Chapter 7: Introduction
The desire to foresee the future quite likely began when early humans began to perceive that they were a part of nature, subject to its limitations and laws, and that they were seemingly powerless to alter those laws. Unlike the beasts around them, however, humans lived most of their lives in the knowledge that one day they would die, and that accidents and awful circumstances could snuff them out at any time. In addition, under certain circumstances, an unforeseen financial loss could be nearly as dreadful as a mortal wound. It was humanity's attempts to alleviate these fundamental anxieties regarding a fearful future that caused it to seek foreknowledge of tomorrow from the earliest times.
Divination, the method of obtaining knowledge of the unknown or the future by means of omens, has been practiced in all societies—barbarous and civilized. Ancient humans lived in a world of dualism, an arena of constant combat between positive and negative forces. Humans, the only creatures who react to their environment emotionally as well as physically, felt themselves surrounded by powerful and mysterious forces over which they had no control. Hoping to influence the supernatural beings whom they believed controlled their destiny, or at least to appease the beings' wrath, humans sought to know the will of the gods.
The ancient Chaldeans read the machinations of the gods in the star-filled heavens, as well as in the bloody livers of sacrificed fowl. When the king of Babylon went forth to war, he wrote the names of cities on his arrows, put them back into the quiver, and shook them. He then removed an arrow and attacked first the city whose name was written thereon. The children of Israel sought the word of the Lord in the jewels of the Ephod; and Jonah deemed it a just verdict when the casting of lots decreed that it was he who was the cause of the storm. Pharaoh elevated Joseph from his prison cell to the office of chief minister of Egypt and staked the survival of his kingdom on Joseph's interpretation of his dreams. In the same land of Egypt, priests of Isis and Ra listened as those deities spoke through the unmoving lips of the stone Sphinx.
The writings of Hermes Trismegistus were considered by the alchemists as a legacy from the master of alchemy and were, therefore, most precious to them. The alchemists, who were concerned with the spiritual perfection of humans as well as the transmutation of base metals into gold, recorded their formulas and esoteric truths in allegorical form. The Hermetics believed that the nature of the cosmos was sacramental, and Hermes' dictum that "that which is above is like that which is below" was the essence of universal truth. In other words, the nature of the spiritual world could be discovered through the study of the material, and earthly humans, created of the "dust of the ground," comprised the prima materia of the heavenly, just as the base elements of the earth comprised the raw materials for gold.
In Greece, where the world of matter was held in subjugation to the powers of mind, arithmetic was used as a means of divination. Numbers were assigned to the gods and goddesses, and when the right number was evoked, the corresponding deity answered.
The Roman emperors, considered somewhat divine themselves, could consult the gods, but it was generally forbidden for commoners to do so. Although up until the fourth century most of the Roman emperors were openly opposed to magic and divination, prescience was widely known in the land of the Tiber. Astrologers, both native and from Chaldea, were much in demand, and other diviners practiced augury utilizing the entrails of slaughtered animals. Although diviners and soothsayers were sometimes banished and sometimes executed, it was usually because they had failed to see what Caesar wanted them to see or because they had seen more than Caesar wanted them to see, not merely for the practice of their art.
It remained for the emperors who were converts to the new religion, Christianity, to declare the religio paganorum (the religion of the country people) to be forbidden practices and to pave the way for full-scale persecution. Although pagan temples were destroyed and images and books of the adepts burned, magicians continued to meet in secret and to perform their rites of divination.
Although the practice of occult arts was suppressed by Christianity, it was never completely excised. The mystical Neoplatonists put together a system of magic whose workings were attributed to supernatural agencies and beings, which were carefully differentiated from the demons Christianity sought to banish from the minds of men and women. Because intellectual activity was thought to be bound up with the influence of these demons, Europe descended into an abyss of ignorance and religious absurdity that history accurately terms the Dark Ages (about 476 to 1000).
But the tree of forbidden knowledge was not so easily cut down. In the East, where the Crescent overshadowed the influence of the Cross, Arab intellectuals preserved knowledge of the occult as well as significant portions of other classical thought and ancient lore. From Muslim-dominated Spain, this knowledge trickled back into Europe, where it was combined with alchemy and the Hermetic Mysteries.
The objects of divination may change, but not their function. Many of the ancient forms of divination are alive and flourishing in the Western world today. Many of them will be examined in this chapter along with examples of how they might be experienced. Instructions of some of the methods of divination and prophecies are included to encourage understanding of the techniques, not belief in their powers.