1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Divination
DIVINATION, the process of obtaining knowledge of secret or future things by means of oracles, omens or astrology. The root of the word, deus (god) or divus, indicates the supposed source of the soothsayer’s information, just as the equivalent Greek term, μαντική, indicates the spiritual source of the utterances of the seer, μάντις. In classical times the view was, in fact, general, as may be seen by Cicero’s De divinatione, that not only oracles but also omens were signs sent by the gods; even the astrologer held that he gained his information, in the last resort, from the same source. On the side of the Stoics it was argued that if divination was a real art, there must be gods who gave it to mankind; against this it was argued that signs of future events may be given without any god.
Divination is practised in all grades of culture; its votaries range from the Australian black to the American medium. There is no general agreement as to the source of the information; commonly it is held that it comes from the gods directly or indirectly. In the Bornean cult of the hawk it seems that the divine bird itself was regarded as having a foreknowledge of the future. Later it is regarded as no more than a messenger. Among the Australian blacks, divination is largely employed to discover the cause of death, where it is assumed to be due to magic; in some cases the spirit of the dead man is held to give the information, in others the living magician is the source of the knowledge. We find moreover a semi-scientific conception of the basis of divination; the whole of nature is linked together; just as the variations in the height of a column of mercury serve to foretell the weather, so the flight of birds or behaviour of cattle may help to prognosticate its changes; for the uncultured it is merely a step to the assumption that animals know things which are hidden from man. Haruspication, or the inspection of entrails, was justified on similar grounds, and in the case of omens from birds or animals, no less than in astrology, it was held that the facts from which inferences were drawn were themselves in part the causes of the events which they foretold, thus fortifying the belief in the possibility of divination.
From a psychological point of view divinatory methods may be classified under two main heads: (A) autoscopic, which depend simply on some change in the consciousness of the soothsayer; (B) heteroscopic, in which he looks outside himself for guidance and perhaps infers rather than divines in the proper sense.
(A) Autoscopic methods depend on (i.) sensory or (ii.) motor automatisms, or (iii.) mental impressions, for their results. (i.) Crystal-gazing (q.v.) is a world-wide method of divining, which is analogous to dreams, save that the vision is voluntarily initiated, though little, if at all, under the control of the scryer. Corresponding to crystal-gazing we have shell-hearing and similar methods, which are, however, less common; in these the information is gained by hearing a voice. (ii.) The divining rod (q.v.) is the best-known example of this class; divination depending on automatic movements of this sort is found at all stages of culture; in Australia it is used to detect the magician who has caused the death of a native; in medieval and modern times water-divining or dowsing has been largely and successfully used. Similar in principle is coscinomancy, or divining by a sieve held suspended, which gives indications by turning; and the equally common divination by a suspended ring, both of which are found from Europe in the west to China and Japan in the east. The ordeal by the Bible and key is equally popular; the book is suspended by a key tied in with its wards between the leaves and supported on two persons’ fingers, and the whole turns round when the name of the guilty person is mentioned. Confined to higher cultures on the other hand, for obvious reasons, is divination by automatic writing, which is practised in China more especially. The sand divination so widely spread in Africa seems to be of a different nature. Trance speaking, on the other hand, may be found in any stage of culture and there is no doubt that in many cases the procedure of the magician or shaman induces a state of auto-hypnotism; at a higher stage these utterances are termed oracles and are believed to be the result of inspiration (q.v.). (iii.) Another method of divination is by the aid of mental impressions; observation seems to show that by some process of this sort, akin to clairvoyance (q.v.), fortunes are told successfully by means of palmistry or by laying the cards; for the same “lie” of the cards may be diversely interpreted to meet different cases. In other cases the impression is involuntary or less consciously sought, as in dreams (q.v.), which, however, are sometimes induced, for purposes of divination, by the process known as incubation or temple sleep. Dreams are sometimes regarded as visits to or from gods or the souls of the dead, sometimes as signs to be interpreted symbolically by means of dream-books, which are found not only in Europe but in less cultured countries like Siam.
(B) In heteroscopic divination the process is rather one of inference from external facts. The methods are very various. (i.) The casting of lots, sortilege, was common in classical antiquity; the Homeric heroes prayed to the gods when they cast lots in Agamemnon’s leather cap, and Mopsus divined with sacred lots when the Argonauts embarked. Similarly dice are thrown for purposes of sortilege; the astragali or knucklebones, used in children’s games at the present day, were implements of divination in the first instance. In Polynesia the coco-nut is spun like a teetotum to discover a thief. Somewhat different are the omens drawn from books; in ancient times the poets were often consulted, more especially Virgil, whence the name sortes virgilianae, just as the Bible is used for drawing texts in our own day, especially in Germany. (ii.) In haruspication, or the inspection of entrails, in scapulomancy or divination by the speal-bone or shoulder-blade, in divination by footprints in ashes, found in Australia, Peru and Scotland, the voluntary element is prominent, for the diviner must take active steps to secure the conditions necessary to divination. (iii.) In the case of augury and omens, on the other hand, that is not necessary. The behaviour and cries of birds, and angang or meeting with ominous animals, &c., may be voluntarily observed, and opportunities for observation made; but this is not necessary for success. (iv.) In astrology we have a method which still finds believers among people of good education. The stars are held, not only to prognosticate the future but also to influence it; the child born when Mars is in the ascendant will be war-like; Venus has to do with love; the sign of the Lion presides over places where wild beasts are found. (v.) In other cases the tie that binds the subject of divination with the omen-giving object is sympathy. The name of the life-index is given to a tree, animal or other object believed to be so closely united by sympathetic ties to a human being that the fate of the latter is reflected in the condition of the former. The Polynesians set up sticks to see if the warriors they stood for were to fall in battle; on Hallowe’en in our own country the behaviour of nuts and other objects thrown into the fire is held to prognosticate the lot of the person to whom they have been assigned. Where, as in the last two cases, the sympathetic bond is less strong, we find symbolical interpretation playing an important part.
Sympathy and symbolism, association of ideas and analogy, together with a certain amount of observation, are the explanation of the great mass of heteroscopic divinatory formulae. But where autoscopic phenomena play the chief part the question of the origin of divination is less simple. The investigations of the Society for Psychical Research show that premonitions, though rare in our own day, are not absolutely unknown. Pseudo-premonitions, due to hallucinatory memory, are not unknown; there is also some ground for holding that crystal-gazers are able to perceive incidents which are happening at a distance from them. Divination of this sort, therefore, may be due to observation and experiment of a rude sort, rather than to the unchecked play of fancy which resulted in heteroscopic divination.
Authorities.—Bouché Leclercq, Histoire de la divination dans l’antiquité; Tylor, Primitive Culture, passim; Maury, “La Magie et l’astrologie,” Journ. Anth. Inst. i. 163, v. 436; Folklore, iii. 193; Ellis, Tshi-speaking Peoples, p. 202; Dictionnaire encyclopédique des sciences médicales, xxx. 24-96; Journ. of Philology, xiii. 273, xiv. 113; Deubner, De incubatione; Lenormant, La Divination, et la science de présages chez les Chaldéens; Skeat, Malay Magic; J. Johnson, Yoruba Heathenism (1899).