Seeing Clearly in the Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Worlds
by Lady Catriona Hughes, NOS
Note to the reader: This article is a companion to a seminar given by Lady Catriona at the Order of Selohaar's Samhain Gather on November 1, 2008
The history and evolution of divination has been an interest of mine since I first picked up my father's deck of tarot cards, long abandoned in a living room drawer. I couldn't help but wonder who had come up with all of these wonderful pictures and symbols that could answer any question a 10-year-old mind could imagine. Later at college, I had the chance to participate in a wonderful course on magic in the ancient world, which greatly broadened my scope of the numerous divinatory techniques present in Greece and Rome. The history of magic and divination has continued to fascinate me, and I hope to share a bit of the information I've accumulated in the following seminar. Our journey begins with Greece and Rome (with a few quick peeks back to Mesopotamia), then moves into the Middle Ages, and finally concludes with some of the most popular forms of divination used today.
But before we plunge into this 3,000-plus year journey, let me make a quick disclaimer. This is meant to be a brief survey, not at all inclusive of all the forms ever practiced. Nor is it meant to be a detailed "how-to" guide of the various techniques discussed. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy a quick glimpse into the traditions and changes of these practices in the Western world.
The Classical World
Much of our modern divinatory terminology and technology has its roots in the cultures of Greece and Rome. Three terms in particular are relevant to the classification of different types of divination: divinato, ekstasis, and mantis. Our modern word "divination" comes from the Latin divinato, literally meaning a gift of prediction which comes from the gods. Classical examples of god-gifted seers include Cassandra, who was given the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo (but also cursed never to be believed, even though she spoke the truth) (1); and Tiresias, who was blinded by Athena for having seen her naked, but then compensated by being granted the understanding of birdsong (augury) in return (2). Curiously, this motif of the blind or otherwise crippled seer is fairly common in the ancient world.
Next are the Greek terms, ekstasis and mantis, both of which deal with the state of consciousness of the diviner. Ekstasis literally means "to step out of oneself"-in other words, the altered state of consciousness of trace or ecstasy. Meanwhile, manits translates as "seer," coming from mania or madness-again indicating a temporarily abnormal state of mind. It is interesting to note that there is a clear distinction between the seer who spoke for the god and the priests or prophets (prophetes) who interpreted her speech, as the direct words of the gods were often unintelligible to the untrained ear.
The roots of Classical divination (here used to refer to the practices of the Greco-Roman world) can be found in Mesopotamia, where the worldview included the principle of cosmic sympathy: the will of the gods is reflected in the occurrences of the natural world. Thus, the movements of the stars, dream interpretation, strange births, odd animal behavior, the reading of livers, entrails, etc. could all be indicators of the state of the unseen world. (3) In fact, cosmic sympathy is still the underlying principle for most diviners and magicians today.
The seers of the Classical world invented an amazing variety of techniques for divinatory practices. The types of divination can be roughly divided into three categories: prophetic, oracular, and natural. Borrowed from the Near East were many styles of prophetic divination, which consist of the foretelling of events unbidden through visions or voices, or by entering an inspired state. Prophetic divination allowed the seer to be plugged into the divine power directly; depending upon the practitioner and specific technique, there were varying degrees of control over the experience. One style, speaking in tongues, is still familiar to us today, remaining largely unchanged in character. Prophets were speaking in tongues as early as the Hellenistic period, this type of divination continuing on as Christian practice. The technique is largely an uncontrolled experience, usually requiring an interpreter to be of any benefit. A more intelligible version of speaking in tongues was practiced by the Charismatists, members of the early Christian church who would utter words while in a trance. The advantage of the Charistmatists was that they spoke in the vernacular-there was no need for a separate interpreter, although the speaker might forget what was said after he left the trance. Lastly, there is the practice of prophetic ecstasy, which is almost shamanic in character. Most often, this state was ritually induced, often with elaborate rites as can be seen with the Oracle at Delphi. The soul was thought to leave the body and return with information. If this type of divination did occur spontaneously, it was very distressing to the seer.(4)
A close cousin to prophetic divination was oracular divination. It too sought the answer to a specific question through the gods, but rather than the practitioner being directly connected to the divine, the outcome was determined through some sort of randomized system. This is usually a fairly simple means of divine communication, relying on lots, bones, or dice, but could be more involved if using bibliomancy (divination by book). Bibliomancy was quite popular straight into the medieval period, although the preferred texts changed from pagan Homer and Virgil to the Christian bible.
