Divination by lots, one of the most ancient and common superstitions.
It was used among Oriental nations to detect a
guilty person, as when Saul by this means discovered that Jonathan
had disobeyed his command by taking food, and when the
sailors by a similar process found Jonah to be the cause of the
tempest by which they were overtaken.
The various methods of using the lot have been very numerous,
including rhabdomancy, clidomancy, the Sortes Sagittariae
or belomancy, and the common casting of dice. The following
are the more classical methods
Sortes Thriaecae, or Thriaen lots, were chiefly used in
Greece; they were pebbles or counters distinguished by certain
characters that were cast into an urn, and the first that came out
was supposed to contain the right direction. This form of divination
received its name from the Thriaej, three nymphs supposed
to have nursed Apollo and to have invented this mode
of predicting futurity.
Sortes Viales, or street and road lots, were used both in
Greece and Rome. The person that wanted to learn his fortune
carried with him a certain number of lots, distinguished by several
characters or inscriptions. Walking to and fro in the public
ways he asked the first boy whom he met to draw, and the inscription
on the lot thus drawn was received as an infallible
prophecy. Plutarch declared that this form of divination was
derived from the Egyptians, by whom the actions and words of
boys were carefully observed as containing in them something
Another form of the Sortes Viales was exhibited by a boy, or
sometimes by a man, who positioned himself in a public place
to give responses to all comers. He was provided with a tablet,
on which certain predictive verses were written; when consulted,
he cast dice on the tablet, and the verses on which they fell
were supposed to contain the proper direction. Sometimes instead
of tablets they had urns, in which the verses were thrown,
written upon slips of parchment. The verse drawn out was received
as a sure guide and direction. Tibullus alluded to this
custom as follows ‘‘Thrice in the streets the sacred lots she
threw, and thrice the boy a happy omen drew.’’ This form of
divining was often practiced with the Sibylline oracles, and
hence was named Sortes Sibyllina.
Sortes Prenestinae, or the Prenestine lots, were used in Italy.
The letters of the alphabet were placed in an urn and shaken;
they were then turned out upon the floor, and the words that
they accidentally formed were received as omens.
This divinatory use of letters is still known in Eastern countries.
The Muslims had a divining table that they said was invented
by the prophet Edris or Enoch. It was divided into a
hundred little squares, each of which contained a letter of the
Arabic alphabet. The person who consulted it repeated three
times the opening chapter of the Qur’an, and the 57th verse of
the 6th chapter ‘‘With Him are the keys of the secret things;
none knoweth them but Him; He knoweth whatever is on the
dry ground, or in the sea there falleth no leaf but he knoweth
it; neither is there a single grain in the dark parts of the earth,
nor a green thing, nor a dry thing, but it is written in a perspicuous
Having concluded this recitation, he averted his head from
the table and placed his finger upon it; he then looked to see
upon what letter his finger was placed, wrote that letter; the
fifth following it; the fifth following that again; and so on until
he came back to the first he had touched. The letters thus collected
formed the answer.
Sortes Homericae and Sortes Virgilianae involve divination
by opening some poem at hazard and accepting the passage
that first turns up as an answer. This practice probably arose
from the esteem that poets had among the ancients, by whom
they were reputed divine and inspired persons. Homer’s works
among the Greeks had the most credit, but the tragedies of Euripides
and other celebrated poems were occasionally used for
the same purpose. The Latins chiefly consulted Virgil, and
many curious coincidences were related by grave historians, between
the prediction and the event; thus, the elevation of Severus
to the Empire is supposed to have been foretold by his
opening at this verse, ‘‘Remember, Roman, with imperial sway
to rule the nations.’’
It is said that Charles I and Lord Falkland made trial of the
Virgilian lots a short time before the commencement of the
great Civil War. The former opened at that passage in the
fourth book of the Æneid where Dido predicts the violent death
of her faithless lover; the latter at the lamentation of Evander
over his son in the eleventh book. If the story is true, the coincidences
between the responses and events are remarkable.
Sortes Biblicae was divination by the Bible, which the early
Christians used instead of the profane poets. Nicephorus Gregoras
recommended the Psalter as the fittest book for the purpose,
but Cedrenus stated that the New Testament was more
commonly used. St. Augustine denounced this practice in temporal
affairs, but declared in one of his letters that he had recourse
to it in all cases of spiritual difficulty. Another form of
the Biblical lots was to go to a place of worship and take as an
omen the first passage of Scripture read by the minister or the
text from which he preached.
Muslims consulted the Qur’an in a similar manner, but one
of their methods was to deduce their answer from the seventh
line of the right-hand page. Others counted how often the letters
kha and shin occurred in the page; if kha (the first letter of
kheyr, ‘‘good’’) predominated, the answer was deemed favorable,
but if shin (the first letter of shin, ‘‘evil’’) appeared more
frequently, the inference was that the projects of the inquirer
were forbidden or dangerous.
Sorrel Leaf Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
It would be easy to multiply examples of these efforts to obtain
guidance from blind chance. They were once so frequent
that it was deemed necessary to denounce them from the pulpit
as being clearly forbidden by the divine precept, ‘‘Thou shalt
not tempt the Lord thy God.’’