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8 Wild Ways Humans Have Tried to Predict Their Future

woman's hands dripping candle wax into ornate teacup

Sure, you’ve heard of tarot cards, talking boards, and the I Ching—but that’s just scratching the surface of the many, many ways humans have tried to predict the future throughout history. When it comes to divination—the art of seeking knowledge by supernatural means— there’s a wide range of genuinely wild methods on the books, dating back as far as antiquity and often continuing all the up through the present.

Divination isn’t always focused explicitly on what most people think of as “telling fortunes.” Indeed, some methods of divination are geared more towards revealing some’s character or even just helping querents figure out their real thoughts and feelings surrounding a specific issue.

But some methods of divination certainly do attempt to suss out what might be coming down the road for us, either sometime soon or many years from now. Do any of them actually work? That’s up to you decide for yourself—but either way, you’ll probably be surprised by the specific details of some of these methods.

Tyromancy: Divination by Cheese

From the Greek tūros, or “cheese,” and manteia, or “prophecy,” tyromancy is precisely what its etymology implies: Telling the future by using cheese as the medium to do so.

According to online occult encyclopedia Occultopedia, this method of divination was in use primarily during the Middle Ages. At that time, the “shape, number of holes, pattern of the mold, and other characteristics” of a piece of cheese were viewed as omens and interpreted accordingly. Cheese was also carefully watched as it was made; patterns that emerged during the coagulation of the cheese were similarly interpreted as signs foretelling what was to come in the future. An additional folk tradition in use at the time reportedly involved young women writing the names of their potential spouses on pieces of cheese and waiting to see how the mold grew on them. The name on the piece that grew mold first was determined to be the lovestruck youngster’s future partner.

The Oxford English Dictionary  lists 1652 as the earliest known use of the word “tyromancy” in print; however, references to “cheese-diviners” dates back much further. Artemidorus of Daldis, who lived in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus during the second century C.E., wrote of them in his early work on the interpretation of dreams. Alas, he viewed them as con artists more than anything else; among those he described as “false diviners,” he included “dice diviners, cheese-diviners, sieve-diviners, and necromancers.”

Axinomancy: Divination by Axe-Throwing

old axe in stump chopping block
Vitalii Khailov/Shutterstock

Per the expansively-titled Demonologia; or, Natural Knowledge Reveale, etc. (seriously, go look at the title for this entire book; it’s basically a novel in and of itself), published in 1827, “was an ancient species of divination or method of foretelling future events using an ax or hatchet.”

Lewis Spence’s An Encyclopedia of Occultism, which was initially published in 1920 and republished a few times since, describes one such method as existing specifically “for the purpose of detecting robbers,” rather than for general soothsaying. In this method, “the hatchet is cast on the ground, head-downwards, with the handle rising perpendicularly in the air.” Next, “those present must dance round [the ax] in a ring, till the handle of the ax totters, and it falls to the ground.” Whoever the handle points to is said to be the robber in question.

A second method of axinomancy described by both An Encyclopedia of Occultism and Demonologia uses an agate stone laid upon a “red-hot hatchet” to accomplish its goals. However, while Demonologia states that this method was meant to be was a future-predicting tool, An Encyclopedia of Occultism talks of it as a way to hunt treasure. If you’re lacking a metal detector, that’s certainly one way to do it.

Ailuromancy: Divination by Cat Behavior

Zoomancy—also known as theriomancy—is the general name for methods of divination enacted through observing the behavior of animals. According to occult archaeologist Richard Cassaro, zoomancy is ancient; the Etruscans, whose civilization was at its height in the sixth century B.C.E., used hens and roosters in the practice of alectryomancy, for example, while the Babylonians sprinkled sleeping oxen with water and based their soothsaying on the animals’ response.

Ailuromancy is specifically the art of divination according to how cats behave. Sometimes referred to as felidomancy, the practice is mainly concerned with “the way [cats] jump and how they land,” per Occultopedia. Interestingly, ailuromancy is particularly concerned with the weather. For example, according to the tenets of the practice, a cat turning its tail to the fire means that an abrupt change in weather—likely involving rain or frost—is on the way, while a cat curling up with its forehead touching the ground indicates an incoming storm. Many superstitions also fall under the heading of ailuromancy, such as the idea that a black cat crossing your path means bad luck for the future, or that a white one means good luck instead.

Zoomancy is still alive and well today, by the way. All of those animals who allegedly predict the outcome of the World Cup each time the competition occurs? That’s zoomancy. So are the traditions surrounding famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil and his alleged weather-predicting behavior.

Gyromancy: Divination by Making Yourself Dizzy and Falling Down

Little did you know that you could predict the future by drawing a circle on the ground, spinning yourself around until you get so dizzy that you fall down, and then marking where you fall in relation to the circle—but, yes: That’s precisely what gyromancy is.

Per The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft, gyromancy was practiced during the medieval and early modern periods. However, one of the earliest written occurrences we have of it places it a little more firmly in the early modern period: Antonio de Guevara’s The Dial of Princes (in Spanish, Reloj de príncipes) was originally published in 1529. It was translated into English by Thomas North in 1557, where it includes a reference to “all the kyndes of gyromancye, and chiromancye.”

