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."

7 Massage Guns That Are on Sale Right Now

Jawku/Actigun
Jawku/Actigun

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Actigun massage gun.
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Jawku massaging gun.
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Massage gun from Stackcommerce.
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17 Surprising Facts About Frida Kahlo

Guillermo Kahlo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Guillermo Kahlo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The life and work of Frida Kahlo—one of Mexico's greatest painters—were both defined by pain and perseverance. Getting to know how Kahlo lived provides greater insight into her masterful paintings, which are rich with detail and personal iconography.

1. Frida Kahlo was born in the same house she died.

Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in a building nicknamed “La Casa Azul” for its vivid blue exterior. There, she was raised by her mother, Matilde, and encouraged by her photographer father, Guillermo. Years later, she and her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, made it their home as well. And on July 13, 1954, Kahlo died there at age 47.

2. Frida Kahlo's beloved home is now a museum.

Casa Azul is also known as The Frida Kahlo Museum. As a tribute to Kahlo, Rivera donated the house in 1958 as well as all of the artwork, created by both him and Kahlo, that it contained. Much of the interior has been preserved just the way Kahlo had it in the 1950s, making the space a popular tourist attraction that allows visitors a look at her work, life, and personal artifacts, including the urn that holds her ashes.

3. A third of Frida Kahlo's paintings were self-portraits.

Kahlo folded in symbols from her Mexican culture and allusions to her personal life in order to create a series of 55 surreal and uniquely revealing self-portraits. Of these, she famously declared, "I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best."

4. A surreal accident had a big impact on Frida Kahlo's life.

On September 17, 1925, an 18-year-old Kahlo boarded a bus with her boyfriend Alex Gómez Arias, only to be forever marred when it crossed a train's path. Recalling the tragedy, Arias described the bus as "burst(ing) into a thousand pieces," with a handrail ripping through Kahlo's torso.

He later recounted, "Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone in the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her, they cried, ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!’ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer."

5. Frida Kahlo’s path to painting began with that collision.

The accident broke Kahlo's spinal column, collarbone, ribs, and pelvis, fractured her right leg in 11 places, and dislocated her shoulder. Those severe injuries left her racked with pain for the rest of her life, and frequently bedbound. But during these times, Kahlo picked up her father's paintbrush. Her mother helped arrange a special easel that would allow her to work from bed. Of her life's hardships, Kahlo once proclaimed, “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”

6. Frida Kahlo once dreamed of being a doctor.

As a child, Kahlo contracted polio, which withered her right leg and sparked an interest in the healing power of medicine. Unfortunately, the injuries from the train accident forced the teenager to abandon her plans to study medicine.

7. Frida Kahlo’s poor health shaped her art.

In the course of her life, Kahlo would undergo 30 surgeries, including the eventual amputation of her foot due to a case of gangrene. She explored her frustrations with her body's frailty in paintings like The Broken Column, which centers on her shattered spine, and Without Hope, which dramatically depicted a period where her doctor prescribed force-feeding. On the back of the latter, she wrote, "Not the least hope remains to me ... Everything moves in time with what the belly contains."

8. Frida Kahlo didn’t view herself as a surrealist.

She rejected the label, saying, "They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."

9. Frida Kahlo’s tumultuous marriage sparked more pain and paintings.

Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera and a pet dog, Mexico City, 1940s
Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera and a pet dog, Mexico City, 1940s
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Kahlo met Rivera, she was a student and he was already a father of four and on his way to his second divorce. Despite a 20-year age difference, the pair quickly fell for each other, spurring Rivera to leave his second wife and wed Kahlo in 1929.

From there, they were each other's greatest fans and supporters when it came to their art. But their 10-year marriage was wrought with fits of temper and infidelities on both sides. They divorced in 1939, only to remarry a year later. Paintings like Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, The Two Fridas, and The Love Embrace of the Universe boldly illustrated their relationship from Kahlo's perspective.

