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Fortune-telling is the practice of predicting the life, usually of a group, through mystical or natural means, and often for commercial gain. It is often conflated with the religious practice known as divination.

European and American fortune telling

File:Gipsies Fortune telling Fac simile of a Woodcut in the Cosmographie Universelle of Munster in folio Basle 1552.png

Gypsies fortune-telling. Facsimile of a woodcut in the "Cosmographie Universelle" of Sebastian Münster: in folio, Basel, 1552


Common methods used for fortune telling in Europe and the Americas include astromancy, horary astrology, pendulum reading, spirit board reading, tasseography (reading tea leaves in a cup), cartomancy (fortune telling with cards), tarot reading, crystallomancy (reading of a crystal sphere), lithomancy (reading of stones or gems), and chiromancy (palmistry, reading of the palms). The latter three have traditional associations in the popular mind with the Roma and Sinti people (often called "gypsie")

Another form of fortune-telling, sometimes called "reading" or "spiritual consultation" does not rely on the use of specific devices or methods, but consists of the practitioner transmitting to the client advice and predictions which are said to have come from spirits or in visions. This form of fortune-telling is particularly popular in the African-American community.

Main article: Methods of divination

The following methods of fortune telling either developed in Europe and America or they are currently popular in Western culture. Note that some of these methods originated in Asia and elsewhere, but all of those listed are practiced by people of European, Euro-American, Afro-American, and Asican-American ethnicity.

  • alectormancy: by observation of a rooster pecking at grain
  • astromancy: by the stars.
  • astrology: by the movements of celestial bodies.
  • augury: by the flight of birds.
  • bibliomancy: by books; frequently, but not always, religious texts.
  • cartomancy: by cards.And sometimes by hand
  • cheiromancy/palmistry: by palms.
  • chronomancy: about time, lucky/unlucky days.
  • cybermancy: by computers.
  • gastromancy: by stomach-based ventriloquism (historically).
  • ceromancy: by patterns in melting or dripping wax.
  • clairvoyance: by spiritual vision or inner sight.
  • cold reading: by using visual and aural clues.
  • crystallomancy: by crystal ball also called scrying.
  • geomancy: by markings in the ground, or the way earth or soil lays when thrown.
  • horary astrology: by astrologically reading the time the question was asked.
  • hydromancy: by water.
  • I Ching divination: by yarrow stalks or coins and the I Ching.
  • lithomancy: by stones or gems.
  • extispicy: by the entrails of animals.
  • feng shui: by earthen harmony.
  • haruspicy: by the livers of sacrificed animals.
  • numerology: by numbers.
  • palmistry: by lines and mounds on the hand.
  • oneiromancy: by dreams.
  • onomancy: by names.
  • spirit board: by planchette or talking board divination.
  • pendulum reading: by the movements of a suspended article or weight.
  • rhabdomancy: divination by rods.
  • runecasting or Runic divination: by runes.
  • scrying: by looking at or into reflective objects.
  • taromancy: by a form of cartomancy using tarot cards.
  • tasseography or tasseomancy: by tea leaves or coffee grounds.
  • necromancy: by the dead, or by spirits or souls of the dead.
  • pyromancy: by gazing into fire.


In Europe and America, fortune-telling has sometimes been considered a religious sin and both religious proscriptions and civil laws have, in certain times and places, forbidden the practice. For these reasons, many mainstream urban Europeans and Americans are unaware of how popular fortune-telling remains with the public and are surprised when they learn of a celebrity or politician who consults a fortune-teller for the purpose of making decisions.

Typical topics that Western fortune-tellers make predictions on include future romantic, financial, and childbearing prospects. They may also be called upon to aid in decision-making regarding job opportunities, the outcome of illnesses, and plans for marriage or divorce.

In addition to divining the future, many fortune-tellers will also give "character readings." These are short analyses of the character of a person and do not necessarily involve specific predictions about future events. Methods used in character analysis readings include numerology, graphology, palmistry (if the subject is present), and astrology. The subject of a character reading may be the client, who seeks self-knowledge, but it is quite common for the fortune-teller to perform a character reading on the client's prospective mate. In the latter case, when a third party is being assessed for marital compatibility with the client, an element of fore-telling does occur, as the practitioner explores the future of the relationship based on the characters of the two parties.

In contemporary Western culture, it appears that women consult fortune-tellers more than men: some indication of this comes from the profusion of advertisements for commercial fortune-telling services in magazines aimed at women, while such advertisements appear virtually unknown in magazines aimed specifically at men.

