Divination: An Overview

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is the art or practice of discovering the personal, human significance of future or, more commonly, present or past events. A preoccupation with the import of events and specific methods to discover it are found in almost all cultures. The culture possibly least interested in divination is that of the traditional Australian Aborigines, yet even they hold divinatory "inquests" at funerals to discover the identity of the sorcerers responsible for the deaths.

Much of science itself has evolved from forms of divination and may be said to continue certain aspects of it. Astronomy, for example, is deeply indebted to ancient Near Eastern and Hellenistic astrological researches; mathematics and physics were advanced by Indian, Pythagorean, and Arabic divinatory cosmological speculations; and several leading Renaissance scientists were inspired by the divinatory schemes of Qabbalah and hermitism in their search for the moral harmonies and direction of the universe. Yet it would be incorrect to label divination a mere infantile science or pseudoscientific magic, for modern science and traditional divination are concerned with essentially distinct goals. This helps to explain the continuing fascination with divination even today on the part of well-educated people, notably in regard to astrology, the Yi Jing, and spiritualism or necromancy (séances with the dead). Divination involves communication with personally binding realities and seeks to discover the "ought" addressed specifically to the personal self or to a group. Science, however, if faithful to its own axioms, cannot enunciate any "oughts" because of its methodological, cognitive, and moral neutrality: it only offers hypotheses about reality and is concerned with general statistical regularities, not with unique persons or events. The existential situation and binding transcendental realities are beyond its concern. It may be argued that, precisely to the degree that such modern disciplines as psychotherapy and Marxist theory leave science behind, they take on divinatory (and therefore religious) functions, and represent modern contributions to the history of divination.

Basic Forms

Anything can be used to divine the meaning of events. It is very common to assign spontaneous and arbitrary meaning to signs or omens when one is deeply anxious about the outcome of a personal situation. But the cultural form of divinatory methods and signs is seldom entirely random: each one expresses a specific logic.

A full list of divinatory agents, therefore, would amount to a catalog of both nature and culture. H. J. Rose, in his article "Divination, Introductory and Primitive," in volume 4 of the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh, 1911), classifies the most common means used to obtain insight as follows: dreams (oneiromancy); hunches and presentiments; involuntary body actions (twinges, sneezes, etc.); ordeals; mediumistic possession; consulting the dead (necromancy); observing animal behavior (e.g., ornithomancy, interpreting the flight of birds); noting the form of entrails of sacrificial victims (extaspicy or haruspicy), or the victims' last movements before death; making mechanical manipulations with small objects such as dice, drawing long or short stalks from a bundle, and so on (sortilege); reading tea leaves (tasseography), or using playing cards (cartography), etc.; decoding natural phenomena (as in geomancy, palmistry, phrenology, or astrology); andof course"miscellaneous." Platoin an analysis that still forms the basis of most modern treatments (as in the world survey of divination edited by Caquot and Leibovici, 1968)distinguished "ecstatic" and "nonecstatic" types, with the latter including all inductive and empirical systems of noting portents, studying entrails, and so forth. But ecstatic states and inductive methods can be mingled confusingly; indigenous interpretations of so-called objective omens often assume spirit possession of the omens and/or ecstatic insight in the diviner, while some mediums appear quite normal when "possessed."

It would be more useful to establish what the indigenous theory of divination is, rather than to attempt to assay the states of mind actually experienced by diviners in different cultures and periods. The same conscious experience of heightened awareness can be interpreted in one culture as deep wisdom and in another as spirit possession. Under the influence of such interpretations, in fact, an individual diviner might permit himself to drift into a deeper mediumistic trance, or on the contrary strive toward a more intense lucidity. How a condition is interpreted influences the way it unfolds and realizes itself.

