It was Robert Cochrane who originally coined those now famous words:
“If one who claims to be a Witch can perform the tasks of Witchcraft, i.e. summon the spirits and they come, can divine with rod, fingers and birds. If they can also claim the right to the omens and have them; have the power to call, heal and curse and above all, can tell the maze and cross the Lethe, then you have a witch.”
Divination is what I would refer to as the practical element of Craft magic, and we don’t even have to be witches to be able to read the portents. But it helps!
Looking into the future is a very ancient practice. As we saw in the chapter ‘Developing the ‘Art of Seeing’ in Traditional Witchcraft for Urban Living, thousands of recorded British customs and superstitions all have their roots in fortune-telling spells and charms, and they are as fashionable today as they were way back when. In fact, it’s been said that divination was as commonplace in the past as satellite communication is today: it was part of everyday life for everyone from king to commoner. It utilised all manner of techniques and methods from a simple nut placed on the fire grate to the complicated reading of the Roman auspices. For example a few of these techniques include:
Aeromancy: Divination using the formation of clouds and other patterns in the skies.
Botanomancy: Divination through plant life; may include the burning of plants and foretelling future events through the ashes or smoke.
Crystallomancy: An ancient form of casting lots using small stones. Or crystalomancy: Divination by studying a crystal ball.
Daphnomancy: Using the smoke of burning branches of the laurel tree to answer questions and forecast upcoming events.
Enoptromancy: An ancient method using a shiny surface placed in water.
Felidomancy: Divination through the observation of felines, including domestic and wild cats.
Geomancy: An ancient system interpreting the patterns and shapes or events found in nature.
Halomancy: Foretelling by interpreting the formation of the crystals when salt is poured to the ground.
Ichthyomancy: Observing the behaviour of fish both in and out of the water.
Jungism: The understanding of mythic symbolism as it relates to the human subconciousness.
Kephalonomancy: Ancient method of pouring lighted carbon on the skull of a goat or donkey to determine guilt or innocence.
Lampadomancy: Divination through the observation of flames from a candle or flaming torch.
Metopomancy: Divination and character analysis by studying the lines on a person’s forehead.
Necromancy: Contacting the spirits of the dead to interpret omens and forecast future events.
Oinomancy: An ancient Roman practice of interpretation through the study and evaluation of the colour, consistency and taste of wine.
Psephomancy: Divination by selecting at random small stones from a pile.
Qabbala: A blend of powerful divinely-inspired divination and mysticism.
Rune Stones: A series of mystic symbols thrown or selected to determine the future.
Scrying: Divination by interpreting the play of light on a shiny object or surface.
Tephramancy: Interpreting the ashes of a combustible object.
Uromancy: Divination using urine.
Visualisation: A controlled level of consciousness during which the seeker can divine answers to questions.
Wort-Lore: The understanding of the appropriate herbs to use to aid divination.
Xylomancy: Using the arrangement of dried sticks to predict the future.
Ying-Yang: Describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may interrelate to one another and influence future events.
Zoanthropy: Divination by observing and interpreting the flames of three lighted candles placed in a triangular position.
A deep-rooted belief in divination has existed throughout the ages, among both the uncivilized and the most civilized of cultures, as the desire to know the future continually gave rise to some weird and wonderful ways of peering into it. The Egyptians used dreams [i.e temple sleep] to divine the will of the gods; the Druids used many different forms of divination, as did the Hebrews. Although augury was first implemented by the Chaldeans, the Greeks became addicted to it; and among the Romans no important action of State was undertaken without the advice of the augers and their pre-occupation with raw liver!
Both oracles and seers in ancient Greece practiced divination. Oracles were the conduits for the gods on earth; their prophecies were understood to be the will of the gods verbatim and usually communicated to rulers and prominent persons. Seers were interpreters of signs provided by the gods via natural signs and were more numerous than the oracles being highly valued by all Greeks, not just those with the where with all to travel to Delphi or other such sites, where pythonesses perched on stools, inhaling noxious fumes. As it does today, the ancient Greeks made use of various techniques of divinatory practice: either direct or indirect, and, either spontaneous, or artificial.
Direct divination is where and when a seeker might experience divination by way of dreaming and dreams or by way of a temporary experience of madness, or phrensy (frenzy), all of these conditions being a state from which an inspired recognition of truth is attained. A necessary condition is that the seeker has made an effort to produce a mental or physical state which encourages a flash of insight. These historically attested efforts included sleeping in conditions where-by dreams might be more likely to occur, inhaling certain vapour, the chewing of leaves, drinking of blood, etc.
