Blog Post 120 – Divination in the New World (an Overview)
First of all, sorry for the complete absence of posts last week. I got a little swamped and didn’t get as much research time as I wanted, but hopefully today’s rather long article will make up for it.
We’re going to be looking over the next few posts at divination, fortune-telling, and other methods of forecasting fate. Before we dive into details, though, I thought it might be good to tackle the topic generally and look at the types of divination which have been historically popular in the New World, as well as some more modern methods. . Some of these systems are ones which I can only cover cursorily, as my experience is relatively shallow with them. I hope to cover each of these in more detail with time, or at least provide references to help anyone wanting to learn more about them, eventually.
So what are the most popular divinatory methods in the New World?
Arithmetic Methods – Probably the most common divinatory methods used in the modern New World are astrology and numerology. Almost anyone can tell you his or her sun sign. A Harris Poll from 2009 shows that about 26% of adult Americans believe in astrology. Horoscopes related to these sun signs are printed in a majority of national newspapers in the United States, and a surprising number of folks know their ideal romantic compatibility as far as sun signs are concerned. Less well-known but still fairly prevalent is numerology, particularly the form of numerology known as alphabetic numerology. This is closely related to Gematrian numerology—a kabbalistic practice which uses Hebrew letters as symbols for numerals to understand a sort of universal mathematics arranged by G-d for the wise to know the world. Another arithmetic method of divination which has found a certain degree of New World success is geomancy, which depends upon mapping energetic lines upon the earth and determining information based on their patterns and intersections. The most commonly found version of geomancy in North America is the practice of dowsing, which seeks to uncover hidden water, mineral, oil, or other deposits within the earth using surface-based detection methods. Science generally frowns upon all of these fields, despite their incredibly intricate mathematical structures, though there have been a few efforts to validate the powers of geomancy, and some large oil companies consult dowsers periodically to help determine ideal drilling locations.
Natural Objects & Phenomena – We’ve covered this a bit already, particularly the signs & omens which seem to pervade much of American folklore, but it is worth examining a few of the other natural-object-based divinatory systems, too. For example, in many parts of the New World, some system of augury (divination based on birds) has been practiced. One of the most interesting versions of this can be found in a practice known as alectromancy, which studies the patterns scratched by a rooster when grain is strewn for him. Traces of this practice can be found in one of the primary influences on later hoodoo, The Black Pullet. Other objects commonly used in various New World magical systems are cowrie shells (small whitish shells which bear a strong resemblance to the female genitalia) and chamalongos (ritually prepared and polished pieces of coconut shells). These can both be “cast” in the same manner as dice might be (see “Games” below), and the resulting patterns interpreted to provide answers to specific questions. Another method which has fallen out of favor in modern times—though it was tremendously popular in ancient Rome—is haruspicsy, or the reading of livers or entrails from sacrificed animals. A modern version of this, however, lives on in the wishbone ritual from the Thanksgiving turkey. Luck is afforded whoever takes the biggest part of a wishbone snapped in twain between two people when the bird has been cooked and eaten. Of course, there are a vast number of natural phenomena which are interpreted as portents of the future in traditional folklore—everything from weather to insect behavior to the color of certain animals can have deep meaning to the right person. Since we’ve touched on that idea in other places, however, I’ll simply leave it at that.
“Gypsy” Methods – I will admit I don’t like the title I’m giving this section, but please understand that by “gypsy” methods I’m not referring necessarily to Romany traditional practices. Instead, I’m really evoking the Hollywood and fictional version of the Gypsy so often mistaken for the real thing. But, since the methods employed by those characters are actually relevant, I thought this might be the best category in which to assemble them. Some of the best known methods are palmistry, cartomancy, and crystal gazing. Each of these, despite its Hollywood glamorization, is actually a legitimate method. Palmistry uses the lines on the palm of a person’s hand to determine the overall trajectory of his or her life. It’s been popular as a parlor entertainment for over a century in America, and likely has been on New World soil for much longer than that. Cartomancy is probably the best known fortune-telling method in the New World other than astrology, though a much smaller number of people seem to put stock in it. One of the fun twists to cartomancy is that while tarot is a popular method (even immortalized in American poet Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Daddy,” as a “Taroc pack” and associated with Jewishness), it has long been common for root workers in America to use simple playing cards to get answers to difficult questions. Crystal gazing, a type of scrying which uses highly polished spheres of minerals like quartz or amethyst to relax the mind and allow visions to enter the mind of the seer, is another popularly seen method, though it is often ridiculed in modern society—poked fun at in cartoons like Bugs Bunny, Scooby Doo, and The Simpsons, for example. Other methods which commonly get attributed to Gypsies are candle reading—though this is a bit controversial because of something known as the “Gypsy candle scam”—and tasseomancy, which involves reading the patterns left in a cup after someone has drunk tea from it. In this latter method, coffee is also fairly popular. The reputation of these methods has suffered a bit due to public ridicule, but they also have their staunch supporters, and in many cases are the methods magical practitioners learn first.
