The method of obtaining knowledge of the unknown or the
future by means of omens. Astrology and the utterances of oracles
are usually regarded as branches of divination. The derivation
of the word supposes a direct message from the gods to the
diviner. Divination was practiced in all grades of primitive communities
and civilizations. The methods are many and various,
and, strangely enough, in their variety are confined to no one
portion of the world.
Crystal gazing and such allied methods as shell hearing may
be classed as divination that arises from the personal consciousness
of the diviner. Of the same class is divination by dreams,
automatic writing, and so forth. What might be called divination
by luck is represented by the use of cards, the casting of
lots, the use of knuckle bones as in Africa and elsewhere, or coconuts
as in Polynesia. Haruspicy, or the inspection of entrails,
divination by footprints in ashes, by the flight of birds,
or by meeting with ominous animals, represents still a third
class of divination.
The art of divination is usually practiced among primitive
races by the shaman caste; among more sophisticated peoples
by the professional divineras in Rome and ancient Mexico
and even among modern civilized people by persons who claim
the faculty of divination, such as the Spiritualist medium or the
The art is undoubtedly of great antiquity. It was employed
in ancient Egypt side by side with astrology, and divination by
dreams was constantly resorted to, a class of priests being kept
apart, whose office it was to interpret dreams and visions. Instances
of dreams are recorded in the ancient Egyptian texts;
for example those of Thothmes IV, king of Egypt in 1450 B.C.E.,
and Nut-Amen, king of the Eastern Soudan and Egypt about
Displacement Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed.
670 B.C.E. The Egyptian magician usually set himself to procure
dreams for his clients by such devices as the drawing of magic
pictures and the reciting of magic words, and some of these are
still extant. In Egypt, however, divination was usually effected
by astrological methods.
In ancient China the principal method of divination was by
means of the oracles, but such forms as the examination of the
marks on the shell of a tortoise, are also found; they are similar
to the examination of the back of a peccary by the Maya of Central
America. Chinese monarchs consulted the fates in this
manner in 1146 B.C.E. and found them unfavorable, but as in
Egypt, most soothsaying was accomplished by means of astrology.
Omens, however, were by no means ignored, and were
given great prominence, as many tales in the ancient books testify.
In ancient Rome a distinct caste or college of priests called
augurs was set apart to interpret the signs of approval or disapproval
sent by the gods in reference to any coming event. This
college probably consisted originally of but three members, of
whom the king himself was one, and it was not until the time
of Cæsar that the members were increased to 16. The college
remained in existence as late as the fourth century, and its
members held office for life.
A tenet of the Roman augurs was that for signs of the gods
one must look toward the sky and glean knowledge of the intentions
of the divine beings from such omens as the flash of
lightning and the flight of birds.
On a windless night, the augur took up a position on a hill
that afforded an extensive view. Marking out a space for himself,
he pitched a tent, seated himself and covered his head,
asked the gods for a sign, and waited for an answer. He faced
southward, thus having the east (lucky) quarter on his left, and
the west (unfavorable) portion of the sky on his right. He carefully
observed every sign that came within the scope of his vision,
such as lightning, the appearance of birds, and so forth.
Birdsong was carefully listened to and divided into sounds of
good or evil omen. The reading of omens was also effected by
feeding the birds and observing the manner in which they ate.
The course of animals and the sounds they made were also
closely watched, and all unusual phenomena were regarded as
omens or warnings. Sortilege, or the casting of lots, was often
resorted to by the caste of augurs.
The election of magistrates was nearly always referred to the
diviners, as was the dispatching of an army for war and the
passing of laws.
In the East divination generally appears to have been effected
by crystal gazing, dreams, and similar methods of selfhallucination
or self-hypnotism. Divination flourished in Chaldea
and Assyria among the Babylonians and Ethiopians, and
appears to have been much the same as in Egypt. In the Jewish
Talmud witches were said to divine by means of bread crumbs.
Among the Arabs, the future was often foretold by means of the
shapes seen in sand. The Burmese and Siamese pierced an egg
at each end, and having blown the contents onto the ground,
traced within them the outline of things to be. Divination by astrology
too was common in oriental countries, as were the predictions
It is remarkable that among the native races of America the
arts of divination known to the peoples of the Old World were,
and still are, used. These arts, as a rule, were the preserve of
the medicine man and priestly class. In ancient Mexico there
was a college of augurs like the auspices of ancient Rome; the
members occupied themselves with observing the flight of birds
and listening to their songs, from which they drew their conclusions.
In Mexico, the Calmecac, or college of priests, had a department
where divination was taught in all its branches, but
there were many ex officio prophets and augurs.