It is quite common for young women to seek out fortune tellers as they embark on adulthood, and many women maintain decades-long relationships with their personal readers or fortune-tellers. Telephone consultations with psychics (charged to the caller's telephone account at very high rates) grew in popularity through the 1990s but they have not replaced - and may never replace - the traditional card readers, tea leaf readers, palmists, and spiritual readers who see their clients in small storefronts or occult shops.

Fortune telling as a business in North America


Storefront psychic fortune-teller in Boston

Discussing the role of fortune-telling in society, Ronald H. Isaacs, an American rabbi and author, opined, “Since time immemorial humans have longed to learn that which the future holds for them. Thus, in ancient civilization, and even today with fortune telling as a true profession, humankind continues to be curious about its future, both out of sheer curiosity as well as out of desire to better prepare for it." [1]

Popular media outlets like the New York Times have explained to their American readers that although 5000 years ago, soothsayers were prized advisers to the Assyrians, they lost respect and reverence during the rise of Reason in the 17th and 18th centuries.[2]

With the rise of commercialism, “the sale of occult practices [adapted to survive] in the larger society,” according to sociologists Danny L. and Lin Jorgensen.[3] Ken Feingold, writer of "Interactive Art as Divination as a Vending Machine," stated that with the invention of money, fortune-telling became “a private service, a commodity within the marketplace”[4].

Print, televised and online advertisements for fortune-tellers are now almost as common as ads for orange juice and automobiles. As J. Peder Zane wrote in the New York Times in 1994, “Whether it’s 3 P.M. or 3 A.M., there’s Dionne Warwick and her psychic friends selling advice on love, money and success. In a nation where the power of crystals and the likelihood that angels hover nearby prompt more contemplation than ridicule, it may not be surprising that one million people a year call Ms. Warwick’s friends.” [2]


In 1994, the psychic counsellor Rosanna Rogers of Cleveland, Ohio explained to J. Peder Zane that a wide variety of people consulted her: “Couch potatoes aren’t the only people seeking the counsel of psychics and astrologers. Clairvoyants have a booming business advising Philadelphia bankers, Hollywood lawyers and Chief executive officer’s of Fortune 500 companies... If people knew how many people, especially the very rich and powerful ones, went to psychics, their jaws would drop through the floor.”[2] Ms. Rogers “claims to have 4,000 names in her rolodex.”[2]

In 2000, a writer for the Northern Echo, a Canadian periodical, noted that the Canadian clairvoyant Mrs. Jane Welbourn said that “about 90% of the people I see are experiencing some stress, or something is bothering them. Whether it’s drink, drug, illness, financial, infidelity or marital problems, there is usually something.”[5]

Typical clients

In 1982, Danny Jorgensen, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida offered a spiritual explanation for the popularity of fortune-telling. He said that that people visit psychics or fortune-tellers to gain self-understanding.[6] and knowledge which will lead to personal power or success in some aspect of life[7]

Thirteen years later, in 1995, Ken Feingold offered a different explanation for why people seek out fortune-tellers: “We desire to know other people’s actions and to resolve our own conflicts regarding decisions to be made and our participation in social groups and economies. … Divination seems to have emerged from our knowing the inevitability of death. The idea is clear—we know that our time is limited and that we want things in our lives to happen in accord with our wishes. Realizing that our wishes have little power, we have sought technologies for gaining knowledge of the future...gain power over our own [lives].”[4]

Ultimately, the reasons a person consults a diviner or fortune teller are mediated by cultural expectations and by personal desires, and until a statistically rigorous study of the phenomenon have been conducted, the question of why people consult fortune-tellers is wide open for opinion-making.


Traditional fortune-tellers vary in methodology, generally using techniques long established in their cultures and thus meeting the cultural expectations of their clientele.

In the United States and Canada, among clients of European ancestry, palmistry is popular [5] and, as with astrology and tarot card reading, advice is generally given about specific problems besetting the client.

Non-religious spiritual guidance may also be offered. An American clairvoyant by the name of Catherine Adams has written, “My philosophy is to teach and practice spiritual freedom, which means you have your own spiritual guidance, which I can help you get in touch with."[8]

In the African American community, where many people practice a folrm of folk magic called hoodoo or rootworking, a fortune telling session or "reading" for a client may be followed by practical guidance in spell-casting and Christian prayer, through a process called "magical coaching." [9]

In addition to sharing and explaining their visions, fortune-tellers can also act like counselors by discussing and offering advice about their clients’ problems.[5] They want their clients to exercise their own willpower.[10]

