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File:Rhumsiki crab sorcerer.jpg

This man in Rhumsiki, Cameroon, tells the future by interpreting the changes in position of various objects as caused by a fresh-water crab through nggàm[1].

Divination (Greek μαντεια, from μαντις "seer", anglicized in the suffix -mancy, see also mania) is the attempt of ascertaining information by interpretation of omens or an alleged supernatural agency[1].

If a distinction is to be made between divination and fortune-telling, divination has a formal or ritual and often social character, usually in a religious context; while fortune-telling is a more everyday practice for personal purposes. Divination is often dismissed by skeptics, including the scientific community, as being mere 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" [2], though most Romans believed in dreams and charms. Advocates of divination will usually cite a mass of anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of divination.

Divination is a universal cultural phenomenon which anthropologists have observed as being present in many religions and cultures in all ages up to the present day.

Categories of divination

Psychologist Julian Jaynes categorized divination according to the following types:

  • Omens and omen texts. "The most primitive, clumsy, but enduring 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 (cleromancy). 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, riffle the pages of their holy book, and take as their answer the first passage their eyes light upon. The Bible itself expresses mixed opinions on divination; see e.g. Cleromancy.
  • Other forms of spontaneous divination include reading auras and New Age methods of Feng Shui such as "intuitive" and Fuzion.


Beyond mere explanations for anecdotal evidence, some theories have been proposed of how some forms of divination might result in meaningful messages. One theory is that the divination process allows messages from the subconscious mind to emerge into the conscious world. For example, using the I Ching oracle, a person with a very good knowledge of the 64 chapters of the I Ching might subconsciously direct the division of the yarrow stalks to obtain a relevant oracle. After an I Ching hexagram has been found, interpretation is needed to obtain an answer to the question posed, and again, this allows the subconscious to influence the outcome. This theory presupposes that the subconscious mind has a relevant message to deliver, which in any particular case may or may not be true.

Sometimes random decisions are recognized by modern science as effective ways to address a problem. Mathematical problems may be addressed by Monte Carlo algorithms in which pseudo-random numbers are used to test a function. In game theory, choices must be made randomly to prevent opponents from devising an effective counter strategy. A similar role might exist for the I Ching, which is sometimes described as an "invention machine", in which any random combination of hexagrams potentially leads to a new and different idea. Perhaps divination schemes may be seen as efforts to divide conceptual space into segments, and randomly directing attention to any segment is potentially productive.

Common methods of divination

For a more complete list, see Methods of divination

  • Astrology (by celestial bodies)
  • Ailuromancy (by the behaviour of felines; see Felidomancy)
  • Aura-Soma, based on colors
  • Bibliomancy (by book, frequently but not always a religious text)
  • Cartomancy (by cards, e.g., playing cards, tarot cards, and non-tarot oracle cards; see also Taromancy)
  • Cheiromancy (by palms; see Palmistry)
  • Crystallomancy/Scrying (by crystals or other reflecting objects)
  • Dactylomancy (by means of finger movements)
  • Extispicy (from the entrails 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
  • Podomancy (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 / Runic divination (by Runes)
  • Scatomancy (by droppings, usually animal)
  • Sternomancy (by markings or bumps on the chest)
  • Taromancy (by specially designed cards: Tarot; see also Cartomancy)

See also

For further reading

References and notes


  • 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 0-87773-214-0
  • J. P. Vernant, Divination et rationalité (1974)

2. Philip K. Hitti. Makers of Arab History. Princeton, New Jersey. St. Martin’s Press. 1968. Pg 61.

3. Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Makkari. The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain; extracted from the NAFHU-T-TIB MIN GHOSNI-L-ANDALUSI-R-RATTIB WA TARIKH LISANU-D-DIN IBNI-L-KHATTIB. Translated by Pascual de Gayangos, member of the Oriental Translation Committee, and late professor of Arabic in the Athenæum of Madrid. In Two Volumes. VOL. II Johnson Reprint Corporation, New York, NY. 1964. Pages 96 (Book VI, chapters 1 & 2).

4. W. Montgomery Watt. Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman. Edinburgh, Scotland. Oxford Press, 1961. Pgs 1-2.

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