Stressing the indigenous theory of divination also directs us to the cosmological assumptions and the attitudes toward the self that unit various seemingly unrelated methods. For example, cultures that stress mediumistic interpretations of trance usually also explain the casting of lots or the conformations of entrails in terms of spirit possession: divination, according to this overarching viewpoint, consists of the forms of communication developed by invisible beings to instruct humanity on the meaning of events. But cultures that have developed a concept of a decodable impersonal and elemental divine order would see the entrails or the sortilege in terms of microcosmic echoes of vaster harmonies. In general, then, we may distinguish three general types of divination, based on indigenous meanings: those based on the immediate context when interpreted by the spiritual insight of the diviner (intuitive divination); those based on spirit manipulation (possession divination); and those reflecting the operation of impersonal laws within a coherent divine order (wisdom divination).

Intuitive divination

The Shona of Zimbabwe esteem their hombahomba diviners above all other kinds because these remarkable men, consulted by strangers who travel from far off to seek their help, can spontaneously tell their visitors' names, family connections, urgent problems, and even minor experiences encountered on the journey. People speak in awe of the piercing eyes and aura of penetrating awareness of these diviners, whose fame can spread over great distances. And yetan example of how types of divination can run into one anotherthe hombahomba may attune himself to the consultation by casting hakata dice (a form of wisdom divination), after which, in one reported case, the diviner became possessed before returning to a state of mind in which he could begin the inquiry.

Intuitive divination is perhaps the elementary form out of which, through various interpretations, the other two developed. It is seldom much stressed, although its distribution as hunches and presentiments is universal. The reliability of amateur intuitions is not usually considered very great, yet in many cultures extraordinary spiritual masters are often credited with this type of divinatory insight, which then has more prestige and credence than any other. For example, disciples of a tsaddiq or saintly master in Hasidic Judaism frequently claim that their master can look into a person's soul at first meeting and determine not only the past lives but also the future course of that person. Precisely the same claims are made for many Hindu gurūs. These insights by the gurū are regarded as far more reliable and authoritative than the various forms of wisdom divination common to India, and these in turn are more esteemed than folk mediumistic and possession divination methods.

Possession divination

There are many varieties of possession divination. The most common is augury: divining the message sent by spiritual beings through nonhuman creatures or things. The classic form of augury, much used in ancient Greece and Rome, consisted of attending to the flight of birds, which were thought to be seized by the gods or spirits and directed according to a code known to the diviner. But all other forms of interpreting supposedly objective spirit messages were also included in the Latin term augurium.

Even when human agents are seized by the spiritual beings, this does not always imply trance: a popular form of divination in ancient Near Eastern, medieval European, and even modern societies such as Mexico, is to pose a question and then attend to the first chance words one overhears from passing strangers on the street. Another almost universal method whereby spirits or divinities communicate with a person is to induce twitches or sudden pains in the body. Quite explicit meanings can be derived from this, depending on the part of the body affected and other indications, and of course varying according to the specific cultural context. The theory behind the contemporary use of the Ouija board is explicitly spiritualistic, yet all that one must do to use it is put oneself in a receptive mood: ordinary awareness remains. A very similar state is apparently involved in some cases of glossolalia, according to American Pentecostals I have interviewed, but full mediumistic trance is reported in many studies (see, for example, Felicitas Goodman, Speaking in Tongues, Chicago, 1979). The divinatory interpretation of dreams is another very widely used method; here manipulation by spiritual beings begins to require outright alteration of consciousness, although only when the ego has already dimmed its awareness.