Full-time careers

Some support themselves entirely on their fortune-telling business; others hold down one or more jobs, and their second jobs may or may not relate to the occupation of divining. In 1982, Danny L., and Lin Jorgensen found that “while there is considerable variation among [these secondary] occupations, [part-time fortune-tellers] are over-represented in human service fields: counseling, social work, teaching, health care.”[11] The same authors, making a limited survey of North American diviners, found that the majority of fortune-tellers are married with children, and a few claim graduate degrees.[12] "They attend movies, watch television, work at regular jobs, shop at K-Mart, sometimes eat at McDonald’s, and go to the hospital when they are seriously ill.”[13]


In 1982, the sociologists Danny L., and Lin Jorgensen found that, “when it is reasonable, [fortune -tellers] comply with local laws and purchase a business license.”[11] However, in the United States, a variety of local and state laws restrict fortune-telling, require the licensing or bonding of fortune-tellers, or make necessary the use of terminology that avoids the term "fortune-teller" in favour of terms such as "spiritual advisor" or "psychic consultant." There are also laws that forbid the practice outright in certain districts.

For instance, fortune telling is a class B misdemeanor in the state of New York. Under New York State law, S 165.35:

A person is guilty of fortune telling when, for a fee or compensation which he directly or indirectly solicits or receives, he claims or pretends to tell fortunes, or holds himself out as being able, by claimed or pretended use of occult powers, to answer questions or give advice on personal matters or to exercise, influence or affect evil spirits or curses; except that this section does not apply to a person who engages in the aforedescribed conduct as part of a show or exhibition solely for the purpose of entertainment or amusement.[14]

Law-makers who wrote this statute acknowledged that fortune-tellers do not restrict themselves to "a show or exhibition solely for the purpose of entertainment or amusement" and that people will continue to seek out fortune-tellers even though fortune-tellers operate in violation of the law.


Although there are a number of training and certification programs offered to North American fortune-tellers, most practitioners do not seek out teaching programs or display official documentation of training, but rely instead on alleged family teachings, natural ability, personal experience, and word of mouth as warrants of their fitness and giftedness for the occupation.

Asian fortune telling

File:Fortune teller taiwan.jpg

Street fortune teller consults with client in Taichung, Taiwan

Chinese Fortune Telling, better known as suan ming (Chinese: 算命, literally "fate calculating") has utilized many varying divination techniques throughout the dynastic periods. There are four major methods still in practice in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong today, and they remain in use due to their accuracy and popularity. Over time, some of these concepts have moved into Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese culture under other names. For example "Saju" in Korea is the same as the Chinese four pillar method.


