Divination is an attempt to see the future or discover secret knowledge through various silly means. Some are well known, such as tea leaves, melted wax, and Ouija boards. More obscure but tastier methods employ cheese, onions, and barley cakes plopped into water. The most specific method I’ve come across is bronchiomancy, which finds deep meaning in the lungs of sacrificed white llamas.
I have no bias against any of these methods; all are equally useless. There are dozens of types of divination, most of which arose as specific to a certain culture. The ancient Chinese used I Ching hexagrams, agrarian societies preferred herbs, while crystal balls became synonymous with Eastern Europe. Romanian citizenship is still a plus in the business. Most divination is done by females, a byproduct of the women’s intuition myth.
Divination relies on magical thinking, apophenia, and pareidolia. If you don’t know these terms, never fear, I’ll guide you through. And that’s a prophecy you can count on.
In an era of technical jargon, euphemisms, and neologisms, “Magical Thinking” stands out both for its simplicity and its rather bold slap in the face of the credulous. It refers to believing in the interconnectedness of all objects and circumstances, and thinking that a powerful force is in control, to some degree or another. It can be as concrete as Zeus dictating the weather, as esoteric as there being another plane of existence, or as vague as being sure there is something else out there.
An excellent definition was provided by psychologist James Alcock who said, “Magical Thinking is the interpreting of two closely occurring events as though one caused the other, without any concern for the causal link.”
Also crucial in divination is pareidolia, which is seeing distinct visions in vague forms, such as Jesus in your maple cabinet or the Face on Mars. It also explains a person detecting satanic praise in a backward Iron Maiden track. If casting sticks, an oracle may “see” a forest, causing the customer to interpret this as a sign she should move out of the city.
Pareidolia is closely related to apophenia, which is finding connections in a meaningless pattern. This signals a segue from the relatively innocuous condition of being easily deceived to the more serious matter of becoming dangerously deluded. John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind” is one example. A more terrifying manifestation was Charles Manson, who interpreted Beatles lyrics and other phenomena as calling on him to act.
It speaks to mankind’s aversion to randomness and can be a way of trying to find meaning, and one’s place, in the Cosmos. Someone searching for a deeper truth may find comfort in thinking something else is in control, be it a goddess, a Tarot deck, or sheep innards. Less charitably, it can involve a bit of arrogance to think that star patterns or random events are being controlled by a deity or force for your benefit.
It can also be a way of dealing with troubling times. After his son committed suicide, iconoclastic bishop James Pike interpreted angles of an opened safety pin and books on the floor as his deceased son communicating to him that he had killed himself at 8:19 p.m.
Ascribing power to divination requires making very generous accommodations. I found a 47-year-old woman online who gloated that her favorite astrologer had predicted the Sept. 11 attacks. She chided foolish persons like myself stuck in our stubborn rationality.
I went to the link she provided, and while it didn’t list the place or method, there was a prognostication made on New Year’s Day 2001 that cautioned, “Beware of a terrorist attack on this date.” Sure enough, listed below was Sept. 11! Less chilling were the 129 other dates listed that incorrectly predicted a terrorist attack for that day. In the wild, wacky divination world, a .007 winning percentage is considered a success.