Lastly, and perhaps most numerously, are the various types of "natural" divination, which rely upon (usually) external phenomena to produce a result. The most famous of these is the art of augury, which is any form of divination dealing with the interpretation of the flight, calls, or feeding habits of birds. Then there was the so-called "Etruscan Art,"(5) haruspicina or the reading of entrails. The literal translation-"watch the guts"-is most descriptive. Essentially, an animal would be sacrificed to the god in question, and then its organs would be examined for any anomalies which would give a clue as to the outcome.
Scrying was another favorite method that can easily be classified as a natural divinatory form. The surface of an object was focused on in order to receive a visual sign or symbol in regards to the question. Any of the four classical elements could be used, and each element had its own "sub-art" associated with it. Earth was practiced through crystallomancy, with beryl being the preferred stone. The term crystallomancy is not actually seen until the Byzantine period, but the practice appears to be several centuries older. Hydromancy was scrying with water, aeromancy looked for shapes in the clouds, and pyromancy was the interpretation of flames or coals. In addition to the elemental forms of scrying, many man-made objects were employed, such as mirrors or even the polished shield of a soldier.(6)
The other major type of natural divination was oneiromancy, or the interpretation of dreams.(7) Dreams were thought to be able to tell the future because in sleep the soul could communicate with the gods or other higher beings, not being encumbered by the body.(8) Of course, a significant dream could occur spontaneously, but a dream to answer a specific question could also be sought through the practice of incubation. The querent would go to the appropriate temple and spend the night there to receive an answer in the form of a god-sent dream. In the morning, he would tell the priests his dream and it would be interpreted for him in relation to his question.
If there could be said to be an outstanding characteristic for divination in the ancient world, it would be that it was a culturally acceptable way of interacting with the divine. The line between divination and magic can be blurry, but the major distinction in the ancient world is that magic was something done outside the auspices of the community, whereas divination was a part of the socio-cultural fabric, usually with specialists guiding the community through difficult times and decisions. This doesn't mean that divination was never used on the behalf of the individual-indeed, in questions of healing especially it was a very important tool. But even then, the individual worked with priests in the local temple (or perhaps made a pilgrimage if the case were dire), an established and sanctified profession that was a part of the society rather than being outside of it.
Medieval and Renaissance Europe
Medieval Europe was a hotbed for divinatory practices, though many of them were now practiced underground. Unlike the Greco-Roman world, there was now one God and for the most part, one religion throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Christianity and the church played a large role in determining which forms of divination were acceptable and which got tossed in to the pile labeled "witchcraft" or "magic."
The king of divination during the medieval period was astrology. Despite it being developed in Mesopotamia and further refined in Greece and Rome, it in some way reached its height in the Middle Ages, impacting not only on spiritual practices, but affecting scientific, intellectual, and political circles as well. Officially, the church condemned the practice of divination. However, astrology escaped this classification for a few reasons. One, the heavens were thought to be the work of God, and it was a reasonable leap to draw the connection between God's will in the heavens and that on earth. Another is that it served as a valuable socio-political tool. For instance, both the courts of Burgundy and France in the 15th c. resorted to magicians and diviners for various purposes-and indeed, a public accusation of sorcery leveled at a political opponent was a very potent weapon.(9) In addition, acceptance of astrology blocked some of the interest in other less savory practices.(10) Lastly, because astrology and astronomy were so closely linked, the presence of astrology in the universities of the period lent it some legitimacy.
Another very popular form of divination which has largely fallen out of favor today was geomancy. This is not to be confused with Asian forms of geomancy like feng shui or 19th century European interpretations of geological features or ley lines.(11) This art seems to have originated in sub-Saharan Africa and was brought to Europe by the Arabs in the 10th-12th c. CE.(12) Geomancy is a type of binary system, and a chart is quite simply cast by using a stick in the sand or earth to create a series of random dots. Sixteen symbols are created by four lines of these random dots and dashes; each line is reduced to one dot (odd) or 2 dots (even) and then combined into symbols, each of which has its own meaning.(13) Today, Geomancy is undergoing something of a renaissance thanks to the reprinting of old magical treatises, as well as recent modern tutorials by authors such as John Michael Greer-both of which make this simple yet rich art accessible to the general public.