Full divinatory possession of human beings may be of several theoretical forms: prophetic inspiration, shamanistic ecstasy, mystical illuminations and visions, and mediumistic or oracular trance. They differ according to the degree of ego awareness and lucidity, awareness of the ordinary world, and the theoretical recipient of the divinatory message. The prophets of the Bible seem to retain a lucid sense of themselves and the world as they exhort their audience, although they are gripped by an overmastering sense of the integral meaning of events as illuminated by God's presence. The recipient of this revelation of temporal meaning is both the prophet and the human community. In shamanistic trance the struggle between ego awareness and the spirits is often portrayed as being so intense that it forces a displacement of the shaman from this world: the shaman may fly far away to interrogate the spirits or God, and may have to struggle with bad spirits and force them to confess their role in human events. As recipient of the divinatory communications, the shaman may later report on his conversations to an assembled audience, or may permit the audience to eavesdrop on the actual interviews or even to be directly addressed by the spirits through his mouth, but in any case he remains self-possessed and afterward can recall everything that occurred. For the mystical visionary, on the other hand, the entire ordinary world is eclipsed by the ecstatic revelations, and the mystic is the sole direct recipient of the communications. The oracular medium, however, loses all awareness, it is said, and therefore often remains ignorant of the message that is communicated directly from the spiritual being to the audience.

The dependency in particular cultures or subgroups of a culture on "objective" augury methods, or on methods that progressively encroach on or even obliterate ego awareness, suggest differing views of the self, society, and the world. Satisfactory cross-cultural studies of divinatory theories from this point of view have not yet been made, but some points may be tentatively suggested. All kinds of possession divination assume a mysterious, arbitrary world governed by personal powers who are involved with a vulnerable humanity. The human self must learn how to submit to or cajole these capricious and often dangerous spirits. However, in loosely organized, relatively egalitarian societies with an emphasis on personal initiative, we can expect more confidence in the ability of the human ego to sustain its integrity when faced with the spiritual powers. This is what we find, for example, in circumpolar and related cultures in Europe, Siberia, and North America. A study by H. Barry, I. L. Child, and M. K. Bacon (cited by Erika Bourguignon, Possession, San Francisco, 1976) shows that hunting-fishing cultures generally depend on short-term risks and personal initiative, so that individuals are trained from childhood to be self-reliant and self-sufficient: each adult can master all the cultural skills necessary to survive, and ego alertness is highly valued. In such societies mediumistic divination is not found; instead, individuals possess an encyclopedic knowledge of portents, and of methods for obtaining auguries of the capricious spirits' intentions. The autonomous ego can negotiate its way through a mysterious cosmos, while the shaman, able to retain ego awareness and control even in the most intimate relationship with the spirits, is the group guide.

The same cross-cultural study indicates that children in agricultural societies are trained to be obedient, reliable, cooperative, and patientqualities needed for ceaseless cultivation of crops and for interaction with fixed communities. The social group, not the individual, is the survival unit; personal success is obtained through accommodation to others. Even the powerful must submit to the more powerful and the spirits, while the weak survive only through self-effacement. Here, mediumistic trance expresses the natural state of things. A survey of African cultures by Lenora Greenbaum (in Religion, Altered States of Consciousness, and Social Change, edited by Erika Bourguignon, Columbus, Ohio, 1973) has shown that mediumistic divinatory trance is most common in societies having slaves and two or more hereditary (i.e., fixed) classes, such as commoners and nobility, and possessing populations over 100,000. I might add that in such societies a sense of relative deprivation and ego diminution must be common, since individuals meet people every day who enjoy other roles in life. Less advantaged groups (the poor, women, and so on) might well seek transcendental release from the resultant frustrations through mediumistic trance more often than more privileged sectors of society (see I. M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion, Baltimore, 1971). In any case, here one obtains power only through radical self-effacement; even kings become divine only through being possessed. This is the opposite view from that underlying shamanism.

It is perhaps inevitable that, at the center of social power, attempts are made in such cultures to master all that can be known of the arbitrary will of the gods. The court diviners frequently compile mountainous records of precedents of monster births or other omens, the results of centuries of haruspicy, and so forth, as in Babylonia, where we see the fruit of intense efforts to maintain clarity as far as is possible. The Babylonian priests noted every heavenly sign over many centuries, identifying each celestial body with a god. But no system emerged from this, for the classical Babylonian worldview was polytheistic and predicated on power, passion, and personal whims of the divinities. Yet the result was a hierarchy of divination methods: present at the courts were alert, learned priests who interpreted the will of the gods in elaborate augury ceremonials, while among the lower classes mediumism and a much more random and confused use of omens indicated the insecurity of ego control.

