Fall 2005

The Language of Birds

Some notes on chance and divination

Dale Pendell

During the last ten years of his life I took many walks with Norman O. Brown. Sometimes they were weekly, sometimes monthly, or, in the winter, we’d just skip them. Themes for the walks varied widely, but it seemed that in every walk, at least once, we’d talk about chance.


Nobby had become obsessed with chance. For Brown, chance offered a way out. He was recanting. He was trying to construct a palinode. He said that Love’s Body was “too Christian.” He had unfinished arguments with John Cage. Chance seemed to offer a solution—a final refutation of teleology and determinism. “Not love, chance! Maybe even Dionysus is too much.”


I was fighting him all along. I saw chance as the embodiment of godless materialism, reductionist and smug, nihilistic and monopolizing the privileged chair and ever so superior to ignorant superstition...what Gurdjieff called “nothing-butism.” As a poet, I rather liked the conclusion of Love’s Body: “there is only poetry.” 


I had already finished a draft of “The Language of Birds” before Nobby showed me his essay “Inauguration.” It was all there, even to an identical line about the bird as the authority, except that playing off of etymological nit-picking, I’d stated it in the negative (which gave Nobby a laugh). The good student should surpass his teacher. In this case (all too clearly), such is not the case. Still, there were a couple of things that Nobby missed. . . 


By the time I read “The Language of Birds” to Nobby he was unable to respond verbally—his Alzheimer’s had progressed too far. He’d try to put a sentence together, get lost in the complexity of syntax and possibilities, and finally give up. But at the parts he liked he’d jump around and dance. That was enough. This one’s for you:


Norman O. Brown, 1913-2002

philosopher, teacher, friend


The serpent in the tree, offering knowledge.


Mercury’s snakes, the Hermetic power: hermeneutics, the interpretation of signs, poisoning Single Vision.



The Dragon kild by Cadmus is ye subject of our 
work, & his teeth are the matter purified. Democritus (a Graecian Adeptist) said there were certain birds (volatile substances) from whose blood mixt 
together a certain kind of Serpent () was generated wch being eaten (by digestion) would make a man understand ye voyce of birds (ye nature of volatiles how they may bee fixed)

 St John ye Apostle & Homer were Adeptists.

Sacra Bacchi (vel Dionysiaca) instituted by Orpheus were of a Chymicall meaning.


 —Isaac Newton


The serpent as the bearer of telluric power. Both Cassandra and Helenos received their prophetic gifts from a serpent that licked their ears, enabling them to understand the language of birds. Siegfried ate the heart of a dragon.


Hebrew prophecy came from snakes: Nehushtan, the bronze serpent that Moses affixed to a cross. 



Nâchâsh nechôsheth, serpent of bronze.


Both words from nâchash, “to hiss, whisper, to divine.”


= = 358
Nâchâsh = Mâshîyach: the Serpent is the Messiah.


Guard the Mysteries!

Constantly reveal Them!


—Lew Welch


The art of reading signs is one of our most ancient traditions, and a specialty of our Guild. It is not the path to happiness, they say, but what are the choices?


The basic question is whether there is meaning to coincidence.


The basic question is whether chance is blind. The basic question, the question, is that of divining, glimpsing, seeing forms in chaos.


The matter of augury.


The whole outward world with all its being is a 
signature of the inward spiritual world.

—Boehme




Aeromancy: divination by weather or by throwing sand into the wind

Alectryomancy: divination by roosters pecking grain

Aleuromancy: divination by flour or messages baked in cakes

Alphitomancy: divination by barley

Ambulomancy: divination by walking

Amniomancy: divination by the caul of a newborn infant

Anthracomancy: divination by watching a burning coal

Anthropomancy: divination from human entrails

Anthroposomancy: divination from facial or bodily characteristics

Arithmomancy: divination by means of numbers

Armomancy: divination from the shoulders

Astragalomancy: divination by knuckle-bones or dice

Astromancy: divination using the stars, astrology

Austromancy: divination or soothsaying from words in the winds

Axinomancy: divination by heating or throwing an axe


Divination forms a continuum, but we could say that at one pole there is “possession,” and at the other “reading.” By possession we mean that a god or some other spirit enters one’s body and takes control—voice, gestures, words—all belong to the god. Reading is interpretive—that all the flowing occurrences of this world are a stream of messages. Somewhere in between, half possessed by fire, half swimming in a sea of total significance, there is inspiration.


