Forms of Divination in Early Modern Europe

St. Augustine rarely passed up an opportunity to condemn divinatory practices. We commonly recall Augustine’s condemnation of astrology where he invoked the example of twins who have experienced radically different lives or suffered from different illnesses (see City of God, book V). But he didn’t shy away from condemning other mantic practices, as in the chapter “Concerning the Hydromancy Through Which Numa Was Befooled by Certain Images of Demons Seen in the Water.” By the end of the sixteenth century, Augustine’s text was frequently printed with Juan Luis Vives’s commentary, which added a laundry list of divinatory practices to Augustine’s chapter denouncing hydromancy:

TO (a) Hydromancy] Diuination by water. Diuination generally was done by diuers means: either by Earth, Geomancy: or by fire, Pyromancy (or Ignispicina, found by Amphiarans as Pliny saith:) or by smoake, Capnomancy: or by birds, Augury: or by intrailes, Aruspicinae: (vsed much by the Hetrurians, and by Ianus, Apollo’s sonne, amongst the Heleans, and after him by Thrasibulus who beheld a dogge holding the cut liuer) or by a siue, called Coscinomancy, or by hatchets, Axinomancy, or by Hearbes, Botinomancy, the witches magike, or by dead bodies, Necromancy, or by the starres, Astrologie (wherein the most excellent are called Chaldeee, though neuer borne in Caldaea): or by lottes, Cleromancy: or by lines in the hand, Chiromancy, or by the face and body, Physiognmy: or by fishes, Icthyomancy (this Apuleius was charged with:) or by the twinckling and motion of the eies called Saliatio, & the Palmique augury. Then was there interpretation of dreames, and visions, or sights of thunder or lightning, noyses, sneezings, voices, and a thousand such arts of inuoking the deuills, which are far better vnnamed. Hydromancy I haue kept vnto the last: because it is my theame: It is many-fold: done either in a glasse bottle full of water, wherein a Childe must looke, (and this is called, Gastromancy of the glasses belly) or in a basen of water, which is called Lecanomancie, in which Strabo sayth the Asians are singular. Psellus de damonibus, affirmeth this also and sheweth how it is done: that the deuills creepe in the bottome, and send forth a still confused sound, which cannot bee fully vnderstood, that they may be held to say what euer come to passe, and not to lye.

Although Vives’s list includes a wide range of mantic pracitces—e.g., Capnomancy, Pyromancy, Axinomancy, Cleromancy, Botinomancy—over the next 150 years many more would be added.

In 1664 A General Collection of Discourses of the Virtuosi of France, upon Questions of all sorts of philosophy and other Natural Knowledge made in the Assembly of the Beaux Esprits at Paris, by the most Ingenious Persons of that Nation included a discussion on divination: “Whether there be any Art of Divination.” One of the interlocutors seemed skeptical, claiming

Whereby it appears, that there is no Art of Divi|nation: Art being a body of precepts tending to some profitable end; whereas were Divination certain, it would cause nothing but either despair or negligence; and precepts being of things happening necessarily or most commonly; that whose cause we know not cannot be known by precepts. And therefore all your Soothsayers, Augurs, Sorcerers, Fortune-tellers, and the like, are but so many Impostors.

But the second interlocutor was less suspicious. He recognized different forms of divination: from God, prophecy; from devils, conjuring; purely natural, prognosticaiton or conjecture. Prophecy depended on divine inspiration. Natural divination was astrology and other rules of thumb—“plague is fore-told by the flourishing of Roses or Violets in Autumn” or “Mice running away from an house presignifie its downfall or burning.” He reserved his efforts for divination grounded in demonic influence and greatly extended Vives’s list:

This Divination is of two sorts. The first is call’d Daemonomancy, when the Devils themselves give answers out of Caves or Images; sometimes by beasts, men, or most frequently by women, rendring oracles by their mouths, stomacks, or bellies, but for the most part ambiguous and doubtful, for fear of being mistaken. The other is call’d Mangania, or Goetia, the most detestable species of which is Necromancy, which draws answers from the mouths of the dead. Others, more remarkable, are, 1. Hydromancy, or Divination by water, into which they pour drops of oyle, or cast three little stones, observing the sections of the circles which they describe. 2. Lecanomancy, by a basin of water, at the bottom of which the answers are heard, after casting thereinto some plates of Gold and Silver, and precious stones, engraven with certain characters. 3. Gastromancy, by glass bottles full of water, in which a big-belly’d woman, or an innocent child, beholds images. 4. Catoptromancy, by Looking-glasses. 5. Crystallomancy, by crystal cylinders. 6. Dactylomancy, by enchanted Rings, like that of Gyges. 7. Onychomancy, by anointing the nail of a child with oyle or tallow, and holding it towards the Sun they see in it what they demand. 8. Aeromancy, by conjurations of the Air. 9. Coscinomancy, by a sieve, and sizzars. All which species of Divination presume either an express or tacite compact with the Devil. But there were three without compact, 1. Aruspices, who drew conjectures from the entrails and motions of beasts sacrificed, from the figures made by melted wax cast into water, call’d Ceromantie, or Daphnomancy, from the crackling of burning Lawrel, Omphalomancy, when by the knots and adhering to the navil and secundines, the Mid-wives fore-tell how many Children the new deliver’d woman shall have afterwards. Amniomancy, foretelling the Childs fortune from the red or livid colour of the coat Amnios. Parthenomancy, to discover Virginity by measuring the neck, or drinking powder’d Agat, which she that is no Virgin vomits up again. 2. Augures, or Auspices who divin’d from birds, beasts, prodigies, and accidents, as Pliny reports of the Servilii, that they had a piece of brass money which they fed with Gold and Silver, and it increas’d when any good was to befall their Family, and diminish’d upon some approaching evil. 3. Unlawful Lots are Cleromancy, which comprehends Homer and Virgil’s Lots. Alectriomancy, by a Cock eating corns of wheat lay’d upon the Letters of the Alphabet. Oniomancy, by names; Arithmancy, by numbers.