When the entire social structure and even the cosmos is felt to be inauthentic, as in late antiquity, mediumistic ecstasy may tend to apocalyptic predictions of the end of the age: the muted protest becomes radical and explicit. Or mystical visions may teach the negation of the entire world. In such cases, divination merges with salvation cults.

Wisdom divination

The elaboration of divination systems based on a unified field of impersonal and universal processes that can be studied, harmonized with, and above all internalized by nonecstatic sages, is an important but rare development in the history of religion. It is most often found in complex civilizations that have been defeated by equally powerful cultures and therefore must integrate their own indigenous views with other perspectives. Wisdom divination is a syncretistic movement beyond specific cults, approaching the elemental ground from which all personal spirits and cultic gods as well as cultural groups arise. But the speculative effort must usually begin in court and priestly circles, for it depends on a cumulative effort of generations and a specialized learning of which, in most early civilizations, only centralized priesthoods are capable. Only after literacy and education become general can the sagelike diviner detach himself from court circles and apply himself to individual and nonpolitical concerns.

Thus it was only after Babylonia fell to Persian conquest in the sixth century bce that its priestly thinkers were challenged by a view that placed "Truth" (the Zoroastrian artha ) and a cosmic order founded in a supreme being above the capricious gods. The new empire embraced many cultures, making possible as a real option personal conversion to such missionizing, universal monotheisms as those espoused by the Jews and the Persians. The old social boundariesand their godsnow became part of a vaster order, and an attempt was begun to link individual lives directly to a single cosmic pattern rather than to any intermediate hierarchies. Inevitably, the effort was eventually to lead to a kind of pagan monotheism, but it began as an attempt to confirm the polytheistic view. With the new radical improvements in mathematics and astronomy, the first personal horoscope known to us was made of a ruler in 410 bce. The new cities and academies of the Hellenistic world spurred the fusion of Zoroastrian, Babylonian, Jewish, Syrian, and Greek currents; as Franz Cumont (1912) has made clear, astrology came to function as nothing less than a universal and syncretistic religious perspective that underlay or influenced all the religions of late antiquity. Even synagogues, as we know from recent excavations, commonly traced the zodiac on their sanctuary floors or walls.

The growing separation of divination and wisdom from the central institutions of power was resented by many kings and emperors. One of Augustus's first acts as emperor was the burning of about two thousand collections of pseudo-Sibylline oracles circulating among the people, since some of the oracles favored rival figures or criticized Roman policies, while others, by Jewish proselytizers, predicted the impending messianic era. Several Roman emperors outlawed all nonofficial divination; Constantine the Great and his successors used Christianity as an excuse to roast to death any astrologer and client caught in private consultation (see Cramer, 1954, and D. Grodzynski's article in Vernant et al., 1974). Even in modern times astrology can have political aspects: the Nazis directed certain agents to gain reputations in the United States and England as astrologers, and then to predict the success of Nazi endeavors or otherwise demoralize Western efforts. Within Nazi Germany itself, astrology was strictly an instrument of state.

Today, however, astrology serves usually as a muted protest against everyday social identity or generally accepted scientific values and cosmology. While interest in astrology is widespread, it has been especially favored by the so-called counterculture, and by many in the lower and lower-middle classes, particularly women, since it desubstantializes oppressive personal relationships, offering instead an exotic alternative identity in which faults are erased or elevated into association with a "star family" embracing strangers. In an increasingly fluid, anonymous, and heterogeneous society, pattern and typological identities are discovered within a larger cosmic harmony, and a sense of control is restored to personal life through the aesthetic and probabilistic terms in which predictions are couched. The power of such a vision is seen in the fact that it persists, even though the zodiac houses and their stellar correlates, fixed as they were during the hellenistic period, are now literally two thousand years out of congruence, making the system obsolete even in its own terms.

