10 Historical Divination Methods for Predicting the Future

The Liver of Piacenza, a model of a sheep's liver used in Etruscan divination and unearthed in Italy in 1877.
The Liver of Piacenza, a model of a sheep's liver used in Etruscan divination and unearthed in Italy in 1877.
Shonagon, Wikimedia // CC0 1.0 (cropped)

Humans have been trying to predict the future since long before the Magic 8 Ball was invented. Divination, often using bones and entrails, was a common practice in the ancient world, and perhaps even earlier. Since then, it's seemed like just about any handy object lying around—books, chickens, even cheese—has been used to attempt a glimpse at upcoming events, leading to a host of compound words formed with the suffix -mancy (which can be traced back to the Ancient Greek for "seer" or "prophet"). Here are some of the more intriguing forms of historical divination—some may even still be practiced today, depending on who you ask—from the widespread and better known to the more delightfully obscure.

1. Hieromancy (Divination Using Entrails)

Beginning in Mesopotamia and then in classical Greece and beyond, animals were sacrificed in divinatory rituals and their internal organs (notably the liver) were inspected for omens. Aside from oracles, it was the most important divination method of the classical world: In his De Divinatione ("On Divination"), the Roman orator, statesman, and writer Cicero wrote "nearly everybody employs entrails in divining." The gory practice went by a few different names, including extispicy (from the Latin exta, or "entrails") and haruspicy, and was practiced by specialists, sometimes called extispices or haruspices. Though details on how exactly the interpretations worked can be scarce, a healthy liver was generally a positive sign, but if the organ lacked a lobe, doom was all but certain. Defects in the heart of the animal were also seen as a very bad portent, as was extra bloodiness. The Etruscans were famed practitioners of hieromancy, and at least one life-size bronze model of a sheep liver (likely made for educational purposes) has been unearthed, marked with names of various gods in each quadrant—a little like the entrails version of old phrenology heads.

2. Ornithomancy (Divination Using Birds)

Interpreting the behavior of birds is one of the oldest forms of divination, and was a common part of Greek religious life. In Aristophanes's comedy The Birds, the leader of a chorus of birds brags of their usefulness in divination: "Before undertaking anything, whether a business transaction, a marriage, or the purchase of food, you consult the birds by reading the omens." (However, the bird also says: "With you a word is an omen, you call a sneeze an omen, a meeting an omen, an unknown sound an omen, a slave or an ass an omen.") In Rome, ornithomancy was practiced by public priests known as augurs, who "took the auspices" by observing birds and other natural signs, such as thunder and lightning, to interpret the will of the gods. The number, flight, and cries or songs of both wild birds and caged sacred chickens could be used; if food fell from the beaks of the chickens while they were eating, it was a very propitious sign.

3. Pyro-osteomancy (Bone Oracles)

Pieces of oracle bone engraved with early Chinese writing from the Shang dynasty.
Pieces of oracle bone engraved with early Chinese writing from the Shang dynasty, collection of Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University
BabelStone, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

In ancient China, bones were used to tell the future. During the Neolithic period, the Shang dynasty, and beyond specialists would inscribe questions on animal (often cattle) shoulder-blades and tortoise shells, then chisel pits into them and insert heated points. The cracks made by the heated points were then interpreted as answers to the questions—either as positive or negative omens, or with more specific meanings. Some scholars even think the meanings of these cracks formed the basis for early Chinese script, and the oracle bones, as they're now known, are definitely the oldest evidence of Chinese writing. The oracle bones had been forgotten by history until their rediscovery around the early 20th century, when large caches were found; previously, they had known as "dragon bones" and ground up into medicine. Similar forms of pyro-osteomancy were found throughout East and Northeast Asia, and even North America, and in some cases may still be practiced by indigenous peoples.

4. Bibliomancy (Divination Using Books)

The practice of asking a question, opening a book at random, and interpreting the first passage your eyes (or fingers) hit upon as an answer was once widespread among the Greeks and Romans, the Muslim world, medieval Europe, and elsewhere. The Bible, the Book of Psalms, the Koran, and the works of the Roman poet Virgil were among the books most commonly used. Divination employing Virgil's writing even had its own name, the sortes Virgilianae. (Because it's the 21st century, you can now practice it online.) And you didn't even necessarily need to read the books to use them for divination—in Russia, people would tie books to the ceiling using string, and then pay attention to which way the books swung when certain names were mentioned. The direction of the swing could indicate the name of a future spouse, or girls who would marry within the year.

