DIVINATION (dĭv'ĭ-nā’shŭn). The attempt to obtain secret knowledge, especially of the future, either by inspiration (
Divination is the practice of consulting beings (divine, human, or departed) or things (by observing objects or actions) in the attempt to gain information about the future and such other matters as are removed from normal knowledge.
Classification of types.
The above definition suggests the need for distinguishing between what might be termed personal or intuitive, and impersonal methods. The term “divination” indicates that a divine Being provides the information. Seers, the Pythia who uttered the oracle at Delphi, and mediums who consult the dead, all are said to receive messages from a personal source or in a subjective way. Other methods, sometimes called “artificial” or “automatic,” are gathered from impersonal things like the flight of birds, a sneeze, or the casting of lots.
Divination is related to magic, but is distinct from it mainly in that the latter attempts to produce certain effects while the former seeks knowledge. Nevertheless practitioners of one also might engage in the other. Note the various practices and practitioners associated in
Methods of divination
Prognostication by seers and through oracles may be considered a form of divination to the extent that information is sought out. The OT indicates that prophets were formerly called seers, and were consulted to ascertain God’s will (
Dreams were thought to convey divine messages. These frequently needed interpretation (as was given by Joseph and Daniel). An ancient dream analyst, Artemidorus, who itinerated from city to city plying his trade, has left a vivid account of his practice. Sometimes one would sleep in a temple (incubation) hoping for a dream from the resident deity. The god of healing, Asclepius, was thought esp. communicative in this regard. Aelius Aristides, a hypochondriac orator, has related in his Sacred Discourses how Asclepius instructed him regarding treatment.
was an ancient means which gained in popularity, esp. in the Hel. period. On the assumption that the planets and stars were in harmony with earth and mankind, the character and fate of an individual, or even a whole nation, were determined through a horoscope based on the signs of the Zodiac (see Astrology).
was consultation with the dead. This was done through a medium, who received messages through a “familiar spirit.” This method received severe condemnation in the Bible (
study of the entrails of animals and esp. hepatoscopy, study of livers, provided a means of impersonal divination used widely from the Babylonians to the Romans. Since the liver was at one time considered the seat of life and since sacrificial animals were used, hepatoscopy was a religious practice.
was the analysis of the movements of animals, and esp. of birds.
Omens and portents
were of many kinds, including e. and f. above. A portent was an omen of great or supernatural character, such as earthquakes or heavenly phenomena. Typical omens were involuntary human actions, as a cough or hiccup, the actions of animals, or other impersonal occurrences. (Divination by human signs is called cledonomancy.) Since one who had decided on a course of action would be more affected by a contrary omen, they, and esp. portents, frequently took on a negative character.
These would include hydromancy, divination by water (see below on Joseph and the cup), pyromancy, the observation of fire, and cleromancy. This last includes the use of plates or rods drawn at random (sortilege), the interpretation of the position of objects such as rods or arrows (rhabdomancy), and, in general, any casting of lots, or of dice, drawing straws, etc.
It will be observed that, in general, the above methods range from the personal (seer and oracle) to the completely impersonal (lots). Yet, even omens were considered to convey the mind of God (cf.
Divination in ancient Greece was originally not as much a religious function as in some other cultures. The seer was a familiar figure. Dreams and omens were of great importance throughout Gr. history. The latter were esp. sought with regard to a tentative course of action. Astrology, introduced from Babylonia, was accepted by many because of its claim to scientific accuracy. It made great gains after the unification of the world in the Hel. period and the decadence of formal religion and philosophy, which made its claim to cosmic unity and its offer of personal guidance attractive.
Oracles were offered not only at the famous shrine of Apollo at Delphi, but at that of Zeus at Dodona (the oldest shrine), and others. At Delphi the Pythia, the prophetess, sat on a tripod over a steaming fissure and communicated the oracle, which usually had to be interpreted by the “prophets” there. The ambiguity of many of these oracular interpretations is well known.
It will be noted from the above that the Greeks practiced both personal and impersonal divination. Often the personal involved “possession” by a deity, or “enthusiasm.” This type did not find ready acceptance at Rome. Cleromancy, esp. sortilege, haruspicy, and various omens were popular. Augury was used to determine times for official functions that were “auspicious” (from auspicium, divination by the flight of birds). Such practices, though widely used, were, like astrology, spurned by some Romans. Nevertheless, they had their influence, as did the, which had full acceptance.
Divination in the Bible.
It is not known how the
In the NT, the casting of lots in
This word (μάγος, G3407) was used to describe the Pers. wise men and astrologers (
From time to time in Jewish history cabalistic practices have been followed, but, except for certain periods, divination has been rare in Judaism and likewise in Christianity. The Church has on occasion risen to oppose allegedly magical practices, and the Salem witch hunts are esp. notorious. In the latter part of the 20th cent. occult practices again have flourished, including divination and witchcraft, requiring a fresh application of Biblical teaching.
