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."

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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