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Divination

Clay model of a sheep's liver, probably used for teaching divination, from Babylon c. 2000 BCE.

Clay model of a sheep's liver, probably used for teaching divination, from Babylon c. 2000 BCE.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Divination is a technique that seeks to discover information about current and future events, including the outbreak of disease, by interpreting omens or supernatural signs. Signs could be unusual events or natural phenomena.

In ancient Greece diviners collected information on unusual weather conditions, which they believed could explain, or predict, disease. In other ancient societies the behaviour and condition of particular animals was also used. In ancient Sumeria (now located in modern Iraq), for example, diviners interpreted the shape and appearance of the liver of a sacrificed animal. Diviners in ancient Rome interpreted the ways groups of birds flocked, whilst diviners in ancient China did likewise for individual birds.

The methods used for divination have varied incredibly over time and between cultures. Throwing dice, reading tarot cards or consulting astrological charts are all common practices. An Indian text from the 400s CE describes divination by throwing dice. The practice of divination by throwing objects and interpreting how they fall was common across Africa. In west Africa special beads or seeds were thrown, in South Africa small bones and in Zimbabwe wooden plaques carved with faces. The European equivalent is perhaps the use of tarot cards for fortune-telling, but the most widely practised divination method in Europe was, and is, astrology.

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