10. Frida Kahlo grieved privately and publicly for the children she never had.

Modern doctors believe that the bus accident had irreparably damaged Kahlo's uterus, which made pregnancies impossible to carry to term. In 1932, she painted Henry Ford Hospital, a provocative self-portrait that marks one of several devastating miscarriages she suffered.

The piece would be displayed to the world in a 1938 gallery show. But Kahlo kept private personal letters to her friend, Doctor Leo Eloesser, in which she wrote, "I had so looked forward to having a little Dieguito that I cried a lot, but it's over, there is nothing else that can be done except to bear it.'" This letter, along with others from their decades-long exchange, were released in 2007, having been hidden for almost 50 years by a patron worried about their contents.

11. Frida Kahlo once arrived to an art show in an ambulance.

In 1953, toward the end of her short life, the painter was overjoyed about her first solo exhibition in Mexico. But a hospital stay threatened her attendance. Against doctors' orders, Kahlo made an incredible entrance, pulling up in an ambulance as if in a limousine.

12. Frida Kahlo is rumored to have had several famous lovers.

When she wasn't recovering from surgery or confined to a recuperation bed, Kahlo was full of life, relishing the chance to dance, socialize, and flirt. While American sculptor Isamu Noguchi was in Mexico City for the creation of his History as Seen from Mexico in 1936, he and Kahlo began a passionate affair that evolved into a life-long friendship.

Three years later, while visiting Paris, the bisexual painter struck up a romance with the city's "Black Pearl" entertainer Josephine Baker. And many have speculated that the artist and activist also bedded Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, while he and his wife Natalia stayed in Kahlo's family home after they were granted asylum in Mexico in 1936.

13. Frida Kahlo was fiercely proud of her heritage.

Though she'd lived in New York, San Francisco, and Paris, Kahlo was always drawn back to her hometown, Mexico City. She favored traditional Mexican garb, the long colorful skirts she was known for, and the Huipile blouses of Mexico’s matriarchal Tehuantepec society. Perhaps most telling, she told the press she was born in 1910, cutting three years off her age so she could claim the same birth year as the Mexican Revolution.

14. Frida Kahlo had several exotic pets.

Casa Azul boasts a lovely garden where Kahlo had her own animal kingdom. Along with a few Mexican hairless Xoloitzcuintli (a dog breed that dates back to the ancient Aztecs), Kahlo owned a pair of spider monkeys named Fulang Chang and Caimito de Guayabal, which can be spotted in Self Portrait with Monkeys. She also cared for an Amazon parrot called Bonito, who would perform tricks if promised a pat of butter as a reward, a fawn named Granizo, and an eagle nicknamed Gertrudis Caca Blanca (a.k.a. Gertrude White Shit).

15. Frida Kahlo has emerged as a feminist icon.

Though in her time some dismissed this passionate painter as little more than "the wife of Master Mural Painter (Diego Rivera)," Kahlo's imaginative art drew acclaim from the likes of Pablo Picasso and film star Edward G. Robinson. After her death, the rise of feminism in the 1970s sparked a renewed interest in her work. Kahlo's reputation eclipsed Rivera's, and she grew to become one of the world's most famous painters.

Feminist theorists embrace Kahlo's deeply personal portraits for their insight into the female experience. Likewise, her refusal to be defined by others' definitions and the self-love shown in her proud capturing of her natural unibrow and mustache speak to modern feminist concerns over gender roles and body-positivity.

16. Frida Kahlo’s personal style has become a vibrant part of her legacy.

Frida's art and its influence were not simply spawned from the paint she put to canvas. Her distinctive personal style has proved influential in the world of fashion, inspiring designers like Raffaella Curiel, Maya Hansen, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Dolce & Gabbana. (In 2019, Vans even launched a collection of shoes featuring her work.)

17. Frida Kahlo's work is record-breaking.

On May 11, 2016, at the first auction to put a major Frida work up for sale in six years, her 1939 painting Dos desnudos en el bosque (La tierra misma) sold for over $8 million—the highest auction price then paid for any work by a Latin American artist.

This story was updated in 2020.