A quite similar history of a wisdom divinatory system is that of the Yi Jing in China. It was the practice in court circles of the Shang dynasty to consult the nature spirits and royal ancestorsand especially the celestial supreme beingconcerning all significant state decisions. Scapulimancy was the favored techniquein the late Shang period tortoise shells were generally substituted, supplemented by sortilege with long and short yarrow stalks. These methods had their roots, respectively, in hunting-fishing cultures to the north and in agricultural tribes to the south. Although these methods already involved a conception of heavenly and earthly polarities, it was apparently only after the Shang were overthrown by the Zhou, and after the Zhou had expanded rapidly in succeeding centuries to embrace cultures throughout northern, central, and even southern China, that an elemental metaphysics arose that transcended all gods and spirits and was encapsulated in the Yi Jing as such. There is no reference to personal spirits or gods anywhere in the text of the Yi Jing in its present form, which stems from the late Zhou and former Han dynasties. Instead, all of reality is regarded as woven out of a dialectic of yin and yang forces (contracting and expanding, respectively): all things and persons are composites in the process of transformation. Using the elaborate binary code of this method, one can discover what the transformations imply, but only if one has attained true nobility and tranquility of character. Confucian mandarins and philosophers through the ages ruled their lives by this text, but only in the Ming dynasty did its use become widespread among the general populace, reflecting the growth of literacy and the escalating complexity of Chinese civilization. The Yi Jing had come to serve as a quiet intellectual aid to personal transcendence and mastery of immediate social pressures. This functionthe same one it serves today in the Westdiffered from its earlier Confucian use as a guide in official life and in social activity often associated with the court.

The Chinese had a number of other forms of wisdom divination, in particular a distinctive form of astrology and an elaborate geomancy. The latter offered detailed instructions on the cosmic forces affecting any specific site, and professional geomancers were consulted whenever a house was to be built, a road laid, or a grave site chosen. Astrology too governed all aspects of village life by the later medieval period, despite the general folk use of many possession divination methods, ranging from countless omens and portents to outright mediumistic séances.

Hindu astrology combined some elements of the Chinese system and more of the Middle Eastern system into its own configuration. Other significant forms of wisdom divination include the Islamic hati system (al-kha bi-raml) and the several derivations of it in West Africa (especially the Yoruba and Fon Ifa systems), Zimbabwe, and Madagascar.

Divination in Western Religions

The Jewish and Christian traditions are markedly ambivalent about divination. For example, the rabbis criticized the use of folk methods found in surrounding cultures, just as the Torah itself forbids all appeals to local nature spirits or to the dead. While the efficacy of such appeals is not necessarily denied (1 Sm. 28), such acts were thought to suggest that God is not the one source of all events and of all truly reliable knowledge. (See Dt. 18:1022; Lv. 19:26, 19:31, 20:67, 20:27; Jer. 10:2; and the tractates Pes. 113a and Ned. 32a from the Talmud. For a full discussion, see Cohen, 1949.) Thus prophetic inspiration directly from God, the use of Urim and Tummim in the Temple, certain kinds of omens, and even dream divination by Joseph in Egypt and at local shrines in ancient Israel were certainly acceptable. So most Talmudic rabbis permitted dream divination, water gazing, and the use of omens; contradictory views were expressed concerning astrology, but by the Middle Ages most rabbis accepted what was in effect the science of the day. Moses Maimonides, however, made a scathing attack upon it: freedom of will, he said, is fundamental to Torah spirituality; those who follow God cannot in any case by subject to the stars (see, e.g., Dt. 4:1920), while a close analysis of astrology shows it to be based on poor reasoning and worse science. Necromancy was explicitly condemned in the Torah (Dt. 18:11), and there is very little reference to any kind of spirit possession in the Talmud; the late medieval dybbuk possession chiefly involved tormented but not malicious spirits who sought expiation for sins. Yet qabbalistic meditations resulted in a wide variety of wisdom divinatory methods based on the divine image sustaining the whole of creation, and prophetic ecstatic visions were sought by mystics from the Talmudic age on.