  • Face Reading (面相) - This is the interpretation of facial features of the nose, eyes, mouth and other criteria within one's face and the conversion of those criteria into predictions for the future. This usually covers one phase of the client's life, and reveals the type of luck associated with a certain age range. A positions map also refers to different points on the face. This represents the person’s luck at different ages. The upper region of the face represents youth, the middle region of the face represents middle age, and the lower region of the face represents old age.
  • Palm reading (手相) - This analyzes the positioning of palm lines for love, personality, and other traits. It somewhat resembles Western palmistry in technique.
  • Kau Cim (求籤) - This requires the shaking of a bamboo cylinder, which results in at least one modified incense stick leaving the cylinder. The Chinese characters inscribed on the stick are analyzed by an interpreter. The prediction is short range, as it covers one Chinese calendar year. In the West, this method has been popularized under the trade-name "Chi-Chi sticks."
  • Zi wei dou shu (紫微斗數) - This procedure, sometimes loosely called (Chinese: 批命, pik meng) or Purple Star Astrology or Emperor/Purple (Star) Astrology, involves the client seeking an advisor with a mastery of the Chinese calendar. Astrology is used in combination with the Chinese constellation, four pillars of destiny and the five elements methods of divination. The end result is a translation of one's destiny path, an interpretation of a pre-determined fate. The result of the details vary depending on the accuracy of the original four pillars information the client provides to the fortune-teller. This method can also verify unique events that have already happened in one's life.
  • Bazi (八字) - This method is undoubtly the most popular of Chinese Fortune Telling methods, and the most accessible one. It has many variants in practice the most simple one called: "Ziping Bazi" 子平八字, invented by Master Ziping. Generally it involves taking four components of time, the hour of birth, day, month and year. Each a pillar from the Sixty Jiazi and arranging them into Four Pillars. The Four Pillars are then analyzed against the Daymaster, the Heavenly Stem for the Day pillar. It is a form of Astrology as opposed to Fortune Telling or Divination, and tells one about his or her destiny in life, current situation and area for most successful occupation. Originally Bazi was read against the Year Earthly Branch, then focus shifted to the Month Pillar, then finally Master Ziping refined and remade the system to use the Heavenly Stem of the Day Pillar as the emphasis and focus in reading. The practice for reading against the Year Branch is the origin of the popular Chinese Horoscopes for your Year of Birth.
  • Wen Wang Gua or Man Wong Gua (文王卦) - [15][16]
  • Liu Yao (六爻)
  • Mei Hua Yi Shu or Mui Fa Yik Sou (梅花易數) - literally "Plum flower calculation", sometimes called Mei Hua Xin Yi
  • Qi Men Dun Jia (奇門遁甲) also known as Kei Mun Tun Kap, Dun Jia or just Dunjia/DunJia or sometimes Qi Men or Qimen/QiMen - Strange Doors and the Hidden Jia, The Hidden Jia escaping through the Strange Doors, Jia is given priority or importance. It is called Dun Jia because the objective of this Divination is to protect the Jia stem and move it to a safe place, wherever it may be found in the Qi Men Dun Jia chart or paipan.
  • Wu Xing Yi (五行易) - based on the Wu Xing, sometimes called Wu Xing Yi Shu
  • Yik Lam (易林)
  • Yin Kam (演禽)
  • Yin and Yang Bowl (陰陽杯) - based on Yin and yang
  • Tik Pan San Sou (鐵板神數)
  • Wong Kek Yin Sou (皇極易數)
  • Seven Major and Four Minor Stars (七政四餘)
  • Three Generation Life (三世書)
  • Yin Kam Fa (演禽法)
  • Chin Ting Sou (前定數)
  • Leung Tou Kam (兩頭鉗) - literally "dual headed suppress"
  • Da Liu Ren (大六壬) also known as Liu Ren Shen Ke, or just Liu Ren, sometimes called Xiao Liu Ren - The Six Large Rens (Heavenly Stem), Ren in this case is given priority or importance. It is called Da Liu Ren because in the Sexegenary cycle there are Six Rens each with a different branch.
  • Tai Yi Shen Shu (太乙神數) also known as Taiyi or TaiYi or Tai Yi - The Great Yi God Calculating, Calculating the God of the Great Yi, Yi is given priority or importance.
  • Cheng Gu Ge (称骨歌) - Songs on Weighing Bones, fortune telling method by Yuan Tian Gang (袁天罡), involves adding up the "astrological weight" of the four time components and reading the total weight against a certain poem, thus revealing your life fate.
  • Zhou Yi (周易) - also known as Yi Jing or I Ching, divination according to the book of changes. Methods include: Computer casting, Yarrow stalk casting, coin casting, paper casting, manual casting involves the yarrow stalks or coins.
  • Yi Jing Numerology
  • Date and Time Yi Jing
  • Visual Yi Jing
  • Huang Ji Jing Shi (皇极经世)- Fortune telling method based on the book by Shao Yong, the "Huang Ji Jing Shi"
  • He Luo Li Shu - Fortune telling type numerology in accordance with the He Tu/Hetu/HeTu Diagram or the Yellow River Diagram
  • Di Li Feng Shui - A geomancy based art of divination. Similar to Qi Men Dun Jia.
  • Jiu Gong Ming Li (九宫命理) - Aka "9 Star Ki" or "Chi"/"Qi", also called "White and Purple Star Astrology"


In Chinese society, fortune telling is a respected and important part of social and business culture. Thus, fortune tellers often take on a role which is equivalent to management consultants and psychotherapists in Western society. As management consultants, they advise business people on business and investment decisions. Many major business decisions involve the input of fortune tellers. Their social role allows decision risks to be placed outside of the organization and provides a mechanism of quickly randomly deciding between several equally useful options. As psychotherapists, they help people discuss and resolve personal issues without the stigma of illness.

A famous Chinese fortune-teller's maxim

Traditional Chinese: 一命二運三風水四積陰德五讀書

Simplified Chinese:一命二运三风水四积阴德五读书

Pinyin: yi1 ming4 er4 yun4 san1 feng1 shui3 si4 ji1 yin1 de2 wu3 du2 shu1

Jyutping: jat1 meng6 ji6 wan6 saam1 fung1 seoi2 sei3 zik1 jam1 dak1 ng5 duk6 syu1

English translation : one fate, two luck, three fengshui, four karma, five education

The above quote, relating to the "five components" of the good or ill fortune of any given individual, is culturally believed to have come from Su Shi of the Song dynasty.[17] As a maxim, it continues to remain popular in Chinese culture today. Actual interpretations of this quotation vary, as there is no classical text explaining what Su Shi really meant. Some claim that it signified that a person's destiny is under his or her own control as the "five components" of fortune are mathematically one more than the classical four pillars of destiny, which implies that individuals are in control of their futures on top of their natal "born" fates.[17] Other interpretations may suggest that the order in which the components are stated are important in determining the course of person's life: For example education (the fifth fortune) is not useful if fate (the first fortune) does not put you in the proper place at the beginning of your life. Other interpretations may suggest that there is no inherent order to the sequence, but that they are just a list of the five components of a person's fortune.

