Here is an excerpt from Michael’s July 30th Suite101 article:
Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. Count, count, weigh, divide. Those words are familiar to anyone who has studied the Biblical book of Daniel. Belshazzar, son of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, was having a party when a mysterious finger appeared and traced those words on the wall. When the drunken Babylonians could not decipher the cryptic message, they sent for the aged Daniel, and he told them that their kingdom had been numbered, weighed in the balance, found wanting, and divided between the Medes and the Persians. That night, so the story goes, the Medes and Persians did indeed take the city of Babylon.
History hasn’t been the same ever since. The Romans, especially, loved to decipher omens which appeared just prior to special events. Angelic armies have appeared in the skies prior to extended wars or massive battles. Reportedly, as the Nazi and Soviet representatives signed a non-aggression pact in Russia, Adolf Hitler and several guests were standing on the balcony of his private retreat. The sky turned dark red and thunder rumbled. One of the guests, a woman with psychic abilities, told her host that the phenomenon portended “blood, blood, and more blood.” Hitler supposedly replied, “Good. Let it begin.”
Although Tolkien’s stories are filled with omens and portents, few characters ever make much fuss over them. For example, Aragorn warns Gandalf not to enter Moria, and then says little as they wander through the underground passages of the ancient Dwarven kingdom. Only after eight of the nine Walkers escape from Moria does Aragorn remember he had warned Gandalf not to enter the lost realm.
There is never any writing on the wall. Prophets do not wander in from foreign lands, warning the righteous to fear the fury of the Lord. Hedge priests don’t crop up across the landscape, preaching about salvation and victory for the faithful in the next crusade. There are no visions on the road to Damascus. Middle-earth is devoid of all the trappings of religious prophecy and psychic phenomena.
Omens are almost always ill in The Lord of the Rings. When Merry says, “I will be ready, even if you bid me ride with you on the Paths of the Dead,” Theoden replies, “Speak not words of omen! For there may be more roads than one that could bear that name.”
The word “omen” occurs less than ten times in The Lord of the Rings, and it is never used of events such as birds taking flight, clouds moving in certain ways, or blood curling about entrails. Boromir says that Moria “is a name of ill omen”. Eomer tells Aragorn that Saruman’s “spies slip through every net, and his birds of ill omen are abroad in the sky”.
Eomer does not mean that the sudden flight of birds is an omen, but rather that the birds, because of the purpose they serve, are themselves an ill omen. Their presence in the skies over Rohan portends of the war to come. But then, Eomer had plenty of similar omens to judge by: the marshaling of forces at Isengard, Saruman’s sending of Orcs across Rohan, and the influence Grima wielded at Edoras. Men like Eomer did not need supernatural warnings to tell them something was wrong.
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