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Divination Games he Greek general Odysseus, also known by the Latin version of his name, Ulysses, was sailing home from the war in Troy when he landed on the island of Aeaea, where the beautiful but dangerous sorceress Circe was said to live. Odysseus landed with a group of about 40 men and decided to explore the island, but because of Circe's reputation he decided it would be wise to split the men into two groups and let one group go ahead first to see if things were safe.

Odysseus would head one group and he chose his most trusted companion, Eurylochus, to head the other group. But which group would go first? Odysseus decided to let the gods decide. He took off his bronze helmet, turned it upside down, and placed a white stone inside. Then Eurylochus found a darker stone of equal size to represent him and placed it in the helmet. Odysseus rolled the stones around in his helmet until one fell out. It was the dark stone, so Eurylochus took his men and marched ahead. Circe later turned Eurylochus and his men into pigs with a wave of her wand, but Odysseus was able to save them with the help of a magic herb.22

This story is derived from a scene in Homer's epic poem, the Odyssey. Although fictional, Homer's portrayal of how ancient Greek warriors used divination to make decisions is accurate.

casting lots

In interpretative divination, instead of looking for omens in things that are already there, like dreams and nature, the diviner creates his or her own pattern to interpret. Ancient people believed that the gods or the divine powers wanted to communicate with them, and so when they used a device to create a random pattern there was really nothing random about it. It was an expression of divine will, and the seemingly chance pattern actually corresponded to events in their lives. This is another example of what Jung would call synchronicity.

Think of a war movie where the commander takes a handful of straws the same length but then breaks one shorter and hides it the bunch? Each solder then picks a straw from the commander's hand, and whoever gets the short straw has to go on a dangerous mission. This is an example of interpretive divination. Interpretative divination can also be used to get a yes or no answer. One of the simplest ways to do this is to flip a coin, something that has been around since ancient times. It is believed the first coins were stamped in the Greek kingdom of Lydia (modern-day Turkey) as early as about 600 bce. Usually, the heads side of the coin is interpreted as yes and tails side means no, but the meaning can be alternated.

What did people do before the Lydians invented coins? They used sticks, rocks, bones, beans, or almost anything that worked. This type of divination can be found in any culture in the world and it comes under the general heading of casting lots. As we saw above, Greeks like Odysseus used lots in the form of stones to make decisions. Similarly, the commander in the war movie used straws as lots. And in chapter two, when Hippalus visited the oracle of Delphi, stone lots were used to determine the order of the questions. The Bible tells us that the ancient Hebrews also used lots to determine the will of God. There are numerous examples. In the book of Joshua, chapter seven, God commands Joshua to use lots to find a thief among his people. In the first book of Samuel, chapter 10, Saul is chosen to be king of Israel by lots, and we find the use of lots again in the book of Jonah when Jonah's crew uses them to find the source of a storm.

What did the ancient Hebrews actually use for lots? Several passages in the Bible mention two stones called Urim and Thummim that the priests of Israel used to divine the will of God. The trouble is that no one actually knows what Urim and Thummim were or how they were used. According to Jewish tradition, they were two stones set in a metal breastplate worn by the high priest. When the name of God was written on a piece of parchment and set behind the breastplate, the stones would glow and speak the word of God. Scholars tend to be a little skeptical about this explanation. It was more likely that Urim and Thummim were two stones that were used to obtain a yes or no answer, like flipping a coin. Some researchers, however, suggest that they were a series of 22 stones that had the letters of the Hebrew alphabet written one on each stone and were used to obtain more complex answers.


The Germanic peoples of Northern Europe also were known to use lots for divination. No one knows for sure what they used as lots, but ancient accounts mention glyphs or symbols that were carved in wood. Modern authors have tried to re-create their system by using the Germanic alphabets, which flourished from 150 to 700 and are known as runes. There are several runic alphabets falling into three main groups with variations in each group. Although their names can be translated, no one can be certain of their original divinatory meanings. Modern methods usually make use of a set of 24 runes, which are inscribed in clay, stone, or other materials and picked randomly from a bag or cast on a board with a pattern painted on it. Runes falling on different sections of the pattern would have different meanings or be applied to different parts of the question.

table 6.1: Viking Runes, as Described by Modern Author Ralph Blum23

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Wholeness dice

Besides stones, one of the most common tools used for casting lots in the ancient world were bones. Especially popular were the small anklebones of an ox or sheep, which is called the talus in English and astragalos in Greek, but is popularly known as a knucklebone. Knucklebones have four sides and people would give each side a different meaning, which allowed for greater possibilities when used for divination. It also allowed them to be used for games of chance, something that seems to go hand in hand with divination in the ancient world.

Sometime in the ancient world people discovered that they could make little cubes out of bone, stone, wood, or clay, and number the sides with a series of dots. These are called dice and although they have six sides instead of four they quickly became interchangeable with

Figure 6.1 Ancient Greek knucklebone players. (Werner Forman/Corbis)

knucklebones for games and divination. That is why divination with dice is called astragalomancy. The oldest known dice were found in what is now Iran, and they are part of a 5,000-year-old backgammon game. Since then, dice have been used for gambling and divination by the ancient Indians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Astragalomancy was popular in medieval Europe and continued to be practiced into the Renaissance, when it seems to have been replaced by divination with cards. Divination with dominos is also related. After all, dominos are like a cross between dice and cards.

To practice astragalomancy one simply has to assign a meaning for each of the 21 possible combinations that two dice can make, ask a question, throw the dice, and interpret the results. More complicated divination can be accomplished by using different shaped dice with more sides and different combinations of dice. To use dominos for astragalomancy, just turn them all upside down on the top of a table, swirl them around to shuffle, and then pick one.

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