Academic journal article Folklore

Divination as a Way of Knowing: Embodiment, Visualisation, Narrative, and Interpretation

Academic journal article Folklore

Divination as a Way of Knowing: Embodiment, Visualisation, Narrative, and Interpretation

Article excerpt


Divination, which is a way of exploring the unknown, has been practised worldwide for millennia. It involves complementary modes of cognition associated with representational and presentational symbolism. Wherever a theory of divination has been carefully elicited from practitioners of the art, there is a recognition of overlapping inductive, intuitive and interpretative narrative techniques and ways of knowing. In any society in which mechanical divinatory procedures are combined with visualisation or bursts of intuition, researchers should be able to empirically investigate this cognitive-embodied field of practical mastery. This investigation, in turn, ought to enable them to develop meditative empathy towards acts of divination as well as a sophisticated theory of divinatory practice.


Divination is a way of exploring the unknown in order to elicit answers (that is, oracles) to questions beyond the range of ordinary human understanding. All known peoples on earth have practised some form of divination. It has had a critical role in the classical world, ancient Egypt and the Middle East, in the Americas, India, Tibet, Mongolia, Japan, China, Korea and Africa (Loewe and Blacker 1981; Peek 1991). Questions about future events, past disasters whose causes cannot be explained, things unknown hidden from sight or removed in space, appropriate conduct in critical situations, including the healing of illness, determining the times and modes of religious worship, and making choices of persons for particular tasks--all these are common subjects of divinatory inquiry.

The means of divination are many, including water and crystal gazing, the casting of lots or sortilege, the reading of natural omens, the taking of hallucinogenic drugs, dreaming, and the contemplation of mystic spirals, amulets, labyrinths, mandalas and thangkas (Purce 1974; Grossinger 1980, 107-88; Ortiz de Montellano 1990, 144-50; Shrestha and Baker 1997; Tedlock 2001). In some instances, the diviner undergoes physical or psychological changes so as to be able to serve as a vehicle for divinatory power, while at other times, animals, objects, and events are themselves considered signs of an external superhuman power (Morales 1995).

A Brief History of the Use of the Terms "Divination" and "Mantic"

The English word "divination" comes down to us from the Latin noun divinatioonis f. (divino) "the gift of prophecy, divination," formed from the past participle of the verb divinare, "to foretell, prophesy, forebode, divine the future." This noun is closely related to the adjective divinus-a-um, "belonging or relating to a deity, divine" (Cassell's Latin-English/English-Latin Dictionary, 1955). Cicero, in his treatise De Divinatione (Concerning Divination), informs us that the Latin word, because of its derivation from divinus, meaning belonging or relating to a deity, was an improvement on the original Greek word mantike, derived from mania (furor in Latin), which meant madness, raving, insanity, or inspiration (Pease 1920).

Plato, in his description of the art of prophecy in his dialogue Phaedrus, defended the ancient Greek interest in madness:

   Our ancestors who invented our vocabulary thought there was no shame or
   reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected the noblest of
   the arts, which foretells the future, with this very mania. It was because
   they regarded madness under divine guidance as a splendid thing that they
   gave it this name manic or more recently mantike (Quoted in Helmbold and
   Rabinowitz 1956, 25).

Plato also described another ancient Greek term oionistic (oio-"thinking," -nous- "understanding," and hist- "enquiry"), that referred to the inductive art of the uninspired and sane who inquire purely from human reasoning into the future by observing bird flights and other omens, concluding that "both in name and in fact, madness is nobler than sanity [for] the first proceeds from a god, the other from mere men" (Helmbold and Rabinowitz 1956, 245). …

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