L Eddie

(Investigator 78, 2001 May)

The term ‘Divination’ applies to the numerous techniques that humans believed would give them access to information that was normally hidden from their senses and knowledge. Divination was used to provide information on unknown events in the past, present and future: –

Past Events: Especially to determine who had committed a crime, or where certain objects had been lost or hidden.

Present Events: To answer questions, especially to assist in making decisions on important issue, such as whether or not to go to war? Whether or not to commence a business venture? Who should one marry?

Future Events: These often related to Present Events. Would the war be won? Would the marriage be fruitful?

All of these practices had their origins in the muddled logic of primitive cultures, most being the primitive means of seeking the guidance of the deities. As such all forms of divination are completely worthless practices, having no real value other than perhaps to reinforce the prevailing mindset of the individual seeking the information.

The reasons for the continued existence of divination, even amongst educated people in advanced technological societies are related to a number of "human" factors: –

a. Humans are basically insecure. From this insecurity arises a powerful need to gain insights into the future in order to plan against future negative events;

b. They need to be constantly reassured, especially against the uncertainties of the future.

c. Humans are basically illogical; for that reason they readily apply irrational methods to gain access to details of future events. As Alexander Pope commented: –

All nature is but art unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;

Over the vast span of time that humans have existed on this planet they have eagerly sought to gain access to information regarding the future using a variety of deductive methods. Many aspects of the future, such as the passing of the seasons, only required taking notice of, and later recording, certain events, such as when certain stars rose and fell.

There were however many other aspects of the future that were totally unpredictable; would the season be unusually dry or would there be insect infestation. Such information was beyond the range of their abilities, so they sought alternative methods of gaining such information. These techniques probably evolved from one of the most basic needs of human nature, the need and the will to survive in the face of the inexorable, and often destructive process, of natural events. Early humans faced an enormous battle simply to survive, and from the anguish and despair of daily existence they reached out, seeking ways and means with which to alleviate their difficult lives.

It is difficult for modern humans to fully appreciate the importance of the natural cycle of nature upon primitive humans. To early humans there were two great spheres of activity –the sky and the earth. The sky was constantly changing, moving from day into night and back again, the movement of the sun, the rising of the moon, all these were constantly changing events. On the earth there was constant change also; the new growth of spring providing an abundance of food, through to the decay of winter when food became scare. The changing colours of the grass and the trees would have signalled times of plentiful food and times of shortage. Primitive humans may not have had words for these things but nevertheless they would have had an appreciation of change and of what was going on around them. They would have been instinctively aware of the events and changes that provided food, made them warm, and those other things that took away food and warmth.

Things as basic as sunrise and sunset would have had tremendous significance to primitive humans, for, in a world without artificial light life was governed by the cycle of sunset and sunrise. The setting sun must have precipitated tremendous fear in early humans. Their ability to see removed by the darkness they were totally unable to defend themselves against the hostile animals that hunted by night. Terrified by fears of attack from invisible animals their sleep would have been frequently interrupted by unexpected noises in the night. Imagine their elation when they awoke to the light of the sunrise, their vision restored, the warmth of the sun chasing away the cold and dampness of the night. It would have been a glorious event, for the anxiety of the night had passed and they had survived. Thus, early humans must have felt a relationship with the sun as a protector, the restorer of their vision and the provider of warmth.

While many animals and insects "plan" for winter their behaviour appears to be part of an innate survival mechanism; so while they may hoard food, they have no conscious awareness of why they store it away. Humans appear to be the only species that makes conscious decisions, planning for the future. While it is likely that this behaviour was inherited from our animal ancestors, humans went further evolving a conscious awareness of the importance of storing food to ensure their survival during the lean seasons.

Living from season to season they had no control over unexpected seasonal variations. Yet given the span of human existence, early humans must have had sufficient experience of abnormal conditions to realize that from time to time the regular cycle of nature could sometimes fail. The principal break in the cycle would have been droughts. While other natural disasters are transient, droughts tend to be lengthy, sometimes years in duration, and have catastrophic effects upon the environment.

The dreadful experiences of droughts, even in a pre-agricultural environment, must have left a permanent memory trace in the minds of those ancient humans able to survive. Later, as humans adopted an agrarian culture, they were exposed to a host of new threats. As well as relying upon the delicate balance of sun and rain, each at the right time; they now faced the devastation of myriad types of insect pests that attacked their crops, as well as lightning- strikes, and the constant threat of invaders trampling or stealing their crops. Then there were such things as the fertility of their crops and herds, and the uncertainties of their own health; if they became ill or died, their family might also succumb. Life was a constant succession of imponderable unknowns.