A slightly later volume, The Third Book of the Works of Mr. Francis Rabelais, initially written in French by the titular Francois Rabelais sometime in the middle of the 1500s and published in an English translation in 1693, tells us exactly how gyromancy was performed: In a section on divination as a whole, Rabelais writes of “giromancy”: “If though shouldst turn round Circles, though mightiest assure thy self from me, that they would fall always on the wrong side.”

It is, however, perhaps worth noting that there’s some debate over whether gyromancy was as much of A Thing as the literature suggests. The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft notes that the method “claims to interpret the collapse of a person who is spun into dizziness, relative to a circle drawn on the ground,” rather than state unequivocally that this was in fact the case; meanwhile, the OED positions it as something “said to have been practiced by walking in a circle till the person fell down from dizziness, the inferences being drawn from the place in the circle at which he fell.

Ceromancy: Divination by Melting Wax and Dripping it into Water

Ceromancy, also referred to as carromancy, is reportedly an ancient practice once used both in Celtic societies and in Roman ones. It doesn’t appear in the English written record until around 1652, in the writings of Church of England clergyman John Gaule; it’s proven to have quite a lot of staying power, however, as modern forms of candle-based divination count ceromancy among their direct ancestors.

Most commonly, notes Richard Cassaro, wax would be melted in a brass vessel, then poured into another vessel full of cold water. After the wax had cooled and hardened again, the diviner would analyze the shape or shapes into which the wax had formed, interpreting them as omens or indications about the future.

Wax isn’t the only substance that has been used in this way to attempt to tell the future. When you use some form of metal, it’s called molybdomancy; meanwhile, if you use lead specifically, it’s called plumbomancy. There’s even something called oomancy, which uses separated egg whites.

Oinomancy: Divination by Wine

Pouring red wine into a glass against a wooden background
Ievgenii Meyer/Shutterstock

Why attempt to divine the future by reading plain old tea leaves when you could do it with a glass of wine instead?

Reportedly practiced in ancient Greece, oinomancy—or oenomancy, as it’s sometimes spelled—is described in the 1884 volume A Classical and Archaeological Dictionary  as “a sort of divination… in which they drew conjectures from the colour, motion, noise, and other accidents attending the wine at libations.” Occultopedia further notes that oinomancy could be performed in any number of ways, including spilling wine on paper or cloth and analyzing the patterns of the stains it creates, soaking or boiling cloth or paper in wine and analyzing the appearance of the actual material after it emerges from its alcoholic bath, and examining the sediment at the bottom of a glass or bottle of wine and drawing your conclusions from there.

For the curious, the etymology of the word does, in fact, come from the Greek oînos, or “wine.”

Enochian Chess: Divination by Playing a Game of Chess

You’re probably familiar with regular chess—but what about Enochian chess? A four-player variant on the classic game, it was created by the 19th-century secret society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, or simply the Golden Dawn for short. Its name is drawn from the Enochian system of magic—the system created and used by English Renaissance occultists Edward Kelley and John Dee, and later further developed by the Golden Dawn themselves.

For many years, the rules of Enochian chess remained obscured; it’s not even evident whether the Golden Dawn ever truly completed them. However, in 1994, Chris Zalewski published the book Enochian Chess of the Golden Dawn, thus codifying the rules for modern audiences—and possibly codifying them completely for the first time.

The thing with Enochian chess is that it isn’t necessarily just a game. Per Enochian Chess of the Golden Dawn, the game can also be played with an eye to divination. It’s not easy; doing so requires a great deal of specialized knowledge, per Zalewski, including “knowledge of the Tarot, geomancy, esoteric psychology, the elements, and astrology.” But if you can play the game correctly—and learn how to interpret it correctly— it’s said that you can divine the answer to any query you might have. Some players suggest that it’s particularly good for predicting the behavior of governments, businesses, and sports teams.

Shufflemancy: Divination by Random Music Selection

A decidedly more modern invention, “shufflemancy” has emerged in recent years as the divination of choice for the technologically inclined; it’s been passed around Wiccan, pagan, and other mystically-focused online communities on Tumblr, Reddit, and more since at least the early- to mid-2010s. But despite its relatively recent arrival, shufflemancy has remained popular all the same—likely due to its accessibility.

To perform it, all you have to do is load up a suitably large playlist in your music-playing program of choice or on your device of choice, think of a question you’d like answered, and then decide on a number that’s important to you. When you’ve got everything set up and ready to go, focus on your question; then click the “shuffle” button the same number of times as the number you previously decided upon. Listen carefully to whatever song you ended up on after the final click of the “shuffle” button: That’s the answer to your question.

You can perform this method of divination with a singly playlist, or with your entire music library; you can do it via iTunes, Spotify, or any other program or app that allows you to listen to music; you can use an MP3 player, a full computer, or your phone; the possibilities are endless.

Again, it’s up to you to decide how you feel about the efficacy of all of these various divination methods; some might be drawn to them, while others might find them a little out there. But hey, it can’t hurt to try, right? At the very least, it might be fun to see what happens the next time you pour yourself a glass of wine and turn on a little music—it might tell you something new about yourself, even when you’re least expecting it to.

Lucia Peters Lucia Peters
Lucia Peters is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared at Bustle, The Toast, Crushable, The Gloss, and others. She also writes and manages The Ghost In My Machine, where she haunts readers several times weekly with spooky stories of the strange and unusual. Her first book, Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, was published by Chronicle Books in September of 2019. Read Full Bio »