OMENS AND DIVINATION
the circumstances which led to a belief in omens and divination
occurred so long ago, details of their origins and early development
are somewhat obscure; nevertheless, what is reasonably certain is that
they must have evolved from an pre-existing belief in supernatural
beings, a concept which may have came from the erroneous interpretation
of certain patterns in the landscape by our very early hominim
data from the eyes is processed in the brain to produce recognizable
images. Sometimes however, in a process known as Pareidolia, ambiguous
patterns, such as are found in tree bark, rock surfaces, or cloud
shapes, can be mistakenly "interpreted" as something already known to
the observer, e.g. Hamlet comments how clouds can have the appearance
of camels, weasels or whales. (Act III, Scene 2), and Socrates
observes, "Have you not sometimes seen clouds in the sky like a
centaur, a panther, a wolf or a bull?" (Aristophanes, p. 314)
Pareidolia can also be auditory, so that, in certain locations, the
wind can sound like human whispering or screaming; "Lo, the poor
Indian! Whose untutor'd mind Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the
wind." (Pope, 2016, lines 99-100)
appears possible that, in attempting to understand the natural
environment, primitive hominins erroneously identified such images as
supramundane spirits, beings which controlled all the forces of nature.
certainly believed that many of the natural features contained a
"life-force," a notion which led to the concept of Animism, (anima,
Latin, "spirit" or "vital breath"); as Frazer, (1959) noted,
All nature is but art unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
(Investigatior Magazine 196, 2021 January)
the savage the world in general is animate, and trees and plants are no
exception to the rule. He thinks that they have souls like his own, and
he treats them accordingly." (p. 74)
many cultures trees were revered and even worshipped; the Greeks
believed they were inhabited by long-lived Dryads, the trees thriving
as long as they survived. Romans, Druids and Germans all had sacred
groves, and, in many cultures, before removing wood from, or cutting
down a tree, prayers were offered, or else, one entreated the tree
spirit to depart quietly so the axe would not harm it. When using parts
of trees for medicine, Ayurvedic healers, who required the spirit's
vital energy to remain, so it could heal the sick patient, would plead,
"May thy strength not vanish away. Remain here … After having performed
what I will enjoin thee to do, thou will ascend to thy blissful abode
in heaven." (Zimmer, p. 106)
stones, (Baetylus), altars, and idols, (believed to contain a deity's
spirit), were common features in many ancient locations, e.g. Jacob's
pillar, (Genesis 28:18), Moses' twelve stone pillars, (Exodus 24:4),
the Hebrew teraphim, (Genesis 31:19; 1 Samuel 19:13). The Greeks
erected Hermes outside temples and homes, to ward off evil, while the
Roman lares, protected households. Until quite recently the Saami,
(Laplanders), worshiped sieidi), trees and rocks with human or animal
appearances. Smaller sieidi, were kept in their tents, and, during
their nomadic travels, were transported in their sleds. (Kuokkanen,
was sometimes used to maintain the illusion that spirits actually
inhabited idols. Egyptian priests used a statue, with an inbuilt
speaking tube, to "… dupe and control their adherents" (Ziolkowski,
2015, p. 950); similarly, a 2nd century BCE statue of Aphrodite had, "
… a speaking tube that leads from the neck down through the body …" (p.
fact that, by 3.3 million-years BP, hominins had created the earliest
known stone tools; (Harmand, et al. 2015), a feat which involved, "… a
seminal evolutionary change in the neural structures underpinning
perception;" (Morriss-Kay, 2010, p. 158), strongly suggests they had
the cognitive ability to conceptualize such abstract concepts as
supernatural beings, and, to the primitive mind it must have seemed
logical that, if these "supernatural" beings controlled the natural
world, they would also be aware of what was to occur in the future.
They also seem to have concluded that, if worshipped, these beings
might reciprocate by warning of approaching dangers. According to
Coulson, Staurset and Walker, (2011), one of the earliest known
examples of worship, involved a 6.0 x 2.0 metre, python shaped rock in
the Rhino Cave in the Tsodilo Hills of the Kalahari Desert, some 70,000
are essentially any spontaneous, or unintentional events, believed by
individuals, or groups, to be forewarnings that something good, or bad,
was about to occur. While "ominous," (from the Latin ōminosus,), in
modern usage, usually refers to a vague, general feeling that something
unpleasant is about to happen, in ancient times, omens were perceived
as extremely forceful, divine warnings, that something significant was
soon to occur in one's life.
