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Thursday, 25 October 2012


No-one knows what the future holds, but down through the ages humanity has done its utmost to find out - by devising and employing an extraordinary panoply of divination rituals, ranging from the imaginative and ingenious to the downright bizarre and bewildering. Nevertheless, there is a core belief unifying all of these seemingly disparate practices. Namely, that the patterns perceived in Nature, whether they be visual, aural, tactile, moving, stationary, natural, or induced, are in some subtle, cryptic manner a reflection of what is yet to occur, but can be correctly comprehended and decoded only by those who are sensitive to them.


Prognostication methods involving the interpretation of these patterns or movements, as produced by all manner of non-living or non-human living objects, are collectively known as the mantic arts, and were in existence as far back as Palaeolithic times, when our long-departed troglodytic ancestors were guided by the prophecies of the tribal shaman or medicine man, which were drawn in turn from astute observations of the world around him. They also flourished in the earliest civilisations when the role of soothsayer was frequently taken by a high priest or similar religious figure in authority.

Scrying, for example, during which visions seen by psychics within crystal balls or other shiny surfaces are then interpreted by them to yield insights into future events, can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, the Hebrews, and the druids (who also set store in epatoscomancy – deriving guidance from examining the entrails patterns of sacrificed animals). A variation on this theme, using a mirror instead of a crystal ball, is known as catoptromancy, and is currently enjoying renewed popularity thanks to New Age rituals.

'The Crystal Ball' (John William Waterhouse, 1902)

The ancient Greeks, meanwhile, favoured their oracles, through which the gods supposedly spoke directly to their mortal subjects; whereas the Romans put their faith and trust in the putative potency of augury and haruspicy (interpreting the cracks that form in the scapulae of a roasted sheep!). Gematria, an early precursor of numerology, in which divination was performed via the translation of words or passages of text from holy works of literature into numerical values, was practised by the Babylonians as well as the Greeks, Persians, Gnostics, and emerging Christians

In Asia, as far back as 1000 BC the Chinese had developed their celebrated system of I Ching, utilising long and short sticks of yarrow. And in rural Europe, a favourite divinatory technique during medieval times was the reading of patterns created by tossing a handful of pebbles (pessomancy), or a shower of other small pellet-shaped objects such as peas, onto the ground

I Ching, Song Dynasty print

Such methods as the latter, in which the techniques are purposefully devised and performed for the sole purpose of divination, are referred to as voluntary or man-made. Throughout time and the world, however, the most popular and widespread practices have tended to be ones in which humans have sought to discern the future by observing natural phenomena all around them, such as fire, water, light and shadows, weather, and wildlife.


Lampadomancy (pyromancy) in particular is a very ancient technique. A subject's future is determined, or an answer to a specific question obtained, by observing the flickering movements of a flame (nowadays usually from a candle), and deciphering their supposed significance

Closely related is capnomancy, divining the future from the swirling, ever-changing forms assumed by smoke. This again is a very ancient system of divination, whose origins stem from those of humanity itself following its discovery of fire

Yet another related technique dating back to humanity's earliest age is sciomancy - a means of divination utilising the shape, size, and movement of shadows. Although once popular in ancient Greece, when corpses were used to cast the shadows, this particular mantic art no longer seems to be readily practised.


Hydromancy is prognostication by staring into a dish or pool of water and analysing the patterns inherent within its lucid surface, but there any many variations upon this theme. Bletonomancy is a hydromantic art concentrating upon moving patterns of water, such as the currents in rivers and streams. And pegomancy, a technique again popular in ancient Greece, harnesses the images created by water spouting forth from a fountain

An aural version of hydromancy is leconomancy, developed in ancient Assyria. This uses as its indicators of future events the sounds or movements made when an object is thrown into water

Gazing up at clouds for inspiration and insights amid their fleecy, ever-transforming shapes is nothing new either - those earnest mantic practitioners the ancient Greeks were very fond of nephelomancy. Translating into prophecies the murmurs, whistles, and other utterances of the wind, as heard when holding a seashell to one's ear, formed the basis of austromancy in Tibet and ancient China. Ceraunoscopy featured the prediction of impending events from perceiving the flashing patterns created by lightning during a thunderstorm.


Not surprisingly, however, the immense multitude of wildlife with which humankind shares this planet has engendered two major branches of mantic arts. One is alectryomancy or zoomancy, in which the behaviour of domesticated or wild animals is closely observed and analysed for clues to future events. Today, it has largely descended into the realms of folklore in the Western world, but is still seriously practised in many other regions of the globe, especially Asia, and was particularly popular in ancient civilisations

One very noteworthy form was hippomancy, as performed by the Celts. Practitioners would monitor the movements of a white horse walking within a specific region of a sacred grove, and then examine the dust and hoofmarks left behind.

