10 Historical Divination Methods for Predicting the Future

The Liver of Piacenza, a model of a sheep's liver used in Etruscan divination and unearthed in Italy in 1877.
The Liver of Piacenza, a model of a sheep's liver used in Etruscan divination and unearthed in Italy in 1877.
Shonagon, Wikimedia // CC0 1.0 (cropped)

Humans have been trying to predict the future since long before the Magic 8 Ball was invented. Divination, often using bones and entrails, was a common practice in the ancient world, and perhaps even earlier. Since then, it's seemed like just about any handy object lying around—books, chickens, even cheese—has been used to attempt a glimpse at upcoming events, leading to a host of compound words formed with the suffix -mancy (which can be traced back to the Ancient Greek for "seer" or "prophet"). Here are some of the more intriguing forms of historical divination—some may even still be practiced today, depending on who you ask—from the widespread and better known to the more delightfully obscure.

1. Hieromancy (Divination Using Entrails)

Beginning in Mesopotamia and then in classical Greece and beyond, animals were sacrificed in divinatory rituals and their internal organs (notably the liver) were inspected for omens. Aside from oracles, it was the most important divination method of the classical world: In his De Divinatione ("On Divination"), the Roman orator, statesman, and writer Cicero wrote "nearly everybody employs entrails in divining." The gory practice went by a few different names, including extispicy (from the Latin exta, or "entrails") and haruspicy, and was practiced by specialists, sometimes called extispices or haruspices. Though details on how exactly the interpretations worked can be scarce, a healthy liver was generally a positive sign, but if the organ lacked a lobe, doom was all but certain. Defects in the heart of the animal were also seen as a very bad portent, as was extra bloodiness. The Etruscans were famed practitioners of hieromancy, and at least one life-size bronze model of a sheep liver (likely made for educational purposes) has been unearthed, marked with names of various gods in each quadrant—a little like the entrails version of old phrenology heads.

2. Ornithomancy (Divination Using Birds)

Interpreting the behavior of birds is one of the oldest forms of divination, and was a common part of Greek religious life. In Aristophanes's comedy The Birds, the leader of a chorus of birds brags of their usefulness in divination: "Before undertaking anything, whether a business transaction, a marriage, or the purchase of food, you consult the birds by reading the omens." (However, the bird also says: "With you a word is an omen, you call a sneeze an omen, a meeting an omen, an unknown sound an omen, a slave or an ass an omen.") In Rome, ornithomancy was practiced by public priests known as augurs, who "took the auspices" by observing birds and other natural signs, such as thunder and lightning, to interpret the will of the gods. The number, flight, and cries or songs of both wild birds and caged sacred chickens could be used; if food fell from the beaks of the chickens while they were eating, it was a very propitious sign.

3. Pyro-osteomancy (Bone Oracles)

Pieces of oracle bone engraved with early Chinese writing from the Shang dynasty.
Pieces of oracle bone engraved with early Chinese writing from the Shang dynasty, collection of Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University
BabelStone, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

In ancient China, bones were used to tell the future. During the Neolithic period, the Shang dynasty, and beyond specialists would inscribe questions on animal (often cattle) shoulder-blades and tortoise shells, then chisel pits into them and insert heated points. The cracks made by the heated points were then interpreted as answers to the questions—either as positive or negative omens, or with more specific meanings. Some scholars even think the meanings of these cracks formed the basis for early Chinese script, and the oracle bones, as they're now known, are definitely the oldest evidence of Chinese writing. The oracle bones had been forgotten by history until their rediscovery around the early 20th century, when large caches were found; previously, they had known as "dragon bones" and ground up into medicine. Similar forms of pyro-osteomancy were found throughout East and Northeast Asia, and even North America, and in some cases may still be practiced by indigenous peoples.

