Popular Divination Methods in Ancient Greece

Haruspicy

In ancient times the haruspex (diviner) interpreted the divine will by inspecting the entrails of a sacrificial animal. First the animal was ritually slaughtered. Next it was butchered, with the haruspex examining the size, shape, color, markings etc. of certain internal organs, usually the liver (hepatoscopy), but also the gall, heart and lungs. Finally, when the animal had been butchered, the meat was roasted and all the celebrants shared a sacred meal.

Ornithomancy

(modern term from Greek ornis “bird” and manteia “divination”; in Ancient Greek: οἰωνίζομαι “take omens from the flight and cries of birds”) is an Ancient Greek practice of reading omens from the actions of birds, equivalent to the Augury employed by the ancient Romans. Although it was mainly the flights and songs of birds that were studied, any action could have been interpreted to either foretell the future or relate a message from the gods. These omens were considered with the utmost seriousness by Greeks and Romans alike.

This form of divination became a branch of Roman national religion, which had its own priesthood and practice. One notable example occurs in the Odyssey, when thrice an eagle appears, flying to the right, with a dead dove in its talons; this augury was interpreted as the coming of Odysseus, and the death of his wife’s suitors.

Bibliomancy

Using texts such as the works of Homer to divine answers. Usually opened at random or using three dice to determine what lines should be interpreted.

Limyran Oracle

A set of 24 stones or potsherds (pottery fragments), each inscribed or painted with a letter of the alphabet. Each stone should have one of the Greek letters (Α, Β, Γ, etc.). Keep the stones in a jug, box, or bag, and when you want to consult the oracle, pick a stone without looking. (One ancient method was to shake the stones in a bowl or frame drum until one jumped out.)  This method is similar to the use of rune stones. Stones used in this way would be called psêphoi (PSAY-foy) in Ancient Greek (calculi in Latin); inscribed or painted potsherds are ostraca in Greek (testae in Latin).

Kleromancy

Divination using dice or the knucklebones of sheep, which were called astragaloi. The four sides of the bone were given a numerical value and these were then added together to equal an alphabet character.

Oneiromancy

A form of divination based upon dreams; it is a system of dream interpretation that uses dreams to predict the future. Dreams were also used for healing in Ancient Greece, especially in the sanctuary of Askelpios. Sleeping in the sanctuary of a god was believed to facilitate dreams sent from that particular deity.

Kledon

Divination associated with Hermes, where the person seeking an answer would cover their ears, walk into a busy marketplace and then the first words they heard after uncovering their ears would be their answer. Offerings were made before and after to Hermes.

Ornithomancy

There was a dead song sparrow outside my office window this morning. I work in a giant abomination of one-way glass windows, and I’ve seen everything from red-tailed hawks to hummingbirds fall victim to their reflective surfaces. One magical day I found a hummingbird that was only stunned, and held it in my hand and offered it sugar-water from a bottle lid until it realized it could fly, and soared up from my hands like a tiny miracle. Have you ever held a live hummingbird? It’s like holding a breath of air. Its feathers are little airy scales that reflect every angle of light. It’s like holding something that can’t be held by humans, like holding a summer morning or a snatch of melody or a flicker of sunlight off water.

The little sparrow wasn’t so lucky. I went out to give it the dignity of grass, instead of leaving it to lie on the sidewalk until the ground crew pitched it into a dumpster. Against the white plastic of the bag I used to pick it up, it was small and still and did not yet have the cold heaviness of something that has been dead longer. It had hit the glass hard, its beak fractured and tiny rubies of still-bright blood dotting its head and eyes. I carried it around to the side of the building and startled a crow nosing through the trash. It flared up black and indignant to the roof of the building, and settled to watch the funeral rites with one jet-bead eye.

By side of the building is a little island of quiet nature, the kind that sometimes happen in urban landscaping, with trees and a mulch bed that’s not often bothered. I left the little dead sparrow in the lee of a skeletal bush, which in a few scant days will burst forth into a yellow firework of forsythia blossoms.

What do you say over so small a death? I had no words for it, only silence and the crow like a hired mourner, waiting for the funeral meats after the service. I threw away the plastic bag in the nearby dumpsters, rounded the corner of the building and was back into the world of humans and asphalt. A coworker on the way in had lost his keycard, and could I deactivate it and make him another?

I washed my hands, sat down at my desk, and looked up out the window. There was a pale brown filmy smear against the dazzling sky, where a tiny life had crashed to its end, and splashed its last blood on the glass.

The shape it made was like a bird in flight.

Ornithomancy | Nico and Tomas

The Owlery was as dank and drafty as ever and smelling pungently of bird droppings and not nearly as lovely as the exterior of the isolated tower stark against the sunset led Tomas to believe, but he nonetheless moved happily around the dirty floor in search for Karenin. He found him perched at his usual place, and his chest tightened pleasantly when he spotted the letter tied round his leg.

It had been a while since Tomas sniffled from homesickness just at the thought of his parents, but even years later he literally vibrated with excitement knowing he’d hear from them soon and images of the cottage and the greenhouse and the sunbathing feral cats and the mossy pond flooded his mind once more. When he went without letters for a while the images grew duller, and blurrier, and Tomas found himself descending into a melancholy until Karenin came and he could see in absolute clarity once again.

"Come here, sweet," he coaxed, holding his arm out.  Karenin chirped at him and he grinned, that is, until the owl scattered in a flurry of feathers and took off towards the ceiling. Tomas sputtered  and he jumped up a bit, waving his hands as if to reach for the letter that was out of his range.

"Karenin! Behave!" Karenin only squawked in return and swooped in circles around the top of the owlery. "Did Táta not feed you?” Karenin didn’t reply, and Tomas was left sighing helplessly in the middle of the owlery, his relief so far from his fingertips it was pathetic.

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