The idea of magic, or at least the belief that the future can be predicted through ritualistic, magical or religious means, has seemingly been in the minds of humans since the dawn of recorded history. When hunting witches was a craze in European society, two Papal Inquisitors named Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger described the abilities of the strongest witches in Part II, Question 1, Chapter 2 of their witch-hunter’s manual, The Malleus Maleficarum, which was published around 1487 CE. They wrote that the most talented witches had the ability to control weather. These top-tier supernatural magicians could supposedly summon strong storms of wind, lightning and hail, which they could aim directly at their enemies. They could also curse or hex both man and beast in various ways (such as infertility or death), and they also were said to have psychological powers that could instill madness in victims. They could also allegedly influence the speech of others, specifically by magically forcing any of their captured accomplices to keep silent when tortured by inquisitors.
Offensive magic and witchcraft, which seems to be the type of magic that authors and filmmakers like to portray most of all in their works, drew an unfair lot when compared to the carefully-crafted complex and grandiose names used to label the other categories of supernatural abilities—especially the field of divination, or the prediction of the future using supernatural or pseudoscientific means. Although the magical field of prediction gets a lot less coverage in the books and theater box-offices of the modern world, these prophetic practices were deemed very serious and important in the ancient, medieval and early colonial world. The great Roman orator and statesman, Cicero, wrote one of the most extensive ancient books on the subject, On Divination (De Divinatione). Furthermore, as a consequence of the human addiction to labeling and categorizing absolutely every little thing known to mankind, there is no shortage of overly-specific names for virtually each and every form of these supernatural crafts. Many of these fields fall under the broad category of sortilege, or predicting the future using tools of chance, such as cards. Yet, the broader terms for divination were broken down even further, spawning a whole host of new words, many of which end in “mancy.” For example, divination through the use of cards is called cartomancy. Most of these types of divination are discussed in Part I, Question 17 of The Malleus Maleficarum. Here are just a few of the endless subdivisions of divination that were popular in cultures based out of Europe or the Middle East:
Nowadays, sorcery is intermingled with magic and witchcraft to an extent that it is hard to tell these terms apart. Nevertheless, at one point, there seemed to be a distinct difference between sorcery and witchcraft. Historically, sorcerers were supposedly people who, through studying and learning, were able to use magical means to predict the future and channel the powers of the world. This is contrasted against witches, who supposedly gained power through deals with evil or demonic forces. In The Malleus Maleficarum, sorcery was labeled as a type of divination that was often utilized by witches.
Oneiromancy is a type of divination or magic that involves dreams. An oneiromancer could supposedly use dreams to gain knowledge or to predict the future. Witches were said to be able to use this skill in other ways than mere prediction. Using oneiromancy, they were allegedly able to meet and converse with the other witches in their covens while they slept.
This is one of the more infamous and well known of the categories of witchcraft and magic. In the modern day, necromancers are often portrayed as people who can use magic to raise the dead, creating something like a zombie. The ancient and medieval world had a different perspective of necromancy. For them, necromancy was another form of divination. Necromancers supposedly would summon the spirits of the dead to learn from them about the present or the future. Nevertheless, some necromancers could allegedly give certain tasks to dead spirits, which is unusual in the field of divination.
This is another form of divination where the future, or other answers the geomancer may seek, can be gleaned by observing marks made on the ground. A common form of geomancy was carried out by placing a series of dots on soil, paper, or some other surface. The geomancer would then connect the dots, and by observing the resulting figure made by these dots and lines, the geomancer could supposedly gain insight about what they wanted to discover. The object in the photo above was one of the tools available to medieval geomancers.
(5) Hydromancy and (6) Scrying
Hydromancy involves divining the future through the use of water. Historically, a hydromancer supposedly could tell the future by reading the reflections on the water, but the most insight came from ripples created by disturbing the liquid. Hydromancy was often associated with scrying, or divining with the help of crystals. The two skills were linked to the extent that The Malleus Maleficarum placed both water and crystal divination under the classification of hydromancy.
Aeromancers were said to have been able to practice divination by studying the wind and the weather. They were a bit like modern meteorologists, except, instead of forecasting the weather, aeromancers thought they could forecast the future of human actions and events.
In books, movies and television shows, pyromancers are often portrayed as wizards who can attack opponents with magical fire. In its historical representation, however, pyromancy was supposedly just another way to gain supernatural knowledge and predict the future. In the ancient and medieval world, pyromacers were people who practiced divination by peering into flames, listening to the crackle of the burning wood, or reading the smoke from a fire.