Thus early humans must have pondered the question of how much simpler life would be if one could but look ahead into the future to "see" what lay ahead so that one could make plans. In most instances they turned to what they believed was a "wiser" source, nature in its many aspects and especially the gods who were believed to control nature.

In seeking to access the will of the gods they devised a diverse collection of divinatory methods. Various classifications have been developed; Rose[1] proposed two basic categories: -

a) Automatic Divination: Where the interpretation involves spontaneous natural events, such as comets, meteors, unusually shaped clouds, unusual bird or animal behaviour, abnormal weather patterns, or earthquakes;

b) Divination: Where there is a deliberate attempt by an individual to gain information from the supernatural powers, such as when making a sacrifice, observing the way in which the smoke behaves. Is the smoke white or black, does it rise upwards or to one side? Is the sacrifice consumed quickly, or does the fire splutter, burn slowly, or go out?

However, given the extent and complexity of the many forms of divination two categories appear somewhat limited, and the author proposes the following categories: - 


1 (a) The observation and interpretation of events that occur without any human intervention: bird flight; bird song; earthquakes; lighting; thunder.

1 (b) Events that may have also included some degree of conscious or unconscious input: Dreams; Mediumship; Self-Hypnosis and other forms of self-induced altered states of consciousness.


2 (a) Involving deliberate human actions, such as [a] throwing various items that have two or more surfaces, or are marked in some way, so that the interpretation depends upon which side lands upwards, or [b] items drawn at random, often with the chooser being blindfolded. In most of these forms of selection the answers are restricted to a simple "Yes" or "No" although sometimes where more complex answers are required, a more complex system of selection is chosen, e.g. Bibliomancy, or alternatively there may be some form of human interpretation such as with the Runes.

2 (b) Where deliberate humans actions are involved, but results depend primarily upon subjective human interpretation: Chiromancy; Phrenology; Tarot Cards.


3 (a) Auditory Divination: Involving sounds or voices that can only be heard by the seer; Clairaudience; Earth Divination; Shell Hearing.

3 (b) Visual Divination: Involving things that can only be seen by the seer; Hydromancy; Frith; Visions.

3 (c) Tactile Divination: Involving touch or balance; Ouija Board; Pendulums; Sieve and sheers.

Divination has many features that are common to religion and magic, especially its dependence upon divine sources of inspiration and guidance. It seems possible that, proceeding from the simplest to the most complex forms, divination may have been the earliest of these three concepts. For while the others require a complex level of reasoning, the earliest forms of divination require only a basic level of intuitive reasoning, one closely related to the trait of the human brain to unconsciously create order out of disorder—in particular the erroneous attachment of significance to separate events because they had certain similarities or occurred closely together in time.

Thus we can imagine a situation where an animal may have kept a hunter awake one night by its incessant calling. The next day, because he is tired from lack of sleep, his spear misses several potential targets. Even without language he would have experienced feelings of unhappiness, guilt and uncertainty at his failure to miss these targets. In some primitive manner he would have made a connection between the animal calls heard the previous night and his failure, seeing these sounds as a mysterious warning, what later humans would call an omen of some future event.

In time omens became associated with every negative life-event. Thus evolved an extremely common area of foretelling the future, Transataumancy, the interpretation of virtually any natural signs, or spontaneous event, as an omen. The next stage of evolving divination was to introduce the human element into the equation. Instead of waiting for omens to occur, specific actions could be implemented to precipitate a message from nature; tossing or throwing a piece of bark and observing whether it fell on its rough or smooth side.

There were probably various reasons that encourage the development of the various forms of divination, but a major reason must have related to their survival in a hostile environment. We can surmise with a reasonable degree of certainty that very early in human pre-history the same driving forces that led humans to evolve a belief in supernatural beings helped to develop the concept of divination.

Throughout their existence upon Earth humans have faced many basic fears, feelings of personal insecurity that remain as potent today as they were in the past. So, it is a tribute to human intelligence that, in a hostile world, driven by these fears, they were able to develop concepts that enabled them to come to terms with the hostilities of nature.

Surrounded by a world where life was constantly regenerated, the natural world must have appeared as a powerful and potent force able to transcend the trivial life of humans, for while humans were born and died, the natural world continued relentlessly onward, dynamic and apparently eternal. If nature was eternal, and like humans it too was alive, it probably made sense to envisage a powerful form of life, one that shared many of the aspects of humans, for it too was born and died, but unlike humans it was constantly reborn each season.

