Scientific research and methods have made it possible to predict future events with some success, e.g., eclipses, weather forecasts and volcanic eruptions. However, this is not divination. Strictly speaking, divination assumes the influence of some supernatural force or fate, whereas scientific predictions are made from an essentially mechanical, impersonal world-view and rely on empirical laws of nature. Thus, as an operational definition, divination would be all methods of prognostication that have not been shown to be effective using scientific research.
Beyond mere explanations for anecdoctal evidence, there are some serious theories of how divination might work. One such theory is rooted in the nature of the unconscious mind, a theory which has some empirical scientific basis. Based on this theory, divination is the process by which messages from the unconscious mind are decoded. The belief in a supernatural agency or occult force as the source of these messages is what distinguishes this theory from a scientific explanation.
Julian Jaynes categorized divination according to the following types:
- Omens and omen texts. “The most primitive, clumsy, but enduring method…is the simple recording of sequences of unusual or important events.” (1976:236) 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 strategy. 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. This consists of the casting of lots whether with sticks, stones, bones, beans, or some other item. Modern playing cards and board games developed from this type of divination.
- Augury. Divination that ranks a set of given possibilities. It can be qualitative (such as shapes, proximities, etc.) 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). Haruspices examined the livers of sacrificed animals.
- 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 Christians and members of other religions use a form of bibliomancy: they ask a question, rifle 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.
By far one of the most popular methods of divination is Astrology, typically categorized as Vedic Astrology (Jyotish), Western Astrology, and Chinese Astrology, though besides these main three branches many other cultures also have or have had their own forms of Astrology in the past.
Common methods of divination
- Astrology (by celestial bodies)
- Bibliomancy (by book, frequently but not always a religious text)
- Cartomancy (by cards, e.g., playing cards, tarot cards, and non-tarot oracle cards)
- Cheiromancy (by palms)
- Crystallomancy/Scrying (by crystals or other reflecting objects)
- Extispicy (from the exta of sacrificed animals)
- Geomancy (by earth), includes Feng Shui divination
- Graphology (by handwriting)
- I Ching divination (ancient Chinese divination using I Ching): (However, as performed by some diviners with heavy reliance on an accompanying I Ching manual, this is, in effect, also a form of Bibliomancy/Stichomancy)
- Numerology (by numbers)
- Oneiromancy (by dreams)
- Onomancy (by names)
- Ouija board divination
- Padomancy (by the soles of one’s feet)
- Palmistry (by palm inspection)
- Phrenology (by the shape of one’s head)
- Pyromancy, or pyroscopy (by fire)
- Runecasting (by Runes)
- Scatomancy (by droppings, usually animal)
- Taromancy (by specially designed cards: Tarot; see also Cartomancy)
For further reading
- Robert Todd Carroll (2003). The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Wiley.
- Lon Milo Duquette (2005). The Book of Ordinary Oracles. Weiser Books.
- Clifford A. Pickover (2001). Dreaming the Future: The Fantastic Story of Prediction. Prometheus.
- Eva Shaw (1995). Divining the Future. Facts on File.
- The Diagram Group (1999). The Little Giant Encyclopedia of Fortune Telling. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.
- E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, oracles, and magic among the Azande (1976)
- Toufic Fahd, La divination arabe; études religieuses, sociologiques et folkloriques sur le milieu natif d’Islam (1966)
- Michael Loewe and Carmen Blacke, eds. Oracles and divination (Shambhala/Random House, 1981) ISBN 0877732140
- J. P. Vernant, Divination et rationalité (1974)
- Ancient Astrology and Divination on the Web , resources on Greco-Roman and Mesopotamian divination
- W. R. Halliday, Greek Divination (1913), a complete scanned editon of the most recent general treatment of Greek divination
- 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia: Divination
- Encyclopedia Iranica: Divination
- Theory of Divination by Tim Maroney, exploring different possible mechanisms