Omen (for the deriv. see OM), or Prodigy (generally said to be from pro and dico, but more probably from pro and ago, to lead; hence anything conspicuous or extraordinary), the name given by the Romans to signs by which approaching good or bad fortune was supposed to be indicated. The terms Omen and Prodigy were not, however, exactly synonymous; the former being applied rather to signs received by the ear, and particularly to spoken words; the latter to phenomena and occurrences, such as monstrous births, the appearance of snakes, locusts. etc., the striking of the foot against a stone or the like the breaking of a shoe-tie, and even sneezing, etc. If an omen or prodigy was promised on the part of a god, it was to be interpreted according to the promise; but otherwise, the interpretation was extremely arbitrary. It was supposed that evil indicated as approaching might be averted by various means, as by sacrifices, or by the utterance of certain magic formulas; or by an extempore felicity of interpretation, as when Caesar, having fallen to the ground on landing in Africa, exclaimed, "I take possession of thee, Africa.'" Occasionally, it is true, we read of a reckless disregard of omens; as, for example, when P. Claudius, in the First Punic War, caused the sacred chickens, who would not leave their cage, to be pitched into the sea, saying, "If they won't eat, they must drink." Still the belief in omens was universal, and in general the greatest care was taken to avoid unfavorable ones. The heads of the sacrificial priests were covered, so that nothing distracting might catch their eyes; silence was enjoined at the commencement of every sacred undertaking, and at the opening of the games. Before every sacrificial procession ran the heralds, calling on the people to "pay respect to it," and admonishing them to cease working till it should have passed, that the priests might not hear unfavorable sounds. At the beginning of a sacrifice, the bystanders were addressed in the words Favete Linguis ("Speak no word of evil import"), and the aid of music was sought to drown whatever noises might prove unpropitious. See Fallati, Ueber 'Begriff und Wesen des Ponm. Omen (Tub. 1836). SEE DIVINATION.
The belief in omens has existed in all ages and countries, and traces of it linger even yet in the most civilized communities; in the dread, for instance, that many entertain at sitting down to table in a party of thirteen. Not a little of the philosophy of omens is contained in the Scottish proverb: "Them who follow freits, freits follow:" meaning that a fatalistic belief in impending evil paralyzes the endeavor that might prevent it. Against the belief of omens it is observed that it is contrary to every principle of sound philosophy; and whoever has studied the writings of Paul must be convinced that it is inconsistent with the spirit of genuine Christianity. We cannot proceed to discuss the subject here, but will present the reader with a quotation on the other side of the question. "Though it be true," says Mr. Toplady, "that all omens are not worthy of observation, and though they should never be so regarded as to shock our fortitude or diminish our confidence in God, still they are not to be constantly despised. Small incidents have sometimes been preclusive to great events; nor is there any superstition in noticing these apparent prognostications, though there may be much superstition in being either too indiscriminately or too deeply swayed by them" (Works, iv; 192). SEE SUPERSTITION.