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5 Ancient Methods of Divination


The interpretation of signs, details, fantastic objects and hidden geometry can be used for advanced notice of omens.

A passion for the knowledge of destiny has led us to the practice of divination. Perhaps paradoxically, the practice is as old as philosophy itself, and it returns humankind, absorbed in our spiritual task, to reflect on the present. It’s the present as a midpoint between past and future. And that’s, in fact, the essential point of divination: if we succeed in decoding an omen, then at times we’ll understand the intermediate state corresponding to our present.

The divinatory arts have found countless channels for the manifestation of intuition as detailed observation, from ancient oracles enunciated in temples, to the reading of objects, including books, calendars, planks, and timelines drawn or encrypted in glyphs. Or the dregs of coffee in a cup.

But the desire to articulate portents – both universal and personal – goes beyond an originally ancient trade. As the writer Giovanni Papini once suggested, fate doesn’t reign without the secret complicity of instinct (and thus, of will). From this point of view, we should start to understand and admire the divinatory practices, beyond the magic, for their analytical ability and, hopefully, for their extreme precision.

A hand holds a glass sphere in a winter forest at sunset.

Tea Reading

It’s pretty common to hear of the divination of the future through the coffee dregs left in the cup. Reading leftover tea leaves (tasseography) is a similar practice nearly equally complex but readers often find forms even more different and more numerous. The figure of a fish may be a sign of good luck, while a mountain may augur a series of future obstacles.


Sand Divination

Geomancy or reading the shapes in sand or stones is one of the most beautiful of art forms. Used frequently in the ancient Muslim East, it was said to read vestiges found within layers of the sand. Those who believe in geomancy are convinced of a “vital energy,” an aura of the earth when sand is thrown at random, either in the desert or onto a board specially designed for divination. For this reading, it’s important to know the codes of geometric figures. These are sometimes compared with the hexagrams within the text of the I Ching.



While it’s not clear who made the first game, Tarot cards have been the popular divination method par excellence. About 7,000 different decks have been created, all under the same eschatological code, and which even the reader may not fully understand. Beyond its divinatory intent, cartomancy – especially with Tarot cards – is a technique to make current and possible connections visible. The occultist, Eliphas Lévi, once noted: Tarot is a “book that summarizes all science and in which all infinite combinations can solve all problems.”


Scrying – Reflection Divination

Probably the oldest of all methods of divination, scrying was practiced by many ancient cultures, even to the point of reading the reflections in the water. In ancient Egypt, scrying was practiced with the aid of ink. In ancient Mesopotamia, bowls were filled with oil. Ancient Greeks found meaning in the reflections in mirrors and on metals, while Aztec tlatoani read the reflections in obsidian. The practice of scrying led eventually to the readings of crystal and the powers associated therein, resulting eventually in the characteristic crystal ball as a means to see and analyze the future.


Divination with Grains of Corn

Prehispanic civilizations in the Americas possessed advanced knowledge of divination. Here the practice was combined with the sciences of astronomy and meteorology, and especially put toward the counting of time on calendars and to augur the life of crops. Prediction with grains of corn was a rather personal method of divination, similar to the method with sand: grains are thrown onto a surface, preferably a white canvas (although they might be thrown into water). These are then translated depending on the positions they fall into or whether they float or sink. Grains of corn may also be of different colors. Amongst all the Indian cultures the number of kernels cast will be between four and 100. As with many methods of divination, the wonder lies in the possibility of decoding the revolutions of our own energy.

*Photo credit: Toniese Gamblin Fontaine ©

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