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Title: Divination
Original Title: Divination
Volume and Page: Vol. 4 (1754), p. 1070
Author: Denis Diderot (ascribed by Jacques Proust)
Translator: Steve Harris [San Francisco State University,]
Subject terms:
Science of God
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): Diderot, Denis (ascribed by Jacques Proust). "Divination." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Steve Harris. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2011. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Divination," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 4. Paris, 1754.
Citation (Chicago): Diderot, Denis (ascribed by Jacques Proust). "Divination." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Steve Harris. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2011. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Divination," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 4:1070 (Paris, 1754).

Divination (Encyclopedic order. Understanding. Reason or Science. Science of God. Divination). Divination is the alleged, but very ancient art of knowing the future by superstitious means. See Enthusiasm, Prophecy.

There are nine types of divination found in Scripture. The first is accomplished by examining the stars, planets and clouds; this is judicial astrology, that Moses called méonen. The second is called menachesch in Scripture, which the Vulgate and most interpreters translate as augury. The third is called mecascheph , which is translated as an evil deed or an occult practice. The fourth type is that of the hhober or enchanters. The fifth consists of asking an oracle. The sixth, which Moses called des judeoni , is actually a magic spell. The seventh occurs through asking the dead and is thus called necromancy. The eighth is rabdomancy or reading rods or sticks, which is noted in the Book of Hosea and which is called belomancy or the reading of arrows in the Book of Ezekiel. The ninth and last is heptascopy or the inspection of the liver. The same book also makes mention of fortune tellers, dream interpreters, divination by water, fire, air, the flight of birds or their singing, lightning and, in general, by meteors, the Earth, points and lines, by serpents, etc.

The Jews were infected with different superstitions in Egypt, which they conveyed to the Greeks, who transmitted them to the Romans.

The Romans distinguished between natural and artificial divination.

According to them, artificial divination was a prognostication or an induction based on the reading of external signs of future events ( See Sign and Prognostic). Natural divination presaged things by a purely internal movement of an independent spirit without any external sign.

They subdivided the latter into two types: the innate and the infusion. The innate was based on the belief that the soul was self-contained and directed the different organs of the body without direct contact, having essentially confused ideas of the future, just as one is convinced, so to say, by dreams, ecstasies or those that come from some soon-to-be-fatal illnesses or other imminent perils. The infusion was based on the hypothesis that the soul was like a mirror, clearly reflecting events that would affect it by a light reflected from God or the spirits.

They also divided artificial divination into two types: one empirical, taken from natural causes, such as astronomers’ predictions of eclipses, etc. or doctors’ judgments on the ending of diseases, or political conjectures on sudden changes in states, such as happened to Jugurtha on leaving Rome, where he successfully paid money to avoid punishment for an atrocious crime, saying: O venalem urbem, & mox perituram, si emptorem inveneris ! [“the city was for sale, and would come to an untimely end if a purchaser could be found.”] The other type is chimerical and extravagant, consisting in capricious practices, based on false judgments and accredited by superstition.

This last branch employed earth, air, fire, birds, animal entrails, dreams, facial appearance, palm-reading, games of chance, numbers, names, movements of a ring or a sieve, and the work of some authors from which come the types called Praenestian, Virgilian or Homeric, among many others. Here are the main ones that the ancients had:

    Alphitomancy or aleuromancy
  • Wheat grains or flour
  • Axinomancy
  • Axes
  • Belomancy
  • Arrows
  • Botanomancy
  • Plants
  • Capnomancy
  • Smoke
  • Catoptromancy
  • Mirrors
  • Ceromancy
  • Wax figures
  • Cledonism
  • Words or voices
  • Cleidomancy
  • Keys
  • Coscinomancy
  • Sieve
  • Dactylomancy
  • Rings
  • Hydromancy
  • Sea Water
  • Pegomancy
  • Fresh water
  • Geomancy
  • Earth
  • Lynchomancy
  • Candles
  • Gastromancy
  • Glass bulbs
  • Ooscopy
  • Eggs
  • Extispiciny
  • Victims' entrails
  • Keraunoscopy
  • Lightning
  • Chyromancy
  • Palm reading
  • Crystallomancy
  • Crystals or other transparent bodies
  • Arithmomancy
  • Numbers
  • Pyromancy
  • Fire
  • Lithomancy
  • Stones
  • Necromancy
  • Dead People
  • Oneirocritique
  • Interpretation of dreams
  • Ornithomancy
  • Bird flight and songs
  • Alectryomancy
  • Roosters
  • Lecynomancy
  • Water in a basin
  • Rhabdomancy
  • Rods or sticks
  • Etc.

See all these types under their own articles and for further information, see the books De Sapientiâ by Cardan and Disquisitiones Magicae by Delrio.

The last author has a slightly different concept of divination and its classification. He defines divination as significatio occultorum ex pactis conventis cum daemone [the revelation of hidden things, through an agreement with a demon]; a definition which is not precise since there are types of divination, such as natural, which are not based on any arrangement with the devil.

