Words at Play

30 Ways to Tell the Future

Let us know if any of these work for you


It seems humans have for a very long time been troubled by the opacity of the future. They'd like to have a better sense of what lies ahead, and they've come up with some ingenious ways of trying to get at that information, each of which has a name.

The selection that follows includes words that end in a common suffix: -mancy, meaning "divination." Divination is the art or practice that seeks to foresee or foretell future events, or to discover hidden knowledge. Divination usually involves the interpretation of omens or, if you're really lucky, the assistance of supernatural powers. Let us know if any of these work for you.

Definition : divination from the state of the air or from atmospheric substances

Aeromancy requires that you keep your eyes on the skies. You'll have to watch for clouds, birds, precipitation, etc. This word doubles as a fancy word for weather forecasting, though we have yet to hear the word thrown around on the local weather report.

Definition : divination by means of flour

You dabble in a little aleuromancy every time you crack open the fortune cookie that arrives with your lo mein. In earlier practices, messages were baked into little balls of dough.

Aleuro- means "flour," naturally, but it's only used in technical words like aleuronat, which refers to a flour with a high gluten content.

anthropomancy

Bronze model of a sheep's liver covered with Etruscan inscriptions and subdivided into sections for use in fortune-telling. Late 2nd century B.C.E.

Definition : divination from the entrails of a human being

Don't try this one at home—or anywhere else. Horrifyingly, anthropomancy is widely reported to have been practiced by a great many of the ancient peoples of the world. Anthropo comes, via Latin, from the Greek anthrōpos, meaning "human being."

Definition : divination by means of small bones or dice

In early astragalomancy small bones with marks carved into them were thrown and their positions used to predict the future. The Latin word astragalus comes from the Greek astragalos, meaning both "neck vertebra" and "molding." The word astragal can in modern English refer to a narrow half-round molding or to a projecting strip on the edge of a folding door.

Definition : divination by means of the movements of an ax placed on a post

An ax will only balance on a post for so long. When it moves, according to axinomancy, its motions offer insight into who is guilty and who is not. At the word's root is the Greek axinē, meaning "axhead" or "ax."

Definition : divination by drawing arrows at random from a container

The arrows most often used in belomancy have messages written on them. The belo- part of this word comes from the Greek bélos, meaning "missile, dart, arrow." Bélos itself comes from ballein, meaning "to throw"—a root of such varied words as problem, hyperbole, parable, and devil.

Definition : divination by books, especially the Bible

You can open any book to a random page and decide that the first thing your eyes land on is a message that pertains to your future: instant bibliomancy. Bibliomancy is especially practiced with sacred books, such as the Bible, but we like to use a dictionary.

Definition : fortune-telling by means of playing cards

Bring new meaning to your bridge game. In the 18th century, young women would apparently use cartomancy to learn the details of their own nuptials—including whom their future husband would be. The cart in cartomancy of course means "card," and as the modern phrase tells us, if it's in the cards, it's inevitable.

Definition : divination by a mirror or by crystal gazing

Catoptromancy is a broad term of divination. If you want to be specific, use enoptromancy for the mirror divination, like that employed by the wicked queen in the story of Snow White, and crystallomancy for the ball of rock crystal that the Wicked Witch of the West uses in The Wizard of Oz. (Employing crystallomancy is also referred to as "scrying.")

The likely root of the first part of catoptromancy is Greek katoptron, meaning "mirror."

Definition : divination from figures formed by melted wax in water

Melted wax takes on interesting forms, and when you pour the melted wax into water the forms solidify and you can tell the future. According to ceromancy, that is.

Definition : divination by examination of the hand

This word is also spelled cheiromancy. And it's a synonym of the more common word palmistry. Chiromancy has fallen in and out of favor over the millennia of its history. In Medieval times, those hunting witches using chiromancy looked for pigmentation spots on the hands, which signaled a pact with the Devil.

Definition : divination by means of casting lots

What does it mean to "cast lots"? Cast here means "throw" or "toss." Lots are objects—such as marked sticks or dice—used as a counter when determining a question of chance. In cleromancy, the lots are thrown and where and how they land provide clues about the future. If you use dice, you can refer to your particular kind of cleromancy as cubomancy.

Definition : divination by means of finger rings

In one form of dactyliomancy, a ring is suspended by a fine thread over a round table marked with the letters of the alphabet. In its dangling state, the ring settles briefly over particular letters, spelling out a message. Dactyl- means "finger," "toe," or "digit."

geomancy

A geomancy tool.

