January 31, 2014

Words of the Month - Words of the Future

        It seems that humans are utterly incorrigible in our attempts to foresee what the future will bring.  It seems there’s nothing we haven’t tried to read significance into, from the flight of birds to the dregs at the bottom of the teacup.  I myself in junior high devised a method of telling the future by noting the location of the white spots that sometimes appeared on my fingernails.  I daresay it was about as accurate as any of the other divination methods out there, which is to say no more so than random chance.  But it was amusing to pretend that I could somehow predict future events, and humans certainly do love to read meaning into every conceivable pattern we see.  So this month I’ve collected for your delectation a very small sampling of some of the wackier and more interesting words for methods of divination.
        Most of these words have Greek roots, and most arrived in English during the late middle ages or renaissance.  Unfortunately most of them are also sufficiently obscure as not to show up in many dictionaries (plus many of them have multiple spellings), so I wasn’t able to track down as much information about them as I would have liked.  Still, they’d be great words with which to impress your friends - especially if you actually managed to use any to foretell the future.  But please remember that some of these words are definitely not to be tried at home.

        Animals furnish many ways to foretell the future, giving us
            ailuromancy - divination from the actions of cats (used especially to predict weather)
            myrmomancy - ants
            skatheromancy - tracks of beetles
            ophiomancy - snakes
            nggam - spiders or crabs (this is a word from the Mambila people of Camaroon and Nigeria)
            ololygmancy - howling of dogs
            alectryomancy - roosters pecking corn
Those are methods that the animals presumably prefer.  There are all too many others that require the death of the unfortunate creature, including
            alectormancy - in which the rooster is sacrificed
            cephalomancy - in which a donkey’s head is boiled
            plastromancy - in which a turtle shell is heated to see the pattern of cracks that form
            haruspicy - the general term for the study of entrails, especially livers
            anthropomancy - human sacrifice
            batraquomancy - frogs… but I don’t know how that’s supposed to work and whether or not the frogs survive the process

        The behavior and anatomy of humans is also very useful to the diviner.
            gyromancy - spinning around inside a circle marked with symbols or letters until you fall down with dizziness on a symbol
            retromancy - looking over your shoulder
            oneiromancy - dreaming 
            belomancy - divination from arrows.  There are several methods using marked arrows, including seeing which arrow flies farthest and pulling an arrow at random from the quiver
            geloscopy - laughter
            fal-gush (Persian, also called cledonism) - finding significance in overheard words
            chresmomancy - ravings of lunatics
            cheiromancy - palmistry, finding the future revealed on the palm of your hand… and if you like that, why not also try
            natimancy, also called rumpology - finding the future revealed in, yes, the rump

        When it comes right down to it, anything that makes a pattern is fair game.
            tasseomancy - tea leaves from the bottom of your cup (from French for cup)
            abacomancy - dust, sand, ashes (from Hebrew for dust)
            oomancy - egg cracked into boiling water
            margaritomancy - pearls
            stercomancy - seeds in bird excrement
            trochomancy - wheel ruts
            tyromancy - cheese

        An excellent everyday method of divination is to pick random passages from a text.
            stichomancy - any book
            bibliomancy - the Bible (sometimes used for other books, too)
            stoicheomancy - the Iliad, Odyssey, or Aeneid
            rhapsodomancy - poetry
            shufflemancy - iPod playlist

        And finally, a few of my favorites…
            aleuromancy - divination involving flour, but more importantly also involving dough and messages therein, thus making this the word for telling the future from fortune cookies.  Too bad fortune cookies almost never provide actual fortunes!
            cromniomancy - the sprouting of onions.  There are various ways to do this, but generally you write possible alternatives on a selection of onions and see which one sprouts first.
            dracomancy - dragons.  I’m intrigued.  Do you observe the flight of dragons, or do you have to slice them open and examine their livers?  Where do you find these dragons in the first place?  And really, it hardly seems much advantage, since it’s just as hard to find the dragons as it is to know the future without them.
            moromancy - foolishness.  I don’t know how you’re supposed to use foolishness to tell the future, but I can’t help thinking this word really sums up the whole fortune-telling thing with a certain ironic neatness.

[Pictures: Roosters pecking corn, woodcut with watercolor by Gerrit Willem Dijsselhof;
Frogs, woodcut with watercolor by Dijsselhof from Kunst en samenleving, 1894 (Images from Nationale bibliotheek van Nederland);
Palmistry chart, woodcut from Les Oevres by Jean Baptiste Belot, 1640 (Image from The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things).]

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