4. Bibliomancy (Divination Using Books)

The practice of asking a question, opening a book at random, and interpreting the first passage your eyes (or fingers) hit upon as an answer was once widespread among the Greeks and Romans, the Muslim world, medieval Europe, and elsewhere. The Bible, the Book of Psalms, the Koran, and the works of the Roman poet Virgil were among the books most commonly used. Divination employing Virgil's writing even had its own name, the sortes Virgilianae. (Because it's the 21st century, you can now practice it online.) And you didn't even necessarily need to read the books to use them for divination—in Russia, people would tie books to the ceiling using string, and then pay attention to which way the books swung when certain names were mentioned. The direction of the swing could indicate the name of a future spouse, or girls who would marry within the year.

5. Alectryomancy (Divination Using Chickens)

Chickens weren't just a handy food source in the ancient world—they could also predict the future. Various divinatory methods were employed in which chickens were offered a choice of grain in a particular location or direction, which corresponded to an answer to the subject in question (the parties in a battle, say, or the direction from which a future husband might come). According to The New Encyclopedia of the Occult, one famous example of alectryomancy took place during the reign of the Emperor Valens (364-378 CE), in which a group of Roman courtiers sought the name of Valens's successor. During the ceremony, a circle was drawn and divided up into segments, with each segment corresponding to a certain letter, and a grain of wheat was placed in each segment. After various arcane incantations, the chicken pecked the grains corresponding to the letters t,h,e,o, and d, which was understood to mean "Theodotus," a local official who was known to be ambitious. Sadly, Valens found out about the episode and had everyone killed—including Theodotus. (It's less clear what happened to the chicken.)

6. Tyromancy (Divination Using Cheese)

The use of cheese as a divination tool was known in the ancient world and the Middle Ages, although the details aren't very well-recorded. Some say the shapes of the holes in the cheeses were thought to hold meaning—a heart shape could indicate love, and certain holes could be read as initials. According to occultopedia.com, young women in the countryside would predict future husbands by writing the names of suitors on pieces of cheese. The first to mold was believed to be the ideal mate. It may be worth noting, however, that the Greek diviner Artemidorus did not feel that cheese divination was very reliable, and included cheese diviners among his list of "false diviners," alongside dice diviners, sieve-diviners, and necromancers. (The interpretation of dreams and livers was far more dependable, he felt.)

7. Ceromancy (Divination Using Melted Wax)

A drawing of women practicing divination with lead or wax
A drawing of women practicing divination with lead or wax
Čeněk Zibrt, Wikimedia // Public Domain

The swirling shapes made by pouring melted wax into water were used as a divination tool in both ancient and medieval Europe. One common method was to melt the wax in a brass container, and then pour the liquified wax into a vessel full of cold water, after which the diviner would interpret the shapes floating in the water. A related practice, molybdomancy, used the shapes in molten metal, usually lead. One 19th-century Irish book instructs women curious about the trade of their future spouse to take a small lump of lead and put it under their pillow on Midsummer's Eve. The next day they were to heat the lead until boiling, take a pail of water, and pour in the lead—"take it out, and you will find … emblems of his trade; if a ship, he is a sailor, [if] a book, a parson … and so on."

8. Cledonomancy (Divination by Words Overheard)

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, chance utterings weren't always just that. The art of cledonomancy, or divination from overhead words, could be practiced either inside or outside of a specific ritual. In De Divinatione, Cicero relates a story about the Roman general Lucius Paulus, who was then readying his armies to fight King Perseus of Macedonia. Coming home one evening, he noticed that his young daughter Tertia looked forlorn. "What is the matter, Tertia, my dear? Why are you sad?" he asked. His daughter replied, "Oh! father, Persa is dead." Persa was the name of the little girl's puppy, but her father interpreted the words as an omen meaning he would defeat Perseus, which he did.

Specific Greek oracles, such as the oracle of Hermes at Pharai, were also designed around cledonomancy. After burning incense and making offerings, those who wished to know their future would whisper a question into an ear of Hermes's statue, cover their ears, and walk away. The first words they heard when they uncovered their ears were interpreted as the answer to their query.

