I became interested in the word divination recently. I knew that it meant “fortune telling” or “seeing the future,” and its derivation from the word divine, meaning “godlike” is clear, but what is the connection between being “godlike” and seeing the future?
This question is not as easy to answer as it may first appear. In a monotheistic worldview the answer is obvious: the future is known, even preordained, by an all-knowing, all-seeing God. However, divination tends to be, at minimum, frowned upon in monotheistic societies and, at times, persecuted. The picture is more interesting when considered from a pagan perspective because pagan societies practice divination openly and officially.
The gods of pagan pantheons are not omniscient and all powerful (this is implied simply by the fact of there being multiple gods) and many mythological tales revolve around the acquisition of knowledge. For instance, in the Norse tradition, Odin spends much of his time engaged in adventures and ordeals connected to the pursuit of knowledge. He steals the mead of poetry from the giant Suttung, sacrifices himself on the sacred ash tree Yggdrasil in order to receive the runes, and, most dramatically, trades one of his eyes to Mimir (“the rememberer”) in exchange for a wisdom-bestowing drink from his well. In addition, his two ravens, Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory) fly around the world every day and come back to alight on his shoulders and tell him what they have seen. Far from being omniscient, Odin is very human-like in his striving to increase his knowledge.
Keeping with the Norse theme, the main method of divination in ancient Scandinavia and the wider Germanic world was the use of the aforementioned runes, via the practice of runecasting. This involved carving runes (letter shapes which have symbolic as well as phonological meaning) onto pieces of wood and tossing them onto a cloth. The person doing the reading picked up three pieces of wood and attempted to divine the future from the meanings implied by the runes. The description provided by the Roman author Tacitus in his Germania is generally regarded as the best source for this practice in the ancient world. There are also later references in Scandinavian sources such as the 20th stanza of the Eddic poem “Völuspá.”
From a modern, Post-Enlightenment perspective that prizes rationalism and explains the world in terms only of causality, this makes no sense. But much of the way that our forebears understood their world rested on the belief in another principle, which the 20th century Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung termed “synchronicity” and which he defined as a “meaningful coincidence” or, more formally, “an acausal connecting principle.” In the context of divination, whether it be runes, geomancy, I Ching or the Tarot, it is this principle of synchronicity that drives the connection between a given operation and the issue under consideration.
This seems to be the key to understanding why monotheistic religions have discouraged divination. Insight into the subtle structure of the world, of the unseen ways that things are connected, both presently and forward in time, is the province of the omniscient God. Any human practice that claims to make this possible gives human beings the opportunity to be equivalent to God, which is viewed as a sin and an act of rebellion.
This is an intriguing place to land. The implication is that in the pagan worldview, people are able to connect to something outside themselves in order to gain access to knowledge of the future, to become like a god. Divination can then be defined as “knowing like (a) God” or, in the terms of a linguistic purist such as William Barnes, “godknowing.”