The Ancient Practice of Divination: How Our Ancestors Discerned The Future
Humans have turned to divination for centuries. Today, divination often takes the form of tarot cards, scrying, using runes, astrology, palmistry, and reading tea leaves, although that is certainly not a complete list. In ancient times, many of the same methods we use today were used in some form or another. But learning about some of the unique or lesser-known methods our ancestors used to divine the future can help build a bridge to the past and enrich your magickal practice.
In ancient Greece, divination was a major institution. The most well-known of the Greek institutional oracles was the legendary Delphic Oracle, who relayed messages from the god Apollo from her tripod seat in the heart of his temple in Delphi. Known as the Pythia, she was often consulted on military affairs and civic decisions, but any petitioner who paid the temple enough money could hear from the Pythia.
While the Oracle at Delphi was the most prestigious of the Greek oracles, there were others throughout the region. For instance, Zeus, Amphiaraus, and Trophonius had oracles in different Greek cities. Apollo also had oracles at Didyma and Claros. Outside of the formal oracle institution, other practitioners offered specialized divination services, from interpreting birds’ behavior to dream analysis.
Privately, the Greeks would use scrying and flame gazing to determine what the gods had in store for them. They loved to find hidden meanings in their dreams, and some consulted their personal deities before starting their day.
Rome shared divination practices with Greece, and in fact, Romans visited the Oracle at Delphi. They also established an oracle at Praeneste who communicated with the goddess Fortuna. The difference in ancient Rome is that authorities tried to control divination used for public and civic concerns far more than the Greeks. They also attempted to curb the practice in private homes.
One of the most interesting forms of Roman divination was the use of a templum, which was simply a rectangular section of the sky that augures – divination experts – then divided into four sections. They would then gaze at the sky to watch for messages from the gods.
Merchants in Greek Asia Minor during the Roman rule would cast lots, by rolling dice, to determine the future. The dice were rolled at the feet of a statue of Hermes, the god of merchants. They used a guidebook to correlate the dice’s values to messages within the text to learn what to expect in the future.
During the Shang Dynasty, from approximately 1600 to 1046 BCE, oracle bones were used for divination purposes. They were often called Dragon’s Bones and were made either from the flat underside of a turtle’s shell or the shoulder blades of oxen. Fortune tellers would etch or paint symbols on the oracle bones and then apply a hot poker to the bone. When it cracked from the heat, they would then interpret the crack’s shape and direction to predict what would happen in the future.
When the I-Ching became more readily available, thanks to a primitive movable type printing press, the use of oracle bones declined. The I-Ching, which is a fortune-telling book that relies on yarrow sticks and hexagrams for divination, became popular in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-226 BCE) that followed the Shang Dynasty.
Oracle bones were used to help people make decisions ranging from taking oxen to market, to matchmaking choices, whether or not to have children, large financial decisions, and even starting a war.
In ancient Egypt, magick was known as heka, and people believed that everyone possessed a certain amount of heka, to varying degrees. Priests were the primary practitioners of heka, and they were seen as guardians of knowledge from the gods. However, various forms of magick were used and freely permitted among all classes of Egyptian people.
Divination was used for two reasons: to learn about the present and to beg the gods for information that might help change a current situation. Egyptians used mediumship, scrying, dream interpretation, and oracles to divine the future, and often at night, when the psychic currents were believed to be the strongest.
While none of this sounds too different from modern magickal practices, the Egyptians would place paint in their eyes before a flame gazing practice. The person would then invoke a specific god, and believed that the combination of the paint and flame would reveal the image of that god. Then, spells would be repeated seven or nine times depending on the practitioner. If the answer didn’t come through, then the practitioner would threaten the god with filling their lamp with fat instead of oil, meaning that it would no longer burn.
It goes without saying that threatening a god could lead to severely detrimental results, but the Egyptians believed that their priests could compel gods to their will. This was often done by invoking one of four specific gods who would then get other deities on board with the priest’s wishes: Anpu, Tehuti, Pshoi, or Khons.
Medieval universities produced magickal texts, and scholars studied them regularly. Divination in the Middle Ages relied heavily on the position of the stars, so it was included in astronomy studies along with the other six liberal arts: arithmetic, music, geometry, grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic.
The Sortes Sanctorum, a Medieval book in the Getty Museum’s collection, calls for Christian saints to be the vehicle of divination, instead of the stars. Divination during this time threatened the authority of the Christian church, but by using Christian saints and the Bible to discern the future, this form of divination survived when others did not.
The process required to use the Sortes Sanctorum is complicated, but divination using the book centers around tossing three dice to receive an answer to a question. Then the dice are arranged in descending order, and the answer is read from the book. Like other forms of divination, people used this method for questions ranging from mundane concerns to life-changing choices.
Crystals were used in ritual by ancient Maya people in northern Mexico and Central America, often for healing and divination purposes. But, the ancient practice of divination using grains of corn stands out as a uniquely Mesoamerican technique. It’s still used by indigenous people today.
Much like a tarot spread, corn kernels are tossed in a certain pattern, and answers are determined based on symbolic parts of the resulting pattern. The number of kernels and the way they are cast varies depending on the indigenous group. When kernels are selected for divination purposes, they become a sacred religious tool and are not eaten.
Some of those purposes include using kernels to find lost objects, disease diagnosis, or making a significant life decision.
Divination through the ages has helped people understand the present and make decisions about the future. Hopefully, these ancient practices have helped you feel more connected with the traditions of the past and inspire you in your personal magickal practice.