Definition : divination by means of figures or lines or geographic features

Take a piece of paper and a pencil and make a whole bunch of dots on it. If you believe in geomancy (and if you've done the dot-and-pencil work right) you may find that answers to your questions and predictions about the future lie somewhere in the configuration of those dots. To try an older version of geomancy, throw some dirt down and find information about the future in where the particles land. The term also refers to divination by geographical features.

Definition : divination in which one walking in or around a circle falls from dizziness and prognosticates from the place of the fall

The gyro- in this word is the same gyro- in gyroscope. It means "ring, spiral, circle." Gyromancy does not typically involve the sandwich.

Definition : divination by water or other liquid (as by visions seen therein or the ebb and flow of tides)

Hydromancy can be similar to catoptromancy—when it is a reflection that interests the reader—or it can have to do with the movement of water, either the water's own movement, or the way the water moves objects floating on it.

Definition : divination by inspection of water in a basin

The water inspected in lecanomancy may have stones tossed into it, or oil mixed into it. The word comes from the Greek lekanē, meaning "basin."

Definition : divination by stones or by charms or talismans of stone

Lith- means "stone." In lithomancy the stones are typically specially chosen stones, and are sometimes semiprecious. Qualities of the stones are important in lithomancy, such as how reflective of light they are.

witch-of-endor
Photo: Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Definition : conjuration (see conjure 2a) of the spirits of the dead for purposes of magically revealing the future or influencing the course of events

Phrased less delicately than our definition, necromancy is divination by the dead. The word is also used to broadly refer to magic or sorcery. Necro- means "one that is dead" or "those that are dead."

Necromancy should not be confused with sciomancy, which is divination by consulting the disembodied spirits of the dead.

Definition : divination by means of dreams

Dreams can seem like messages from some other realm, and oneiromancy asserts that they indeed are that. The Bible's book of Genesis tells of Joseph's oneiromancy skills; he explains that Pharaoh's dreams of fat and lean cattle, and full and thin heads of grain, predict of years of plenty to be followed by years of famine.

Definition : divination from the letters of a name

Letters are often assigned numerical values in onomancy. The word comes from onoma-, meaning "name." The same root is at work in the words anonymous and eponymous.

Definition : divination by means of eggs

Consider trying oomancy the next time you poach an egg. The shape of the egg white as it cooks is believed to offer clues about the future.

Definition : divination by observation of the flight of birds

Also called augury, ornithomancy requires that attention be paid to birds and what they do. The word is, as one might supposed, related to ornithology, the zoological branch dealing with birds.

Definition : divination by means of leaves

The phyllo in phyllomancy means "leaf." Methods of phyllomancy vary widely. It can have to do with the sound of leaves, the way leaves fall in autumn, or even with the way leaves or a leaf react to being placed in water.

Definition : divination by pebbles

Although pebbles are pretty much small stones, psephomancy is not to be confused with lithomancy, divination by stones or by special objects made from stones. In psephomancy, pebbles are often marked and drawn from a pile or container of pebbles.

Definition : divination by means of fire or flames

The pyro- part of this word of course means "fire," and is found too in the word pyromania, "an irresistible impulse to start fires."

Definition : divination by rods or wands

Rhabdomancy addresses both efforts to uncover information about the future as well as what is now more commonly called "dowsing"—that is, using a divining rod to find water. (A divining rod is a forked rod believed to show the person who uses it where water or minerals can be found underground by dipping downward when held over an underground supply.)

Definition : divination by means of an animal's shoulder blade

Spatulamancy involves examining the shoulder blade of an animal that has been cooked over a fire. Although we think of the word spatula as referring to a kitchen implement, the Late Latin word it comes from means both "shoulder blade" and "spoon." Scapulimancy is a synonym of spatulamancy. (Scapul- also means "shoulder blade.")

Definition : divination by the responses of oracles supposed to be divinely inspired

The theo- in theomancy is the same theo- in theology and theocentric: it means "god." The idea in theomancy is that an oracle may report to you what a deity has said, but there's still the interpreting to do.

Definition : divination by means of pieces of wood

The pieces of wood used in xylomancy vary widely. They may be twigs, branches, or logs, and they may have fallen or be arranged. The xylo- means "wood," and is also a root of the word xylophone.




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