Cicero, On Divination (45 b.c.); A. Bouché-Leclercq, Histoire de la divination dans l’antiquité (1872-82); M. Summers, The History of Witchraft and Demonology (1926); M. Summers, The Geography of Witchcraft (1927); H. J. Rose, “Divination (Introductory and Primitive),” 3rd “Divination (Greek),” HERE (1928), 775-780; 796-799; H. S. Lea, Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft (1939); K. Seligmann, The History of Magic (1948); M. P. Nilsson, Geschichte der griechischen Religion, I, 2nd ed. (1955), II (1950); R. La Roche, La Divination (1957); R. H. Robbins, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (1959); K. A. Kitchen, “ ,” NBD (1962); J. P. Hyatt, “Magic, Divination, and Sorcery,” HDB rev. (1963); R. Alleau, Histoire des Sciences Occultes (1965); R. Flaceliere, Greek Oracles, tr. D. Garman (1965).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
2. Kinds of Divination
3. Fundamental Assumption in Divination
4. Legitimate and Illegitimate Divination
5. The Bible and Divination
6. Modes of Divination Mentioned in the Bible:
Those Approved and Those Condemned
7. Terms Used in thein Connection with Divination
8. Divination and Prophecy
Divination is the act of obtaining secret knowledge, especially that which relates to the future, by means within the reach almost exclusively of special classes of men.
2. Kinds of Divination:
Of this there are two main species:
(2) inspirational, or, as it was called in ancient times (Cicero, Lord Bacon, etc.), natural divination.
Artificial divination depends on the skill of the agent in reading and in interpreting certain signs called omens. See Augury. In inspirational or natural divination the agent is professedly under the immediate influence of some spirit or god who enables the diviner to see the future, etc., and to utter oracles embodying what he sees. Among the Romans artificial divination prevailed almost exclusively, the other having vogue largely among the Greeks, a proof surely of the more spiritual trend of the Greek mind. Yet that great Roman, Cicero, in his memorable treatise on Divination, says he agrees with those who take cognizance of these two distinct kinds of divination. As examples of inspirational divination he instances men dreaming or in a state of ecstasy (De Divinatione, i. 18). But though Cicero arranges diviners according to their pretentions, he does not believe in any superhuman communication. Thus he explains dreams on psychological principles much as modern psychologists would (op. cit. ii.63 ff). As a matter of fact Cicero was an atheist, or at least an agnostic.
The Latin word divinatio was confined almost exclusively to divination by outward signs, though its etymology (deus, "god") suggests that it denoted originally the other kind--that due to the inspiration of superhuman beings. Chrysippus (died at Athens 207 BC), though himself a Greek philosopher, defines the word in a way which would have commanded the approval of nearly every Roman, including Cicero himself who gives it. "Divination," Cicero makes him say (op. cit. ii.63), is "a power in man which foresees and explains those signs which the gods throw in his way." The Greeks were, on the other hand, a more imaginative and emotional people, and with them inspirational divination held much the larger place. The Greek (mantis) bears a close resemblance to the Old Testament prophet, for both claimed to be inspired from without and to be superhumanly informed. The Greek term for divination (he) mantike (= he mantike techne) has reference to the work of the mantis, and it hardly ever means divination of the lower sort--that by means of signs.
3. Fundamental Assumption in Divination:
Underlying all methods of divination there lay the belief that certain superhuman spiritual beings (gods, spirits) possess the secret knowledge desired by men, and that, on certain conditions,, they are willing to impart it.
(1) The word "divination" itself, from deus, "god," or divus, "pertaining to god," carries with it the notion that the information obtained came from deity. Similarly the Greek mantike implies that the message comes to the mantis from gods or spirits by way of inspiration.
(2) Astrology, or astromancy, is but one form of divination and it rests upon the ultimate belief that the heavenly bodies are deities controlling the destinies of men and revealing the future to those who have eyes to see. According to the Weltanschauung or conception of the universe advocated by Hugo Winckler, Alfred Jeremias (see The Old Testament in the Light of the East) and others, terrestrial events are but shadows of the celestial realities (compare Plato’s doctrine of ideas). These latter represented the mind of the gods (see Astrology secs. 1,2).
(3) On hepatoscopy, or divining from the liver, see below, 6, (2), (c).
(4) It can be proved that among the ancient peoples (Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, etc.) the view prevailed that not only oracles but also omens of all kinds are given to men by the gods and express the minds of these gods.
