Let Us Speak of Signs and Portents

In which the author touches upon signs and portents on a most portentous day.

The Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini
La mort de Cèsar by Vincenzo Camuccini ("There were prodigies and portents enough...")

Let Us Speak of Signs and Portents

Dear Reader,

An eclipse interrupts a battle between two armies, a lion walks openly in the streets of the capital, a steward sends his eldest son to seek counsel from the Elven-wise after both his sons dream the same troubling dream, ten vultures circle the Bastion for nine days before one evicts the eagle that nests atop the Paper Tower, a prophetess sees a vision of shadows that kill among the stars, a great red comet appears after the death of a king, a green serpent descends from the rafters to wrap itself about the imperial throne only to vanish, and fire rains from the heavens.

There are signs and portents in the heavens above, in the earth below, in the broken shells of turtles, the movements of birds, indeed, even in the very dreams of men.

And today is March the 15th.

If one is going to talk about signs and portents, then this is a day to do it (at least in the West). If you know why, then you know. If you don’t, then all I can say is this:

“Beware the Ides of March.”

It's an inauspicious day if you happen to be a certain would-be emperor. Or a day of rejoicing if you believe that you have saved your home from becoming “some monstrous state.” (Yet joy today may turn to ashes tomorrow.) It all depends upon whether you rightly interpret the riddling will of the gods.

Because that’s really the rub right there:

A sign occurs, and it clearly means something, something that must be very important, but interpretations tend to vary…

May You Live in Interesting Times

“Truly, better to be a dog in days of peace than a human in times of war.”
- Feng Menglong, Stories to Awaken the World, Vol 3 of A Ming Dynasty Collection

Signs and portents aren’t your daily fare.

They’re not even standard chapter-by-chapter stuff in fantasy. Like their sister motifs, prophecy and ancient myth, they play a very specific and limited role in the text. So don’t expect to find them cropping up for your everyday issues of corruption, accidents, or even persistent banditry.

(Though the satirist-humorists have their fun tossing them about.)

No, this stuff isn’t meat and potatoes. It’s part of the special sauce. You bite into that tasty story burrito and it says – with spicy gusto – “I am here!”

Neither are signs and portents things of peace. No, they are most commonly found in service to the cosmic lexicon of war and chaos. (Yes, they also commonly mark the advent of savior figures – but savior figures typically come bringing war, though not always in a visible, military sense.)

So things are about to get much more intense when the sky starts lighting up. And even more so when the signs pile on, such as at the beginning of Chronicles of the Black Company:

Lightning from the clear sky strikes the Necropolitan Hill, it rains stones, statues bleed, sacrificial victims have neither hearts nor livers to read, the image of Teux turns completely around, vultures drive off the eagle at the height of the great tower (a personal favorite sign of mine).

“But that happens every year. Fools can make an omen of anything in retrospect,” our narrator informs us, letting us in on the kind of world we’re entering into – a world overflowing with magic and dark humor. A world where things are always "interesting," always at war. And a strange time would be a quiet one.

But that's a different world than Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

When These Prodigies Do So Conjointly Meet…

When sign piles on sign, less ambitious Romans like Casca grow attentive:

When these prodigies/ Do so conjointly meet, let not men say/ “These are their reasons, they are natural,”/ For I believe they are portentous things/ Unto the climate that they point upon.

But what did he see that so shook him? To make him believe that these things are signs pointing to a “climate”? He has seen something more than what he has ever seen before:

I have seen tempests when the scolding winds/ Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen/ Th’ ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam/ To be exalted with the threat’ning clouds;/ But never till tonight, never till now,/ Did I go through a tempest dropping fire./ Either there is a civil strife in heaven,/ Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,/ Incenses them to send destruction.

(And those aren’t the only signs Casca reports: there’s a slave whose hand was aflame yet did not burn, a lion walking the streets of the capital, a bird of night shrieking at noonday.) So, whatever is going on is Bad with extra emphasis. And, as far as he can tell, either the gods are at war or the world has angered the gods.

The one thing that he can read clearly out of all the celestial pyrotechnics is that the heavens show forth a time of peril for mortals. Maybe we should be careful? That would be the wise, even prudent, attitude. And so he is bewildered when Cassius comes on stage out of the fearful dark, having braved “the perilous night” and asks:

But wherefore did you so much tempt the heavens?/ It is the part of men to fear and tremble/
When the most mighty gods by tokens send/ Such dreadful heralds to astonish us.

The Answer I Want is in the Tea Leaves – If You Read It Rightly

Cassius doesn't fear tempting the heavens. He isn't astonished by the dreadful heralds of the gods.

But he does have an interpretation of the signs, and a self-serving one at that. We aren’t to be humbled or cowed, nor should we carefully consider the future. No! We must take action – the action that I was already planning to take! (But first he needs to humiliate Casca to elevate himself):

You are dull, Casca, and those sparks of life/ That should be in a Roman you do want,/ Or else you use not./ You look pale, and gaze,/ And put on fear, and cast yourself in wonder,/ To see the strange impatience of the heavens./ But if you would consider the true cause/ Why all these fires,/ Why birds and beasts from quality and kind,/ Why old men, fools, and children calculate,/ Why all these things change from their ordinance,/ Their natures, and preformèd faculties,/ To monstrous quality—why, you shall find/ That heaven hath infused them with these spirits/ To make them instruments of fear and warning/ Unto some monstrous state./ Now could I, Casca, name to thee a man/ Most like this dreadful night,/ That thunders, lightens, opens graves, and roars/As doth the lion in the Capitol;/ A man no mightier than thyself or me/ In personal action, yet prodigious grown,/ And fearful, as these strange eruptions are.

Why all these signs, you wonder, dear Casca? I could “name to thee a man,” Cassius says – and he means Caesar. It’s all his fault. All the signs are to warn against the “monstrous state” that he would establish. They are “instruments of fear and warning” that “heaven hath infused.” That is “Why all these fires, why all these gliding ghosts” and “Why all these things change from their ordinance.” This man, Caesar, is no greater than you or me, but he has become as fearful and monstrous as “these strange eruptions are.”

Thus all these signs, which could be read to astonish, to move us toward reflection and humility – even repentance – are made out to be proof that the gods have authorized a brutal assassination. And Casca falls in line.

That’s the thing about signs and portents: If you can get ahead of the interpretation, you can get stuff done. That doesn’t mean you don’t end up dead yourself (Cassius' days are numbered), but you get to have your name written in the history books as one of the guys who got it wrong.

Alea iacta est, a man once said. And never mind the horrifying cost of your selfish ambition.

There let us let the matter of signs and portents rest for a time, Dear Reader. In the future we will return to this topic, but today is not that day. If you have a favorite sign or portent, please hit reply and send it along.

May there yet be peace in this world.

Best regards,


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