By David E P Dennis

In these uncertain times we seem buffeted by events. Covid regulations vary almost from day-to-day. World politics, terrorism, Brexit, chaos in travel and the aircraft industry, working from home, information technology, global warming, sea level rises, wildlife extinctions – these all increase the uncertainty of life. The sense of helplessness in the face of daily reality seems to grow. How can we ever divine the future?

As you walk forward, the future breaks like a wave of the bridge of your nose. This evolutionary state has been the same since the universe formed and humans developed out of star clouds. Back in the days of Sir Isaac Newton, we used to think it was clockwork. As seconds ticked into hours and days, so the next event would follow and free will became a controversial concept. Then along came quantum theory with its virtual particles popping in and out of reality – and scientists began to question the concept of time itself.

Bronze reproduction of the so-called ‘Liver of Piacenza’ – an animal liver engraved with the Etruscan names of the deities connected to each part of the organ. Used in haruspicy to foretell the future

How did the ancients divine the future? Did it work? Here in Hastings, the Stone Age peoples looked for certainty in the stars. They watched the moon’s phases, the way the tides changed, how the herds migrated, the way that wounds healed or festered and how plants could cure or kill. There was a growing perception of regularity – light and dark, planetary movements, spring, and winter. When the Iron Age began and tribes began to communicate with each other far more, the sowing, growing, and harvesting seasons gave some certainty and they learned how to store food for themselves and their stock, although periods of great cold or storms could ruin hopes.

In the late Iron Age, the Romans came to Hastings looking for iron ore to mine and take back to Rome and their European settlements, using the Classis Britannica – the local Roman provincial navy. They found several mines and you can see these in the local woods – they are called Bell Pits. However, the biggest area of Roman iron working was located at what is now called Beauport Park on the Ridge. Here, fire and charcoal were used to extract iron from rocks in industrial quantities.

In the far-off days of the Babylonian Empire, people wondered if animals could tell us anything about the future. They began to study the entrails of sheep and goats. This practice spread to the Villanovan peoples of northern Italy – the Etruscans. The Roman invaded Etruria and picked up the idea – a method called haruspicy. 

Rome overwhelmed the Etruscans, but not before some of these defeated people had trained Roman augurs. These were priest-like people who travelled with the Roman Army. They were peripatetic like the great mosaicists. You may remember from your history lessons, that Spurrina the haruspex augur famously warned Caesar about the Ides of March.

So when the Romans came to Hastings, they brought their augurs with them – Babylon had come to the Ridge. The problem was that the Etruscans thought that clouds talked to each other and conspired to make lightning, but the Romans believed simply that when clouds came together, it could cause storms. Etruscans were soaked in religion but the Romans, though they had their gods, also knew how to build roads and fight. They were practical. 

Joseph Stalin, 1917 – The paranoid man who sent millions
to the Gulags of Siberia or had them shot

Reality happens whether you like it or not. Be practical. The best way to divine the future is to be objective, use common-sense, look at the patterns of the past. This method of calm analysis is likely to bring you far nearer to understanding the likely future than if you cut open a goat and pull out its liver to look for spots. We have now come so far as humans, that we understand many things about the world: economic and geological forces, climate, crop development, farm management, food chains, factory production, road systems. Yet there is one enormous gap in our knowledge of the future, and that is how to spot the vile politicians and dictators who rise up to kill thousands or even millions – and most of all, how to counter them. Let us conjure a few names.

Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot – all personally responsible for the deaths of millions through war, starvation, and executions. How did they manage it? Through dissatisfaction with the past and manic belief in their concept of a better future, raving rhetoric and demagoguery-strong ideologies, using secret police to crush the Press and kill intellectuals. So there is a warning there: that the grass is not always greener and change through revolution might not always be a good thing. Yet, if there is oppression, then revolution might the only way to change things. When bad politicians want to hang onto power in democracies, they begin to challenge the voting system and exceed their powers. Back in Roman times, the Praetorian Guard would kill their insane or power-crazy emperors with a sword-thrust in the night but, nowadays, we allow the psychopaths free rein: we trade with them, sell them arms and suppressive torture technologies, honour them with State Visits and Royal banqueting – and hundreds of millions die of poverty, disease and war as a result.

So, if there is to be a better future for humanity, then see if you can spot the next dictator on the rise and pray to the gods of haruspicy that you can stop them before it is too late. Pray to the clashing clouds that someone gets to their entrails before they get to yours.

In this country of Britain, democracy is the most precious thing we have. We need to take part in it, nourish and improve it. We all want peace.

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