African fortune telling


One of the most traditional methods of telling fortunes in Africa is called casting (or throwing) the bones. Because Africa is a large continent with many tribes and cultures, there is not one single technique. Not all of the "bones" are actually bones, small objects may include cowrie shells, stones, strips of leather, or flat pieces of wood. In general, most casting or throwing methods are performed on the ground (often within a circle) and they fall into one of two categories:

  • Casting marked bones, flat pieces of wood, shells, or leather strips and numerically counting up how they fall—either according to their markings or whether they do or do not touch one another—with mathematically-based readings delivered as memorized results based on the chosen criteria.
  • Casting a special set of symbolic bones or an array of selected symbolic articles—as, for instance, using a bird's wing bone to symbolize travel, a round stone to symbolize a pregnant womb, and a bird foot to symbolize feeling.


In African society, many people seek out diviners on a regular basis. There are no prohibitions against the practice. Those who tell fortunes for a living are also sought out for their wisdom as counselors and for their knowledge of herbal medicine.

Opposing theories

Those who believe that it is possible for a practitioner to tell fortunes or predict the future for clients may have religious objections to the practice. For instance, there are Christians who believe that fortune telling is forbidden in the Bible.[18]

Those who do not believe that fortune tellers can actually read the future may believe that several other factors explain the popularity and anecdotal accuracy of fortune-telling:

  1. Fortune tellers rely on techniques such as cold reading to create the illusion of clairvoyance.
  2. Fortune telling in the context of an individual's belief system has a good chance of being believed.
  3. A fortune teller may use his or her reactions to divinatory tools as a way of mentally organizing his or her own thoughts.
  4. Predictions may cause the subject to alter his or her behaviour in a way that makes the predictions become self-fulfilling prophecy.
  5. Predictions can be a source of amusement and diversion.
  6. Predictions can reduce anxiety about the future.
  7. When making a decision based on incomplete information, the prediction may reduce anxiety associated with guessing.
  8. The fortune teller may be an external source of authority to invoke in support of a decision to be made, or in defense of a decision that was made.
  9. Fortune tellers may exhibit skills at reading people and telling them what they wish to hear.
  10. Fortune tellers may use vague terms, meaning the prediction is never wrong, but the subject's interpretation of it can be wrong.
  11. Confirmation bias may predispose subjects to look for cases where predictions can be interpreted as accurate more than they look to find inaccurate ones.
  12. Clients of fortune tellers may fail to realise that statements made about them would equally apply to most other people.

See also


  1. Isaacs, Ronald H. Divination, Magic, and Healing the Book of Jewish Folklore. Northvale N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1998. pg 55
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 (Zane 1994)
  3. (Jorgensen & Jorgensen 1982, p. 376)
  4. 4.0 4.1 (Feingold 1995, p. 399)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Clairvoyant or counsellor? Meet the woman who walks a fine line.” The Northern Echo. 27 Oct. 2000.
  6. (Jorgensen & Jorgensen 1982, p. 381)
  7. (Jorgensen & Jorgensen 1982, p. 375)
  8. Adams, Catherine. “What is Clairvoyance and What Can I Expect in a Session With Catherine?
  9. Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers. "Acting as a personal trainer in magic, the rootworker can teach you how to construct a working candle altar, share new spells, remind you of the proper Psalms and prayers most often prescribed in your situation, and generally walk you through the work the same way that a family member or old friend would do."
  10. (Jorgensen & Jorgensen 1982, p. 384)
  11. 11.0 11.1 (Jorgensen & Jorgensen 1982, p. 377)
  12. (Jorgensen & Jorgensen 1982, p. 337)
  13. (Jorgensen & Jorgensen 1982, p. 387)
  14. [1]
  15. Misterfengshui. "Misterfengshui." Chinese metaphysics 網上香港風水學家黃頁. Retrieved on 2008-01-05.
  16. Fengshui magazine. "Fengshui-magazine." Chinese metaphysics 網上香港風水學家黃頁. Retrieved on 2008-01-05.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Fsrcenter. "Fsrcenter." Su Dong Po's misinterpreted saying. Retrieved on 2008-01-05.
  18. A review of Bible verses prohibiting fortune telling and divination
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