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  Divination (Latin, ‘predicting from evidence’) has always been a popular human activity, allowing us to feel in contact with, if not precisely in control of, the one aspect of existence which human beings know about but can never comprehend: time (see space and time). Divination is, simply, the interpretation of existing phenomena to predict the future. The ancient Romans, for example, one of the most fanatically superstitious of all ancient peoples, used to divine the future by watching the flight of birds, listening for thunder, interpreting chance remarks by passers-by or the unexpected hoots and howls of domestic pets, and examining the colour and shape of the organs of specially-sacrificed animals; pragmatists (such as the admiral who threw a flock of sacred chickens overboard when they failed to predict the time he wanted for his battle) were rare. Of the thousands of other methods of divination used in human history, some of the most popular have been astrology (prediction from heavenly bodies), bibliomancy (randomly picking quotations from books—in the West the Bible and Virgil\'s Aeneid were favourites—and relating them to the questions asked), casting lots (choosing objects at random from a collection, assuming that one\'s choice will have supernatural guidance), crystallomancy (predicting from the patterns seen in rocks or crystal formations), nephelomancy (interpreting cloud-shapes), oneiromancy (prophesying from dreams), palmistry (interpreting the lines on people\'s hands), phrenology (‘reading’ the bumps on people\'s heads), phyllomancy (hearing messages in the rustling of leaves in the wind), pyromancy (interpreting the shapes seen in fire), rhabdomancy (dropping matchstick-like rods in a random way, and interpreting the patterns they made) and xylomancy (observing the knotholes and gnarls in wood). The most common of all forms of divination is numerology (consulting mathematical charts and configurations). The ancient Babylonians, Chinese, Egyptians, Mayans and a dozen other peoples used it to predict the future, and we still do this today, making statistical models and computer simulations and assuming or pretending (just as ancient numerologists did) that they are more than informed guesswork. KMcL

See also magic numbers; necromancy.



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