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A sorcerer casting a spell

'Telling the future': 4 methods of 'dark divination' from ancient history


Visiting those who can read palms or tarot cards isn’t particularly unusual. Nowadays they can be used to help with certain decisions or simply just for fun, but historically people took divination incredibly seriously and would use almost anything to glean some kind of insight into future events.

From cheese in tyromancy to scatomancy, where a number two can drop a clue and even phallomancy, wherein a seer reads the swing of a...well, you get the idea. So, don’t worry if tasseomancy isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of other options to choose from.

1. Cleromancy

The ‘I-Ching’ or ‘Book of Change’ was written by Fu Xi around 1000 BCE and is one of the oldest existing Chinese texts to survive the burning of books under Qin Shi Huang in 212 BCE. It contains interpretations of 64 hexagrams and is still thought to be a living stream of human wisdom.

Originally, sacred yarrow stalks were cast to create lines to form a hexagram for interpretation, however, this gradually became three coins. While the element of chance involved in I-Ching is similar to that of casting dice or pulling cards, there is a moral dimension that differs from most divination techniques. The I-Ching must be applied to the reader's whole life.

Confucius himself is said to have annotated and edited the earliest version, so it is unsurprising that, as well as aiding in conflict resolution and decision-making, this form of divination is intended to expand the practitioner's consciousness, warning against acting from a place of fear, greed, or arrogance.

In the early 20th century, psychoanalyst and analytical psychologist Carl Jung was famed for using I-Ching for both himself and his patients. He coined the term ‘synchronicity’ for the correlation between hexagrams and the present moment.

2. Osteomancy

Historical evidence of bones used in divination has been found the world over. The use of shoulder blades, particularly those of deer and pigs, dates back to the Korean protohistoric period (300 BCE - 400 CE), while Ancient Celts would use the scapulae of fox or sheep.

This method is sometimes called ‘pyro-osteomancy' as a question would be written on the bone and then placed into a fire, with the resulting cracks providing answers. In China, during the Shang Dynasty, it was common to use ox shoulders or even turtle shells to receive guidance from deities before the Royal Court made important decisions. These bones were then archived as official records.

Casting bones is perhaps the better-known method of osteomancy, wherein a collection of small bones is thrown and interpreted based on how and where it lands. There is evidence of this practice dating back hundreds of years. For example, in areas practising Hoodoo, sets would include bones and other items like seashells. The Shona people of Zimbabwe would cast ivory, or bone dice, while the ancient tribes of Mongolia used sets of several bones marked on four sides to provide a wide variety of results and interpretations.

3. Anthropomancy/Alectormancy

What better way to get answers from your deity of choice than to offer up a juicy sacrifice and then pop that question? Well, Ancient Celts thought so and would employ this technique, particularly at the Solstices, Beltane and Samhain. Originally this would have been anthropomancy, using the entrails of dead or dying human sacrifices. When animal sacrifice became more popular, alectormancy took over continuing well into the Middle Ages being practiced by Pagans and Christians alike.

The practice carried on into the Roman era wherein it was called 'haruspicy'. A Haruspex would discern the attitudes of the gods on certain matters, such as the best actions to take in battle. The liver was favoured but lungs and heart would also carry messages dependent on their size and appearance.

However, in around the 19th century BCE, the Babylonians were already making clay models of sheep livers with Akkadian inscriptions of how to interpret their markings. The thirty-six excavated at Hattusa would suggest they also passed this knowledge onto the Hittites.

4. Necromancy

If there are no willing sacrifices around, necromancy could provide the answer. After all, Charles Kennard quite literally turned it into a parlour game in 1891 when he took the concept of spirit boards and mass-marketed them as Ouija boards, so how bad can it be? Ouija is an Ancient Egyptian phrase meaning good luck, although the board did supposedly name itself.

The board is a tool for automatic writing, the earliest mention of which is 1100 AD, when ‘planchette writing’ was taught by the Quanzhen School until it was forbidden a few hundred years later. Similarly, Ouija fell out of public favour in 1973 when The Exorcist depicted what might happen when inexperienced people summon the dead.

While some necromancy could be done in hours, ceremonies could go on for days or even weeks. Many involved wearing the deceased's clothing, animal sacrifice, and even the consumption of corpses. Ancient Greeks and Romans believed individual shades only knew certain things, whereas records of practices in Ancient Egypt, Babylon, and the UK suggest belief in communal knowledge amongst the dead. In Medieval Europe, practice became a synthesis of Arabic and pagan magic, and Christian exorcisms with most known practitioners being members of the clergy.