Thus the seduction. Thus we eat. Thus we drink our mantic syrups. Nanabozho in the forest. Charlie Parker. Eric Dolphy. Tung Shan’s Bird Path: extended hands that leave no trace. 


A fork in the path: one way leads to an image of the world as a book, as a riddle, written in code, each occurrence a presage and glyph of the whole. The other way leads to randomness, mere chance, forever beyond our grasp, casting a shadow of nihilism on an accidental universe. Either way, theology is unavoidable. But in the latter case the language is geometry and statistics, while in the former it is luck and power.


Or is that backwards?


A fork in the path: one leads to, well, not clear, but along the way we dismiss accidents without ado.


. . . were I superstitious, I should see an omen in this incident, a hint of fate . . . Of course, I explain the incident as an accident, without further meaning.

—Sigmund Freud, Psychopathology of 
Everyday Life


Thus spake the great seer.


The other way is through the grove of Fortuna, first-born of Jupiter, the goddess of chance who keeps her own counsel. The other way. The other way leads to the Pythoness, the Oracle.


Augury, divination from the flight of birds. Latin augere, “to enlarge, increase.”


Auis, “bird,” is a different word, but Plato puns them. Socrates explains to Phaedrus that it is augury that, through oio-nos (a bird of omen), supplies oiesis (human thought) with information and “mind” (nous). 


The oionoistic art: the reading of signs, that salient peculiarity of our species.


Bird-reckoning. Bird-brain.

 The bird as the authority:

finding august signs, images, white flecks in liver.

Or coincidence of words:

nicknames, or the waxing moon.


Auspicious increase. The bird-spectre speaks.


It furthers one to cross the great water,


to eke out meaning.


Put two ounces of lead into a steel ladle or a cast-iron frying pan and melt it on the stove. When it is molten pour it into a can of water. Your fortune can be read from the shape of the solidified lead. Do this on New Year’s Day.


Belomancy: divination by marked arrows

Bibliomancy: divination by random Bible passages
 (pagans preferred Homer or Virgil)

Bletonomancy: divination by ripples or patterns in moving water

Botanomancy: divination by plants

Capnomancy: divination by smoke, or bursting poppy heads

Cartomancy: divination by cards

Catoptromancy: divination by a polished shield or mirror

Causimonancy: divination from the ashes of burned leaves or paper

Cephalomancy: divination by a boiled donkey or human skull

Ceraunoscopy: divination by lightning and thunder

Ceromancy: divination by molten wax poured into water


Augury, divination: Socrates distinguishes between the two, claiming that divination is the higher art because it comes from divine madness, and is thus a gift of the gods, whereas augury is the pursuit of rational men.


Tall Hector, eyes averted under his flashing helmet, shook the two lots hard. . .


But the difference is not so clearly cut. Visions are also signs, as are voices. How much of what we ever see is not projection, or hallucination? Is vision a mental or a physical phenomenon? If you see it in darkness, or with your eyes closed, is it still seeing?


One of the Principal Ones spoke to me and said: “María Sabina, this is the Book of Wisdom. It is the Book of Language. Everything that is written in it is for you. The Book is yours. Take it so that you can work.”

—Alvaro Estrada, María Sabina, Her Life 
 and Chants


Divination is one of the most common practices associated with the use of visionary plants. Peyote and datura, mushrooms and morning glory seeds, all were used for divination in Mesoamerica. The entheogens could as correctly be called the diviners.


[Peyote] causes those devouring it to be able to foresee and to predict things; such, for instance, as whether on the following day the enemy will make an attack upon them; or whether the weather will continue favorable; or to discern who has stolen from them some utensil or anything else; and other things of like nature which the Chichimeca really believe they have found out.

—Francisco Hernandez, De Historia Plantarum


Mushrooms. Tobacco. Coca. Ololiuhqui. Salvia divinorum. And the empathogens.


The Pythoness burned laurel leaves—


sweet smelling vapour from the Adyton.


Henbane (apollinaris), black and white hellebore, and datura were used at the oracle of Trophonios at Lebadea, the consultants also partaking.


At the oldest oracle, at Dodona, an ancient oak gave voice to Zeus when the wind blew through the branches:


unwashen feet, sleeping on the ground.


The first auguries may have come from the behavior of animals, or from dreams. 


Serpent, lizard, bat.

Stuttering. Sneezes.


The oino, bird, to the ornis: portent. Zeus: eagle, vulture. Apollo: raven. Hera: crow. Cicero thought fish too dumb to speak for the gods. 