Omens can be classified as follows: -
hominins are normally capable of establishing rational associations
between related events, in a process known as Apophenia, connections
can sometimes be erroneously perceived between completely unrelated
may be that the concept of omens began when primitive hominins
mistakenly concluded that certain chance events in their lives were
somehow linked to other random, but completely unrelated incidents, in
their lives, since, for them, the concept of randomness was almost
the ancients everything that occurred in the whole Cosmos, no matter
how inconsequential, was all part of a finely regulated and
predetermined system, directed by inexorable cosmic forces. Thus, for
the Egyptians, when Sirius rose above the horizon in mid-August, it was
not merely, "… a harbinger of floods," (Nickiforov and Petrova, 2012,
p. 54), it was the actual cause of the Nile flooding.
this rigid unified system, it was believed, even simple, unusual
events, could interfere with the delicately balanced cosmic order.
Unusual human, or animal births, (Teratoscopy), were considered
particularly threatening, so, when, "… a foal was born with five feet,"
(Livy, 30:2:10), it threatened the entire Roman world. The birth of
human hermaphrodites was considered so menacing that, "… the Athenians
threw them into the sea, the Romans, into the Tiber." (Gould and Pyle,
1900, p. 206)
all omens were so catastrophic; simple events such as buttoning up
clothing incorrectly, putting your left shoe on first, placing a shoe
on a table or chair, dropping or losing a glove could all have serious
consequences. Sneezing, (Ptarmoscopy), "… was considered a good omen,
and was regarded as a sacred sign by nearly all of the ancient
peoples." (Gould and Pyle, 1900, p. 813), whereas itching,
(Urticariaomancy) could be either a divine omen, or an indication that
someone was talking about them.
Xylomancy predicted one's future from random pieces of wood, twigs or
branches, encountered while walking, Apantomancy involved encountering
certain types of animals, e.g. if, after leaving home, a black cat
crossed one's path, it indicated possible misfortune.
Cledonomancy involved chance encounters or events; Ayurvedic
practitioners were subject to many negative omens; the quality of the
clothes of servants sent by their master, the type of vehicle sent to
convey them, and, especially if, while travelling to the patient's
home, they encountered women, men with physical disorders, or certain
sinful and immoral, St. Augustine admitted how, while in Milan, he
heard the preaching of Ambrose and, although attracted to Christianity,
was convinced he lacked the willpower to change. Then, one day, he
heard a child calling out, "Take up and read" - interpreting this as a
chance omen, he opened the Codex Porphyrianus and read Romans 13:13,
"Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and
drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension
and jealousy." Taking this as a propitious omen, (Transataumancy,
divination by accidentally seeing or hearing something), he finally
converted to Christianity.
persists in such traditional Scottish practices as First-Footing; the
belief that the status of the first male guest to enter one's home
after midnight on New Year's Eve, would bring either good or bad luck
to the household in the coming year.
was commonly believed the "voices of nature," the sizzling and
crackling of a fire, the sounds of the wind, the rustling and creaking
of trees, the behaviour and calls of animals and birds, "… the howl of
a dog, the squeaking of mice or their nibbling of clothes, a cat
appearing at the window with a captured mouse…" (Schrader, 1911, volume
IV, p. 814), were all thought to be harbingers of coming events.
can be found in the 13th century Kabalistic Zohar to the twittering of
birds as omens of impending death, while the interpretation of the
calls of Ravens, and the twittering of Wrens, were amongst the primary
forms of divination used by the Druid priests in Gaul.
Storks, Albatrosses, or songbirds calling in flight, were all good
omens, birds crashing into a window or flying into the home, the
cackling of Ducks or Geese, a Raven's call before leaving on a journey,
Crows lingering near a home, Jackdaws chattering louder than normal,
Magpies chattering around a house, or flying from west to east,
("contrary to the sun"), the sound of any night bird, or a Rooster
crowing during daytime, were all dire omens. Some birds were considered
to be "corpse birds", whose appearance was an omen of a coming death,
Relatively ordinary spontaneous visual, auditory or tactile
events; being relatively familiar occurrences, their "meanings" were
Unusual natural visual or auditory events requiring
interpretation by experts, e.g. Comets, Meteors, Meteorological
phenomena, Thunder, Lightning, Unusual Animal Behaviour.
