How Weird is Divination?

(Let’s continue the trend, No More thinking about Viruses or Trump, for the moment! Let’s think about the “reading” of sheep intestine instead, and how weird is that? Well, maybe not quite as weird as you may think! More on “Folk Religion” and its role in the origins of Human Mind!)

Haruspicy: the examination of entrails to foresee events, Thanks to Jillian Chantal for the image.

To try to foretell the future through the examination of the entrails of a sacrificed animal — called “haruspicy”That is the Height of Foolishness! Or, how about “nephomancy”; the ‘reading’ of the shapes and colors of clouds in an effort to make an important decision? “Ceroscopy” is the reading of the meaning of wax dripped into water through the significance of the shapes it takes. Surely these are the epitome of Superstition and a royal waste of time and energy.

The Ouija board. A product of the Spiritualist movement, of the mid and late 1800s in America, involved the belief in the ability of the dead to communicate with the living. Sold then in stores as a link “between the known and unknown, the material and immaterial.” Price $1.50! Asked by its inventor what should it be called, it proceeded to spell out “O-U-I-J-A”! (see Smithsonian Magazine)

Divination is “the practice of determining the hidden significance or cause of events” or “the effort to gain information of a mundane sort by means conceived of as transcending the mundane”, says Britannica. It does not necessarily involve any reference to a god or gods, or even a ‘divine will’, as evident in the still somewhat common use of a Ouija board.

Yet, in the history of the human species all human groups have displayed evidence of The Practice of Divination in their religious and ritualistic behaviors. Astrology (the use of the stars and planets), tasseography (the reading of tea leaves), sortilege (the tossing of bones or the dealing of cards) are all used as means to decipher the meaning inherent in our world and lives, or at least so it is believed.

In Numerology, numbers are held to have significance beyond their immediate usefulness in counting or record keeping; they have what we, moderns, would call symbolic value pertinent to matters of cosmic meaning. A Mind as acute as Pythagoras’ set out a numerical system far flung but pertinent to human decision, he believed. Each letter (or group of letters) of the alphabet were assigned a numerical value that was then added up and “reduced” to “knowledge” of a person’s disposition and fortunes according to the spelling of their name and the date of their birth.

Numerical values assigned to letters in the Pythagorean system, still used by western numerologists today.

Let us use (roughly) this system to gain clues into the character of Pythagoras, himself.

P  Y  T  H A G O R  A  S  
7+7+2+8+1+7+6+9+1+1  = 49  "reduces to" 4+9= 13  "reduces to" 1+3 = 4 
This number, "4", is called the "life path number" or his "expression number"   
It indicates Positive Personality Traits: Constructive, Systematic, Industrious and 
Negative Personality Traits: Lacks Imagination, Argumentative, Extremely Serious

Pythagoras was also the first to recognize constant numerical relations between the musical notes that we prefer: the ratio of 3:2, or “the ‘pure’ fifths”, used into the 16th century as the standard tuning method.

So, this looks all well and good, and very silly. I did say this is only a rough application of what we are assured is a “complicated process” that should involve only “trained and experienced Numerologists”, we are told on several sites. But you gotta take issue with the idea that Pythagoras “lacked Imagination”, maybe that is my “lack of training”. After all, Pythagoras was no slouch with numbers, discovering his famous Geometric Theorem. If Pythagoras would have come out a “5″, he would have been Curious, Adaptable and Social, but then, negatively, Unreliable, Directionless and Unable to Commit.

But Mockery is Not Enough!

Was Divination just foolishness? A cultural practice –“a Meme” — with this kind of prevalence and expenditure of effort probably served some useful function to have evolved and lasted. We have been learning that “Folk Religion”, itself, had a positive role in the development of human culture in its early stages. What could the positive function be for Divination?

Examples of a Harmful Meme: tobacco use and its advertisement.
Sophisticated and Handsome movie stars and football players smoke. Why not you?

A positive function, surely this is a stretch! Maybe divination was a Harmfully Parasitic or Toxic Meme from the start. A “cultural recipe”, “an attractive notion”, “an infectious symbol” used by con men (“Shaman”) to gain power and profit by bamboozling the ignorant populace. In religion, itself, there is a strong strain of flimflam. From Jim and Tammy Bakker to the power grabbing and multiple Popes of the Catholic Church during the The Western Schism (1380 to 1420 CE), personal profit and power through religious affectation has occurred regularly.

Jim and Tammy Bakker hosted a hugely prosperous televangelist empire form 1975-1990. In 1989, he was accused of rape and the payment of almost $300,000 in hush money, and then convicted of multiple counts of felony accounting fraud and imprisoned. Today he is back on television, predicting the Second Coming, and promoting survivalist gear.

