era of emperors for the Roman empire.

At the Getty Villa liver readings are less dramatic.  Docent haruspices have been trained in the basics of liver reading such as the basic parts of the liver like the left and right lobes, the head, the puffy lobes, the gall bladder and so forth.  Of course we’re talking about the lobus hostilis, the left lobe which predicts what your enemies are up to, the lobus familaris that holds the insights to your inner self, the papillaris, the pyramidalis (or caput).

Liver Reading Altar at the Getty Villa

When Kongo reads livers he takes all of the liver portents into deep consideration and then can pronounce confidently to that cute senior at UC Berkeley with the little diamond in her nose who is majoring in astrophysics that she will definitely get a job on graduation if she decides to forego grad school at MIT.  Or to the couple worried about connecting flights back home to Wheeling after vacation (as in why would anyone go back to West Virginia after spending a week in Southern California?), Kongo pronounces with great fanfare that maybe they will get an upgrade to first class and maybe they won’t.  Hopefully they’re not flying United.


At the Getty Villa, you can possibly get one of three very realistic, life-sized sheep livers made for the museum by the same special effects company that does all the Star Wars movies.  The liver above, for example, is a bad liver.  Very bad.  It’s missing its head (caput, like the one Caesar had), has a hostilis (left side) filled with pus filled (pretend) cysts indicating scores of enemies plotting your downfall and the gall bladder (that pouchy looking thing on the bottom right side of the liver) is way too dark.  This type of liver is usually reserved for disrespectful middle-school boys who ask challenging questions like “how long to we have to stay at this sucky museum?”

After a successful liver reading, the haruspex would excise a small bit of the liver and drop it in a nearby burning brazier.  The rising smoke would carry the sacrifice up to the heavens and the mortal supplicants would take the rest of the carcass home for a dinner of lamb chops.

IMG_0536At the Getty Villa we obviously don’t burn up our livers (we only have three) but we do generally send off our guests with positive thoughts and a bit more knowledge about ancient religion and rituals.  Kongo enjoys reaching behind the altar and drawing out a liver for an unsuspecting group of tourists and plopping it down with a loud schmack.  The most common reaction is that the guests back up a step and say in unison, “Whoa!”  They next can be counted upon to exclaim, “Is that real?”  Getty Villa livers are VERY realistic, as you would expect from a town that boasts Hollywood among its colorful suburbs.  Visiting school groups love touching the livers and even fastidious matrons from faraway places like Great Britain can’t seem to keep their hands off them.

Now here’s an interesting liver reading hack.  If you were unhappy with the message the gods sent you when Dolly went to the alter, you could always go get another sheep.  That’s right!  Roman gods were notoriously fickle and often changed their minds.  So sometimes when a really, really import question needed to be answered you went to the temple with a group of sheep.  Complicated questions about war and peace might take a small herd.  It worked out well for everyone as the haruspices got extra fees, the people got the answer they needed along with lamb chops for the whole village, and the sheep — well maybe it wasn’t so good for them.

So, if you haven’t had a liver reading recently and you’re wondering about whether or not to proceed with that kitchen remodel this year or wait till the kids go off to school, you might want to swing by the Getty Villa and ask a haruspex.  Don’t be sheepish.

Travel safe.  Have fun.



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