Of course, there were many other types of divination going on during the middle ages and renaissance. Generally, if a particular practice were popular in a royal court, it would have a blind eye turned to it by the church. Among these other sorts of respectable forms of divination were chiromancy or palmistry (becoming popular in the 12th c. although it, too, dated back to classical times) and onomancy, or the numerological significance of names.(14) Arts like scrying also remained popular (as evidence by the famous Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley), but these techniques were much more likely to draw the suspicion of the church if a practitioner lacked a powerful patron. And there are doubtless many, many more folk practices, such as toad doctors, necromancers, and girdle-measurers (15), than can ever be recounted in this seminar!
With the coming of the Age of Reason and the Industrial Revolution, and the waning influences of the Christian church, much of the superstition and stigma surrounding the various arts of divination has been removed. Tarot readers and astrologers can be found in most towns and Miss Cleo can tell you your life's destiny for $3.95 per minute. However, interestingly enough, most of the tools that are popular for divination today, such as the tarot, runes, and ogham, have little or no historical precedent as to their use as such in the past. Other methods, such as dowsing, have their roots in the renaissance but have only come into their own recently. Fortunately, with regard to divinatory styles, historical precedent has no correlation to effectiveness.
Tarot, of all the modern divination systems, has had the most myth and magic surrounding its origins. Historically speaking, the first cards are found in Italy in the early 15th c. CE. Much like an ordinary deck of cards (which can also be used quite effectively for divination), tarot was used to play a game very similar to modern bridge. Actually, the name "tarot" only appears 100 years after the cards are first used.(16) The decks that are extant seem to be incomplete-sadly, this conclusion would seem to throw a good deal of doubt on the historicity of the elaborate associations with astrology and kabbalah developed by the Golden Dawn, Crowley, and others (though again this says nothing about the effectiveness of those associations). The tarot begins to become associated with magic and witchcraft by the late 16th c., but it is not until the 18th c. that it is actually being used for divination.(17) This being said, it does not lessen the fact that the tarot is a wonderful symbol set, rich in imagery which is deeply ingrained into Western culture, and thus the perfect tool for many a diviner.
Another popular form of divination (particularly among druids!) is the use of the ogham, the native Irish script. It appears to have been developed by the Irish in the 5th c. CE, possibly out of whole cloth as it does not resemble any other form of writing-it may actually be the work of a single person.(18) Most commonly, it is found on standing stones, carved vertically into the edges of the rock. In fact, it seems to have developed as a script especially for carving and short inscriptions as it can be quite laborious if used with pencil and paper.
The term "ogham" generally refers to the script itself although it is also sometimes used for the accompanying sayings/alphabets. The best-known of these sayings today is the Tree ogham, made famous by Robert Graves.(19) However, there are many other sets of these kennings, including the Color, Bird, Fortress, and River-Pool ogham. For instance, if we were to apply a tree ogham (referring to the sayings that accompany the script) to the English alphabet, it might read, "Alder, Birch, Cedar, Dogwood," whereas one focused on color might be, "Auburn, Blue, Crimson, Dun," etc. The letters have become associated with words that start with that same letter, thus providing a web of associations for the seer.
Modern diviners generally take the script and associate it with the ogham sayings in order to create a symbol set. The Tree ogham is the favorite for this (possibly because of the romantic associations with the druids) but any of the other ogham could also be used. The ogham letters are then carved into sticks or slips of wood (sometimes matched with the appropriate tree symbol) and these are then cast on the ground and the patterns interpreted. Again, this is an example of a wonderful system, lush with symbolism for the modern practitioner despite the lack of evidence for its use as anything but a writing system in the historic past.