True dreams, false dreams,

Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn.


Our most ancient possession.


Chaomancy: divination from the appearance of the air

Chartomancy:  divination from written pieces of paper

Chiromancy: divination by the nails, lines, and fingers of the hand

Chresmomancy: divination from magic sounds or foreign words

Claiguscience: divination from the taste or smell of a food that isn’t present

Clednomancy: divination from hearing a chance word

Cleidomancy: divination by a suspended key

Cleromancy: divination by the casting of lots

Coscinomancy: divination by a sieve suspended on shears

Crithomancy: divination by grains sprinkled on burnt sacrifices

Cromniomancy: divination by onions

Crystallomancy: divination by crystal ball or the casting of gemstones

Cubomancy: divination by throwing dice

Cyclomancy: divination by the wheel of fortune


Auspice. Auxin: the growth hormone in plants. Sanskrit 
uks.ati,“he grows.” Plants as authors, the way of growth and spontaneity, across Central Asia, strengthening, maybe getting fat, a big waistline, until we grow old among the Tocharians: oks.u.


Latin: divinatio, related to divinare, “to predict”, and to divinus, “divine,” “pertaining to the gods.”


Greek: manteia, “divination.” A prophet or prophetess is mantis, related to mainomai, “to be mad,” and mania, “madness,” all from the Proto-Indo-European root *men.


If the Greeks were right in connecting mantic with mainomai—and most philologists think they were—the association of prophecy and madness belongs to the Indo-European stock of ideas.

 —E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational


*Men, “mind,” is also the root for “meaning.” Thus there is meaning in madness.


According to Homer, the mantis was always welcome at a prince’s table, along with carpenters, doctors, heralds, and poets.


Rationality. Ratio. Analysis. Pascal’s adding machine: stacks of Boolean gates. Computers can beat grandmasters: it’s clear that logical deduction is not our particular forte.


Madness may be.


The Greeks had two words for chance, tyche, and automatia. Aristotle used tyche to refer to coincidental occurrences in the human world, and automatia to refer to chance events in the natural world, the difference being that human beings possess free will while natural objects do not. For Democritus, automatia refered to events that had no external cause, while tyche meant that it was an event for which we were simply ignorant of the cause.


“Hidden variables.” 


Democritus didn’t believe in randomness.


Randomness is entropy, Claude Shannon’s measure of information. Patternless chaos is maximal meaning, incompressible and incomprehensible.


– (entropy) = k log (1/D)


All we need is the encryption key.


Fortuna as the robot genius. Self-moving. Self-willed, and (perhaps an error here) self-contained, uninfluenced by the environment. Insulated from stray sparks.


Who but a robot can be spontaneous?


Automatons are glamorous: enchanting embodiments of grammar. Incarnation of the Logos.


The primordial robot was the Big Bang—Democritus’s first cause and Timolean’s goddess of chance: Αυτοµατια, Automatia


Or maybe the Creator is a marionette. Or perhaps there is no such thing as chance.


There is always

         that chance. . . .


A polysemous world: the path suffused with numinosity, a quavering feeling that everything is portentous, happening as if by prediction. A hazy presage, like a mirage. Pin it down and it disappears. A crow. A wild duck.


Where did it go?


-mancy. From µαντις, diviner. Sanskrit múnis, a seer, or sage. Perhaps related to mátis, “mind.”


Thus Shākyamuni, the Buddha, is the “seer of the 
Shākyas.”


Tibetan diviners were called mopas. In addition to oracular prophecy through trance and possession, Tibetans practiced augury with birds, dice, arrows, mirrors, and the rosary (mala).


All these [divinatory] operations, in the world of psychical phenomena as in the world of physical phenomena, may be carried out either in awareness of their relative and ultimately illusory nature and with regard to their moral consequences, and therefore in compatibility with the teachings of Buddhism, or without that awareness and regard.

—Lama Chime Radha, Rinpoche (in Oracles 
 and Divination

Divination is used to find which of the five spiritual families of practice best suits an initiate.


Dactyliomancy: divination by suspended finger ring or pendulum

Daphnomancy: divination by the crackle of roasting laurel leaves

Demonomancy: divination with the help of demons and spirits

Dendromancy: divination by oak and mistletoe

Elaeomancy: divination by the surface of water

Enoptomancy: divination with a mirror

Felidomancy: divination from the behavior of wild cats

Gastromancy: divination by food, or sounds from the stomach

Gelomancy: divination from laughter

Geomancy: divination by cracks or lines in the earth, or dots on paper

Graptomancy: divination from handwriting

Gyromancy: divination by spinning in a circle until dizzy


Order is syntax, συνταξις: the formations of soldiers, order of battle.