The Greeks studied the behaviour of snakes in ophimancy; and ornithomancy, occurring both in Greece and in Rome, involved the prognostication of events by a blindfolded augur based upon his apprentice's description of the flight movements yielded by a flock of birds passing by. One vestige of ornithomancy is preserved today in the oft-quoted traditional British verse linking sightings of specific numbers of magpies to certain forthright predictions – “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy...”

Another relic of the zoomantic arts in modern times is apantomancy – divination interpreted via random encounters with animals, as typified by the lingering superstition that a black cat crossing one’s path will bring good luck (in the UK) or bad luck (in the USA), and vice-versa with a white cat

Speaking of cats: felidomancy involves scrutinising the activity of domestic or wild cats as a guide to predicting future events (the canine equivalent is canidomancy). And there is even a mantic art known as myomancy, originating in the Middle East, in which a practitioner's predictions are based upon the behavioural activity of mice or rats.

The other major wildlife-related branch of the mantic arts is botanomancy - divination by observing plant life. Thus, the patterns and veins exhibited by leaves (and also flower petals) constitute the basis for phyllomancy. A notably curious version of phyllomancy is phyllorhodomancy. Practised by the ancient Greeks (who else?), a rose petal was placed between a person's hands after he had posed a question; he then clapped his hands together, and the seer sought the answer by examining the precise form of the resulting squashed petal. A very odd way indeed of discovering whether someone has - quite literally - a rosy future in store!


Not all methods of divining the future involve such familiar objects or methods as crystal balls, tea leaves, or cards. Moreover, some of the lesser-known techniques on offer are very strange indeed. Onychomancy, for example, is divining by studying a person's fingernails; whereas hepatomancy (very popular in Babylonian times) involves examining the size, texture, colour, and shape of the lobes of a sacrificial animal's liver. Molybdomancy requires the seer to interpret the patterns and hissing sounds produced when molten lead is dropped into water.

Molybdomancy (Micha L Rieser-Wikipedia)

A method of fortune-telling still popular in China is the random choosing of a stick from a selection, all numbered, known as ming sticks, after asking outloud a specific question. Nor should we overlook kephalonomancy – an ancient technique involving the pouring of lighted carbon onto the baked head of a goat in order to determine innocence or guilt; or tiromancy - using as its guiding influence the configuration of holes and mould in or on cheese.

Mercifully, uromancy (foretelling the future from urine in place of water, widely performed by the ancient Greeks and Romans) and copromancy (ditto using faeces) no longer seem to be practiced. In stark contrast, thanks to the timeless guilty appeal of listening to gossip coupled with the often-irritating ubiquity of mobile phone conversations played out for all to hear in public, transatuaumancy – divination via chance remarks overheard in a crowd – is still very much alive.


Not surprisingly, gambling and divination are intimately associated with one another, given that both involve attempting to foresee what is yet to happen. Games of chance featuring the dealing out of playing cards evolved from cartomancy, and the rolling of dice to determine future events (an example of cleromancy) became incorporated into many modern board games. Even the origin of the roulette wheel for employment in games of luck may well have stemmed from a mantic art – cyclomancy, which is an early method of divination using a wheel or a revolving circle to foretell the future. Clearly, this principle has also been successfully harnessed in a number of modern game shows, most notably ‘Wheel of Fortune’, variations of which have been widely broadcast around the globe

Perhaps the most extraordinary, and sometimes decidedly grotesque, contemporary links between divination and gambling, however, involve the national lotteries nowadays established in many countries worldwide. For instance, a number of occult practices are commonly employed in the selection of numbers, such as magical timing - featuring a combination of dice divination and Solomonic magic (utilising tables of planetary hours), as meticulously elucidated in the website. During the early days of the Italian national lottery, conversely, players would be guided by unusual current events when selecting their numbers, culminating most bizarrely in a case reported from Naples when a man severely injured in a car crash was besieged by lottery players haranguing him to tell them his date of birth so that they could use its numbers in their lottery selections! This may sound surreal, but in fact is nothing more than a modern-day incarnation of numerology.


One of the most fascinating aspects of divination is the mind-boggling diversity of techniques that have evolved through the ages, as shown here, which is unparalleled among the psychic arts. There are a number of different reasons that collectively explain this situation, of which the following are by far the most influential.
First and foremost is personal choice. Quite simply, everyone is different. What may appeal to one person might not inspire any degree of faith or belief in another, leading the latter person to look for or devise some other method instead. Even in today’s society, this still applies. One person may testify to the efficacy of Tarot readings, whereas another swears by palmistry, and a third by scrying. For some, visual stimuli such as the movement of flames and shadows or the patterns created by tea-leaves in tasseography engender confidence, whereas others are guided more effectively by tactile stimuli like dice-throwing, or phrenology (divination by feeling the bumps on a person’s head), or instead by sounds as in austromancy and leconomancy.