It appears that from their empirical observations of the world, at some distant time in the past, there evolved an extremely primitive form of religious belief. It probably involved a very simple concept of spiritual beings, creatures that existed beyond the normal physical realm of human senses. This concept marked a major advance in human thought for it represents one of the first progressions into the realm of abstract thought. Possessing only the most basic language skills, the forms of communication we associated with the apes, it is difficult to understand the exact manner in which these early humans conceived these ideas. The only clue is the facts that there does appear to exist certain levels of mental processing, an innate ability to conceptualize ideas without any formal language. Proof of this, is the fact that many species of animals and insects, lacking any formal language, have evolved basic tools.

So it seems that early humans concluded that there existed some mysterious form of life force, or spirit, and that this force pervaded all matter, primarily amongst animals and plants and even, according to some, within the Earth and the rocks. This was an important conceptual step, but an even greater step forward came when humans developed the idea that this force or spirit had access to information that was hidden from normal human perception. There was a certain degree of erroneous logic in assuming that by their participation in the ongoing cycle of nature, these spirits must have some knowledge of what lay ahead, otherwise how could the trees know when to grow new leaves, or the fish and animals return to breed? It must have therefore seemed logical to attempt to gain access to this hidden spiritual side of nature by communicating with these beings; by seeking from them insight as to what lay ahead, where best to hunt, and whether or not the hunt would be successful.

There is some evidence of this primitive idea of spiritual entities to be found even today amongst primitive races. When preparing for the hunt they will speak with the totem spirits, telling them what they plan and seeking their forgiveness for having to kill any animal. Then during the hunt they will address the spirits of the animals they have caught and are about to kill.

Although there were probably attempts by both male and female individuals to gain information concerning their future, the earliest forms of divination were probably related to the welfare of the group, would the hunt be successful, or would the group survive? A remnant of this traditional aspect of divination can be found in Genesis 41:25-36. Although it is the Pharaoh who seeks an explanation of his personal dreams, their implications are much greater, for it is in effect the gods warning of an approaching drought, one that will affect all the people of Egypt.

However, once humans became more advanced, intellectually and culturally, and where survival was much less precarious, divination began to be used increasingly by individuals for their own personal curiosity. Most forms of divination, especially those practiced by the ordinary people, belong to this early stage, when it was believed that the individual spirits would respond to the requests of humans for personal advice, knowledge of what events lay ahead, so that one could make preparations.

A high priority for both men and women related to marriage and the continuation of the family hierarchy. Given the difficult situation of women in ancient times when their primary destiny was to be married and bear children it is only natural that foreknowledge of a woman’s future - who she would marry, how many children she would bear, would her marriage be happy - would figure largely in the field of divination. Indeed this is exactly what we find. In an examination of two hundred and twenty-one techniques of divination the most numerous are those that are used by young women to "see" who will become their sweethearts, who they will marry, the number of children that would be born of the union, and whether the marriage would be good or bad. Divination always presented an element of hope for those most desperate; for the lonely, the unloved and the insecure there was always the spirits.

In ancient times divination was used for everything. Individuals posed questions about their future: Would they find a lost coin; would a business venture be successful; would their journey be safe; would their livestock increase; would the season be good or bad; could they expect a poor crop or a large harvest; would their daughters find a husband; would their wife be fruitful? Divination was part of every aspect of day-to-day life, even enabling the traveller, far from home and worried about whether his wife was being faithful, to discern what was happening back home.

Although they did not always speak openly, the spirits were always willing to provide signs of what lay ahead. Their omens were often revealed in a multitude of subtle signs. However, the problem for the ordinary individual was that they could often see a sign but fail to recognize the significance. What was needed were people skilled in reading the many signs. It was this need that led to the next stage of development, the emergence of certain individuals with a specialized knowledge of these arcane secrets.

It appears that initially it was certain women, later to be known as ‘Wise Women’ who possessed this knowledge. Conversant with the medicinal herbs, and called upon to help at birth, and heal the injured, they also developed counselling and divinatory skills. Although they were later to be displaced, they continued to play an important role dealing with the health and pregnancy problems of the women in their community. The male Shamans and Medicine Men who used a variety of techniques to divine the will of the gods gradually supplanted them. Popular amongst many Shamans were techniques of altered levels of awareness, various forms of self-hypnosis and trances induced by chanting, dancing, smoke from fires containing various hallucinogenic plants, or even such unusual techniques as restricting their breathing until they fell unconscious.