4. Legitimate and Illegitimate Divination:
Among the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans the diviner stood in the service of the state and was officially consulted before wars and other great enterprises were undertaken. But among these and other ancient peoples certain classes of diviners were prohibited by the government from exercising their calling, probably because they were supposed to be in league with tile gods of other and hostile nations. The gods of a people were in the beliefs of the time the protectors of their people and therefore the foes of the foes of their proteges. It is on this account that witchcraft has been so largely condemned and punished (see Witchcraft). Necromancy is uniformly forbidden in the Old Testament (see
5. The Bible and Divination:
The attitude of the Bible toward divination is on the whole distinctly hostile and is fairly represented by
(1) Balaam (
Pure Yahwism in its very basal principle is and must ever have been antagonistic to divination of every kind, though inspirational divination has resemblances to prophetism and even affinities with it. Why then does the Bible appear to speak with two voices, generally prohibiting but at times countenancing various forms of divination? In the actual religion of the Old Testament we have a syncretism in which, though Yahwism forms the substructure, there are constituents from the religions of the native aborigines and the nations around. The underlying thought in all forms of divination is that by employing certain means men are able to obtain knowledge otherwise beyond their reach. The religion of Israel made Yahweh the source of that knowledge and the prophet the medium through which it came to men. We have an analogous example of syncretism resulting in the union of opposite elements in ancient Zarathustraism (Zoroastrianism) which, though in its central principle inconsistent with divination by omens, yet took on from the native Turanian cults of Persia certain forms of divination, especially that by lot (see Lenormant, La Divination, 22 ff). Nor should it be forgotten that the Bible is a library and not a book, and where so many writers, living at widely separated times, have been at work it is natural to look for diversity of teaching, though no one can deny that in fundamental matters Bible authors are wonderfully consistent.
6. Modes of Divination Mentioned in the Bible:
For modes of divination in vogue among the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, etc., see the relevant works and dictionary articles. The species of divination spoken of in the Bible may be arranged under two heads: (1) those apparently sanctioned, and (2) those condemned in the Bible.
Those Approved and Those Condemned:
(1) Methods of Divination Tacitly or Expressly Sanctioned in the Bible.
(a) The following are instances of inspirational divination:
(i) The case of Balaam has already been cited. He was a Moabite and therefore a heathen soothsayer. His word of blessing or of curse is so potent that whether he blesses or curses his word secures its own realization. So far is his vocation from being censured that it is actually called into the service of Yahweh (see
(ii) To dreams the Bible assigns an important place as a legitimate means of revealing the future. Such dreams are of two kinds:
(aa) Involuntary or such as come unsought. Even these are regarded as sent for guidance in human affairs. The bulk of the dreams spoken of in the Bible belong to this class: see
(bb) The other species of dreams consists of such as are induced by what is called "incubation," i.e. by sleeping in a sacred place where the god of the place is believed to reveal his secrets to the sleeper. Herodotus (iv.172) says that the Nasamonians, an Egyptian tribe, used to practice divination by sleeping in the graves of their ancestors. The dreams which then came to them were understood to be revelations of their deified ancestors. See Herod. i.181 for another instance of incubation in Nineveh. We have a reference to this custom in
(b) But the Bible appears in some places to give its approval to some kinds of artificial or (as it may be called) ominal divination.
(ii) Hydromancy, or divination by water. In
(iii)We read in the Old Testament of other signs or omens which are implicitly approved of, thus
(2) Modes of Divination Condemned.
The following methods of divination are explicitly or implicitly condemned in the Old Testament:
(a) Astromancy (= Astrology). See Astrology.
(b) Rhabdomancy, or the use of the divining rod, referred to apparently in
(c) By an examination of the liver of animals; see
Opinions differ as to how the state of the liver could act as an omen. Jastrow says the liver was considered to be the seat of life, and that where the liver of the animal sacrificed (generally a sheep) was accepted, it took on the character of the deity to whom it was offered. The soul of the animal as seen in the liver became then a reflector of the soul of the god (see EB, XX, 102 f). On the other hand, Alfred Jeremias says that in the view of the ancient Babylonians the lines and forms of the sheep’s liver were regarded as reflecting the universe and its history (The Old Testament in the Light of the Ancient East, I, 61). Neither of these explanations is made probable by its advocates.
(d) By teraphim (compare TERAPHIM); see
(e) Necromancy, or consulting the dead; see
(f) Divination through the sacrifice of children by burning (see
7. Terms Used in the Old Testament in Connection with Divination:
These are examined in detail in T. Witton Davies’ Magic, Divination, and Demonology among the Hebrews and Their Neighbors. See also the article "Divination" in Encyclopedia Biblica by the same writer. The following brief notes must suffice here.
