Definition: the practice of finding answers to questions, through observing natural indicators or signs or through using a variety of techniques to contact natural or preternatural spirits.1, 2
Etymology: from the verb “divine” taken from the 14c. Latin, divinus (also meaning soothsayer) “to make out by supernatural insight”, divination thus from the Latin divinationem meaning the “power of foresight or prediction”.3
Solar Eclipse
In ancient times a solar eclipse was often seen as an omen.

Divination — Finding the Answers

The earliest civilizations tied divination to their religions. As far back as 1000 BCE, the Chinese used "I CHING," a divination technique in which different sizes of yarrow sticks were tossed and “read”.4 The Egyptians, Druids, and Babylonians all practiced forms of divination. Both the Ancient Greeks and Romans employed different techniques in “divining” the future, believing the results were inspired by their gods.5

The “Catholic Encyclopedia” defines divination as “the seeking after knowledge of future or hidden things by inadequate means” and goes on to say that prophecy is “the lawful knowledge of the future” while divination “is the unlawful”6. Yet, it also admits that divination is “as old as the human race”, spanning history long before the Common Era.

On examining the definition and etymology of divination, it would appear that prophecy and divination were synonymous. However, prophecy is only the type of divination that predicts future events through precognition or alleged divine intervention while divination also strives to find answers to natural questions such as finding a source of water using a divining wand (a.k.a. dowsing rod), the sex of an unborn child using a pendulum or deciding which fork in the road to take through belomancy (shooting an arrow into the air). Divination also seeks answers to supernatural questions through divination techniques such as astrology, bibliomancy (by books, e.g. letting a Bible fall open to answer a question), tarot readings, Ouija boards, and Crystal Balls.

Divination Categories

With so many different types of divination, fortunately the subject is divided, not only by technique but also by category. The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero was among the first to categorize divination7. He divided divination into:

  1. The divination of Nature—divination inspired by dreams, intuition, and premonition. Cicero believed this type of divination was prophecy inspired by a god.
  2. The divination of Art—divination through the reading of natural signs, such as the flight of birds or using techniques such as astrology, casting lots, etc.

Since the time of Cicero, many others have re-categorized and/or expanded on Cicero’s categories, among them, St. Thomas Aquinas, Clement of Alexandria, and most recently the psychologist Julian Jaynes.

Jaynes was an avid proponent of divination and made divination a key factor of his theory on the development of modern conscious thought in his book, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”7. He divided divination into four categories:

  1. Omens and omen texts: Jaynes called this category, “The most primitive, clumsy, but enduring method...is the simple recording of sequences of unusual or important events.” For instance, the pattern of flight in a flock of birds might have indicated either a direction to travel or a direction from which an enemy might attack. Some auguries have grown into superstitions such as if your palm itches, you’ll receive money or a black cat crossing your path is an omen of bad luck to come.
  2. Sortilege (cleromancy): The casting of lots such as bones, sticks, dice, coins, etc.
  3. Augury: Divination through subjective interpretation. Often-used types of divination, some of examples of augury are astrology, dowsing, scrying, tarot readings, and palmistry.
  4. Spontaneous: Divination from what the diviner sees or hears. One example of spontaneous divination is bibliomancy (as described above). Spontaneous divination often includes techniques used in the other three categories, such as flipping a coin or making a decision by playing “rock, paper, scissors,” which are both a type of sortilege.

There are literally dozens of techniques of divination from commonly known methods such as dowsing and astrology to lesser-known methods such as a recent form, “cybermancy” or divination by computer. As long as humans have imagination they will find new ways to predict the future from tomorrow’s weather to the end of time itself.

1.Timothy D. Hoare, Ph.D. “Glossary of Important Terms.” Dr. Timothy D. Hoare, Ph.D. unknown . 7 May 2008 <http://staff.jccc.net/thoare/glossary.htm>.
2.“Divination.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online 2008. 7 May 2008 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9108513/divination>.
3.Douglas Harper. “Online Etymology Dictionary.” Etymonline.com Nov 2001. 7 May 2008 <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?l=d&p=14>.
4.Various Authors. William Smith. ed. “ A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology.” pub. Boston: Little, Brown & co.,1867. The Making of America Books 2005. 9 May 2008 <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=moa&cc=moa&idno=acl3129.0001.001&q1=divination&frm=frameset&view=text&seq=754&page=root&size=s>.
5.Adula. “History of Divination.” Sacred Texts 2005. 7 May 2008 <http://www.sacred-texts.com/pro/index.htm>.
6.E.P. Graham. “CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Divination.” New Advent 1 May 1909. 7 May 2008 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05048b.htm>.
7.“Summary of Evidence | Julian Jaynes Society.” Julian Jaynes Society Oct 2007. 9 May 2008 <http://www.julianjaynes.org/evidence_summary.php>.
8.Lisbeth Cheever-Gessaman. “Working with Oracles: The Ancient Art and Practice of Divination.” Suite 101 30 Jan 2008. 9 May 2008 <http://alternativespirituality.suite101.com/article.cfm/working_with_oracles>.