9. Ring Oracles and "Under-the-Bowl Songs"

In Russia, divination was once a popular pastime for the days just after the New Year, known as the strashyne ("fearful") days, when evil spirits were said to be particularly active. According to W. F. Ryan's The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia, divination performed between midnight and 3 a.m. on these days was especially effective. One popular practice involved "under-the-bowl songs," in which rings and other personal objects were placed in a bowl and special divinatory songs sung, with each verse corresponding to a particular fortune (poverty, spinsterhood, etc.).

In one version of the practice from the Kaluga province, girls started by fetching water from a well, speaking the name of a man they wanted to marry as they did so. Once home, they poured the water into a bowl, sprinkled in some oats, added their rings, a cross, and charcoal, then covered the bowl and asked someone (usually a widow) to agitate the water with her pinkie finger. The group would then sing a song, and the widow would draw out a ring at the end of each verse. Ryan gives the example of a verse that foretells death:

Death is walking down the street,
He carries a pancake on a plate,
To the one whose ring is taken out,
It will happen,
It will happen soon,
It can't be escaped.

10. Herring Fat and Membranes

In mid-19th-century Belfast, according to Oxford's Dictionary of Superstitions, women predicted the character of their future husbands using the slimier parts of a herring. One interview excerpted in the dictionary described "a small, silvery-coloured, glutinous membrane, of perhaps an inch and a half in length, [that] lies along the under side of the backbone of the fish." The source goes on to recollect seeing female servants "divining by means of this little membrane" the physical or character traits of their future spouses, by throwing the membranes of herring they had eaten against a wall and interpreting the shape it made. "It depended on the way in which it rested, if it stretched out quite straight, curved, crooked, very crooked, or all in a little heap, whether the future husband would be tall and handsome, or small and ugly," the source said. A similar practice was also known in Scotland, where the 1824 Gallovidian Encyclopedia is a little more blunt: "Herring Soam, the fat of herrings. Young girls throw this against a wall, and if it adheres to it in an upright manner, then the husband they will get will also be so; if crooked, he will be crooked."

9 Other Things That Happened on July 4

iStock/LPETTET
iStock/LPETTET

Of course we know that July 4 is Independence Day in the U.S. But lots of other things have happened on that date as well. Here are just a few of them:

1. Three former presidents died.

On July 4, 1826, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—America's second and third presidents, respectively—both passed away. The two politicians had a love-hate relationship, and Adams's last words were supposedly, "Thomas Jefferson survives." (He didn't know that Jefferson had passed away a few hours earlier.) Exactly five years later, on July 4, 1831, fifth U.S. President James Monroe died in New York City.

2. Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond.

On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau began his two-year living experiment at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts.

3. Alice Liddell first heard the story of Alice in Wonderland.

On July 4, 1862, little Alice Liddell listened to a story told by Lewis Carroll during a boat trip on the Thames ... it would later become, of course, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It was published exactly three years later—on July 4, 1865.

4. Two famous advice columnists were born.

On July 4, 1918, twin sisters Esther Pauline and Pauline Esther Friedman were born. Today they're better known as Ann Landers and Dear Abby.

5. George Steinbrenner came into the world.

On July 4, 1930, future Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was born (and presumably fired the doctor immediately).

6. Lou Gehrig delivered his retirement speech.

On July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig gave his famous retirement speech at Yankee Stadium after being diagnosed with ALS. He tells the crowd that he considers himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

7. The Zodiac Killer killed for the first time. (As far as we know.)

On July 4, 1968, the Zodiac Killer murdered his first victims (that we know of) at Lake Herman Road in Benicia, California.

8. Koko was born.

On July 4, 1971, Koko, the sign-language gorilla, was born.

9. Bob Ross passed away.

On July 4, 1995, Bob Ross died, and all over the world, Happy Little Trees were a little less happy.

This list first ran in 2008 and was updated for 2019.

12 Facts About Diabetes Mellitus

iStock/mthipsorn
iStock/mthipsorn

Thirty million Americans—about 9 percent of the country's population—are living with diabetes mellitus, or simply diabetes. This chronic condition is characterized by sustained high blood sugar levels. In many patients, symptoms can be managed with insulin injections and lifestyle changes, but in others, the complications can be deadly. Here's what you need to know about diabetes mellitus.