Delrio distinguishes two types of agreements: the implicit and the explicit; and thus, two types of divinations. In the first group are theomancy or oracles and goetia, which includes necromancy, hydromancy, geomancy, etc. He lists under the second the reading of omens, along with anthropomancy, ceromancy and lithomancy, and all the sorts of divination which are based on the inspection of an object, auguries, omens, lots and conjectures taken from the stars, trees, elements, meteors, plants, animals, etc. He notes that the last is sometimes legitimate and sometimes not and, by this distinction, he destroys his own general definition, since if all divination is based on an agreement with a demon, whether implicit or explicit, none can be innocent.

The Greeks and the Romans had the most religious regard for all these foolish ideas, as much as they were inconsistent with their scientific culture. But, little by little, they disabused themselves. Cato, asked to interpret some boots that had been chewed by rats, said that there was nothing surprising in that, but that it would have been amazing if there were boots that had not been chewed. Cicero was no more credulous, myomancy (divination by rats or mice) gets no better treatment in his books and he did not hold back his ridicule for all other sorts of divination, whether oracles, auguries or omens. After having noted that nothing stirred up the Romans more than the quarrel between Caesar and Pompey, he added that interrogating the gods was the sole exception; hoc bello civili dii immortales quam multa luserunt! [the gods never had such amusement as over that civil war!]

In Pluche’s histoire du ciel , he sees divination as starting with the Egyptians who forgot the meaning of the symbols which were originally used to remind the people of their civic and religious duties and responsibilities. When asked how the meaning of these symbols could be lost and how all these religious items evolved so strangely, he responded that

“they became so attached to the literal meaning that people nearly always associate with auguries, the belief in planetary influences, the predictions of astrology, the operations of alchemy, the different types of divinations, such as serpents, birds, sticks, etc., magic, enchantments, evoking spirits, etc. The world,” he added, “thus finds itself filled with crazy opinions, which are not equally disabused everywhere and out of which it is very useful to identify those that are false, because they are also contrary to the true piety and peace of life that will come from being in the true savior.”

But how did these people come to take all these symbols literally? A great revolution is not necessary to lead to three or four centuries of ignorance. We have our own experience of revolutions and of the effects of the resulting centuries of ignorance on the ideas and opinions of men, as much in the area of arts and sciences as in religion.

The Abbé of Condillac also made some conjectures on the origin and development of divination. Since they are quite insightful and also cover many other erroneous ideas, we invite the reader to particularly study this excerpt, from this metaphysician’s treatise on these ideas. Here are his main ideas, with which we have taken the liberty of inserting some of our own.

We are alternately happy and unhappy, sometimes without knowing why. This back-and-forth provides a natural basis for credulous minds to believe that they are seeking guidance from nature, when, actually, they are consulting nothing but their own imagination. As long as these evils were isolated, none of these conjectures were generally recognized, but cannot one infection become an epidemic, something capable of capturing widespread attention and a rationale for imaginative men to spread their ideas? One word, which perhaps slipped out by chance, became the basis of a prejudice: a being who enjoyed bringing unhappiness to the human race originated as an apostrophe, or as a pathetic exclamation, and became instantly recognized by the masses, who seemed to be consoled, when one offered them an object at which they could strike out in their misfortune.

But when fear gave birth to an evil genie, hope was not late in creating a helpful genie and the imagination was stimulated by a wide range of phenomena and circumstances, from the combination of ideas, opinions, events and thoughts, to multiply these types so as to fill the land, seas and air and establish an infinite number of different cults, which met, in their turn, with an infinite number of radical changes. The influence of the sun on everything that exists was too obvious not to be noticed and soon that star was counted among the beneficial beings. This system was extended to the moon and then to all the celestial bodies. Imagination was aided by the conjectures of the times, assigning an appropriate good or evil character. The heavens also appeared aligned with the happiness or unhappiness of men; all the great events could be read there: war, plague, famine, the death of kings, etc. These phenomena were associated with unusual events, such as an eclipse or the appearance of a comet; or it was assumed that there was a link between these things, or rather the fortuitous coincidence of events and phenomena made them appear linked.

One moment of reflection on the great chain of being would reverse all these ideas; but do either fear or hope spend any time reflecting on the means of rejecting and doubting the influence of a planet, which promised the death of a tyrant?

The relationship that one is strongly tempted to suppose between things and their names, requires that characters be treated as attaching to beings. Flattery gave the planets the names of Jupiter, Mars and Venus. Superstition gave the stars the power to grant dignity, strength and beauty. The signs of the zodiac gave their virtues to the animals from which they took shape. But each of these qualities has its analogues; a rough analogy is the group of good or bad qualities that a celestial body could impart to a being at birth over which it presided, and which is tempered or offset by the celestial bodies’ action.