In Peru, still other classes of diviners predicted by means of
the leaves of tobacco, or the grains or juice of coca, the shapes
of grains of maize, taken at random, the forms assumed by the
smoke rising from burning victims, the viscera of animals, the
course taken by spiders, and the direction in which fruits might
fall. The professors of these methods were distinguished by different
ranks and titles, and their training was long and arduous.
The American tribes as a whole were keen observers of bird
life. Strangely enough the bird and serpent are combined in
their symbolism and in the names of several of their principal
deities. The bird appeared to the American primitive as a spirit,
in all probability under the spell of some potent enchantera
spell that might be broken only by some great sorcerer
or medicine man.
As among the ancient Romans, the birds of America were divided
into those of good and evil omen, and certain Brazilian
tribes apparently thought the souls of dead Indians entered
into the bodies of birds. The shamans of certain tribes of Paraguay
acted as go-betweens for the members of their tribes and
such birds as they imagined enshrined the souls of their departed
relatives. This usage would appear to combine the acts of
divination and necromancy.
The priesthood of Peru practiced oracular methods by
making idols speak, and this they probably accomplished
through ventriloquial arts. The piagés or priests of the Uapés
of Brazil had a contrivance known to them as the paxiuba, which
consisted of a tree trunk about the height of a man, on which
the branches and leaves had been left. Holes were bored in the
trunk beneath the foliage, and when the priests spoke through
these the leaves trembled and the sound was interpreted as a
message from Jurupari, one of their principal deities.
But all over the American continent, from the land of Eskimos
to that of the Patagonians, the methods of oracular divination
were practically identical. The shaman, or medicine man,
raised a tent or hut that he entered, carefully closing the aperture
after him. He then proceeded to make his incantations,
and in a little while the entire lodge trembled and rocked; the
poles bent to a breaking point, as if a dozen strong men were
straining at them, and the most violent noise came from within,
seeming first to emanate from the depths of the earth, next
from the air above, and then from the vicinity of the hut itself.
The reason for this disturbance has never been properly explained,
and medicine men who were converted to Christianity
assured workers among the Native American tribes that they
had not the least idea of what occurred during the time they occupied
these enchanted lodges, for they were plunged into a
deep sleep. After the supernatural sounds had to some extent
faded away, the medicine man proceeded to question the spirit
he had evoked. The answers were generally ambiguous, like
those of the Pythonesses of ancient Greece.
Divination by hypnosis was well known in America. Jonathan
Carver, who traveled among the Sioux about the latter
part of the eighteenth century, mentioned it was used among
them. The Ghost Dance religion of the Native Americans of
Nevada had for one of its tenets the belief in hypnotic communion
with the dead.
Divination by means of dreams and visions was extremely
common in both subcontinents of the Western Hemisphere, as
exemplified by the derivation of the word priest in the native
languages. The Algonquians called themdreamers of the
gods; the Maya, listeners, and so forth. The ability to see visions
was usually quickened by the use of drugs or the swallowing
or inhalation of cerebral intoxicants, such as tobacco, maguey,
coca, the snake plant, and others. Indeed many Native
American tribes, such as the Creeks, possessed numerous
plants that they cultivated for this purpose. A large number of
instances are on record in which Native American medicine
men were said to have divined the future in a most striking
For example, in his autobiography, Black Hawk, a celebrated
Sac chief, related that his grandfather had a strong belief
that in four years time he should see a white man, who would
be to him as a father. Supernaturally directed, he traveled
eastward to a certain spot, and there, as he had been informed
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Divination
in dreams, met with a Frenchman who concluded an alliance
between France and the Sac nation. Coincidence is certainly
possible in this case, but not in the circumstances of Jonathan
Carver. While was dwelling with the Killistenoes they were
threatened with a famine, and their very existence depended
on the arrival of certain traders, who brought them food in exchange
for skins and other goods. The diviners of the tribe
were consequently consulted by the chief, and announced that
the next day, at high noon exactly, a canoe would make its appearance
with news of the anxiously awaited expedition. The
entire population came down to the beach in order to witness
its arrival, accompanied by the incredulous Carver, and, to his
intense surprise, at the very moment forecast by the shamans
a canoe rounded a distant headland, and, paddling speedily
shorewards, the navigators brought the patient Killistenoes
news of the expedition they expected.
John Mason Brown recorded an equally singular instance of
the prophetic gift of an American medicine man (see Atlantic
Monthly, July 1866). Difficulties experienced while searching
for a band of Native Americans the Mackenzie and Coppermine
rivers had forced the majority of Browns band to return
home, until out of ten men who originally set out only three remained.
They had almost decided to abandon their search
when they stumbled upon a party of braves of the tribe they
sought. These men had been sent out by their medicine man
to find three white men. The shaman had given them an exhaustive
account of the mens horses, equipment, and general
appearance before they set out, and this the warriors related to
Brown before they saw his companions. Brown asked the medicine
man how he had been able to foretell their coming. The
shaman, who appeared to be a frank and simple-minded
man, could only explain that he saw them coming, and heard
them talk on their journey.