When there is conflict, the masses are sure to rise up.
 Hence there follows the hexagram of THE ARMY.


The grammatical army: Chomsky’s context-free grammar. The Turing machine as the neurolinguistic engine of war, more like Lamarck than Locke, etched into codons, DNA. 
Or BNF: Backus-Naur Form.


<Exp> ::= <ident>
      | <constant>
       | λ <ident> . <Exp>
       | <Exp> <Exp>
       | ( <Exp> )


Chomsky thinks that we’re born with it.


Arms are used when there is no other choice; this
is like using medicine to cure illness. Therefore
it is called “poisoning the country.”

—Chih-hsu Ou-i: I Ching Commentary


That the Von Neumann wave function collapses implies order: observables emerge, an implicate order, as in Bohm, or the Avatamsaka—a non-syntactical order, holographic, each part containing the whole.


Non-sequential organization: John Cage (Gaussian), Norman O. Brown (corporeal), Gary Snyder (dendritic). Or James Joyce. Open the book at random. Ordered by mandala, rather than Cartesian axes: no origin, like Anaximander’s cylinder. Apeiron.


Alan Turing’s oracles were deterministic, and therefore not mad, and, as Roger Penrose shows, following Gödel’s proof, incapable of understanding. They can’t solve the halting problem. Penrose suggests that a non-computational brain might need a quantum time loop, so that the results of future computations are available in the present.


Thus all beings have thought by the will of chance.

—Empedocles


The monkeys are still at the typewriters, working on Hamlet.


Halomancy: divination with salt

Hepatoscopy: divination by the liver of a sacrificed animal


Hieromancy: divination by interpreting sacrifices


Hippomancy: divination by the behavior of horses


Hydromancy: divination by water or tides


Ichthyomancy: divination from the movements or entrails of fish


Idolomancy: divination from movie or rock stars


Lampadomancy: divination by the flickering of torches


Lecanomancy: divination by looking at oil or jewels in water


Libanomancy: divination by staring at the smoke of burning incense


Lithomancy: scrying with gemstones and natural crystals


Logarithmancy: divination by logarithms


Lychnomancy: divination by flame of an oil lamp or candle


Chance is creative, a subtle propensity for change. Swerve, the clinamen of Epicurus and Lucretius. An inclination. Grain in wood. Desert varnish on sandstone. The affinity of things.


The fact that life disturbs the order of the world means literally that at first, life is turbulence. What you see from the top of the cliff, in its sweetness, is the first-born being arising out of the waters, Aphrodite, who has just been born in the swirl of liquid spirals, Nature being born in smiling voluptuousness.

—Michel Serres, “Lucretius: Science and 
 Religion”

Voluptas or voluntas? The critical letter is obscured in the only extant copy of De Rerum Natura.


Serres states it beautifully:


Starting from Venus, the natural, projected to 
society, gives materialism;
 
  
  
 
 starting from society, that, projected to 
science, gives hierarchy and determinism.


It’s the V of Venus, the angle, that creates turbulence in a laminar flow: chaos overwhelms causality.


The Epicureans called augury superstition, but the blindness/vision of the clinamen is still being debated in physics. How far does quantum entanglement go, and does it mean anything at all?


Suam habet fortuna rationem.

Chance has its reasons.


—Petronius


She loves me, she loves me not.


Dice seem unnecessary, and slightly vulgar: reason is chancy enough. Closer to Planck’s h. The brain must be indeterminate, if the wave function is, so intellect is Ψ, an aleatory endeavor.


Is it a sign, or had you best trust to reason?


Everything we do is chance. Only automatons can create order. Unless, as Ouspensky pointed out, we are really machines.


Chance may or may not be deterministic. Chaotic dynamics are deterministic but unpredictable. Computers generate pseudo-random numbers indistinguishable from truly random numbers. What truly random numbers? Perhaps we need a Turing test: if a series of digits cannot be distinguished from random digits, they are random digits.


Philosophy is so deadly. How can you read it? How can you listen to it?


Randomness becomes a tautology, circular: “true” random digits come from radioactive decay, random by the definition of Ψ2.


But physics is divination, arithmomancy. There is no frictionless surface, and there is always a third body.


Chance vs. order.

     (Chance as chaos, anarchy loosed on the library.)

Chance vs. teleology.

