The Ancient Greeks believed that the god Prometheus had gifted the power of divination to humanity, and Calchas, the famous seer of Greek legend, steered the course of the Greeks in the Trojan War.
But it wasn’t just a feature of myth and legend. Celebrated Ancient Greek thinkers Socrates and Pythagoras practised divination and Plato believed in it.
Divination was an essential part of the armoury for Greeks when going to war. Alexander the Great used seers and Xenophon repeatedly sought advice from his seer, Arexion, in the famous retreat of the Ten Thousand in 401-399 BC.
Seers did not have the same sort of hotline to the gods that the famous oracles of Ancient Greece had, like the Pythia at Delphi. Rather, seers interpreted natural signs as omens, and they used methods of divination to foresee future events or to answer specific questions.
The list of the different modes of divination is seemingly endless. Here we look at seven of the most strange and unusual.
One popular method of divination in Ancient Greece, which continued into the Middle Ages in Europe, was hydromancy, or divination by water. Common methods included throwing a pebble into a body of water and observing the ripples, flow and colour.
Another variation of hydromancy found in Ancient Greece involved bread. Pausanias, a Greek writer of the 2nd century AD, gave an account of a fountain in the city of Epidaurus in southern Greece. At this particular water feature, dedicated to Ino, believers would lob a loaf into the pool and ask the goddess a yes/no question, or simply look to receive a generally good or bad omen. If the chunk of bread sank into the fountain, this was taken to be a positive response, but if it floated then this was an indication of the opposite.
Capnomancy is the art of divination using smoke. In Ancient Greece an animal would be sacrificed and then placed on a fire. As it burned the smoke would be observed as it rose up and drifted away.
A slim plume going straight up told the seer that the omens were favourable. Big, billowing smoke would indicate to the soothsayer that misfortune was on the way. Smoke blowing away and hitting the ground was a warning of impending catastrophe.
3. Overheard words
Cledonomancy was the name given in antiquity to divination by the overhearing of words or utterances by chance.
Greek writer Pausanias recorded how cledonism was employed at places such as the oracle at Smyrna and at the shrine of Hermes Agoraios in Pharae. The procedure at the latter involved the truth-seeker asking a question of Hermes at the shrine, covering his ears, leaving the site and then unplugging his ears in the street. The next words that the person heard from anyone would give them their answer.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus receives advice from Zeus through cledonomancy, when he asks a question of Zeus and then hears the answer in an unprompted comment from a housemaid.
The legendary soothsayer Melampus is alleged to have written several tracts on divination. One such text is called ‘The Interpretation of Birthmarks by Melampos the Scribe to King Ptolemy’. This short guide includes many different ways to tell the future fortunes of men and women by their birthmarks and moles.
A mark on the forehead apparently meant that they would be a great ruler. A man with a mark on the side of his nose would be a prolific international traveller. But for a woman, this same mark was a sign that she would have smelly feet.
A mark on the tongue of a man signalled that he would take ‘a rich and beautiful wife’. Someone sporting such a mark on his throat would end up very wealthy, but having a birthmark on the back of the throat was a foretelling of death by beheading.
A mark on the lips for both men and women was a foretelling that they would be an ‘overeater’. For those hoping for lots of children in the future, a mark on the hand was a good sign.
5. Birth membrane
A rare mode of divination is known as amniomancy. This involves predicting the life of a newborn baby by examining the caul, a membrane over the head that babies are rarely born with. Once the caul was removed, a seer would look at it for indications of what was in store for the baby.
If the caul was purple or red with blood then this indicated the tot would go on to live a successful and full life. A dull-coloured caul was a sign however that the infant would experience bad luck.
These predictions, like all others in this age, were taken seriously, and there are cases of such bad-omen babies being denied entry into certain professions.
6. Animal entrails
One of the most famous modes of divination from the ancient world is known as extispicy or haruspicy. For centuries in the classical world, sheep, chickens, goats, and other animals were ritually sacrificed and their innards removed and examined by specialist seers.
Alexander the Great often employed this method of divination on campaigns. Aristander, Alexander’s seer, looked at the guts of a sacrificed animal at the time of the siege of Tyre in 332 BC. Aristander told his master that the animal’s insides told him that Tyre would be taken within a day of the divination - and the prediction was right. Tyre fell to Alexander within 24 hours of their conversation.
A large number of potential signs were thought to be in the entrails, and even the way the animal behaved while tottering to the altar told the seers a bit about how the gods were feeling about that particular sacrifice.
The offal-reading process involved carefully laying out the organs on a piece of stone or marble. Then the seer would divine the viscera by interpreting the size, colour, texture, and shape of the removed parts.
A liver, for example, with a nice healthy red colour was deemed favourable for the divination. A large liver of even texture, without spots, was also considered to be a good omen for whatever question or course of action the seer was putting to the gods. It was considered a dire prophecy if the liver was ‘dry’ or ‘without lobes’. It was also seen as an especially ill portent if the liver was found to have been cut during the butchering process.
The word ‘necromancy’ often conjures up images of medieval sorcerers resurrecting the dead for nefarious purposes. But necromancy – literally, divination by means of the dead – was practised across the ancient world, from China to Greece.
In Ancient Greece a rite known as ‘nekyia’ involved people calling up spirits to pump them for information about the future, as they believed that the dead became privy to that information in the afterlife. These divinations were often done at temples called ‘Necromanteions’, or ‘Oracles of the Dead’, sacred sites that served as points of contact for the god Hades and as portals to the underworld that he gave his name to.
Famously, Homer’s hero Odysseus undertook a ‘katabasis’, or ‘descent into the underworld’, journeying to Hades, the land of the dead, to question the deceased about his upcoming trip home.