Birds of omen dark and foul,
birds, such as Crows and Ravens were considered particularly terrifying
harbingers of doom; in 203 BCE Romans were greatly alarmed when,
Night-crow*, raven, bat, and owl,
Leave the sick man to his dream—
All night long he heard your scream—
(*Any bird that calls in the night. Scott, IV, 2015).
crows picked with their beaks some of the gold on the Capitol and
actually ate it," (Livy, 30:2:9).
The Owl was also greatly feared by the Romans; according to Pliny,
horned owl is especially funereal, and is greatly abhorred in all
auspices … the monster of the night … it is looked upon as a direful
omen to see it in a city, or even so much as in the day-time" (Natural
superstition is mentioned by Shakespeare; on the day preceding Caesar's
assassination, an Owl is seen in the marketplace, "hooting and
shrieking;" (Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 3) whilst in Macbeth, (Act 2,
Scene 2), the Owl's shriek was the sign that Macbeth was killing the
word "disaster" is derived from the Greek "dus" = bad, + "aster" =
star, and, for the ancients, possibly the most dire omens were the
appearance of "signs" in the heavens;
meteor, the eclipse and the comet have perhaps created the greatest
dread of all, the appearance of a comet being taken as a portent of the
coming of the end of the world…" (Omens, p 2064)
the ancients the heavens were the abode of the gods, and, any unusual
events in the sky were attributed to them. For the Greeks, Zeus the
Thunderer, was responsible for thunder, lightning, and anything that
fell from the sky, "… including meteors, shooting stars"
(Papamarinopoulos, et al. 2016, p. 137).
omens were particularly significant for the Romans. Several comets and
meteors were reported prior to the struggle between Gnaeus Pompeius
Magnus, and Gaius Julius Caesar for control of Rome. On the morning of
August 9th 48 BCE, at Pharsalus in Greece, Pompey was particularly
troubled for, on the previous night, a meteor, considered to be an omen
of doom, had been seen. It greatly terrified many of his men, and,
although Pompey had tried to quell their fears, it may have contributed
to their defeat in the ensuing battle.
the Second Punic War, (218-201 BCE), Rome faced disaster; Hannibal
remained undefeated, their harvest failed, resulting in widespread
famine, a plague had killed and incapacitated many of their soldiers,
and, in 204 BCE, "Two suns were said to have been seen … a meteor was
seen to shoot from east to west," (Livy 29:14:3) Apparently an
abnormally large meteor shower, it so disturbed the Romans that, "…
nine days solemnity of prayer and sacrifice was observed." (Livy
desperate Senate consulted the Sibylline Oracles. These "suggested"
victory could only be achieved if Rome adopted the worship of the
Phrygian mother goddess, Cybele. The King of Pergamum allowed her
baetylus, (possibly a black meteorite, believed to possess a protective
life-force), to be relocated to Rome. Arriving in Rome on 12th April
204 BCE, it was placed in the temple of Victoria on the Palatine Hill,
(Livy 29:14:12); and, from that time the tide of war turned, and Cybele
became an honoured Roman deity.
were widely worshipped, one was located in the Greek temple at Delphi,
while the Black Stone in the eastern corner of the Ka'bah, was once
worshipped by the polytheistic pre-Islamic Nabataeans.
the 12th-13th November, 1833 many Americans were alarmed by what was
possibly the greatest meteor shower ever witnessed, and many convinced
it was a sign of the Last Judgment, rushed screaming into the streets.
The shower, resulting from the Earth passing through comet debris,
(possibly Tempel-Tuttle), would later be known as "the night the stars
fell." The basis for the 1934 jazz standard, Stars Fell on Alabama, it
lasted for over nine hours, with an estimated 75,000 - 100,000 meteors
falling each hour.
location of comets in the sky, their direction of travel, the shape of
their tails, and their colour, (white, yellow, blue or green,) all
provided specific "omens" warning of such things as the coming of
strong winds, extreme heat, droughts, civil unrest and wars.
