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Divination (from Latin divinare "to foresee, to be inspired by a god", related to divinus, divine) is the attempt to gain insight into a question or situation by way of an occultic, standardized process or ritual. Used in various forms throughout history, diviners ascertain their interpretations of how a querent should proceed by reading signs, events, or omens, or through alleged contact with a supernatural agency.
Divination can be seen as a systematic method with which to organize what appear to be disjointed, random facets of existence such that they provide insight into a problem at hand. If a distinction is to be made between divination and fortune-telling, divination has a more formal or ritualistic element and often contains a more social character, usually in a religious context, as seen in traditional African medicine. Fortune-telling, on the other hand, is a more everyday practice for personal purposes. Particular divination methods vary by culture and religion.
Divination is dismissed by the scientific community and skeptics as being superstition. In the 2nd century, Lucian devoted a witty essay to the career of a charlatan, "Alexander the false prophet", trained by "one of those who advertise enchantments, miraculous incantations, charms for your love-affairs, visitations for your enemies, disclosures of buried treasure, and successions to estates", even though most Romans believed in prophetic dreams and charms.
- Omens and omen texts. Chinese history offers scrupulously documented occurrences of strange births, the tracking of natural phenomena, and other data. Chinese governmental planning relied on this method of forecasting for long-range strategies. It is not unreasonable to assume that modern scientific inquiry began with this kind of divination; Joseph Needham's work considered this very idea.
- Sortilege (cleromancy). This consists of the casting of lots, or sortes, whether with sticks, stones, bones, beans, coins, or some other item. Modern playing cards and board games developed from this type of divination.
- Augury. This ranks a set of given possibilities. It can be qualitative (such as shapes, proximities, etc.): for example, dowsing (a form of rhabdomancy) developed from this type of divination. The Romans, in classical times, used Etruscan methods of augury such as hepatoscopy (actually a form of extispicy) (for example, Haruspices examined the livers of sacrificed animals). Augury is normally considered to specifically refer to divination by studying the flight patterns of birds. But also, the use of the rooster through alectryomancy may be further understood within that religious character and likewise defined as a cockfight, or cockfighting with the intent of communication between the gods and man.
- Spontaneous. An unconstrained form of divination, free from any particular medium, and actually a generalization of all types of divination. The answer comes from whatever object the diviner happens to see or hear. Some religions use a form of bibliomancy: they ask a question, riffle the pages of their holy book, and take as their answer the first passage their eyes light upon. Other forms of spontaneous divination include reading auras and New Age methods of feng shui such as "intuitive" and "fuzion".
In addition to these four broad categories, there is palmistry, also called chiromancy, a practice common to many different places on the Eurasian landmass; it has been practised in the cultures of India, Tibet, China, Persia, Sumeria, Ancient Israel and Babylonia. In this practice, the diviner examines the hands of a person for whom they are divining for indications of their future.
Deuteronomy 18:10-12 or Leviticus 19:26 can be interpreted as categorically forbidding divination. However, other verses of the Hebrew Bible include many positive examples of the use of divination by the ancient Israelites. For example, Exodus 28 gives members of the priestly class the use of the Urim and Thummim to discover the will of Yahweh before times of sacrifice and Gideon uses a piece of fleece or wool in Judges 6:36-40 to predict the outcome of an important battle. Especially valued by the ancient Hebrews was the divination method of "casting lots" (Cleromancy) which was even used in Joshua 14:1-5 and Joshua 18:1-10 to divide the conquered lands of Canaan between the twelve tribes.
Both oracles and seers in ancient Greece practiced divination. Oracles were the conduits for the gods on earth; their prophecies were understood to be the will of the gods verbatim. Because of the high demand for oracle consultations and the oracles’ limited work schedule, they were not the main source of divination for the ancient Greeks. That role fell to the seers (μάντεις in Greek).
Seers were not in direct contact with the gods; instead, they were interpreters of signs provided by the gods. Seers used many methods to explicate the will of the gods including extispicy, bird signs, etc. They were more numerous than the oracles and did not keep a limited schedule; thus, they were highly valued by all Greeks, not just those with the capacity to travel to Delphi or other such distant sites.
The disadvantage to seers was that only direct yes-or-no questions could be answered. Oracles could answer more generalized questions, and seers often had to perform several sacrifices in order to get the most consistent answer. For example, if a general wanted to know if the omens were proper for him to advance on the enemy, he would ask his seer both that question and if it were better for him to remain on the defensive. If the seer gave consistent answers, the advice was considered valid.
At battle, generals would frequently ask seers at both the campground (a process called the hiera) and at the battlefield (called the sphagia). The hiera entailed the seer slaughtering a sheep and examining its liver for answers regarding a more generic question; the sphagia involved killing a young female goat by slitting its throat and noting the animal’s last movements and blood flow. The battlefield sacrifice only occurred when two armies prepared for battle against each other. Neither force would advance until the seer revealed appropriate omens.
Because the seers had such power over influential individuals in ancient Greece, many were skeptical of the accuracy and honesty of the seers. Of course the degree to which seers were honest depends entirely on the individual seers. Despite the doubt surrounding individual seers, the craft as a whole was well regarded and trusted by the Greeks.
Christianity and Western society
The divination method of casting lots (Cleromancy) was used by the remaining eleven disciples of Jesus in Acts 1:23-26 to select a replacement for Judas Iscariot. Therefore, divination was arguably an accepted practice in the early church. However, divination became viewed as a pagan practice by the institutional Christian church. The Catholic Church later passed canon laws forbidding the practice of divination. In 692 the Quinisext Council, also known as the "Council in Trullo" in the Eastern Orthodox Church, passed canons to eliminate pagan and divination practices. Fortune-telling and other forms of divination were widespread through the Middle Ages. In the constitution of 1572 and public regulations of 1661 of Kur-Saxony, capital punishment was used on those predicting the future. Laws forbidding divination practice continue to this day.
Divination was a central component of ancient Mesoamerican religious life. Many Aztec gods, including central creator gods, were described as diviners and were closely associated with sorcery. Tezcatlipoca is the patron of sorcerers and practitioners of magic. His name means "smoking mirror", a reference to a device used for divinatory scrying. In the Mayan Popol Vuh, the creator gods Xmucane and Xpiacoc perform divinatory hand casting during the creation of people.
Every civilization that developed in Ancient Mexico, from the Olmecs to the Aztecs, practiced divination in daily life, both public and private. Scrying through the use of reflective water surfaces, mirrors, or the casting of lots were among the most widespread forms of divinatory practice. Visions derived from hallucinogens were another important form of divination, and are still widely used among contemporary diviners of Mexico. Among the more common hallucinogenic plants used in divination are morning glory, jimson weed, and peyote.
Divination is one of the tenets of Serer religion. However, only those who have been initiated as Saltigues (the Serer high priests and priestesses) can divine the future. These are the "hereditary rain priests" whose role is both religious and medicinal.
The Yoruba people of West Africa are internationally known for having developed the Ifá system, an intricate process of divination that is performed by an Awo, an initiated priest or priestess of Orunmila, the spirit of the Yoruba oracle.
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- Greek Divination: a study of its methods and principles, William Reginald Halliday, Macmillan, 1913, 309pp - a complete scanned edition of the most recent general treatment of Greek divination (at Google Books)
- "Divination". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.