     (The atheistic Liberator: the Enlightenment.)

Chance vs. determinism.

     (The problem of Free Will in a pinball machine.)


Reading signs is not the path of happiness. We kill the messenger. It was a capital offense to prophesy the death of the Emperor.


Teiresias was blinded, Phineus also;

Amphilochos slain.


Prometheus chained to a lonely rock.


The Athenians locked their state prophecies away in a temple, lest their enemies see them.


Macharomancy: divination by knives or swords

Maculomancy: divination from the shape and placement of
 birthmarks

Margaritomancy: divination by heating and roasting pearls

Meteoromancy: divination by storms and comets

Metopomancy: divination by examining the face and forehead

Molybdomancy: divination by dropping molten lead into water

Myomancy: divination by squeaks of mice

Necromancy: divination by ghosts or spirits of the dead

Nephelomancy: divination by appearance of clouds

Nigromancy: divination by walking around the graves of the dead


Lady Luck, the gambler’s god. If she exists at all, there must be gamblers who win.


The signs are favorable.


Fortuna liked dice, before she moved to roulette.


In early tarots, such as the fifteenth century Visconti deck, Fortuna is blindfolded, as is Cupid on card VI. Love and fortune, partners in divine madness.


From ancient times, Fortuna was associated with Anagkê, Necessity. The casinos are betting on Laplace.


Fortuitous, fors, fort.


Fortitude. Power.


But power is always chancy. The helping spirits may not come, they may be busy—they may be playing their own bone game, and they may not want to interrupt it just to help out some mortal shaman.


The work is finding lost objects, or a lost shadow, discerning the cause of an illness, or a streak of bad luck.


Without power you cannot do anything out of the ordinary. With power you can do anything. This power is the same thing as luck. The primitive conception of luck is not at all the same as ours. For us luck is fortuitousness. For them, it is the highest expression of the energy back of life.

—Jaime de Angulo


And luck is connected with wildness. Mana. Coyote has mana, but screws up anyway, thus insuring that nothing goes according to plan. Coyote is kind of like chance.


“Surely, Professor Bohr,” asked a visitor to the physicist’s country cottage, “you do not really believe that that horseshoe over your door brings good luck.”

“No,” answered Bohr, “I certainly do not believe in superstition. But I have heard that horseshoes bring good luck even to those who do not believe in them.”


Chance as the deus ex machina. The Final Metaphor. It explains everything, and nothing, thus called “mere.”


The Goddess reduced to insignificance at the very moment of her supreme authority.


Chance vs. meaning. (It’s just chance, darling.)


Chance vs. wholeness. (Bohr vs. Bohm.)


Chance vs. luck. (Rationality vs. Superstition.)


Chance perturbations. Normal distributions.


There is no such thing as the “zone,” or the “streak,” according to Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky. (“The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences.”)


Looking at a year’s worth of statistics on the Philadelphia 76ers, everything fits into a normal distribution. (In baseball, Joe DiMaggio is still a problem.)


The “clustering illusion,” the human tendency to see patterns where none exist.


Related to pareidolia, the illusion of control, the gambler’s fallacy, the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, and perhaps to eighty other named and described cognitive biases, all irrational. If we add Freud to that does reason have a chance?


But maybe they’ve just proved that luck is modest, that she disguises herself with bell curves, that she loves static and noise. The shuffling and the shaking, the randomizing, was to eliminate human bias, that the Word of God be known.


Or maybe luck is power, as in “being in tune with.” Democritus’s “eidola,” or maybe Lao Tzu’s “tao.”


No victor believes in chance.

—Nietzsche


The “clustering illusion.” Seeing patterns where there are none, or, since Frank Ramsey has proved that complete disorder is an impossibility, giving meaning to patterns that have none. As rational men of the Middle Ages sought to debunk the superstition of fortune with the Truth that all things are governed by God, rational men of today wish to debunk the irrational belief in luck with the Truth that all things are governed by chance. We’re back to Empedocles. 


And the scientists are as smug as the churchmen.


At least the churchmen knew they were dealing with theology.


Gould and Dennett take such glee in attacking any form of belief that privileges man. It’s the glee that is really poor taste. Still, it’s not that they are wrong—as far as “man” in the abstract goes. The error lies in that smug air of certainty, in a skepticism far too tame.


Not God.

Not Chance.

Not both God and Chance.

Not neither God nor Chance.

(C’mon, take that last step with me, darling.)

(You’re mad!)