44 BCE, four months after the assassination of Julius Caesar, a comet.
Sidus Iulium ("Julian Star" or, Caesaris astrum "Star of Julius
Caesar"), appeared. Exceptionally bright, and visible in daylight for
seven days, it was proclaimed as a sign that Caesar's soul had been
admitted to the pantheon of immortal gods.
1066 the appearance of Halley's Comet, described as, "the long-haired
star," was seen as an omen of coming disaster, a prophecy many
Anglo-Saxons believed was fulfilled when, six months later, they were
defeated at the Battle of Hastings, and King Harold II was killed.
in relatively modern times comets can still be considered ominous by
some. The spectroscopic discovery of Cyanogen, a colourless toxic gas,
in the tail of Halley's Comet in 1910, led French astronomer Nicolas
Camille Flammarion to predict that, when the Earth passed through the
comet's tail, the gas would flood Earth's atmosphere extinguishing all
life. This prediction led to panic buying of gas-masks, Comet Pills,
(from 25¢ - $1.00 each), and anti-comet umbrellas to protect
against debris falling from the comet.
developed after a belief in omens had been established, the art of
"divination" involves deliberate attempts to discover "hidden
knowledge," especially concerning the future, for groups or
individuals. From the Latin divinatio "inspired," and divinus, the
ancient belief that the information obtained came from "divine" beings,
who, possessed knowledge of the future.
Common suffixes used with various forms of divination are: -
"Mancy" (Greek "manteía" = divination, or prophecy). When
first applied in the Middle Ages, it referred primarily to techniques
considered to be, "mystical arts";
"Scopy" (Greek "skopia" = observation, scrutiny). When first
applied in the Middle Ages, it referred primarily to techniques
considered to be, "scientific." (Pope, 2016, lines 289-290)
2. DIVINATION INVOLVING HUMAN PARTICIPATION:
Visual: "Images" actually seen, or information obtained by, and
interpreted by an oracle, e.g. Astrology, Clairvoyance, Delusions,
Hallucinations, (natural or drug induced), Scrying, Tea-Leaf Reading,
Auditory: Interpretation of sounds by seers, e.g. twittering of
birds, rustling of leaves, the sound of the wind.
2(c) Tactile: Involving touch or balance, e.g. Pendulums, Psychometry.
2(d) Specialized human interpretation required, e.g. I Ching, Palmistry, Tarot Cards.
3. DIVINATION BY LOT -- SORTILEGE:
Casting of lots using devices with two or more dissimilar sides,
e.g. leaves, bark, Dice, (Cleromancy), Knucklebones, (Astragalomancy),
Urim and Thummim. Thrown down, and since the results were indicated by
the surfaces landing upright, no specific interpretation was required;
Divination by birds or animals, e.g. roosters pecking at
scattered grain, (Alectryomancy), Fortune-Telling Birds, trained to
pick random cards from a pack, each with a different prediction. Modern
examples include Floppy the kangaroo (Predictaroo), Paul the Octopus,
Nelly the Elephant, (both 2010 World Cup), and Achilles the cat, (2018
insecure, hominins have long sought to alleviate life's uncertainties
by seeking knowledge of their future. To cater for their needs Shamans,
Prophets, Mediums and Priests emerged; their principal role was to
communicate with the deities to "divine" the future for the clan, civic
authorities or individuals. Believing cryptic messages were hidden
within almost every part of the natural world, they used diverse
techniques in what were apparently profitable ventures, "… her priests
proclaim rulings for profit, and her prophets read omens for pay."
individuals, their personality, and especially their destiny, could be
"revealed" by their appearance; the shape of their face, (Physiognomy),
the eyes, (Oculomancy), lines on their forehead, (Metoposcopy), body
marks, (Moleosophy), spots and blemishes, (Maculomancy), the location,
size, and number of moles, (Meilomancy). Since the gods were believed
to have created humans "perfect," any unusual skin markings, or
disabilities, were believed to be signs of either positive or negative
attributes, e.g. "the mark of Cain," (Genesis 4:15), "Guiderius had
Upon his neck a mole, a sanguine star, It was a mark of wonder."