In Christianity some of the same themes and ambiguities reappear, but now the antithesis between good and bad divination is understood as part of a war between Christ and Satan. For example spirit possession, mediumistic and otherwise, is a frequent phenomenon and is generally viewed as demonic and requiring exorcism. However, astrological signs can be good, for they marked Jesus' birth. Dream divination by Joseph or Pilate's wife, casting lots, and mediumistic glossolalia are all approved (Mt. 1:20, 2:2, 2:12, 27:19; Acts 1:26, 10:10), unless performed by non-Christians like Simon Magus or by sorcerers (Acts 8:9, 13:6, 16:16). Folk methods used in the Roman Empire and afterward were readily incorporated into Christian and official usage, although the fourth-century Synod of Laodicia and the contemporaneous Theodosian Code outlawed divination (drawing on earlier precedents in Roman legislation). Thus divinatory invocation of pagan deities or spirits, schismatic prophetic movements within Christianity, and even oracular attempts to criticize or delegitimize the ruling regime were all stamped as "Satanism."

Similar attitudes continued into later European cultures, but a rich and highly varied regional folk practice of divination persisted. From Islamic civilizationitself the inheritor of Middle Eastern, Persian, and even Indian methods of divinationcame scholarly catalogs of divinatory significances of dreams, omens, and studies of specialized systems such as palmistry, astrology, and crystal gazing. Astrologydespite the rejection of it in the late Roman Empire by church leaders who often cited critical analyses by earlier pagan philosopherscame to be regarded as a universal science in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance renewed acquaintance with classical criticisms (permitting astronomy to develop as an independent science), but the increasing literacy of later generations spread knowledge of these systems and encouraged devotees to elaborate their own methods further and publish studies of them. Cartomancy (including the use of tarot cards), phrenology (divination by head conformations), graphology (handwriting analysis), and many other novel systems or elaborations of earlier systems developed at this time. Pietists of the Reformation heartily condemned these alternative systems of wisdom, but continued to use dreams, omens, and even scriptures opened at random to comprehend events.

In the modern period, devotees of such systems as astrology or water witching often feel constrained to offer "scientific" explanations for the claimed success of their methodsexplanations often extrinsic to the methods themselves. Extrasensory perceptions (precognition, etc.), for example, have been cited, or the "synchronicity" invoked by C. G. Jung for the power of the Yi Jing: with the mind tuned in by the divinatory apparatus and method, the diviner may notice the minute evidences of interconnections and processes in the environment that are usually ignored, or the diviner may in this heightened state even comprehend vaster elemental wholes leading inevitably to certain outcomes. It is even suggested that divinatory consciousness may be able to pick up unobservable rhythms in events, in somewhat the same way that a radio picks up invisible transmission. These hypotheses may describe real processes; unfortunately, they are at present untestable.

Sacrificial Motifs

In any case, divination is fundamentally directed by religious, not scientific, concerns. Its basic curiosity is not about how the world is constructed apart from the pulsing heart of the observer, but about the existential meaning of particular human lives. Above all, divination illuminates suffering and alleviates doubt. It restores value and significance to lives in crisis. But to achieve this, all systems of divination demand the submission of the inquirer to transcendental realities, whether these be divine persons (possession divination) or the underlying divine order (wisdom divination). The inquirer is made to achieve spiritual distance from the self and the immediate crisis.