(9) Haruspicy and (10) Soothsaying
These two types of divination intermingle. The Malleus Maleficarum interestingly stated that soothsaying was the prediction of the future using the entrails of sacrificed animals; it then went on to say that haruspicy was a completely different type of divination, where the time of day is examined to tell the future. The Malleus Maleficarum aside, soothsaying seems to be just a general term for divination, and haruspices, practitioners of haruspicy, were the best-known diviners that read the entrails of animals in their effort to foretell the future. Besides entrails, a practitioner of haruspicy was also said to have studied other natural phenomenon, which may be why The Malleus Maleficarum claimed harucpicy had something to do with studying time. Another possibility is that Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger were in error on their assumption about these topics. Either way, haruspicy was definitely divination based upon the examination of animal entrails.
Heptoscopy can probably be considered a part of haruspicy, but it was given its own name. A person who sought to divine the future through the use of heptoscopy would seek answers in the dissected livers of sacrificed animals. While haruspicy was about animal entrails in general, heptoscopy specifically focused on the liver.
In a similar strain as the above two sections lies the practice of scapulimancy. While heptoscopy dealt with the liver, scapulimancy focused on the shoulder blade, or scapula—hence the name of this type of divination. In practicing scapulimancy, a person would take a shoulder blade from a sacrificed animal. They would then apply heat and crack the bone, somehow gaining some insight into the future by examining the results.
Lecanomancy is a bit like hydromancy, but lecanomancers focused less on the water than on what was put into the liquid. This type of divination was also sometimes referred to as dish-divining. In practicing their craft, lecanomancers would observe what happened when certain objects were placed in water. These objects varied greatly—sometimes lecanomancers just used oil, other times they used precious gemstones or even gold and silver. A practitioner of lecanomancy would look at the shapes these objects made in the water, or the sounds that the solid items made when they hit the water or the bowl in which the water was held. From this, lecanomancers claimed they could gain insight into the present and the future.
Chiromancy, also known as cheiromancy or palmistry, is a type of divination that many people today are probably familiar with—chiromancy, simply put, is palm reading. A chiromancer could supposedly gain supernatural insight, or discover something about the future, by simply looking at the lines and patterns that are present on the palm of a person’s hand.
This type of divination is performed with molten metal and water. To predict the future with this method, people simply poured molten metal (preferably lead or tin) into water and then inspected the results. A practitioner of molybdomancy would allegedly study the shape that the molten metal took when it hardened in water to gain usable information about the present or future.
(16) Augury and (17) Reading Omens
Reading omens can be loosely described as deducing something about the future by studying what is happening in the world, be it the movements of man, beast or plant. By surveying the world, a skilled observer could supposedly tell if the omens were favorable or grim and base their future decisions upon that deduction. Similarly, augury was another type of divination that required a person to look for omens. Most augurs studied the flight patterns of birds when making their decisions about the present or predictions for the future.
(18) Oracles and (19) the Method of the Pythons
The most famous of the ancient oracles were probably the ones that resided at the temple of Apollo at Delphi, but there were other oracles in various temples scattered throughout the Classical world. Residing in structures that were often built atop fault lines that released hallucinogenic natural gasses, the oracles would deliver cryptic prophecies to visitors. Priests would sometimes interpret the oracle’s messages, but recipients of these prophecies could also be left to work it out for themselves. The oracles delivered their prophecies while in a state that is akin to the modern conception of spiritual possession. The Malleus Maleficarum interestingly used the label “pythons” to describe later diviners who behaved like the ancient oracles. The book stated:
“Another species of divination is practiced by Pythons, so called from Pythian Apollo, who is said to have been the originator of this kind of divination, according to S. Isidore. This is not effected by dreams or by converse with the dead, but by means of living men, as in the case of those who are lashed into a frenzy by the devil, either willingly or unwillingly, only for the purpose of foretelling the future, and not for the perpetration of any other monstrosities” (The Malleus Maleficarum, Part I, Question 16).
Horoscopy, the practice of taking horoscopes, also known as astrology, is a type of divination that is surprisingly still popular, today. This type of divination claims to be able to deduce information about a person’s future based on the alignment of the stars, and other celestial bodies, at the time of one’s birth. With this stellar and planetary data, combined with information from the signs of the zodiac, astrologers practicing horoscopy believe they can gain great insight into the future. In the modern world, astrology has been distinctly separated from astronomy, the scientific study of space and the stars. Yet, for much of history, astrology, like alchemy (an interesting mixture of magic, chemistry and pharmacy), was considered to be a serious science that was supported by various monarchs.
Top picture attribution: (The Witch of Endor (cropped), by D. Martynov (1826-1889), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.