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The Art of Foreseeing (on the Arts of Divination)


Gaining knowledge of what cannot be known is the aim of different methods or arts for divining the past and the future.

The existence of time and space place a distance between events in duration and distance: the ancient continues to grow while the future is indefatigably balanced against our lonely vantage point, which is the here and now. Since times remote, human beings have tried to peer into the past and the future with the aim of widening our vision from this tremulous position of solitude, and to mitigate our fear of the future and the ghosts of the past that haunt us. And to that end humankind has resorted to numerous methods, or arts, of prescience.

The first to try to classify the mantic arts was Cicero in his book On Divination, in which he divides them into “natural” and “artistic.” The former are those based on prophecies, in spontaneous words or of a hallucinatory nature (such as fortune-tellers and clairvoyants that, immersed in a trance with many theatrical elements, channeled messages from the other side), while the latter are those that use an object or instrument that mediates between the seer and somebody seeking revelation of the future: runes, snails, coins (such as with the I-Ching) or animal entrails and, except for the anachronism of some ten centuries with Roman thinkers, Tarot.

Occult researcher Gwen Le Scouézec in the 20th century carried out a much more inclusive classification of the kinds of fortune-telling available, from those that depend entirely on the individual intuition of foreseeing to the mechanical manuals of dream interpretation, which border on superstition.

First and foremost there is prophecy: in classical literature and in Oriental sources (such as the Bible), prophecy is a faculty granted or revealed by the Gods. Think of the prophets of Hebraic tradition, or in the gift of prophecy as a punishment by God (such as the case of Cassandra, who was thus cursed by Apollo). It is a word said during wakefulness that comes from divine or intuitive inspiration.

Sketch of angel surrounded by flowers

And then we have hallucinatory vision that can be induced by consuming a certain substance (pharmacomancy), due to altered states of consciousness or even those connected with death, or even through spontaneous prediction produced during a dream trance (dream interpretation).

Later there came mathematical forecasting, and which has known periods of great prestige, such as Kabbala, which, according to Le Scouézec, is the most refined degree of arithmomancy, or prediction by numbers. In this group there is also astrology, geomancy and the I-Ching.

And on the other hand we have the fortune-telling by observation, such as that practiced by priests who carefully study the movements of the stars, of humans, plants and animals.

And lastly we have the systems that use some kind of intermediary, in the form of tables or oracles, books of horoscopes, cards (cartomancy, such as in the mechaniscal interpretations of the Tarot), and which generally seek to profit from the trust of the client who does not fully understand – and because they have let themselves be tricked by an untrustworthy seer – what happens in the prophesizing process.

We could be skeptical or trusting in the methods of prescience, whether from dowsing or from the horoscopes in gossip magazines. The fascinating thing is to study the ways in which different peoples have dealt with that which we call uncertainty, and which is nothing more than our perennial ignorance of the present, past and future. Escaping from that uncertainty with tricks appears to afford a slim favor to the person seeking insight, but it implies a determination to separate oneself from the movements of the future; an attempt to cease being a mere toy of fate.

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