Games – This is a peculiar but fascinating branch of divination which has been surprisingly prevalent in the United States. I’ve already mentioned the use of playing cards as divinatory aids, and they certainly straddle this category nicely. Dice and dominoes have also been used to predict the future in several magical systems, particularly those originating from Africa, a practice known as cleromancy which is also referred to as “casting lots.” It seems to be related to older methods of throwing bones—such as knuckle bones from sacrificial offerings—and interpreting the resulting patterns. A version of cleromancy is likely the primary version of divination condoned in the Bible (hence all the references to “casting lots” for things in Joshua, I Samuel, Proverbs, Jonah, and Acts (in the last case, lots are cast to determine who the replacement apostle for Judas Iscariot will be). Famed Wiccan author Raymond Buckland has a book on domino divination for those interested entitled, appropriately enough, Buckland’s Domino Divination. One of the methods for divination which took off rapidly in the United States after its introduction was the Ouija board. This system, based on the automatic writing device called the planchette and a special board containing letters, numbers, and symbols, became a central method for communicating with the other world in movements like Spiritism. Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America devotes an entire chapter to the “talking board” and its impact on American metaphysics, not to mention its economic impact (it outsold leading board games like Monopoly at times). Other games have brought fortune-telling to the masses through clever marketing, as well. The Magic 8 Ball which was created by Alabe Crafts in the mid-twentieth century, combined elements of the Ouija board and the crystal ball, and despite its novelty was actually inspired by the clairvoyant mother of one of the inventors. We spoke a bit on our previous show about “cootie catchers,” the finger-mounted puppet-like devices used by young children to predict future happiness and misfortune. There are several games played by children in this vein, including MASH (which stands for Mansion, Alley, Shack, House) and a plethora of predictive skip-rope rhymes. Children, it seems, know a lot about divination and incorporate it into their play regularly.
Text-based Fortune-telling – This isn’t a particularly diverse branch of divination in the Americas, but it does seem to be important. A recent correspondence sent to me by Arrow of the Wandering Arrow blog outlined a form of bibliomancy, which is the use of the Bible (or other important book) to determine things like marital candidates and the identity of thieves. Bibliomancy is still practiced in many places, and the techniques involved can be as simple as opening to a random passage in a book and seeing if it has any relevance to the question at hand. Methods can also be quite complex, involving for example a key placed at a passage in the book of Ruth while the Bible is held between the hands of two people standing opposite each other as they name people they know until the key moves on its own to reveal the perfect marriage partner. Less prevalent in North America but still quite important is the Chinese predictive system of the I Ching, or Book of Changes. This method, which combines elements of the “Natural Objects” casting in the form of yarrow stalks with significant markings on them that get thrown to reveal patterns, relies heavily on a book of short hexagrams. These six-line poems match up to the patterns revealed by the yarrow stalks and provide insight into a particular problem. The I Ching has become increasingly popular in the West, largely due to Asian immigration into population centers.
Other Methods – Plenty of other methods for determining the future exist which don’t quite fit one category or another (or which I have arbitrarily decided to lump in this “Other” category because, well, I’m the one writing this article). One bit of outdated but once profoundly influential methods of determining someone’s fate is phrenology, the study of the bumps, divots, and ridges of the scalp. During the late 19th century there were a number of scientists who supported phrenology as a way of understanding psychology. It has since fallen much out of favor (partly due to its connection to eugenics—the “science” of building a better person which often involved rather racist and callous methods), but still may hold a bit of interest for those who like old-fashioned divinatory techniques. Oneiromancy remains popular, and dream-interpretation guides are readily available in most bookstores. Many folks who do hoodoo also keep dream-interpretation books around to help predict winning lottery numbers. The biblical precedent (see the stories of Joseph or Daniel interpreting dreams) may have a lot to do with why this technique has stayed more or less legitimate even among conservative audiences. Necromancy is a word that conjures up (pardon the pun) specters of horror for some, but which had tremendous impact on the American spiritual landscape through Spiritist séances and mediumship. The practice of talking to the dead is common in a number of religions, and guidance from deceased ancestors is highly valued in Vodoun, Santeria, and Obeah traditions. On the flip-side, the practice of cold reading takes the idea of necromancy and removes the dead from the equation completely, instead allowing “psychics” to use broad statements, on-the-spot observation, and leading questions to “interpret” messages which are fraudulent, but often quite comforting (I can’t help but think of the South Park episode on this subject, which I highly recommend). There are other great techniques being generated on New World soil all the time, too. For instance, Juniper from Walking the Hedge has adapted the old “stones and bones” casting technique to include other objects from her life and has developed a unique and beautiful divinatory system.
There are so many methods of forecasting the future that I haven’t even touched upon here, so please don’t feel left out if I omitted your personal favorite (in fact, feel free to share a little about it in the comments section!). Many of these methods fall in and out of favor depending on the fashion of the time—phrenology was once almost regarded as fact, but is regarded by many diviners today as at best a quaint and outdated method of uncovering information. Some of them seem outright silly on the surface or are utter fakery (the Magic 8 Ball for the former, cold reading for the latter). A number of these techniques, however, still hang on. The popularity of astrology remains strong, and bibliomancy seems to be indulged quite openly, as proven by the publication of things like The Book of Answers, which I’ve seen in not only bookstores but also in greeting card shops and trendy furniture outlets. Of course, plenty of these methods are practiced just under the radar of mainstream society, too.
Whatever your preferred method of fortune-telling, I wish you well and hope this article has been useful to you. More will be coming on specific subcategories within this list…but you probably knew that already.
Thanks for reading!
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