Under these conditions the seeker may gain the power of prophecy (albeit temporary) that was associated with caves and grottoes within Greek divination, and the nymphs and Pan who were associated with caves often bestowed the gift of prophesy. Pan was able to dwell within people, a condition known as panolepsy, that causes inspirational abilities relating to divination or prophecy. A degree of possession of an individual by a nymph is known as nympholepsy, meaning ‘caught by nymphs’ …a term we would use today as someone ‘being fairy led’.
Indirect divination where-by a seeker observes natural conditions and phenomenon such as ‘sortilege’, and chance encounters with the animal kingdom. This consists of the casting of lots, or sortes, whether with sticks, stones, bones, beans, coins, or some other item and often interpreted by a third party. Modern playing cards and board games are believed to have been developed from this type of divination, whereby dice or counters are cast in order to predict the future.
But not all divinatory methods were well-received. As early as 692 the Quinisext Council, also known as the ‘Council in Trullo’ in the Eastern Orthodox Church, passed canons to eliminate paganism and the practice of divination, but it continued to be popular well into the Middle Ages despite being frequently banned by the Church. In fact the seven artes magicae or artes prohibitae, i.e. those methods of divination prohibited by canon law (as expounded by Johannes Hartlieb in 1456), were: grimoires such as the Picatrix or the Liber Rasielis and was classed as ‘black magic’ and demonology, by the vernacular etymology, from necromancy.
In the constitution of 1572 and public regulations of 1661 of Kur-Saxony, capital punishment was used on those predicting the future and laws forbidding divinatory practice continue to this day in some parts of the world. Nevertheless, the belief in ‘fortune-telling’ continued to be looked upon as a popular pastime for finding a husband or predicting a favourable outcome with regards to health, wealth and happiness. Even the popular Victorian compilations of superstitions were given a Christian spin to weed out anything that wasn’t considered ‘nice’ or smacked too much of paganism, but the Folklore Society’s extensive archive enables serious researchers to trace these old divinatory practices back to their roots.
Divination, however, is only a small part of a witch’s stock in trade and although a very basic introduction to the subject can be learned from books, proficiency will only come through vigorous practice. This proficiency comes through the discovery of certain secret matters by a great variety of means, - correspondences, signs and occult techniques - and before a witch can perform any of these operations with any degree of success, we need to develop the ‘art of seeing’ and the ability to ‘divine with rod, fingers and birds’
Very early in his studies one student had grasped the fact that the animal world helps us to connect to this new level of being, particularly through birds, which have long been recognised as an effective means of divination. Once he understood the principles behind the phenomena, he began to find that he was beginning to ‘see’ more. How many people, for instance, will even notice the mice on the Underground … but he’d watched them and interpreted their behaviour. How they would always disappear long before the rumble of the train was discernable to human awareness. Once we get into the habit of watching the animal world, we will always have something around us to warn when that ‘train’ is coming!
The most remarkable thing about divination, of course, is its continued success. And a large number of people who turn to professional readers are impressed by the amazing details ‘coming through’ from their past - but this isn’t what divination is about. ‘Cold reading’ is a set of techniques used by mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums and illusionists to imply that the reader knows much more about the person than the reader actually does. There are dozens of books on the subject that reveal how, without prior knowledge, a practiced cold-reader can quickly obtain a great deal of information by analyzing the person’s body language, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. Cold readings commonly employ high-probability guesses, quickly picking up on signals as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, then emphasizing and reinforcing chance connections and quickly moving on from missed guesses. Even the police and military use the technique during interrogation sessions …
The witch, however, is not so much concerned with the past as with the present and more particularly the future. Of course, our past actions affect the way we view the future but if we ignore the warnings that divination brings concerning the present, we will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. We must also remember that regardless of whatever method is used to predict the future those results are not cast in stone! Divination reveals the future as relating to the past and the present, and what will happen if the warnings are not heeded in order to change things before they go wrong. The answer is also subjective to where an individual is standing at the precise moment in time when they pose the question. We’re back to the saying: “You can’t change anything but yourself, but in changing yourself, everything changes around you.” So if you don’t like what the results of the reading is telling you … do something about it before it’s too late!
