On the History of Divination

Excerpted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien

Human beings have always looked for the answers to life’s great mysteries. Why are we here? Who or what controls our destiny? How does life work? What does the future hold? There is archeological evidence that a need to know and deep spiritual seeking are universal human traits, and that some form of divination has been used since the earliest times, to support this quest.

Many cultures, including Chinese, Mayan, Mesopotamian and Indian, looked upwards to heavenly bodies— stars, planets, constellations, eclipses, and comets—not only to tell time and understand the seasons, but also for signs of portent or to decipher divine will. Others paid special attention to terrestrial omens such as animal migrations, weather patterns, and forms of tossed sticks, bones, amulets, or rocks. African tribes have used bones in divination rituals for many thousands of years.

Chinese Taoists read patterns on tortoise shells, which evolved into the hexagrams of the I Ching. Vikings consulted the runestones. Ancient Roman shamans observed the entrails of slaughtered animals and grains that hens pecked at and formed messages (alectryomancy).

Other cultures have looked to inner space (such as the Australian aborigines with their dreamtime), or have used hallucinogenic plants for vision quests (such as the Mazatec Indians of Mexico who use Salvia divinorum for spiritual rituals and divination). There are also numerous passages in the Old Testament documenting Jahweh’s instructions for using a sacred set of dice called Urim and Thummim to make decisions in His name.

Even though various forms of divination have been used in all societies, the widespread use of sophisticated divination systems across all classes of people is a very recent development. The spread of divination systems had depended on oral transmission, which in preliterate times was largely the exclusive domain of the rulers, chieftains, official soothsayers, priests, sages, prophets and shamans. Although belief in magic was practically universal up to and through the Middle Ages, including primitive divinatory practices of folk magic, knowledge of divination systems and what Tarot scholar Bob O’Neill calls learned magic, could not spread until the invention of printing.

The Chinese invented paper more than two thousand years ago, and by 1045 a printer named Bi Sheng had created the first primitive moveable type, which served to increase the production of reading material. His method was used to reproduce the oldest book of wisdom—the I Ching, which is also the world’s oldest and most venerated divination system. Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the Western printing press in the 1450s gave rise to printing of books in Europe, and the reproduction of card decks, including Tarot cards.

As literacy increased, more translations of ancient texts were made and knowledge of divination systems was able to spread over time. Today people around the world can experiment with all kinds of divination systems, including those from other cultures. There are five systems in particular that are rooted in history and are widely used throughout the world today: Astrology, Numerology, I Ching, Tarot and Runes. Because they have stood the test of time and each of them incorporates a sufficiently complex and balanced set of archetypes, I refer to these five as the world’s classical divination systems.

Given the distances the world’s classical divination systems have had to travel—through time and space—not to mention the intense persecution their practitioners endured in Western society for hundreds of years, it is a minor miracle that they are still with us. Even though divination systems arise from the collective unconscious, totalitarian governments and fundamentalist religions seem to consider the profound insights that divination can stimulate as some vague threat to a social order based on wealth, status and power. In their fearfulness, proponents of the status quo fail to realize that higher aspirations never threaten lower ones.

Authentic divination systems passed down by our ancestors are our sacred heritage. From a practical point of view, their ability to provide fresh guidance through the changes of our lives and world is our collective good fortune. They help us satisfy our primordial need to better understand life and our place in the Universe. Their usefulness has allowed Astrology, Numerology, the I Ching, Runes and Tarot not only to survive, but also to thrive in the face of all odds.

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