Crystal gazing was in common use among many Native
American tribes. The Aztecs of Mexico used to gaze into small
polished pieces of sandstone, and a case is on record in which
a Cherokee Indian kept a divining crystal wrapped in buckskin
in a cave, occasionally feeding it by rubbing over it the blood
of a deer. At a village in Guatemala, the traveler John L. Stephens
saw a remarkable stone that had been placed on the altar
of a temple, but that had previously been used as a divining
stone by the Indians of the village.
Divination by arrow was also common. According to Fuentes
y Guzmán, the chronicler of Guatemala, the reigning king of
Kiche, Kicah Tanub, when informed by the ambassador of
Montezuma II that a race of irresistible white men had conquered
Mexico and were proceeding to Guatemala, sent for
four diviners, whom he commanded foretell the result of the
invasion. Taking their bows they discharged some arrows
against a rock. They returned to inform their master that, because
no impression had been made upon the rock by the arrowheads,
they foresaw the worst and predicted the ultimate
triumph of the white manan incident that shows that the class
to which they belonged stood in no fear of royalty. Kicah
Tanub, dissatisfied, sent for the priests, obviously a different
class of diviners, and requested their opinions. From the omen
of an ancient stone (brought from afar by their forefathers) having
been broken, they also foretold the fall of the Kiche empire.
Many objects such as small clay birds, boats, or boat-shaped
vessels, have been discovered in sepulchral mounds in North
America, and it is conjectured that these may have been used
for purposes of divination.
Portents, too, were implicitly believed in by the American
races. Nezahualpilli, king of Tezcuco, near Mexico, was accomplished
in this type of divination. Montezuma consulted him
concerning the terrible prodigies that startled his people before
the advance of the Spaniards upon his kingdom, and that
were supposed to predict the return of Quetzalcoatl, the legendary
culture-hero of Anahuac, to his people. These included
earthquakes, tempests, floods, and the appearance of comets
and strange lights while mysterious voices were heard in the air.
Divination has persisted in modern civilizations. Perhaps
one of the most remarkable diviners was Nostradamus (Michael
de Nostradame, 150366) who published hundreds of
prophecies in enigmatic verses. Many believe these prophecies
refer to events that have occurred through the centuries and
that some will be fulfilled in the near future. The seventeenthcentury
astrologer William Lilly predicted the Great Plague of
London in 1665 and the Great Fire in the following year.
In addition to such gifted individuals who seemed to be able
to discern future events through signs and visions, there are
also popular techniques by which ordinary people believe they
can gain knowledge of the hidden present or future. As well as
the popular practice of astrology, there are many fortunetelling
systems such as dream interpretation, palmistry, and
the tarot cards. Many such systems were successfully revived in
the occult boom of the 1960s. Perhaps one of the most interesting
revivals was that of the ancient Chinese system of the I
Ching, where divination of present and future events is associated
with a deeper philosophy of the function of destiny in
Psychical researchers have recorded many cases of spontaneous
prevision of future events, although there is as yet no satisfactory
explanation for such phenomena involving clairvoyance,
telepathy, or dreams.
Dowsing, or water-witching, is another form of divination,
although it relates mainly to the discovery of hidden water,
metals, or other information. The use of a twig or rod by the
operator is reminiscent of the magic wand or the tripod of occult
magicians in the practice of necromancy. It also seems related
to the rationale of table turning, planchette and Ouija
board in Spiritualism. Divination proper, however, is a system
of interpreting hidden knowledge rather than eliciting information
through the intervention of spirits. One development
of dowsing of special interest is the art of radiesthesia, where
pendulums are used instead of a dowsing rod, for the purpose
of eliciting a wider range of information, such as ascertaining
states of health or disease, prescribing remedies, tracing missing
persons, or even divining distant events.
Some of the seventy or so most well defined systems of divination
such as axinomancy, belomancy, and capnomancy are
the subject of separate entries in this encyclopedia, as are such
specialized related studies as astrology, crystal gazing, and
Popular interest in divination continues to flourish in modern
times and even to increase with the uncertainties and anxieties
of economic and political life. Gypsies are still reputed to
have hereditary talents for fortune-telling.
National newspapers carry daily astrological indications,
and the use of tarot cards is widespread, but the art of divination
still seems to require some basic or developed talent that
no mechanistic system can entirely dispense with. A pertinent
statement is that of the psychical researcher Count Cesar de
Vesme Any system . . . is good for the man gifted with supernormal
powers, and any system is bad for the man not so gifted.
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Besterman, Theodore. Crystal Gazing. London, 1924. Reprint,
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Hill, Douglas. Fortune Telling. London Hamlyn, 1972.
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