Pareidolia: a vague and random stimulus being mistakenly perceived as recognizable, such as seeing animals or faces in clouds, or a man in the moon.


Or constellations. Or a face in a face. Or a pipe.


This is a random sequence of letters and spaces.


And certainly, most certainly, most rationally, no hallucination.


As the Epicureans scoffed at divination, even when it proved true, the Stoics defended divination, even when it proved false. The Stoics were determinists, and believed in Fate. Fortune was relegated to subjective moments of incomplete understanding.


Soldiers tend to embrace Fate, or Destiny: “if it’s not your time, you won’t be killed.”


Fate is static, beyond even the power of the gods. Divination implies indeterminacy. If the future were fixed, what is the point of the consultation?


Chance vs. Choice.


“If you don’t choose, you’ll go on ending up with just whatever comes by,” (she challenged).


(Yep. Sigh. But maybe the World has more intelligence than I do.)


We defy augury.


Alexander went to Delphi before beginning his conquests of the East. The Oracle was closed, there being only a few days each month when the Pythoness did consultations. Alexander pressed his case several times, but the priestess was firm. Alexander grabbed her by the hair and began dragging her down the stairs to the Adytum. The Pythoness agreed to perform a consultation and added, “Alexander, you are invincible.” Alexander immediately let go of her, thanked her for the consultation, and departed.


During the first Punic War, Publius Clodius was leading an expedition against Carthage. As was customary, before commencing the attack, they sought an alectryomantic oracle from the chickens they kept on the ship in cages for that purpose. In this case, the chickens would not eat the grain that was offered—a bad omen. Clodius ordered them thrown into the sea, saying “if they won’t eat, let them drink.” His expedition met with disaster. He was convicted of treason and executed—not for failing militarily but for blasphemy.


In Tenochtitlan, the wealthy could pay to have an unfavorable birth date changed.



Oculomancy: divination by observing the eye


Oinomancy: divination by gazing into a glass of wine


Ololygmancy: divination by the howlings of dogs or wolves


Omphalomancy: divination by counting knots on the umbilical cord


Oneiromancy: divination by the interpretation of dreams


Onimancy: divination using olive oil to let objects slip through
 the fingers


Onomatomancy: divination by the letters in names


Onychomancy: divination by polished fingernails


Oomancy: divination from drops of fresh egg whites in water


Ophiomancy: divination by the coiling and movement of serpents


Ornithomancy: divination by the flight or songs of birds


Osteomancy: divination from bones


Chinese teh, or tê, “virtue,” also means “power,” in the sense of accumulated luck. Thunder and wind: the image of DURATION.


If for example I consult the tortoise and get a favourable response, that is my tê. It is my potential good luck. But it remains like an uncashed cheque unless I take the right steps to convert it into a fu, a material blessing. Like an uncashed cheque, a tê is a dangerous thing to leave about. It may fall into other hands, be put into someone else’s account.

—Arthur Waley, “The Book of Changes”


Written or scratched onto a tortoise shell, or nailed to a tree. When an interpretation is accepted, it becomes a power loose in the world. But likewise an omen may be deflected, may be reinterpreted. Quick wit and a ready response. Alexander in Persia before the sweating statue of Orpheus. The power of Thoth. Or thought.


According to Aeschylus, men learned the arts of divination from the one who stole fire from the gods, Prometheus. Earth and fire. Apollo. Sun and earth. Sun and moon. Lunacy.


Augury is the realm between.


Apollo stole the secrets of prophecy from Pan. At Delphi, Apollo and Heracles fought for the tripod. The tripod belonged to Gê, who gave her oracles in darkness, from dreams, onieromancy, or from lots, cleromancy.


Serpents were much in evidence at the oracle of Delphi.

—M. P. Hall


Most of the questions asked at Delphi were personal, matters of business or health, but the cities consulted her also on every important state decision.


All Attica will be taken, but Zeus grants Athena a wooden wall


Which alone will be untaken.


Croesus also consulted the Oracle, sending a caravan of gold overland from Sardis. Philosophers transcribed the Pythoness’s utterances, the thespiod put them into verse.