(Shakespeare, Cymbeline, Act v, Scene 5)
interpreted noises from their intestines, thought to be the "voices" of
dead spirits which had possessed them. Stercomancy divined their future
from the seeds in bird's excrement, and, while Scatomancy interpreted
the appearance of human excrement, ancient Egyptians studied the
behaviour of Dung Beetles which, as part of their mating ritual, rolled
animal dung into balls.
studied the behaviour of rats and mice, and, in particular, personal
items they had chewed, which could foretell the possible death of the
owner. Omens could be determined from such diverse events as how, cats
jumped and alighted, (Ailuromancy). the patterns of mould or holes in
cheese, (Tiromancy), and, in Japan, the weather was predicted by
kicking a wooden sandal, (Geta), into the air and observing how it
study of unusual markings on entrails, (as detailed in special texts),
included animal livers, (Aruspicy), fish, (Icthomancy), or humans,
(Anthropomancy). Humans had their abdomens cut open, the digestive,
respiratory, urogenital organs, the spleen, the heart, and the larger
blood vessels then removed and examined for any significant "prophetic"
form of divination, widely used in ancient Assyria, Babylonian, Egypt,
Etruria and Rome was Necromancy; (Greek "nekros" = dead); communicating
with ghosts of the dead. Based on a belief that the human spirit
survived physical death and became a ghost; now freed of all physical
restraints they could travel between the physical and spiritual realms,
gaining access to hidden knowledge, especially about future events.
Using either body parts, removed from their graves, or a personal
possession of the deceased, magic rituals were performed at their grave
to communicate with them.
Many divinatory arts were based upon the four classical elements of ancient times, Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, (Stareomancy).
interpreted aerial and meteorological phenomena, e.g. the wind,
(Austomancy), cloud shapes, (Nephomancy), thunder and lightning,
(Ceraunoscopy), aerial visions, (Chaomancy), Meteors and Shooting
claimed to "divine" information concerning human and earthly affairs
from the movement of the stars. There were "fixed stars" and "wandering
stars," the latter, because of their irregular paths, were known as
"planets," ("wanderers"). Although Earth was not regarded as a planet,
the unpredictability of events on Earth were attributed to the erratic
movements of the "planets."
interpreted naturally existing patterns, on the ground, or rocks,
(Topomancy), and features, such as lakes, rivers, mountains and how
they influenced the environment. Chinese Geomancy, (Feng shui, Feng =
wind, + shui = water,), the art of placement, was used to locate
auspicious locations for buildings, especially pagodas, shrines, tombs
and other buildings, to determine how they would 'interact' with the
environment. Geomancy also interpreted shapes formed, when points
randomly marked on paper were joined with lines, figures drawn in the
ground, and patterns formed by the random scattering of soil or sand
thrown from the hand.
divination also involved Sortilege, the casting of lots, (Cleromancy);
although completely random, the ancients believed the results were
divinely influenced, "… the land shall be divided by lot: according to
the names of the tribes of their fathers…". (Numbers 26:55). Sortilege
involved devices with two or more distinctive sides, e.g. leaves, bark,
dice, (Astragalamancy); thrown down, results were indicated by the
surfaces which landed upright.
to be a living substance, containing the essence of a deity, Pyromancy,
observed how fires burned. It was believed that fires, especially
sacrificial bonfires, would reveal the deity's willingness, or
otherwise, to accept a sacrifice. A strong, hot fire, with little or no
smoke, which quickly consumed the sacrifice, indicated their
acceptance, however, one difficult to light, which burned poorly,
consumed the sacrifice slowly, was smoky, or crackled excessively, was
considered to indicate the deity's displeasure. Other signs were the
colour of the rising smoke, and the direction it traveled,
(Capnomancy), as well as the appearance of the remaining ashes. Other
forms of Pyromancy involved burning incense, (Libranomancy), plants and
herbs, (Botanomancy), placing straws on a hot iron and observing the
shapes they formed, (Sideromancy), or, throwing substances such as salt
into the fire and interpreting the colours of the flames (Alomancy).
observed the flames of lamps, torches or candles; a clear, steady flame
indicated good fortune, while dark, unsteady flames indicated a coming
illness; even worse, the flame suddenly dying, indicated some
forthcoming disaster, perhaps even death.
