I thought today we would take a look at one of the many divinatory systems found in the New World, and one which has remained popular through the centuries: bibliomancy. We discussed this topic during our most recent episode, but I have wanted to expand upon it a bit. The practice of bibliomancy as a form of divination is common enough in the New World that many folks who wouldn’t touch any other type of magical practice might be persuaded to do at least one of the methods below.
Probably the most commonly used book for bibliomancy is the Christian (or in some cases, Hebrew) Bible. Other texts can be used, however, and it would not be out of place to turn to a favorite book of poetry, a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or any other piece of writing. The overarching control factor seems to be that the inquiring party must feel the book has some kind of power. Whether that power is religious/spiritual or simply the force of knowledge or even a fondness born of favoritism does not seem to matter much; just the reverence offered the text is enough to imbue it with oracular power.
The methods for bibliomancy break down into roughly three categories: scanning the text (either at random or specifically), using interpretive devices such as dice, and a very particular technique involving a key.
This is probably the most familiar method, and the one which is least likely to raise eyebrows among laity. People frequently look for signs from God or at least from somewhere else to help point them towards good decisions in times of doubt (or they like to have signs that affirm their choices, depending on your perspective). I’ve known even the most skeptical and non-magically inclined folks to flop open a Bible and point at the page without looking in order to find what will hopefully be a relevant quote. For those who want a little more magic in the process, however, it might help to get into a ritual mindset before posing questions to the Divine. In Draja Mickaharic’s Magical Spells of the Minor Prophets, he notes:
“When selecting a verse that is pertinent to the situation the person finds themselves in, it is generally necessary that the person looking for the verse compose themselves and place a bible before them, either on their lap or on a table. They then are to concentrate upon the matter that troubles them. Once the true question is firmly in the mind of the person seeking an answer, the bible is opened randomly, and without looking at the pages, a finger is set upon some part of the page. The verse so indicated by the person’s finger would then reveal some advice, or lead to a solution to the question that has been poised, or even reveal a solution to the problem at hand” (p.125)
There are other ways to consult a holy book for heavenly guidance, too. Jewish folklore and magical practice interprets scriptural passages incidentally, rather than just directly, for instance. From Jewish Magic & Superstition by Joshua Trachtenberg:
“The familiar use of Scripture in divining (Bibliomancy) was not unknown to Jews. The Romans had thus employed Vergil [sic]; the Bible was already put to this use by Christians before the eight century; in medieval Germany hymn- and prayer-books served the same purpose. But Jews did not have to borrow this device from their neighbors. In Talmudic times it was common practice to ask children what verses they had studied that day in school, and to accept them as good or bad omens, an expedient that persisted throughout the Middle Ages. The more usual procedure of opening the Bible at random and taking the first word or sentence that strikes the eye as a portent, was also followed. Similarly, ‘if, upon awakening, one recalls a Biblical verses, this passage is to be regarded as a”minor prophecy,” and if it is an ominous passage, one should fast.’” [footnoted to Pa’aneah Raza on Leviticus and Perles’ Beitrege] (p. 216)
Trachtenberg goes on to say that no special skills were required for bibliomancy and anyone can do it, and that it is also connected to the act of sortilege/casting lots (much like the Dice Method).
One of the more peculiar and interesting methods of scanning a text for magical guidance comes from New World Witchery standby Vance Randolph:
“Many hillfolk tell fortunes and predict marriages by means of certain quotations from the Bible. For example, the twenty-first and thirty-first chapters of Proverbs have thirty-one verses each. Chapter 21 is the man’s birthday chapter; chapter 31 is the woman’s birthday chapter. A boy looks up his proper verse in the man’s chapter, according to the date of his birth. A man born on the twenty-third of any month, for example, reads Proverbs 21:23—the content of this verse is supposed to be equally significant to him” (OM&F, p. 184)
In my case, the Proverb says, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to plenty, /But those of everyone who is hasty, surely to poverty.” Patience has been a long-standing goal of mine, even from when I was very young, so I do think this method may hold some merit. Or it may be a strange coincidence. Either way, I really like it for its unique spin on a traditional method.
I mentioned this method in Podcast 25, too, but I thought it would be good to write it out here for those who are interested. Connected to one of the few methods of divination not condemned by the New Testement—casting lots—the use of dice in conjunction with the Bible might raise eyebrows now, but it actually makes a great deal of sense. And when you consider that dice were (and are) often made of bone, the vaguely necromantic side of this method begins to surface. The method cited here comes from Judika Illes’ Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells:
“Lord Thoth’s Trio
Thoth, Egyptian lunar god, is given credit for inventing books, magic, and dice. All are combined in the following method.