Dictionaries that promised to explain difficult terms were quite popular and regularly included the range of mantic practices, such as Thomas Blount’s Glossographia, or A Dictionary Interpreting All Such Hard Words of Whatsoever Language or Elisha Coles’s An English Dictionary Explaining the Difficult Terms that are Used in Divinity, Husbandry, Physick ….

Long lists of divinatory practices also appeared in texts on witchcraft. Henry Holland’s A treatise against witchcraft: or A dialogue, wherein the greatest doubts concerning that sinne… considers the many forms of divinations Satan’s means of knowing the future.

Somewhat surprising is the list of 45 differnt forms of divination found in Randle Holme’s The Academy of Armory, or A Storehouse of Armory and Blazon…:

The several ways by which Fortunes are foretold.

Chiromantickes, are such as take upon them to tell Fortunes by the Lines of the hand. Chiromancer.

Chiromancy, is the Art of telling Fortune by such Lines.

Palmestry, is the Art of telling Fortunes by the Lines in the Hand.

Prognosticator, a Fortune Teller, one that declares things to come.

Prognosticate, or Prognostication, is a foretelling of what shall be and happen, or things before they come to pass.

Divination, a telling of things past, or to come, to predict, foretel, conjecture, or have the fore-knowledg of future things by a Divine Spirit or Revelation.

Physiognomy, the Art of Judging or conjecturing the Fortune of a Man, by the Lineaments of his Face and Body.

Diagnosticate. Diagnostick, a foreshew of Fortune, and things to come to pass, by the scituation of Moles on the Face, or other parts of the Body.

Physnomists, is the telling of Fortune by the Line in the Forehead. A contraction from Physiognomy.

Hieroglyphica, a pretence or vain curiosity or predicting things by the foldings or wrinkles in the hand, or Engraving or Drawing in Pictures before hand, Emblems of things that shall come afterwards to pass.

Dreamer, or Dreams, is a foretelling of things by Dreams, an Interpreter of the signification of Dreams, and what events will follow.
Astronomy, and Astronomer, is the Art of, and the foreteller of things done and past, and what shall happen to any person; a Prediction from Birth and Nativities, by the ruling of the Planets, when such and such things happened.

Cabalistical, or Pythagorean, or Apollonian Invention of numbers, by which the future event of things are and may be predicted.

Astrology, the Science of telling of things through the motion of the Stars and Planets; an Astrologician, Astrologier.

Constellator, and Constellation, is the teller, and the Art of telling of Fortune by Nativities; as whether the party born under such and such Constellations, shall have Health or Diseases, live long or die shortly; also what fortune or misfortune doth attend him, &c.

Auspicium, or Soothsaying, is the telling of good and bad Fortune by the flying of Birds.

Augury, is divination or Fortune telling by their Singing or Chirping or Crowing.

Atuspicana, is a kind of Southsaying, from the things that happen at Sacrifices, and by the things on the Altar.

Etispicium, a foretelling of the event of things, by the inspection of the intrails of Beasts Sacrificed.

Sorcilegium or Lottery, is a telling of Fortune by casting of Lots or Dice, a Lottery or Fortune by Lots.

Oracles, are the telling of things to come, out of the mouth of dumb Images and Idols, by help of the Devil and Idolatrous Priests.

Magick, Witchcraft, Inchanting, Conjuration, is the doing or telling of the Fortune, and transforming the Body by the help of the Devil and Evil Spirits.

Prophecy, is the telling of things to come through the Gift of God, and Inspiration of his Spirit.

Tripudium, is a kind of conjecturing of things by Crums cast to Chicken in a Coop or Pen, which by their eating or not, they make their observation of good or bad luck: These are called also Auspicium coactum, or Pullarius, or Tripudum Solistivum.

Capnomantis, or Smoak Augurers, such as conjectured from the Flame and Smoak of the Altar, whether it rolled or tumbled in the Air, or continued long, which were unfortunate tokens, as the contrary were good. These kind of Augurers were called Capnomentes.

Hydromantia, is a Divination by Water, which is by calling of Spirits to appear in the Water.

