Prophecy shows up all the time in fantasy, but divination is less common. And yet, if you look at history, people all over the world used different forms of divination to guide their lives, for decisions ranging from when to set out on a trip to selecting the right person to marry.
When divination does show up in a story, it almost always takes the form of cards, whether the familiar tarot or an invented deck inspired by it. Every so often you’ll get a reference to astrology, or possibly the casting of runes. But there are so many more possibilities—some fairly comprehensible, others much less so…
During the Shang and Zhou dynasties in China, diviners would use either the scapula bones of oxen or the plastron (belly shell) of a turtle to answer their clients’ questions. They carved pits or drilled holes in the flat surface, then wrote the question on it, either via carving or painting. Once the surface was ready, they touched the pits with a heated rod until the material cracked. Because of this, the method is often called scapulimancy (divination using shoulder-blade bones), plastromancy (divination using plastrons), or pyromancy (a broader term for types of divination that use fire).
So how does this answer the client’s question? Via the cracks in the bone… and that’s about all we know. What systems they used to interpret those marks—what constituted an auspicious answer vs. an unfavorable one—no one has yet been able to discover. We can probably assume that it depended as much on the political climate as on any system, though, because it has always been in a diviner’s interest to pay attention to the context of the question.
On the rare occasions this shows up in fiction, it’s usually the work of an evil witch or other malevolent character. But haruspicy (also called extispicy), divination by the examination of entrails, goes back at least to Babylon, and it was common in ancient Rome. The haruspex would sacrifice an animal—often a sheep or a chicken—and then study the liver or other viscera to determine what the portents said.
As with oracle bones, we don’t have a terribly clear idea of how a lump of organ meat could answer questions. There’s an artifact called the Liver of Piacenza that gives us some clues; it’s a bronze life-sized model of a sheep’s liver, inscribed with the names of Etruscan deities. Presumably if one feature was larger or discolored in some fashion, that meant it was significant, and the association with a deity would give you some sense of what the message was. But you’d need to be pretty familiar with anatomy before you could tell one lump of meat from another!
The Christian Church often looked askance at many kinds of folk divination, considering them superstition at best, witchcraft at worst. But others could be quite acceptable—like bibliomancy, aka divination with books.
Or rather, with a book. Take the Bible or some other suitably important text (medieval Christians were also known to use Virgil’s Aeneid) and open it to a random page. The first words your gaze falls upon are your answer: a message from God, whose relevance to your question you must then interpret. The I Ching is a more complex form of this method, using coins or yarrow stalks to better randomize the selected text; otherwise a book was too likely to fall open to a frequently-read passage.
Birds often played a role in divination, with augurs reading omens out of the patterns of their flight or other behavior. But my favorite version of this is alectryomancy, divination by roosters: you set out grain and observed how the birds pecked at the grain. During the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, the naval commander Publius Claudius Pulcher consulted the sacred chickens on board his ship . . . and they refused to eat at all. In an attempt to reassure his crew, he reportedly said, “Since they won’t eat, let them drink!” and chucked them into the sea.
He proceeded to lose the Battle of Drepana.
Moral of the story: don’t throw the sacred chickens overboard.
Counting the Days
I’ve made use of this one in my novella Lightning in the Blood. It makes use of the Mayan ritual calendar, the tzolkin, which consists of twenty day names and thirteen day numbers, constantly cycling. Each day name has its own associated spirit or deity, a Day Lord, with associated meanings. A daykeeper, a Mayan diviner, lays out an arrangement of seeds and counts through them with the calendar; the Day Lords respond with a sensation described as “blood lightning,” an electrical feeling in the daykeeper’s body. Based on the location and movement of that feeling, the Day Lord in question, and the number of the day (a higher number is more violent and dangerous), the diviner answers the client’s question. It’s a complex system, but much more comprehensible to the modern mind than the inscrutable cracks in an ancient turtle shell or the shape of a sheep’s liver.
There are countless other methods of divination, ranging from myomancy (observing the behavior of rats or mice) to the magic 8-ball. All of them are attempts to reduce uncertainty, to answer the questions that constantly plague us: What should I do? Is this a good idea? What will the future bring?
I don’t know. But maybe the chickens do.
Marie Brennan is the author of multiple series, including the Lady Trent novels, the Onyx Court, the Wilders, and the Doppelganger duology, as well as more than forty short stories. Lightning in the Blood, the second novella in the Varekai series, is available June 6th from Tor.com Publishing. More information can be found at her website.