This recentering of the self is usually directed by sacrificial motifs and rituals. Almost all African divination, for example, ends in sacrifice to the spirits named in the consultations as responsible for the crisis, and many rites also begin with sacrifice. Very often the act of divination is simply a sacrificial rite: in Nilotic and Bantu cultures, the answer is "read" from the entrails of victims. Often the actions of the sacrificed victim give the spirit's answer. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo and nearby culture areas, chickens may be fed a partially toxic substance: if the bird dies, God has accepted it and signified "yes" to the question; if not, the answer is "no." A similar logic directs witch ordeals. As in Africa, so also in Europe is the observation of the last convulsive movements of a sacrificial victim a divination practice. Strabo tells us that the ancient Gauls often killed a slave or captive by a sword stroke in the back: the future was then told from the way he fell, his movements, and the way the blood flowed. Even wisdom divination is frequently given a mythical source in a primal sacrifice (as in the case of the African Dogon and Bambara rites, and also the Yoruba and Fon systems of divination, called Ifa and Fa, respectively. The oracle bone divination of Shang dynasty China had a sacrificial context, and the actual procedure by which one consults the Yi Jing is basically structured by sacrificial ideas. Mediums perhaps most dramatically embody a sacrificial logic: those initiated in the spiritualistic religions of Nigeria and Dahomey, for example, and in their perpetuations in recent centuries in the Caribbean, must undergo a symbolic and psychic death and resurrectionone so experiential that occasionally the offering to the spirits, the medium-candidate, does not rise again from the ground.

All this expresses a deeper truth, that divination requires the radical submission of the diviner and indeed the client to the transcendental sources of truth, before their lives can be transformed and set straight, before they can be reincorporated harmoniously into the world. In short, divinatory rites follow the pattern of all rites of passage. The client, having learned in the course of the rite to offer up to the divine all egocentric resistance, ends the session reoriented to the world and able to take positive and confident action in it.

G. K. Park (in Lessa and Vogt, 1965) has suggested that divination assists in political and personal decision making precisely by removing the decision from contesting parties and giving it an objective legitimacy, both through its spiritual source and its convincing ritual drama. O. K. Moore (ibid.) has added that even the "randomizing" of decision outcomes in divination is actually adaptive in situations where egoistically obvious or socially customary decisions might end up limiting personal or group survival chances. By hunting in accord with the cracks that appear on heated deer shoulder blades, the Naskapi Indians of Labrador are prevented from overhunting favorite areas and are therefore more likely to find game year-round.

Wisdom divination also often works in this way: by freeing the inquirer from customary ways of thought, it frequently reveals fresh insight into problems. Thus the cryptic proverbs or aphorisms (as in the Ifa system or the Yi Jing ), or the nonbinding details and universalizable generalities (as in astrology), open up a cosmic perspective that in itself bestows tranquility and a renewed ability to cope effectively with crises. One learns to see behind appearances and to cultivate a continual attitude of tranquil self-offering. The momentum of wisdom divination, in short, is to internalize the basic attitude operating in all divination; it does this by rendering the structures of the transcendent into a form in which they can be grasped consciously and autonomously. The very vagueness of the answers in most forms of wisdom divination aid in this personal appropriation, making the client participate in shaping meaning out of the session.

See Also

Dreams; Geomancy; Necromancy; Oracles; Yinyang Wuxing.


Useful historical surveys of divination and related topics in world cultures include Lynn Thorndike's monumental A History of Magic and Experimental Science, 3 vols. (New York, 19231958), and Auguste Bouché-Leclerq's still very useful Histoire de la divination dans l'antiquité, 4 vols. in 2 (18791889; reprint, New York, 1975). Thorndike's history is chiefly oriented to Western culture, but the first two volumes deal with antiquity. Bouché-Leclerq focuses on classical Greco-Roman cultures. A total of seventeen learned articles on divination in particular cultures, and an additional twelve articles on astrology and other religious aspects of heavenly phenomena in world cultures, can be found in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 vols., edited by James Hastings (Edinburgh, 19081926), under "Divination" (vol. 4, 1911) and "Sun, Moon, and Stars" (vol. 12, 1921). More up to date is the excellent survey edited by André Caquot and Marcel Leibovici, La divination: Études recueillies, 2 vols., (Paris, 1968), which, in addition to the expected essays on the major ancient Near Eastern, classical, and Asian cultures, contains numerous essays on pre-Christian European cultures; the ancient civilizations of the Americas; native or tribal cultures in Siberia, Africa, and elsewhere; and modern folk and urban Western societiesall with helpful bibliographies. The most recent English symposium is Michael Loewe and Carmen Blacker's Divination and Oracles (London, 1981), with nine authoritative essays ranging from Tibetan culture to Islam.