(1) kecem, generally rendered "divination," is a general term for divination of all kinds. In
(2) me`onen, probably from a Semitic root (compare Arabic `anna) which denotes to emit a hoarse nasal sound such as was customary in reciting the prescribed formula (see Charm). For "oak of the me`onim" see Augur's Oak. Some say the word means one who divines from the clouds, deriving from `anan, "a cloud," though nothing in the context suggests this sense, and the same remark applies to the meaning "one who smites with the evil eye," making the term a denominative from `ayin, "eye." The usual rendering in the is plural "observers of times" and in the (British and American) "them that practice augury" (Dt. 18:10,14).
(3) The verb nichesh, of which lichesh, is but a variant, is probably a denominative from nachash, "a serpent" (l and n interchange in Hebrew), denoting "to hiss," "to whisper" (like a serpent), then "to utter divinatory formulas." As it is used for so many kinds of divination, W. R. Smith concludes that it came to be a general term for divine. The participle of this verb is translated "enchanter" in
(4) gazerin, literally, "cutters," i.e. such as kill (in Arab, the cognate verb = "to slaughter") for the purpose of examining the liver or entrails as omens. Perhaps the etymology implies "sacrifice," animals being sacrificed as an appeal to deity. The word occurs only in Da (2:27; 4:7 (4); 5:7,11), and is translated "soothsayers." Some think they were "astrologers," the etymology in that case referring to the dividing of the heavens with a view, by casting the horoscope, to forecasting the future.
(5) ’ashshaph (the King James Version "astrologer," the Revised Version (British and American) "enchanter"), occurs only in Da in the Hebrew (1:20; 2:2) and in the Aramaic (2:10; 4:4 (7), etc.) parts of the book. The term is probably taken from the Babylonian and denotes a magician and especially an exorcist rather than a diviner.
(6) kasda’im, the same word as the Greek (Chaldaioi) (English Verisons, "Chaldeans"), denotes in Da (1:4, etc.) where alone it occurs, not the people so designated but a class of astrologers. This usage (common in classical writers) arose after the fall of the Babylonian empire, when the only Chaldeans known were astrologers and soothsayers. See further, MAGIC. For "spirit of divination" (
8. Divination and Prophecy:
Inspirational divination and Old Testament prophecy have much in common. Both imply the following conditions:
(1) the primitive instinct that, craves for secret knowledge, especially that relating to the future;
(2) the belief that such knowledge is possessed by certain spiritual beings who are willing on certain terms to impart it;
(3) such secret knowledge is imparted generally to special classes of men (rarely women) called diviners or (Bab) seers and prophets.
Many anthropologists (Tylor, Frazer, etc.) and Old Testament scholars (Wellhausen, W. Robertson Smith, etc.) consider prophecy to be but an outgrowth and higher form of divination. The older theologians almost to a man, and a goodly number of moderns, take precisely the opposite view, that divination is a corruption of prophecy. Probably neither view is strictly true. Sometimes in human life we find evidences of progress from lower to higher. Sometimes the process is the very reverse. It is important to take notice of the differences as well as the resemblances between the diviner and the prophet.
(1) The Old Testament prophet believes in a personal God whose spokesman he considers himself to be. When he spoke or wrote it was because he was, at least professedly, inspired and informed by Yahweh. "Thus says Yahweh," was the usual formula with which he introduced his oracles. The Greek and Roman mantis, on the other hand, worked himself up to the necessary ecstatic state by music, drugs (intoxicants, etc.), sacrificial smoke and the like. Sometimes it has been thought a sufficient means of divination to swallow the vital portions of birds and beasts of omen. It was believed that by eating the hearts of crows, or moles, or of hawks, men took into their bodies the presaging soul of the creature (Frazer, Golden Bough (NOTE: Separation, distinction: "I will put a division (the Revised Version, margin "sign of deliverance") between my people and thy people" (
(2) The mantis practiced his art as a remunerative occupation, charging high fees and refusing in most cases to ply his calling without adequate remuneration. The local oracle shrines (Delphi, Clavis, etc.) were worked for personal and political ends. The Old Testament prophet, on the other hand, claimed to speak as he was bidden by his God. It was with him a matter of conviction as to what lives men ought to live, what state of heart they should cultivate. So far from furthering his own material interests, as he could by saying what kings and other dignitaries wished to hear, he boldly denounced the sins of the time, even when, as often, he had to condemn the conduct of kings and the policy of governments. Look, for example, at Isaiah’s fearless condemnation of the conduct of Ahaz in summoning the aid of Assyria (
In addition to the references above and the full bibliography prefixed to the present writer’s book named above (Magic, etc.), note the following: Bouche-Leclercq, Histoire de la divination dans l’antiquite; E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture 3, I, 78-81; 117- 33; II, 155; J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough 2, I, 346; II, 355; III, 342, et passim, and the articles in the principal Bible dictionaries.
T. Witton Davies
di-vin, di-vin’-er. See Augury; Astrology; Divination.