As witches we are responsible for our own destiny and a proficiency in our own chosen system of divining gives us a powerful advantage. Experienced practitioners usually prefer to use a single form of divination, and while some methods may prove to be more efficient than others, and some diviners may be more accurate than their fellows, it is traditionally part of a witch’s natural ability to be able to divine by ‘rod, fingers and birds’, as the saying goes. After years of practice with any particular system, we find that we can interpret the signs without even having to think about it – it’s like receiving a message from an old friend.
The results we get from our endeavours are signs of opportunities to be taken, dangers to be avoided, or impending news of change. Here the witch also interacts with Nature to keep close watch on any unusual activities or occurrences that might have any effect on themselves, or those close to them. This is another reason why it is essential for even the most urban of witches to be well-versed in natural lore as well as magical lore. It pays to understand the local wildlife, otherwise we might not see that unusual ‘something’ in an animal’s or bird’s normal behaviour patterns.
Our native flora and fauna are linked to our magical subconsciousness and, if we have required any form of divinatory methods to guide us through the subsequent stages of our love life or career, we must be receptive to those responses. For those with a working understanding in the language of magical correspondences, it is easy to grasp how natural the reading of the symbols becomes, and how easy and obvious (in most instances) is the interpretation. For the beginner, however, accept that the answers are not going to appear suddenly in chapter and verse in a book on fortune telling. Divination is more subtle and, more often than not for the inexperienced, irritatingly obtuse!
Reading for others is a common moral and ethical dilemma that is often raised on internet sites and personally I always refuse point blank to indulge in the practice. That has not always been the case. There used to be an unwritten ethic whereby a reader seeing something really nasty in the future was duty bound not to reveal what they had seen lurking in the woodshed. And in the words of that old Leonard Cohen song … “I’ve seen the future, brother, it is murder!” I decided it was unreasonable for me to carry the burden of knowledge for strangers and waiting for the other boot to drop, and that has remained my personal code to the present day … so don’t ask.
If you do wish to read for others then remember not to use your own ‘tools’ for outsider’s readings as these will become contaminated through use. Keep your own private equipment under lock and key and have a completely different set for public readings – even this should be ritually cleansed after use as each reading will leave a psychic residue behind and contaminate the next person’s reading.
On the legal front, the whole ball-game changed in 2008 when the Fraudulent Mediums Act (which replaced the 1735 Witchcraft Act) was replaced by the new Consumer Protection Regulations. Now there’s a whole list of disclaimers that must be added to the fortune-teller’s spiel if they are to avoid an avalanche of writs from disgruntled customers. The reason behind the introduction of the new law was because very little in the multi-million-pound psychic industry in Britain is for free, and anyone charging or accepting ‘gifts’ in exchange for a service is bound by the new regulations. A legal specialist wryly observed: “Now there is no difference in law between a psychic and a double-glazing salesman.”
Let’s face it, there are ‘professional’ fees charged for all manner of types of divination, including Tarot, psychic readings and clairvoyance – just take a look at the number of classified advertisements in any of the MB&S magazines. According to Office of Fair Trading research, which provided the basis for the new changes, psychic mailings are estimated to have cost gullible Britons £40m in 2006-07, while psychic services via telephone, online and satellite TV keep the tills ringing in the psychics’ favour.
In the USA the legal status of spiritualists, psychics, fortune-tellers and healers has often been a precarious one, and explains why many pagans adopted the title of Reverend as this kept them within the boundaries of the law. As one web-post explained: “If one goes to psychic fairs, etc., you will notice that virtually all readers are Reverend ‘So and So’ with another title attached. If you are using Tarot or scrying for a church or religious purpose [i.e counselling], and not for the purpose of fortune-telling – you are legal.” So there you have it … if you are a professional diviner and charge a fee for your services, you might be falling foul of the Office of Fair Trading.
From a purely personal point of view, my abilities when it comes to divination have always been limited, I have to confess. I regularly use cartomancy (i.e. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot) and the pendulum for personal divinatory purposes – and with a great deal of success I might add - but tend to rely more on the messages from the natural world on a daily basis. I have the most amazing crystal ball collection but generally use them for meditational work by holding the appropriate sphere in the palm of the hand – one colour for each sephiroth of the Qabalah – rather than prediction. So … I’m okay with fingers (cleidomancy) and birds (alectryomancy) but the rod (rhabdomancy) I really have to work at to get any kind of results …
Pagan Portals DIVINATION: By Rod, Birds and Fingers by Melusine Draco is published by Moon Books (www.moon-books.net) ISBN 9 978 1 78535 858 6 : UK£6.99/US$10.95 : 82 pages. Available in paperback and e-book format