Divination (from Latin divinare “to foresee, to be supernaturally inspired”) is trying to tell the future, locating lost objects or revealing hidden personality traits through magical or spiritual means, usually with the aid of a special technique. Divination appears in most societies throughout human history. The practice is so widespread that it’s found among the very first literature cultures. S. G. F. Brandon suggests that divination takes two main forms, which he calls automatic and interrogation of divine intent.¹
Some religions frown on the practice, or have come to frown on it by claiming to progressively “perfect,” “complete” or “fulfill” its imperfect religious roots (Christianity being a prime example). But for the most part, divination has been condoned or encouraged by zealous leaders and layperson alike, eager to know what life has in store for them, and how they should best decide on certain issues.
Delphi was home to the famous Dephic oracle. In Tibet, state temples were devoted to divination. In ancient China the I Ching was developed. In Africa oracles and female mediums were consulted. In the ancient Near East animal entrails were examined, their form and condition apparently foretelling future events.
The ancient Romans were mostly concerned with determining the gods’ attitudes towards certain acts. Auspicia were favorable omens (usually the flight of birds) that only senior Roman magistrates could interpret. Prodigia, on the other hand, were evil omens interpreted by the Roman elite, the effects of which could be avoided by civic piety and priestly skill. Augurs involved observing animals, in general, to receive a sign that would help in deciding action in public and private affairs. The Romans, however, were not bound to accept a given augur. They could reject it if they wished, and act on their own accord.²
In the New Testament we have the indisputable example of the Three Wise Men following the star that lead them to bear gifts to Jesus Christ. Despite this, the Protestant Reformer John Calvin wrote the “Warning Against So-Called Judicial Astrology” in 1549. And Pope Sixtus V officially condemned all forms of divination in 1586.³
Several centuries prior, St. Francis of Assisi apparently opened the Bible at random every morning and read a verse, believing that God directed him to the passage that would set the right tone for his actions through the day.
In a similar vein, the Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung believed a spiritus rector lead him to open books at the right page, turn on the radio at the precisely right moment, and so on, in order for meaningful coincidences (synchronicities) to take place.
¹ S. G. F. Brandon (ed.) Dictionary of Comparative Religion, 1971, pp. 115, 243.
² Ibid. The entry on divination gives many more examples, as does Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divination
³Duby and Perrot (eds.) A History of Women, Vol 3, 2000, p. 455.