Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy. He has compiled a list of some of generally known the forms of divination.
Here is his list. How many do you know?
Shamanism is widespread all over the world, particularly among societies made up of hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists. Tribes without rulers, as I have called them in another book. Imported into modern cities, especially those of the so-called Third World, in many places it is active even today. At the root of shamanism is the assumption that, to look into the future, it is necessary first of all to leave the “normal” world by entering into an altered state of consciousness (ASC). The methods used to do so vary enormously from one culture to another. Among the most common are music (especially drumming), dancing, prayer, solitude, fasting, long vigils, sexual abstinence (or its opposite, engaging in orgies), breathing exercises, alcoholic drinks, hallucinogenic drugs, and many others.
In each of these cases, the objective is to embark the shaman on a mysterious voyage which will take him into a different country, realm, or reality. One in which the difference between present, past and future is eliminated and the last-named becomes an open book to read.
Also known as revelation, prophecy of the kind many of us are familiar with from the Old Testament in particular is little but a more institutionalized form of shamanism. The difference is that it is not the spirits but God Himself who supposedly reveals himself to the prophet and speaks through his mouth. Sometimes, as in the famous case of Jonah, he does so even against the prophet’s will.
Whereas shamans were almost always illiterate prophets tended to spend their lives in societies where either they themselves or others were able to read and write. Often the outcome was a more detailed, more cohesive, idea of what the future might bring.
3. The interpretation of dreams.
Like prophecy, the interpretation of dreams goes back at least as far as the Old Testament. It, too, rests on the assumption that, by entering upon an ASC, people will be enabled to see things which, in their waking state, they cannot.
As the Biblical story about Joseph shows, dreams were supposed to deliver their message not in simple form but with the aid of symbols. Lists of such symbols are known from ninth-century century BCE Assyria and continue to be published today. Note, however, that interpreting the dreams and relating them to future events was the task, not of the person who had them but of specialists who approached the problem in a cool, analytic manner. Before delivering their verdict, they often took the dreamer’s age, sex and personal circumstances into account.
4. The Greek oracles.
Oracles were extremely popular in Greece and Rome. To use the example of Delphi as the most important one of all, it centered on the Pythia. She was a woman who, sitting on a tripod in a dark subterranean abode, came under the influence of foul gasses emanating from a split in the earth. Going into a sort of trance, the Pythia let forth confused gibberish which was supposed to contain the clue to the future. Next, a special college of priests interpreted her words. Oracles, in other words, resembled the interpretation of dreams in that prediction was divided into two stages, each of these was the responsibility of a different person or persons.
The best-known case of necromancy (from the Greek, nekros, dead, and manteia, divination) is the one described in the Old Testament. King Saul, wishing to learn the outcome of a battle which will take place on the next day, asks a witch to raise the spirit of the prophet Samuel from the dead. Whereupon Samuel tells Saul that, tomorrow, he and his sons too would be dead. Necromancy also occurs in Greek and Roman sources. Virgil in particular has Aeneas visit the underground abode of the dead where he is shown the future of Rome over a period of about a millennium, no less. The basic assumption underlying necromancy is that the dead, having crossed a certain threshold, know more than the living do. Even today in some cultures, procedures for raising the dead and consulting them concerning the future are commonplace.
Along with shamanism, astrology is probably the oldest method for trying to look into the future. Its roots go as far back as Babylon around 3,000 BCE. That is why, in Imperial Rome, it was known as the “Chaldean” science. At the heart of astrology is the proposition, so obvious as to be self-evident, that the sun and moon (which, before Copernicus, were classified as planets) have a great and even decisive impact on life here on earth. Building on this, its students try to make that impact more specific by also taking into account the movements of the remaining planets, the fixed stars, and the relationships among all of these.
Even today, almost one third of Americans are said to believe in astrology. True or false, that does not change the fact that, unlike any of the above-mentioned methods, it is based not on any kind of ASC but on observation and calculation. Of the kind that is practiced, and can only be practiced, by perfectly sober people in full possession of their faculties. So mathematically-rooted was astrology that it acted as the midwife of astronomy, helping the latter become the queen of the sciences. This position it retained right until the onset of the scientific revolution during the seventeenth century.
As Cicero in his book on the topic makes clear, neither the Greeks nor the Romans ever took an important decision without trying to divine its consequences first. Both civilizations also maintained colleges of specialized priests who were in charge of the process. The most important types of divination were the flight of birds on one hand and examining the entrails of sacrificial animals on the other.
Like astrology, but unlike shamanism, prophecy, dreams, the oracles, and necromancy, divination did not depend on people becoming in any way ecstatic, mysteriously travelling from one world to another, and the like. Instead it was a “rational” art, coolly and methodically practiced by experts who had spent years studying it and perfecting it. Today the same is true for such techniques as numerology, Tarot-card reading, etc.