Pegomancy: divination by bubbles in springs or fountains


Pessomancy: divination by pebbles


Philematomancy: divination by kissing


Phyllomancy: divination by the patterns and colors of leaves


Phyllorhodomancy: divination by clapping rose petals between the 
 hands


Physiognomy: divination by shape, marks, and proportions of
 the body


Plastromancy: divination by tortoise shells


Podomancy: divination by the soles of the feet


Psephomancy: divination by rolling small stones, or selecting them
 at random


Pseudomancy: fraudulent fortune-telling


Psychomancy: divination from the state of the soul, alive or dead


Pyromancy: divination by fire or flames


Retromancy: divination by looking over one’s shoulder


Rhabdomancy: divination by branches or rods, dowsing


Rhapsodomancy: divination by a book of poetry


Without augury there is the general, a ghost story of abstractions: logical order instead of inspired madness. General Cadmus impaled the serpent on a tree and killed it. The teeth grew into soldiers. The Vatican armed. 


As a general rule among the ancients power was in the hands of augurs.

—Cicero: De Div. I, 40


The original identity of power and wisdom
sapientia, sapience, savor
sapience and divination they considered royal
but if the salt has lost its savour
pellitur e medio sapientia, vi geritur res

—Ennius


in the place of sapience, violence.

—Norman O. Brown, “Inauguration”


Cicero concluded that divination and augury were superstitions that perturb the tranquility of mind. But as an augur himself, and a good aristocrat, he allowed that augury was a good way to control what Hamilton called the “excesses of democracy.”


A clenched fist raised to the sky.


Augury degenerates into priestcraft, priestcraft into force.


Auspice ➞ Authority.


Unlimited Reason (except it’s not) vs. letting the god, or the environment, or the moment, have a say in what happens.


(Except it’s not. Except it’s not.)


Scapulimancy: divination from cracks in a charred shoulder blade


Scatomancy: divination by studying feces


Sciomancy: divination from shadows or the shades of the dead


Scyphomancy: divination by cups or vases


Selenomancy: divination from the phases or appearance of the moon


Sideromancy: divination by the burning of straws


Spasmatomancy: divination by twitchings of a body


Spatilomancy: divination by animal droppings


Sphondylomancy: divination from beetles or other insects


Spodomancy: divination by ashes


Stichomancy: divination from random passages in books


Stigonomancy: divination by writing on tree bark


Stolisomancy: divination by the act of dressing


Suggraphamancy: divination by studying history


Sternomancy: divination by the breast-bones


Sycomancy: divination by drying fig leaves


Divination is chance and chance is playfulness, lila, enthusiasm, feeling God within, entheogen. Clear portents from a dropped word, from timing. Myriad faces in every tree and bush.


Seeing faces in clouds, trees, and such probably has to do with overstimulation of a particular area of the visual cortex. Seeing faces is an especially important skill of vertebrates. If the cortex is damaged, a condition known as prosopagnosia can occur, in which the person can no longer recognize faces as being faces. The reverse condition might be called hyperprosopgnosia.


Excess of meaning, the “too-muchness.” A sentence with five levels of meaning, and everybody talking at once. A polymorphous bead game in overdrive: all the meanings anticipated before the sentence is finished, questions and answers, call and response, uttered simultaneously. A diapason of lucid babble: Pentecost.


The early Christians practiced glossolalia. A few still do. Though the Apostles had cast lots, the Church forbade all divination in the third century because of its association with paganism. 


They drew lots, and the lot fell on Matthias.


Fortuna was the last survivor. She must have been a bird goddess. She was Etruscan, or earlier, and wore a belt of skulls. The Christians renamed her Providence. Insurance companies cover accidents, but not “acts of God.”


Emperors closed oracles the way dictators shut down newspapers.


Apollonius was declared the Antichrist.


Agrippa filled in the cavern of the Oracle at Baia.


Luck is the context, the environment: set and setting.


Events follow definite trends, each according to its nature. Things are distinguished from one another in definite classes. In this way good fortune and misfortune come about. In the heavens phenomena take form; on earth shapes take form. In this way change and transformation become manifest.

I Ching


Tasseography: divination by tea leaves


Tephramancy: divination by the ashes on an altar


Theomancy: divination from the responses of oracles


Theriomancy: divination by watching wild animals


Tiromancy: divination by milk curds, or the holes on cheese


Topomancy: divination by the contours of the land


Trochomancy: divination by wheel tracks


Thumomancy: divination by intense introspection of one’s own soul


Transatuaumancy: divination from chance remarks overheard in a crowd


Urimancy: divination by casting the Urim and Thummin


Urinomancy: divination using urine for scrying


Xenomancy: divination by studying the first stranger to appear


Xylomancy: divination by wood or fallen branches


Zygomancy: divination with weights


Zoomancy: divination by the behavior of animals


David Abram connects the loss of animism with the adoption of the Phoenecian/Hebrew alphabet by the Greeks. The letters were no longer associated with animals and objects. When vowels were given signs, writing was separated from its former reliance on oral transmission, and soul (psyche) became associated with the literate intellect. The idea of a pure and detachable soul, transmitted from the Pythagoreans through Orphism and, ultimately, to the Puritans, was rejected by Blake.


