Necromancy and Words for Divining the Future

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In times of uncertainty, people wish for some magical means of foretelling the future.

Considering that uncertainty is one of life’s certainties, it’s not surprising that human beings have come up with numerous ways to “look into the seeds of time/And say which grain will grow and which will not.”

The English vocabulary is rich in words that name different ways of divining the future. Most of them end with the suffix –mancy. The suffix derives from mantis (mάντης), a Greek noun for a prophet, diviner, or fortune-teller.

English compounds with –mancy include some that have been around since ancient Greek was still spoken. Others have been coined in later times, sometimes seriously, but sometimes tongue-in-cheek, like pedomancy (divination by reading the soles of the feet) as a proposed opposite for palm-reading.

Perhaps the most familiar of the divining terms is necromancy.

In current usage, necromancy has a general sense of sorcery, witchcraft, or black magic, but its literal meaning is formed from the Greek word for a corpse, nekros.

A medieval spelling of the word as nigromancie resulted in a misconception that the word was related to Latin niger, “black.” For that reason, necromancy was often defined as the “black arts.” The spelling was “restored” to necromancy in the sixteenth century. Practitioners of the art believed that the dead knew where treasure was buried and attempted to summon ghosts to reveal the information. They also robbed graves for body parts to use in divining rituals.

Here are some—but by no means all— English words that name different types of divination.

divination by the stars.
Astromancy is another word for astrology.

foretelling the future by placing a finger on the page of a randomly opened book and finding meaning in the words so found.
Any book can be used (biblios=book), but the Bible is commonly used for the purpose.

divination with playing cards.
Playing cards are thought to have originated in China during the Tang dynasty (618—906 CE), whence they spread to Egypt and Europe. Decks with four suits existed in southern Europe in 1365. Tarot cards began as playing cards in the mid-fifteenth century. Later, in the eighteenth century, they became popular for divination and special decks were developed for the purpose.

divination by studying the lines in the hands.
Chiro is Greek for hand. Chiromancy is another word for palmistry.

divination from the observation of objects used in sacrifice or other religious rites.
Hiero– is from the Greek word for holy.

divination by interpretation of dreams.
Oneiro– is from a Greek word for dream. I first encountered this word when I studied Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale about Chaunticleer and his dreams.

divination by fire or by signs derived from fire

divination by observing the behavior of birds.
Ornitho is from a Greek word for bird. Augury is another term for reading meaning in the behavior of birds.

The ancient Romans were big on ornithomancy. My favorite story about the sacred chickens is the one about Publius Claudius who consulted them before an upcoming naval battle in the First Punic War. Before an important undertaking, the chickens would be released from their cage and offered food. If they gobbled it eagerly, the undertaking would be successful. The chickens Claudius consulted refused to eat, but he was determined to engage the Carthaginians. According to the story, he said, “If they’re not hungry, perhaps they’re thirsty,” and had them tossed overboard. That supposedly happened before the Battle of Drepana (249 BCE) in which Claudius was soundly trounced by the Carthaginian fleet.

divination by means of a rod or wand, specifically discovering ores, springs in the earth by means of a divining rod.
Rhabdo is from the Greek word for rod. The practice of rhabdomancy remains very much alive. People who use rods, usually made of copper, are called dowsers. What they do is also called witching. The American Society of Dowsers, founded 1961, has a web page and hundreds of members who presumably make a good living plying their craft.

divination or diagnosis by the examination of feces.
This word makes me think of King Pellinore in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. He spends his life pursuing the Questing Beast, following its fumets.

fumets: the excrement of a deer (or other animal hunted by human beings).

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4 thoughts on “Necromancy and Words for Divining the Future”

  1. Another often-used entry would be geomancy: a method of divination that interprets markings on the ground or the patterns formed by tossed handfuls of soil, rocks, or sand. Feng Shui is its most well-known applications.

  2. Hiya Maeve 🙂
    A friend of mine (now deceased) used to make Turkish coffee and after he finished drinking it, he would try to see things in the…residue, or whatever it was, left along the bottom and sides of the cup. It wasn’t so much to predict the future, but more like seeing signs, or interpreting what [he thought] he saw. I don’t know if there is a name for this activity, and related to it, people who read tea leaves? I have heard of that but no idea how it’s done (I don’t know about anyone else but I use tea bags and do not want to see leaves floating around). Also not aware of a special word for this practice. Any input?

  3. Thanks…now I have to find someone to impress, or hope there’s a trivia question… 😁

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