An anthropological symposium on divination that refers to political aspects as well is Divination et rationalité, by Jean-Pierre Vernant and others (Paris, 1974). A useful selection of important theoretical anthropological essays on divination is included in Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, 2d ed., edited by William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt (New York, 1965); later editions include some more recent studies but omit much from the second edition. Mediumship has evoked the greatest attention from anthropologists; see, for example, Spirit Mediumship and Society in Africa, edited by John Beattie and John Middleton (New York, 1969), in addition to the studies mentioned in the text of the foregoing article.

For an authorative summary of what we know about ancient Mesopotamian divination, see A. Leo Oppenheim's Ancient Mesopotamia (Chicago, 1964), pp. 198227, or W. H. P. Römer's "Religion of Ancient Mesopotamia," in Historia Religionum, edited by C. Jouco Bleeker and Geo Widengren, vol. 1 (Leiden, 1969), especially pp. 172178. H. W. Parke has summarized his many authoritative studies on Greek mediumship in his brief Greek Oracles (London, 1967); he does not ignore social and political implications. Still outstanding is Franz Cumont's Astrology and Religion among the Greeks and Romans (1912; reprint, New York, 1960). More recent are Hans Lewy's Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy: Mysticism, Magic and Platonism in the Later Roman Empire, new edition by Michel Tardieu (Paris, 1978), and Frederick Henry Cramer's Astrology in Roman Law and Politics (Philadelphia, 1954).

Talmudic views of divination are well discussed by Abraham Cohen in his Everyman's Talmud, new ed. (New York, 1949), pp. 274297; further information is available in the article "Divination" by Shmuel Ahituv and others in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, 16 vols. (Jerusalem, 1971). A general survey of Muslim divination is available in Toufic Fahd's La divination arabe (Leiden, 1966), and in the various symposia mentioned above. On hati geomancy, see the article by Robert Jaulin in the collection by André Caquot and Marcel Leibovici, cited above, and Robert Jaulin's La géomancie: Analyse formelle (Paris, 1966). For a penetrating study of the Yoruba Ifa system, see Wande Abimbola's Ifa: An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus (London, 1976).

Any study of Chinese divination should begin with Joseph Needham's brilliant study Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 2 (Cambridge, 1956), pp. 216395; an excellent bibliography is appended. Among the many perceptive studies of the Yi Jing is Hellmut Wilhelm's Heaven, Earth and Man in the Book of Changes: Seven Eranos Lectures (Seattle, 1977). A useful survey of other forms of Chinese wisdom divination as well as of allied forms of the I ching is Wallace A. Sherrill and Wen Kuan Chu's An Anthology of I Ching (London, 1977). Also see Stephan D. R. Feuchtwang's An Anthropological Analysis of Chinese Geomancy (Vientiane, Laos, 1974).

New Sources

Aguilar, Mario I. "Divination, Theology and Healing in an African Context." Feminist Theology no. 7S (1994): 3438.

Ciraolo, Leda, and Jonathan Seidel, eds. Magic and Divination in the Ancient World. Leiden, 2002.

Cryer, Frederick H. Divination in Ancient Israel and Its Near Eastern Environment: A Socio-historical Investigation. Sheffield, England, 1994.

Davis, David. "Divination in the Bible." Jewish Bible Quarterly 30, no. 2 (AprilJune 2002): 121.

Evan M. Zuesse (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Divination: An Overview

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