5. Alectryomancy (Divination Using Chickens)

Chickens weren't just a handy food source in the ancient world—they could also predict the future. Various divinatory methods were employed in which chickens were offered a choice of grain in a particular location or direction, which corresponded to an answer to the subject in question (the parties in a battle, say, or the direction from which a future husband might come). According to The New Encyclopedia of the Occult, one famous example of alectryomancy took place during the reign of the Emperor Valens (364-378 CE), in which a group of Roman courtiers sought the name of Valens's successor. During the ceremony, a circle was drawn and divided up into segments, with each segment corresponding to a certain letter, and a grain of wheat was placed in each segment. After various arcane incantations, the chicken pecked the grains corresponding to the letters t,h,e,o, and d, which was understood to mean "Theodotus," a local official who was known to be ambitious. Sadly, Valens found out about the episode and had everyone killed—including Theodotus. (It's less clear what happened to the chicken.)

6. Tyromancy (Divination Using Cheese)

The use of cheese as a divination tool was known in the ancient world and the Middle Ages, although the details aren't very well-recorded. Some say the shapes of the holes in the cheeses were thought to hold meaning—a heart shape could indicate love, and certain holes could be read as initials. According to occultopedia.com, young women in the countryside would predict future husbands by writing the names of suitors on pieces of cheese. The first to mold was believed to be the ideal mate. It may be worth noting, however, that the Greek diviner Artemidorus did not feel that cheese divination was very reliable, and included cheese diviners among his list of "false diviners," alongside dice diviners, sieve-diviners, and necromancers. (The interpretation of dreams and livers was far more dependable, he felt.)

7. Ceromancy (Divination Using Melted Wax)

A drawing of women practicing divination with lead or wax
A drawing of women practicing divination with lead or wax
Čeněk Zibrt, Wikimedia // Public Domain

The swirling shapes made by pouring melted wax into water were used as a divination tool in both ancient and medieval Europe. One common method was to melt the wax in a brass container, and then pour the liquified wax into a vessel full of cold water, after which the diviner would interpret the shapes floating in the water. A related practice, molybdomancy, used the shapes in molten metal, usually lead. One 19th-century Irish book instructs women curious about the trade of their future spouse to take a small lump of lead and put it under their pillow on Midsummer's Eve. The next day they were to heat the lead until boiling, take a pail of water, and pour in the lead—"take it out, and you will find … emblems of his trade; if a ship, he is a sailor, [if] a book, a parson … and so on."

8. Cledonomancy (Divination by Words Overheard)

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, chance utterings weren't always just that. The art of cledonomancy, or divination from overhead words, could be practiced either inside or outside of a specific ritual. In De Divinatione, Cicero relates a story about the Roman general Lucius Paulus, who was then readying his armies to fight King Perseus of Macedonia. Coming home one evening, he noticed that his young daughter Tertia looked forlorn. "What is the matter, Tertia, my dear? Why are you sad?" he asked. His daughter replied, "Oh! father, Persa is dead." Persa was the name of the little girl's puppy, but her father interpreted the words as an omen meaning he would defeat Perseus, which he did.

Specific Greek oracles, such as the oracle of Hermes at Pharai, were also designed around cledonomancy. After burning incense and making offerings, those who wished to know their future would whisper a question into an ear of Hermes's statue, cover their ears, and walk away. The first words they heard when they uncovered their ears were interpreted as the answer to their query.

9. Ring Oracles and "Under-the-Bowl Songs"

In Russia, divination was once a popular pastime for the days just after the New Year, known as the strashyne ("fearful") days, when evil spirits were said to be particularly active. According to W. F. Ryan's The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia, divination performed between midnight and 3 a.m. on these days was especially effective. One popular practice involved "under-the-bowl songs," in which rings and other personal objects were placed in a bowl and special divinatory songs sung, with each verse corresponding to a particular fortune (poverty, spinsterhood, etc.).

In one version of the practice from the Kaluga province, girls started by fetching water from a well, speaking the name of a man they wanted to marry as they did so. Once home, they poured the water into a bowl, sprinkled in some oats, added their rings, a cross, and charcoal, then covered the bowl and asked someone (usually a widow) to agitate the water with her pinkie finger. The group would then sing a song, and the widow would draw out a ring at the end of each verse. Ryan gives the example of a verse that foretells death:

Death is walking down the street,
He carries a pancake on a plate,
To the one whose ring is taken out,
It will happen,
It will happen soon,
It can't be escaped.