The system was exposed to many difficulties, but either they did not deign to stop it or it was hardly embarrassed by its responses. Thus, the system of judicial astrology was elevated, it made its predictions, it got one right and 999 wrong, but the one right answer is the only one it spoke of and on which its art is judged.

This single marvelous prediction has been retold in a thousand different ways and multiplied into a thousand new happy predictions. Dream and folly come into play and soon there are more facts and more marvels than are necessary to make philosophy mistrust the truth; but these never fail to miss the test of experience, when one interjects it.

Once the influence of celestial bodies became widely recognized, one could not but grant some intelligence to these entities. They were spoken to and invoked. Grabbing a stick, one traced figures on the ground or in the air. Quietly or loudly one engaged in mysterious conversation with them and they promised to provide all that one desired.

But considering that it was important to be able to evoke these good or bad spirits, it was more so to have something that provided protection. So, following the same principles, talismans, amulets, etc. were used.

If fortuitous events foster the discovery of truth, they equally facilitate the progress of error, such as forgetting the meaning of hieroglyphic characters, which inevitably followed the creation of the alphabet. Hieroglyphics could then take on whatever meaning one wanted; these signs became magical and the system of divination only became more artificial, obscure and amazing.

Hieroglyphics contained the aspects of each type; every line became a sign, and it took no more than looking for a sign on some part of the human body, the hand for example, to give birth to chiromancy.

Men’s imagination never acts more strongly or more capriciously than during sleep; but how can superstition attribute such striking and unique dreamscapes if not to the gods? This was the origin of the interpretation of dreams; it was difficult to not perceive some seeming analogies between the events of the day and these nightly manifestations. These linkages became the basis of the interpretation of dreams: associating a particular event with a particular dreamed object and soon there were people who made predictions based on everything that had been dreamed. Things even got to the bizarre stage that when the opposite of what had been dreamed during the night, sometimes occurred during the day; they developed the principle of predicting by contraries.

But did it have to come to the point of men being obsessed with the glamour of divination and believing themselves always surrounded with good or bad beings, otherwise imputing them to every thing or event and interpreting examples, indications, signs, and predictions in terms of them. Further, these believers rushed to hear the will of the gods in the song of a nightingale, to see the gods’ decrees in the movements of a crow’s wings and in reading irrevocable judgments in the entrails of a calf (particularly during a sacrifice); and these became the basis of the omen-reader’s art. Some words muttered by a sacrificing priest were found, by chance, to be related to a secret method of those who sought the gods’ assistance and were taken as an inspiration. Their effectiveness gave rise to more than one distraction of this type; the less they appeared in control of their own movements, the more they seemed divine; and it was believed necessary to lose one’s reason from the agitation, in order to be inspired and become an oracle. For this reason, temples were built in the places where vents in the ground released spirits.

They did not need to do any more than make the statues seem to move and talk and the priests’ folly quickly fulfilled the people’s superstition.

Imagination moves quickly when it wanders. If there are two gods, they handle everything. Thus, there is nothing which cannot be a sign of their will and of our destiny. All of a sudden, the most ordinary things and the rarest become good or bad omens. However, objects of veneration, which have, in this regard, some cultish relationship with the gods, are believed to be a purer expression of their will than the other things and one can look for these prophecies in the poems about the Trojan War.

This system of absurdities became gained credence in the arguments of the philosophers about the effects of God on the human soul, by the ease with which some men would find in medical knowledge in order to raise it to the level of witchcraft, and by the need for a respectable motive for the people, who directed their chiefs to act or wait, without compromise and without having to respond to either delay or success. This need created an environment favorable to auguries, omens and oracles; and thus equally fed even greater errors.

These errors were so widespread that even the light of religion could not stop them from expanding, at least among the Jews and Christians. Even among the latter, there are men who claim to interrogate the dead and speak with the Devil, using pagan-like rites to invoke the stars and demons. But if the universality of a prejudice can stop a timid philosopher from standing up to it, it would not prevent him from finding it ridiculous. If he were brave enough to wake up and speak out in order to lead his fellow citizens from those errors that leave them evil and miserable, he would only be praiseworthy, at least in the eyes of an impartial posterity. Today, does that posterity not regard what Cicero wrote on the nature of the gods and on divination as among his better works, although they naturally separated him from the side of the pagan priests the offensive title of impiety and from the side of moderate men who claim that it is necessary to respect popular prejudices, the epithet of being a dangerous and turbulent mind? From where does it follow that in some times and from some people who could be so, that virtue and truth deserve only our respect? Is there not today, in the middle of the eighteenth century in Paris, a great deal of courage and worthiness to press out the extravagances of paganism from the pious? It was under Nero that it was fashionable to disparage Jupiter and that it was the first heroes of Christianity who dared to do so. They hardly would have done it if they had been narrow minded and pusillanimous souls who held truth captive, once there was some danger in saying so.