But, a Toxic Meme can also be a Cultural Formula that exploits some of “our least desirable tendencies and weaknesses” without consciously duplicitous perpetrators and exploiters. The diviner can be as taken in as his or her audience, contends Dan Dennett who has championed the idea — “meme” — after its introduction by biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976. Some good examples of toxic memes today, may be an unquestioned interpretation and affirmation of the infallibility of various texts and then the perpetration of acts that are widely considered antisocial such as blowing up abortion clinics, the use of suicide vests and beheadings.

The Pythia, or Oracle of Delphi. I doubt she thought of herself as a fraud, and others did not either. One of her most famous prophesies was to King Croesus, who asked if he should attack the Persian Empire. Her answer was that if he did, “a great empire would be destroyed.” Little did he know that it would be his own! Maybe there is a little skill and art in prophesying the future! Plutarch reported that the priestess was always over 50 years of age, and would receive her request and then retire to the inner chamber of the temple, sit on a tripod stool and inhale vapors (now known to be a hydrocarbon gas) emerging from a chasm in the floor. After sufficient inspiration (and expiration), she would return to the main temple and announce her answer. (See

The Proposed Value of Divination

Divination, in its earlier uses, did have a positive social and individual value, argues Dennett and some other researchers. With the further development of language and agriculture, larger cities and empires began to develop. This was very different from life in a hunting and gathering group, or even a small agricultural settlement; Different in terms of Individual and Social Self-Control. How were Decisions and Judgements to be made in these larger contexts well beyond the intimate customs and associations of family and kin? Daily life among far flung strangers was new and greatly challenging. The old customs of behavior and decision-making of one’s clan and region were now challenged by competition and, possibly, confusion.

Divination stepped up to assume an even larger role in guiding and justifying behavior. Julian Jaynes is an early and influential contributor to these theories of human cultural development. He argues the following: there was “A Change of Mind in Mesopotamia”.

First, and very hard for us to imagine, Ancient Peoples Did Not Think of Anything as Accidental! The idea of random events and coincidences is a fairly modern idea. To the ancients, all occurrences were purposeful and the bearer of meaning to them or the world at large. There were no accidents or just simple “luck”. All “foretold” of deeper significances and wider ramifications, potentially. Divination is the direct outgrowth of this.

Second, Divination was (and still is) a decision-making devise, and in fact, a helpful one in some ways. In our lives even today, we recognize many instances where the information to decide a matter is insufficient to make a clear choice. We say, “It’s a toss-up” or even, “It’s beyond me what to do!” Help is needed in making many decisions.

In American Football, the decision of which team will get the ball first is Decided Quickly and in a Manner Acknowledged By All: The Opening Coin Toss.

Both of those phrases are often accurate. We still use a coin toss, literally, to decide some matters, and just figuratively, at other times, to provide perspective on decision-making. These decision devises — divination and coin-tossing — sharpen our thinking about a “strategic situation” and bring it to a climax, a decision-point. This is my situation, and now a decision will be made”, we seem to be saying. They further acknowledge that some outcomes are beyond our control and beyond our foresight. The decision must simply be made and in a manner that is accepted by all.

These last points are important developments in the history of human thinking about “decision”. “Good” decisions are often hard to make, and often “beyond us”, but still must be made. Our information is only partial, and the outcome of the event is not in our control. We do the best we can, and in ancient times Divination is what they stumbled upon. Surely, it ‘worked’ as often as it did not. Socially accepted decisions are important to us, for both the decision-maker and any of those who suffered its consequences. They could say, ‘Hey, The Oracle was consulted, what more could be done?That is a somewhat familiar phrase, wide ranging variations of it are often heard today in the aftermath of DECISION!

EVALUATING ANOTHER’S DECISION, and that is itself A DECISION: HUMAN MIND as THIS PRACTICE OF BEING TOGETHER with standards and methods for interpreting and regulating our behavior.

Today, we have shrunken the range of “meaning.” Meanings and Motives no longer have a place as a Cause for many kinds of events. “Accidents” and “Chance” are now recognized; some things occur With No Motivation behind them and No Significance further than The Obvious to those directly involved. The coloration and shape of a dead animal’s intestine are now no more significant than to determining what it ate the day before or the reason it died today.

Yet, Divination did have an historic benefit; it was an evolutionary stage in the practice of Human Decision-Making and an element in an early attempt at Understanding The Cosmos. That we now think of divination as hooey, does not mean that it always or simply was.

Copper engraving of the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Lisbon, Portugal, the 4th largest city in Europe at the time. Some prominent thinkers of the time argued for one of the first time against the idea that the destruction was motivated by God’s Disapproval. Voltaire and Rousseau contended there was No Hidden Meaning to be discovered. It was what we would call, “An Accident”!

Does Religion suffer the same fate as divination? Is it a practice that once made sense and functioned in some positive ways, but now is worthless and expendable? This theme will continue to be explored in the next post on The Very Human Habit of ‘Seeing’ Motives and Meanings as Supernatural Actors: How GODS GOT IN OUR WORLD!

Stay Tuned and BE SAFE (drawing by Marty)

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