1. There are three types of diabetes.

In healthy people, the pancreas produces enough of the hormone insulin to metabolize sugars into glucose and move the glucose into cells, where it's used for energy.

But people with type 2 diabetes—the most common form of the disease, accounting for about 95 percent of cases—either can't produce enough insulin to transport the sugars, or their cells have become insulin-resistant. The result is a buildup of glucose in the blood (a.k.a. high blood sugar or hyperglycemia). Type 2 diabetes typically develops in adults.

Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, makes up the remaining 5 percent of chronic cases and most often develops in children and young adults. With this condition, the initial problem isn’t blood sugar levels, but insulin production: The pancreas can’t make enough insulin to process even normal amounts of glucose. The sugar builds up as a result, leading to dangerous concentrations in the bloodstream.

The third form, gestational diabetes, only afflicts pregnant people who weren’t diabetic before their pregnancy. The mother's blood glucose levels usually spike around the 24th week of pregnancy, but with a healthy diet, exercise, and insulin shots in some cases, diabetes symptoms usually can be managed. Blood sugar levels tend to return to normal in patients following their pregnancies.

2. The mellitus in diabetes mellitus means "honey sweet."

Around 3000 years ago, ancient Egyptians described a condition with diabetes-like symptoms, though it wasn't called diabetes yet. It took a few hundred years before the Greek physician Araetus of Cappodocia came up with the name diabetes based on the Greek word for "passing through" (as in passing a lot of urine, a common diabetes symptom). English doctor Thomas Willis tacked on the word mellitus, meaning "honey sweet," in 1675, building on previous physicians' observations that diabetic patients had sweet urine. Finally, in 1776, another English physician named Matthew Dobson confirmed that both the blood and urine of diabetes patients were made sweeter by high levels of glucose in their blood.

3. The cause of one type of diabetes is well understood; the other, not so much.

A person’s lifestyle is a key predictor of developing type 2 diabetes. Factors like being overweight or obese, consuming a high-calorie diet, smoking, and seldom exercising contribute to the risk. Foods and drinks that are high in sugar—soda, candy, ice cream, dessert— may contribute to hyperglycemia, but any food that’s high in calories, even if it's not sweet, can raise blood sugar levels.

In contrast to these well-established factors, medical experts aren’t entirely sure what causes type 1 diabetes. We do know that type 1 is an autoimmune disease that develops when the body attacks and damages insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Some scientists think that environmental factors, like viruses, may trigger this immune response.

4. Family history also plays a role in diabetes risk.

If a parent or sibling has type 2 diabetes, you are predisposed to developing pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes. Lifestyle habits explain some of these incidences, since family members may share similar diets and exercise habits. Genetics also play a role, but just because one close relative has diabetes does not mean you're destined to. Research conducted on identical twins, which share identical genes, showed that the pairs have discordant risk. Among twins in which one has type 1 diabetes, the other has only a 50 percent chance of developing it; for type 2, the risk for the second twin is 75 percent at most.

5. Racial minorities are at a higher risk for developing diabetes.

Many racial minority groups in the U.S. have a higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes. Black Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and some groups of Asian Americans are more likely to have pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes than white Americans. This can be partly explained by the fact that some of these groups also have higher rates of obesity, which is one of the primary risk factors of type 2 diabetes. Socioeconomics may also play a role: One study shows that people with diabetes living in poverty are less likely to visit diabetes clinics and receive proper testing than their middle-income counterparts. According to another study, diabetic people without health insurance have higher blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol rates than insured diabetics. Genetics, on the other hand, don’t appear to contribute to these trends.

6. Diabetes is one of the world's deadliest diseases.

With proper management, people with diabetes can live long, comfortable lives. But if the disease isn’t treated, it can have dire consequences. Diabetics make up the majority of people who develop chronic kidney disease, have adult-onset blindness, and need lower-limb amputations. In the most serious cases, diabetes leads to death. The condition is one of the deadliest diseases in the world, killing more people than breast cancer and AIDS combined.