10. Herring Fat and Membranes

In mid-19th-century Belfast, according to Oxford's Dictionary of Superstitions, women predicted the character of their future husbands using the slimier parts of a herring. One interview excerpted in the dictionary described "a small, silvery-coloured, glutinous membrane, of perhaps an inch and a half in length, [that] lies along the under side of the backbone of the fish." The source goes on to recollect seeing female servants "divining by means of this little membrane" the physical or character traits of their future spouses, by throwing the membranes of herring they had eaten against a wall and interpreting the shape it made. "It depended on the way in which it rested, if it stretched out quite straight, curved, crooked, very crooked, or all in a little heap, whether the future husband would be tall and handsome, or small and ugly," the source said. A similar practice was also known in Scotland, where the 1824 Gallovidian Encyclopedia is a little more blunt: "Herring Soam, the fat of herrings. Young girls throw this against a wall, and if it adheres to it in an upright manner, then the husband they will get will also be so; if crooked, he will be crooked."

10 Fascinating Facts About Chinese New Year

iStock.com/aluxum
iStock.com/aluxum

Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning January 25 in 2020, China will welcome the Year of the Rat, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. Chinese New Year was originally meant to scare off a monster.

Nian at Chinese New Year
iStock.com/jjMiller11

As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A lot of families use Chinese New Year as motivation to clean the house.

woman ready to clean a home
iStock.com/PRImageFactory

While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. Chinese New Year will prompt billions of trips.

Man waiting for a train.
iStock.com/MongkolChuewong

Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. Chinese New Year involves a lot of superstitions.

Colorful pills and medications
iStock.com/FotografiaBasica

While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. Some people rent boyfriends or girlfriends for Chinese New Year to soothe their parents.

Young Asian couple smiling
iStock.com/RichVintage

In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. Red envelopes are everywhere during Chinese New Year.

a person accepting a red envelope
iStock.com/Creative-Family

An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. Chinese New Year can create record levels of smog.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City
iStock.com/lusea

Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. Black clothes are a bad omen during Chinese New Year.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year
iStock.com/lusea

So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. Chinese New Year leads to planes being stuffed full of cherries.

Bowl of cherries
iStock.com/CatLane

Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand. In 2017, Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. Panda Express is hoping Chinese New Year will catch on in America.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
domandtrey, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.

20 Memorable Virginia Woolf Quotes

Getty Images
Getty Images

Born on January 25, 1882, Virginia Woolf was a true writer’s writer. With flowing prose and a courageous pen, she dissected every topic from the idiocy of warfare to the joys of sex. We've picked 20 lines that rank among her all-time best—which is no easy feat.

1. On recorded history

“Nothing has really happened until it has been described.”

— Said to a young acquaintance,Nigel Nicholson, who later became a successful publisher, memoirist, and politician

2. On writing about nature

“Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.”

— From her 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography

3. On translating comedy

“Humor is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue.”

—From the essay collectionThe Common Reader, First Series (1925)

4. On time

“Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

5. On being an honest writer

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

From The Moment and Other Essays (1947)

6. On sexism

“As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

7. On writing fiction

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”

—From her seminal 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own”

8. On questioning the status quo

“Let us never cease from thinking—what is this ‘civilisation’ in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them?”

— From her anti-war essay “Three Guineas” (1938)

9. On fashion

“There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we, them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

10. On food

virginia woolf

A photo of author Virginia Woolf, who was famous for writing To The Lighthouse and Orlando.

George Charles Beresford, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

— From “A Room of One’s Own”

11. On getting older

“I don’t believe in ageing. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.”

—From her diary (entry dated October 2, 1932)

12. On artistic integrity

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.”

— From “A Room of One’s Own”

13. On the universe

“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?”

—From the novel Night and Day (1919)

14. On personal growth

“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.”

—From her 1931 novel The Waves

15. On society

“At one and the same time, therefore, society is everything and society is nothing. Society is the most powerful concoction in the world and society has no existence whatsoever.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

16. On evaluating literature

“The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities… into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions—there we have none.”

—From The Common Reader, Second Series (1935)

17. On passion

“Blame it or praise it, there is no denying the wild horse in us. To gallop intemperately; fall on the sand tired out; to feel the earth spin; to have—positively—a rush of friendship for stones and grasses, as if humanity were over, and as for men and women, let them go hang—there is no getting over the fact that this desire seizes us pretty often.”

—From the novel Jacob’s Room (1922)

18. On the past

“Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title.”

—From Jacob’s Room

19. On words

“Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.

“Look once more at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than Anthony and Cleopatra, poems lovelier than the 'Ode to a Nightingale,' novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.”

—From “Craftsmanship,” a BBC radio address Woolf delivered on April 20, 1937 (listen to a portion of it here)

20. On life and its interruptions

“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”

— From her diary (entry dated February 17, 1922)

bonus: a common misquote

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”

These wise words are often mistakenly cited as Woolf’s. In reality, another writer came along and gave them to her—57 years after she died! Here’s what went down: In 1998, author Michael Cunningham released his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours. This story includes a fictionalized version of Virginia Woolf, who delivers the above line.

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