The other ancient writing system most fashionable for divination today are the runes. While these were most likely not used for divination in their antiquity,(20) there is ample evidence in the ancient sources for their use in charms and spellwork (for instance, the Björketorp and Stentoften Runestones). Judging from passages in the Poetic Edda, the runes would be carved into wood, metal or stone, and then "blooded" with either red pigment (most likely ochre) or blood.(21)
The origins of where the runic script originated are foggy to say the least, but it is theorized that it might have been influence by Etruscan, or contact with Latin. The oldest runic inscriptions date from the 2nd c. CE, generally in what is called the Elder Futhark (which takes its name from the first six letters of the alphabet), although there is a fair amount of variation in the script itself. It should be noted that the runes vary greatly depending on what time period and culture one is discussing. The Elder Futhark was in Old Norse, and consisted of 24 symbols. The Younger Futhark was a shorter version of the alphabet, reduced to 16 characters. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Saxons had their own versions, called Futhorc, which could have anywhere from 29-33 runes! Surviving along with these various alphabets are little stanzas, which, much like the ogham, were used as mnemonics for the runes themselves. Three of these surviving poems (the Icelandic, Norwegian, and Anglo-Saxon Rune Poems (22)) serve as the inspiration for modern diviners using the runes as tools for spiritual guidance.
Leaving the ancient alphabets behind, perhaps the most recently invented divinatory art to be practiced today is that of dowsing. As currently practiced, dowsing seems to have sprung up in Germany in the 15th century, where is was used to find metals. This technique spread to England with German miners hired to work the coal seams.(23) There are a few different types of ways to dowse, but the most common are either using a forked stick/rods for outdoor readings, or a pendulum if wind or movement is not a concern. Most if not all dowsers say that the tool is just that-a tool. There is nothing inherently magical about the device used, so long as the dowser is comfortable with it. The diviner "programs" the pendulum or rod to find water, lost objects, or whatever else is desired, though again most seem to agree that dowsing is most effective for reflecting the state of things in the here and now, rather than trying to determine the future.
The most amazing thing about the various practices of divination is that they serve a similar function across all cultures in which they appear, and while the outer trappings may change a bit, the core beliefs involved in the techniques remain largely stable. So why do people continue to turn to divination? The obvious answer is because on some level, it does in fact work. One of the more popular lines of thought is that the questioner already knows the answer in his subconscious,(24) and the divination is a socially sanctioned means for him to become aware of it.
The purpose of divination has changed very little over the past several millennia. In the ancient world, "in a universe where supernatural powers were thought to influence every act and thought, divination was essentially a form of psychotherapy. It helped people cope with their worries about the future and it forced them to reach decisions after all rational analysis had been explored."(25) I would hazard to say that the overall function has not changed all that much. More than anything, the process and ritual of performing a divination allows one to take a step back and take stock of a situation before proceeding. Whether one views divination as a psychological tool or divine guidance, these practices will undoubtedly continue to be part of human culture for the next 3,000 years.
Bellows, H.A. 2004. Reprint. The Poetic Edda: The Mythological Poems. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. Originally published in The Poetic Edda. 1923. New York: American Scandinavian Foundation.
Blamires, S. 1997. Celtic Tree Mysteries: Practical Druid Magic and Divination. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
Carr-Gomm, P. and R. Heygate. 2009. The Book of English Magic. London: John Murray.
Graves, R. 1947. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. Amended and enlarged edition. London: Faber and Faber.
Greer, J.M. 2000. Earth Divination, Earth Magic: A Practical Guide to Geomancy. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications.
Jolly, K.L. 2002. "Controlling the Future: Popular Forms of Divination." In Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages, edited by B. Ankarloo, and S.Clark, 53-8. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Little, T.T. 2001. "TarotL Tarot History Information Sheet." http://www.tarothermit.com/infosheet.htm. Accessed 22 October 2008.
Luck, G. 1985. Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. A Collection of Ancient Texts. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Paxson, D.L. 2005. Taking Up the Runes: A Complete Guide to Using Runes in Spells, Rituals, Divination, and Magic. San Francisco: Weiser Books.
Paxton, F.S. 1992. Review of The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, by V.I.J. Flint. American Historical Review 97(3):830-1.
Shank, M.H. 1999. Review of Magic and Divination at the Courts of Burgundy and France: Text and Context of Laurens Pignon's Contre les devineurs (1411), by J.R. Veenstra. Isis 90(3):592-3.
Wikipedia. 2008. "Dowsing." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 23 October 2008.