Amongst the Celtic tribes a shaman entered a darkened hut and lay down to sleep on a bull-hide. It was believed that he would awaken and recite to the listeners a prophetic message that had come to him while he was asleep. The Algonquian Indians of Canada used the "Shaking Tent" ritual in which the shaman was bound and cloaked and placed inside a teepee; almost immediately the tent would start shaking violently while the air was filled with a great noise. This phase is taken as being when the spirit enters the shaman. Once in possession of the shaman the tent becomes still and the noise ceases. At that time the spirit speaks to the assembled crowd outside the tent seeking questions from the group.

The third stage came much later as populations grew; family groups developed into clans and villages, villages evolved into cities, and a more formal political and religious order developed and the deities became part of the political system. By this time the earlier, primitive beliefs had become more formalized, the spirits more regulated. Specific deities of the woodland now controlled the spirits of the trees and plants, another deity controlled the spirits of the rivers, lakes and seas. Above all, each community had its own principal deity who could be approached for help. In these conditions divination was increasingly applied to assist with issues that could affect the whole community, questions such as the outcome of battles and wars. Such complex questions required several practitioners, and, in the larger communities these evolved groups of priests, established around certain holy sites, such as Delphi and Dodona, where community representatives as well as the common folk consulted the oracles to obtain prophecies from Zeus or Apollo, concerning future events.

Although in many instances the older individual spirits remained, they were now only worshipped in individual households. Worship was no longer simply an individual concern, it was now part of a communal regime with it’s own priesthood. Within many of the religious groups hierarchies evolved, sons following their fathers into service, and other relatives being added, [2], and it was to fill this need that the various priesthoods evolved.

Essentially divination is perpetuated by the unfortunate human tendency to remember "hits" but not "misses". This was the basis of such forms of divination as Transataumancy, which has previously been mentioned. There was unlimited possible omens, virtually any event could be interpreted as fortuitous or sinister, so for instance, amongst the Russian and Slavic races:

A creaking in the walls or a singing in the ears foretold a journey. An itching in the palm signified a gift of money. Itching eyes betokened weeping. The croaking of ravens or the crowing of cocks was an omen of misfortune. The cackling of ducks or geese, twitching of the eyelids, the crackling of the fire, the howl of a dog, the squeaking of mice or their nibbling of clothes, a cat appearing at the window with a captured mouse, a terrifying dream, meeting with a blind person - all these foreboded loss by fire. [3]

Such omens were nothing more than simple forms of rationalization a means of explaining failures. Thus, an accidental meeting on the road with a stranger could be a portent of disaster, especially if the stranger was a member of a particularly ominous group, a Jew, a Negro, or a cripple. Even worse, if the meeting was with some especially ominous animal, such as a black cat, or a bird of the night such as an owl, this was an especially auspicious omen. In many cultures animal and birdcalls are associated with death. No doubt it was recalled that just before someone died a certain call was heard, and it was taken as a sign. The facts that such calls were quite common was conveniently overlooked, or explained away, after all if the omen was heard and no one died, perhaps someone, in another tribe, could have died.

Birds had a lore of their own; any unusual action by birds, such as a cock crowing during daylight, or the sighting in daylight of any birds normally only seen at night, was considered dire omen. According to Pliny, and many others in ancient times, the owl

... is looked upon as a direful omen to see it in the city, or...in the daytime.[4] Shakespeare refers to this same superstition, Yesterday the bird of night did sit, even at noonday, upon the market place howling and shrieking. When these prodigies so conjointly meet I believe ...they point to an omen of Caesar's death. [5]

Certain types of bird flights; bird songs; birds flying into homes and buildings were all dangerous signs, Phemonoe the first Pythia was said to be knowledgeable in the arcane lore of divining future events from the actions and flight of birds.

Many pre-Columbian tribes in Brazil, Mexico, Peru and other areas, believed that once, in the distant past, humans had understood the language of birds, and that this ability had been removed from them by some malevolent power. They hoped that by observing and listening to the birds, they might once again understand the language of the birds. For this purpose they had certain priests whose sole duty was to observe and interpret the flight and songs of birds. This was a very ancient belief; according to Hebrew mythology King Solomon had understood the speech of birds. According to some accounts, he gained this ability from a magical ring that he possessed. The Gauls also used this form of divination, the Druid priests interpreting the calls of ravens and the twittering of wrens for the omens that they contained.