The Goddess Fortune is the devil’s servant, ready to kiss anyone’s arse.


It was Cadmos brought the alphabet to the Hellenes.


Legends are concocted not without reason.

—Theophrastus


Reification is idolatry.


Abstracted words are idols. Where the letter stands the spirit has departed. The spirit is the wind: that which surrounds, which nurtures and sustains. The word alone is defleshed, a disembodied intellect. Meaning is not in words. Meaning lies between the lines, between the sheets, embedded in sentence. Or sentience.


Without a body, the alphabet hovers like a hungry ghost above a stagnant well, wailing in an eternal twilight.


Ego is like the centralized state. In the committees, not one member is sober.


Mammalian language. Rooted words. Plants with hair. Without sap no sapience.


As the universe becomes alive, the ruler dissolves and vines grow over the throne. Each member speaks, or sings, a choir, the diapason building. 


Arise, ye more than dead!


Undulations move across a field of grasses, rustling, whispering secrets. Somewhere Spinoza is scratching at the window, and the neighborhood enters freely.


The Hebrews distinguished between true and false prophets: the false prophets not remembering anything when they emerged from the trance, while the true prophets remained conscious. Robert Graves likens the latter to the poetic trance: the words are gifts, from the Other, but the poet maintains full consciousness. The divination is immediate and intuitive, like the Tibetan tra, or the second sight of the Scottish highlanders.


But there is another level of the poetry oracle—the internal logic and structure of the poem—its rhythm, assonance, and rhyme—that can demand a word or phrase otherwise quite out of place, semantically. The poem itself discovers, or uncovers, new information, that the poet herself does not know. A poem in resonance is like a formula in physics, an equation of power.


The great god Pan is dead.


And it can’t be blamed on the Christians. There were charges of corruption and political conniving at Delphi. Perhaps the nephitic vapours had ceased wafting through the cavern, and the Adyton was less sweet. Times were changing. It was harder to believe in gods that walked around and drank wine—easier to believe in things like ideas, and numbers.


“It’s only . . .” “It’s just . . .” “But that’s irrational.” “But that’s cognitive pathology.” “But that’s fuzzy thinking.” 
“It’s nothing but . . .”


God, Chance . . . 


presage for a year of drouth.


Tell the emperor that my finely wrought house has fallen to the ground. No longer has Phoebus his shelter; nor his prophetic laurel, nor his babbling spring: the speaking waters have dried up.

—Last utterance of the Delphic Oracle


Ailuromancy: divination by the actions of a familiar cat


Arachnomancy: divination using spiders


Epombriamancy: divination from the sound of rain

Glauximancy: divination using owl castings


Haemocapnomancy: divination by the smoke of burning blood-soaked
 paper tissues


Mediamancy: divination by scanning police radio or random 
 TV shows


Ouleimancy: divination by the appearance of scars


Selenosciamancy : divination by the shadows of moonlight through trees


Tympanimancy: divination from the rhythms of drums


To understand the language of birds, one needs not ears, not cochlea and tympanum, but a cellular hearing, where the organs of perception have expanded to include skin, hair follicles, heart beat, and whatever it is that is all of it together.


The prophetic gift is like a writing tablet without writing, both irrational and indeterminate in itself, but capable of images, impressions, and presentiments, and it paradoxically grasps the future when the future seems as remote as possible from the present. This remoteness is brought about by a 
condition, a disposition, of the body that is affected by a change known as “inspiration.”

—Plutarch, On the Cessation of Oracles


There is only poetry.


Dale Pendell is the author of Pharmako/Poeia: Plant Powers, Poisons, & Herbcraft (Mercury House, 1995), Living with Barbarians, A Few Plant Poems (Wild Ginger Press, 1999), and Pharmako/Dynamis: Stimulating Plants (Mercury House, 2002). He’s been paid to be a botanist, a computer scientist, and a vacuum cleaner salesman. At the latter job he failed miserably. He was the editor of Kuksu: Journal of Backcountry Writing. His performance group, Oracular Madness, most recently appeared at Burning Man. Dale joined a conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson and David Levi Strauss for Cabinet No. 8.