Divining the Future

The art of divination might be defined as a specific method used to gain insight into the unknown and to discover events in the past, present, and future by supernatural means. From the earliest times, humankind has tried to enquire and penetrate into the future through practices believed to access predictive knowledge. Among ancient civilisations, divination was always closely allied with religion. As the word indicates, divination is derived from the Latin term divinare, meaning ‘to divine’, which implies a superior knowledge obtained from the supernatural by specific communication with divinities. In Latin, the art of interpreting signs was simply called divine activity or divinatio and in Greek, the word for God, theos, is closely linked to the work of seers. Today, divination has lost its connection to religion but persists in the category of superstition. Fortune telling in modern society refers mainly to predictions pertaining to an individual’s own future and does not refer, as was customary in the past, to society as a whole 

Divination has ancient origins and was practised by the Babylonians as far back as 2000 BCE. Proof of how important the art of divination was to the ancient societies of Assyria and Babylon was found in the unearthing of thousands of clay tablets on which diviners had catalogued and collected individual omens. Similarly, in China thousands of bones bearing inscriptions, belonging to the Shang Dynasty (ca 1300 BCE) have been unearthed. Such divination bones, consulted on a daily basis, would be heated over a fire and the cracks and crackles ‘interpreted’. All the bones bear the inscriptions of questions asked of higher powers, as well as the prognostications and actual outcomes for future reference.

Universally, in ancient times, any public or private activity first required a good omen before being carried out. The Babylonians had a great interest in omens, and seers used various methods of divination to determine the outcome of almost every important activity. Demons were greatly feared for the suffering and misfortune they could cause, prompting priests to use various magic rituals to drive them away. In ancient Mesopotamia, all divine signs were observed and reported to the king. Divination also proliferated among the ancient Greeks and Romans, where oracles were of supreme importance. 

Essentially, there are two types of divination: a mediumistic method and an interpretive method. The mediumistic method, which included the oracle, was in ancient times often frenzied and obscure. It can still be observed amongst some modern fortune-tellers experiencing or feigning a trance or amongst medicine men in traditional societies. In this type of divination, the diviner might enter into a trance or a state of possession and offer advice through an attained mediumship.

Conversely, under the interpretive method, omens are construed and deciphered according to certain established principles from long-term observations of the relationships of certain events and objects. In this context, Herodotus tells us: ‘The Egyptians [...] keep written records of the observed results of any unusual phenomenon, so that they come to expect a similar consequence to follow a similar occurrence in the future’.91 The diviner might use intuitive insight brought on and aided by certain materials such as bones, sand, shells, cards, dregs in a cup, or any object considered suited to interpretation. In ancient times, the behaviour of birds, sacred fish, or tame serpents was regarded and interpreted as a sign that could be applied to human behaviour. Sluggish movements of these creatures would be interpreted as an indication of a slow growth of crops and hence a lean harvest. Alternately, if their movements were frenzied, a fast-growing crop and a plentiful harvest could be expected. Especially birds of prey, called oionoi in Greek, were thought to give important signs. Legend tells us twelve eagles appeared when Rome was to be founded, which was the greatest augury for Romulus. In Homer’s Iliad, Kalchas ‘the best of birdwatchers’ leads the Greek army to Troy through divination. Even during Christian times, it remained difficult for emperors to ban the bird-watching ceremonies by which the Roman army had been guided for so many centuries.92 

Many Celtic and Germanic tribes used cauldrons, thought endowed with sacred magical properties, for divination. Strabo (circa 64 BCE–19 CE), Greek historian and geographer, gives a detailed description of the ritual killing of prisoners by the Cimbri, a Germanic tribe: ‘Among the women who accompanied their war-like expeditions were priestesses who possessed the gift of prophecy. [...] Sword in hand they walked through the camp towards the prisoners, decorated them with garlands, and then led them to a huge bronze cauldron. Mounting a step they bent over the cauldron and cut each prisoner’s throat as he was lifted up to them’.93 The priestess then interpreted the patterns formed by the blood dripping into the cauldron to predict victory or defeat for impending battles.94 Similarly, vessels filled with water or for that matter any liquid were used by the ancients for divination.

In the history of Christianity, traditional divination has always been in implicit conflict with the Church. The exception, however is prophecy, as it is found in the Old Testament. Prophecy is regarded as the ability to foretell future events through divine inspiration. 

Various forms of divination include extispicy, hepatoscopy, the oracle, astrology, palmistry, numerology, the Tarot, bibliomancy, the reading of tealeaves, the dowsing rod, dice, and various forms of scrying. Most of these forms of divination are still popularly used, and are abundantly on offer in psychic expos, newspapers, and on the Internet.


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