Bone divination was used extensively during the Chinese Shang dynasty,
(1523-1027 BCE). Originally bones were touched with red-hot bronze
rods, causing the bones to fracture, the cracks then being interpreted
by scholars. In later versions, the bones were first inscribed with
characters dedicating them to the emperor, or to ancestors, along with
questions on such topics as ceremonial observances in religious and
court matters, or the conduct of military expeditions.
divination also included one form of Cephalonomancy, where carbon was
burned on the head of an donkey or goat while reciting certain phrases,
particularly the names of suspected criminals. Any cracking of the
skull, or movement of the jaws, while a particular name was spoken
indicated guilt. Also used were the shoulder blades of sheep or oxen,
(Scapulimancy), or turtle plastrons, (Plastromancy). Cleaned
thoroughly, then, inscribed with questions, these bones were placed on
glowing coals, and indications of future events being determined from
the manner in which they cracked and changed colour.
(Greek "hudro" = water), while one version interpreted ripples formed
when precious stones were dropped into a basin of water, most forms
involved a seer gazing fixedly into a cup or basin containing water,
(Lecanomancy), rainwater, (Hydatomancy), sacred spring-water,
(Pegomancy), wine, pools of ink, or objects with a shiny or translucent
surface, such as gemstones, (Lithomancy), crystals, (Crystallomancy),
mirrors, (Catoptromancy), metal cups, or sword blades. Many
practitioners used their own special cups, e.g. "Isn't this the cup my
master drinks from and also uses for divination?" (Genesis 44:5).
the past, to locate a thief in Tahiti, a diviner would fill a calabash
with clear water, then, gazing into the water, they could always see,
"… the face of the thief reflected..." (Turnbull, 1805, p. 36). A
related practice, which continued into 20th century Britain, was to
place a sixpence in the bottom of a glass of water and have the seer
gaze intently at the image until they entered a trance. (De Givry,
1973, p. 307). These intense gazing techniques strongly suggest the
seers entered a form of self-hypnotic trance, for, as Kroger (1977)
indicated, an individual's ability to concentrate, and stare fixedly
into liquids, or reflective surfaces, is an important factor in
achieving hypnotic trance states, (p. 45).
hydromancy techniques involved "magical texts;" written inside the cup,
so that when a liquid was added, it dissolved and "absorbed" their
magical properties. When, in 1993, 5,000 ringgit, (about $2,500), went
missing from a Malaysian bank, and a body search failed to find the
thief, the manager ordered all the staff to drink "magic water."
Prepared by a local witch doctor, he believed it would make the thief
sick; the liquid failed, and, after complaints to the National Union of
Bank Employees, the manager was forced to apologize to staff.
were believed to be "divine messages," often foretelling future events,
and so Oneiromancy, (dream interpretation), was an important form of
ancient divination, Many believed their gods spoke directly to their
prophets via dreams; "When there is a prophet among you, … I speak to
them in dreams." (Numbers 12:6)
the meanings of dreams was often vague, priests, in Babylon,
Bârû or "seers;" in Egypt, the Learned Men of the Magic
Library, and, in Greece, soothsayers or Oneiromancers, were consulted
to interpret their meanings. Many ancient temples provided a service
known as Incubatory Sleep where supplicants could consult with
Oneiromancers. After special ceremonies, they would retire to sleep in
a special room, then, the following morning, would relate their dreams
to the priest who would interpret it with reference to their original
history dream divination has been particularly popular with young
unmarried girls who used diverse procedures to produce visionary dreams
relating to potential sweethearts, who they would marry, whether they
would have a good or bad marriage, and the number of children they
They told her how, upon St. Agnes Eve,
modern Homo sapiens has a much more sophisticated and scientific
understanding of the natural world, they still retain many of the basic
insecurities of our earliest hominin ancestors, and many still rely on
various forms of prognostication to alleviate their fears of the
future. As shown in Table 1 many Americans, from both religious and
non-religious backgrounds, still believe in Astrology, Psychics and
Young girls might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey'd middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did right.
(Keats, 1884, The Eve of St. Agnes. Verse VI)
New Age' beliefs common among both religious and nonreligious Americans
Survey conducted 4th-18th December, 2017 amongst U.S. adults Gecewicz, (2018)
Spiritual energy can
be detected in physical objects
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