Geographic location has also played an important role on the evolution of divination systems. In regions with few trees but an abundance of rocks and stones, such as northern Scandinavia, it is hardly coincidental, for example, that divination methods concentrated upon runic systems rather than versions involving cards or other systems employing paper-derived objects. The same applies with regard to divination systems on tropical islands favouring techniques featuring seashells, driftwood, waves, and other maritime-derived materials.

Occupation is very influential too, with early hunters paying particular attention to animal-related phenomena, such as the behaviour of their prey, or the structural variation of specific organs extracted from the latter, whereas farmers would note and be advised by the movements and activity of their own domestic livestock.


The continuing popularity of Tarot readings, scrying, chiromancy, I Ching, and a host of other familiar divination systems readily demonstrates that even in today’s technologically-advanced, ostensibly ultra-scientific age, a desire to see into the future and learn one’s fate remains just as potent now as it ever was. The ever-increasing expanse of bookshelves devoted to the mantic arts in contemporary bookshops is silent but evocative testimony to this. Moreover, such a desire is not limited to expression by the well known methods just listed. A surprising number of much less familiar systems are still practised, often in the most unexpected localities or at the most unexpected times.

Molybdomancy, for instance, remains very much alive and well in Germany during the Christmas period, and one of its most (in)famous erstwhile practitioners was none other than a certain Adolf Hitler, who was even photographed performing this feat amid the festivities held on one particular New Year’s Eve. Similarly, elderly inhabitants of the USA's New England states still attempt to foretell changes in the weather by observing the movement of smoke emitted from their houses' chimneys, thereby maintaining the archaic tradition of capnomancy.

Moreover, in what sceptics must undoubtedly look upon as a bewildering paradox, even modern scientific technology is being effectively harnessed to power the drive for ever more accessible means of divination, as evinced by the development of sophisticated computer software for the reading and interpretation of astrological charts, Tarot cards, and dreams (oneiromancy).

Similarly, scientists are nowadays casting a much more interested and far less cynical eye upon methods of divination once dismissed as folklore and baseless superstition, especially certain examples focusing upon animal behaviour. These include the activity of livestock, migratory birds, and insect swarms prior to major weather changes, and, most dramatic of all, the extraordinary ability of many varied types of animals, but notably snakes (thereby effecting a re-emergence of ophimancy) to sense impending earthquake activity.

There are even surviving elements of divination in a number of contemporary religions, most notably voodoo, Santeria, and Wicca, while the popularity of feng-shui stems from the practitioners’ hopes that it will assist both in divining and in directly influencing their future.

Quite apart from being incited by a markedly broad spectrum of interest – spanning idle curiosity and desperate urgency - to uncover the veiled secrets of the future, there is, however, one other major impetus fuelling humanity’s need for divination, and that in turn is, perhaps, the most basic psychological requirement of all. Namely, the need to stay in control.

Our greatest fears stem not from the known, over which we can usually exert at least a measure of control, but rather from the unknown, over which we generally have none whatsoever. And there is no greater source of the unknown than the invisible, intangible, incomprehensible future. If, however, we can devise mechanisms by which we may be able to penetrate, however faintly, the caliginous mists of time separating the present from the opaque equivalent that is yet to come, some of the future’s power to frighten us is diminished.

Little wonder, then, that divination achieved such prominence and diversity in bygone ages, when our long-departed ancestors’ understanding of the world in which they lived was so much less than ours today. Yet the persistence of divination in various forms within the modern world too attests vehemently to the fact that, even now, we have not entirely mastered our fear of what the future may hold for us, of our ultimate destiny and fate. And who knows, perhaps we never will.

NB - Unless otherwise credited, all illustrations included here are, to the best of my knowledge, in the public domain.


  1. > transatuaumancy – divination via chance remarks overheard in a crowd – is still very much alive.

    For the longest time I've believed radio is a modern oracle. People who turn on the radio and 'the right song' is playing straightaway. Other circumstances where two people are together in public, the muzak or equivalent starts playing a set of songs wholly appropriate for the situation. A soundtrack for life.

    It's illogical, but makes life more interesting.

  2. My mother often told the story of my Scottish grandmother reading tea leaves for a group of her friends at a get together at home. My grandmother read the leaves and congratulated my mom's good friend. When asked why...she said, on the coming baby! No one but my mother and her friend knew that she was pregnant. They almost fell off their chairs! My mom was a believer!