Many birds, for a variety of reasons, were considered unlucky; the magpie was especially feared. Magpies chattering around a house or flying from west to east, going "contrary to the sun" were considered bad omens. On the other hand, if it flew east to west it was considered safe.

Prophetic dreams were a part of most ancient religious traditions. The Israelites believed that Yahweh spoke to the Israelite prophets via their dreams.[6] Prophetic dreams were part of Arabian belief, Mohammed mentioned on one occasion that, I saw in a dream that a cock pecked me twice, so I know my end is near. [7].

In South America the goatsucker bird and the screaming vulture are thought by many to be messengers conveying messages from the dead to their priests. Even today in many parts of the world it is considered bad-luck if a bird flies into a windowpane, and even worse if it flies into the actual house.

A common aspect of divination was the practical use of those things that existed within the inquirer's local environment or were readily available to them. The sky and water were readily available, and to these they added such things as local plants (Botanomancy), animals, (Alectoromancy, Apantomancy), weapons, (Belomancy), and food, (Aleuromancy). A common practice was the use of special cakes, Dumb Cakes, or Dreaming Pieces were commonly used to produce divinatory dreams.

It was the practice to prepare special christening bread, cake, gingerbread or shortbread at the birth of a first child, and to set aside a piece for unmarried girls who believed that if they placed it under their pillow, they would dream of their future husband. Likewise, a piece of Groaning Cheese, or Bay or Laurel leaves sprinkled with rosewater and placed in the form of a cross under a pillow would make the young girl dream of the man she would marry one day, especially if done on St. Valentine's Day.

Some of the more unusual forms of divination were: -

Bdelliomancy: A form of divination using bdellium, a fragrant gum resin, somewhat similar to impure myrrh. The process was described as follows:

Take bdellium and write upon it with olive oil `Aungil or Aungileia, and take a boy seven years old and anoint his hand from the top of the thumb to the end of the finger; and put the bdellium in the anointed place and seize his hand; and you shall sit upon a three legged stool and put the boy between your loins so that his ear shall be against your mouth and you shall turn your face towards the sun and say in his ear: "Aubgil, I adjure thee in the name of the Lord God, God of Truth, God, Keeper of the Hosts, Alpha, Aidu, that thou shall send from thee three angels."* Then the boy will see a figure like that of a man; and say the charm twice more and he shall see twin figures; and the boy shall say unto them, "Your coming be in peace!" And then tell the boy to ask of them that which you wish. And if they will not answer him, the boy shall adjure them, and say, Kaspar, Kelei, Emar Bleitzibar, the master and I adjure you with a second adjuration that you tell me that thing or who has committed that theft." And know that he who wishes to do this must do it on a clear, cloudless day, and in wintertime at mid-day. [8].

Dorsalomancy: A form of divination based upon the examination of the back of an animal, and the interpretation of various marks thereon as "signs." The Maya of Central America, commonly used this technique on peccaries, a species of wild-pig.

Cephalomancy: Divination using the head of an ass or a donkey. The head was baked, and various signs made upon it. Lighted carbon was placed upon the head and the names of suspects read out. If while a name was being read, crackling occurred, that person was deemed to be guilty.

Scapulomancy: The shoulder blades of various animals are used to predict future events. The Naskapi Indians of North America would suspend the shoulder blade of a caribou over hot coals. The heat dries the bone causing fine cracks to appear and these are interpreted by the Medicine Man or someone skilled in these interpretations as signs indicating in which direction the hunters should set out.

Stockings: There were a number of folk tales connecting the manner in which socks or stockings wore out with the owner's future:

Tread at the toe, live and see woe; Tread at the heel, live and get a deal; Tread at the side, friends will abide; Tread at the ball, you will lose them all. [9]

Stolisomancy: Divination from the way in which a person dresses themselves; on one occasion a servant of Caesar Augustus accidentally buckled his right sandal upon his left foot, and Augustus interpreted this as an omen that there would be a military revolt.


[1] Rose, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. London, T. & T. Clark, 1911; Vol 4, page 775.
[2] Exodus 27:21; 28:43.
[3] Schrader, O., "Divination (Litu-Slavic)," Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, op. cit. Volume IV, p. 814.
[4] Pliny, Natural History, X xvi.
[5] Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (I iii).
[6] Numbers 12:6.
[7] Haddith Chapter 211.
[8] Gaster, M., "Jewish Magic", Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, op. cit. Volume VIII, p. 304.
[9] Household Words, London, 29/09/1888.

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