- Formulate your question, while holding dice.
- Close your eyes and flip open the book.
- Gently, with eyes remaining closed, toss the dice onto the open book.
Read the passage indicated by the location of the fallen dice. An alternative is to read the passage indicated by the numbers shown on the dice—thus you might begin on the sixth line, third word or similar. If using numeral coordination, it’s not necessary for the dice to actually land on the page, although both methods can be integrated.”
There’s no reason other interpretive items could not be used similarly, though the precedent doesn’t exist to my knowledge. I can imagine, however, that a deck of cards could be likewise consulted in conjunction with the holy book of choice, and the number or value of the card taken as a guidepost in determining which verse to read.
Arrow over at the Wandering Arrow blog actually mentioned this a while ago, and it’s her post (and an email she sent me) which really sparked my entire research bender into the subject. The overall method seems to derive from a folk Catholic practice which was outlined in Reginald Scot’s 1584 treatise on magic, The Discoverie of Witchcraft. In this book, Scot lampoons the “popish” superstitions of the Catholics, and cites an example of their folk magic involving a scriptural text (a psalter) and a skeleton key:
“Popish preests (saith he) as the Chaldceans used the divination by sive & sheeres for the detection of theft, doo practise with a psalter and a keie fastned upon the 49. psalme, to discover a theefe. And when the names of the suspected persons are orderlie put into the pipe of the keie, at the reading of these words of the psalme (If thou sawest a theefe thou diddest consent unto him) the booke will wagge, and fall out of the fingers of them that hold it, and he whose name remaineth in the keie must be the theefe.” (Ch. 5)
The Psalm cited, the 49th, is full of memento mori imagery, reminding the singer that death comes to all, and none escapes God’s eye. The connection between this method and the sieve and shears method—both of which involve tenuously suspending something and asking questions until it begins to move—is also interesting, as the sieve and shears appear in witch folklore, too (see “The Horned Women” tale from Ireland). Scot’s mention of this form of bibliomancy is brief, though, and a a more thorough description of the method can be found in Draja Mickaharic’s Magical Spells of the Minor Prophets:
“In the second method of divining using the bible, a key, one of those old fashioned ‘skeleton keys,’ is used in addition to the bible. The key is placed somewhere in the bible, keyed end first, so that the turning end protrudes, sticking out of the wide end of the bible. To keep the key in the bible in this manner, the bible must be tied closed. This may be done with rubber bands or with string, however the person desiring to read in this manner chooses. Irregardless of how the bible is held closed, it is important that it be tied or held tightly, as the bible will be suspended from the key when this work of divination is being done. Once the key when this work of divination is being done. Once the key is fixed in the bible in this manner, the bible is suspended from the fingers of both hands, usually one finger under each of the keys turning end. In that precarious position, a question is asked, either having a yes or no answer, or several questions.” (p. 125)
In this method, the person reading must determine what yes and no are before asking the question, whether it turns or wobbles one way or the other. Mickaharic says this is very effective, and that “the first time I did this, the bible actually jumped from my fingers when the question was answered with a no.”
This method is also backed up by practices within the hexenmeister community. In Chris Bilardi’s Red Church, he provides an almost identical system for inserting a key into the Bible, binding it, and suspending it while asking questions. He is more specific about which books to use, however: “Take the key and place it into the Bible. Some traditional places to put it are the Book of Ruth (Chapter 1), the Gospel of John (any of the Four Gospels, really), and the Epistle of James” (Red Church, p. 303). It’s very interesting to me that the Book of Ruth shows up repeatedly in magical bible study. That might be a topic for another day, though.
So that’s it for basic bibliomancy! I hope this has been informative and useful to you. If you have any other examples of this method, or stories to share about using this or similar techniques, we’d love to hear them!
Thanks for reading!
One thought on “Blog Post 122 – Bibliomancy”
Thank you for posting this, Cory! As a hopeless bibliophile, I find it hard to resist loving this method of divination. 🙂 I actually first encountered bibliomancy reading Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone.” It features prominently in the story — the narrator’s prophetic book of choice being a well-worn copy of Robinson Crusoe, which I found quite charming!
I got to thinking about what books would make the best sources for bibliomancy, and I chose to try it out on my favorite copy of “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf. Here was my result for this evening:
“…if we lie here long enough to ask the moths when they come at evening, stealing among the pale heather bells, they will breathe in our ears such wild nonsense as one hears from telegraph wires in snow storms; tee hee, haw haw, Laughter, Laughter! the moths say.”
*grin* I am quite happy with this result.
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