Divination by lots, one of the most ancient and common superstitions. It was used among Oriental nations to detect a guilty person, as when Saul by this means discovered that Jonathan had disobeyed his command by taking food, and when the sailors by a similar process found Jonah to be the cause of the tempest by which they were overtaken.
The various methods of using the lot have been very numerous, including rhabdomancy, clidomancy, the Sortes Sagittariae or belomancy, and the common casting of dice. The following are the more classical methods:
Sortes Thriaecae, or Thriaen lots, were chiefly used in Greece; they were pebbles or counters distinguished by certain characters that were cast into an urn, and the first that came out was supposed to contain the right direction. This form of divination received its name from the Thriaej, three nymphs supposed to have nursed Apollo and to have invented this mode of predicting futurity.
Sortes Viales, or street and road lots, were used both in Greece and Rome. The person that wanted to learn his fortune carried with him a certain number of lots, distinguished by several characters or inscriptions. Walking to and fro in the public ways he asked the first boy whom he met to draw, and the inscription on the lot thus drawn was received as an infallible prophecy. Plutarch declared that this form of divination was derived from the Egyptians, by whom the actions and words of boys were carefully observed as containing in them something prophetical.
Another form of the Sortes Viales was exhibited by a boy, or sometimes by a man, who positioned himself in a public place to give responses to all comers. He was provided with a tablet, on which certain predictive verses were written; when consulted, he cast dice on the tablet, and the verses on which they fell were supposed to contain the proper direction. Sometimes instead of tablets they had urns, in which the verses were thrown, written upon slips of parchment. The verse drawn out was received as a sure guide and direction. Tibullus alluded to this custom as follows: "Thrice in the streets the sacred lots she threw, and thrice the boy a happy omen drew." This form of divining was often practiced with the Sibylline oracles, and hence was named Sortes Sibyllina.
Sortes Prenestinae, or the Prenestine lots, were used in Italy. The letters of the alphabet were placed in an urn and shaken; they were then turned out upon the floor, and the words that they accidentally formed were received as omens.
This divinatory use of letters is still known in Eastern countries. The Muslims had a divining table that they said was invented by the prophet Edris or Enoch. It was divided into a hundred little squares, each of which contained a letter of the Arabic alphabet. The person who consulted it repeated three times the opening chapter of the Qur'an, and the 57th verse of the 6th chapter: "With Him are the keys of the secret things; none knoweth them but Him; He knoweth whatever is on the dry ground, or in the sea: there falleth no leaf but he knoweth it; neither is there a single grain in the dark parts of the earth, nor a green thing, nor a dry thing, but it is written in a perspicuous book."
Having concluded this recitation, he averted his head from the table and placed his finger upon it; he then looked to see upon what letter his finger was placed, wrote that letter; the fifth following it; the fifth following that again; and so on until he came back to the first he had touched. The letters thus collected formed the answer.
Sortes Homericae and Sortes Virgilianae involve divination by opening some poem at hazard and accepting the passage that first turns up as an answer. This practice probably arose from the esteem that poets had among the ancients, by whom they were reputed divine and inspired persons. Homer's works among the Greeks had the most credit, but the tragedies of Euripides and other celebrated poems were occasionally used for the same purpose. The Latins chiefly consulted Virgil, and many curious coincidences were related by grave historians, between the prediction and the event; thus, the elevation of Severus to the Empire is supposed to have been foretold by his opening at this verse, "Remember, Roman, with imperial sway to rule the nations."
It is said that Charles I and Lord Falkland made trial of the Virgilian lots a short time before the commencement of the great Civil War. The former opened at that passage in the fourth book of the Æneid where Dido predicts the violent death of her faithless lover; the latter at the lamentation of Evander over his son in the eleventh book. If the story is true, the coincidences between the responses and events are remarkable.
Sortes Biblicae was divination by the Bible, which the early Christians used instead of the profane poets. Nicephorus Gregoras recommended the Psalter as the fittest book for the purpose, but Cedrenus stated that the New Testament was more commonly used. St. Augustine denounced this practice in temporal affairs, but declared in one of his letters that he had recourse to it in all cases of spiritual difficulty. Another form of the Biblical lots was to go to a place of worship and take as an omen the first passage of Scripture read by the minister or the text from which he preached.
Muslims consulted the Qur'an in a similar manner, but one of their methods was to deduce their answer from the seventh line of the right-hand page. Others counted how often the letters kha and shin occurred in the page; if kha (the first letter of kheyr, "good") predominated, the answer was deemed favorable, but if shin (the first letter of shin, "evil") appeared more frequently, the inference was that the projects of the inquirer were forbidden or dangerous.
It would be easy to multiply examples of these efforts to obtain guidance from blind chance. They were once so frequent that it was deemed necessary to denounce them from the pulpit as being clearly forbidden by the divine precept, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God."