Urim and Thummim, it was a Jewish kind of Revelation, by which God oft shewed the event of things; some write that they were two Ornaments in the High Priests Breast plate, but of what manner, or how they gave Answer is hard to resolve, Exod. 28.30. 1 Sam. 28.6.

Ephod, and Teraphim, were things also, by which the Jews and other Idolatrous People, as from an Oracle, sometimes received Answers to what was proposed Of these you may read Iudg. 17.5, and 18.5.6. 1 Sam. 30.7, 8. Zech. 10.2.

Observer of Times, one that distinguisheth Times and Seasons, saying such a day is good, such a day is nought, such an hour, such a week, such a month, such a year is lucky, such is unlucky for such and such businesses.

Inchanter, Sorcery, is a bewitching the senses and minds of Men, by changing the form of things, making them appear otherwise than indeed they are; these were such as resisted Moses, Exod. 7.11.

Charmers, is a muttering, soft speaking, or writing of some Spell or Charm, that shall either suffer such and such a thing to be done, or not be done; as one by speaking some Words in a strange Language or otherwise, shall cure the Ague.

Witchcraft, or consulter with Devils, or Familiar Spirits, as Witches and Wizards do, or being possessed by such Evil Spirits, have them speak out of their Bellies, as out of a Bottle; such a Diviner was the Damsel, Act. 16.16. as is thought by St. Augustin, and most Expositors.

Necromancy, is such Divination, as to consult with the Devil and Satan in the shape of a dead Man or Woman, as the Witch of Endor, who raised the Devil in the likeness of Samuel, to tell Saul the event of the ensuing Battel. 1 Sam. 28.7.8. &c.

Consulters by Staves, Rods, or Arrows, this is a doing of a thing by Lots; or else by measuring a Staff by the Thumb breadth, saying I will do so, and I will not do so, and as the last Thumb breadth falls out, so he determineth.

Uisions or Apparitions, this is an extraordinary way by which things have been revealed, and made known to us, as by good Angels from God, and evil Angels also as Tempters, of which see the Scripture, Exod. 3.2. Iosh. 5.13.14. Mat. 4.1.3. and 2 Maccab. 3.25.33.

Voices or Ecchoes, by it is meant a Voice from Heaven, declaring the Will of God, this took place in the giving of the Law, Exod. 20 4. and took place in the second Temple, 2 Macab. 2.21. Mat. 3.17. when Visions and Inspirations were not.

Inspirations of the Holy Ghost, whereby the persons were enabled to Prophesy, and to speak with unknown Tongues, and Interpret, Act. 2.3.4.

Aeromantia, is a Divination, or telling of Fortune by the Air.

Aleuromantia, is a Divination by Corn, as Barley and Wheat mixed together.

Gastromantia, is a Divination sounding out of the Belly; the Devil speaking in a person possessed.

Oscinum, a South-saying by Singing, or Singing Birds.

Alectryomantia, Divination by the Crowing of a Cock, or from a Cock Stone, or a Stone found in the Maw or Gizard of a Cock, of the bigness of a Bean, and in colour like Christal.

Geomantia, is a kind of Fortune telling, by making of circles or pricks on Paper, or on the Earth, and so by their numbers conjecture the event of things, which is Englished Geomancy, viz. a Sorcerer, Enchanter, a Conjurer or Diviner by Pricks.

Pyromantia, is a Divination by Fire.

Uromantis, is one that can divine somthing from the sight of Urines, a Urine Gaser, a Caster of Waters.

Prognosis, or Signa Prognostica; are signs and tokens in a patient whereby it is known what will become of him, whether for life or death. Prophasis is also a fore knowledg of Diseases, and in Diseases by antecedent and succeeding causes, to fore-tell the Event of things and what will undoubtedly happen to the sick party.

For various reasons not everybody accepted all forms or sometimes any form of divination. Divination was, according to some, a pact with the devil or only possible for God. For other people, some forms of divination were natural and acceptable but nevertheless often inaccurate. Yet many people seemed to place some faith in divination. Consequently, we find parodies of such people. Barten Halyday seemed to mock some of them in his comedy Technogami: Or the Marriage of the Arts.

The most famous paradoy of divinatory practices has to be Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. At one point, Epistemon suggests to Panurge that the two visit Herr Trippa and seek his counsel about whether or not Panurge should marry. For a full chapter Herr Trippa rattles off all manner of divination, some rather amusing and other unusual: tyromancy, or divination by cheese; gyromancy, walking in circles until you fall down; sternomancy interprets marks on the breast; sycomancy reads fig leaves; anthropomancy studies human entrails. Every one, according to Herr Trippa, confirms that Panurge is going to be inevitably cuckolded and “beaten and robbed by your wife… as soundly rubbed with pepper as any falcon infested with vermin.”

Whether or not a person believed in divination, early modern Europe was clearly rife with such beliefs. What we find less frequently is evidence that people actually practiced these forms of divination. Not only do we not find manuals or notebooks of recording consultations, too many of these practices are ephemeral and leave no trace of their having been practiced: cheese rots, fires and echoes die out, water evaporates, smoke dissipates. Alas.