7. Millions of Americans are pre-diabetic.

According to the CDC, 84 million adults living in the U.S. are pre-diabetic: Their blood sugar is higher than what’s considered safe, but hasn't yet reached diabetic level. In pre-diabetic patients, blood glucose levels after eight hours of fasting fall between 100 and 125 milligrams per deciliter, and diabetic levels are anything above that. People with pre-diabetes are not just at a greater risk for type 2 diabetes, but also for heart disease and stroke. Fortunately, people who are diagnosed with pre-diabetes can take steps to eat a healthier diet, increase physical activity, and test their blood glucose level several times a day to control the condition. In some cases, doctors will prescribe drugs like metformin that make the body more receptive to the insulin it produces.

8. After climbing for decades, rates of diabetes incidence are declining.

In the U.S., the rate of new diagnoses skyrocketed 382 percent between 1988 and 2014. Globally, 108 million people had diabetes in 1980, but by 2014 that number was 422 million.

But thanks to nationwide education and prevention efforts, the trend has reversed in the U.S., according to the CDC. Since peaking in 2009, the number of new diabetes cases in America has dropped by 35 percent. In that same timeframe, the number of people living with diagnosed diabetes in the U.S. has plateaued, suggesting people with the condition are living longer.

9. The first successful treatment for type 1 diabetes occurred in 1922.

Prior to the 20th century, type 1 diabetes was usually fatal. Diabetic ketoacidosis—a toxic buildup of chemicals called ketones, which arise when the body can no longer use glucose and instead breaks down other tissues for energy—killed most patients within a year or two of diagnosis. In searching for way to save children with juvenile (type 1) diabetes, Canadian physician Frederick Banting and medical student Charles Best built on the work of earlier researchers, who had demonstrated that removing the pancreas from a dog immediately caused diabetes symptoms in the animal. Banting and Best extracted insulin from dog pancreases in University of Toronto professor J.J.R. Macleod's lab. After injecting the insulin back into dogs whose pancreases had been removed, they realized the hormone regulated blood sugar levels. On January 11, 1922, they administered insulin to a human patient, and further refined the extract to reduce side effects. In 1923, Banting and Macleod received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work.

10. A pioneering physicist discovered the difference between type and and type 1 diabetes.

In the 1950s, physicist Rosalyn Yalow and her research partner Solomon Berson developed a method for measuring minute amounts of substances in blood. Inspired by Yalow's husband's struggle with diabetes, Yalow focused her research on insulin. Their "radioimmunoassay" technology revealed that some diabetes patients were still able to produce their own insulin, leading them to create two separate categories for the disease: “insulin-dependent” (type 1) and “non-insulin-dependent” (type 2). Prior to that discovery in 1959, there was no distinction between the two types. In 1977, Yalow won the 1977 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the radioimmunoassay, one of only 12 female Nobel laureates in medicine.

11. Making one insulin dose once required tons of pig parts.

Insulin is relatively easy to make today. Most of what's used in injections comes from a special non-disease-producing laboratory strain of E. coli bacteria that's been genetically modified to produce insulin, but that wasn't always the case. Until about 40 years ago, 2 tons of pig pancreases were required to produce just 8 ounces of pure insulin. The pig parts were typically recycled from pork farms.

12. A quarter of diabetes patients don’t know they have it.

The symptoms of type 2 diabetes can develop for years before patients think to ask their doctor about them. These include frequent urination, unexplained thirst, numbness in the extremities, dry skin, blurry vision, fatigue, and sores that are slow to heal—signs that may not be a cause for concern on their own, but together can indicate a more serious problem. Patients with type 1 diabetes may also experience nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain.

While serious, the symptoms of diabetes are sometimes easy to overlook. That’s why 25 percent of people with the illness, 7.2 million in the U.S., are undiagnosed. And that number doesn’t even cover the majority of people with pre-diabetes who aren’t aware they’re on their way to becoming diabetic.

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